Generous Orthodoxy  

Monday, March 17, 2008

Resurrection in the news: some affirmations and some disclaimers

The estimable Peter Steinfels writes the "Beliefs" column every other Saturday for the New York Times. It is very hard to find on the Times website if you don' t know what you're looking for, but it is almost always worth finding.

Last Saturday, March 15, the headline was "Resurrection Is Often Misunderstood by Christians and Jews." That is surely the truth. Steinfels is commenting on two new books about resurrection in the tradition. One is Resurrection: The Power of God for Christians and Jews, co-written by two Harvard Divinity School colleagues, Kevin J. Madigan, Roman Catholic, and Jon D. Levenson, a Jew who teaches Jewish studies. The other book is N. T. Wright's latest, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. Steinfels focuses on the essential agreements between the two books. Much of this is most welcome, especially to us parish clergy who have had a great deal of difficulty putting across the idea that the Bible does not teach individual "immortality." These writers have done us a great service by insisting that the concept of resurrection from the dead is "deeply rooted in the Judaism from which Jesus emerged" (the Sadducees stood out because they did not believe in it).

Steinfels helpfully summarizes the teaching of the books in words like these: "In classic Jewish and Christian teachings, resurrection refers to a collective resurrection of people and renewal of all creation at the end of time. Resurrection was linked to the expectation of judgment and a final triumph of justice. This was the idea of resurrection that had evolved as Jews returned from exile and struggled under foreign domination in the period before Jesus. It was this idea of resurrection that Christians had in mind when they declared that what occurred on Easter was the 'first fruits' of what was to come."

And let us cheer for this insight:
"Professor Madigan, Professor Levenson and Bishop Wright view the anti-Gnostic stances of early church fathers and rabbinic sages alike as a proper defense of their traditions’ core beliefs and not, as recently argued, a tactic in religious power politics."

All of this is good news for the Easter season. Particularly important, as is now generally recognized, is the emphasis on the deep roots of Christianity in Judaism, and particularly the reliance of the New Testament upon the Hebrew Scriptures.

However, as Steinfels reports on these books (I have not read them, but am familiar with their authors), a concern arises. If there is too much emphasis on continuity, the radical rupture in human history that was effected by the death and resurrection of Christ is correspondingly minimized or ignored. There is a danger here in failing to see what a dramatically new thing was happening in Christ. As one who last Sunday preached on the raising of Lazarus from John's Gospel, I am acutely aware of the distinction made in that passage between the resurrection at the Last Day and the power of "the one who is coming into the world" now. The contrast between Martha's weary traditional affirmation ("I know that my brother will rise at the Last Day") and Jesus' awesome declaration "I AM the Resurrection and the Life..." is the central focus of John's narrative. Christ's victory over death brings with it the kerygmatic announcement of the power of the age to come present in the life of the believer now

Another objection can be made. Paul's Resurrection chapter (I Corinthians 15), and indeed his entire proclamation, sweeps the hearer-reader along with the sense that a world-overturning, cosmos-recreating event has occurred. Sharp discontinuity is assumed in Paul's gospel, and treatments that smooth this over miss the essential nature of the New Testament witness. This does not mean that we should mute or deemphasize the fact of Christianity's dependence upon the faith of the Hebrews, which is total. The corresponding depreciation of gnostic influence (old and new) in these scholars' work is particularly welcome. But if we do not see that "the righteousness of God" in the Old Testament is radically recapitulated in the Cross and Resurrection of Christ, then we are settling for something less than the apostolic kerygma.

Click here for the Steinfels column: