Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Eschatological Business: Raising Bodies – A Guest Series by Nathan Hitchcock

[Ed. note: This post is part of a guest-series by Nathan Hitchcock. Nathan is Associate Professor of Church History and Theology at Sioux Falls Seminary, and is the author of Karl Barth and the Resurrection of the Flesh. Click here for this series’ description; Introduction; Remitting Debts.]

When Christians go to work, they do so to lift up human bodies. They perform medical tasks, as in the nurse who provides rehabilitative care to a post-op patient. They study the physical body and its environmental conditions, as in the home inspector monitoring radon levels. They labor for the best distribution of services, as with the entrepreneur seeking to establish a network of hardware stores on reservations. In all their actions Christians emulate the God of the future, whose final work consists of raising the dead to everlasting bodily health.

The Church’s profession of hope for the resurrection of the dead is an extension of the belief that their Lord Jesus Christ is risen from the grave. The Church hopes for resurrection because it hopes in God. Who is God? “God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having before raised Israel from Egypt” (Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology I, 63). That is, Christians know God’s character and essence through His work, in part by the raising of the Israelites from physical and political bondage, in full with the raising of the Son from death. The complete healing displayed in Jesus’ resurrection affirms God’s intention to reconstitute and transform the human body. Truly, God is a physician. His vocation is healing.

Disciples of the resurrection-God contend that what happened to Christ on Easter morning will happen to them too (1 Cor 6:14; 2 Cor 4:14). God’s final work has not yet extended to the many as to the One; as of this time, no one but Jesus is resurrected. The general resurrection of the dead will only transpire at the cosmic return of Christ (Matt 24:30-31; 1 Thes 5) and therefore cannot be understood as a past event for anyone either in this life or in death (2 Tim 2:8; Heb 11:39). As it is, the living and the dead alike wait for “adoption,” namely, “the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:23). Yet the day will surely come. The future resurrection will be corporate and corporeal, establishing a civic body through many individual bodies (Eze 37; Heb 11:40; Rev 20-21). At the parousia the Lord Jesus will work the total corporeal healing, rescuing the saints from death, raising them to unending life with Him.

The Bible sometimes emphasizes discontinuity between the present body and the body to come, stressing elements of transformation. Risen bodies will be deathless (Luke 20:36), glorious (Phil 3:21), even capable of superhuman transportation (John 20:19, 26). Such bodies will “shine like the stars” (Dan 12:3). That is, the eschatological self will enjoy new qualities and superadded capacities. The “spiritual body” of which Paul speaks (1 Cor 15:44) will be the human body fully dynamic in divine participation, fully glorified by supernatural help. Instead of life through natural, ordinary means, the resurrection body will be “a body animated by the Spirit of the living God” (N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 354). It will be changed.

Scripture is equally insistent on continuity between this body and the future one. Judging by the appearances of Jesus, the resurrected body will be tangible (John 20:24-29), have the same basic physical features, and will be capable of eating and drinking (Luke 24:42). The risen human will not be ghost but “flesh and bone” (Luke 24:39). Let the philosophers puzzle! Resurrected bodies are the exact same former bodies healed. The confession of the subapostolic period captured in the Apostles Creed expresses the continuationist aspect more forcefully than the Nicene Creed: “I believe in the resurrection of the flesh.” In other words, the coming resurrection means the preservation of the selfsame body even in its glorification. It will be retained.

How then shall Christians work? By imitating the healing God in their own creaturely way. They cannot raise the dead, but they join in the anticipatory work of elevating bodies. By the Spirit of resurrection, in anticipation of the final day, Christians work to see thriving bodies.

The Church receives its primary practice in the context of the ecclesial body. In the congregations there are myriad acts of mercy (Acts 6:1-7; Rom 12:3-21) championed by appointed deacons. Women and men exercise spiritual gifts of healing (Acts 19:11-12; 1 Cor 12:28); elders anoint the sick with oil (Jam 5:14-15). Denominations and parachurch agencies conduct a battery of relief efforts. All are called upon to exercise hospitality to their brothers and sisters, prioritizing the needs of others above their own.

But how shall Christians work in the world? In accordance with the eschatological principles of bodily transformation and bodily preservation, Christians labor to transform bodies and preserve them.

Transformative acts of healing happen all the time in the medical profession, of course. Believing doctors and nurses and technicians administer care to improve bodily well-being. Some work with international organizations to innoculate against measles or perform cleft palate surgeries in remote areas. Many other Christian vocations advance bodily health. Athletic coaches train minds as well as muscles. Psychotherapists move sufferers of sexual trauma toward new identity. Christ’s disciples joyfully work with the disabled, walking with them in therapeutic ways and championing their access to the community.

Even the new products developed by Christian researchers gesture at the resurrection-future. If one grants Marshall McLuhan’s premise that technologies extend physiological capacities, then businesspersons selling hang gliders or handicapped-accessible doors, GPS units or eye glasses, bullet-proof vests or belt sanders are also enhancing bodies in their own way. In fact, nearly every occupation involves some sort of service that improves, either directly or indirectly, bodily welfare. Christians seize and utilize and maximize opportunities to elevate the psychosomatic whole.

Sanctified workers also pursue the tasks of bodily preservation. In emulating the God who heals, Christians take their stand against death. After all, the resurrection of the dead corresponds to the eradication of death in the lake of fire (Rev 20:13-14). Redeemed humans play their part in opposing the forces of disease and decay in this age, standing strong against the grinding forces of death. Therefore public health officials address water purity, nutrition in schools, and mold prevention. Others are called to serve as administrators who optimize the shipment of fresh foods or work with pharmaceutical companies to distribute antiretroviral drugs. Christians enter the marketplace to offer quality services and products that support healthy living. Likewise they pursue legislation that defends bodily dignity, whether by limiting factory work-weeks or securing critical medical services among the poor or militating against the exploitation of bodies, including and especially exploitation of the most vulnerable bodies – those of the unborn.

Because this age is not the age to come, Christians must grapple with difficult options. Is a nutritional guideline for elementary schools warranted, or does it unnecessarily take away culinary pleasures and personal agency? When does plastic surgery become a distortion of the body rather than an advancement of it? How does one steward antibiotics so as to prevent the rise of “superbugs”? Is the expansion of a certain clothing franchise providing worthwhile services, or just promoting vanity? The raising of human bodies cannot always be quantified easily, and other values may need to be considered when making decisions both personally and civically.

Still, Christians labor for physical healing, whether by transformation or preservation. They know the One who raises the dead and they tailor their occupations after the great Physician. By the Spirit they stretch forth their hands to care for the sick and needy, anticipating their revival. By their work bodies rise.



W. Travis McMaken said...

Hi Nathan,

This series has been very thought-provoking, and I’m sorry to think that we will get only one more installment!

Here are some thoughts:

(1) I’d be interested to hear you address the relationship of Christian labor to that undertaken by those who are not Christians. This was sparked in my mind by your example of the radon inspector at the beginning of the post. Is there a way that a Christians goes about being a radon inspector that differs from how a non-Christian does it? This is linked, although not identical, with the question of whether Christians should have specifically Christian labor unions, political parties, etc.

(2) I love that quote from Jenson in the second paragraph, but it raises an interesting question for me. Here it is: “God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having before raised Israel from Egypt.” Now, we have here two events, two resurrections: Jesus’ and Israel’s. If I am reading you aright – and correct me if I’m wrong – you affirm a physical or bodily resurrection vis-à-vis Jesus and, in the future, of all humanity. Let us refer to this as a “traditional” account of resurrection. Now, with Jenson’s quote, it seems to me that he treats these two resurrections as of a piece. In other words, there is continuity between God’s resurrection of Israel and of Jesus. The interesting bit comes when one realizes that the Exodus account may be a work of, let us say, historical fiction. One reading of the scholarly consensus is that the events depicted there are a narrative construction from a later era. The emergence of ancient Israel seems to have been a much more gradual and organic thing, with perhaps some limited influx of escaped slaves from Egypt. So, one of these resurrections looks like a narrative construction. Does that mean the other one might be as well? Jenson’s theological statement intends to hold together these two “acts” in the theological “drama.” I think that can be affirmed. But if one of these resurrections is not “historically” straightforward (shall we say?), might not the other be similar? And would that necessarily create a problem for your position?

(3) And so I return to an issue that I raised in my comments on your first post: Does one need to affirm a “traditionalist” account (whether of the resurrection, as in this post, or of the eschaton / parousia, to harken back to the first post) in order to get on board with your constructive vision for “Eschatological Business”? Is it possible to affirm your position without holding to such an account? Is such an account essential to your argument?

J. Scott Jackson said...

Another fine installment in the series, Nathan. The additional concrete examples of Christian praxis are helping me to flesh out (so to speak) your proposal.

I want to piggy-back on something Travis wrote earlier about the eschatological component of your proposal.

Specifically, you draw upon an eschatological vision of redeemed bodies as paradigmatic for a Christian praxis that honors, heals and protects human bodies -- especially suffering and sick bodies. Your concrete examples are quite compelling. You emphasize the psycho-somatic *continuity* between glorified or resurrected bodies of the future and flesh-and-blood people today.

But what about the element of *discontinuity* that, it seems to me, is also a necessary feature of eschatology? What about the emphasis on *new* creation? In the vision of the dry bones in Ezekiel 37:1-14 -- one of the most viscerally evocative precursors to NT accounts of resurrection -- it is dry, fleshless, hopeless bones that are resurrected. The emphasis, as I read it, is upon God's absolute action in bringing about a "novum" (Moltmann). It is precisely this element of the absolutely new that helps eschatology be a source of hope for the suffering, dying and oppressed -- the terminally ill, for example.

Am I correct in surmising that, like Wright, whom you cite with approval, you may want to play down or reinterpret the apocalyptic dimension or type of eschatology? But I still wonder if you might further clarify why eschatology is the best doctrinal loci to undergird your proposal rather than, say, creation or incarnation.

Nathan Hitchcock said...

Scott, you’re picking at a knot I’m aware of and not very happy about – though unwilling to ditch. In my mind the problem is this: how do we take the discontinuity between this present body and the body to come, then translate discontinuity into a theology of work (i.e., bodily ethics)? I acknowledge up front that the totaliter aliter of God work of resurrection results in bodily qualities we could never hope to impart (immortality, power, divine-like predicates). But the newness of that body inflames our imagination to renew the body in penultimate ways now. Thus we mimic God’s radical newness for the body with bodily accentuations as diverse as wool sweaters, parachutes, and the Oculus Rift.

But I worry. I worry more than Wright, I’m pretty certain. Are our gestures at the transformation of the body too continuationist, and too superficial, too comical? Do they take away from the monumental novum that lies only with the final trumpet call?

Anonymous said...

Responding to Mr. McMaken's third thought, it seems obvious to me that this "non-traditional" view of the eschaton which views Jesus' resurrection as "historical fiction"cannot affirm the position taken in this post, at least not for the same reasons or in the same way. If Jesus' resurrection is only spiritually meaningful and doesn't actually involve real bodies (meaning real history and real time) then why should any work Christians do engage those things either?

W. Travis McMaken said...

Dr., Anon, Dr. I'm happy to function on a first name basis, should you care to reveal yours, but if you're going to use a title it is preferable to use the right ones. ;-)

"If Jesus' resurrection is only spiritually meaningful and doesn't actually involve real bodies (meaning real history and real time) then why should any work Christians do engage those things either?"

This is an assertion, not an argument. You assume an absolute dichotomy for how one must understand the resurrection (either *concretely* physical / bodily on one side, or *amorphously* spiritual [words with asterisks indicate how I understand the rhetoric of your construction]), but you do not argue that dichotomy, much less demonstrate it. You also beg the definition of "real" (as in real history and real time), and make it coterminous with the "reality" of a physical / bodily resurrection.

Nathan's comment in response to Scott on the question of continuity / discontinuity, and his (Nathan's) admittance about how knotty this question is, belies your neat categorizations.

All of which is to say, I'd love to hear more. :-)

J. Scott Jackson said...

Nathan: What has the totaliter aliter to do with wool sweaters? LOL, that's inspired! :)

Nathan Hitchcock said...

Travis, it’s official: we really must sit down to a gallon of coffee sometime and talk through all of the categories we’ve inherited about the historical status of Jesus’ resurrection! You are undoubtedly well-versed in the arguments for the 20th century positions, so let’s just use that as a backdrop for where the conversation can move.

These days I am mostly interested in reverse-engineering the historicist position to figure out how it so often corresponds to a doctrine of Heaven. How can a rationalistic apologist argue up and down for the rawest journalistic version of Easter only to abandon the resurrection for a hope of permanent disembodied survival of the soul? The historicist sees so much value in prooftexting Jesus’ deity with a publicly verifiable miracle that all the theological significance is evacuated from the resurrection hope. The ethics as I present in this series will be foreign to such a position.

But to your concern expressed in 2) and 3) above. Holes in the historical narrative of Easter (and exodus) may compromise any easy move toward evangelical ethics, and push us back to a “non-traditional” position. To restate the concern in my own bald terms: Does “Eschatological Business” hold any relevance for liberals, for those whom historical-critical method moves them toward a symbolic reading of the resurrection? My answer: a symbolic doctrine leads to a symbolic hope. Let me give you two examples.

Reinhold Niebuhr, someone I respect as a true liberal (not a crypto-Unitarian), claimed the resurrection of the body. He vacates the doctrine of its straight-forward orthodox content, but still insists that the eschatological doctrine affirms things of vital importance to Christian ethics. Allow me to summarize his key points. First, he says in The Nature and Destiny of Man, the doctrine of the resurrection of the body “has the virtue of expressing a dark and unconscious recognition of the sources of individuality in nature as well as spirit. Without the particularity of the body the spirit of man is easily lost in the universality of divine spirit, in the undifferentiated being of eternity” (63-64). It precludes pantheism. A second key point is that the resurrection of the body reminds us that we must consider the soul and body to be in unity. Third, getting to eschatology proper, the resurrection of the body acknowledges that humans, who transcend “the flux” of life even while being in it, can hope for completion from God, and this completion concerns all of human existence, soul and body. The “raised body” is not actually a renewed physical body at the return of the physical Christ, of course, but as a symbol the raised body can be a useful way to describe a holistic immortality obtained somehow in God. Finally, since the human body is “the symbol of his organic processes to the processes of history” which are to be redeemed by God, the resurrection hope should lead us to conceive ethics in social, bodily terms.

These are valuable insights. But even taken together, Niebuhr’s conclusions feel tepid, philosophical, generic. Like his view of Jesus’ resurrection, his ethics is, well, symbolic. I fail to see how it is getting the Church very far. Better to ditch eschatology and go back to prolegomena.

A second example comes from “The Manifesto of the 93” (1914), stacked as it was with German liberals brimming with a mysterious, symbolic resurrection hope. Let’s listen to their eschatological ethic: Glaubt uns! Glaubt, daß wir diesen Kampf zu Ende kämpfen werden als ein Kulturvolk, dem das Vermächtnis eines Goethe, eines Beethoven, eines Kant ebenso heilig ist wie sein Herd und seine Scholle.

W. Travis McMaken said...


Some remarks:

(1) What is it with you and coffee?!?!

(2) Citing the Manifesto at me is dirty pool, my friend. You’ve shown yourself to be very witty in these comments, and I’ve enjoyed it greatly (even this Manifesto jab), but if you want to make that stick as more than a fun rhetorical flourish, you’ll have to argue it. 

(3) My comments are not intended to sketch out a definitive counter-position to you that could in any straightforward way be described as “my” position. What I *am* interested in is pushing your to create a double-bladed argument. I am intensely sympathetic to your desire to rule out the practice you describe here: “a rationalistic apologist [can] argue up and down for the rawest journalistic version of Easter only to abandon the resurrection for a hope of permanent disembodied survival of the soul.” Sharpen up that side of your blade and swing it like you mean it! But might your work have another side, at least potentially?

(4) I remain concerned with what look like false dichotomies to me. You seem to hold, as did Anon, that there are only two options. Either there is a bodily / physical resurrection, or there is a *merely* (added for rhetorical explication) symbolic one. Perhaps this strikes you, as it does me, as incredibly similar to the Reformational Eucharistic arguments, especially between the more – shall we say? – enthusiastic Lutherans and the Zürichers. Calvin believed that he had found a third way, a form of Christ’s presence in the sacrament that is “real” while neither merely symbolic nor crudely physical. What I intend to suggest in my various comments is that in your zeal to ward off a merely symbolic position (like Luther), you have perhaps resorted to defending a similarly under-nuanced literalism. Of course, you may be happy as a “Lutheran” in this sense and we can have convoluted scholastic arguments talking past each other for a few centuries. ;-)

(5) I just saw for what felt like the first time your “true liberal (not a crypto-Unitarian)” comment. That’s a great line!

W. Travis McMaken said...


That box at the end of my #2 is supposed to be a :-)

J. Scott Jackson said...

Nathan, your interjection of Niebuhr -- as sort of a straw man standing in for modernist liberal theology more generally -- into this conversation strikes me as bit of an odd move. Niebuhr is not Barth, after all. I would tend to agree it's fair to label him as a liberal, tried and true. Of course, some Unitarians also claim the mantle of being true liberals (precisely the sort of liberals that Niebuhr attacked so vigorously).

It is a common (and fair) criticism of Niebuhr to say that he doesn't have more thoroughly fleshed out proposals for classical doctrinal loci like the resurrection. From what I've read, he didn't have much truck with speculation about life after death, which he probably would characterize as solipsistic wish fulfillment. I don't think he really lost much sleep over charges that he was not doctrinally orthodox. Nor would he object to the further point that he is drawing import from classic doctrines at the level of myth and symbol, and interpreting within a matrix that draws upon philosophical anthropology and secular social theory and reshapes these from insights from the Christian tradition. In his view, the true import of Christian doctrines resides not in their literal veracity but in their power to elucidate common human experience. His conception of God, as I read him, was fairly Kantian, so he is not inclined to read off principles to guide human action from claims about divine agency (which, for him, can only be framed through myth and symbol).

That said, I don't think it's fair to charge Niebuhr's ethics with being disembodied or to suggest that's the inevitable consequence of his philosophical and theological framework. Niebuhr is fairly up front about framing his project in terms of a general philosophical anthropology, albeit one shaped by particularly Christian insights. To me, he is at his when he's wrestling with the possibilities and limitations of social and political action. To be sure, the sphere of concrete activity is the here-and-now and some kind of eschatologial future is not in view. For Niebuhr, it's enough to focus on the individual and corporate bodies we have here and now and what we do with them.

Again, maybe this is all somewhat tangential, but you threw Niebuhr into the mix and, sucker that I am, I jumped in to defend the old guy (somewhat).

Nathan Hitchcock said...

Travis, I am indeed thankful for your sharpening. I had to pay good money in my doctoral program to get such feedback!

“Eschatological Business” is intended to operate as a theological piece voiced in the second naiveté. In theory it does not prohibit either historicist or symbolic readings of Christo-eschatology, though either side will feel some chaffing because of my slender prolegomena.

Without getting into the whole rigmarole, I suggest that a third option is called for with the resurrection. Whether one calls Jesus’ resurrection “saga” or “event” or “pneumatic history,” theologians do well to keep the resurrection as something which defies natural categories of knowledge. (I applaud your appeal to sacramental terminology! More of that, please!) Further, what should not be missed in “Eschatological Business” is my argument that the future is already populated. Jesus has already staked out humanity’s eschaton and filled it with forgiveness, resurrection, and recreation. A filled-out eschaton is hard for evangelicals and even more so for liberals. It’s a tough pill to swallow for anyone because the pill is swallowed only by faith. But I feel some optimism about the project, considering the range of theologians who resonated with the Blumhardts. They claimed the same thing, you know.

As for the 1914 quote, forgive the jab. It wasn’t directed at you at all, but at some dead dudes. Is it not intensely agitating to hear that the work of war must be prosecuted “to the end” because a country’s glorious cultural spirit justifies it? But the Kaiser’s telos could take root in these intellectuals’ minds because they had vacated the objective Christian Ende. It stunned Barth that brilliant liberal theologians could be coopted into such a dubious program and mesmerized by such a false eschaton. Their errant declaration should have the same effect on us a hundred years later.

Nathan Hitchcock said...

Scott, I gladly defer to you on knowledge of R. Niebuhr. Fortunately, it sounds like we're in agreement about him. Niebuhr comes to many of the same points as my post, including and especially the necessity of social ethics processed in bodily terms. While I am guilty of taking a piss at 1914 German nationalists, I bring up Niebuhr's name with a healthy measure of honor. He exemplifies a chastened liberalism accessing Christian eschatology alongside and through empirical realities. But I still wonder if for all his squeezing he gives the Church as much juice as can be wrung from the doctrine of the resurrection.

(I mention juice because the coffee idiom isn't working for Travis.)

Wyatt said...

The analogy between the bodily resurrection and this is my body of the eurcharist is what I'd like to hear more about. I like the analogy to Calvin, but I wonder if there is more eminent view of it, such as a dialectic between these enthusiastic lutherans and Calvin, maybe along the lines of transelementation? In transelementation, the elements remain to be the body of christ in an acquiescent form, independent of the faith of the communicant. Maybe with the bodily resurrection as well, that the physical resurrection continues to have a physical basis beyond the visions of the seers in the NT, such that the physical body form exists in a tangible way apart from the will of man, such that it exists to bring men into resurrected new life, not that the faith of the seer makes the resurrection real out of the ahistorical.

W. Travis McMaken said...

Nathan, I think we find significant common ground on this point: “theologians do well to keep the resurrection as something which defies natural categories of knowledge.” My fear is that one commonly finds among those who promote a physical / bodily resurrection that these natural categories of knowledge are alive and well. The assumption is that resurrection is basically equivalent to resuscitation, except that it isn’t temporary. In that case one is still working with those natural categories, only with the addition of denying some of their limits. As you are aware, Paul in 1 Cor 15 speaks of a “heavenly” or a “spiritual” body. We’re both trying to get at what that entails, even if we’re coming at it from different sides.

Wyatt, read Peter Martyr Vermigli. I’ll live vicariously through you while you do so. :-)