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!