Tuesday, August 15, 2006


Resurrection: the Eschatological View

This is the fifth and final post commenting on the article The daybreak of the new creation: Christ's resurrection in recent theology by G. Hunsinger (links to post 1, post 2, post 3 and post 4). In these notes I shall briefly review the position of some theologians who stressed the importance of eschatology in the interpretation of Christ's resurrection.

Let's then begin with a quotation from Moltmann that seems to capture the gist of what is being discussed (emphasis mine):
Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it. Peace with God means conflict with the world, for the goad of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present. (Moltmann, Theology of Hope, p. 7)
This passage occurs in the first pages of Theology of Hope, where Moltmann tries to explain what Christian hope really is. "[F]aith, wherever it develops into hope, causes not rest but unrest, not patience but impatience. It does not calm the unquiet heart, but is itself this unquiet heart in man." This is a restlessness based on the recognition, on the one hand, of the reality of the creatural, historical order; and, on the other hand, of the existence of promises, of a future of that reality, centered on Jesus Christ. But let's proceed in order.

For Jürgen Moltmann, one needs to focus on the key difference, or contradiction, between the events of the Cross, and of the Resurrection. The Cross brings death, the Resurrection brings eternal life. Therefore, one is forced to view resurrection as an event which is unique in kind: a "history-making event". But if resurrection is linked to eternal life, it also needs to bring about a complete reconsideration of what history is:
[resurrection] breaks the power of history and is itself the end of history (Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, p. 214)
When we discuss whether resurrection is an historical fact then, we are compelled to review our own definition of history. History "according to the world", so to speak, could well apply to the death on the cross; but resurrection, being an "apocalyptic happening" (i.e. something revelatory, and revelatory of an eschatological future grounded in God's promises) needs to be seen in other terms. Christ's resurrection makes history, rather than viceversa (emphasis original):
The raising of Christ is then to be called "historic", not because it took place in the history to which other categories of some sort provide a key, but it is to be called historic because, by pointing the way for future events, it makes history in which we can and must live. It is historic, because it discloses an eschatological future (Moltmann, Theology of Hope, pp. 167-78).
This is then a "third way" in the interpretation of the resurrection event. Let's see this in an Hegelian thesis-antithesis-synthesis fashion:

If one takes a historical approach to history, Resurrection becomes at best an inward and subjectivist experience, one that can only be seen through the eyes of faith, leaving historicity completely aside. Is resurrection "real" then? It is, as long as one defines reality as what is real to him/herself.

If, on the other hand, one takes a "theological view of history", theology confines itself to being meaningful only to its adherents:
But the Church - including theology - is neither the religion of this or that society, nor yet is it a sect. It can neither be required to adapt itself to the view of reality which is generally binding in society at the moment, nor may it be expected to present itself as the arbitrary jargon of an exclusive group and to exist only for believers. (Moltmann, Theology of Hope, p. 169)
This is a key statement, and it would be extremely interesting, from both the point of view of the sociologist and of the believer, to try and evaluate to what extent we find it to be true in our own society, Church vision, and experience.

So, a third way comes forward, one that sees resurrection as standing "directly within the special horizon of prophetic and apocalyptic expectations":
Thus the specialist's question as to the historical reality of the resurrection - "what can I know?" - points him on to the neighbouring questions , "what am I to do?" and "what may I hope for? What future horizon of possibilities and dangers is opened up by past history?" To put the question of the resurrection in exclusively historical terms is to alienate the texts of the Easter narrative. (Moltmann, Theology of Hope, p. 169)
This eschatology is centered on hope, and hope is hope for a new creation. But hope in this new creation is nothing else than "hope for the future of Jesus Christ". Now, Hunsinger questions where the accent was meant to fall here: was it a hope for the future of Jesus Christ, or the future of Jesus Christ? As Hunsinger has it,
It would be one thing for Christ to be only the firstfruits of some benefit other than himself (in this case, of the new creation), but quite another for the benefits to be inseparable from his person. In that case, union and communion with Christ would be eternal life itself, and participatio Christi would involve more than participation in a future of which he was merely the first instance. (Hunsinger, art. cit., p. 175)
Does the new creation occur in Christ, or just through Christ? Here we touch upon the problem of the definition of the model of salvation of Christian theology. Hunsinger says that Moltmann does not clarify whether Christ is to be seen merely as a prototype of the new creation (the future of Jesus Christ), or rather the center (the future of Jesus Christ). How is Christ's resurrection linked to soteriology? Speaking of Jesus as the "prototype of the new creation" somewhat reminds one of exemplarist notions of salvation. But, at least in the Introduction to his Theology of Hope, Moltmann seems clear in pointing to the centrality of Jesus in Christian eschatology (emphasis original):
Christian eschatology does not speak of the future as such. It sets out from a definite reality in history and announces the future of that reality, its future possibilities and its power over the future. Christian eschatology speaks of Jesus Christ and his future. It recognizes the reality of the raising of Jesus and proclaims the future of the risen Lord. Hence the question whether all statements about the future are grounded in the person and history of Jesus Christ provides it with the touchstone by which to distinguish the spirit of eschatology from that of utopia. (Moltmann, Theology of Hope, p. 3)
Clearly a more detailed presentation of the relationship between resurrection and the atonement is needed. But it seems here that only a future "grounded in the person and history of Jesus Christ" (and his history does include the atoning events of death and resurrection) captures what Moltmann regards as true Christian eschatology.

Finally, two quick observations: first, Moltmann "recognizes the reality of the raising of Jesus" (with the additional qualifications mentioned above); second, the future Moltmann speaks about is never a future detached from reality and history: on the contrary, "it sets out from a definite reality in history". In other words, it is really the future of this world. Thus, eschatology becomes the source of Christian orthopraxy: Christians behave in this world with the eschatological goal of transforming it, "in expectation of a divine transformation". As Richard Bauckham has it in his Preface to Theology of Hope,
The Church's ultimate hope does not exclude the more proximate hopes that enable change in the historical figure; on the contrary, it positively inspires and sustains them. (Moltmann, Theology of Hope, p. xiii).
This sheds some light on the nature of Christian mission, and we would do well to measure our own actions according to our understanding of the importance and relevance of Christian eschatology.

Let's now move on to briefly consider some of the views of Hans Frei.

For Frei as well, resurrection is a unique event. But Frei comments that, since by definition resurrection transcends history, history per se cannot confirm resurrection. History could at most disconfirm it. As a corollary, as long as history does not disconfirm Christ's resurrection, we should not be tied too much to the results of historical research, and faith does not depend on them. It matters relatively little then, whether we think with Wright that the historicity of the resurrection is the most probable option, or whether we think with Frei himself that historical evidence to the resurrection is too limited to generate agreement (see Frei's quote in post 4 of this series): as long as "the bones of Jesus Christ are not discovered in Palestine", so to speak, the method is safe.

Let just mention in passing here that this "weak" attitude of Frei's toward history has attracted some criticism from theologians more attached to various kinds of biblical historicism. For example, Alister McGrath wrote:
Might not Christology rest upon a mistake? How can we rest assured that there is a justifiable transition from the preaching of Jesus to the preaching about Jesus? (McGrath, An Evangelical Evaluation of Postliberalism, in The Nature of Confession: Evangelicals and Postliberals in Conversation, p. 43)
But Frei would respond that this attitude of attaching "historical reality" to the resurrection at all costs superimposes an alien framework on the biblical texts, a framework that forces the idea of "modern history" onto the biblical narrative. There is an illuminating passage related to this in one of Frei's unpublished pieces (available here):
If we say, for example, that Jesus is the Christ, or if we say simply Jesus Christ, what we mean by that is exactly the story of the enactment of his life and death and resurrection. He is not Jesus Christ apart from that story of his. It is precisely in that story that he is the Christ. [...]
But now if you go on from there and say, ‘What about the historical facts here?’ – what facts? Do we know what the facts are outside of the description? Remember what facts were for the empiricists: facts for the empiricist were always those separate occurrences, quite apart from the description, quite apart from the story itself – those separate historical, empirical occurrences which could be confirmed or disconfirmed by independent evidence. What are the facts that are being referred to here? They are facts that we cannot have apart from the story. (Frei, On Interpreting the Christian Story - The 10th Annual Greenhoe Lectureship, 1976)
And, specifically to the point being discussed in this post,
The resurrection is a fact the truth of which Christians affirm even though they have to say that the nature of it is not such that we are in a position to verify it, because even though we affirm it we do not think of it under the category of an ordinary empirical datum; it is a fact which is rendered effective to us through the story and we cannot have it without the story in which it is given to us.(Frei, ibid.)
Hunsinger then points to a curious ontological argument used by Frei to apparently "demonstrate" that Christ's resurrection could not but happen. Frei writes:
How can he who constitutes the very definition of life be conceived of as the opposite of what he defines? To think of him as dead is the equivalent of not thinking of him at all. (Frei, The Identity of Jesus Christ, p. 148)
It is clear that the truth of the statement that Jesus is "he who constitutes the very definition of life" needs to accepted for the argument to work. But the truth of that statement can only be accepted by one who believes in what the gospels say about Jesus. If one doubts this premise and questions this vision of Jesus' being (for example, reading Jesus as simply a prophet), then the argument immediately fails. However, the argument could be used in a more limited way: if one does accept the gospels in believing that Jesus is indeed "life", then one is also forced to accept that Jesus could not die, i.e. one can not just take part of the gospel and leave resurrection behind. In this limited sense, according to Frei's argument, resurrection would be a necessity indeed.

For Karl Barth, as for the other theologians considered here, resurrection entails historical reality:
It is impossible to erase the bodily character of the resurrection of Jesus and his existence as the Resurrected (Barth, Church Dogmatics, III/2, p. 448)
But Barth stressed transcendency in the importance of seeing resurrection as applied to the whole of Jesus' identity: resurrection means elevating the entire saving history of Jesus into eternity. Thus, Jesus who lived in this time becomes the Lord of time, always present. Jesus is then, to use Barth's own words, "the Contemporary of all human beings".

On the other hand, Barth thought little of modern critical inquiry. A famous quotation from Church Dogmatics is in order:
We must dismiss and resist to the very last any idea of the inferiority or untrustworthiness or even worthlessness of a ‘non-historical’ depiction and narration of history. This is in fact only a ridiculous and middle-class habit of the modern Western mind which is supremely phantastic in its chronic lack of imaginative phantasy, and hopes to rid itself of its complexes through suppression. This habit has really no claim to the dignity and validity which it pretends. It acts as if only ‘historical’ history were genuine history, and ‘non-historical’ false. The obvious result is to banish from the portrayal and understanding of history all immediacy of history to God on the pretext of its non-historicity, dissolving it into a bare idea! When this is done, the horizon of history necessarily becomes what it is desired to be—a highly unreal history, a more or less explicit myth, in the poor light of which the historical, what is supposed to be the only genuine history, can only seem to be an ocean of tedious inconsequence and therefore demonic chaos. We must not on any account take this course. In no way is it necessary or obligatory to maintain this rigid attitude to the ‘non-historical’ reality, conception and depiction of history. On the contrary, it is necessary and obligatory to realize the fact and manner that in genuine history the ‘history’ and the ‘non-historical’ accompany each other and belong together. (Barth, Church Dogmatics, III/1)
In fact, for Barth history is really God's (and not man's own) history, and faith really consists "in an objective encounter with the Crucified and Risen One" (III/2, p. 449) rather than in assurances brought about by historians. It is this encounter that is the foundation of the belief in resurrection. In the resurrection Jesus
reveals himself as the One who was and is and will be [reconciliation of the world with God, the daybreak of the new creation, the beginning of the new world] in his life and death". (Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV/2, p. 145)
In other words, Jesus is savior throughout his history, and not in the resurrection only. So, resurrection might in a sense appear as played down; but, on the other hand, it is the key revelatory event:
The resurrection can give nothing new to Him who is eternal Word of the Father; but it makes visible what is proper to Him, His glory. (Barth, Church Dogmatics, I/2, p. 111)
Christ reconciles the world with God; but it is only through this revelatory event that is Christ's resurrection that the now reconciled world can respond to Christ and subjectively appropriate this reconciliation.

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