Friday, March 02, 2007

NT Wright on Resurrection

Just starting read NT Wright's massive opus The Resurrection of the Son of God (vol 3 of his Christian Origins and the Question of God). While I don't agree with all of his theology, Wright's defense of more so-called traditional understanding of Jesus-Christology-NT is as profound as one can make of that tradition in my mind. No one will make a better, more reasoned, better articulated defense of the position Wright holds. It is, in my mind, in the English language if not overall, the greatest and most systematic defense of such theology. I think the theology he defends has some intrinsic flaws, but I hold the man's work in high esteem nonetheless.

A short and very good summary of the entire work and its arguments can be found here.

First a note on Wright himself.

Wright is the (Anglican, Church of England) Bishop of Durham. He is a very brilliant man by all accounts. Anything he writes is worth reading, you can always learn something from his analysis.

Wright is also aligned with the evangelical movement in England--at times uncomfortably both for him and them. Evangelicals in the Anglican Church in England, Australia, etc. are not the same as evangelicals in the US. In the British sense, evangelical is closer to the original meaning of Martin Luther, the classical Reformers (Calvin, Bucer):

1.a strong emphasis on the crucifixion of Jesus as the only means of salvation for the universe
2.a strong emphasis on biblical piety (but not necessarily a belief that the Bible is inerrant in all matters only matters necessary to salvation)
3.strong sense of mission--spreading the message to all the world

Wright does not believe in biblical inerrancy nor is a major advocate of born-again experiences as necessary for evangelical faith. He also supports as an Anglican the historic episcopate, something not common in most evangelicals of North America, who tend to come more from Baptist, congregationalist, Presbyterian, and/or new seeker church movements.

He has, in my mind, inserted himself improperly in the American Episcopal Church debate over homosexuality. I'm not saying his opinion--which is different than mine--is the reason, but I'm thinking particularly of a letter he sent at the last minute to the US Episcopal Churches General Convention. It was an improper interjection into the life of an autonomous church which he was not a bishop of. As Cyprian said (in 3rd c.) "the church is where the bishop is", i.e. the local church, not the church is where other bishops want to impose their views. Sharing views, even dissenting critical ones is perfectly allowed and there are a multitude of valid and proper already established ways of so doing, not dirty pool.

In his scholarly mode, Wright is a historical theologian and is one of the key members of the recent Historical Jesus searches. He is the conservative Historical Jesus theologian versus the liberal ones like Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan of the Jesus Seminar.

Wright refers to himself as a critical realist---i.e. modernist. The historical Jesus search, whether so-named conservative or liberal (by today's standards and mutually influencing) is prone to many of the epistemological difficulties/flaws (as I would argue) in modernism. The key assumption it seems to me shared by both Wright and Borg/Crossan is that whatever the original context of Jesus, his message, his disciples was---either conservative or liberal by our standards and reconstructions--that is de facto the automatic context for today. That is why I think the Historical Jesus Search is flawed from the get go. Not totally but I think there are flaws that are inherent to the procedure that it itself can not overcome. This phase of the Historical Jesus Search is depending on one's numeration, 3 or 4. In other words, it is not coincidental that Crossan and Borg's Jesus--both of whom taught on the West Coast in the 60s/70s--looks suspiciously like a Boomer anti-institutional hippie. Nor that Wright's Jesus, supports the ecclesiastical establishment which Wright sits upon.

That is not to say all three (and others) aren't aware at all of the influence of culture, reason, and politics in any historical search. I'm just not sure they recognize how deep that influence--as I see it--goes.


But regardless, onto the main points of his book on the Resurrection.

Wright is out to counter a trend in liberal theology that has argued away from a bodily resurrection of Jesus. Wright does so however by a historical and logical investigation not a pre-decided inerrant Biblical fundamentalism that says it must have happened because it says it did.

The traditional liberal biblical theological arguments are usually the following:

1.We can never get back to the original event itself but only the Gospel writers/Paul's interpretation of the event. This is called form criticism and traces back to the great German 20th century theologian Rudolf Bultmann. Essentially the New Testament then is a document of the Church's beliefs not about Jesus per se.

2. The resurrection is a metaphor of the continued presence of Jesus beyond death.

3. The disciples had a mystical-like experience of an exalted Jesus (Jesus in heaven, ascended, divinized) but not of his actual body.

Wright's main argument, it seems to me, is to say resurrection as used in the New Testament can mean nothing other than bodily resurrection. And not bodily resuscitation of a corpse but rather a transformation of the body to a new state that yet has continuity with the old body: this is why, Wright argues, the Gospel writers have Jesus both appearing and disappearing through walls AND eating fish, having disciples put their hands in his sides. It is their attempt to convey the both/and quality of the experience.

Resurrection then, a mistake made in countless Christian hymns, sermons, and paintings (and here I strongly agree with Wright) is NOT about life after death. It is about a new form of life after "life after death." The resurrection and the fulfillment of the universe is not going to heaven but after we go to heaven after death.

In contrast, Wright follows lines of thought from both the pagan Greek and Jewish worlds. The pagan Greeks had belief in life after death---transmigration, the soul escaping from the body, the shades in Hades--but not resurrection. Judaism had a belief in resurrection but only in one single movement at the end of time. The Christian notion then of a single individual being raised is a Jewish notion with a new twist: that single individual is then the first to inaugurate the later resurrection of all.

Wright then goes on to argue that the best logical argument, as he sees it, for how Christians came up with this notion is that it actually took place. Moreover, such an event requires, in Wright's mind, an empty tomb AND a bodily appearance, for if it were just a bodily appearance alone the disciples would have thought they were having a vision of a dead loved one OR if it was only an empty tomb they like Mary Magdalene (Gospel of John) would have thought that the body was stolen.

I can't get into all the details of Wright's arguments (see the summary), I'm still sitting with it but some initial thoughts.

I agree with Wright that resurrection is about fulfillment in a full sense. It is not about reincarnation, going to heaven/hell/purgatory after death, returning to the elements, whatever. It is about a transformation of the entire relative world process. This vision to me separates Christianity, Judaism, and Islam from Eastern religions. As it were, the difference is not on the absolute/formless side but on the form side, where Eastern and Platonic Greek assumes a cyclical series of universes (yugas in Vedic tradition).

I would put an emphasis more on the Risen Lord as the Lord for the Christian. Otherwise I see Wright as a crypto-supersessionist: i.e. the Judaism got it wrong about Jesus and will eventually at the end of time be converted to Christianity. For the Jew or Muslim Jesus does not have to be raised for the resurrection to be believed in, nor would I argue that one automatically raised inherently pushes to Christocentricism.

I also agree with Wright the radical nature of this life after life after death is to spring in joy and hope (and not just peace/love-bliss as can be experienced in the causal/nondual). Joy and hope are about radical relative transformation---see Jurgen Moltmann's Theology of Hope. Which means the Abrahamic traditions have an emphasis on the uniqueness and goodness of creation I find consoling. But I'm not neutral in this discussion.

Wright also correctly notes that Jesus rising from the dead (assuming he is accurate) is not automatic proof of The Trinity (Divinity of Jesus Christ). I think Wright is wrong to assume in Paul that he (Paul) saw back from the resurrection into the divinity of Jesus. I think Paul meant by Son of God, son of God in the Jewish sense of an emissary of God, in this case perhaps the final one the one to initiate the end times Paul saw coming in his lifetime but not a descent (high) Christology as in John & Matthew.

What Wright doesn't address I think sufficiently is his link between the teaching on resurrection and there having to be both an empty tomb and an appearance.

Possible problems with this view:

--Paul never mentions an empty tomb.
--The empty tomb motif starts with Mark and we know that the other writers (particularly Matthew & Luke) take it almost word for word from Mark. It could be the creation of Mark and/or Mark's community. That is, seems to me, at least as equally plausible as the vague notion of a tradition passed down for 40+ years on the matter.
--Related to the previous point, the character of Joseph of Arimathea makes no sense. Is he a member of the Sanhedrin or not? If so, the gospels state the whole Sanhedrin voted unanimously in favor of Jesus' execution. Why would he vote to kill Jesus and then also be his disciple. Matthew tries to fudge this by saying he was absent. Luke says he was just a rich man. But the followers were by and large nobodies and outsiders, how do they have this rich guy on their side who can approach Pilate for the body, get it, and not worry about negative consequences to himself? Too fishy to my mind.
--So if no Arimathea, does the empty tomb scenario also not fly?

Why could they not have had an "experience" or sets of experience that revealed as Wright argues a newness to the bodily form and some continuity with it? Why would they automatically assume they were just having visions of a dead man? Or if they did, why couldn't Jesus correct them? "Don't touch me, I have no yet ascended to the Father? (Jn)."


At 4:21 PM, Blogger Zack said...

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At 3:25 AM, Blogger Steven Carr said...

'It is, in my mind, in the English language if not overall, the greatest and most systematic defense of such theology.'

Just think how much better it could have been if Wright had found space to quote in full, just once, Paul writing 'The first man Adam became a living being" the last Adam, a life-giving spirit.'

But perhaps Wright's readers might have spotted the typology - that all Christians will become life-giving spirits, just as they all shared in the nature of the first Adam.

When Jesus disappeared through walls, did his clothes go with him?

Perhaps they were imperishable clothes, animated by the Holy Spirit?

'Judaism had a belief in resurrection but only in one single movement at the end of time.'

I guess that is why the people thought Elijah would return first, or perhaps Jeremuiah.

And the NT seems to suggest that Moses returned from the grave, walked the Earth, never died again and ascended to Heaven.

Just like Jesus!

If Wright is the best, then sceptics are safe.

If you want to debate the resurrection, on a blog set up for that purpose, I can easily set one up , and we can debate Wright's ideas....


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