There was some brouhaha last week when it was announced that Dr John Shepherd, retired Dean of St. George’s Cathedral, Perth, Western Australia, was appointed interim director of the Anglican Centre in Rome. The role includes being the Envoy of the Archbishop of Canterbury to the See of Rome, but it was pointed out that Dr Shepherd is on record as urging Christians to move beyond belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, in order to see it as a spiritual reality.
The Resurrection of Jesus ought not to be seen in physical terms, but as a new spiritual reality. It is important for Christians to be set free from the idea that the Resurrection was an extraordinary physical event which restored to life Jesus’ original earthly body…
Jesus’ early followers felt His presence after His death as strongly as if it were a physical presence and incorporated this sense of a resurrection experience into their gospel accounts. But they’re not historical records as we understand them. They are symbolic images of the breaking through of the resurrection spirit into human lives…
Jesus lived … as a transformed spiritual reality.
(You can watch the actual video that was broadcast, and is still online, here). I don’t think that this was news to anyone who knew him in Australia; as far as I can tell, his views were well known, and (as has been pointed out) he was ‘in good standing’ in his diocese as an Anglican minister. (In fact, if you read carefully between the lines, it looks as though the Archbishop of Wales holds very similar views—at least that’s what the Daily Mail thinks.) After some protests, Dr Shepherd issued a further statement:
It is my faith that Jesus rose from the dead, and I have never denied the reality of the empty tomb. The risen Christ was not a ghost — he ate and could be touched — but at the same time he appeared in a locked room (John 20.26), and vanished from sight (Luke 24.31), and he was often not immediately recognised.
I don’t really know how to read that, since his earlier statement does appear to ‘deny the reality of the empty tomb’, and he does not renounce his earlier statement. We do all need to bear in mind that the Anglican Centre in Rome was in a difficult position: the previous director, Archbishop Bernard Ntahoturi, stepped down very suddenly after an allegation of sexual misconduct, and an experienced ‘safe pair of hands’ was needed whilst a new permanent director was found.
For critics, a primary question is how someone can represent the Archbishop of Canterbury to Rome if they do not hold to what is set out in formularies of the Church of England, and in particular the 39 Articles of Religion.
IV. OF THE RESURRECTION OF CHRIST
CHRIST did truly rise again from death, and took again his body, with flesh, bones, and all things appertaining to the perfection of Man’s nature; wherewith he ascended into Heaven, and there sitteth, until he return to judge all Men at the last day.
What I found interesting about Dr Shepherd’s remarks was that they too me back to my theology degree, and the module on historical theology which explored the rise of Liberal Protestantism in the 18th and 19th centuries, when a desire to make the Christian faith accessible to the intelligentsia of the day demanded that we strip the New Testament of its miraculous claims and (eventually) focus on its existential or ‘spiritual’ claims without demanding that readers take the supernatural claims of the gospel accounts ‘literally’. Although Dr Shepherd’s comments might look like they are attending to the literary forms of the gospels, I think the only way to make sense of them is to locate them within this kind of philosophical outlook.
A couple of years ago, Andrew Davison did an excellent job of tracing these kinds of moves in his summary article on the theological debates around the resurrection.
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.
Davison goes on briefly to reject this kind of separation between fact and meaning, or rather between the bodily and the spiritual understanding of resurrection.
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.
It is striking that this kind of debate is nothing new in academic theology—but neither is it new in debates within the Anglican Communion. In 1998, the ‘radical’ John Spong, then Bishop of Newark in New Hampshire, issued a call for a ‘new Reformation’ in Christian belief, away from traditional theism. This new faith was in fact rather old, reaching back to Schleiermacher and Strauss, and rejecting the notion of the miraculous within the physical world. A certain Bishop of Monmouth, one Rowan Williams, found his proposals both unpersuasive and uninteresting.
Bishop Spong describes the resurrection as an act of God. I am not clear how an immanent deity such as I think he believes in is supposed to act; but if such a God does act, I don’t see why it should be easier for God to act in people’s mind than their bodies. ‘Jesus was raised into the meaning of God’; yes, but meanings are constructed by material, historical beings, with cerebral cortices and larynxes. How does God (or ‘God’) make a difference to what people mean?
Spong clearly has no time for the empty-tomb tradition; so it is no surprise that he also dismisses the virginal conception (though why on earth this makes Jesus’s divinity ‘impossible’ I fail to understand). I am aware that there are critical historical grounds for questioning both narrative clusters and I don’t want to dismiss them. But I am very wary of setting aside the stories on the ground of a broad-brush denial of the miraculous.
For the record: I have never quite managed to see how we can make sense of the sacramental life of the Church without a theology of the risen body; and I have never managed to see how to put together such a theology without belief in the empty tomb. If a corpse clearly marked ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ turned up, I should save myself a lot of trouble and become a Quaker. (Church Times, 17th July 1998)
My friend Frederik Mulder gives a brief overview of both the historical debate and the way it has cropped up amongst Anglican leaders in his short YouTube video here. (See also Martin Davie’s critique of Shepherd’s view, linking non-bodily views of the resurrection to changes in sexual ethics.) It is clear that some hold strongly to the theological views Dr Shepherd espouses, which dominated the academic world in the 1960s. Canon Anthony Phillips was the chaplain at my college in Oxford when I was an undergraduate, and was consistently antagonistic towards evangelicals; he responded to Andrew Davison’s observation of the current situation with lament:
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.
But Davison sees the current prevailing mood, expressed in the recent writing of Rowan Williams, much more positively.
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 best exposition of all this is, of course, Tom Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God, in which he not only locates NT understandings of resurrection in the contrasting context of Greco-Roman ideas about the afterlife, but also tackles the problems of ‘radical’ liberal understandings rooted in Liberal Protestantism. (This earlier writing has, I think, been more influential and less contested than his later, longer writings on Paul.) And he is always able to connect this with pastoral reality and personal hope, as this video from some years ago illustrates.
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