In the piece I was invited to write for The Guardian’s ‘Comment is Free’ section, I suggested that, as the first distinguishing mark of evangelicalism, “It is the death of Christ for sins which informs and shapes all other theology, ecclesiology, missiology and so on,” quoting in support what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:3, “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures ...”
This has been queried by a couple of commentators on this blog (who are not the first to raise the point with me). John Barnett asked, “What about [Christ’s] Resurrection , particularly in view of Paul's comment in 1 Cor 15.14?” Simon Morden was more blunt: “The message of 1Cor15 (and the constant theme of Paul) is not just that Christ died for our sins, but that he rose from the dead: it is the hope we have in the risen Jesus should shape ‘all other theology, ecclesiology, missiology and so on.’”
The first point I should make in reply is that I was not, strictly speaking, arguing for the comprehensiveness, or even the accuracy, of evangelical theology. I was asked to answer a question, “What should evangelicals believe?”, and I felt the best use of my 500 word limit was to try to identify what has generated, and therefore would continue to generate, a sense of evangelical ‘identity’. I might have done the same for Anglo-Catholics, even though I am not one!
However, I would still argue that the focus I suggested is, in fact, an evangelical ‘distinctive’ (even though I expressed the wish earlier in the same article, that there should be no such thing). Simon suggests “we are an Easter people - not a Good Friday people.” I am not sure, however, that the ‘we’ here would apply to evangelicals as they have been historically.
In evangelicalism, the resurrection has not, in fact, been the primary focus either of theology generally or evangelism specifically. Evangelicals have been, in fact, a Good Friday people, not an Easter people, and in support of this I would point to Tom Wright’s recent Surprised by Hope.
Wright correctly identifies the weakness that has grown up in much traditional Christian understanding surrounding the resurrection of Jesus and its implications for both the present and the future. Too often, the resurrection has been taken to imply “a glorious, blissful world beyond this one” (p 303), rather than the biblical hope of a new heavens and a new earth. The emphasis in this ‘hope’ is on what happens to the individual, not what happens to creation.
Wright’s work also suggests that this is, if anything, a bigger problem for those who believe Christ rose bodily than it is for those who have ‘demythologized’ his resurrection into a survival of his message. At the end of the book he presents two caricature clergy — the ‘evangelical’ and the ‘liberal’ — each holding forth about the implications of the Easter message and each, in their own way, wrong: the evangelical in his application and the liberal in his reasoning.
There is much truth in what Wright says, but my point is that this confusion about the resurrection — the next part of the tradition Paul handed on — has hardly impinged at all on evangelical identity. Nor, despite what Wright argues, would the necessary corrections here make much difference at all to evangelical proclamation. Or rather, if it did, that proclamation would cease to be what has previously been regarded as evangelical.
In my own case, for example, I came to the realization long ago that the Christian hope was not of ‘you going to heaven when you die’, but of ‘heaven joining with earth at Christ’s return’. It did not, however, change my evangelism one iota, nor did it make me feel I was at odds with evangelical tradition. Wright does argue for such a transformed agenda (p 218, et seq), but I did not find myself persuaded that this was necessary from the valid points he makes about our hope.
This is not, however, simply a matter of how we do evangelism or mission. It concerns the fundamental shape of our theology, and the question of how that relates to the crucifixion and resurrection. I am not, of course, denying the latter. Nor am I saying that the economy of salvation finished at the cross. We must include the ascension, heavenly session and outpouring of the Holy Spirit, as well as Christ’s final return in judgement, to get the whole picture (cf 1 Cor 15:24-28).
But there is an important question about the ‘centre of gravity’ of the work of salvation. There is a proportionality and logical relationship to be established between the various parts, and in this regard I think Paul does indeed set the crucifixion at the centre of his soteriology, with the other parts of his theology arranged around, and deriving from, that.
The chief reason for this, I would hold, is that Paul’s theology of salvation is Christocentric. That is to say, it is shaped by understanding who Christ is and what Christ has done. As a Pharisee, Paul already believed in the resurrection of the dead (and indeed the new heavens and the new earth, see Acts 23:6 where he uses this to divide his opponents). The transformation in his theology was in seeing that the crucified Jesus was the Christ. It was thus his understanding of the crucifixion that changed the way he thought about everything else.
Consequently I am entirely with Martin Luther at this point: Crux sola est nostra theologia — the cross alone is our theology (WA 5.176.32-3).
There are, however, some subsidiary points to note. First, the crucifixion and the resurrection must be distinguished within the economic Trinity as works of the incarnate Son and works of God the Father. The emphasis throughout the New Testament is that Christ died and that God raised him from the dead. This entails, I think, a logical relationship between the parts of the process of salvation which again makes the cross central to both the old and the new creations.
It is Christ through whom and for whom the world was made (Col 1:16), and it is the blood of Christ — his death on the cross — which redeems creation: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation; you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God, and they will reign on earth,” (Revelation 5:9-10). Christ’s resurrection, and ours, is the fruit of that ‘scroll opening’ by his blood (cf Rev 5:5-6).
Secondly, the repeated sacramental action of the church ‘proclaims the Lord’s death until he comes’ (1 Cor 11:26). Here, I found Wright’s presentation unfortunately weak. The way he presents it in Surprised by Hope, for Wright, the chief significance of the eucharist is that, “It is the future coming to meet us in the present” (p 287). That is a significance, however, which I must say is very hard to find in either the New Testament or the liturgies of the Church (especially the Church of England). Wright’s argument is about how Jesus is present in the eucharist, but it avoids both the Roman Catholic and the Anglican understandings — the former that he is present in the ‘host’ as victim, the latter that he is present ‘by faith’ in the heart of the believer (“feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving”, BCP).
The resurrection per se does not feature highly in our eucharistic liturgies for the precise reason that it does not feature in the New Testament accounts (cf 1 Cor 11:22-26). Wright’s account of the eucharist is thus, I think, tendentious.
There is more, undoubtedly, that could be said, but time and space preclude it at this moment. I hope this may make clear, however, why I take it that we are, indeed, an ‘Easter people’ (though I heartily dislike the association with the pagan ‘Eostre’ — which may itself be another argument about the balance!) because we are a Good Friday — a paschal — people first.
9 December 2008