Against a Subjectivist Interpretation of 1 Cor. 15: Contemporary Discussions of the Resurrection of Christ and the Apostle Paul
In the following presentation, I want to accomplish three tasks:
First, I would like to distinguish between three interpretations of the resurrection of Jesus Christ that we could identify as radical, liberal, and traditionalist. For reasons that will become clear as the discussion progresses, I prefer to use the terms “ naturalist,” “ subjectivist,” and “ supernaturalist” to describe them.
Second, I want to assess each position in terms of its answer to the question: “ Does the resurrection of Jesus describe an event that happened to Jesus of Nazareth, or is it an event in the experience of the Christian community?” (1)
Third, I believe that the way this question is posed and answered actually reflects a prior commitment to the answer to two related questions: First, “ Is the mission, death, and resurrection of Jesus constitutive of human salvation, or is it illustrative of a salvation that can be found in a prior generally available human experience?,” and, second, “ Are the narratives, symbols, and teaching of the Scriptures normative for our understanding of God and his relation to the world, or, rather are they illustrative of an experience and understanding of God that we can in principle attain elsewhere as well?” To accomplish this third task, it will be necessary to examine how the three positions interpret what the Scriptures say about the resurrection of Jesus. Since time forbids an examination of the entire New Testament, I am going to focus primarily on St. Paul’s understanding of the resurrection, particularly as it is found in 1 Cor 15, which most biblical scholars recognize to contain the earliest creedal summary of resurrection faith.
The Naturalist Position: “ Jesus is Dead, but I’m OK”
The radical or naturalist position can be identified by its rather straightforward answer to the first question: The resurrection of Jesus is not an event that happened to the earthly Jesus of Nazareth. Rather, it is an event in the experience of believing Christians. The most influential representative of this position was the renowned New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann, who, in the 1950’s and 60’s was probably the leading biblical scholar in the world. Bultmann’s understanding of the resurrection is expressed in his statement that “ Jesus rose into the kerygma.” (2) Some wag remarked at the time that in Bultmann’s theology, Jesus rose from the dead every Sunday morning when Bultmann ascended into the pulpit.
That Bultmann’s answer to the question clearly reflected an understanding of salvation that was available in general human experience was shown in his commitment to the existentialist philosophy of the early Heidegger as providing the best means to re-interpret Christianity as a gospel whose primary message was that of a new “ self-understanding.” Unfortunately, Bultmann’s position demonstrates the danger of attaching one’s theology too readily to a current reigning philosophy. It is a little like trying to hit a moving target. At the time that Bultmann’s theology was most popular, Heidegger had already moved on from his earlier position, and the most prominent Anglican theologian of the time, John Macquarrie, was insisting that if we were really going to speak to what was then called “ modern man,” we had to hitch our wagons to the philosophy of the later Heidegger. When I was doing my doctoral studies, Macquarrie’s position had long been a bit of a museum piece, for by this time the latest thing was something called “ liberation theology,” a movement whose demise can be dated to coincide exactly with the collapse of the Berlin Wall. But never fear, theologians are infinitely resilient. We are now assured that if only we embrace something called “ post-modernism,” we will have a gospel that will preach to Generations X, Y, and Z.
In terms of our third task, it becomes evident that the naturalist understanding of salvation as generally available in human experience leads to an interpretation of the Scriptures as illustrative of such an experience of salvation rather than constitutive of our understanding of salvation. This is evident in that the naturalist position is in blatant conflict with the plain teaching of Scripture. If we turn to 1 Cor. 15, we find that Paul is clearly making a factual claim not about something that happens to us, but about something that happened to Jesus. In the formula of vs. 3-5, he includes four verbs that exactly parallel one another: “ He died, he was buried, he was raised, he appeared.” The last two statements, “ he was raised/he appeared,” are just as informative as the first two, “ he died/he was buried.” (3) While the resurrection of Jesus certainly has spiritual and experiential consequences for our understanding, it is not in itself about something that happens to us, but about something that happened to Jesus. Thus what Paul says about Jesus’ resurrection is characteristic of what he says about salvation as a whole. For Paul, salvation is incorporation of the self into the Christ-event, that is, my being united by faith to the crucified and risen Jesus Christ. Salvation is not the reinterpretation of the Christ-event in terms of my own self-understanding.(4) Accordingly, the understanding of resurrection in the radical interpretation is not really an interpretation of what the New Testament says at all, but rather what scholars like Bultmann wish it had said.
In retrospect, it seems rather puzzling that a theology that was as reductionist as Bultmann’s could have been so influential. After all, for Bultmann, the good news is really that Jesus is dead, but I’m not doing so bad. But we should give thanks for Bultmann because, if nothing else, he serves as a helpful reminder that the radicals in contemporary theology are not really so radical after all. At those times when we feel like contemporary theologians have gone just about as far as it is possible to go, it helps to be reminded that we have been there before.
The Subjectivist Position:
You’ve Got to Experience It For Yourself”
In the field of contemporary biblical studies, the second position, which I have referred to as the liberal or subjectivist position, is more of a challenge, and it is the challenge of this position on which I wish to focus. This second position is one that is widely held today. In some variation or another, it has been endorsed by figures such as Edward Schillebeeckx, Gerd Luedemann, John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, Sallie McFague, Hans Küng, Anglican Archbishop Peter Carnley, and (at one time) Episcopal Bishop John Spong.(5) What marks the peculiarity of this position is the ambiguity of its answer to our central question, for unlike the radical position, the subjectivist position really does seem to want to say, or uses language that appears to say that, in some sense, Jesus really did rise from the dead. At the same time, where Bultmann was rather forthright in his answer to the question of whether the resurrection of Jesus is an event in the life of Jesus, or an event in the experience of Christian believers, the subjectivist position is quite ambiguous in its answer to the same question.
What then, are the features of this position? First, and, most characteristically, it places a great deal of emphasis on the priority of religious experience for our understanding of the meaning of resurrection. When the early Christians talked about resurrection, it is claimed, what is meant is that after Jesus’ crucifixion, his followers continued to experience an awareness of Jesus’ presence, perhaps in the form of a consciousness of having been forgiven or of grace, and this awareness of Jesus’ continuing presence led to the conclusion that Jesus is not dead after all, but is still alive, and is in some sense with God. It is this experience of Jesus’ ongoing presence that led to the language of resurrection.
Second, for most who hold this position, this experience of Jesus’ ongoing presence has nothing to do with the bodily resuscitation of Jesus’ corpse, his physical body. Thus, Crossan suggests that Jesus was never buried in the first place. His body was probably thrown into a common grave, and eaten by dogs.(6) Marcus Borg, on the other hand, while he does not necessarily endorse Crossan’s common grave theory, insists that if Jesus’ bones were discovered tomorrow, this would make no difference to Christian faith. Accordingly, resurrection language has nothing to do with embodiment or physicality. Borg asks rhetorically whether someone with a video-camera could have recorded the resurrection of Jesus, with the unspoken answer, “ Of course not.” He asserts further that the “ pre-Easter Jesus” as a “ flesh-and-blood figure of the past . . . is dead and gone. . . . the ‘protoplasmic’ Jesus isn’t around anymore.” (7)
At first glance, such a reading seems (just like the radical position) to be at cross purposes with the plain meaning of Scripture, but what makes this position such a challenge is the claim that its view is actually the position of the earliest Christian believers. This contrasts with Bultmann, who, although he did not believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus himself, recognized that the earliest Christians did. He just thought that they were wrong, and their views needed to be demythologized. The advocates of what I have called the subjectivist position argue rather that it is those who maintain a literal bodily resurrection of Jesus who have misunderstood Scripture. The subjectivist position denies rather that the earliest Christians believed in the bodily resurrection of Jesus at all. The subjectivist reading, they argue, is actually the interpretation of resurrection found in the earliest strands of the New Testament, for example, in Paul’s classic discussion in 1 Cor. 15. The stories of the visits of the women to the empty tomb on Easter morning, the appearances to the eleven apostles in the locked room, or the risen Jesus’ journey with the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus, are fictional narratives written for apologetic purposes. In the words of Crossan, “ Emmaus never happened. Emmaus always happens.” (8)
However, although the advocates of the subjectivist position argue that their interpretation is really the one found in the earliest Christian writings, when we turn to their actual discussion of those writings, bells go off. If a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, it becomes immediately evident that the subjectivist position is forged from a series of weak links. Turning to the subjectivist analysis of 1 Cor. 15, we immediately notice a number of questionable moves.
First, the subjectivist interpretation depends heavily on the argument from silence. We are always on dangerous grounds when we argue from what someone does not say, but the subjectivist position actually uses the argument from silence in directly opposite ways.
So, in verse 5, Paul says that Christ “ was buried,” yet Paul does not mention the empty tomb. It seems inconceivable that Paul would not mention something so significant if he knew about it, so, it is argued, there probably was no empty tomb. The empty tomb is most likely an invention of the later church.
Again in verse 5, Paul mentions an appearance to Peter. Several contemporary scholars argue that the notion of resurrection originated in Peter’s experience of forgiveness after the crucifixion of Jesus. From an experience of forgiveness, Peter then concluded that Jesus must still be alive. This view is found in Marxsen, in Schillebeeckx, in Spong, in Luedemann.(9) One could generalize that it has become almost the standard liberal interpretation of the rise of resurrection faith.
Then again, in verse 8, Paul mentions his own experience of the resurrection: “ He appeared also to me.” Accordingly, it is argued, Paul views his experience of the risen Jesus as identical with that of the other apostles. But we know that Paul’s experience was clearly a vision. Therefore, theirs was as well.
What we immediately notice about all three arguments is that they draw unwarranted conclusions from something Paul does not say. Turning to the question of the empty tomb, note first that the approach is identical to the hypothesis of the appearance to Peter, but the conclusions are opposite. Paul says nothing about the empty tomb, as he mentions no details about the appearance to Peter. In the case of the empty tomb, silence leads to the conclusion that there was no empty tomb. But in the case of Peter, silence allows the critic to formulate an elaborate theory as to the exact nature of the appearance, and its consequences for later Christian belief. This is question begging on a gigantic scale.
To argue that Paul’s failure to mention the empty tomb means there was no empty tomb simply ignores that none of the New Testament epistles (not just Paul’s) provide us with narrative accounts of the details of Jesus’ ministry, and that all of Paul’s letters are occasional. Paul never mentions John the Baptist either, but does this mean that Jesus was not baptized? We would not be aware that Paul knew about the narrative of the Last Supper if he had not introduced it casually in the midst of a controversial discussion about church order. If the controversy had not taken place, the critic would no doubt conclude that Paul knew nothing about the Last Supper.
What Paul does mention is burial, and as Paul uses “ sleep” as a metaphor for death, so resurrection is a metaphor based on arising from sleep. I can testify that I went to bed last night, and that I awoke and am here this morning. What does this say about the status of whether my bed is now empty or whether my body is still in it?
As a theory, the hypothesis about the appearance to Peter has a history that would make any textual critic happy. It seems to have originated with Bultmann, who suggested that Mt. 16:18 (“ You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church” ) was originally a story of a resurrection appearance to Peter that had been moved from its original context. Bultmann’s theory seems to have been picked up by Willi Marxen. In Schillebeeckx, it becomes the story of how Peter experienced forgiveness and grace, and from this experience concluded that Jesus had risen from the dead. Most recently, Leudemann argues that originally there was an account of a vision to Peter identical to the vision to Paul, but that this vision story had later been repressed for some reason by the early church. Now this is all very creative, but the problem is that the Peter vision hypothesis is a purely speculative theory with no foundation in fact whatsoever. Although Paul mentions the appearance to Cephas, and it is referred to in Mark 16:7, and Luke 24:34, there is nowhere in the New Testament a description of this original appearance to Peter. There is a description of an appearance to Peter in Jn 21, but in John’s gospel, the context indicates that it is a later appearance, not the initial one, and it is not a vision, but a bodily appearance. We do not know anything whatsoever about the details of this initial appearance to Peter, but this has not stopped Marxen, Schillebeeckx, Spong, and others from inventing entirely out of whole cloth a detailed account of exactly what “ must have happened.” On any given Sunday, a preacher with a good imagination can come up with all kinds of imaginary scenarios to create sermon illustrations, but they are not history.
The argument that the appearances to the apostles must have been visions because the appearance to Paul was, is a similar argument from silence. Paul’s vision is mentioned only in the Book of Acts, written by Luke, not by Paul. But Luke is most emphatic, both in his gospel, and then in the book of Acts, that the appearances to the apostles were bodily, and not, like Paul’s, visions. He mentions that the risen Christ ate food and drank, and asked the apostles to handle him to show that he was not a spirit, but had “ flesh and bones.” Luke himself distinguishes between appearances of the risen Christ before the ascension, which are clearly not visions, and those appearances afterwards, as, for instance, not only to Paul, but also to Stephen, which do have the character of visions. Since Luke is our only source for the account not only of Paul’s vision, but also of the most material account of the resurrection of Jesus, why trust him about one but not the other?
Moreover, Paul himself regards his own experience as in some sense unusual, but at the same time as distinct from ordinary religious experience. He makes two claims: first, that his appearance was “ last of all.” That is, after the appearance to Paul, the risen Christ will not appear to others, and so, the appearance to Paul does not partake of the character of ordinary Christian religious experience. At the same time, as the RSV puts it delicately, it was an appearance “ as to one untimely born,” or, in the more graphic translation of N.T. Wright, “ like one ripped suddenly from the womb.” Accordingly, there simply is no reason to presume that the appearance to Paul was identical in nature to the rest of the appearances described in 1 Cor 15.(10)
In addition to the argument from silence, the advocates of the subjectivist position engage in some rather questionable exegesis.
Thus, in verse 5 (“ He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve” ), it is argued that the word opthe, “ he appeared,” has a special meaning. Opthe refers to a vision, a “ revelation,” not ordinary seeing with the eyes. So when Paul talks about the appearance of the risen Jesus, he is talking about visions, not bodily appearances.(11)
Concerning this “ vision hypothesis,” the word opthe does indeed occur in the context of visions and theophanies. It is used to describe the appearances of the risen Christ, of angels, of God (in the LXX), of Moses and Elijah at the Transfiguration, of Christ at the second coming. However, it is not some kind of special magical word. It is simply the aorist passive form of orao, which means “ I see,” and is used of ordinary sight of ordinary persons and things. In Acts 7:26, it is used to describe Moses, who appeared to two Hebrew slaves who had been fighting. In the resurrection accounts in the gospels, it is used to describe the seeing of a Jesus who is touched, and who eats. Only the context determines whether opthe describes an objective seeing, or a subjective seeing, or a vision, but there is nothing in the word itself that implies a vision.(12)
Most significantly, the exegetical lynchpin of the subjectivist argument lies in the assertion that Paul claims in v. 44 that Jesus rose in a “ spiritual body, ” and Paul specifically denies that Jesus rose in a “ physical body.” In v. 50, Paul goes on to say that “ flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (v. 50), and so directly contradicts the gospels’ depiction of a physical bodily resurrection. So the early Christians did not believe in the physical “ resuscitation of a corpse,” but that Jesus was now exalted to God’s presence.
Paul’s distinction between a “ physical” or natural body, and a “ spiritual” or immaterial body is one that is found constantly in the literature. The distinction is appealed to by Leudemann, Borg, Crossan, Spong and others. The crucial passages are all in 1 Cor. 15. In v. 44, the RSV misleadingly translates Paul’s comparison between the pre-resurrection body and the resurrection body as, “ It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body.” (13) In 45-6, Paul compares Adam to Christ, and our Adamic bodies now with Christ-like bodies at the resurrection. Paul quotes Genesis that “ the first man Adam became a living being,” then says that “ the last Adam (i.e., Christ) became a life-giving spirit.” He goes on to say, “ But it is not the spiritual which is first but the physical, and then the spiritual,” and says that “ as we have borne the image of the man of dust (Adam), we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven (Christ).” Finally, in v. 50 he tells us that “ flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.”
So, on an initial reading of the English text, it certainly appears that Paul is advocating a clear-cut distinction between our material physical earthly bodies and our non-material spiritual resurrection bodies. Unfortunately, the distinction exists only in rather misleading English translations, and completely disappears when one looks at the same passages in the Greek New Testament.(14) So, in v. 44, Paul contrasts not a physical body with a spiritual body, but a soma psychikon with a soma pneumatikon. The word psychikon is the adjectival form of the Greek word for “ soul,” so really Paul is contrasting a “ soulish” body with a “ spiritual” body. If Paul had wanted to contrast a physical body there was a Greek adjective available to him, physikon, but he did not use it. Similarly, when Paul contrasts Adam and Christ, the words he uses are psyche zosa and pneuma zopoioun. Literally, Adam became a “ living soul,” while Christ was a “ life-giving spirit.” In normal English and in Platonic philosophy, both souls and spirits are immaterial, so if by spiritual body Paul means that our resurrection bodies are immaterial, then he would have to be arguing as well that our current pre-resurrection bodies, our “ soulish” bodies, are also immaterial. But if there is one thing that is evident about our current “ soulish” bodies, it is that they are physical. Paul also would have to be arguing that when Adam became a “ living soul,” that meant that the first human being was something like a ghost, which is patently absurd. Unlike in Platonic philosophy, and normal English usage, which has been influenced by Platonism, neither “ soul” nor “ spirit” primarily have connotations of immateriality for Paul. So one has to wonder about whether scholars who really should have known better have done their homework here. In the original Greek, there is nothing to suggest that Paul believes that the resurrection body is of an immaterial nature.
The Supernaturalist Position: “There’s Something Different About You
I want to return to this question of the difference between “ soulish” and “ spiritual” bodies, but before I do I want to summarize the third position in the contemporary debate, what is sometimes called the traditionalist position, but which I prefer to refer to as the supernaturalist position. What characterizes the traditionalist position is the assertion that Jesus rose bodily and physically from the grave, and that he really appeared to the apostles and other witnesses and was seen by chosen witnesses with their ordinary eyes, not that he was experienced as a vision or an awareness of forgiveness or grace. At the same time that his body was returned to life, it was transformed so that it is in some ways in continuity with and in some ways in discontinuity with his pre-resurrection body. It could be seen and touched, but at the same time, it appeared and disappeared through closed doors. Such a position takes very seriously the gospel narratives of the empty tomb and the appearances to Mary Magdalene and other women, as well as to the apostles, and to the disciples on the Emmaus road, not because they prove the resurrection happened, but because they are indispensable indications of its bodily nature. They are necessary, but not sufficient conditions of resurrection.(15)
As an aside I want to comment on an assertion that is repeated like a mantra in modern biblical studies on the resurrection–that the “ resurrection is not the resuscitation of a corpse.” The first several times I encountered this statement, I was somewhat baffled because I did not know exactly what was being asserted. There are examples of the raising of corpses in the Bible, e.g., the prophet Elisha raised a boy from the dead. We are told that Jesus returned the son of the widow of Nain to life, and that he called the dead Lazarus from the tomb.. But all these people died again, and nobody claims that this is what happened to Jesus. Jesus was raised never to die again, but also experienced transformation. His resurrection body was not simply an ordinary human body brought back to life.
Most recently I came across the same puzzlement expressed by the philosopher of religion, Stephen Davis. When he first came across the expression “ resuscitation of a corpse,” Davis immediately assumed that what was being opposed was an actual position that was affirmed by some theologian or biblical scholar somewhere. So he began combing the literature to find the guilty culprit who maintained that Jesus’ resurrection was the resuscitation of a corpse. After a fruitless search, he came to the conclusion that no such claimant existed. The claim that Jesus’ resurrection is “ not the resuscitation of a corpse” is an attack on a straw man, for nobody believes that resurrection is the “ resuscitation of a corpse.” (16)
However, once we drop question-begging assumptions about what Paul’s understanding of a “ spiritual body” must have been, the claim that God returned to life the same physical body of Jesus that had been crucified and buried, and “ supernaturally” transformed it by divine power to a new level of existence, agrees with the plain readings of the Easter narratives of the four gospels, and also fits well with what Paul says in 1 Cor. 15, and elsewhere. Returning then to Paul’s distinction between a “ soulish” body and a “ spiritual” body, a clue to Paul’s meaning can be found in an earlier discussion in the same letter. In 2:14 ff., Paul contrasts two kinds of people in language that exactly parallels that in ch. 15. He says that the “ soulish human being” (psychikos anthropos) (“ unspiritual man” in the RSV) does not receive the spiritual things of God, for they are folly to him. They have to be “ spiritually” (pneumatikos) discerned. At the same time, the “ spiritual” (pneumatikos) human being judges all things, but is judged by no one. What distinguishes the “ soulish” human being from the “ spiritual” human being? Obviously not materiality, or the lack thereof, for both are ordinary physical human beings. Paul provides the solution in v. 11-12: “ [N]o one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God.” What distinguishes the “ soulish” human being from the “ spiritual” human being is precisely the presence of God’s Holy Spirit. A “ soulish” human being is simply an ordinary human being. A “ spiritual” human being is the same ordinary human being as transformed by God’s indwelling Holy Spirit.
Looking once more at 1 Cor. 15, what distinguishes a “ soulish” body from a “ spiritual” body? Paul provides the answer in v. 50-51. Why is it that “ flesh and blood” cannot inherit the kingdom of God? Because a “ flesh and blood” body is material? No, rather, as Paul says, because it is “ perishable.” Nonetheless, the possibility of perishing is not the last word, but transformation. Says Paul, “ we shall all be changed, in a moment, at the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.” The “ flesh and blood” body ceases to be “ perishable” when it is transformed or changed from a “ soulish” or ordinary human body to a “ spiritual” body, a physical body still, but a physical body raised and transformed by God’s Holy Spirit. As Paul says in v. 53, “ This perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality.” Paul can only describe this change in metaphors, and so he compares the transformation as the kind of change that takes place when a seed grows into a plant, but it is a transformation of the physical, and not an abandonment of the physical.
Paul elaborates the notion of bodily resurrection using similar language in other places in his writings as well. So, again, in 1 Cor. 6:14-15, Paul draws moral implications about how we should use our own bodies in the light of the resurrection of Christ’s body. “ God raised the Lord [Jesus]” says Paul, “ and will raise us up by his power.” The conclusion he draws from this is “ that the body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.” (ESV) Once again there is the reference to the transformation by the Holy Spirit. “ Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” The implications Paul draws about how we should use our own earthly bodies in the light of Jesus’ resurrection would make no sense unless Paul understood Jesus’ resurrection, as well as our own future resurrections, to be bodily.
Paul expresses a similar notion in Rom. 8:10-11: “ But if Christ is in you, although your bodies are dead because of sin, your spirits are alive because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit which dwells in you.” Again, Paul concludes from the bodily resurrection of Jesus to moral implications of the Spirit indwelling our own bodies now: “ [I]f by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live.” (13) Just a few verses later, Paul makes the same comparison: “ [W]e ourselves who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” (8:24).
In Philippians, one of Paul’s later letters, he once again draws an analogy between Christ’s bodily resurrection and our own, and uses the same transformation language he uses in 1 Cor. 15: “ Our commonwealth is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him even to subject all things to himself.”
Clearly, then, Paul believed in a physical bodily resurrection. He believed that Jesus had been bodily raised and transformed from perishable mortality to imperishable immortality through the power of the Holy Spirit. He believed that the same Holy Spirit indwelt Christians, and already was transforming them so that they were no longer ordinary sinful “ soulish” human beings, but “ spiritual” human beings, and that accordingly the Spirit enables us to glorify Christ in our own bodies. Finally, he believed that the Spirit would raise our own bodies from death just as Christ had been raised, and would transform them from ordinary “ soulish” bodies to “ spiritual” bodies, bodies that shared in Christ’s resurrection life through the power of the Holy Spirit.
I would suggest that the best way to assess the strength of the latter two positions is to return to the tasks we set for ourselves at the beginning of our discussion, beginning with the two questions raised by the third task: “ Are the mission, death, and resurrection of Jesus constitutive of human salvation, or are they illustrative of a salvation that can be found in a prior generally available human experience?,” and second, “ Are the narratives, symbols, and teaching of the scriptures normative for our understanding of God and his relation to the world, or, rather are they illustrative of an experience and understanding of God that we can in principle attain elsewhere as well?” If I have been successful, my argument leads to the conclusion that the traditionalist position of a bodily resurrection of Jesus understands the New Testament to be constitutive for our understanding of the resurrection of Jesus and the role it plays in our salvation. While the subjectivist position claims to represent the earliest strand of New Testament belief, it is clearly at odds with the description of resurrection found in all four gospels. Moreover, a closer examination of the exegetical claims and arguments raised by the subjectivist position calls into question the claim that it allows normative status to Paul’s account of the resurrection of Jesus.
Is the resurrection of Jesus an event in the life of Jesus or an event in the life of the community? While it is self-evident that for the supernaturalist position, the resurrection of Jesus is an event in the life of Jesus, the subjectivist position, as was mentioned earlier is quite ambiguous on this issue. This becomes clear when we look more closely at exactly what language about the resurrection of Jesus is said to mean. One of the arguments used by advocates of the subjectivist position, an argument that I have not addressed yet, is that in Paul’s writings, he does not distinguish between the Holy Spirit and the risen Jesus. We are indwelt by the Spirit. The risen Christ lives in us. So, it is argued, the apostles’ experiences of the risen Christ were identical to their experiences of the Holy Spirit. In other words, there is no distinction between resurrection and the presence of the Spirit, and our own contemporary experiences of the Holy Spirit in the Church are identical to the apostles’ experiences of the resurrection of Christ.
To the contrary, it seems to me that the distinction between appearances of the risen Christ, and the presence of the Spirit is crucial. The Spirit bears witness to the risen Christ, but the Spirit is not Christ. As we have seen, Paul says that God raised Christ through the Spirit, and that the Spirit of the God who raised Jesus Christ dwells in us, but Paul never says that God or Christ raised the Spirit. Similarly, in another indication that Paul understands salvation to be my incorporation into the Christ-event, Paul refers to the Church as the Body of Christ. He never refers to the Church as the Body of the Spirit. Finally, although Paul recognizes that all Christians have the Spirit, he distinguishes between his own experience of the risen Christ, and general religious experience shared by all Christians by pronouncing that the appearance to him was “ last of all.”
The question that has to be asked here is why an experience of forgiveness or of grace, or an awareness of the Spirit’s presence, or even an awareness of Jesus’ continued presence after death should lead to the conclusion that Jesus is no longer dead, but has been raised from the dead rather than a conclusion, for example, that Jesus’ cause would continue, or that, like the martyrs, Jesus is now in God’s hands? Even if we grant that the apostles had some sort of visions, why should we conclude from this that Jesus has risen rather than that Jesus is a ghost or that the apostles had some rather interesting mystical experiences? The ambiguity of the subjectivist position lies in its failing to distinguish carefully enough between the resurrection of Jesus itself, and my own subjective experience of resurrection. At bottom, it is finally not clear whether the resurrection of Jesus really is an event that happens in the life of Jesus, or rather whether resurrection is something that happens to me, simply another name for my own religious experience. Thus, in some figures, like McFague and Luedemann, it seems that language of awareness of Christ’s continuing presence really is nothing more than a metaphor for a religious experience of God’s general presence in the world.(17) Others, like Archbishop Carnley, want to distance themselves from such radical subjectivism, but it is not obvious that they can really do so beyond making the mere assertion that the experience of the Spirit in the Church simply is the experience of the Spirit of Christ.(18) Finally, others, like Crossan, seem blatantly contradictory. Crossan insists that he believes in a real resurrection, but then goes on to say that the question of whether God existed during the time of the dinosaurs, before there were humans, is a meaningless question. If deity itself is reduced to a product of human imagination, what does this say about the risen Christ?(19) Ultimately, then, it seems that the subjectivist position collapses into the radical position. Jesus is dead, but my experience continues.(20)
In closing, I would suggest that the real disagreement has to do with two radically different understandings of spirituality that represent two different answers to the question of whether the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are constitutive of my salvation, or whether they are illustrative of a salvation that I can find elsewhere as well. The traditionalist position is that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are salvation-creating, and so understands spirituality to be a matter of conforming oneself through the Spirit to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The subjectivist position wants to find salvation in a general experience of divine presence, a salvation that can be found elsewhere as well.
What is at stake is the difference between a spirituality that recognizes salvation as mediated through God’s chosen sacramental channels, specifically the crucified and risen humanity of Christ, and a spirituality that finds salvation in immediate experience of my own subjectivity, identified in some sense with God. Let me illustrate the difference with some historical examples. During the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas faced a dominant spirituality that was Platonist at heart. It insisted that knowledge of God was found through turning one’s back on the world, and retreating to an interiority where one could find God in direct experience at the heart of one’s soul. While Thomas did not repudiate mystical experience as such, he insisted that there is ordinarily no direct unmediated experience of God. The first object of our knowledge is created physical realities, and we come to know God through the ordinary mediated channels of created things, the narratives of Scripture, the sacraments, and especially the humanity of the crucified and risen Christ. When Thomas formulated this spirituality in the first truly systematic Medieval treatise on prayer, he focused not on direct mystical experience, but on petitionary prayer, the ordinary prayer of ordinary people, as formulated in vocal recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, the “ Our Father.” (21)
When Thomistic spirituality did express itself in mystical experience, it found its finest example in the mystic Julian of Norwich, who found the heart of the God of love in the presence of the humanity of the crucified and risen Jesus. And, here, I think Julian is closer to the spirit of Aquinas than is John of the Cross. God is not known directly, says Julian, but always through God’s chosen means, specifically through Christ’s humanity.(22)
To use another example from a different era. Many people do not realize that Martin Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone is not primarily about my faith, but is rather focused on what he called the alien righteousness of Christ. Luther did not mean by this that salvation produces no results in our own lives, that faith in Christ has no practical effects, but he did mean that salvation involves looking away from my own works, and the subjectivity of my own experience, to embrace a righteousness that comes from outside me. At the same time, this external righteousness is a righteousness that becomes mine concretely in the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood, the bread and wine in which the risen Christ becomes objectively present.(23)
Aquinas, Julian, and Luther understood the danger of a spirituality that places its good in the immediacy of unqualified experience. For such immediacy constantly faces the danger of confusing one’s own subjectivity with divinity itself. The consequence is a demand either for an impossible spiritual athleticism or an all-too-easy identification of my own subjectivity with the divine presence, resulting in presumptuous confidence for those who find themselves certain of having attained direct contact with the divine. But such a demand for unmediated spiritual experience can also lead to despair, for when we fail to experience God’s presence, or when our prayers seem to be answered by slammed doors and drawn latches, we have nothing but our own hollow selves to fall back on.
The risen Christ, the Christ who meets us in the gospel narratives, and who shares his broken but transformed and exalted body and blood in the sacrament of bread and wine rescues us from the dangers of a presumptuous spirituality of immediacy. He comes to us from outside the locked doors of our own subjectivity. We need a spirituality that does not depend on the vagaries and uncertainties of our own experience of the immediacy of divine presence, but a spirituality that can lean on the strength of the crucified and risen one, a spirituality for ordinary embodied sinners.
1. I owe the distinction between the three basic types, as well as the crucial question to an article by David Fergusson, “ Interpreting the Resurrection,” Scottish Journal of Theology 38: 287-305.
2. Rudolf Bultmann, “ The New Testament and Mythology,” Kerygma and Myth I, ed. Hans Werner Bartsch (SPCK: London, 1957), 38-43.
3. See the discussion in Gerald O’Collins, Interpreting Jesus (Ramsey: Paulist Press, 1983), 108-132; Christology: A Biblical, Historical, and Systematic Study of Jesus (Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press, 1995), 82-112.
4. E.P. Sanders, Paul (Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press, 1991).
5. Edward Schillebeeckx, Jesus: An Experiment in Christology (London: Collins, 1979); Gerd Luedemann, The Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994); John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (San Francisco: Harper, 1991), Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco: Harper, 1994); Marcus Borg & N.T. Wright, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (San Francisco, 1999); Sallie McFague, Models of God (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987); Hans Küng, On Being a Christian (Garden City: Doubleday, 1974), Credo: The Apostles’ Creed Explained for Today (London: SCM, 1993); Peter Carnley, The Structure of Resurrection Belief (Oxford: Clarendon, 1987, 1993); John Shelby Spong, Resurrection: Myth or Reality? (San Francisco: Harper, 1994).
6. Historical Jesus, 392-393.
7. Borg, “ The Irrelevancy of the Empty Tomb,” in Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?: A Debate Between William Lane Craig and John Dominic Crossan (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1998), 117-128; “ The Truth of Easter,” Meaning of Jesus, 129-142.
8. Jesus, 197.
9. Op cit, & Willi Marxsen, The Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1970).
10. See the discussion in N.T. Wright, The Meaning of Jesus, 111-127 & Ben Witherington, “ Resurrection Redux,” Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?, 129-145.
11. The exegetical arguments can be found in Reginald Fuller, The Formation of the Resurrection Narratives (NY: Macmillan, 1971), 9ff., but are repeated by other authors as well. For a critique, see William P. Alston, “ Biblical Criticism and the Resurrection,” The Resurrection: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Resurrection of Jesus, ed. Stephen T. Davis, Daniel Kendall, Gerald O’Collins (NY: Oxford University Press, 1997), 148-183.
12. Stephen T. Davis, “ ‘Seeing’ the Risen Jesus,” The Resurrection: An Interdisciplinary Symposium, 126-147; Wright, Meaning of Jesus, fn., 266.
13. The English Standard Version, a newer translation based on the RSV translates the same passage: “ It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.”
14. Ben Witherington, Jesus, Paul and the End of the World: A Comparative Study in New Testament Eschatology (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 181-222; Ben F. Meyer, “ Did Paul’s View of the Resurrection of the Dead Undergo Development?,” Critical Realism & The New Testament (Allison Park: Pickwick Publications, 1989); Wright, 120.
15. Fergusson, 301.
16. Davis, “ ‘Seeing’ the Risen Jesus,” 132-133.
17. McFague, 59-60; Luedemann, 182-183.
18. Peter F. Carnley, Response to O’Collins, “ The Resurrection: The State of the Questions,” Resurrection: An Interdisciplinary Symposium, 29-40.
19. Crossan, Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?, 47, 51. Interestingly, Crossan also states that “ Christian Faith is not Easter Faith.” “ The Search for Jesus,” The Search for Jesus: Modern Scholarship Looks at the Gospels, ed. Hershel Shanks (Washington, D.C.: Biblical Archaeological Review, 1994): 132.
20. Fergusson, 300. Significantly, Luedemann and Spong, one-time advocates of the subjectivist position, have more recently moved to embrace “ post-theistic” positions, in which any notion whatsoever of an objective continuing existence of Jesus beyond the grave would presumably make no sense.
21. On Thomas’s understanding of mediated spirituality, see especially Simon Tugwell, trans., ed. & “ Introduction,” Albert & Thomas: Selected Writings (NY: Paulist Press, 1988).
22. Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love (or Showings), long text, ch. 6 (numerous editions).
23. On justification by faith and alien righteousness in Luther, see his “ On Two Kinds of Righteousness,” Martin Luther: Selections from his Writings, ed. John Dillenberger (Garden City: Doubleday, 1961), and other editions. For Luther’s eucharistic theology as a mediated theology, see “That These Words of Christ, ‘This is my Body,’ Still Stand . . .” Luther’s Works: American Edition, H.T. Lehman, ed. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1961) 37. For a Reformed advocacy of revelation as mediated through the humanity of Christ, see Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2/1, ed. G. W. Bromiley, T. F. Torrance (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1957) 53 ff., 179 ff.