Monday, April 24, 2006

Wright on the Resurrection

In the Australian Newspaper HT: Denny Burke N.T. Wright makes the statement that it is not necessary to believe in the resurrection in order to be a Christian. Wright said:

I have friends who I am quite sure are Christians who do not believe in the bodily resurrection. But the view I take of them - and they know this - is that they are very, very muddled. They would probably return the compliment. Marcus Borg really does not believe Jesus Christ was bodily raised from the dead. But I know Marcus well: he loves Jesus and believes in him passionately.

The philosophical and cultural world he has lived in has made it very, very difficult for him to believe in the bodily resurrection. I actually think that’s a major problem and it affects most of whatever else he does, and I think that it means he has all sorts of flaws as a teacher, but I don’t want to say he isn’t a Christian.

I do think, however, that churches that lose their grip on the bodily resurrection are in deep trouble and that for healthy Christian life individually and corporately, belief in the bodily resurrection is foundational

What can be said here? Well, first, Wright still thinks that denying the resurrection is not a good thing - so let's give him that much. Second, Wright has some friends who are non-orthodox in their belief about what happened to Jesus and they still believe that Jesus is (somehow?) "Lord", e.g. Marcus Borg. He evidently doesn't want to call them sub-Christian and I can undestand that too. But here is where I must part company with a resounding "Nein"! Here's my take:

1. Rom. 10.9-10 is a locus classicus on what it means to be Christian. Here, Paul says (possibly echoing a baptismal formula) that: "[I]f you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved". It is not merely confession of Jesus as "Lord" but more specifically it is confession of Jesus as the "Risen Lord" that marks one out as a Christian.

2. The belief that Jesus "died and rose" was the most basic and primitive Christian confession and is found in various pre-Pauline fragments embedded in his letters, e.g. Rom 4.24-25, 2 Cor 4.14, 1 Thess 4.14.

3. The resurrection is bound up with the gospel in Rom 1.3-4, 1 Cor. 15.1-4 and see 2 Tim 2.8. No resurrection, no gospel.

4. How anyone can read 1 Corinthians 15 and think that resurrection is a dispensable (albeit very useful) theological accessory is beyond me. The issue in Corinth was not an over-realized eschatology (i.e. the resurrection had already happened), rather it was a complete abandonment of the resurrection altogether since it was thought to be inimical to the hellenistic mind and therefore not wise before the world.

I've been reading through Douglas Campbell's book, The Quest for Paul's Gospel; and while I am ambivalent towards some chapters of the book (it is written by a Kiwi afterall), Campbell nails this point well:

"In all these texts Paul basically claims that what has happened to Christ will, Christans believe, also happen to them. And these particular beliefs seem to be non-negotiable. To disagree with them elicits a stern textual admonishment, while, positively speaking, a great deal is based on them - no less than Christian salvation and hope!". (p. 183)

[In fact the entire chapter on "Faith" by Campbell is a highlight of the book].


JayWoodhamTheMan said...

I'm a big admirer of NT Wright, but to use his own phrase he can be a bit "muddled" at times. A religion that believes that Jesus rose bodily from the dead and one that thinks you can still call yourself a Christian and believe that he didn't involve too many metaphysical points of departure from each other to be the same religion. If what NT Wright and I believe about the Ressurrection is true it makes no sense to call Marcus Borg a Christian however nice and devout a person he might be.

I attribute Dr. Wright's muddle-headedness on this point (and a couple others) to an overplus of his obviously generous spirit and the overly-diplomatic atmosphere of the Church of England.

Bilbo Bloggins said...

Borg may believe in a spiritual "resurrection". I think that would qualify, and I've seen him in debates saying that he doesn't find this kind of resurrection objectionable.

Mowens said...

Do I detect a bit of animosity towards New Zealand?
BTW, I would greatly appreciate your feedback on U. of Otago. Feel free to email me. Blessings.


slaveofone said...

The question is whether one must be capable of making a positive affirmation on the ressurection with one's cognitive abilities and reason in order to be Christian and saved.

What about someone born with a damaged brain who doesn't even understand the concept of "ressurection"? What about someone who knows Yeshua and Yahweh to the entire extent that their current fallen and fallible form will allow but it is not yet perfected enough to enable them to believe the resurrection--same as the first, only that disease may be curable. What about someone who never even heard about Yeshua and the ressurection due to isolation and yet God is made known to them and they follow and believe as they are able?

Neither of thesse have any hope of entering Paradise with guardians such as you.

J. B. Hood said...


The Burke link is broken.

Cyndee said...

It's true... Jesus rose from the dead! I read about it in the Bible!

Anonymous said...

Amen Brother!
I am definitely with Paul on that one, but not with N.T. Wright.

Ben Myers said...

I really enjoyed this post, Mike, although I myself will have to side with Wright on this one. I think he's exactly right precisely because of the nature of "resurrection".

I've just posted a response here.

JayWoodhamTheMan said...

I take it that slaveofone's comments are directed at Michael, and possibly to me. Be that as it may, he deserves an answer. I'll take his comments in sequence:

"What about someone born with a damaged brain..." Whatever other faults Marcus Borg or NT Wright may or may not have neither of them is afflicted with a damaged brain, and neither is unlettered in the basics of historic Christianity. This is not true of the two groups of persons you describe: persons with some cognitive disability, or the unevangelized. Persons such as you describe will indeed respond to the God of the Bible as He gives them the ability to, and judge them according to their response to His Son, whatever that means in relationship to their personal and cultural context. If they are not able to properly understand the Resurrection's place in the Christian Faith they are hardly likely to conscientously reject it.

"Neither of these has any hope...guardians such as you." What on earth makes you think so on the basis of what's been said in this forum?

The issue here is what you can deny about the Christian faith and still get away with calling yourself a Christian. Borg, unlike your two examples, knows what he's denying and why. Borg is welcome at my house for dinner, but I could not in good conscience take communion with him or any other serious ritual of Christian observance. He and I do not believe in the same Lord. Neither do he and Tom Wright. It's a shame the latter doesn't see that. Even the great (and I think Wright deserves that appelation) have their faults.

Clifford B. Kvidahl said...

How does one read the NT and the come to the conclusion that the resurrection is not a physical one? This is amazing to me. I do not know everything that Dr. Wright believes or teaches, but on this one he is in the wrong. Why can't we just say the Dr. Wright you are wrong, and you need to be corrected?

"I attribute Dr. Wright's muddle-headedness on this point (and a couple others) to an overplus of his obviously generous spirit and the overly-diplomatic atmosphere of the Church of England."

Why do we have to attribute his statement to anything other than himself? Dr. Wright may be, and I do not disagree that he is, a very generous person. But his statement comes from his heart, not the church of england. Am I wrong? I do not see how his statement was muddled at all. It seemed pretty clear cut and to the point. Sometimes I get the impression that those who are in the scholarly community are above any correction and therefore untouchable by the lowly Christian. This is not the case for all who are scholars, far from it.

I am saddened by the comments that he made and hope that he comes to a better understanding and importance of the resurrection.

JayWoodhamTheMan said...

To Christopher B. Kvidahl,

In defense of Bishop Wright: he understands the significance of the Ressurrection beautifully. Just do some digging around on Wright understands the breadth and depth of the Resurrection's significance a lot better than many who affirm it unambiguously (and he very much affirms it too, BTW).

It's that understanding that makes his inconsistency with Borg the more regrettable. Having read a good bit of Wright, and having met him briefly in person I can only attribute it to very real virtues in him (generosity and diplomacy) that are overgrown. The soil of the Church of England tends to promote that overgrowth I'm sure, and that's why I brought it up.

Clifford B. Kvidahl said...

I assume you mean me, Clifford, or else I have a brother named Christopher that I never knew of:)

Thanks for your response. I will be the first to admit that I am no expert in the writings of Dr. Wright and believe that he is a generous man and a very kind person. I also know that he has written extensively on the resurrection, and it is because of this that I am saddened he made such statements. Because he has defened the resurrection so well, is surpriese me that he has in some degree abandoned that defense in order to make room for someone like Borg to be a Christian even though he denies the physical resurrection. I know the love one has for a friend (or family member) who is not a believer and desire to see them in heaven. That may be also what influenced the statements that were made.

I guess I would want to ask Dr. Wright this: Why, in light of your deep knowledge of the resurrection, would you make such statements?

Also, does anyone know if he has made a statement regarding his comments in the Austrailian paper?

CJW said...

Perhaps three points are in danger of being lost:
(1) Wright's own understanding of the resurrection is orthodox.
(2) He is simply making the point that people interpret what 'resurrection' and similar terms mean differently. Granted, the plain (ie: most literal) reading of Rom 10.9-10 does support Mike's, Wright's and my own view of a 'bodily' resurrection. (However, when speaking of our resurrection 'bodies' Paul is careful to emphasise the discontinuity with our current bodies.) We must be willing to concede however that (i) 'bodily' is not explicated, and (ii) the plain reading of the text also takes belief as a function of the heart and not any orther organ such as the brain in modern science.
(3) Wright was speaking to a general audience, unrehearsed in hermeneutics but well-rehearsed in the inverse proportion of generosity and orthodoxy in conservative Chrstianity.

Danny Zacharias said...

I have to say, I'm a little sympathetic to Wright's statements. While I think that a bodily resurrection is the only reasonable hermeneutical meaning of the biblical text (not to mention the only 'resurrection' that would make sense in a Jewish context), I wonder about what rules and hoops we are giving in order to be a Christian. From some of these comments it sounds like correct belief is the basis of salvation- not unmerited grace. If Jesus took communion with Judas and the rest of the 12, then I need to be able to extend that grace to others as well.

NWMihelis said...

Though Jesus may have taken communion with Judas, it didn't seem to do him much eternal good and I'm not sure I'd consider him a Christian (which is what's up for grabs here).

Does right belief and unmerited grace demand such a bifurcation? Mike's reference to Romans 10 strongly suggests that Paul would say no.

While I appreciate the attempt to be gracious, at what point does the distinction between a Christian and a non-Christian disappear? Do you HAVE to be a follower of Jesus to be a Christian?

C. Stirling Bartholomew said...

Four decades ago I could not understand all the excitement about Karl Barth and in recent years I cannot understand all the excitement about NT Wright. I have read him and he seems to be just another trendy scholar wandering in the nether gloom of no-mans-land between orthodoxy and secularism.

I find paleo-orthodoxy (not Thomas Oden!) much more stimulating.

C. Stirling Bartholomew said...

What does the NT Wright thing have to do with the Karl Barth thing?

Both present a sufficiently complex and ambiguous theological profile that they become targets of wish fulfillment by those who want a theological hero. I have observed this phenomenon for years and years with the Barth aficionados. They project their own need for a hero onto Barth and claim him as a proponent of views he never would have affirmed. In this manner a J.Derrida disciple can claim Barth as a fellow traveler but when Derrida was asked about this in person he shook his head in dismay.

I seen similar things taking place with NT Wright. We want to have a powerful voice on our side battle so when he says something that almost sounds orthodox we grasp it and claim him as our champion, assuming of course that we are proponents of orthodoxy :-)

Anyway, I have now made enough enemies to keep me well supplied for a long time.

Sven said...

Hi Michael,

You don't have trackback so just to let you know I've linked to this article and discussed it a little here

jwj9 said...

Hi Mike,

Remember me? I lost your email? It would be fun to be in contact again, if you'll have me back? :)

jwj9 said...

You can email me at