By E.A. Johnston
Christ’s Resurrection: Epistemology, Presupposition, and Evangelical Belief
From its infancy, the Church clung to the fundamental belief of Christ’s bodily resurrection; in fact, Christianity has been “bound up with” this conviction. Whether liberal or conservative, theologians and church historians admit at least this much. Such unusual accord finds a solid foundation on two salient points. The Apostle Paul received rather than formulated the doctrine of the resurrection. “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). Additionally, he received this legacy less than ten years after Jesus’s death and resurrection, making the passage the “oldest extant tradition” confirming the Lord’s resurrection.
Extra-biblical church documents from the third through the nineteenth century continued to demonstrate belief in the resurrection. Included in these statements of faith are, the Apostles,’ Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds, as well as the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, the Westminster Confession of Faith, and the New Hampshire Baptist Confession.
Despite this time-honored foundation, theologians of various persuasions seek to mutate historic Christian faith into something scantily resembling its forbear. “Truth stumbles in the streets” (Isaiah 59:14), as many deny miraculous occurrences in the Bible without consideration. Whether a person favors modernity or postmodernity, the result is the same: they deny transcendent reality. Today even the possibility of knowing truth is allegedly beyond grasp. Scripture is true only in its significance to the individual or church community, and “agreement with fact is no longer an issue.
D. A. Carson writes of the connection between postmodernism and pluralism in The Gagging of God. Philosophical pluralism and deconstruction are comrades-in-arms as they deny religion the right to creedal propositions. One can almost hear their battle cry: “The only absolute creed is the creed of pluralism.”
Christian academics brought this tragic twist of logic into the Church through postmodern modes of exegesis. Interpretation became deconstruction. When the exegete employs “existential methodology under the name of evangelicalism, the Bible is no longer the Word of God without error — each part may be eaten away step by step.” Ontological naturalists eliminate the miraculous regardless of an argument’s cogency.Irrespective of the evidence, they dismiss it without consideration.
Jesus’ resurrection—the literal recommencement of life in Christ’s physical body—is essential to the Church. Yet, some groups find such a belief unsound and advise against it. “Enlightened” churches must no longer follow this antiquated doctrine; they should understand it “within the framework of today’s possibilities.” Freeing itself from the constraints of obsolete creedal adherence, the church must reject the resurrection as an objective fact. Champions of materialism’s presuppositions influenced this rejection of the miraculous. Whether postmodern scholars were searching for truth is quite beside the point. Objectives notwithstanding, the Church has reaped the “law of unintended consequences.”
Theological mayhem ensued as an immersion in the “triune name of the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries” occurred among evangelicals.
Peoples’ minds are not blank slates awaiting someone to write upon them. D. A. Carson, although focusing on biblical exegesis, has a point applicable here. Individuals lack the ability to “listen to the text without bias. It cannot be done.” Background knowledge—that core way of knowing and understanding propositions—is influential in every discourse. K. Scott Oliphant goes even further: “Any notion of probability worth its epistemic salt will include a foundation of background knowledge . . . . The numbers are ‘fixed’ . . . according to one’s presuppositions.” Affirmation or denial of Christ’s resurrection does not occur in an epistemological vacuum.
Knowing the battleground going into the fight provides a tactical advantage. Under the banner of evangelicalism, things have changed dramatically. Evangelical presuppositions are no longer straightforward. Infiltrating the camp, emerging evangelicals’ weapon of choice is postmodernity.
PRECONCEPTIONS OF EMERGING EVANGELICALS
Denial that words can convey divine truth is basic to the emerging evangelical pattern. Human words consistently fail; thus, linguistic deconstruction is emergents’ preferred theory. Not limiting their disdain to language, truth understood as propositions corresponding to fact has no safe haven in emergent postmodernism. Not at all surprising, postmodernists also find historic evangelicalism’s statements of faith sullied and mistrust conservative creedal propositions. They criticize systematic theology for its “rational argument, certainty, proof, and logical apologetics.”
Peter Rollins, popular among young evangelicals, fits this presuppositional description. When asked if he denied Christ’s resurrection, he felt his response was unequivocal. “I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ.” Continuing, he explained: “I deny [it] every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor.”
Valiant in his concern for the disadvantaged, his denial almost sounds like an affirmation. Yet, he hides a land mine beneath his pious-sounding words. Rollins speaks as if Christians must either demonstrate compassion or believe in a literal resurrection. Regardless of his rhetoric, he posits a false dichotomy. Living is not at odds with believing. Rather, it is the historical fact of Christ’s resurrection upon which believers base their lives of faith and faithfulness.
Rollins continues his foray against the historic faith in The Orthodox Heretic and Other Impossible Tales. Here he crafts a parable supporting his denial of the resurrection. As his story goes, some believers left Jerusalem immediately after the crucifixion. Piety characterized this group; they remained faithful to the light they had without knowledge of the resurrection or ascension. After the group had continued without knowledge of the resurrection for over a century, missionaries arrived at their village and proclaimed the resurrection of Christ. Desolated by the news, the elder was fretful that his people would become motivated by selfishness. He saw great loss in the fact of the resurrection. Not knowing about the resurrection purportedly produced a purer Christian with dedication devoid of hopes for a reward.
Demonstrating dedication to Christ by good works, these emerging evangelicals have an “incarnated testimony to [Christ’s] presence” without the baggage of “some abstract belief.” Rollins suggests that the Church should reevaluate whether belief in the resurrection is foundational to the Christian faith. Such reconsideration might include looking at the belief “as a barrier to really affirming its reality.” Manipulating language like this “strip words of any necessary or legitimate role as a revelatory resource.” Furthermore, the loss is not limited to God and his revelation. Perhaps unawares, the postmodern mindset denies “the very rationality of human existence.”
Deconstruction has sapped the faith of many. . . . No religion can make valid claims of a transcendent nature. Truth, whatever it is, does not reside in an object or idea or statement or affirmation about reality, historical or otherwise, that can be known by finite human beings. . . . It has been relativized, trivialized, marginalized. Without ever having had a single one of its major tenets overturned by historical or other argument, the whole edifice of Christian truth has been detached from the objective status it once held.
Epistemic considerations reveal heart issues. Oliphant pulls no punches: Postmodernists’ background knowledge is “informed by [its] ethical hostility to God.” Carl F. H. Henry concurs. Any abandonment of God’s truth and “wobbling with words [rests] solely [on] man’s devious ways.” Danger lies in wait behind deconstructionist drivel. Only God’s truth provides safe passage.
HISTORICAL, CONSERVATIVE EVANGELICAL PRESUPPOSITIONS
Marked by an affinity for God and his Word, historical evangelicals have a vastly different set of presuppositions. Truth conforms to the way things really are. In this sense, the biblical idea of truth is akin to the correspondence theory. Assertions that do not agree with fact are false. “Truth obtains when reality is the way a proposition represents it to be.”
Historical evangelicals have long believed that the Bible “objectively reflect[s] true reality.” Truth’s fount is in God; he is the “ground of the unity of all truth.” Because it is God’s Word, the Bible’s presupposition is its absolute truthfulness. God’s self-disclosure is the Christian’s basic “epistemological axiom.”
Included among classical evangelical presumptions are belief in the actuality of the transcendent and the miraculous. It is the God of truth who asks, “Is anything too hard for me?” (Jeremiah 32:27). Traditionally, evangelicals have responded with a heartfelt, “No!” Raising Christ from the dead is not beyond God’s capacity.
Conservative evangelicals highlight the centrality of Christ’s resurrection to the Gospel. “Everything else leads to this or flows from it.” Because the Word has “full and final authority,” the matter is settled. Christianity is entirely reliant upon Christ being raised. Worldviews clash here. As shown, the cherished doctrines of conservative, evangelical Christians provoke derision from emergent “evangelicals.” Historic evangelicals must resist emergents on this issue.
WORLDVIEW CONFLICT AND RATIONAL PROOF
Noted apologists William Lane Craig and Gary Habermas reflect a worldview that affirms truth. Use of rational arguments and recorded history highlight their defense of Christ’s resurrection. Their strategies are sound; vindication of Christian truth is mandated in 1 Peter 3:15. Judeo-Christian “faith is a rational faith” and “rests on revelational fact and truth.” Balanced apologetics rely on both revelation and reason. Classical evangelicals, with their belief in Scripture’s primacy, rest their faith on God’s self-disclosure while using logically coherent arguments to substantiate Jesus’ resurrection. Michael R. Licona’s builds his “bedrock” on historical fact and each of these has its origin in the Word of God.
OLD TESTAMENT PROPHECIES AND DIVINE INTENTIONALITY
Some argue that without faith in the resurrection no one would see it predicted in Jewish Scripture. For example, William Lane Craig finds no clear correlation between Jonah and Christ’s resurrection that would have been evident to Christ’s contemporaries. While this might be true, it is not a problem. By divine plan, God did not make the Messianic predictions so plain that no one would miss them. This is not to say that prophecies were not there; they just were not obvious. God’s wisdom in the plan of salvation was “hidden from all generations of people prior to the time of the New Testament. . . . The various tenets of the mystery are divinely revealed and made known only through divine communication. [And] during the times of the New Testament . . .God revealed the final piece of the mystery to the New Testament writers them.”
Had this “secret wisdom” been common knowledge, Pilate would not have ordered Jesus’ crucifixion (1 Corinthians 2:8-9), and no one would be saved. It was this best of mysteries that helped secure redemption. Paul attests to this mystery in 1 Corinthians 2:7, Colossians 1:25-26, and Ephesians 3:3, 5. Notwithstanding the need for covert operations, Jesus did give clues about his identity to the crowds.
THE SON OF MAN FORETELLS HIS PASSION AND RESURRECTION
Jesus claimed the Messianic title Son of Man. Within John 12:23-34’s discourse, Christ signified this Son of Man’s death by crucifixion. This was a hard saying. Israel’s prevalent notion of “an eternal Messiah” burst forth in the skepticism of the crowd—their anticipated Deliverer would live forever (John 12:34). Astonishment at Jesus’ words should hardly seem odd. His own inner circle did not believe even after Christ repeatedly told them that he would die, be buried, and rise again. Jesus had spoken “plainly about this” (Mark 8:32a). Nonetheless, the disciples had not grasped Jesus’ words, and they had been afraid to ask what he meant (Mark 9:30-32).
Having already broken the news of his impending death and resurrection twice before (Matthew 16:21 and 17:22-23), Jesus tells them again on the way to Jerusalem: “The Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life” (Matthew 20:17-19). Immediately after the Last Supper, one final prediction came. Mark 14:27-28 records the certainty of it: “After I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee” (emphasis added). In spite of the reiterated and detailed explanations, only upon angelic confrontation were the Savior’s words even recalled (Luke 24:5-8). Women, oddly enough, were the first to have their memories jarred; they went and “told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others” (Matthew 24:11).
Ignited by the Holy Spirit and firmly grounded upon the Word (John 14:26; Acts 2:4a), the disciples post resurrection faith “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6). Far from being based upon subjective emotions and individual experiences, their faith was founded on biblical propositions. Citing the earliest oral tradition, Paul made it clear that Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection were “according to the Scriptures” (1Corinthians 15:3-4). The earliest preaching concerning the resurrection prior to Paul’s conversion focused on fulfilled Scriptural. Luke 24:13-46 details why.
Two disciples—on the very day of the resurrection—encountered the Savior as they walked to Emmaus (Luke 24:13). Jesus explained to them what “was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:47). After this, the disciples immediately returned to Jerusalem, found the apostles, and explained what had happened (Luke 24:33). As they spoke, the risen Son of Man appeared in their midst (Luke 24:36). He reminded them of what he had told them and “opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45). Further, he explained to them that it was written the Messiah would suffer, die, and “rise from the dead on the third day” (Luke 24:46).
Jesus also scolded them for being “slow to believe all that the prophets” predicted (Luke 24:25). Maarten J. J. Menken provides the following list of passages to which the New Testament appeals: Psalm 16:8-11 with Acts 2:25-28; Psalm 16:10 with Acts 2:31 and 13:35; Psalm 132:11 with Acts 2:30; Psalm 110:1 with Acts 2:30, 34-35; Deuteronomy 18:15-20 with Acts 3:22-23; Psalm 118:22 with Acts 4:11; Psalm 2:7 with Acts 13:33; and Isaiah 55:3 with Acts 13:34.
Before the Spirit’s outpouring, the apostles could not understand the plainest statements about Christ’s death and resurrection. Christ’s tutoring and baptism in the Holy Spirit opened their eyes. Peter’s sermon to the eclectic crowd on Pentecost demonstrates this fact. With simplicity, clarity, and authority, Peter appeals to David’s intent in writing Psalm 16. His hermeneutic is divine.
Peter began by stating the obvious: “David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day” (Acts 2:29). Being a prophet and well aware of God’s promise to him, David knew one of his descendants would inherit his throne (Acts 2:30). With visionary foresight, David wrote of the Messiah’s resurrection (Acts 2:31).
Neither wishful thinking nor interpretive gymnastics are in play here. Peter, inspired by the Holy Spirit, appealed directly to David’s intent, which was to prophesy of the coming Deliverer’s resurrection. Jesus Christ, Son of David, Son of Man, God incarnate would not—could not—be held by death. “It was impossible for death to keep its hold on him” (Acts 2:24).
God’s Word properly interpreted through the work of the Holy Spirit leads to belief in Jesus’ literal, bodily resurrection. Language does convey meaning. Personal significance to an individual aside, Scripture itself requires that the writer’s intent is the deciding factor in understanding a text. Modernism, postmodernism, and pluralism have dealt a staggering blow to the faith of some so-called evangelicals. Emerging “evangelicals” deny the Lord’s literal resurrection. Tragically, they are left without “any sure Word of God.” A remedy exists for this deprivation—looking for and asking for the “ancient paths” (Jeremiah 6:16).
Returning the sure Word of God to the church involves commitment to classical evangelical thought. Self-defeating assertions by those “who resort to words to tell us that words distort reality and truth” are rejected. Historical evangelicals have epistemological and presuppositional frameworks built upon divine revelation. Without this classic evangelical hermeneutic, they would err (Mark 12:24). Enlightened and emboldened by the Spirit of God, these believers profess with confidence the resurrection of Christ, which is the “divine imprimatur on the judicial works of the cross.”