Christ as the model and dynamic of the resurrection
As I mentioned in the previous post in this series, Calvin gives two main "proofs" for belief in the resurrection of the body - the example of Christ and the power of God. It is in this context (Institutes Book III:XXV) that we have Calvin's most sustained reflection on the resurrection of Christ in relation to the resurrection of the believer. But I also want to draw upon what Calvin says about the resurrection of Christ elsewhere in the Institutes (II:XVI:13 & 14).
1. The theological significance of Jesus' resurrection
According to Calvin, "Paul justly contends, that if Christ rise not the whole gospel is delusive and vain (1 Corinthians 15:13-17)" (III:XXV:3). He spells out just why this is in his earlier discussion of the resurrection of Christ. This is set in a chapter on the redeeming work of Christ. After focusing on on the atonement Calvin says, "Next follows the resurrection of the dead, without which all that has hitherto been said would be defective." (II:XVI:13). He makes it clear that we are not saved by the death of Christ alone. His resurrection from the dead is essential for our salvation,
"Hence, although in his death we have an effectual completion of salvation, because by it we are reconciled to God, satisfaction is given to his justice, the curse removed and the penalty paid; still it is not by his death, but by his resurrection that we are said to be begotten again to a living hope (1 Peter 1:3); because, as he, by rising again became victorious over death, so the victory of our faith consists only in his resurrection." (II:XVI:13).
It is also by Christ's resurrection from the dead that we are justified. Calvin quotes from Romans 4:25, "Who [Christ] was delivered for our offences and raised again for our justification" and comments,
"By his death sin was taken away, by his resurrection righteousness was renewed and restored. For how could he by dying have freed us from death, if he had yielded to its power? How could he have obtained the victory for us, if he had fallen in the contest? Our salvation may thus be divided between the death and resurrection of Christ: by the former, sin was abolished and death annihilated; by the latter, righteousness was restored and life revived, the power and efficacy of the former [the cross] being still bestowed upon us by the latter [the resurrection]." (II:XVI:13).
This inseparable link between the death and resurrection of Christ enables Calvin to say,
"Let us remember, therefore, that when death only is mentioned [in Scripture], everything peculiar to the resurrection is at the same time included, and that there is a like synechdote in the term resurrection, as often as it is used apart from death, everything peculiar to death also being included." (II:XVI:3).
In this same section, Calvin quotes from Romans 6:4 and Colossians 3:1 to show that believers are able to mortify the flesh and set their minds on heavenly things only because they have been united to the risen Christ.
In addition, the Reformer notes that the resurrection of Christ disclosed his divine identity,
"Paul accordingly affirms, that he was declared to be the Son of God by his resurrection (Romans 1:4), because he then fully displayed that heavenly power which is both a bright mirror and of his divinity , and a sure support of our faith; as he also elsewhere teaches, that 'though he was crucified through weakness, yet he lives by the power of God' (2 Corinthians 13:4)." (II:XVI:13).
Reformed scholars such as Richard Gaffin have given fresh attention to salvific value of Christ's resurrection. Gaffin writes,
"We have found that the resurrection is Christ is the pivotal factor in the whole of the apostle's soteriological teaching. Not only is the resurrection (as it is constitutive of the ascension and heavenly session) the climax of the redemptive history of Christ; it is also that from which the individual believer's experience of redemption derives in its specific and distinguishing character and in all aspects of its inexhaustible fullness". (Resurrection and Redemption, P&R, 1987 second edition, p. 135.)
This emphasis has perhaps been downplayed in traditional Reformed systematic theologies (see here). In such works the tendency is to progress from the cross of Christ to the application of salvation without taking the resurrection into account. It may be true that when we speak of the cross we also include the resurrection. But the New Testament insists that we should explicitly recognise the distinctive contribution of Christ's resurrection to the process of salvation. Calvin's insights on this matter help to redress the biblical balance. The resurrection of Jesus, was of great theological importance for Calvin. We cannot be saved apart from the the resurrection of Christ. His resurrection power is a bright mirror that reflects his divinity as the Son of God. It is the risen Christ who ascended to claim his throne as the world's true Lord,
"For although Christ, by rising again, began fully to display his glory and virtue. having laid aside the abject and ignoble condition of a mortal life, and the ignominy of the cross, yet it was only by his ascension to heaven that his reign truly commenced." (II:XVI:14).
2. Union with Christ and the future resurrection of the believer
Believers are already raised with Christ to the new life of holiness. This union with him also guarantees the future bodily resurrection of the faithful. Calvin writes with deep insight into Paul's teaching on resurrection and union with Christ,
"Therefore, whenever the subject of the resurrection is considered, let us think of the case of our Saviour, who, having completed his mortal course in our nature which he had assumed obtained immortality, and is now the pledge of our future resurrection...It is not lawful, it is not even possible, to separate him from us, without dividing him. Hence Paul's argument, 'If there be no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen' (1 Corinthians 15:13); for he assumes it as an acknowledged principle, that when Christ was subjected to death and by rising gained a victory over death, it was not on his own account, but in the Head was begun what must necessarily be fulfilled in the members, according to the degree and order of each." (II:XXV:3).
Christ is presented as the model and guarantee of the believer's resurrection in order to encourage the faithful in the midst of the trials and difficulties of this life. We need to consider that,
"God did not raise up his Son from death to give an isolated specimen of his mighty power, but that the Spirit exerts the same efficacy in regard to them that believe; and accordingly Paul says, that the Spirit when he dwells in us is life, because the end for which he was given is to quicken our mortal body (Romans 8:10, 11, Colossians 3:4)." (III:XXV:3).
Calvin was aware that he had simply glanced at subjects that could have been treated at greater length. But his concern was to say just enough to build up the faith of his readers. He wants to assure us that,
"Christ rose again, that he might have us as partakers with him of the future life. He was raised up by the Father, inasmuch as he was Head of the Church, from which he cannot possibly be dissevered. He was raised up by the power of the Spirit, who also in us performs the office of quickening. In fine, he was raised up to be the resurrection and the life. But as we have said, that in this mirror we behold a living image of the resurrection, so it furnishes a sure evidence to support our minds, provided we faint not, nor grow weary at the long delay, because it is not ours to measure the periods of time at our pleasure; but to rest patiently till God in his own time renew the kingdom." (II:XXV:3).
So, for Calvin the resurrection of Christ was a key event in redemption history, without which there could be no salvation from sin and death. The Reformer was deeply aware of the trinitarian structure of the resurrection hope. The Father raised up his Son by the work of the Spirit. The same Father will raise up believers by his Spirit, that we may share in the resurrection glory of the Son. Calvin clearly grasped the importance of union with Christ in relation to the resurrection of believers. By virtue of their union with Christ, Christians have been raised with him to newness of life. Also, believers have been justified by Jesus' resurrection. The atoning work of Christ is made effective by his risen power. As far as the future is concerned, our bodily resurrection is an absolute certainty. We, as members of Christ's body will inevitably share in the risen glory of our Lord.
In the next post, I hope to discuss Calvin's teaching on the historicity of Christ's resurrection. Also we will look at Calvin's second "proof" for believing in bodily resurrection - the power of God.