Friday, January 6, 2012

Resurrection and how we know things (N.T. Wright)

N.T. (Tom) Wright resigned the See of Durham in 2010 in order to take up a Chair in New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. He is a distinguished New Testament scholar, prolific author, and gifted communicator. In particular he has engaged in creative, respectful and effective debate with extremely liberal scholars on their own ground. In 2008 he addressed the Roman Catholic Synod of Bishops on Scripture in the life of the Church. I have read lots of things by Wright, and although I am surprised at his views on some of our current ecclesiological crises, I think that he must be required reading for Christians and others who want to come to terms with the New Testament and the historical claims at the heart of the Christian Faith. I have only recently come across the unofficial website devoted to his works HERE. Today I share with you from that website part of his 2002 essay Resurrection: From Theology to Music and Back Again:

I have spent the last few years, on and off, thinking, praying, reading, lecturing, preaching and writing about the resurrection.[13] Within my own field one of the major questions to be faced here is not just what we can know but, as with Thomas’ question in No. 26, how we can know it. Christian thinkers have been divided for some time on this question. Some have moved, with more or less caution, towards saying that the bodily resurrection is, in some sense, historically verifiable.[14] Others have denied this a priori for two reasons: either because, they say, it is not in that sense a ‘historical’ event (i.e., it was an event only in the minds of the disciples);[15] or because, they say, to assess the truth of the resurrection on the basis of post-Enlightenment historical method is to grant the latter a supreme position — over the resurrection, whereas the resurrection itself must be the starting-point, epistemologically as well as onto-logically, for everything else.[16]

Let me be cautious but clear at this point. I have become convinced that we can and must argue a historical case, to be defended on grounds that people of any faith and none might legitimately recognize, that (a) the tomb of Jesus was empty on Easter morning, and (b) the disciples really did see Jesus alive again in what gave every appearance of being a physical, though transformed, body. Only this will make sense of the fact that the early Christians really did believe Jesus was bodily raised (a point which, though sometimes challenged, is in my view absolutely secure historically). If they had only found an empty tomb, they would have concluded that the body had been stolen; if they had seen Jesus a few times, especially with him coming and going through locked doors and not always being instantly recognized, they would have concluded that they were hallucinating. It was the two together — empty tomb plus appearances — that convinced them that he was truly alive, that he had gone through the valley of death and, after a brief ‘rest’, was fully and bodily alive again, indeed even more so than before, since now death could never touch him again.

Can we move further than that, and if so how? Christian apologists can legitimately challenge their critics to explain how these two things happened on any other supposition except that the early Christians were speaking the truth. It is remarkable how thin, and full of special pleading, are all the alternative explanations that have been offered over the last two centuries by ingenious apologists for a post-Enlightenment world-view, often masquerading as ‘neutral’ or ‘objective’ observers or historians.[17] Can a Christian apologetic do any better? Can it, on ‘historical’ grounds alone, compel someone to take the final step and declare that they too now believe Jesus was truly raised from the dead on Easter day? I think not. We can point, like an archaeologist, to two pillars which look, by their shaping at the top, as though they were designed to support a now-missing arch. We can show that, despite years of energetic attempts to suggest an alternative, nothing else explains those pillars nearly as well as an arch; that is, that nothing else explains both the empty tomb and the appearances (which themselves explain early Christian belief) nearly as well as the bodily resurrection. For some that has been sufficient; for instance, the well-known Frank Morison, who wrote Who Moved the Stone as a result.[18] But to this extent I think Frei and others may have at least a grain of truth: the story and fact of the resurrection itself, rather than a post-Enlightenment positivism, carries the power to lead doubting Thomases to declare that they believe the arch really existed. Read the entire essay.

[13] My major work The Resurrection of the Son of God is still in preparation at the time of writing. Advance statements of some parts of the argument may be found in The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (with Marcus J. Borg), London: SPCK, 1999, ch. 7, and The Challenge of Jesus, London: SPCK, 2000, chs. 6-8.

[14] The most impressive case is that of W. Pannenberg, e.g., Systematic Theology, Vol. 2, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994 (German orig., 1991), pp. 343-63, with reference to earlier discussions. There is of course a more enthusiastic (in both senses) and almost positivist case regularly made by evangelical apologists.

[15] The best known example is Rudolf Bultmann: e.g., ‘The New Testament and Mythology’, in H. W. Bartsch (ed.), Kerygma and Myth: A Theological Debate, New York: Harper, 1961 [1953], pp.1-44; cf. p. 42: ‘The real Easter faith is faith in the word of preaching which brings illumination. If the event of Easter Day is in any sense an historical event additional to the event of the cross, it is nothing else than the rise of faith in the risen Lord . . . The resurrection itself is not an event of past history.’

[16] I think here particularly of the work of Hans W. Frei, The Identity of Jesus Christ: The Hermeneutical Bases of Dogmatic Theology, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975.

[17] E.g. G. Lüdemann, The Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology, London: SCM Press, 1994.

[18] London: Faber & Faber, 1930


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