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Robin Parry is the husband of but one wife (Carol) and the father of the two most beautiful girls in the universe (Hannah and Jessica). He also has a lovely cat called Monty (who has only three legs). Living in the city of Worcester, UK, he works as an Editor for Wipf and Stock — a US-based theological publisher. Robin was a Sixth Form College teacher for 11 years and has worked in publishing since 2001 (2001–2010 for Paternoster and 2010– for W&S).

Saturday, 23 February 2013

David Jennings and doubting the resurrection

In an online article the Rev. David Jennings, canon theologian at Leicester Cathedral, says that he wants to allow the diversity of Christian interpretations of the resurrection to include the denial of its historicity so long as we affirm that “something significant happened which was of life-changing proportions.”

Jennings is keen that his minimalist version of resurrection should be allowed to count as a permissible Christian alternative in order to avoid the Church of England becoming a sect! A claim that echoes David Boulton’s comment in 1999 that clergy that are Sea of Faith members — many of whom were atheists — wish to remain as clergy within the Church of England because they “refuse to abandon it to fundamentalists.” But, contra Boulton, since when has believing in God been fundamentalist? And, contra Jennings, since when has belief in the bodily resurrection been sectarian? It is simply basic Christianity.

Whether Jennings’ minimalism is consistent with Christian faith very much depends on what he means by denying that the resurrection was a historical fact. His article is less than clear. He rightly points out that in the NT accounts “something else is going on than just the recording of an historical event” (italics mine). Indeed. He also rightly points out that the resurrection is not historical in the same way that the Battle of Hastings in 1066 was historical. It is a truly unique event and thus not “historical” in any mundane way. And yet Christians have always insisted that the resurrection of Christ was bodily — that is what resurrection meant — and this seems to be the very thing that Jennings wants to be allowed to doubt and even to deny. Now one may affirm, with Rudolph Bultmann and ex-Bishop of Durham David Jenkins, that something transformative happened in the hearts of the disciples after the crucifixion. Fine. But that claim does not amount to belief in the resurrection. To believe in the resurrection of Jesus is to believe something about Jesus — that he has been raised bodily from the dead — not something about the disciples. Jennings is welcome to doubt and to deny the resurrection (and I am unclear as to whether he is doing that) but in doing so he is doubting and denying Christianity. If that is what he is doing then his view should not be permitted within the Church of England. The Church of England may be a broad church — and I for one am pleased that it is — but it is also an orthodox church and reducing the resurrection to a transformation in the disciples (if that is what Jenkins is considering) is simply to step beyond "the faith once for all delivered to the saints."

7 comments:

Dr. Evangelicus said...

What does old bushy eyebrows have to say about it?

Mild Colonial Boy, Esq. said...

From "The Bishop's Gambit" episode of 'Yes Minister':

James Hacker: Humphrey, what's a Modernist in the Church of England?
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Ah, well, the word "Modernist" is code for non-believer.
James Hacker: You mean an atheist?
Sir Humphrey Appleby: No, Prime Minister. An atheist clergyman couldn't continue to draw his stipend. So, when they stop believing in God, they call themselves "Modernists".
James Hacker: How could the Church of England suggest an atheist as Bishop of Bury St Edmunds?
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Well, very easily. The Church of England is primarily a social organization, not a religious one.
James Hacker: Is it?
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Oh yes. It's part of the rich social fabric of this country. So bishops need to be the sorts of chaps who speak properly and know which knife and fork to use. The sort of people one can look up to.

Micah said...

Is it that these folks reject the Bible as being trustworthy in a literal sense? If not, I don't understand why they dismiss all the accounts of Christ's physical appearance and material interaction (walking, talking, eating, etc.) as not being evidence of a bodily resurrection.

Even worse is the idea that the resurrection is only about motivating us to make this world a better place, with no true hope in death being conquered. If Christ be not raised, our faith is in vain. Might as well believe in nihilism if this earthly life is the only focus.

Fr Aidan Kimel said...

What is it about the Church of England that produces skeptical clergymen who are willing to reduce Christianity to a bare theism, if that? It's really quite extraordinary. Every ten years some C of E priest makes the headlines by denying a key article of the faith. I just don't get it, which is probably why I had to leave the Episcopal Church. Sigh.

Robin Parry said...

For the most part the C of E clergy are orthodox. They are certainly supposed to be. It is just occasionally you get deviations.

It is motivated by a noble desire to re-contextualize the gospel in (post)modern culture. The task has to be undertaken but the danger is when the culture gets to call the shots in the relationship and gobbles up the gospel. Such faith I suppose died a noble death, killed in action. But it is a great sadness because contextualizing the gospel does not need to lead to its death.

Saldakordos said...

This not a criticism, just some reflections.
While not wishing to deny that Jesus appeared to the disciples in a form they could recognize (although often they did not initially), what literally happened to his dead body is of little or no interest to me. Although some form of embodiment may be essential to human existence, our material composition at any given time is not. Close to every molecule in our body is replaced every ten years or so. When we die our body is recycled and sooner or later will make parts of several other human bodies. The hope of our resurrection cannot be based on what happens to our bodies when we die, so there is no reason to base the resurrection of Jesus on what happened to his dead body either. What is important to me is that Jesus is personally alive. That the relationship I have today with Christ is not with an idea, but with a living person. The same person that lived and died in Palestine two millennia ago, the same person I have come to know and love in the Gospels. I'm open to the possibility that the dead body of Jesus was transformed in some way (the empty tomb is more historically well established than some liberals seem to think), but whatever Christ is now he obviously transcends physical limitations. Does he have a biological body in heaven? Now, we are the body of Christ, and we receive the body of Christ through the Sacrament. This is how Christ interacts with the world physically today. I'm still reflecting on the different ways to understand what bodies are (how are we to understand spiritual bodies?), so I'm not entirely sure what to make of the bodily resurrection (I certainly do not deny it) but I think we should accept many different ways to understand the basic Christian affirmation that Jesus is alive as genuinely Christian. Anyway, I agree that reducing the resurrection to a mythical interpretation of a merely psychological change in the disciples cannot legitimately be said to express the Christian faith or hope.
Do any of these thoughts disqualify me from being a Christian? I hope not. I'm an ordained minister in another "broad Church", the Church of Norway, and I have nothing against being labeled a Christian.

Best regards,
Øystein Evensen

Robin Parry said...

Thanks Øystein

you comments are very interesting and helpful. You are right on the centrality of Jesus' appearing and of his embodiment (also of the new mode of embodiment). So too is your focus on Jesus as a living person (not an idea)—the same living person that lived and died in Palestine and with whom we can be in relation. Amen to all that.

I also agree with what you say about the spatio-temporal continuity between our bodies and resurrection bodies: that the particular matter that constitutes us at any moment in time is not essential. It may be that God could reconstitute resurrection bodies from a totally different set of matter. There are all sorts of metaphysical questions lurking in this area—about what kind of continuity is necessary between my body now and my resurrection body for the new body to count as me rather than a replica. I'll ignore that issue for now.

But things are not quite so simple with Jesus. His body, unlike ours, was not decomposed prior to the resurrection. So what it would mean for the resurrected body of Jesus to count as the resurrected body of Jesus (rather than someone else claiming to be Jesus) would seem to require that it was the body in the tomb, albeit transformed.

I can imagine a scenario in which God reconstituted the body of Jesus from different matter and then resurrected it. And I think a case could be made that this was Jesus. In that case, one could imagine the body still in the tomb.

BUT for those who reject the empty tomb this is no help. The cure is even worse than the purported sickness. Now we have to imagine some miraculous intervention to rebuild a second Jesus-body and that is even more "unbelievable" to such people than believing that God resurrected the body in the first place.

For me the key thing affirmed by the tradition is that resurrection is bodily and that it involved matter transformed. Technically you could possibly affirm that without an empty tomb but that is not what the people I am concerned about are wanting to do. They are, it appears, wanting a resurrection of Jesus that has nothing to do with a material resurrected Jesus.

You are also right that the case for them empty tomb is not that bad. In fact, I think it is excellent. Of course, if with Hume one holds such a thing to be so a priori unlikely that it would be irrational to believe it even if there seemed to be a strong case then no amount of evidence will persuade one. But of course Christians will not be inclined to weigh the prior probabilities in the way that Hume would. In fact, given the beliefs Christians have in God and his covenant promises we may judge the prior probabilities very differently.

Such are my thoughts