The Resurrection of Jesus according to Bonaventure, Paul Tillich and Tom Wright
Along with the death of Jesus the next most important thing about Him is the church’s proclamation that He did not stay dead. Something happened to Him, to His human body and person that was proclaimed by His disciples as having been “raised” from the dead, and that He was seen by them and that this was God’s exultation of Him above all other earthly authority. The proclamation was also that His being raised up was a foreshowing of a destiny for us that goes beyond our mortal existence, to be fulfilled in a time to come.
When we come to read the biblical material we need to understand today that the ordering of the texts of the New Testament is not the order in which they were written. The letters of Paul were written both before and during the period of composition of the gospels. It is also reckoned by many scholars that before the gospels were written in the forms we have them that stories of Jesus were already in circulation in preaching and the worship of the churches.
As many scholars from different churches have sought to get behind the gospels and the rest of the New Testament texts, it is evident that the church had been proclaiming and teaching that Jesus had been crucified and had been raised back to life a few days later, and that His disciples had been witnesses of this. In fact it was these events that gave them the courage they previously did not have to go and spread the story of Jesus and Him as Lord and Saviour. It was for them a life transforming event. It is diffuclt otherwise to see how thay could have remained His followers and led to a messianic proclamation after demoralising events of His terrible death. It was indeed a daring proclamation when we consider that Jesus had been judicially executed by a Roman governor on what must have been a charge of sedition. Also as Jews the first disciples had to confront the fact that their own religious authorities had been the instigators of His death with a charge of blasphemy and that Jesus in this reckoning was not someone worthy to be raised from the dead even if this were possible.
In this first article in the Resurrection I include reflections on the meaning of the resurrection and the basis its historical reality.
Bonaventure – The release of the souls from Hades
In the Nicene Creed and in other traditional professions of faith is the belief that after Jesus death, before the resurrection the soul of Christ went to the place of the dead, variously described as the Hebrew Sheol, Limbo, Hades or Hell. In doing so He then opened the gates and released imprisoned souls from the bondage of death and all that held them there. It also includes some early Christian theology about the triumph of Christ over Satan and the release of humanity from the grip of sin and death, which otherwise we are endlessly bound with no hope of release or change.
In two brief writings (“Breviloquium” chapter 4 and in the “Tree of Life”) Bonaventure affirms this tradition. He writes of releasing the souls of the “faithful” who had been so by faith or by involvement with the “sacraments”. It is not clear what he means by that. Presumably he means those who had been involved faithfully in activities for God and in the Old Testament sacrifices and rituals of the law before Christ instituted His own sacraments of salvation. By their lives and faith and practice they were worthy to be raised. On other grounds this may be simply related to the desire of God in Christ to reward all His previous covenant people bound to Him in fellowship and worship. Christ has in any case paid the price for their release and reward by His death quite apart from the performance of rituals and laws.
What is less clear from Bonaventure is what part of the person of Christ did this releasing. Is it the case of the presence of His divinity still bound to His humanity that is the power of releasing, the strong “man” who breaks into the Satanic stronghold. ? This must be so that the Hypostatic union of divinity and humanity descends into Hades and triumphs over the bondage of death, releasing the prisoners to everlasting life. The Eternal Word incarnate in Christ in His united person visits the place of bondage and no hope and changes all things to the new future for those He releases and those He continues to save from bondage now.
This whole tradition of the divine victory over evil and releasing of people both past and present into a new life can continue to have rich meanings related to the conquest of sin and evil in all its past and present forms, and the hope of release from sin and entry into a divinely given life beyond our mortal existence. It stands forever not just as hope for life beyond the grave, but as a symbol of complete and everlasting divine victory over all kinds of dehumanizing powers and influences that may inflict contemporary society. God was an always in is conquorer of the demoinic and dehumanizing influences of life, who continualy confronts and wins against all that is wrong and distorted and as yet terribly incomplete, where the divine love is not yet supreme but will be.
Paul Tillich – The essential symbol of the resurrection
Tillich is his usual way in his “Systematic Theology” takes the resurrection in its symbolic meaning rather than defending the gospel accounts as literal historical event in the way they are written.
We must affirm that something real has occurred although we may remain less certain of the actual historical accuracy of narritive accounts. The testified resurrection is not an isolated event, it is part of a whole with other events shown in all the historical and legendary aspects. The resurrection is part of the showing of the New Being that Christ has brought to the world. pre-existence and “transcendent self-subjection and humiliation”. His pre-existence comes before all others. The resurrection is part of the eternal principle that came into the world and has been manifest in Jesus.
In this way His post-death existence (in resurrection and ascension) is related to His pre-existence. His resurrection affirms his pre-existence. The earlier gospel story of the Transfiguration, healings and miracles also all point to that same character of what is in Him. These all point to the inward reality of who He is. Jesus appears as victor because He is so as He also overcomes our existential estrangement and destruction. His authority as the Christ and bearer of New Being had been challenged in his trial and death. His resurrection affirms Him as The Christ. We may say it vindicates all His previous teachings and acts.
The symbol of His Ascension is a “duplication” of the Resurrection but points to another finality. It is His exultation to God’s side, His New Being in bringing a new eon. The ultimately New has arrived in history and the resurrection is foretaste of the future. This is not yet the transformation of the world into the Kingdom of God but is the means by which the New Being is possible and my yet change the world.
Tillich then relates that the image of Christ as judge has often been misapplied and distorted away from His role and Saviour. The presence of New Bring in Him is actually itself a judgement of all that opposes it in the course of current existence. There is rejection in Him of all that stands against Him and the offered New Being. What stands against Him and New Being must ultimately bring a separation.
Tillich is always trying to stay clear of biblical literalism but wants to uphold the basic truths they point to. The symbols of Christ and His Resurrection may be distorted or rejected by literalism that makes them look absurd. Yet the power of truth contained in these symbols must be maintained and re-interpreted in a way that unites them with cosmic and existential reality. Ultimately it is all part of the potential for newness that has arrived and has been offered for those who believe and participate in it.
Tom Wright – A believable reality.
At the heart of much discussion and theological reflection in the last few hundred years is how far the gospels can be believed about the events of the resurrection of Jesus after His death, because it seems so utterly strange and not in accord with the ways we see the material world. There is doubt about this “miracle” and if it can based upon something historically actual.
Bishop and New Testament scholar Tom Wright was asked if scientists could believe in the resurrection and gave an answer in a lecture. There were many ancient beliefs about life after death. Ancient paganism contained many beliefs on these matters, but they universally ruled out the possibility of resurrection. The conviction that the dead do not rise is not a product born out of scientific discovery over the past few centuries: any first century person knew this fact. Any large-scale change in the convictions of a society in this area needs to be accounted for.
In the early Church, belief in the resurrection moves from the circumference of belief to its very center and heart. In contrast to Jewish groups, within which many conceptions of resurrection circulated, from the very beginning the Christian Church held a very clearly defined understanding of resurrection. For instance, the resurrection body was thought of as a transformed—‘spiritual’—body and not just as a resuscitated one. Outside of Christianity we do not find belief in the resurrection of one man in the middle of history. Therefore such a theological movement is without precedent.
Twentieth century revisionist historiography has occasionally suggested that belief in the resurrection arose out of the subjective internal experience of early Christian disciples. A little employment of historical imagination should destroy any plausibility that such a suggestion might initially seem to possess. Anyone offering the suggestion that the belief Jesus was raised from the dead, based purely on an internal experience of a warmed heart, or even on the basis of witnessing him in the same room, would have been subjected to ridicule.
First century people were well aware, as we are, of cases of dead relatives appearing to their grieving kin following their deaths. At this point, we should note the common confusion that exists between the idea of resurrection and the idea of someone dying and going to be with God. The event of the resurrection is one that is not merely a matter of subjective inner feeling, but one that has considerable claim on the external public world. The point of the resurrection is that Jesus is Lord and that death and the tyrants who use its power are defeated.
As many have observed, the accounts of the resurrection in the gospels do not fit snugly together. There are a number of apparently conflicting details. But surface discrepancies between narratives is quite to be expected under such circumstances. The accounts of the resurrection are very early, going back to a very early oral tradition in different localities, established before the scriptural basis had been sufficiently explored (as it had been by the time of the later account of 1 Corinthians 15).The presence of women as initial witnesses of the event is not what one would expect to find in the context of the culture of the day.
When dealing with the issue of the relationship between Easter and history we need a two-pronged approach of explanation:
(a) the tomb really was empty;
(b) the disciples really did encounter Jesus after his death.
The only explanation sufficient to support resurrection must involve both of these things. All of the signposts point in the direction of resurrection. Denials of the resurrection often rule it out on the basis of worldviews that exclude its possibility from the outset. Here the issue of a form of knowing beyond scientific and historical knowing presents itself. The resurrection poses such a challenge to the scientist or the historian, for it is the utterly characteristic, extra-ordinary event of the new world that is coming to birth. It is not an absurd event occurring within the system of our own world, but an event that belongs to a new reality and a new vision of what reality is. There is a knowing of love outside the knower in the external world. This is the knowing that is needed in the world of the resurrection
Bonaventure and Tillich are centuries apart in time and theology but with both we have that emphasis of the Resurrection related to the release of humanity, bringing an end to estrangement, because it was God in Christ participating in our life and death, to bring a new order and give us New Being and place with God.
Bonaventure is the more literal in respect of the biblical texts, but even Tillich acknowledges some historical reality behind the biblical narratives. Even given some doubt, if there is any, over the historicity of the narratives, they remain essential symbols of something greater than our material knowledge.
If today, as in some previous times, the historical reality of Jesus resurrection is questioned, Tom Wright gives good reasons why such an extra-ordinary event can really be grounded in the experience of the apostles and is neither mythical nor delusional and comes from a special kind of knowing beyond our material world
These things about the resurrection are still of great value in an evolutionary theological view. Humanity in our imperfection and incompleteness is bound to death and apparent futility. But God has not left us in this state of hopelessness and has demonstrated in history the reality of a New Being and new future that transcends out limited physical and material existence. It is a revelation of divine victory and transcending future.
(In part 2 of these reflections shall draw upon some further writers and consider some further significant considerations of the resurrection of Christ and its continued meaning in an evolutionary theology).
Christ is risen. He is risen indeed.
He has trampled down the powers of darkness and alienation and separation
He is restoring humanity to our intended destiny
In His risen life I find my hope of being remade new and sharing in an eternal future in the same life of God.