The Butterfly’s Boots

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I am continuing to work through Wright’s book, Surprised by Scripture, and so I now come to Chapter 3 — “Can a Scientist Believe in the Resurrection?”

Look. This chapter was fantastico. Top drawer. First class. Stupendous. Marvelous. Top flight. Really cool. Fantabulous. This is how Wright deservedly got his high reputation. Am I overdoing it? Too many eggs in the pudding? Just one more. This chapter was the butterfly’s boots.

Look. I’ll be honest. It really was a great chapter, but I overdid it just a slight little skosh because I looked and saw that the next chapter is going to be on women’s ordination. I want to keep an equilibrium going. I have a reputation for even-mindedness to protect.

Look. The previous two paragraphs started with look. Writers do that sometimes.

There are three stand-out features of this chapter that I want to highlight. First, Wright does a great job distinguishing the different kinds of knowing that we have to grapple with in discussions like this. Claims about the resurrection are claims about history, and so cannot be subjected to strict scientific analysis. “To put it crudely . . . science studies the repeatable, while history studies the unrepeatable” (p. 44). Not only can I not know scientifically that George Washington crossed the Delaware at the battle of Trenton, it is also kind of important that I not try to know it that way. Having to know about historical events by historical means is not a limitation, at least not for sensible people.

The second point is that Wright plainly shows what the first century Jews believed about resurrection, and he demonstrates how the early Christians received this set of beliefs, and in what respects they modified it. They did not modify what resurrection fundamentally meant, but they did modify other aspects of the traditional Jewish belief. For example, the Jews had room for their Sadducees, but there were no Christian Sadducees. “There is no trace of a Sadducean view, or of that of Philo” (p. 47). Not being a Sadducee was a sine qua non of being a Christian in the first centuries — we didn’t get our Sadducees until many centuries later. Another example is that while Second Temple Judaism held to the resurrection as part of their faith, the Christians took this faith and made it absolutely central to their faith (v. 47). Wright goes on in this vein and shows five other ways in which the Christians took the Jewish understanding of resurrection, and strengthened it in multiple ways. The Christian faith stands or falls with this. If the dead are not raised, we of all men are most to pitied (1 Cor. 15:19).

Third, Wright has a very engaging discussion of the eyewitness accounts of the resurrection, apparent discrepancies and all, and shows how these features require us to believe that these resurrection accounts are in fact primitive accounts. We have good historical reasons for refusing to believe that these accounts were “cooked.” He first points out that the gospels are saturated with Old Testament citations, but that in the resurrection accounts that drops out — like eyewitnesses who had not taken the time to collate the Old Testament basis for what they had just witnessed. The exegetical basis came later. The second thing is the use of women as the principal witnesses. “Whether we like it or not, women were not regarded as credible witnesses in the ancient world. Nobody would have made them up” (p. 53). They told the story this way because this is the way it had happened, and not because they were laboring to make the story look good. The third point is that Christ’s resurrection body was transformed, but not like it was on the Mount of Transfiguration, and not like a shining star out of Daniel. And last, Wright points out that the obvious tie-in to our future resurrection hope is conspicuously not tied in during the course of the resurrection accounts. Taking all these things together, it seems apparent that the gospel accounts of the resurrection just dumped the data they had onto the table, in order to give us compelling testimony that cries out to be sorted out. But in the meantime, these accounts are very apparently not polished theologies. They are eyewitness accounts.

There are two concluding observations I would like to make about this chapter. One thing has to do with what every conservative believer affirms, along with Wright, and the second is something that every conservative believer needs to start affirming, following after Wright.
First, Wright is great on bodily resurrection. He has no use for that species of wishful thinking that wants to evaporate the meaning  of resurrection into a warm mist somewhere down in our hearts. Resurrection, for Wright, by definition happens in a very public, physical, tangible, and practical way. Resurrection is something that happens to bodies in history.

“Resurrection in the first century meant people who were physically dead becoming physically thoroughly alive again, not simply surviving or entering a purely spiritual world, whatever that might be” (p. 44).

The second thing is something I want to dwell on for a moment. In the comments of one of my previous posts on this book, given the nature of my criticisms, someone asked why we should even bother to read Wright. This chapter is why. This chapter involves more than clearing Wright’s orthodox bona fides on the question of the resurrection.

I am glad that he is orthodox here, but I am saying something more than that he is okay. I am saying that he is more orthodox than many current conservative champions of the “faith once received.” I am saying that he is okay in ways that the broad, evangelical wing of the church is not okay. He is healthy in ways that the contemporary Reformed church is unhealthy. On this point, on this particular, there are many conservative believers who need to come to grips with the fact that Wright is way more orthodox than they are, meaning that he is more biblical than they are, and that he gets the ramifications of the gospel better than they do. Note, I do not say that he gets justification-by-faith better than John Piper does, because he doesn’t, but I am saying that he gets what the impact of justification by faith is supposed to be, and he gets it better than the faculties of every Reformed seminary in North America put together.

The resurrection is the transformation of history, and not just a weird event contained within ordinary history, which ordinary history then continues on the way it always did, wandering aimlessly down an amillennial road. And this is something he gets from the Bible, and lots of conservatives don’t. And this, incidentally, is why these conservatives keep getting their hineys kicked in our culture wars. American Christians are to be commended for actually fighting the culture war, contra Wright, but they are to be admonished for not fighting with the kind of exuberant and necessary optimism that Scripture provides for us in the fact of a man coming back from the dead right in the middle of history.

“The challenge is in fact that of new creation. To put it at its most basic, the resurrection of Jesus offers itself, to the student of history or science no less than the Christian or the theologian, not as a very odd event within the world as it is, but as the utterly characteristic, prototypical, and foundational event within the world as it has begun to be” (pp. 58-59).

“The world cannot cope with a Jesus who comes out of the tomb. who inaugurates God’s new creation right in the middle of the old one” (p. 60).

Not only is this true, it is true now. It is happening now. It is transforming all things now, human culture included. Jesus has established in this world a new way of being a human being, and we are all growing up into that. The process has been going on for two thousand years now.

Now, as I grant freely, some of Wright’s particular prescriptions for this new way of being human are calculated to give me the screaming fantods. Health care, for example. Wright chides American Christians for their ‘gut-level reaction against any kind of health-care proposal” (p. 16). Any kind of health-care proposal, eh? This is not quite my position. I think we should only object to the dumb or tyrannical health-care proposals. Other health-care proposals are fine.

It is not possible to object to bureaucrat-ridden agencies without reminding Wright of social Darwinism? For some mysterious reason, Wright thinks of things like national health care with affection and respect, and I see nothing but soft despotism. I look at the VA scandals, and I see a prolepsis of the kind of treatment everybody is going to be getting shortly, which we and our children deserve because we voted for it. But I decline to believe that we need to have this kind of crappy health care because Jesus rose from the dead, and the world is now made new. That seems to me not to follow.

You know what would be cool? We should get a bunch of conservative Calvinists to read Jesus and the Victory of God, and to do so without being subsequently suckered by all the cool kids of the soft left. We could learn from Wright about the glorious and inexorable nature of the approaching kingdom, straight out of the pages of the Bible, and we could do it without forgetting what we learned from Hayek about economics, we could do it without confounding weather and climate, we could do it without capitulating to the siren song of feminist egalitarianism, and we could do it while jealously protecting our continued right to keep and bear arms. Wouldn’t that be swell!?

We are walking down the kingdom road, but whenever we come to a crossroads, I will always decline to take the left fork. “A wise man’s heart is at his right hand; but a fool’s heart at his left” (Ecc. 10:2). In other words, the theology of the thing is glorious, but — thank the Lord — the unexamined assumptions of a soft Brit socialism are not entailed in the theology. Jesus rose from the dead, and this does mean the gradual transformation of all human history. But it means the gradual transformation of all things for the better. This means that policy proposals that will make everything worse should be ruled out.

But chapters like this one help make things better.

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Melody
Melody
8 years ago

And this time I will not make a mess of my comment by trying, and failing miserably, to include a link. This post is really, really good!

bethyada
8 years ago

So the rock is slowly growing into a mountain that will cover the whole earth?

bethyada
8 years ago

To put it crudely . . . science studies the repeatable, while history studies the unrepeatable

Yet when we consider the creation and the Fall–both singular, non-repeatable, historical events–we are to ignore our history books and start listening to scientists?

Jordan
Jordan
8 years ago

You Wright well.

Bryan Johnson
8 years ago

“To put it crudely . . . science studies the repeatable, while history studies the unrepeatable.” This is reminiscent of the distinction creation scientists make between observational science and historical science, with a bit less nuance. Is this guy a fundamentalist?

Matthew N. Petersen
Matthew N. Petersen
8 years ago

This is good. Thanks.

Tom
Tom
8 years ago

I particularly liked the part about turning to the right or left, as you discussed the rights and wrongs of Wright’s wrighting.

Eric Rasmusen
Eric Rasmusen
8 years ago

I hope you email these posts to Pastor Wright, both the praise and the criticism. He seems like the kind of scholar who’d read them. (Though possibly the kind of church politician who would not *admit* that he read Doug Wilson.)

Matthew N. Petersen
Matthew N. Petersen
8 years ago

Eric,

Wright did comment here once. Unfortunately, his assessment of Pr. Wilson’s arguments seems to be roughly the same as mine.

Eric Runge
Eric Runge
8 years ago

Doug, you’re full of the kind of beans we all need to eat more of. You remind me that a Christian man should have fire in the belly, and that that’s only complimented by a laugh from the heart. Staunch joy. How ’bout them apples?