Christian Doctrine (14)

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“…only very briefly discussed the resurrection”

These are my summary notes on Chapter 14 of Christian Doctrine1 “Who’s in Charge Here? The Doctrine of the Resurrection”:

Christians celebrate Easter as the victory of God and good over the powers of death and evil. But in the world we see around us, the powers of death and evil are visible everywhere. [Guthrie’s long paragraph detailing all the concrete evidence of this reads like it came out of this morning’s newspaper, despite the fact that it was published almost 25 years ago. He says “By the time you read this the specific details will be different, but it will be the same old story” (270-1), but that turns out to have been overly optimistic.] One of the theological issues of the resurrection and the Christian claims about it turns out to be how we think this “victory” is to be understood, since empirically it’s less than obvious. Guthrie first reviews the Biblical stories and the claims that are made on the basis of that source for the resurrection, and then outlines some of the responses to this particular theological issue.

He identifies the resurrection of Jesus Christ as the central indispensable Christian claim – if there were to be only one. Even more than the cross, since “[t]he resurrection of Christ is the one event in history that gives meaning to all of history, including our own” (272). It is even more central than the solidarity of the cross, since Christians do not only experience God’s presence in the midst of human suffering, but expect to see and experience the power of God’s redemptive work in individual and collective life.

The believability of the resurrection is one issue. There are five Biblical accounts of the resurrection (Matthew 28:1-20; Mark 16:1-19; Luke 24:1-51; John 20:1-21, 25-27; 1 Corinthians 15:3-8). They all demonstrate that there are no eye-witnesses to “the resurrection”; the empty tomb, post-resurrection appearances, etc., yes, but not the resurrection as anything that was “seen.” And there is no proof of what is an intrinsically improbable, or some would say impossible, occurrence. The earliest Christians clearly thought it was impossible – they were reluctant to accept it, until they did accept it. The accounts vary in their details, and while some might insist they can be harmonized, Guthrie is willing to say they can’t be. His point is that the resurrection is ultimately something that has to be affirmed by faith – indeed, that it was that way even for the earliest Christians, who experienced the risen Christ most directly.

He stresses two things: 1) God raised Jesus from the dead. Jesus the human being didn’t raise himself from the dead; this wasn’t the activity of an immortal soul or a kind of left-over divinity, like a god coming back to life à la Apollo or something. The point is that God is stronger than death. And 2) the resurrection is a physical, bodily, this world, “here and now” (well, then and there) phenomenon; the risen Christ is a whole person, not a ghost, and the resurrection happens in our flesh-and-blood human world, not some purely spiritual or mental realm.

Guthrie presents the doctrine of the resurrection as concerning the Lordship of Jesus Christ. “… the resurrection of Jesus meant that he who gave himself as the Suffering Servant of God is now revealed to be the triumphant Lord” (273). One problem with this is that all the language for this (lord, ruler, king, kingdom) sounds patriarchal and kyriarchal and therefore possibly distasteful. The political nature of the language is no coincidence, because the resurrection stakes a claim to Christ’s legitimate authority over everything; the politics of the situation is fundamentally undemocratic, since God alone designates Jesus as Lord and Christ; that designation is not subject to human or other veto; but the language we have to deal with is probably inadequate, since no human political reality adequately expresses the reality of the situation – “Who Jesus is and what he does are so unique that he cannot be fit into any of our thought patterns, ancient or modern” (277). Guthrie, for that reason, is OK with the archaic language of “Lord,” since that may suggest this uniqueness, at least in our time when we don’t really have human lords.

[Well, maybe not Americans; there is still a House of Lords in the UK … I think the language issue is real, and serious, and I have done my share of talking about it – like here and here and here. “Lord” language gets used so habitually and formulaically in Christian conversation and liturgy that it becomes meaningless. It certainly doesn’t reliably communicate the sense of “unique political reality” Guthrie suggests here. And it really does function to cultivate an effective inability to relate to God as anything other than He-Him-His, despite people’s abstract acceptance of the classic “oh-God-is-beyond-gender” position. The “oh-I-think-God-is-beyond-gender” statement has been made in every conversation on gendered language I have ever experienced, and the visceral discomfort many people feel in even thinking about referring to God with feminine language is a measure of its falsehood when it comes to concrete practice. But the language issue is also intractable – I agree with Guthrie that the notion that “Jesus is Lord!” affirms a reality that critiques and calls into question every human political arrangement, the authoritarian ones as well as the liberal democratic and collectivist ones, and doesn’t have an adequate English equivalent. So there we are, in the imperfect world, as usual.]

Guthrie’s larger point is that the Lordship of Jesus Christ stands in some tension with the empirical power of evil in the world. How do we understand the truth of “Jesus is Lord!” in the face of all the stuff in the world that in effect says “in your face, ‘Lord’ Jesus”? Guthrie outlines three problematic positions:

  • the kingdom is an ideal, yet to be realized, which Christians and the church need to work to “bring in” or “realize;” we need to “let” Jesus be Lord in our lives and our world, etc. Problem? This makes the reign of God dependent on us; and it effectively denies the hope of the resurrection, which puts the hope of the world in Christ, not in us.
  • the kingdom is up ahead, in the future, and will be realized when Christ comes again; this has some Biblical justification, but it also has a tendency to turn into a “wait for the pie in the sky when you die/when the rapture comes” kind of approach to contemporary Christian life, and further, also constitutes an effective denial that the principalities and powers are even now subject to Christ’s authority.
  • the kingdom really is now, as in, “realized eschatology”; Jesus has already triumphed over the forces of sin and death and … but in order to be realistic, this position typically has to pull the scope of that triumph back, say to the church or to the hearts and minds of believers, and that is not, ultimately, as much as we want to or want to be able to say.

Guthrie says most theologians, of all denominational stripes, take the position that the kingdom of God is “already” AND “not yet,” simultaneously. The analogy in a post-WW II context is to D-Day; from that decisive moment, the defeat of the Third Reich was inevitable, but there was still lots of fighting, with plenty of casualties; the war was “already” won, although it was “not yet” over. The idea is that the resurrection is like D-Day: the kingdom has broken into the world, the victory is assured, but the fight against evil is not over … it’s ongoing. For that reason, Christians must take evil seriously, though not as seriously as God – already the winner, although the victory is not everywhere visible in our world; and, Christians have a responsibility, and the ability, to participate in this ongoing struggle.

[The basic idea is that Jesus Christ is even now the legitimate ruler of this world, which is a powerful idea. It’s the idea that allows us to insist that our ultimate loyalty, commitment, and responsibility is to him – in the end, to him alone, in opposition to any opposing claim. Which is demanding – but also liberating.]

1 Shirley C. Guthrie, Jr., Christian Doctrine (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 270-288.

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