The Adult Sunday School class at my small church (Jeff Street Baptist Community @ Liberty) has been studying The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions by Marcus Borg and N. T. (Tom) Wright. At no point do these two Jesus scholars disagree more sharply than over the nature and meaning of Jesus’ resurrection. Wright defends a traditional bodily resurrection in which the dead Jesus is raised to a “transformed form of physical life” by God. In a fashion similar to Wolfhart Pannenberg’s approach in Jesus–God and Man, Wright argues for the historicity of both the empty tomb and the appearances of the risen Christ–as Wright does at much greater length in The Resurrection of the Son of God.
By contrast, Borg argues that Jesus’ resurrection appearances, though real, were visions or apparitions. Reading 1 Cor. 15 very differently than Wright, Borg claims that Jesus’ resurrection is in some way spiritual, that the appearances of Jesus to the disciples and to Paul were not qualitatively different than believers’ experiences with the Risen Christ ever since that day. He argues that the empty tomb traditions developed separately, that we, today, cannot know the historical reliability of the empty tomb stories and that whether or not the tomb was empty is irrelevant to understanding Jesus’ resurrection. He sharply contrasts resurrection with the resuscitation of a corpse (a contrast which implicitly mischaracterizes Wright’s view, since he clearly distinguishes Jesus’ resurrection from resuscitation).
I tend to side more with Wright than Borg on the nature of Jesus’ resurrection. He argues well that spiritual life after death would not be termed “resurrection” by first century Jews and Christians. Like Karl Barth, however, I’m somewhat more skeptical that historians qua historians can demonstrate the resurrection.
But traditionalists like Wright, though having the better case than liberals like Borg on the bodily nature of the resurrection, are remarkably tongue tied on the tbeological meaning of the resurrection. (Wright does see that it leads Paul and other early Christians to rethink radically traditional Jewish eschatology.) Borg is stronger at this point. He outlines 5 dimensions of the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection in the New Testament–or, more accurately, 5 dimensions of the death/resurrection of Jesus considered as one event. While I am not sure these 5 (or any list) can fully exhaust the meaning of the cross/resurrection, I certainly think that these are important dimensions–and that each point would be strengthened by viewing Christ’s resurrection as a bodily resurrection–though our language, like Paul’s in 1 Cor. 15, strains to the breaking point in attempting to say what kind of bodily resurrection.
- Resurrection/Vindication. The Domination System ( a term Borg borrows from Walter Wink) rejected and killed Jesus. The resurrection is God’s vindication of Jesus. “This Jesus whom you crucified, God has made both Lord and Christ.”
- Defeat of the Powers. This is the story of God’s victory over Pharoah in the Exodus now projected on a cosmic screen. God in Christ, “disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in the cross.”
- Revelation of the Way. Because of the resurrection, early Christians concluded that following Jesus is the way to God. “I am crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” They remembered Jesus’ saying, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and takeup their cross and follow me.” In his life and ministry, Jesus and his prophetic renewal movement within Judaism, tried to teach the Way to and with God. Now, the early Christians conclude that not only are Jesus’ teaching and example the Way, but Jesus himself is the Way.
- Revelation of the Love of God. The New Testament writers also see the Good Friday/Easter pattern as revealing the depth of God’s love for us. As Borg notes, this interpretation depends on developing the completed Christian story–in which Jesus is seen as God’s only and beloved Son. Within this framework, the death of Jesus is not simply the execution of a prophet or the rejection of Jesus’ message by the rulers of this world. It is also God’s giving up of that which is most precious to God–namely, Jesus as God’s only Son. John 3:16; Rom. 5.
- Jesus as sacrifice for sin. Borg describes this dimension in greater length because it is central to many versions of Christianity–but some in ways that he believes are not helpful. When Borg is asked, “Do you believe that Jesus died for your sins?” he answers “no and yes.” If the questioners mean “Do you think that Jesus saw his own death as a sacrifice for sin?” He answers “No.” (Here I side with Wright who argues strongly that many would-be 1st C. Messiahs saw their impending deaths as redemptive for Israel and there is no reason why Jesus wouldn’t view his death similarly.) If the questioners mean “Do you think that God can forgive sins only because of Jesus’ sacrifice?” Borg also answers “no.” (Here I agree. I find it strange that conservative Catholics and evangelical Christians, many claiming to believe in biblical inerrancy, can so quickly throw out all of the First Testament examples of God’s forgiveness!) But if the questioners mean, “Is the statement that Jesus was a sacrifice for our sins a powerfully true metaphor for the grace of God,” Borg answers “yes.”
What would it mean in a 1st C. Jewish context to say, “Jesus is the sacrifice for our sins?” Borg notes that there is both a negative and positive meaning and both are strikingly radical.
Negative: In the temple theology, the temple claimed a monopoly on forgiveness of sins–and, thus, an institutional monopoly on access to God. So, negatively, the statement “Jesus is the sacrifice for our sins” is a subversion of the temple. “You don’t need the temple; you have access to God apart from the temple.” “Jesus is our sacrifice” is an anti-temple statement.
Positive: “Jesus is our sacrifice” is a metaphorical proclamation of the radical grace of God and our unconditional acceptance. To say, as the letter of Hebrews does, that Jesus is the “once for all” sacrifice for sin means that God has already taken care of whatever it is that we think separates us from God. If our own sense of sin and guilt, or unworthiness or failure, makes us feel unacceptable to God, then we simply have not understood that God has already taken care of it. Borg asserts that this is also what Paul is getting at by saying that “Christ is the end of the Law.” (I think I hear Borg’s Lutheran childhood coming out here.)
I have sometimes been driven close to despair over the state of the Church Universal–and especially over the U.S. churches. Last year, a Pew study showed that those who attended church in the U.S. twice or more per week were more than twice as likely to approve of the torture of suspected terrorists than the population as a whole! Instead of Christians leading the nation to opposIt’e the immorality of torture, too many were cheerleading for torture! In contradiction to the clear commands and practices in both Testaments to show hospitality and equal treatment to strangers and resident aliens, far too many U.S. Christians have joined (or even led) the wave of anti-immigrant hatred sweeping the nation. A church in Florida wants to have a “Let’s Burn a Qu’ran Day.” Church groups are opposing the building of mosques throughout the nation (especially in Manhattan anywhere near “Ground Zero”) and claiming that religious liberty applies only to Christians, not Muslims! When I try to share the gospel with college students, the biggest obstacle is their perception that Christians are hatemongers–hating gays and lesbians, hating Muslims, hating feminists, etc., etc.
It’s easy to get discouraged and I often do. But sometimes there are reasons to hope. One phenomenon that has renewed my hope for the U.S. churches has been the changes that have happened in the denomination currently known as The Community of Christ. Never heard of them? Until about two decades ago, they were known as The Reorganized Church of Latter-Day Saints. Yes, they are related to the Mormons. Now, like most mainstream Christians, I consider the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) to be a cult, a heretical movement, rather than a true branch of Christianity. Dialogue with mainstream Mormons is like interfaith dialogue (e. g., Christian-Muslim dialogue ) rather than ecumenical Christian conversation. But the Community of Christ branch of the Latter-Day Saints’ movement has been moving steadily in a more orthodox Christian direction–and becoming a self-declared peace church at the same time!
Some historical background: As you may know the Latter-Day Saints/Mormons began in 19th C. America when a farmboy named Joseph Smith claimed that an angel gave him a book of golden plates and a special pair of glasses to translate those plates. (The translation is known today as The Book of Mormon.) The book claims to be the record of one of the 10 lost tribes of Israel being led by God to build a ship and travel to the continent we know as North America where they set up a kingdom similar to Israel-Judah. The claim is made that after Jesus Christ’s resurrection and ascension, he descended from the clouds on this continent and preached the Good News to the people of God here before ascending again to heaven. (This is VERY quick exposition and I am bypassing the huge number of problems with all these claims.)
The group that gathered around Smith (who was called a prophet) became the Mormons and, facing persecution, they trekked to the sparsely settled Southwest, especially in what is today Salt Lake City, Utah. Less well known is that the group split as Smith died. (He was assassinated.) The majority followed Brigham Young as the new prophet to Utah, but a largish group, including many of Smith’s relatives, refused to acknowledge Young’s leadership or follow after him. They set-up headquarters in Independence, MO as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and have always claimed to be the true followers of Smith–and from the beginning they rejected the polygamy promoted by Brigham Young (until outlawed by the U. S. government)–even claiming (somewhat dubiously) that Smith himself never promoted polygamy.
Well, both the majority Mormons based in Utah and the Reorganized ones based in Missouri had a number of other beliefs that most Christians would consider heretical: A bizarre view of the Trinity in which both Father and Son have bodies, belief that Christ dwells on another planet, a docetic view of the Incarnation and other heresies. But, little noticed by most mainstream Christians, the Missouri-based (Reorganized) Latter-Day Saints have slowly-but-surely, been moving in a more orthodox Christian direction–as most evidenced in their official confession of faith. (The continued use of The Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants as recognized Scriptures alongside the Holy Bible remains troubling, even though the Bible is given priority. One could argue, however, that this is not much different from the arguments over the canon between Catholics and Protestants.) The name change reflects a desire to identify more closely with mainstream Christianity and to stop having their identity focused on fights with the Utah-based Mormons. The decision to allow all historical records to be examined by all, including historians without membership in the Community of Christ is another such move.
About two (2) decades ago, the Community of Christ highlighted peacemaking and nonviolence as central to the practices of their movement. They have created an international peacemaking award–awarded to anyone, member or no, that is an alternative to the politically-motivated Nobel Peace Prize. They promote daily prayers for peace and annual peace colloquies. They work on teaching conflict resolution in their churches. They have reached out to Mennonites, Brethren, and Quakers to learn more about historic Christian pacifism and, although they still allow members to join the military, work now to discourage military service (especially combatant military service) and to encourage careers which promote peace and justice–quite the reversal from most of their history.
The Community of Christ came out against the death penalty beginning in 1995 and with a stronger statement in 2000. The Community of Christ allows, but discourages, members from owning firearms. It has taken a strong stand for compassionate and just immigration reform. It opposes torture and promotes the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights. It has begun to work on prison ministries that promote restorative justice instead of either retribution or leniency.
The Community of Christ is a small body (approx. 250,000 members globally), but very diverse and found in over 50 nations.
I have no desire to join the Community of Christ, and have enough reservations about their orthodoxy that I would not sponsor them as members of the National or World Councils of Churches–yet. But I find this massive reform and renewal heartening. It is both doctrinal and ethical reform and renewal–and too many more orthodox bodies have had either one or the other, rather than both. There is something hopeful about seeing a group (sect?) that surely began as a cult make peace and justice more central to their spirituality and discipleship as they become more Christocentric, more classically Trinitarian, and more orthodox in proclaiming the Good News of salvation by grace.
Can “mainstream” and “evangelical” churches learn from this witness? May it be so.
Michael Bird & Preston Sprinkle have edited a strong selection of articles that rehearse the raging “pistis christou” debate in Pauline studies–a debate that effects the way the gospel is understood and presented. Some scholarly debates are mere “tempests in teapots,” but not all. This one is VERY important for the life of the church. Should Paul in Romans and Galatians be understood as referring to “faith IN Christ,” or “the faith[fulness] OF Christ” (especially his faithfulness in knowingly continuing his path that would lead to the cross)? If the former, is salvation then dependant on human will? If the latter, is salvation independent of human response in faith? Andy Goodliff gives an excellent review of the book here. Because I have long wanted a volume that collected the best arguments in this debate from all sides, I am now ordering this volume based on Andy’s Review.
Ask many Christians what salvation is all about and they say something about “going to heaven when we die.” Such a perspective has negative consequences:
- It leads to neglect of God’s Creation, both in the sense of neglecting its care and in the sense of downplaying its importance–as if God was only rehearsing.
- It leads to downplaying the importance of life in the body, allowing us to ignore human suffering.
In reaction to these and other negatives, or in realization that “heaven when we die” is not the focus of salvation in Scripture, other Christians focus entirely on this world and this life. But this is also inadequate. We have longings and hopes beyond the present life. And if “heaven when we die” isn’t the point of Christianity, what is?
Fortunately, Australian theological blogger, Byron Smith has written a great series on this called, “Heaven in the Rear-View Mirror.” It’s a great series. If you are a preacher or a Sunday School teacher who has ever had to say something about heaven and felt inadequate, he is a great resource. I highly recommend it. It is also written in a way that does not take an advanced theological education to follow. This page links to all the installments.