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What’s the latest on the resurrection?

17 April 2014

The empty tomb once proved a stumbling-block for some theologians, but this is now less the case, says Andrew Davison

Richard Bavin

Absence: The Empty Tomb, a water­­­colour by Richard Bavin, which appears by kind permission of the artist

Absence: The Empty Tomb, a water­­­colour by Richard Bavin, which appears by kind permission of the artist

WHERE is Christian theology today when it comes to the resurrection and how did we get there? This might be the story of musing on the most glorious event in our redemption, but the tale is surprisingly muted not least because theologians have disagreed whether the resurrection really is primarily marked by glory.

A survey of theological approaches to the resurrection might start from Friedrich Schleiermacher's (1768-1834) thunderclap launch of liberal Protestant thought, The Christian Faith (1831). He could not see how the resurrection relates to redemption at all. Indeed, the link is “impossible” to see, and we could understand Christ perfectly well without even knowing about his resurrection. Schleiermacher did not dispense with the resurrection in his scheme; it simply does not play a prominent part.

In contrast, the resurrection was excised by the 19th century's more thoroughgoing radicals, such as David Strauss (1808-1874), who rejected it as part of their general rejection of all that is supernatural in the Gospel stories.

That period of Gospel research, or Gospel dissection, came to an end with the work of Albert Schweitzer (1874-1965). In the era after the First World War there was a decisive turn away from this rather corrosive attenuation of the story about Jesus. As William Lane Craig has pointed out, however, the physical resurrection hardly gained a prominent place in what followed, either in the existentialist theology of Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976), or in the neo-orthodoxy of Karl Barth (1886-1968).


BULTMANN emphasised the effect of the resurrection message on the believer. He thought that our emphasis should be on the proclamation of the resurrection, and its claim on us, not on anything that did or did not happen in the tomb. The resurrection is "a definitely not historical event" (Kerygma and Myth, English translation by SPCK, 1953).

Bultmann was right to emphasise that the resurrection is not some neutral fact: it is transformatory, or it is nothing. Less convincing was his sense that this proclamation could stand on its own two feet: an effect without a cause, we might say.

The message of resurrection has invariably been of influence because of a literal belief in a risen body, not in spite of it. Bultmann was right to ascribe more to the resurrection than the resuscitation of a corpse, but the early Christians clearly saw that already. Any wider significance was grounded, for them, in what the Greek word for resurrection, anastasis, means: Jesus “sat up”.

This matters for us in space and time, because something happened in space and time. Often in 20th-century Anglican circles, even those who accepted the physical resurrection, such as the Doctrine Commission in its 1938 report, typically sought to distance themselves from anything that looked like naïvety.

For my part, I would say that the resurrection is true in wider senses only because it is first of all true in this “naïve” way.

Barth’s weak focus on the resurrection is perhaps the most surprising lack in his entire theology (although his tendency to downplay the Holy Spirit and the Church are strong contenders). His wish to emphasise the sovereign freedom of God led him to underplay the place of the contingent particularities of history and humanity in God’s work.

Just as the incarnation, for Barth, happened, despite there being “no point of contact” (on his view) between us and God, similarly, God touched the world in the resurrection “as a tangent touches a circle, that is, without touching it” (Commentary on Romans, English translation, Oxford University Press, 1933). The resurrection is “an event in history . . . [that] is not an event in history at all”.

Here, Barth was a child of the philosophical idealism of his times, which placed ideas above matter. Just such a background also lies, for instance, behind the resolutely Anglo-Catholic Oxford Library of Practical Theology, which included a volume on Immortality (1908), where reference to bodily resurrection, either of Christ or of the rest of humanity, is all but absent.

Within this perspective, however different the sources, the resurrection has become a “wholly transcendent occurrence”, as Richard R. Niebuhr put it. Niebuhr, for his part, tended in the opposite direction, missing the radical newness or departure that the resurrection represents when he described it as "the confirmation of the order of creation and preservation of that which otherwise would be lost" ("Resurrection" in A Handbook of Christian Theology, eds Cohen and Halverston, Meridian, 1958).


THE critics of the 19th century had been driven by a certain account of history, which ruled out the supernatural as a matter of course. History remained a problem to be overcome for both Bultmann and Barth. Bultmann ducked from history into the abstraction to the all-demanding address to the hearer; Barth downgraded history in comparison with the sovereign distance of God from creation.

The historicity of the resurrection remained a “problem” within Protestant and Protestant-influenced theology for most of the 20th century. For a sense of this, consider how the topic is treated in theological reference woks. The prevailing tone, in even quite Evangelical volumes, into the early 1990s, is either a note of relative anguish, or of defensiveness, at least if they seek to appeal to an academic readership.

In marked contrast, Roman Catholic reference works from this period treat the resurrection in a confident and upbeat fashion.


IN THE decades before 2000, when I came into theological training, “difficulties” over the resurrection were considered one of the principal struggles facing any candidate for ordination. Judging by my work in the Cambridge Theological Federation over the past four years, the situation today is entirely different. I would have difficulty finding a single ordinand who would not subscribe to the physical resurrection of Christ or, indeed, have difficulty finding one for whom the resurrection was not the foundation for his or her vision of the world and of the Christian life.

Something has changed, and pride of place in restoring a central place for the resurrection in Christian thought and self-understanding belongs to another iteration of the “Quest for the Historical Jesus”: the so-called third quest (1980s to present), in its most theological form.

N. T. Wright deserves particular praise, primarily with his Resurrection of the Son of God (SPCK, 2003). Biblical theology is at the forefront of what we can expect to be a wider return to the resurrection in theology. Doctrinal theology lags behind: the resurrection is still under-represented and "under-played", relative to what we would expect from the prevailing tenor today.

Consider, for instance, the rise of “post-liberal” theology in the English-speaking world: a trend that is variously patristic, Thomist, and post-Barthian, and represented, in different forms, by Rowan Williams, John Milbank, or Stanley Hauerwas. Parallel to earlier in the 20th century (with Barth, for example), this represents a general return of confidence in Christian orthodoxy expressed, for instance, in a new conviction about the doctrine of the Trinity but this has not brought a proportional return of attention to the resurrection.

Certainly, we are no longer in the critical atmosphere of the 19th century, or even of the 1960s; but consult Milbank’s nearest thing to a contribution to systematic theology, his brilliant volume Being Reconciled (Routledge, 2003), and we find that, while the resurrection is strongly affirmed when it is mentioned, it is not mentioned that often.


AT LEAST from an Anglican perspective, the resurrection does not feature in contemporary doctrinal writing as the central source of illumination, as it does, for instance, in the Orthodox East. Indeed, the resurrection does not even feature as prominently, or as “gloriously”, in contemporary doctrine as it does, increasingly, in Anglican popular piety.

A principal reason is the significance that tragedy played, as a category, within resurgent Anglican orthodoxy in the latter decades of the 20th century. The foremost advocate was Donald MacKinnon, who could describe the resurrection as “the ultimate source of that peculiar tension between optimism and pessimism” (note: pessimism) that he judged to be “characteristic of Christianity” (Borderlands of Theology and Other Essays). Yes, Christ was risen, but he has risen as wounded, as "elusive and restricted", and (quoting Pascal and concluding his essay) he is "in agony unto the end of the world".

For a current worked example of this, consider the new altar in the Resurrection Chapel in the College of the Resurrection, Mirfield. One side represents the entrance to the empty tomb. The other three, when complete, will bear reliefs by Nicholas Mynheer of the meal at Emmaus (the first panel was installed in 2012), the women at the tomb, and the miraculous draft of fish.

The subjects were chosen, explicitly, to represent what might be called “emotional ambiguity” around the resurrection, but which could shade even further into that tragic “sadness of the resurrection” approach.

The former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams was clearly influenced by this tradition of interpreting the resurrection with an eye to tragedy when he wrote that it makes God present "in all suffering, at the heart of suffering and even in death" (Open to Judgement, DLT, 1994).

Here, and in later writing, the emptiness of the tomb is his central image. The tomb is empty because Jesus has been “freed” to be “with us”. That freedom, however, is more prominently the freedom to be with us in pain than it is freedom from the pains of death, and exhalation to reign in glory.

How theologians approach history is central. For Lord Williams, the emptiness of the tomb is an event in history. It must therefore remain both historical and empty. Too much historical reconstruction, in what he calls an “apologetic” vein, has us filling the emptiness, but neither will it do for us to entertain “a theologically dictated indifference to history” (On Christian Theology, Blackwell, 2000), where Lord Williams names Bultmann, although Barth would equally stand.


THE place of the resurrection in the twists and turns of theology over the past century-and-a-half is an ambivalent one, at least among Anglican and Protestant writers. Roman Catholic theology may have retained a stronger commitment to the physical resurrection and its significance in theology, but neither were RCs entirely isolated from those doctrinal and cultural influences. Hans Urs von Balthasar's Mysterium Paschale (English translation, T&T Clark, 1990), for instance, proceeds with greater gusto in discussing Holy Saturday than it does in discussing Easter Day

From the century before, 20th-century theologians had inherited theological doubts about the centrality of the resurrection within theology, and historical doubts about the resurrection as an event in space and time. The early-mid-century resurgence of orthodoxy, for instance in Barth, failed to place the resurrection centre stage in mainstream academic theology.

The same can be said of another turn to orthodoxy, at the end of the century and into our own, which we can put down to an attachment to a tragic vision as the proper sign of moral seriousness. Meanwhile, a new generation of scholars on the boundaries of biblical studies, doctrine, and history have begun to exorcise those twin doubts, theological and historical.

They have reasserted that the resurrection is the cornerstone of the faith, and they have questioned whether the canons of historical scholarship can foreclose the question whether it happened. All the same, we wait for systematic theologians to take up that conviction with the vigour that it deserves

Where else, then, can we look? Pre-eminently, the liturgy guards the faith, witnessing to the resurrection, week by week. The eucharist presents us with the Easter feast of the risen Christ, although that is not taught as often as it might be. Sunday is our day for communal worship because it is the day of resurrection - the eighth day, the first day of the new creation  which is taught even less often.

Neither should we underestimate the power of the Easter vigil to express the paschal mystery, nor underestimate the significance for the Church of England that this most remarkable of all observances is becoming the central liturgical event of the year for more and more members of the Church.

Doctrinal theology has a part to play  a part here that it has not quite managed to fulfil  but it is a secondary one. Theology might take up the resurrection into thought, but it is an event to which the liturgy bears the best witness: the liturgy, and the effects of the resurrection, displayed in lives restored to life.


The Revd Dr Andrew Davison is the Starbridge Lecturer in Theology and Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge.

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