Thursday, November 30, 2006

The resurrection of Jesus in Reformed Dogmatics

John Calvin devoted two sections of The Institutes of the Christian Religion to the resurrection of Jesus - Book II:XVI:13 & 14. A whole chapter is given to the resurrection of the body, Book III:XXV. But many standard Reformed Systematic Theologies pay little attention to the meaning and significance of Jesus' resurrection from the dead. I've done a bit of statistical analysis:
Louis Berkhof gives 32 pages to discussing the atonement, but only 3 to the resurrection of Christ. (Systematic Theology, Banner of Truth Trust, p. 367-399 - atonement, p. 346-349 - resurrection). Robert Reymond (A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, Nelson, 1998) is a little more generous with 11 pages on the resurrection of the Son of God (p. 565-575). But Reymond is more concerned to defend the historicity of the resurrection event than to unpack its theological significance in these pages. By way of contrast, 79 pages are devoted specifically to Christ's cross work (623-702). To be fair to Reymond, we also should take into consideration that he engages in some in-depth exegesis of key resurrection texts - Romans 1:1&4 and 1 Timothy 3:16 under the heading of God as Trinity.
In terms of subject order, most Reformed Dogmatics move from a consideration of the atonement straight into a discussion of the application of the work of redemption. It is almost as if the resurrection of Christ has little theological value in its own right, or that redemption could be applied apart from Christ having been raised from the dead. Berkhof would deny this saying,
What is more important, the resurrection enters as a constitutive element into the very essence of the work of redemption, and therefore the gospel. It is one of the great foundation stones of the Church of God. The atoning work of Christ, if it was to be effective at all, had to terminate not in death, but in life. (p. 349.)
But the theologian does not develop his point any further.
This is not to say that Reformed Theology has altogether failed to give serious attention to the resurrection of Christ. Geerhardus Vos, the father of Reformed Biblical Theology, broke new ground in his The Pauline Eschatology (1930 available in P&R 1986 reprint). Vos' s key thesis is that eschatology is not just about the last things. The whole of Paul's theology is eschatologically orientated. Much of the book is devoted to unpacking the theological significance of Christ's resurrection, including ground-breaking exegesis of Romans 1:3&4. Of the book's 374 pages, 89 are directly related to discussion the resurrection of Christ.
Herman Ridderbos too gives full weight to the importance of Christ's resurrection saying, "Paul mentions the resurrection as the great central redemptive fact". He reflects further,
Christ's death, as that is developed by by apostle in a great variety of ways, is never for an instant detached from this eschatological gospel of the resurrection. (Paul - An Outline of his Theology, Eerdmans, 1997 reprint, p. 55)
Richard Gaffin acknowledges that he stands on the shoulders of Vos and Ridderbos, the twin giants of Reformed resurrection dogmatics in his study Resurrection and Redemption (P&R, 1987 second edition). Gaffin writes in his conclusion,
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. (p. 135.)
The centrality of the cross is not displaced by this renewed appreciation of the importance of Jesus' resurrection. Both the death and resurrection of Christ take centre stage in the drama of redemption. Reformed Dogmatics needs to take this into account. The resurrection of Jesus is full of rich theological significance. The event contributes to our understanding of Christ as the Son of God, the Last Adam and the Lord of the universe. Believers are united to Christ in his death and resurrection. His resurrection as well as the cross is the basis of our justification and sanctification. Our future resurrection hope and the renewal of the cosmos are grounded in the fact that "the Lord is risen indeed!" Reformed Dogmatics should not continue to move from discussion of the cross directly to consideration of the application of redemption. I propose that a better and more Biblical ordering of subjects would be: The Cross of Jesus / The Resurrection of Jesus / The Application of Redemption. The resurrection of Christ is a key act in the theo-drama. It is not a minor scene that deserves but scant attention.
See the resurrection label below for other posts on this subject


revdrron said...

"The Resurrection is the revelation: the disclosing of Jesus as the Christ, the appearing of God, and the apprehending of God in Jesus. The Resurrection is the emergence of the necessity of giving glory to God: the reckoning with what is unknown and unobservable in Jesus, the recognition of Him as Paradox, Victor, and Primal History. In the Resurrection the new world of the Holy Spirit touches the old world of the flesh, but touches it as a tangent touches a circle, that is, without touching it. And, precisely because it does not touch it, it touches it as its frontier-as the new world." (Karl Barth, Epistle to the Romans, p. 30)

David Shedden said...

Yes, I've just finished reading the first half of CD IV:1. Barth really is big on the unity of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Although, I guess 'Reformed evangelicals' would question the extent to which Barth is 'Reformed'. But, I was impressed by so much of what I read, especially his emphasis on the objectivity of both Christ's death and resurrection.

Guy Davies said...

Hi Revdrron,

Thanks for the quote.

See you David,

I'm no Barth expert, but if he gives due weight to the resurrection of Christ in CD, that's cool. What does he have to say re the resurrection as an historical event?

revdrron said...

Good question Rev. Exiled! I’m not all that well versed in Barth. My reading of his work is mostly in fits and starts. At first blush, dialectical theology as put forward by Karl Barth seems to champion the doctrine of the resurrection, while having nothing or very little to do with the resurrection as an event of history. As my above quote points out, in his commentary on the book of Romans (1919), the early Barth declared, "The resurrection touches history as a tangent touches a circle-that is, without really touching it.” With this in mind, to argue historically for the resurrection does nothing to initiate faith. For the early Barth, it would seem, the historicity of Jesus' resurrection remains unrelieved by his dialectic. Enjoy, ron

David Shedden said...

That's a tricky question, but in CD IV:1, Barth understands the resurrection as an objective historical event, it's just one that can't be verified in the same way as Christ's death. But, Barth goes on to write about the unity of the death and resurrection - it's all very satisfying theologically, but, famously, people question whether Barth doesn't avoid the real implications of the Lessing ditch thing - can we be confident about the realiability of the biblical witness in historical terms at all?

So, I don't think people engaged in historical Jesus study would be impressed by Barth here. I suspect that, because Barth has some real innovations that challenge classic Reformed orthodoxy, people get turned off and suspicious of him altogether. But I really think his view of the death and resurrection of Jesus are useful, if read through a Reformed orthodox lens. Perhaps that is too pomo for self-consciously Reformed folks?

Guy Davies said...

Thanks, gentlemen for your thoughts re Barth and the resurrection of Christ. Interesting.

I must admit that Most of my knowledge of KB is second hand. From what I know, I have misgivings about his doctrine of Scripture and his ambiguous stance on the historicity of the resurrection among other things. But I'll have to get round to reading something of his sometime. Would you recommend his Evangelical Theology as a good intro to this thought?

In an earlier post I reflect on the historicity of the resurrection, here

revdrron said...

Greetings Rev Exiled, As to the historicity of the resurrection, a new debate transcript is now available, and it is making quite a splash on the Internet. It is a debate on the Resurrection of Christ between Craig and Ehrman, and it can be found at Try it, you’ll like it! enjoy, ron

David Shedden said...

I would guess that the first half of CDIV:1 contains some of Barth's most important writing. But I've had the privilege of reading it in the context of a class on the atonement, with Bruce McCormack at PTS. McCormack's articles in Justification in Perspective, and, The Glory of the Atonement, help too.

Guy Davies said...


Thanks for the link you e-mailed me. I have'nt had time to listed yet. Will do soon. Interested readers can listen: here


Thanks for the reading suggetions. I'll can't see me wading through the whole of CD, so I appreciate your "best bits" tip.

Anonymous said...

Greetings in name of the Lord Jesus. I'm doing grad research on this very topic, namely, the structure of resurrection-centered dogmatics. Needless to say, there are only a handful of them out there (so glad you found Vos and Gaffin!).

Barth is a particularly interesting example of theology that majors on resurrection. Only recently has this come out fully, thanks to, among other books, R. Dale Dawson's thesis on The Resurrection in Karl Barth. The doctrine serves as a microcosm (and launching point) for the way God reveals himself to the world through Jesus Christ. While Barth's tenor changes in CD IV/1, emphasizing the real, corporeal resurrection, a response to Bultmann's existentialism, he generally guards the "non-historical" nature of the resurrection. Easter, like God himself, is an event that does not belong to our sinful, limited time. He comes as from the future, therefore the resurrection is a new thing, something that must be accepted on God's terms, not our own.

Anyhow, I'd like to see Exiled Preacher take on the big question: WHY does the Reformed tradition generally skirt the resurrection in favor of an all-consuming crucicentrism?

Guy Davies said...

Hello Mr Hitchcock,

I'm glad to see that you are doing work on this important subject. I did my BA work on the meaning and significance of the resurrection of Christ.

Calvin gives due weight to the subject, as I indicated at the top of the post. See here for my ongoing series on Calvin and the resurrection of the body:

The answer to your question may be that in Reformed Dogmatics storerilogy is structured around the ordo salutis rather than union with Christ. With that in mind, dogmaticians jump from consideration of the cross to the application of redemption - effectual calling, justification, sanctification, glorification etc.

On the other hand, Calvin, stresses the importance of the resurrection because he structures his account of salvation around union with Christ rather than an ordo salutis. It is interesting that Gaffin, Vos and Ridderbos all have a similar emphasis on union with Christ.

Perhaps there has also been a tendency to think of the resurrection of Jesus in apologetic terms - as a truth that needs defending (a least at Easter time) rather than an event that is pregnant with theological significance. The Reformed tradition has done sterling work on the doctrine of the atonement, but has not given sufficient attention to resurrection theology.