Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Real Resurrection is Essential to Christian Faith

"The story might have ended there, except that three days after he had died and been buried, he came back to his disciples, resurrected—fully and physically alive.” - from The Story of Jesus, in Brief at the Episcopal Church web site VISITORS' CENTER.

Every now and again one comes across someone saying something like this that I read the other day: "Virgin birth and resurrection - even if proved untrue would not affect my belief."

My usual response is twofold:

1. That just goes to show that we are really talking about something other than Christian belief then. I've posted before on the Virgin Birth, but this is particularly the case with resurrection which is the foundation of Christian faith and hope. Of course, if the resurrection was proved untrue it would not affect the belief of a Hindu, Moslem, or Buddhist either.

2. What are the underlying certainties and beliefs to which this person subscribes that make resurrection untenable or unnecessary? It might be a naive attachment to naturalism. But it is often something more theological. An example of this can be found in Marcus Borg who has made a reputation (and a lot of money selling books) reinventing a supposed "historical" Jesus. In a footnote in The Meaning of Jesus, Borg admits there are three theological reasons why he rejects the historical factuality of the empty tomb - none of which has anything to do with "objective" history:

There are also theological reasons why I do not like an emphasis upon the historical factuality of the empty tomb. (1) It can have a distorting effect on the meaning of Easter faith: Easter faith easily becomes believing in the factuality of past events, rather than living within a present relationship, and the truth of Christianity becomes grounded in the “happenedness” of this past event rather than in the continuing experience of the risen Christ. (2) In conservative Christian apologetics, the factuality of the empty tomb is often used to prove the truth of Christianity and even its superiority to all other religious traditions. But I do not believe that the truth of Christianity can be proved in this fashion, and I do not believe that God is known primarily or only in our tradition. The claim conflicts with what I know of other religions, and it is difficult to reconcile with Christian notion of grace. (3) Finally, this emphasis virtually requires an interventionist notion of God, which I do not accept." (pg 268)

I appreciate his honesty. It's more than one often gets from those who claim their scholarship is free from dogmatic constraints. But I don't see how his preconceived assumptions, as assumptions, are any different from those who say, "The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it." If one starts by assuming that God can't intervene in time and space and that any claims to the uniqueness and primacy of Jesus Christ are ruled out on principle, one will reject the idea of resurrection to conform with those prior theological constraints.

As theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg wrote,

The assertion that Jesus is risen from the dead remains a matter of dispute in a special degree because it cuts so deeply into fundamental questions of understanding reality." (The Apostle's Creed in Light of Today's Questions, p. 114)

Or, as Lesslie Newbigin wrote,

The simple truth is that resurrection cannot be accommodated to any way of understanding the world except one in which it is the starting point."


The problem of making sense of the gospel is that it calls for a change of mind which is as radical as is the action of God in becoming man and dying on a cross. (Proper Confidence)

The resurrection of Jesus summons us to enter into a particular way of seeing and being in the world. In short, it requires conversion. And it won't do to try to redefine resurrection to mean something conformable to other dogmatic convictions in order to avoid that conversion. To talk about Jesus' post-Easter existence as something other than his being "resurrected—fully and physically alive," empty tomb and all, is to talk about something other than resurrection. As Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams insists:
In short I want to claim that that the story of the empty tomb is not in fact incidental or secondary to the exposition of what the resurrection means theologically . . . But, it will be asked, does this mean that I think belief in the empty tomb as an historical fact to be essential to belief in the resurrection? Actually, yes. (On Christian Theology, p. 194)

I suggest that the witness of the Church to the resurrection as something that happened to the body and person of Jesus has never been tied to biblical literalism and neither should it be beholden to the criteria of modernist skeptical criticism. If it happened, there is nothing more true or grounded by which to measure its reality. One can only live into and bear witness to that reality. It is the fundamental assumption of Christian faith and contains the fundamental Christian hope.

Next: A stab at why it matters

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