Three Views of the Resurrection
by Robert M. Price
In the present situation of pluralism in Protestant theology, there is perhaps no more-debated issue than that of the resurrection of Jesus. To any outsider, this would have to seem rather startling, since at least according to some estimates, this doctrine is supposed to be the basis for everything else in Christian theology. Most of the debate rests on the common assumption of the centrality (or at least indispensability) of Jesus’ resurrection. The bickering concerns the way in which this agreed-upon importance is to be articulated or accounted for. The present essay will survey three options on the contemporary theological horizon. These are the resurrection theologies of conservative John Warwick Montgomery, liberal Gordon Kaufman, and moderate Walter Künneth.
1. John Warwick Montgomery: The Resurrection as an Apologetical Guarantee
We begin our survey on the extreme theological right. John Warwick Montgomery is an incisive and informed exponent of an essentially eighteenth century Lutheran orthodoxy. In his many articles and books he brings the weapons of historiography, bibliography, and linguistic philosophy to bear on modern theology, which he plainly detests. Though seemingly fully abreast of the latest theological developments, Montgomery is satisfied with the apologetic defenses of yesteryear. His are the proofs from prophecy and miracle. Most students encounter these only in their studies of historical theology, but in Montgomery’s writings they are alive and well.
In reading much conservative theological literature, one may be struck by the paucity of theological significance given the resurrection. This at first seems exceedingly strange, since conservatives are unflagging in their insistence that the resurrection of Christ be maintained as true in every nail scarred particular. It is almost reminiscent of a museum curator who is eager to preserve an old cannon in perfect condition--no use can be made of the piece any more, but it is indispensable to the collection. Critic James Barr has sought to explain this kind of surprising gap. He believes that conservatives care very little about “theology,” i.e., a worked-out rationale for under standing faith. Instead, they are interested only in "doctrine,” a list of self-sufficient tenets whose only necessary relationship is their common membership in such a list of "Fundamentals."
But for John Warwick Montgomery, the doctrine of the resurrection does have a clear connection with at least one other tenet of faith. And it is a surprising connection! Jesus’ resurrection functions chiefly as a guarantee for the Warfield doctrine of "biblical authority.” As formulated by Montgomery, this argument has six steps.
First, "The historical value of the New Testament records about Christ is, when considered from the objective stand-point of textual scholarship, nothing less than stellar."1 Montgomery uses various arguments to establish the "reliability of the gospels.” Chief among these is the claim that the gospels stem so directly from eyewitness testimony that it becomes unrealistic to suggest that faith has substantially altered the sayings and deeds of Jesus.
Steps two and three are concisely summarized as follows: “And in these attested historical documents the Divine claims of Jesus Christ and the Resurrection by which He validated those claims are set forth in the most lucid and persuasive terms.”2 Montgomery asserts that Jesus simply "claimed to be God," which is vastly to oversimplify the matter, even if one credits the historical Jesus with every saying attributed to him in the canon. Further ingenious exegesis on Montgomery's part yields the conclusion that Jesus also predicted that he would rise from the dead in order to verify his "claims to be God." The longer Matthean version of the "sign of Jonah” pericope is probably in mind here, perhaps along with Luke 16:31. Needless to say, Montgomery must read into such texts his notion that Jesus intends to put on the line his "claims to be God." All this constitutes step two.
Step three, contained in the last quote, is the assertion that the resurrection of Jesus is attested incontrovertibly from the "historical evidence" of the gospel texts. And if Jesus did rise from the dead right on schedule, then he must have been God, just as he claimed. Montgomery thus thinks to leap Lessing’s ugly ditch with a single bound.
With step four, we reach the real significance of the resurrection for Montgomery. “The historical validation of a Divine Christ leads to the establishment of the Scriptures as Divine revelation.”3 Here we deal with a two-pronged line of defense. On the one hand, “When one examines, purely on historical grounds, the attitude of Jesus toward the Old Testament, one finds that He regarded it as no less than God's revealed Word.”4 And “if Jesus was in fact God incarnate as He claimed and as His Resurrection evidences, then His evaluation of Scripture is no mere human, fallible judgment, but the exact truth.”5 And so, therefore, is Montgomery's. "And” on the other hand "the same veracity attaches to His promise to His Apostles that His Spirit would give them 'total recall’ concerning his teachings, thereby guaranteeing that the New Testament documents, subsequently written by them and by their close associates (under Apostolic guidance), would have revelatory value also.”6 Again, there are problems. The texts Montgomery alludes to, John 14:26-27 and 16:12-15, say nothing about the production of inspired texts and could just as easily be pressed into guaranteeing papal infallibility ex cathedra. Also, Montgomery would have a devil of a time proving that the apostle Paul was in the upper room at the time of this promise. And as for the parenthetic authorization of "revelatory documents" from apostolic associates like Mark and Luke, Montgomery may wish such a thing had been spoken by Jesus, but even he can quote no text to this effect.
What is the upshot of all this? "Thus can the authority of the Christian Scriptures be established on a solidly empirical, historical footing.... For Christ Himself has settled the authority issue once and for all.”7 As far as Montgomery is concerned, the main role of the resurrection of Christ is an indirect epistemological one. Even if this connection could be made as strongly as Montgomery thinks it can, we would still have a sense of some thing missing. Is no more substantial theological significance to be attached to the event of Easter?
2. Gordon Kaufman: The Resurrection as a Historic Hallucination
Moving considerably to the left we come next to consider Mennonite theologian Gordon Kaufman. Though Kaufman's theology of resurrection is not particularly distinctive among contemporary Liberal theologians, his unequivocal bluntness makes him a helpful model. Reading his works, one receives the impression that he has said in plain words what many others have obscured through diplomacy.
Kaufman begins his discussion with a quick statement about the significance of Easter:
The resurrection... means that God is Lord despite all that men believe and do to the contrary. Even though men rejected Jesus of Nazareth... apparently removing all possibility of his further historical effectiveness, God "raised him up'! ... and made him after his death the mighty transformer of history.8
And without the resurrection, Kaufman agrees with Paul, our faith would be in vain. This would be so because God's revelatory act would then dead-end at the crucifixion, "and the meaning of human existence revealed in that occurrence taken simply by itself is bleak tragedy and death.”9 Whether Kaufman's version of the resurrection justifies any alternative assessment of the cross is a question we will consider presently.
Kaufman has often made plain his distaste for any concept of the miraculous and does not indulge in supernaturalism here. He is forthright in saying that "these alleged appearances were in fact a series of hallucinations”10 and that "Contemporary belief... will not necessarily involve the conviction that the crucified Jesus became personally alive again."11 To most people, all this might sound as if Kaufman no longer believes in the resurrection. And indeed he has quite a time trying to justify his continued use of the term. "Basically, he seems content to say that Jesus' influence, or cause, lived after him. “God's act begun in him was a genuine historical act which still continues and was thus becoming an effective force in human history; in this sense... Christ himself was raised from the dead.”12 Kaufman really means simply that "the love, mercy, and forgiveness" that had existed among the followers of Jesus (did it? –cf. Mark 9:33-34, Matthew 20:24) continued on in the early church and is still experienced today.
Such continuity, Kaufman admits, is not the personal continuity of Jesus before and beyond death envisioned by the early Christians. Granted, faith today is exercised in a different plausibility structure. So what if we accept the "resurrection" for different reasons? It is true, Kaufman admits, that if the original disciples had realized, as he does, that the Easter appearances could be adequately explained as non-miraculous hallucinations, they would have gone back to fishing and tax- collecting for good. But we know better than they about the positive value of creative hallucinatory experiences and so can value theirs for the insight it produced. And this is the real value of the resurrection--on Easter morning the mirage of Jesus triggered a "disclosure situation" (Ian Ramsey) wherein the nature of God and his purpose for man became known, i.e., love and forgiveness. We accept this "revelatory insight" encased by the not-quite-earthen vessels of hallucination.
As intriguing as this schema may be, it seems to run into serious problems, even according to Kaufman's own criteria. For instance, though he tries to draw a distinction between the appearances and the resurrection as an hypothetical factor anterior to them,13 he finally locates the "resurrection" as an insight posterior to the appearances. In fact, this technical inconsistency opens an even larger question. Kaufman claims to have faith in the resurrection itself as revelatory of God:
faith will say that through these appearances ("hallucinations ") the almighty God was making himself known... Why would faith say this? Simply because, as a matter of actual historical fact... it was the experience of these appearances that gave birth to the faith that in and through the crucified Jesus God was acting decisively on human history.14
But the disciple s only saw God J s hand in it all because of their (mistaken) belief that Jesus had actually "become personally alive again." It seems that Kaufman accepts an event as revelatory simply because someone else did, and despite the fact that they were technically mistaken in so doing. He removes the original rationale for calling it "revelatory" and substitutes for it the mere fact that someone did think it was revelatory. Ultimately, Kaufman finds the faith of the early church, not any resurrection, to be revelatory. He in effect embraces the caricature -version of Bultmann's dictum that "Christ rose into the kerygma." Bultmann never meant to idealize and exalt the religious experience of the community as such, but Kaufman seems to do this on purpose.
But the above quote raises a second problem, pointed out by Clark Pinnock. Kaufman's rhetoric about God's "acting decisively in history” requires a different sort of resurrection. “The resurrection was preeminently an event in the history of meaning,”15 yet Kaufman expects that the history of events will ultimately turn out God’s way (in a return to the old Social Gospel optimism). A real transformation of the world is in the eschatological offing (see Chapter 22, “The Consummation of History" in his Systematic Theology: A Historicist Perspective). Kaufman seems suddenly to have abandoned his reticence to speak of God miraculously doing things that will change the outcome of natural processes. He forbids any interference by God in the course of events in the case of Jesus, but not in history as a whole. And since the resurrection of Jesus (an event in the history of meaning) is held to be the first fruits, or proleptic anticipation, of the eschaton, why isn't the eschaton also a nontemporal eschaton “of meaning,” as in Tillich’s theology?
Finally, we must raise the question of whether Kaufman's resurrection can justify any positive significance for the cross. If there was no resurrection-victory of the same kind as the cross-defeat, how can we speak of a divine reversal of the rebellious rejection of Christ by men? Didn't they achieve their purpose after all? It seems safe to say that the early Christians (especially Luke) saw God's victory in the resurrection because it reversed the murder (the personal death) of Jesus by making Jesus personally alive again, a notion disavowed by Kaufman. Yet Kaufman does seem to see things in terms of vindication (or lack of it). He warns that the resurrection must not be seen as the undoing of the cross, since on Golgotha,
ultimate reality is not to be understood in terms of the all-too-human conceptions of worldly power… On the contrary, in the cross were found meekness and submission, nonresistance to evil, self-sacrifice; and the resurrection meant that just this cross was the very revelation of God's innermost nature.16
Mustn't this mean, then, that God's last word is nonresistance to evil? And without the prospect of vindication (dropped by Kaufman with the personal resurrection of Jesus), doesn't this amount to throwing in the towel? Isn't the cross in the final analysis a picture of "bleak tragedy” in Kaufman's words? With Kaufman's version of Good Friday and Easter, why should the meek feel particularly "blessed"? They have no guarantee that they will inherit the earth.
3. Walter Künneth: The Resurrection as Theologically Central
Our third theologian, Walter Künneth (The Theology of the Resurrection), is a conservative Lutheran, but of a considerably different stripe than John Warwick Montgomery. Actually one might discern some kind of second cousin relationship, since Künneth teaches at Erlangen, as did Ethelbert Stauffer from whom Montgomery received much of his inspiration. Künneth is definitely to be placed on the conservative side of the spectrum. But his conservatism has been forged in the heat of the controversy over Bultmann’s demythologizing, and it has been positively as well as negatively influenced by that debate. In fact for someone who has come out so “anti-Bultmannian” in the heresy controversies in Germany, Künneth sounds amazingly Bultmannian! Künneth has marked out a happy alternative to both approaches considered so far. First, he supplies solid and material content for the doctrine of the resurrection. Second, he blends many of the concerns of conservatives and liberals in a creative manner. Künneth shows that much of the Bultmannian perspective can be assimilated into a supernaturalist framework, as alchemical as that may sound. Though his effort is not quite successful at some points, it is quite significant.
Surprisingly, Künneth disagrees with Montgomery and agrees with Bultmann on the is sue of historical verification (or "historicality") of the resurrection.
If the resurrection is an event on the plane of history, then it also participates in all that determines the nature of history. The resurrection event is then a relative fact in the context of the phenomena and life of history, stands in continuity with a multitude of other known and unknown factors belonging to this world, is an element in historical existence and as such possesses no absolute validity but is subject to conditions and thus to the uncertainties and probabilities of all history. To insist upon the historic character of the resurrection has the result of objectifying it, ... that means... that the assertion of its historicality leads to an irresistible process of dissolution, which ominously threatens the reality of the resurrection itself. 17
In other words, Künneth sees what Montgomery fails to see, that the applicability of a set of verification criteria implies that the thing so verified does not transcend the criteria since it can be matched with, or included in, them. And since criteria for historical verification are based on the principle of analogy, any resurrection which falls in their purview must be analogous to ordinary experience, i.e., not miraculous! Ironically, it was the attempt to "verify" the resurrection in this way that resulted in the formation of the rationalistic “Swoon Theory" (i.e., Jesus was alive after his crucifixion, but in a "verifiable” or "explainable" way) detested by Montgomery and other apologists who use essentially the same methodology, albeit inconsistently.
Künneth’s agreement with Bultmann is visible in the above quote: "To insist upon the historical character of the resurrection has the result of objectifying it." To bring the resurrection into the flux of ordinary events, to make it merely another this-worldly object, is to make it mundane. It thereby loses its transcendent character. It is no worthy object of faith, has no redemptive power. We see Bultmannian concerns echoed here. Künneth feels that to ask for historical verification is basically inappropriate to the qualitatively unique message of the resurrection. The only appropriate criterion is faith, receptive encounter with the revelation. In only slightly different terms we have here Bultmann's kicking away of the "objective” props of faith, the cognitive “works” promised by historical apologetics. They are merely worldly attempts to attain security by capturing the resurrection in human terms. Künneth speaks in terms of inappropriate standards of verification, but the point is much the same, since any application of “historicality” robs the kerygma of its transcendence.
Here, incidentally, is an important clue to Bultmann's intent. He has often been criticized for providing no reason for the effectiveness of Christ's cross, i.e., no theory of atonement. The answer is that so to make the cross applicable by accounting for it in terms of general categories is to drag it down into the realm of worldly thoughts and concepts. Even so for Künneth, historical proof “fundamentally destroys the uniqueness of the resurrection and thus fails to grasp the basic newness of the witness to the resurrection.” For this reason, “The tradition has no desire for a 'historical proof of the resurrection.'" With an apologetic like that, Künneth reasons, who needs attacks? The “the attempt falls prey to the historical levelling process.”18
It is important now to notice the strategic point of difference between Künneth and Bultmann Künneth is able to avoid objectifying apologetics and rationalizations without demythologizing. He is able to achieve much the same end by adopting something' like Barth's insistence that though the event of the resurrection truly occurred in our world, it "transcends" historical causality and thus is (fortunately or unfortunately) undetectable by the historian's methods. Thus as long as one renounces apologetics, there is no need to renounce "myth,” i.e., the supernatural And here Künneth's disagreement with Bu1tmann comes to the fore. He rejects demythologizing for more reasons than its lack of utility. He thinks it is positively dangerous. Ironically, for all of Bultmann's admirable concern to preserve the gospel from being dissolved into historical generality, Künneth thinks that his use of myth errs in much the same way: “The application of the concept of myth to the resurrection of Jesus means a levelling down of the particular to the universal, the changing of the ‘revelatio specialis’ into a general revelation.”19 While this comment would be right to the point if Künneth were talking about, say, Alan Watts's Myth and Ritual in Christianity, it shows a misunderstanding of Bultmann.
Beyond this, Künneth thinks that demythologizing is a mistake because it confuses "mythology" with "pictorial language" which is in reality indispensable to human thought and speech. As such, language surrounding the resurrection of Jesus may indeed be relative and limited, but surely all language is similarly limited.
Concepts like God, heaven, the spatial designation "above" for the eternal and divine, the spatial designation "below" for the earthly, transitory and the dead, and likewise "resurrection" as denoting the transition from "below" to "above, " from death to the life of God, are technical terms of biblical religion; and while they do share in the fragmentary character of all earthly representations of an unconditional reality, which means they can comprehend it only in a pictorial space-time pattern, yet at the same time they are valid and appropriate for every world-picture, since even an advance in scientific knowledge of the world does not free us from the need to use spatial and temporal forms of expression. 20
What does Künneth think Bu1tmann is proposing? Künneth's own explanation of "picture language” is very nearly the sane as what Bultmann means by myth. Künneth might do well to read Ogden's defense of Bultmann's concept of myth in Christ without Myth. All that Bultmann asks is that such "picture-language" be interpreted, not that it be stripped away and discarded. In Tillich's terms, myth is irreplaceable as the language of religion, though it must be "deliteralized." Künneth does not seem to realize just how close to Bultmann he is.
Unlike Montgomery, Künneth does not rest content to find in the resurrection the merely preliminary concerns of apologetics and epistemology. Rather he goes on to show the "dogmatic significance" of the resurrection. Indeed, he makes it central to Christian theological thinking. We will only touch on a few aspects of this here. According to Künneth, the resurrection is crucial to the Christological enterprise, forming the foundation of the exaltation motif. He sees resurrection/exaltation to divine "Kyrios” status as the only way to conceive of the divinity of Jesus so as not to compromise monotheism.
The installation of Jesus as Lord means the same as the conferring of divine majesty. This grounding of his divine majesty in the resurrection rules out... any speculative, non-historic metaphysic of the intrinsic divine nature of Jesus. . . . There must always come an alteration in the monotheistic concept of God, however, when Lordship is conceived... to be already an inherent property of Jesus. 21
But at the same time, to locate Jesus' divinity in his exaltation is to prevent the classical Liberals' location of it in Jesus' earthly life, his openness to God and others, etc. The value of this distinction is apparent in a mirror image fashion from those "historical Jesus" Christologies such as Hans Küng's, for which the resurrection is really superfluous.
Künneth seems to come close to Pannenberg (in Jesus: God and Man) at this point. Both theologians locate Jesus I divinity at the point of resurrection. Pannenberg says that Jesus' life thereby "retroactively” becomes messianic. Similarly, Künneth says that since the resurrection, the words of the Rabbi from Nazareth "retrospectively” become the words of the Lord. They lose their conditional time-bound character and assume universal validity. Here, incidentally, is the one place Künneth seems to be in sympathy with Montgomery's epistemological approach, whereby the resurrection authorizes Jesus' words. Yet Künneth contradicts himself later on, claiming that such time-bound pre-Easter historical data must remain irrelevant to faith! Shades of Bultmann! 22
In terms of atonement and salvation, there is much to be said about the resurrection, since it is the other side of the cross, that which makes the cross a victory. Without the resurrection, the cross could only enshrine and deify masochism, as Joachim Kahl the bitter anti-theologian says that it does
(in The Misery of Christianity). A cross followed by a resurrection proclaims not death but new life. And in such a cross, one is able to rise as well as die with Christ. Merely dying with him could be no real salvation. Künneth invokes the Lutheran dialectic of "at the same time sinner and justified" to make his point. With no resurrection, God must only judge sin. But if Christ rises "for our justification," the double-edged act of God in judging and saving is secured. It is the resurrection which makes the death on the cross a reconciling death. Künneth says that the resurrection (combined of course with the cross) "creates a new situation”23 of reconciliation, yet his choice of other terms like "proves” and "reveals” make it somewhat unclear whether the resurrection actually effects or simply manifests God's saving forgiveness. But Künneth does not demonstrate the connection between cross/resurrection and salvation. One may suspect that there is a good reason for this, i.e., that like Bultmann, Künneth may reason that a theory of atonement would make God’s act explicable to man and thus place it among worldly possibilities, removing its transcendent salvific value.
Applying the resurrection of Christ to the doctrine of creation, Künneth borrows the Irenaean theme of the resurrection as a recapitulation of creation which at the same time brings creation to its originally intended (but never yet achieved) telos. Seen this way, Christ not only restores creation but completes it.
Not surprisingly, resurrection applies to eschatology as well as to protology. It is the first fruits of the future. It marks the pivot of the ages, from which point the aeon kata pneuma can be distinguished by faith from the aeon kata sarka, the Kingdom of Christ in the midst of the Kingdom of Satan. For a time the two run parallel, but this state of affairs is not to continue indefinitely. Eventually, the resurrection’s judgment/victory will be made manifest to all. But we cannot say just how. With admirable restraint reminiscent of Reinhold Niebuhr, Künneth reminds us that an eschatological consummation would be wrongly described in any this-worldly terms literally understood. We must be content to describe the significance of the eschaton. His language is at length forthright: “Nor is it the task of theology to force the irrationalities of Christian eschatology into a logical system, but on the contrary to expound their meaning.”24 And among those “meanings,” Künneth finds hope for eventual universal salvation. Künneth himself cannot resist a little systematizing, since he is at least able to tell us that the resurrection is proleptically central to eschatology. More examples could be given, but enough has been said to show that Künneth makes the resurrection of Christ materially central to theology, and not only formally central as Montgomery does.
In our quick sweep of three options in today's discussion about the resurrection, we have seen in the approaches of conservative John Warwick Montgomery and liberal Gordon Kaufman some of the weaknesses besetting the theological camps they represent. Neither is able to relate the resurrection to the rest of Christian theology in any but an oblique way. One might say that it is their concern with the supernatural (whether to verify or to eliminate it) that leads both men astray. By contrast, we found the approach of Walter Künneth a refreshing change, dealing effectively with questions of verifiability, but then moving on to impart to Easter morning a material and wide-ranging dogmatic significance. Embodying as it does a serious attempt to preserve both conservative and liberal concerns in a workable synthesis, we suggest that Künneth's theology of the resurrection merits more attention than it has received as a new way forward for Christian thinking today.
1 John Warwick Montgomery, The Suicide of Christian Theology (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship,, 1975), p. 38.
2 Ibid., pp. 38-39.
3 Ibid., p. 39.
5 Ibid., p. 40.
8 Gordon D. Kaufman, Systematic Theology: A Historicist Perspective (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1968), p. 415.
9 Ibid., p. 416.
10 Ibid., p. 422.
11 Ibid., p. 426.
12 Ibid., p. 429.
13 Ibid., pp. 421-422.
14 Ibid., p. 423.
15. Ibid., p. 433
16 Ibid., p. 432
17 Walter Künneth, The Theology of the Resurrection (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1965), pp. 24-25.
18 Ibid., p. 30.
19 Ibid., p. 57.
20 Ibid., p. 7l.
21 Ibid. p. 133.
22 Ibid., compare p. 141 with p. 149.
23 Ibid., p. 165.
24 Ibid., p. 284