Thursday, April 25, 2013

Dean of VTS: Talk of Episcopal Church Decline "Is All Untrue"

Back on February 1, 2013 at the annual diocesan convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Delaware, the Very Rev. Ian Markham (dean of Virginia Theological Seminary) delivered an address entitled, "The Myth of the Decline of the Episcopal Church."  Here's how he kicked it off:

I'm sure you've all sat and read endless stories - endless stories - over and over again, about the fact that we're part of the mainline and the mainline is getting smaller.  How many people have heard those stories, can you please put your hands up?  That's it, absolutely everybody.  Well I'm here to tell you tonight that it's all untrue. 

Watch it all:

You can also watch Part Two of Dean Markham's address.

Significantly, Dean Markham's claim that the talk about decline in the Episcopal Church "is all untrue" flies in the face of the Episcopal Church's own statistics.  Check out, for instance, the Episcopal Domestic Fast Facts Trends: 2007-2011.  

There's also the sobering data included in the report from the House of Deputies Committee on the State of the Church submitted to General Convention in 2009.  

And then there's the data from Dr. C. Kirk Hadaway and Dr. Matthew J. Price's January 27, 2012 briefing to the Executive Council.  Here is one particularly revealing part of that report (italics and bold print added):

To get a broad-based sense of congregational vitality, we have used a number of measurements including church school enrollment, marriages, funerals, child baptisms, adult baptisms, and confirmations. These speak to a parish's integration in the community and the possibility for future growth:

Change in church school enrollment: -33%
Change in number of marriages performed: -41%
Change in number of burials/funerals: -21%
Change in the number of child baptisms: -36%
Change in the number of adult baptisms: -40%
Change in the number of confirmations: -32%

While these numbers may not capture the totality of what is happening in the Church, we do not have a measure that is moving in a positive direction.

Fortunately, the Dean of VTS is there to reassure us that this is all untrue.  And while he's at it, he charges those who talk about Episcopal Church decline with peddling "a narrative of despair" because they "have a real problem with our tradition."

What is the deal with leadership in the Episcopal Church that they flat out deny - and in some cases with casually dismissive humor - the data repeatedly reported by the very Church they serve?!

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Tyler Blanski: "We Need a Holy Renaissance"

I recently received a copy of a most interesting book entitled When Donkeys Talk: A Quest to Rediscover the Mystery and Wonder of Christianity (Zondervan, 2013).  The author is Tyler Blanski, who is currently finishing his middler year at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.  

I note that the Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner, Professor of Historical Theology at Wycliff College at the University of Toronto, has this to say about the book:

"Deep, sometimes disturbing, always delightful, Blanski's journey into God's miraculous world leads to a moving encounter with the most astounding miracle of all, the Christ.  This is a compelling Pilgrim's Progress for today, uncovering divine truth in a way that will challenge modern readers, but also invite them into a landscape of powerful beauty they have secretly been longing to inhabit.  A book to savor and to share."

I've read about three quarters of Tyler's book and I can say that it is both fun and profound, with a playfully serious quality that reminds me very much of G. K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy.  I commend When Donkeys Talk to everyone who reads this posting.

The excerpt below gives a feel for what the book is all about. 

We need a holy renaissance. A revival without a renaissance makes only converts - yet to be "Christian" today does not always mean to be Christlike.  A renaissance, however, invites us to become disciples of Jesus, to become his lifelong students.  I'm just a house-painter from Minneapolis, but I believe the Holy Spirit is stirring a hunger in Christians today for spaces where they can become students - disciples - of Jesus Christ.  God's activity on earth, ever old and ever new, is a continuous stream of one salvation story after another, and we are invited to participate in these stories in an intimate way.  There actually is a great cloud of witnesses (Heb. 12:1).  There actually is "one universal and apostolic church."  And when we were baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we were reborn into this company of saints.

The word renaissance usually makes us think of the Renaissance, that revival of literature and art in the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries spurred by a renewed interest in the classical models of antiquity.  Names like Petrarch, Dante, Boccaccio, and the painter Giotto come to mind - not to mention Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo.  Music flourished.  Art exploded.  Literature reached new heights. It is a period that glows in history.  People looked to what was good and true from the past and lived it in the present tense.

We are on the cusp of another renaissance - a God renaissance, a holy renaissance - for a renaissance is what happens when new vision and vitality rush into old truths and traditions.  People see themselves as part of something bigger and beautiful.  They wake up.  Minds and hearts come alive.  History is changed.  We do not need to obsess over what is new or how to "reach the culture."  Renaissance don't happen that way.  Renaissances happen when people look back to what is good, true, and truly beautiful and they live it in the present tense, live it in their own unique way.

If you don't stir the pot, the soup burns.  Renaissances get everyone upset because they stir things up. And so people will either persecute Christians again or become Christians themselves, but they won't be able to yawn and disregard the church because it looks just like the rest of contemporary culture.  The church in renaissance strives to be what it is called to be: the light of Christ.  Jesus is a battering ram to what it means to be human.  Two-thousand-some odd years have not been long enough to fully grasp the implications of the incarnation and the repercussions of the resurrection.  The ramifications of what God set in motion on the cross change everything about our world and what it means to be human.  Even Balaam and his twitchy-eared donkey are woven into the fabric of Jesus' swaddling clothes.  The words of Christ "have in themselves something of dreadful majesty" [Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 8.2].  They change what it means to be human.  They are our judgment and hope. 

Our galaxy sings of the Lord with a mathematical elegance, an extraordinary subtlety and poetry.  It brings me to my knees.  It has sometimes even spurred me to dance little jigs in my kitchen, splashing coffee hither and yon.  I feel like a boy at the zoo, unashamedly pointing, staring stupidly, calling attention to the donkeys.  Throw in some sixteenth-century syntax, ersatz Olde English accents, and even a roasted turkey leg, and you get my crazy-ass theory: the theory that the world is resonate with God, that we can't escape him.  We actually live in a "kingdom" where the Lord is reigning.  

Moses approached the burning bush, the bush ablaze with God, and reverently took off his sandals.  For Saint Francis, the whole world was a burning bush ablaze with God, and so out of reverence he never wore sandals.  

We, too, should take off our shoes.    

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Bishop Jake Owensby: "God really raised Jesus from the dead"

After noting how other bishops and priests have recently deconstructed, denigrated, doubted, and denied the heart of the Christian faith, it is truly refreshing to see a bishop of the Episcopal Church resoundingly affirm that the resurrection of our Lord and Savior really happened.

The following article was written by the Rt. Rev. Jake Owensby. It comes from the April 2013 edition of Alive!, which is a publication of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Louisiana.

We have begun our celebration of the Great Fifty Days of Easter. Our Sunday readings will focus again and again on the resurrection. So, let’s consider together the Christian doctrine of the resurrection. 

Resurrection is more than resuscitation or revivification. A drowned person can be resuscitated. Medical procedures revive patients following a cardiac arrest. However, drowning victims and heart attack sufferers will one day die again. 

Resurrection is God’s response to human suffering, sickness, sorrow, and death. He gives us a new, embodied life. Not just a disembodied soul. 

The doctrine of the resurrection is thus not merely a quaint way of talking about the immortality of the soul. God grants us a new kind of life. After we pass through death God raises us mind, soul, and body. Our new bodies will no longer be susceptible to suffering, decay and death. Jesus is the forerunner of what God has in store for the creation as a whole. 

The resurrection of Jesus can be understood from the perspective of the past, the present, and the future. 

Let’s start with the past. The resurrection of Jesus Christ occurred at a point in human history. It is not an event whose reality is acknowledged by academic historians as a fact, but it is the definitive historical event for faithful Christians. 

We believe that God really raised Jesus from the dead even if the constraints of academic historiography prevent history professors from talking about God’s involvement in human life in professional journals and scholarly books. 

As members of the Christian community we have already accepted the validity and profundity of the witnesses who came before us. Those earliest witnesses experienced an empty tomb and they experienced the risen Lord himself. In the pages of Scripture they tell us that they have seen him, touched him, and even eaten with him. 

We can and do accept their testimony and base our lives on it. We take their word for it when the rules of academic evidence and publishing will not allow professional historians to do so. 

Think of it this way: I trust what my wife tells me about her family of origin, her school days, and her experiences in college. I trust what she tells me about how she spends her day. Her testimony does not rise to the level necessary for academic history. But I am confident of its truth because of my confidence in her. So too I trust the witness of the Christian community about the resurrection of Jesus precisely because of my confidence in who they are and whose they are. 

Next, let’s think about the resurrection from the perspective of the present. Jesus is risen. He is alive now, this moment. He is alive in a way that makes my life pale by comparison. 

I really encounter him on a regular basis. In the Blessed Sacrament. In the Scriptures. In the sisters and brothers of my parish family. In the poor and the marginalized. In the movements of the Holy Spirit in my own life. The risen Lord is at work guiding me and transforming me through the power of the Holy Spirit. The real power of the Christian life arises from our experience of Jesus himself in our daily lives. 

Finally, we turn to the future. As the Nicene Creed says, “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.” The resurrection – our resurrection – is on our horizon. We are promised a new life. A new kind of life. Eternal life. A life that has passed through sorrow, sickness, and death and will never undergo them again. 

Jesus is the first fruit of the new era awaiting the entire creation. The resurrection is the source of our hope. A life stirred and energized by hope can endure all things and can change the world. 

The joy of this Eastertide is amplified for me by the gift of serving as your Bishop. My whole family joins me in wishing you grace and peace in this glorious season. I pray for each and every one of you a growing experience of the risen Lord at the heart of your daily lives. 

The Rt. Rev. Jacob W. Owensby is the 4th bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Louisiana. He blogs at Pelican Anglican.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Hans Urs von Balthasar: "At the center of the New Testament there stands the cross"

Without a doubt, at the center of the New Testament there stands the Cross, which receives its interpretation from the Resurrection.

The Passion narratives are the first pieces of the Gospels that were composed as a unity. In his preaching at Corinth, Paul initially wants to know nothing but the Cross, which "destroys the wisdom of the wise and wrecks the understanding of those who understand," which "is a scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles." But "the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men" (1 Cor 1:19, 23, 25).

Whoever removes the Cross and its interpretation by the New Testament from the center, in order to replace it, for example, with the social commitment of Jesus to the oppressed as a new center, no longer stands in continuity with the apostolic faith.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Dean of the National Cathedral: "Jesus' resurrection is not a litmus test"

On the second Sunday of Easter, the Very Reverend Gary Hall, dean of Washington National Cathedral, preached a sermon in which he noted his own personal dislike of the series Downton Abbey and his aversion to "two entirely contradictory and unsatisfactory" approaches to preaching on the significance of "doubting Thomas" (one "traditionalist", the other "progressive")

Here's an excerpt from the heart of what Dean Hall says in his sermon:

Jesus's resurrection is not a litmus test of faith. It is an invitation into mystery. ...
For me, what Thomas makes the case for is God's invitation to trust our own experience of life and to ground our faith in it.  ...
God did not raise Jesus so that some people who think one way about it could use their certainty to browbeat others who think about it differently. God raised Jesus so that you and I and God’s world could give ourselves over to a new way of being with each other in the world. The way to a fulfilled and creative spiritual life is not to memorize by rote every doctrinal point in the catechism. The way to a fulfilled and creative spiritual life is to claim your true identity, as Thomas did, as someone to whom Jesus offers a relationship and a journey.
If the world is big enough to accommodate those who both love and despise Downton Abbey, the church is big enough to hold both traditionalists and progressives, the believers and the doubters. In his new risen life with the Father and with his companions, Jesus calls us to join him in a new, abundant way of living that will transform both us and the world. Only dictatorships insist on a unified narrative. One of the great strengths of our comprehensive, Anglican way of being Christian lies in our openness to multiple points of view.

There are numerous problems with this.  I'll highlight just a few.

To say that Jesus' resurrection is not a litmus test of faith but rather an invitation into mystery fails to adequately take into account the witness of Scripture and Tradition.  According to that witness, everything hinges on the reality of the resurrection.  Without the reality of Jesus' bodily resurrection from the dead (as opposed to alternative understandings that dismiss the fleshly resurrection of the dead), there's no such thing as Christian faith.  As noted in a previous posting on Bishop Budde's Easter agnosticism, the apostle Paul gets it right: "If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain" (1 Corinthians 15:13-14).  If the apostle Paul is right, then the resurrection is, indeed, the litmus test for authentic Christian faith.

Dean Hall goes on to say that the point of the story about Thomas in John 20:19-31 is to highlight "God's invitation to trust our own experience of life and to ground our faith in it" so that we can have "a creative and fulfilled spiritual life."  Trusting in "our own experience of life" as opposed to trusting in the objective reality of Jesus' bodily resurrection from the dead as the grounding of our faith: that sounds a lot like Bishop Budde's reduction of Christianity to subjective spiritual experience According to that reduction, "resurrection" is a symbol for a subjective phenomenon that entails enlightenment and liberation from impediments to personal fulfillment.  But as I noted in a previous posting:

Like the counsel of self-help gurus, [such a grounding for faith] may give inspiration and hope to some people for this life.  But, as the apostle Paul rightly notes, "If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied" (1 Corinthians 15:19). 

It's also a false dichotomy to pit the reality of the resurrection as the litmus test for authentic Christian faith against an invitation into mystery.  It's both a litmus test and an invitation into mystery!  As I noted in my sermon for Easter Day:

... resurrection defies everything we thought we knew about the immutable laws that govern reality. And that's because resurrection means bodily life after bodily death. And that challenges everything we think we know about the world and how it works. Just as the discovery that the earth revolves around the sun displaces humanity from the center of the universe, Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the dead displaces human reason as the supreme authority and sufficient arbiter of truth. 

As a result, the resurrection pushes us beyond ourselves into the mystery of God, a mystery which can never be fully grasped by human reason or experience

And while it appears that Dean Hall rejects litmus tests of faith as tyrannical ("Only dictatorships insist on a unified narrative," he writes), what else can the following statement from his sermon be but itself a litmus test of faith?

A mature, open community can live with multiple narratives.

So if, for example, someone repudiates Bishop Spong's Good Friday rejection of atonement theology - if that person is unwilling to embrace Spong's alternative narrative of who Jesus was, why he died, and what the resurrection is really all about as a viable option within the Church - then, according to Dean Hall, that person is immature and close-minded.  So either accept heterodoxy and heresy as co-equal with orthodoxy, or be branded a browbeating bigot. That sure sounds like a litmus test to me!

And finally, comparing acceptance or rejection of orthodox views of the resurrection of Jesus to whether or not persons like the PBS Masterpiece Theatre series Downton Abbey is an absurd trivialization of the heart and soul of the Christian faith.  This comparison reduces the foundation event for the entire Christian religion to a matter of indifferenceFor in the grand scheme of things, it no more matters what anybody thinks about Downton Abbey than it does whether or not they like mint chocolate chip ice cream.  So if we follow Dean Hall's logic, it no more matters what anybody believes about the resurrection of Jesus than it does whether or not they prefer Coke to Pepsi, or prefer to watch The Walking Dead instead of Downton Abbey.

By stark contrast, the witness of the New Testament tells us that it makes all the difference in the world what one believes about the resurrection of Jesus.  For, as the apostle Paul notes, the resurrection is the beginning of "a new creation" (2 Corinthians 5:17).  It is the beginning of God's D-Day assault on the forces of sin, evil, and death.  And the witness of the Christian martyrs shows that acceptance of the resurrection as the inauguration of God's new creation is so important that it is worth dying for.

Dean Hall's comparison with Downton Abbey completely misses the point that something far more important is at stake than personal preferences regarding entertainment.  That something is the life-saving, creation-transforming Truth revealed in the person of Jesus Christ crucified and risen.  

In the 20th chapter of the Gospel according to St. John, Thomas got that point. And in response he cried out, "My Lord and my God!"  Such a confession of faith bears witness to the Lordship and divinity of Jesus.  And the truth of Thomas' confession is grounded in the reality of the resurrection as the foundation and litmus test of the Christian faith.  Sadly, it appears that many movers and shakers in the Episcopal Church believe otherwise.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Bishop of Washington: "We don’t know what happened to Jesus after his death"

In a recent posting on her blog, Bishop Mariann Budde of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington offers thoughts on the resurrection that nicely complement Bishop Spong's trashing of the Church's faith on Good Friday.  Bishop Budde writes:

Someone once asked me if I thought the resurrection was necessary. He meant it in the most sincere way, as a person of both faith and doubt who wondered if we needed to be bound by so unreasonable a proposition that Jesus’ tomb was, in fact, empty on that first Easter morning.

I hesitated in answering, because there seemed to be layers of argument behind the question. My answer was yes, resurrection is the foundation of Christian faith, but probably not in the way he meant it.

To say that resurrection is essential doesn’t mean that if someone were to discover a tomb with Jesus’ remains in it that the entire enterprise would come crashing down. The truth is that we don’t know what happened to Jesus after his death, anymore than we can know what will happen to us. What we do know from the stories handed down is how Jesus’ followers experienced his resurrection. What we know is how we experience resurrection ourselves. 

"Resurrection is the foundation of the Christian faith," Bishop Budde rightly notes.  Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that everything hinges on the reality of the resurrection.  "If there is no resurrection of the dead," writes the apostle Paul, "then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain" (1 Corinthians 15:13-14).

But according to Bishop Budde (and contrary to the apostle Paul), the resurrection doesn't necessarily refer to an event in history that actually happened to a real person named Jesus.  And so she says we don't really know what happened to Jesus after his death.  And since we don't know what happened, the term "resurrection" is not really about the raising of Jesus to bodily life again after bodily death such that the tomb was actually empty.  That's not what's important.  What's important is that resurrection refers to what what we experience within ourselves.  Resurrection is a symbol for a subjective phenomenon, a matter of individual consciousness-raising and the experiences of liberation from impediments to our fulfillment as persons (cf. Bishop Budde's Easter Vigil homily entitled "How Resurrection Feels"). 

In short, the resurrection is not really about Jesus; it's about us!

"To say that resurrection is essential doesn’t mean that if someone were to discover a tomb with Jesus’ remains in it that the entire enterprise would come crashing down."  According to Bishop Budde, it doesn't really matter if Jesus actually rose from the dead.  It would be difficult to find a more clearly articulated rejection of the bodily resurrection of our Lord as the central miracle of the Christian faiththe chief premise of Christian teaching, and the foundation event for the entire Christian religion.  Instead, that understanding of the resurrection so clearly affirmed in the New Testament and by apostolic tradition is rendered optional, at best.  

Bishop Budde's take on the resurrection ultimately reduces it to subjective spiritual experience.  Like the counsel of self-help gurus, that may give inspiration and hope to some people for this life.  But, as the apostle Paul rightly notes, "If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied" (1 Corinthians 15:19).

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Bishop Spong Trashes the Faith of the Church on Good Friday

It's hardly a new thing to see Bishop John Shelby Spong publicly promoting heresy.  But it is disappointing to see it happening in the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia with the consent - indeed, the participation - of Bishop Shannon JohnstonJuicy Ecumenism shares some of the details:

In a Good Friday service at historic St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, retired Bishop John Shelby Spong decried the Nicene Creed as “a radical distortion of the Gospel of John,” asserted that several of the apostles were “mythological” and declared that Jesus Christ did not die to redeem humanity from its sins.

The three hour service featured a series of six meditations by the retired Newark bishop interspersed with prayers led by Johnston and a hymn promoted by the Center for Progressive Christianity entitled “Welcome doubt: Refine our thinking.” Johnston’s promotion of Spong, whose Newark diocese famously declined by 40 percent during his tenure, further undercuts the Virginia bishop’s claim to be creedal and orthodox. ...

Arguing that the Gospels were not historic accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, Spong sought to isolate the fourth gospel, insisting it was not authored by John the son of Zebedee. Instead, the retired Episcopal bishop proposed that the Gospel of John was not a story of incarnation. ...

Spong argued that Jesus could say “I and the father are one” only because he was inviting his disciples “to enter a mystical reality of divine human oneness.”

During his first meditation, Spong quickly targeted the church’s historic councils and creeds. Charging that the Council of Nicea turned on an unintended and very literal reading of John, the Episcopal bishop asserted that the Nicene Creed was a “radical distortion of the Gospel of John.” ...

In addition to dismissing the historicity of biblical characters, Spong also attacked atonement theology, dismissing blood washing away sins as an “evangelical mantra” and a “barbaric theology” that turns God into an ogre who cannot forgive. Spong argued that God punishing his divine son to satisfy the wrath of the father “turns God into the ultimate child abuser” and Jesus into “the eternal victim.”

“John’s Gospel would never say ‘Jesus died for my sins,’” Spong insisted, instead proposing that Jesus was a “servant called upon to absorb the world’s anger and return it as love and wholeness.”
“Jesus does not die for your sins in this gospel; he dies to make you whole,” Spong announced from the pulpit as Johnston sat silently. “As evolving creatures, the problem is not that we have fallen, but that we are not yet fully human.”

“We are not sinners, the church got that wrong, we are rather incomplete human beings,” Spong concluded with an “amen” that was echoed by the congregation and clergy present.

“John’s gospel is about living life to fullness – not moral perfection or overcoming sin,” Spong concluded. “He [Jesus] did not die to save you from your sins. He died to free you – to empower you – to be all that you can be.”

As one commentator notes in response to Spong's dismissal of sin and the atonement: " ... see our problem isn’t sin. It’s just that we haven’t figured out just how awesome we are yet."

Perhaps the only thing better than this would be to host Bishop Spong on Easter Sunday when he could wax profound on why the historical, bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead could not possibly have happened and why St. Paul, the other New Testament writers, and the Church Fathers were all wrong.

Over at Tune: Kings Lynn, C. Wingate weighs in on all of this in a blistering posting.  Here's a snippet:

There is no way in hell that a man who denounces the Nicene Creed has any business doing anything that bears the slightest resemblance to teaching in this church. ... This is where the deeper rot in the church lies. I can see how we can disagree on sexual morality and on the ministerial authority of women, even to the extent of disagreeing with Paul's teaching. When we cannot step up to a commitment to the most basic statements of theological principle, to which we all state allegiance every Sunday, it sends the message that we are intellectual frauds. In a Catholic or Orthodox church, the priest who allowed this nonsense would be called on the carpet by the bishop and stand a real risk of being inhibited and deprived of office. And they would [be] entirely right to do so, and our bishops should be doing likewise, lest we be reduced to The Dilettante Episcopal Church. 

Read it all.


Taking a look at Spong's Good Friday fiasco from within the Church of Ireland, BC at Catholicity and Covenant writes:

"The church got that wrong".  It is a common refrain from +Spong, going to the heart of his liberal protestant credo.  The Individual in Modernity, the child of the Enlightenment, is right.  The church catholic is, obviously, wrong.  The lack of humility before those to whom we are united in the communion of saints is staggering.  There is little - if any - sense that we moderns should prayerfully, humbly, seek with the church and the saints to discern the mind of Christ.  Why should we?  They, after all, lacked the blessings of Modernity and Enlightenment. ...

[Spong's theology] offers nothing to the church as the church.  "Cut off from the lifeblood of Christian growth" - Scripture and Tradition - such theology becomes a banal echo of Modernity.  In contrast, prayerfully wrestling with Scripture and Tradition is not an easy or a simplistic task.  Personally and corporately, it is challenging and often painful: but it is transformative, calling us from being consumers in modernity to living as unam, sanctam, cathólicam et apostólicam Ecclésiam.  This is the Catholic vocation.

BC's posting also includes an excerpt from a lecture given by Fr. Jeffrey John to the Post-Lambeth 1998 Affirming Catholicism Conference in which he slams Spong's theology for being "as much cut off from the lifeblood of Christian growth as any fundamentalist" and "about as much use."  Read it all.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Countering the Gnostic Dismissal of the Fleshly Resurrection of the Dead

Over at The Byzantine Anglo-Catholic, Joe Rawls shares an excerpt from Kevin J. Madigan and Jon Douglas Levenson's Resurrection: The Power of God for Christians and Jews.  By way of introducing the passage, Rawls cites the "resurgence in popularity of Gnostic writings over the past several decades," noting that while this resurgence celebrates "self-absorption" and "thumbing the nose at institutional religion," it also tends to conveniently ignore Gnosticism's contempt for the body, sexuality, and physical creation.  (For a brief critical look at one popular promoter of such "Gnostic-lite," see my blog posting on Elaine Pagels' book Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas.)

As Madigan and Levenson rightly note in the following passage, the antidote to Gnostic contempt for the body lies in the orthodox Christian understanding of salvation as including "the fleshly resurrection of the dead."

Tertullian makes the important observation that most doubts about the resurrection begin with complaints about the flesh itself. Of the Gnostics, he writes: "Their great burden is ... everywhere an invective against the flesh: against its origins, its substance, against the casualties and the invariable end which awaits it; unclean from its first formation from the dregs of the ground, uncleaner afterwards from the mire of its own seminal transmission; worthless, weak, covered with guilt, laden with misery, full of trouble, and after all this record of its degradation dropping into its original earth and the appellation of a corpse and destined to dwindle away even from this loathsome name." 

Tertullian's response arises from the intuition that the flesh derives its dignity not from its intrinsic properties but from being the work of God. It is God's molding and selection of the flesh that makes it worthy. Thus it is both the dignity and the skill of the maker that give the flesh nobility and splendor. So artistically is humankind created that it becomes impossible to distinguish flesh and spirit. Drawing on Christological language about the relation of the divine and human in the incarnate Christ, Tertullian observes of humanity: "so intimate is the union, that it may be deemed to be uncertain whether the flesh bears about the soul, or the soul the flesh; whether the flesh acts as servant to the soul or the soul to the flesh." Besides, had not both testaments of the scriptures magnified the flesh? Had not Isaiah declared, "all flesh, as one, shall behold [the Presence of the Lord]" (Isa 40:5)? Had not Paul called our bodies temples of the Lord, members of Christ (1 Cor 6:19)? In their argument that the material creation cannot be redeemed, the Gnostics typically use Paul's point that "flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God" (1 Cor 15:50), as Irenaeus points out. But Tertullian argues, it is not the substance of the flesh that Paul railed against, but its actions. What is more, if flesh were not raised, would not death have preserved victory over that which God had created and hallowed? Soul and body had acted coordinately in sinning and in doing good, and for justice to prevail, they must be judged together at the end of time, as both Jews (excepting the Sadducees, Tertullian notes) and Christians believe. At the end of time, the body will be changed; it will be incorruptible. But it will be a fleshly body that will rise. For Irenaeus the proof of this is in the raising of Jesus with the body that preserved the nail wounds, proof that we, too, would be raised in our bodies. 

For orthodox writers like Tertullian and Irenaeus, it is the Gnostics and not the gospel of Jesus Christ that is negative regarding the body. The Gnostic dismissal of the fleshly resurrection of the dead is but one symptom, though perhaps the most important one, of their inability to appreciate God's handiwork. 

These second-century Christian writers are well aware that some of the scriptures, such as Colossians and parts of the letters of John, speak of the resurrection as a present reality, rather than an event of the end time. These were particularly popular texts among the Gnostics. But both Tertullian and Irenaeus use the same texts against the Gnostics in order to emphasize that there is a future, and bodily, dimension to resurrection. Thus Tertullian quotes 1 John 3:2: "Beloved, we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed." He quotes other texts to the same effect. John and Paul also speak of a future bodily resurrection. Does not Paul say, "He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself" (Phil 3:21)? Although our flesh will undergo change, in other words, its substance will be preserved. The notion that resurrection would be purely spiritual was wrongheaded and based on a misunderstanding of the scriptures, particularly Paul. When Paul spoke of the human as a temple of the spirit, he was not referring to soul only but simply to the notion that it was an integral human being, body and soul, who became such a dwelling place for God.

Both Tertullian and Irenaeus go to some pains to argue against a view of salvation that is understood strictly in terms of the survival or salvation of the soul. Again, the Gnostic message is in the background. Both the Gnostics and the orthodox agreed that the soul would be "safe" after death, that is, that by virtue of its intrinsic immortality, it would survive and be saved. What was at issue was whether that which was subject to decay and destruction--the flesh--would similarly be saved. The Gnostics denied it would. But the orthodox Christian view of God's creation, of human nature, and of justice could not allow for this partial understanding of salvation. As the orthodox saw it, the texture of humanity was a seamless, invisible work of art, composed of flesh and soul--very much like the view of the rabbis we examined in the previous chapter. God will reward the blessed, body and soul. "How could we be blessed", Tertullian asks, "if any part of us were to perish?" Only if the whole person, both elements of which were created by God, were raised could humanity be redeemed and justice achieved. Also crucial, again, is the presumption of God's stupendous power. As Irenaeus sums up the case, "For if He does not vivify what is mortal, and does not bring back the corruptible to incorruption, He is not a God of power." Had the Gnostics not read Paul? God would, in the end, clothe our perishable bodies in imperishability, our mortal bodies in immortality, and death would be swallowed up in victory (1 Cor 15:54). 

~ Kevin J. Madigan & Jon D. Levenson, Resurrection: