Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Clearly we need clarity

In the post below I note a controversy over the appointment of a high-ranking Oz clergyman to the position of Interim Director of the Anglican Centre in Rome - a controversy arising because of remarks made about 10 years ago about the resurrection. The social media campaign about this led to some mainstream media news articles and that, almost inevitably, led to a refutation - what I do believe - by Dr Shepherd of the conjectures being aired about what he does not believe.

Here I am not particularly concerned with Dr Shepherd's views on the resurrection nor of those of his critics. But I am keen to reflect a little out loud on what we think we are doing as Christian pundits when we use the word "clear" (or clearly, clarity).

I tweeted a little about the controversy and in one tweet back this was tweeted:

"So give us clarity. Is it acceptable for a man that clearly denies the Resurrection to hold such a position of senior leadership?"

Irrespective of whether Shepherd himself "clearly" denied or affirmed any aspect of the Resurrection, the word "clearly" raises questions when we discuss theology in relation to Scripture.

I presume, for instance, that in 1611, if I were reading the Bible in contemporary English for the first time as a young man, I could exclaim, "The Bible clearly teaches that God made the world and everything in it in six (twenty-four hour) days" and, presumably, the only people to deny my confident "clearly" would be those who read Genesis 2 as well as Genesis 1 and engaged me in a discussion about time and creation within the biblical narrative itself.

But in 2019, post-Darwin etc, it is not so clear what what the Bible means by Genesis 1's six days of creation. Is the best we can do, the clearest we can be, to say, "Clearly the Bible is truthful and the descriptive language used in Genesis 1 must now, clearly, be understood in a way which corresponds to the complex, long duration of the world as we know it coming into being"?

That is, between 1611 and 2019, "clearly" on an aspect of creation has been forced to give way to a new, revised statement on what the Bible means. We need to take words such as "clearly" carefully when we talk Bible and theology, but we do not need to do away with them. Science makes no clear claim as to whether God created the world or not and the Bible in 2019 as well as 1611 makes a very clear claim that God created the world.

What is clear about the resurrection of Jesus?

I think we can make some incontrovertibly clear statements about the resurrection. For instance,

- Believing that Jesus had been raised from the dead made all the difference in the world to the first Christians.

- Appearances of the risen Jesus, as evidenced by 1 Corinthians 15, were widespread among the community of followers of Jesus.

- The four canonical gospels attest that the tomb of Jesus was emptied of his corpse.

- The witness of some accounts of appearances of the risen Jesus is that the risen Jesus engaged in physical acts such as speaking, eating and drinking.

- Combining the teaching of Jesus and the teaching of Paul, the New Testament attests to "the" resurrection of the dead being a transformation into a form of being beyond our imagining (e.g. a form of being that will not lead to marriage; a form of being with as much or as little resemblance to our earthly bodies as a plant has to the seed from which it germinates).

- The words "physical", "spiritual" and other words such as "transphysicality", when used to discuss the form of body of the risen Jesus encountered by his followers and described in the gospel and 1 Corinthian 15 accounts, require careful elucidation and explanation if controversy and/or confusion is to be avoided.

- When, according to Scriptural accounts, people were raised from the dead (such as Lazarus, the son of the widow of Nain) readers are not intended to presume they will not subsequently, eventually, die in the usual human way, thus such resurrections are resuscitations and not examples of "the" resurrection from the dead.

Readers will have noted that what I don't propose as "incontrovertibly clear" are statements such as:

- The tomb of Jesus was empty from the third day and that proves that Jesus rose from the dead.

- The four gospel accounts of the events associated with the resurrection of Jesus (i.e. the discovery of the empty tomb, the appearances of Jesus) and the account given in 1 Corinthians 15 are easily harmonised into one seamless account.

- Considered together, the four gospels accounts of the events associated with the resurrection of Jesus and the account given in 1 Corinthians 15 should be read as reliable, consistent, trouble free, objective historical descriptions of a public event.

- All Christians agree that "physical resurrection" is the best descriptive phrase for what happened to Jesus on the third day after his crucifixion.

Now, I believe that we can be "clear" about a number of matters concerning the resurrection of Jesus. For instance, referring you back to the post below and my citation there from Robert Jenson, I am very clear that the tomb was emptied of Jesus' corpse on the third day after his crucifixion. My clarity flows out of both the scriptural accounts and other considerations such as Jenson brings to bear on the matter - considerations, for instance, that it is more likely the tomb was empty than not, given the lack of history of veneration of the corpse of Jesus at the tomb of Jesus. But I acknowledge that I cannot be incontrovertibly clear about this. It is always possible - as the Gospel of Matthew acknowledges, in its final chapter, that the empty tomb might be because of skulduggery with the corpse being removed from the tomb.

I also recognise that unclear statements and words or phrases within statements do not help us in discussion of the resurrection. The Shepherd controversy highlights that words such as "physical" and "spiritual" need explaining ... Jenson highlights that "body" needs elucidation ... Paul himself in 1 Corinthians 15, within another resurrection controversy, takes great care and trouble to work through what our resurrection bodies will be like.

We need clarity when talking about any great matter of doctrinal importance. Clearly this is so!


Jonathan said...

The thread of skepticism (Acts 28:17; Acts 12:9 and 19...) of early believers helps my own sense of clarity which exists in my own versions of skepticism; I attempt to take my skepticism with a grain of skepticism...

Peter Carrell said...

The following comment has been received from a friend, Wayne. (Wayne, please see note below).


Dear Peter, Thanks for your blog.
As I have gotten a little older it is clear that things I know about are not so clear. Various participants in the respectful conversations in the Anglican Church over the past couple of years have challenged me and others over how I feel about the Bible. It has taken a while but I am more confident, I can accept the Bible as the Word of God.
But there are still many things in the Bible that I am not certain about, apart from the various Genesis stories. I still struggle with the concept of a Just War. I am absolutely sure that women and men should be able to share in all aspects of the leadership of our church. I feel divorced persons, men and women, having made a difficult mistake should be able to ask for, and gain God’s forgiveness, and perhaps remarry, should they wish. I think financial interest is OK, and disease is not caused by being a sinner (generally).
It seems that in spite of my love for God and God’s love for me through our lord Jesus Christ, I still have to live with uncertainty, every day, and maybe that is not so bad. The world around us is far too complex for us to be completely free of uncertainty all the time, and so through his Holy word, God is teaching me how to live and deal with uncertainty, and to seek answers when the time is right.
Through our local home group, I have the opportunity to discuss these things, and just occasionally one of my many uncertainties is clarified.
In spite of this I am becoming increasingly confident I can live with my many uncertainties and deal with them, with God’s help, when the time is right.

Hi Wayne, The only way I can publish yr comment with your request not to have full name published is to copy and paste into a comment submitted by me. Future comments submitted by "Wayne" will be fine.

Jonathan said...

Appreciated your comments Wayne. When writing my own comment I am unsure how to explain the distortion of my glasses which turned the intended Matthew 28: 17 into Acts 28:17! I shall have to conduct an enquiry.

Anonymous said...

Only Jews can understand the Bible. After all, Jews wrote every word of it.

That is, Gentiles who have understood the Bible have done so as what Pius XII called "spiritual Jews." They were Christians, and something in their Christianity was a bridge that they could cross from their own mindset into the Judaic worldview of the authors and back again. And when scholars of the Bible produce knowledge about it that helps understanding, it has usually been reconstruction of that Judaic mind that assists those whose Christianity has not been so helpful to them. Read John Walton on Genesis, and N. T. Wright on the Resurrection.

Conversely, Gentiles who have misunderstood the Bible in big ways have done that by reading something pagan, barbarian, modern, or even Hindu into the text where writers steeped in the mind of ancient Israel were engaging reality in another way. When these Gentiles have been Christians, we can usually find the fault in their doctrinal bridge that let them fall into the river. After the structure has been repaired and the hole in the road patched (eg Luther's Heidelberg Disputation), one might not love the new sound bridge as much as the old faulty one-- human nature can be tragically perverse-- but it will much more reliably get an honest pilgrim across the river and back again. Those interested in contemporary bridge repair may enjoy Peter Ochs's fine study Another Reformation: Postliberal Christianity and the Jews, which has among other fine chapters one on the exegetical work of Robert Jenson.

Now, dear reader, the lines above may already have perplexed you with this dilemma--

(a) "If they are not true, then I ought by now to have heard in church a very extensive theory of how a Judaic text can make sense without its Judaic cultural matrix, but I haven't. What I have heard is an inconsistent zigzag between cheery use of isolated facts to illumine isolated texts and berating of Pharisees that suspiciously implies that that Jesus the Messiah was a Gentile like us rather than a Jew like them."

(b) "If they are true, then I ought by now to have heard in church some explanations of Genesis and the Resurrection that allude to what they meant to the apostles, who were of course Jews, but I haven't heard that either. What I have heard are either attempts to explain these things in some non-Judaic way, or else snarky or bull-headed reactions against the attempts made by others."

While I hate to leave you on the horns of this dilemma, this is my morning for a busy day, and I cannot say more now. But you may wish to consider whether some in your hearing believe that the bridge must be holey to be holy, for as the old Jews knew and the new ones learned again, human nature can be tragically perverse.


John Sandeman said...

as one of those who researched John Shepherd's writing can I point readers towards them - and suggest readers can make up their own mind about Shepherd's beliefs.

Anonymous said...

No, John, your article is interesting-- I wish that there were more of it-- but Elizabeth I would not have reckoned it a soul-window. Patterns in expression do point to a rhetorical tradition, as when you note that Shepherd's earlier comments on Jesus's resurrection sound liberal themes. This sort of pattern must be what you expect Peter's readers to see for themselves if they follow the link, and if so your expectation is sound. But preaching-- the writing you quote sounds homiletical in intent-- is not soul-baring.

From the fact that a preacher says evangelical-sounding things about Jesus's resurrection, we cannot infer that he orients his inner life to it as the apostles did. And although such a gap between life and apostolicity could result from immaturity, hypocrisy or self-deception, the most pervasive causes of one are faithful desires to teach what seems authoritative until one believes it oneself (eg John Wesley) and to present what seems helpful to one's hearers until they are ready for deeper truth (eg St Paul). Good teaching is more about the students than the teacher.

Exactly the same can be true of a preacher saying liberal-sounding things about Jesus's resurrection. And, as + Mark Lawrence (ACNA, South Carolina) has pointed out, the calling of liberal churchmanship is to carry the gospel to the world in the world's own terms. Of course, the fickle world received Him not, and we may doubt that its own terms are even half as good as earthen vessels. But what matters here is that when all that we can hear of a preacher is his inevitably risky attempts to appropriate culture for Christ, his self is that much more obscure to its would be inspectors. Peter is right: the world's foremost expert on the theology of John Shepherd is John Shepherd.

Nobody expects the Anglican Inquisition. And I admit that from here up yonder I do not quite see the point of the blogospheric protest down under. I can only guess that from the history of past protests. Is it payback for some past provocation in Oz? Is it to demand that only an evangelical can have the plum job in Rome? Is it to protect the papal curia from the influence of an Anglican liberal? Is it a scheme to reserve Roman exile for someone even more suspect? Surely it is none of these. Not having the temperament of a happy warrior, I assume that, in light of another side of this story, the protest must have some constructive purpose. But I cannot imagine what that could be.


Peter Carrell said...

Dear Ron
I am not going to publish a comment which is devoted to criticism of a named person.
This rejection is not concerned with the question whether the criticism is justified or not.
It is simply unhelpful to publish focused criticism on a named individual.

Jean said...

I have my doubts Bowman that the protest has some constructive purpose. It seems all too familiar with similar societal trends. I think of the recent controversy of a certain husband of the Queen who recently crashed his car. This week there was a news reel played on our TV dating back to the 1960’s when he last crashed his car almost as ‘evidence’ that he was indeed and always has been a dangerous driver. Unfortunately it is all too easy to dig for dirt and find something to support ones own opinion in vilifying another. I would perceive the appropriate people to determine Mr Shepherd’s theological standing and leadership integrity would be those who know him, his former congregations and fellow ministers and overseers. Certainly, all written discourse is open for debate but this public exhibition is not a debate on content it is a defilement of character by people too distant from the individual to make such claims. I can only imagine the ‘dirt’ people could dig up about me if they looked hard enough.

In past content, Shepherd appears by his writing to hold a take on resurrection similar to what was in the EFM course material when I did the course although I am wired to literally to have owned such a way of thinking as my own - it isn’t on the same trajectory with what is commonly termed today’s loaded word of being liberal. There are schools of thought even within Christianity. A fellow believer at my former Church held to the belief of the spiritual gifts ceasing with the era of the disciples. The mentor who bought him to Christ in his young adult years held this belief. Many years later his thinking on this has done a 360 degree turn, however, this does not mean he was not used of God in the meantime merely that now his faith has grown even deeper.

So as our wise preacher preached to day centering on Jesus what would He make of this all. I think perhaps he would encourage discourse with the person if you are in a position to do so and prayer. However, to add to this I think he may also say especially to those so removed,what concern is it of yours he is my servant, you concentrate on following me.

Let’s (the Church) not follow the crowd in creating an atmosphere of fear where people are so scared about what they voice in regards to their belief or an opinion should they be hung, drawn and quartered at some date by social media speculation about what they meant, and modern day vilification by people they have never met. Darkness cannot drive out darkness only light can do that.

Father Ron Smith said...

"Here, we see through a glass, darkly. Then/there we shall see Him, face to face"

We're talking of mystery here when we speak of the Resurrection Body of Jesus.

I'm taking a funeral service here today. Do I speak of their resurrection body? Or of their hope of a resurrection of the spirit/soul? My option is for the latter. ("Ashes to ashes").
I do not want to 'go up' with a bald head and gout!

Anonymous said...

Dear Bowman

To this post, you comment, "Only Jews can understand the Bible. After all, Jews wrote every word of it."

To the previous post, you commented:

"A Judaic cosmology, which was not that of pagans, medievals, or moderns, informed the scriptural narratives of the resurrection among other things. If you can see the world in that Judaic way, the resurrection is startling, not because it does not make sense, but precisely because it does."

I think it would be most helpful if you unpacked these statements - or at least pointed us to online resource(s) that unpacked what you mean by

a Judaic cosmology (etc) that helps us to "make sense" of the resurrection...

Thanks in anticipation,



Anonymous said...

Hi Bosco,

N.T. Wright's magisterial book The Resurrection of the Son of God explains "a Judaic cosmology (etc) that helps us to "make sense" of the resurrection." Online, it is accessible here--



Anonymous said...

Postscript. I am never sure which themes of the broad post-Holocaust turn in the study of Christian origins have been noticed and absorbed Down Under. And although I often like what Bosco writes, I cannot place his rather apophatic POV in relation to them. Thus, in reply to his welcome question, it is hard for me to do more than point to an obvious but huge book in a multivolume set because that covers all of the bases from which a reader might possibly start. Of course, better situated questions enable better situated answers.

Even Anglicans who know Hooker better than most now do tend to underestimate how indebted to late medieval scholasticism the proto-Anglican reformed theology was. Since that was the base of all the C19-20 options usual among Anglicans, no matter which of these one prefers, it is hard to retrofit the theology of the early M1 into it without some interrogation of its basic categories. (Imagine being Peter, both an evangelical and a neutestamentler, reading Henri de Lubac last summer.) Relatively early in life, however, I was blessed to be able to think my own faith forward from those origins rather than backward from one or another modernist option. And I did so in a now lost climate of optimism about the prospects for evangelical, ecumenical, and even inter-faith engagement on the basis of common sources and hermeneutics. All of this has lightened the work of making sense of the post-Holocaust turn to which I from time to time refer, but has also made my own POV as hard for many to place as Bosco's.

I say all this, not at all to discourage further dialogue, but to give some indication of what a commitment to seeing that through might look like. My thanks to Bosco himself and indeed to anyone who has been paying attention to Peter's OP on the resurrection of Jesus and its thread.


Anonymous said...

Welcome back, Jean! I've missed your comments.

Of course I trust your take on a local quarrel; from afar, I can only describe the way it looks. Sometimes a survey of how the forest stretches from the riverbank upslope to the treeline of the ridge is interesting; sometimes only the path through the trees matters.


Anonymous said...

"...for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God."

-- St James 1:20

Jean, my first comment on your fine reply to me is missing, but as you have gotten to the heart of a deep matter there was more to be said anyway.

On one hand, I do not know Shepherd. We should recognise the Holy Spirit's work in forming and revising our thought about the resurrection of Jesus. That was his early experience of the general resurrection that awaits all, which is an aspect of the renewal of heaven and earth in an aeon to come. Any notion that our minds in this aeon can form about things of that one are inadequate to their full reality. The Creator showed the apostles what he will do next with his creation, and that a billion of us have even a weak sense of that is part of his doing it.

On the other hand, I do not know Sandeman et al either. Persons debate the appointment of an individual to an office to exercise power or influence. That exercise is the stuff of which civil politics is made, of course, but I think we wonder whether and when any given practice of Caesar's realm is proper to attempt in Christ's. Yes, there can be relations of power and influence in the Body because there is mutual submission there, but no, these cannot lack the love that enables a soul to be among us in the first place. If happy warriors are to belong to the Body someday, they need the metanoia from God that restores and enlarges the empathy for absolutely all others without which none of us can be part of the miracle mentioned just above. And this is what all who are really united to Christ are daily seeking anyway.

But your comment brought a delicious paradox to my mind. In describing the lifeless, loveless unregenerate quibbling of happy warriors, you reminded me of everyday life in Caesar's realm. As a believer, I cannot condone judgment warped by any partiality in the Church that signifies to the aeon to come, but of course collisions of partialities is just what I expect to see in the State that rules the beloved but loveless aeon that is passing away.

So then why is it that the television series that has most touched the religious sense of people is, of all things, Aaron Sorkin's West Wing? No matter what say the surveys of religious belief or the membership statistics of churches, it is a fact of our recent past that this depiction of a flawed but admirable-- and always fighting-- believer was completely plausible to an international audience of millions that was then fascinated by New Atheists--

Does television have any happier warrior than Josiah Bartlet? Why then is he more plausible as a Christian than the sweeter characters from say, Rev or the churchlier ones from The Young Pope? Yes, conflict tells stories and the heart thinks in stories, but how have these stories lead audiences to see his authenticity as particularly Christian? And how does a good answer to that question square with the words of St James?

What your comment actually does, at least in my mind, is to raise the question what good all the fighting we see in churches and here at ADU actually does. We all assume that we are doing something worthwhile when we argue what we do. Yet through all these years of Anglican controversy there has been oddly little comment on what that might be. Thank you for a very interesting problem.

Postscript-- The long nave shown, by the way, is the Cathedral Church of SS Peter and Paul atop Mount Saint Alban, Washington, aka The National Cathedral. It is the cathedral of the Diocese of Washington, TEC.

The short nave is Saint Alban's Church, also on Mount Saint Alban, Washington.