Thursday, April 28, 2011

The "Raising" of Jesus (Easter, Day 5)

From my reading of the New Testament, there seem to be three different terms used to speak of what happened on Easter morning: (1) Jesus was raised, (2) Jesus has/is risen, and (3) Jesus is alive.

Let's talk about the first one today. Stay tuned for the rest!

(1) Jesus was raised.

The raising of Jesus is especially dominant Acts, though it occurs quite a bit in Paul's letters too. The turning point of each of Peter's and Paul's sermons is that "God raised this Jesus from the dead." Here's two quick thoughts and question.

First, note that this way of speaking is consistently put in the past tense. This fits its context in Acts, where the apostles are recounting the events concerning Jesus. One could say, "Jesus is raised." Perhaps there are instances in the NT that I've missed. Please point them out to me. But it is certainly not the dominant pattern. And I think there's a reason, i.e., the raising of Jesus is an event in the past, something that happened at a specific time and place.

Furthermore, it something that happened to Jesus. Which brings us to my second point.

In the first instance, the resurrection is not an act performed by Jesus, but an act performed on Jesus. To raise is a transitive verb, i.e., one that requires an object. You can just say "x raised." You gotta say "x raised y." Hence the recurring phrase, "God raised Jesus." The passive construction also works: "Jesus was raised." But here the subject of the act is implied, i.e., Jesus was raised by God. Sometimes the subject is supplied, and often further specified as God the Father.

This way of speaking the Easter gospel raises a theological question: if God raised Jesus, but Jesus is God, then shouldn't we also say Jesus raised himself? There are hints of such reflexive constructions in the New Testament (esp. in John), though they are by no means dominant. This way of speaking, however, has became quite central in the Christian tradition, and for good reason (i.e., the deity of Jesus and the unity of God).

My question is whether this reflective construction obscures the theological payoff of the NT's talk of raising: that Jesus Christ died and then was raised by another, i.e., his Father. Jesus Christ in his divine-human unity was dead, and afterwards was raised by God the Father, and act which he received by did not directly perform. In other words, the initiative of the Easter event lies wholly with God the Father. When we speak of the initiating moment of Easter, i.e., when we speak in the past tense, we must speak of the Father acting upon the Son. How to make this point without denying the deity of Christ or the unity of God is not easy. But I think it's a point that needs to be made.

Any thoughts?

6 comments:

π² said...

I generally take the reflective "Jesus raised himself" in sense of the divinity of the Son. Jesus was raised by the power and will of the triune God. I think the idea of Jesus being acted upon, "raised by God," as well as having his own part to play, is fitting with Jesus' own words in John 8:27-30.

The one point I felt was missing was the Spirit's role in raising Jesus (Rom. 8:11).

JohnLDrury said...

Yes! Good thoughts. John 8 is key for that traditional argument.

That's the standard way of explaining it, i.e., Jesus as God raised himself as man (cf. Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word or Aquinas, ST, Vol. III). So you are in good company!

However, I wonder if the dominance of this pattern of thought renders the Father's action redundant. There's a place for speaking of the Son's acting. And I will do so soon -- this is just the first point of a series of three, so stay tuned. But I think we should start with where God starts, i.e., the Father as the "font of divinity," the source of the Son and the Spirit, as so appropriately the initiator of the resurrection event.

Also, I think we have to place some strong limits on the reflexive construction if we don't want to either (a) imply that Jesus didn't really die [dead people don't do things!] or (b) imply that Jesus is a half-god, half-man, so that the the man-half dies but the god-half lives [that seems too Nestorian for my tastes]. I believe there are ways of affirming John 8 (and 10!) that don't cause these problems, i.e., the fact that Jesus has the right to pick up his life doesn't means he uses it; in a kenotic movement Jesus has willed to not use his divine right over death but to give himself up to death and into the hands of his Father to raise him.

As for the Spirit, hooray for Romans 8:11!!! That's probably my favorite verse of Scripture! I preach on it regularly and take it as a cue for developing a fully trinitarian theology of Easter. But note: the Spirit even in that verse is the one by whom the Father raises Jesus. The Spirit is the means of the Father's act upon Jesus in that passage, not an independent agent (trinitarians are not tritheists!). But I'll admit that more needs to be said about the Spirit. Please note again that this is just the first in a series of points, so be patient. I'll get there. ;-)

π² said...

I'm just enjoying the process with you. Just a thought as I read your response, perhaps Jesus' part in "raising himself" was dying, and therefore committing his spirit (and body) to the Father for resurrection.

JohnLDrury said...

Oooooh! I like that!

Pastor Bill said...

I am a little late to the party, but I've been enjoying your Easter blog this past week.
I too was thinking of Romans 8:11 as I read through this post, but specifically thinking of the Father/Spirit in Genesis 1 appearing again here in a new creation. The Father creates, but the Spirit is the one hovering over the waters of chaos. This is more stream of consciousness than actual reasoned thought at this point.

On a minor note, I am curious how you relate Jesus being raised/is risen/is alive to the ascension which stands squarely at the end of your series.

JohnLDrury said...

Bill,
I've got plans on the Spirit. Be patient.
As for the ascension, I know I'm gonna be speaking to it by the end of this series. But I really don't know what I'm gonna say yet. We'll see ;-)