Sunday, April 8, 2012

Easter Morning

"What gives Christianity its identity," writes Catholic philosopher Stephen H. Webb,

is its commitment to the divinity of Jesus Christ. And on that ground Mormons are more Christian than many mainstream Christians who do not take seriously the astounding claim that Jesus is the Son of God. Mormonism is obsessed with Christ, and everything that it teaches is meant to awaken, encourage, and expand faith in him...Mormon metaphysics is Christian metaphysics minus Origen and Augustine—in other words, Christianity divorced from Plato...Matter is perfectible because it is one of the perfections of the divine...This should not be taken lightly. The Mormon metaphysic calls for the revision of nearly every Christian belief...If you had to choose between a Jesus whose body is eternal and a Jesus whose divinity is trivial (as in many modern theological portraits), I hope it would be an easy choice.[1]

I have often had a similar feeling regarding the doctrine of the Trinity. Most Latter-day Saints who take time to disparage the nearly two millenia old belief have never taken the time to try and properly understand it. Given the Creator/creature metaphysical divide that had become prominent in Christian thinking since the second century A.D., the Arian version of subordinationism placed Jesus on the creature side of this divided ontology. The Athanasian alternative sought to maintain the divinity of Jesus and His rightful role as Creator. For that, we should be grateful.[2]

However, what is often overlooked by critics is that a major component of this particular Mormon view is the central doctrine of Christianity itself: the literal and physical resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.[3]

"Contemporary critical scholars agree that the apostle Paul is the primary witness to the early resurrection experiences."[4] Scholars also recognize that Paul quotes an early oral tradition beginning in 1 Corinthians 15:3. Explaining that what he has "handed on" (paredoka) to the Corinthian saints he also "received" (parelabon), Paul uses "the equivalent Greek terms for delivering and receiving rabbinic tradition."[5] This pre-Pauline creed states that

Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve: After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep. After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles. And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time. (1 Cor. 15:3-8, KJV)

This creed is generally considered to be the earliest in the New Testament, dating from the early to mid-30s A.D. Paul's reception most likely took place three years after his conversion during his trip to Jerusalem to visit Peter and James (mentioned in Gal. 1:18-19).[6] It should be noted that Paul was a former opponent of the Christian movement, yet he concludes the sacred list of witnesses by giving his own name and testimony as confirmation. James, the brother of Jesus and leader of the Jerusalem church, is also believed to have originally been a skeptic. His conversion was apparently inspired by a personal experience with the risen Jesus.[7]


Philosopher Richard Swinburne has argued for a notion he calls "the principle of credulity," which states "that we ought to believe that things are as they seem to be (in the epistemic sense) unless and until we have evidence that we are mistaken...If you say the contrary--never trust appearances until it is proved that they are reliable--you will never have any beliefs at all."[8] In doing so, Swinburne establishes a common sense approach to personal experience that allows for the possibility of valid religious experiences. Likewise, Swinburne offers another "basic principle of rationality" called "the principle of testimony." Similarly, the principle states "that those who do not have an experience of a certain type ought to believe any others when they say they do--again, in the absence of deceit or deception. If we could not in general trust what other people say about their experiences without checking them out in some way, our knowledge of history or geography or science would be almost non-existent."[9] The two principles go hand-in-hand. New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham has written thoroughly on the biographical nature of the Gospels with the understanding that eyewitness testimony should not "be treated as credible only to the extent that it can be independently verified. There can be good reasons for trusting or distrusting a witness, but these are precisely reasons for trusting or distrusting. Trusting testimony is not an irrational act of faith that leaves critical rationality aside; it is, on the contrary, the rationally appropriate way of responding to authentic testimony."[10] Eyewitness testimony was the most important source and a basic necessity for ancient historians. Relying on the fragments of Papias, Bauckham finds that the second-century Christian bishop followed the standard practice of history writing: reliance on living eyewitnesses (such as John the Elder). Far from being prejudiced against written works as is commonly assumed, Papias merely preferred to hear directly from those personally associated with the historical event or person (in his case, the resurrection of Jesus). Furthermore, Bauckham argues that the non-apostolic, named characters (many with distinctively Palestinian names) within the various Gospels were likely the sources of particular traditions:

The tendency of Matthew and Luke to omit some of the names we find in Mark would be explained if these people had become, by the time Matthew and Luke wrote, too obscure for them to wish to retain the names when they were engaged in abbreviating Mark's narratives...If the names are of persons well known in the Christian communities, then it also becomes likely that many of these people were themselves the eyewitnesses who first told and doubtless continued to tell the stories in which they appear and to which their names are attached. A good example is Cleopas (Luke 24:18): the story does not require that he be named and his companion remains anonymous. There seems no plausible reason for naming him other than to indicate that he was the source of this tradition.[11]

It must be recognized that "testimony is a unique and uniquely valuable means of access to historical reality."[12]

Finally, the different effects the belief in the resurrection of Jesus had on its proponents and first-century Judaism(s) are profound. As renowned scholar N.T. Wright has attested in numerous writings, the early Christian movement was a Kingdom of God movement, a Messianic movement, and a Resurrection movement.[13] First-century Palestinian Jews understood the Kingdom of God to be the liberation of Israel as well as the creation as a whole. For Christian converts, the Kingdom of God had already come by means of the resurrected Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Ghost. Death at the hands of pagans was not the expected fate of the awaited Messiah. The Jewish Messiah was meant to be a conquering political figure. Rather than abandoning claims of messiahship following his death, the followers of Jesus instead proclaimed that he had been raised from the dead. This final claim was the driving force behind the entire movement: a premature resurrection. Jewish traditions placed resurrection on the circumference of belief; an eschatological event that would include the coming of God's new age and the collective reembodiment of the dead. Yet, in the middle of history was the claim that a single individual had been raised, shattering all expectations about the resurrection.[14]

Larry W. Hurtado, emeritus professor of New Testament at the University of Edinburgh, finds that the claimed resurrection of Jesus led to a number of religious mutations and innovations.[15] First and foremost, an outgrowth of the Jewish divine agency tradition that placed the exalted Jesus at the right-hand of God, making him an object of devotion. This included hymnic practices, prayers, the use of the name of Christ, the Lord's Supper, confessions of faith in Jesus, and prophetic pronouncements of the risen Christ. The binitarian inclusion of Jesus in the Godhead (part of the Two Powers in Heaven tradition) led to a clash between Jewish Christians and "a group of Christian writers called "heresiologists," the anatomizers of heresy and heresies, and their Jewish counterparts, the Rabbis."[16] Early Christian writers such as Justin Martyr defended the binitarian stance against Christian Modalists and Jewish Rabbis who claimed the doctrine was ditheistic. It was not the doctrine of the Logos that was unique to Judaism, but that the Logos "became flesh among us" in the person of Jesus. Ironically, "in the move to a trinitarian theology within which the entire trinity is both self-contained and fully transcendent, Athanasius and his fellows insist that God alone, without a mediator, without an angel, without a Logos, is the creator. Logos theology is, ultimately, as thoroughly rejected within Nicene Christianity as within orthodox rabbinism."[17]

The testimonies of old followed by radical theological shifts cry out for explanation.[18] Many have been offered, though they tend to be unsatisfying or lacking in explanatory power. "Virtually no critical scholar questions that the disciples' convictions regarding the risen Jesus caused their radical transformation, even being willing to die for their beliefs. Their change does not evidence the resurrection appearances per se, but it is a clear indication that the disciples at least thought that they had experienced the risen Jesus. Alternatives must account for this belief."[19] What are the possible implications of that first Easter morning? That there is a god, that the renewal and rescue of creation has begun, that we have a role in this new creation, and that ultimate justice and joy can and will be achieved. And all this through the person of Jesus Christ.

1. For more on Webb's views, see his "Godbodied: The Matter of the Latter-day Saints," BYU Studies 50:3 (2011) and Jesus Christ, Eternal God: Heavenly Flesh and the Metaphysics of Matter (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012). For more on ancient Jewish and Christian metaphysics and divine embodiment, see Robert P. Casey, "Clement of Alexandria and the Beginnings of Christian Platonism," Harvard Theological Review 18 (1925); Christopher Stead, Philosophy in Christian Antiquity (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994); David L. Paulsen, "Early Christian Belief in a Corporeal Deity: Origen and Augustine as Reluctant Witnesses," Harvard Theological Review 83:2 (1990); Carl W. Griffin and David L. Paulsen, "Augustine and the Corporeality of God," Harvard Theological Review 95:1 (2002); Paulsen, "The Doctrine of Divine Embodiment: Restoration, Judeo-Christian, and Philosophical Perspectives," BYU Studies 35:4 (1995-1996); Paulsen, "Divine Embodiment: The Earliest Christian Understanding of God," in Early Christians in Disarray: Contemporary LDS Perspectives on the Christian Apostasy, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2005); Shamma Friedman, "Anthropomorphism and Its Eradication," in Iconoclasm and Iconoclash: Struggle for Religious Identity, eds. W.J. van Asselt, Paul van Geest, Daniela Muller, Theo Salemink (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2007); Edmond LaB. Cherbonnier, "In Defense of Anthropomorphism," in Reflections on Mormonism: Judaeo-Christian Parallels, ed. Truman G. Madsen (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1978). For more on the philosophical aspects of the Mormon concept of God, see the work of philosopher Blake T. Ostler.

2. "Ultimately, though, the Arian position was untenable simply because it reduced to incoherence the Christian story of redemption as it had been understood, proclaimed, prayed, and lived for generations...For Athanasius, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, and many others, it was first and foremost the question of salvation that must determine how the identity of Christ is to be conceived. And they understood salvation, it must be appreciated, not in the rather impoverished way of many modern Christians, as a kind of extrinsic legal transaction between the divine and human by which a debt is canceled and the redeemed soul issued a certificate of entry into the afterlife; rather they saw salvation as nothing less than a real and living union between God and his creatures. To be saved was to be joined to God himself in Christ, to be in fact "divinized"-which is to say, in the words of 2 Peter 1:4, to become "partakers of the divine nature." In a lapidary phrase favored, in one form or another, by a number of the church fathers, "God became man that man might become god." In Christ, the Nicene party believed, the human and divine had been joined together in a perfect and indissoluble unity, by participation in which human beings might be admitted to share in his divinity...Only God can join us to God. And so, if it is Christ who joins us to the Father, then Christ must himself be no less than God, and must be equal to the Father in divinity." (David B. Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009, 205-206.) See also Keith Edward Norman, "Deification: The Context of Athanasian Soteriology" (Ph.D. dissertation, Duke University, 1980).

3. For some of the best philosophical criticisms to date, see The New Mormon Challenge: Responding to the Latest Defenses of a Fast-Growing Movement, eds. Francis J. Beckwith, Carl Mosser, Paul Owen (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2002), particularly "Part II: The Mormon Worldview."

4. Gary R. Habermas, "Experiences of the Risen Jesus: The Foundational Historical Issue in the Early Proclamation of the Resurrection," Dialog: A Journal of Theology 45:3 (Fall 2006): 289.

5. Ibid.: 290.

6. Gal. 1:18 uses the word historesai, "a term that indicates the investigation of a topic." (Ibid.)

7. "For neither did [Jesus'] brethren believe him." (John 7:5)

8. Richard Swinburne, Is There a God?, Revised Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 115.

9. Ibid., 116.

10. Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2006), 5.

11. Ibid., 46-47.

12. Ibid., 5.

13. For example, see N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperOne, 2008); "Christian Origins and the Resurrection of Jesus: The Resurrection of Jesus as a Historical Problem," Sewanee Theological Review 41:2 (1998); "Early Traditions and the Origins of Christianity," STR 41:2 (1998); "The Resurrection and the Postmodern Dilemma," STR 41:2 (1998); The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003).

14. This was understood as a physical resurrection. Paul's dichotomy of natural and spiritual bodies (see 1 Cor. 15:44) is not a dichotomy between physical and non-physical bodies: "The first word, psychikos, does not in any case mean anything like "physical" in our sense. For Greek speakers of Paul's day, the psyche, from which the word derives, means the soul, not the body. But the deeper, underlying point is that adjectives of this type, Greek adjectives ending in -ikos, describe not the material out of which things are made but the power or energy that animates them. It is the difference between asking, on the one hand, "Is it a wooden ship or an iron ship?" (the material from which it is made) and asking, on the other, "Is this a steamship or a sailing ship?" (the energy that powers it). Paul is talking about the present body, which is animated by the normal human psyche (the life force we all possess here and now, which gets us through the present life but is ultimately powerless against illness, injury, decay, and death), and the future body, which is animated by God's pneuma, God's breath of new life, the energizing power of God's new creation." (Wright, Surprised by Hope, 155-156.)

15. See Larry W. Hurtado, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism, 2nd ed. (London: Continuum, 1998), specifically Ch. 5 "The Early Christian Mutation"; Hurtado "Religious Experience and Religious Innovation in the New Testament," Journal of Religion 80:2 (2000).

16. Daniel Boyarin, Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), 2. ""Heresiology"--the "science" of heresies--inscribes the border lines, and heresiologists are the inspectors of religious customs." (Ibid.)

17. Boyarin, 2004, 139.

18. This is true even without referencing the witnesses of the Restoration and the Book of Mormon.

19. Habermas, 2006: 292.

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