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The resurrection in current theology: responses to Dr Davison

02 May 2014


From Dr Henk Carpentier Alting
Sir, - The Revd Dr Andrew Davison's article "What's the latest on the resurrection?" (Features, 17 April) gives a good account of the "place of the resurrection in the twist and turns of theology". Unfortunately, it remains unclear what that place is, particularly what we are to make of "the facts", as in what happened.

Perhaps the philosophical concept of "grammar" can help. Grammar shows the sense of a term such as "the facts" by its use within a context. Consider the example of Thomas' being invited to touch Jesus' wounds (John 20.19-31).

Let's take it that at a particular time Jesus stood in a particular place in the room and invited Thomas to touch the wounds. A magistrate might seek to establish the facts regarding what happened by well-established methods, such as questioning eyewitnesses. Now, suppose a magistrate did not believe Jesus was in the room; Jesus had, after all, been crucified. The disciples would, no doubt, have testified that Jesus was indeed in the room. Those were the facts even if the magistrate did not believe it; we would say that the magistrate's belief was false and the testimony of the disciples was true.

Ways of speaking are woven into what we do (Thomas touched Jesus's wounds), where much of this is a familiar grammar that we would also use. Hence it makes sense to say that Jesus was in fact in the room among his disciples. Yet the text shows that this familiar fact grammar does not fully make sense.

For example, if Jesus was in the room, then a fact grammar allows the question "How did Jesus enter the room?" Presumably it was through the door. Yet the text says the doors were locked; so perhaps Jesus got in through a window or hid himself in the room earlier. Yet the "how" question seems ruled out, as we are simply told that Jesus "came and stood among them" while the doors were locked. The absurdity of not just anybody, but Jesus, who was in fact crucified, dead, and buried, subsequently crawling through a window shows that this grammar goes only so far in making sense.

We therefore start to see a related but somewhat different grammar. Let's call this the grammar of the glorified body, which does not consider how Jesus entered the room: it is enough that "he came and stood amongst them." This does not mean that Jesus "walked through the walls": such an absurdity falls back on a familiar fact grammar that no longer makes sense on its own. While the facts remain, the context shows the facts in a different light: the glorified body of Christ!

These grammars are not isolated linguistic domains, and we should not draw a sharp boundary between them. Nevertheless, there are grammatical differences: when the facts no longer make sense, sense is restored by the grammar of the glorified body. Equally, if the facts are downplayed, for example, by supposing that it does not matter what happened in that room, then the glorified body is also obscured. After all, the sense of the glorified body comes partly from Thomas's touching the wounds.

These two grammars still leave us with an implausibly strange body, however. So we read that Thomas falls to his knees in worship: "My Lord and my God." Thomas's confession is again intimately connected to the grammars of the glorified body and of the facts, in that the presence of Jesus elicits Thomas's confession, which makes sense of the glorified body.

Yet even that doesn't exhaust the context. Thomas's confession does not come from nowhere, but from his experience of Jesus's life and ministry within the religion of Israel.

We can now reflect on different aspects of the resurrection. The facts remind us that God took upon himself the dust of the ground, a true humanity that was part of his good but fallen creation. We reflect on the glorified body and the new creation when Christ "will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body" (Philippians 3.21). Thomas's confession invites us to give thanks and worship.

The facts do not stand on their own as brute facts outside a context, but are woven into the wider Christian context. To remove or downplay what happened will tear that context apart. And so, from within the Christian faith, the facts speak to us about that certain resurrection hope that embraces the whole of our humanity, including our material bodies.

30 Buckingham Road West
Heaton Moor
Stockport SK4 4BA

From the Revd Benedict Crowther-Alwyn
Sir, - The Revd Dr Andrew Davision, in his article "What's the latest on the resurrection?", misrepresents Karl Barth on both the resurrection and the Church. He quotes from Barth's earlier work Commentary on Romans, as opposed to the more mature Church Dogmatics. Indeed, speaking without script in the semi-ruins of Bonn University in 1946, Barth says: "We must not transmute the resurrection into a spiritual event. We must listen to it and let it tell us the story how there was an empty grave, that new life beyond death did become visible" (Dogmatics in Outline).

Thomas F. Torrance, writing Barth's obituary in the Scottish Journal of Theology, said: "The central issue here, as Barth told me only a few weeks ago, is the resurrection of Jesus Christ in body. If Jesus Christ is risen only in spirit - whatever that means - then he is, so to speak, only a ghost with no relevance to men and women of flesh and blood in history."

Barth did not believe that we could establish the truths of the gospel by historical research. They were open only to the obedience of faith. By faith, however, we believe in something that actually happened. Pope Benedict XVI in his book on the infancy narratives writes approvingly: "Karl Barth pointed out that there are two moments in the story of Jesus when God intervenes directly in the material world: the virgin birth and the resurrection from the tomb."

With regard to Barth's doctine of the Church: he left off his earlier Christian Dogmatics in order to begin Church Dogmatics precisely because of the importance of the community of faith. Torrance writes in his obituary piece: "The power of Barth's thought in this field can be measured by the enormous impact he has made upon the Roman Catholic Church."

St Giles Rectory, Church Street
Matlock DE4 3BZ

From the Revd Dr John Bunyan
Sir, - The "latest on the resurrection", about which the Revd Dr Andrew Davison writes, is not necessarily the truest, although it may reflect our more conservative era.

Christian scholars (and Jewish, such as Pinchas Lapide) continue to hold a diversity of views with regard to the resurrection: witness, for example, the essays in honour of Leslie Houlden in the book Resurrection, edited by Stephen Barton and Graham Stanton (SPCK, 1995). One view included there, that of Michael Goulder, following his earlier fascinating suggestion about how St Mark's Easter account developed (Theology, 1976), may not convince, but all of the contributors and other scholars also still deserve serious attention.

But, as for a "physical" resurrection, modern scientific study of the nature of our bodies, as set out notably in an authoritative way by David Suzuki in The Sacred Balance, makes it difficult, I think, to understand what on earth this could mean, and makes its presentation as the truth of Easter for many a hindrance rather than a help for the Christian cause.

Colenso Corner, PO Box N109
Campbelltown North, NSW 2560, Australia

From Canon Anthony Phillips
Sir, - Am I alone in feeling utterly depressed by the comment in the Revd Dr Andrew Davison's article "What's the latest on the resurrection?" when, speaking of his work with the Cambridge Theological Federation, he notes: "I would have difficulty in finding a single ordinand who would not subscribe to the physical resurrection of Christ"? Another reason for lamenting the passing of the 1960s.

10 St Peter's Hill, Flushing
Falmouth TR11 5TP

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