Chapter 7: A Rejoinder by G. W. H. Lampe
As the dialogue progresses, Professor Lampe looks back at his own statement on Easter in the light of Professor Mackinnon’s Meditation and of his interpretation of the Resurrection.
Professor Mackinnon’s broadcast meditation recalls us from the question, ‘What happened at Easter?’, to the much more important and profound subject of what it means to us to believe that God has raised Jesus from the dead. I greatly welcome this turn in the discussion, for this latter question was also the theme of my own sermon, and it was only because the former arose in ‘Meeting Point’ and was seized upon by many of my correspondents that I have had to devote a disproportionate amount of space to the historical problem. My object in preaching was, in fact, to enunciate in less sophisticated language precisely that truth which Professor MacKinnon expresses when he says: ‘Here in the Resurrection . . . revelation makes its ultimate claim; the claim that the Redeemer is Lord at once of history and of nature. The manner of his Lordship is patience and mercy. It is achieved, indeed expressed, in obedience unto death. But none the less in the mystery of his Resurrection he is revealed as Lord. His patience is shown as powerful to the overcoming of death itself, and his mercy, shown in the hour of his awful triumph to those who failed him, is now shown to men as a final mercy. In the presence of Christ’s Resurrection we are in the presence of the final things of God, of victory, not as the world knows it, but as God knows it, in the subduing of all things to the purposes of his mercy. What we are met with here we can perhaps only show in a half light; but its claim remains to ultimacy and finality.’
This is wholly true. The Resurrection is an enigma, in the sense that no one is, or ever has been, able to comprehend the manner in which God raised Jesus from the dead. But it is the decisive event in the history of the world: the focal point in God’s dealings with his creation. The Resurrection placed the human life of Christ in the perspective of eternity. It could now be seen, in every detail as his followers remembered it, as the life of the one whom they now encountered as a living Presence in the witnessing and worshipping life of the Christian society: the Jesus who was no longer with them as ‘the prophet from Nazareth’, but who was for ever contemporary as the Lord to whom ‘all authority in heaven and earth’ had been given, who was ‘with them always, to the close of the age’. The Resurrection made it possible to look back upon that human life with fresh insight, so that in later years St. John could write a Gospel in which, though the subject is still the events which took place in Galilee and Jerusalem, the deeds and words of Jesus are reinterpreted in the full light of his risen glory. The true meaning of what he had done and said, which could scarcely be understood by those who were eyewitnesses at the time, was now revealed as the Holy Spirit brought to the remembrance of his disciples all that he had said, and guided them into all the truth (Jn. 14. 26, 16. 13). And in this new perspective Jesus was seen to be himself the ultimate truth: the very embodiment of God’s Word. In him they saw how things really are; they saw that in all the universe the central fact and the sovereign power is the love which shone out in him, the love by which they found themselves judged, forgiven, able to be re-created so as to become new people. Here, in the risen Lord, they discerned the meaning of Creation: ‘The whole universe has been created through him and for him’. Here also they found the pledge and the anticipation of the ultimate completion of God’s purpose for humanity: the re-making of mankind in unbroken fellowship with the Creator, refashioned according to the pattern of Jesus Christ.
There are points in Professor MacKinnon’s meditation which I might wish to express somewhat differently. In particular, I should hesitate to adopt without some further explanation the idea that the Passion was ‘a kind of judgement through which Christ passed, and in which he was acquitted’. I do not think that my difficulty arises from what Professor MacKinnon himself intends by this statement; and I could certainly gloss it in a way which would make me able to accept it. But I think there is some risk that it might be misconstrued so as to obscure certain truths which I believe to be fundamental: that the Passion is the moment at which that complete oneness with the Father which is the unique and all-pervading characteristic of the life of Jesus is paradoxically manifested; that it is at that moment, above all, that Jesus discloses to us God himself in action; that the judgement passed on Jesus and the testing brought to bear upon him are a judgement and a testing exercised (of course, within the permissive will of God) by evil men, or, to use mythological language, by the devil; and that the judgement of God pronounced at Calvary is that which Christ’s accepting love passes upon those men, and upon ourselves as sharers in their sinfulness, by showing up their sin in all its hatefulness.
The meaning of the Cross, however, and its relation to the Resurrection, are discussed more fully in Professor MacKinnon’s comments, and, since my reaction to his Meditation as a whole is one of agreement and gratitude, I now turn to two particularly interesting points which he brings forward in his ‘interpretation’.
The first concerns the uniqueness of Christ’s work, and the bearing which this has upon the relation between his Resurrection and our hope that we ourselves shall be raised from death by the grace of God who brought him again from the dead. That the Word of God was truly made man is the heart of the gospel. God Incarnate entered into our condition. He experienced life as we know it, and underwent our death. The central theme of the Epistle to the Hebrews is that he was made like us in all respects save for our sin; he calls us his brothers; in our humanity he is exalted to the throne of God, a high priest who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses. That he became man in order that we might be made sons of God, or be deified, is the often-repeated teaching of the Greek Fathers. The Son of God fully shared the lot of mortal men. Obviously, this cannot mean that he shared the whole range of human experience. That he took our nature upon him does not imply that every individual person, in every conceivable situation, has Christ as his forerunner and is following in his steps. The Incarnation necessarily involves particularity. If the Word was truly made flesh then he had to be incarnate as a certain individual man in a particular time and place. He was a first-century man, a Jew, a carpenter. His range of experience was restricted by the kind of man he was; and this in itself raises certain difficulties if he is held up as an example to all human beings everywhere and at all times, for it is at least in some measure unreal to present a first-century Galilean as a model for the conduct of Western or African or Asian men in a twentieth-century industrial society.
The significance of the Incarnation, however, is not that the life of Jesus constitutes an example for all subsequent human beings to follow in detail. It is rather that in the incarnation of the Word of God humanity has been taken into unity with God; human life has been sanctified; and a way has been opened for all men in every century and in all circumstances to enter into their right relationship to the Creator (the relationship of sons to their Father) through God’s gracious approach to them in Christ and the response of trust and obedience which God in Christ evokes from them. Entry into this relationship of grace and faith involves the imitation of Christ, but this does not mean an imitation of the individual pattern of life which was required of him by his unique vocation; it means the imitation of his total commitment to God, his obedience to God’s will, and his attitude of unswerving love for others which was the fruit of his openness to God. In Jesus the creative Word of God does address all men in their own situation, however different this may be from the historical circumstances of his incarnate life. For the life of each individual to be sanctified by that Word it is not necessary that there should have been a myriad separate incarnations.
It is true that Christians have rightly discerned in Jesus the new, or second, Adam. In him they find man as God intends him to be: man in the image of God, the perfection of our humanity. He belongs to our race, sharing our propensities and temptations, bearing our human responsibilities and enduring our human weakness; yet in him the sin of Everyman, the inward-looking self-centeredness which bars the way to communion with God because it tries to establish and justify itself over against God, is overcome. Adam’s eagerness to snatch the prize of equality with God -- the desire of Everyman to set himself up in the place of God as absolute master of a world which is really not his own, but God’s -- is replaced by the second Adam’s total self-surrender: his obedience to the point of accepting the death of the Cross; death which paradoxically leads to life, whereas the consequence of Adam’s self-glorification proved to be death. Christ is the second Adam, but only if he has fully entered into, and fully transformed, the condition of Everyman. All those experiences which necessarily fall to the lot of man must have been shared by him.
Marriage and parenthood, with the responsibilities, joys and sorrows which they entail, are not among those experiences which belong to man as such. Professor MacKinnon is quite right to draw attention to the fact that here is a very large and most important sphere of human life which lay beyond the range of experience dictated by Jesus’ particular calling. It is right to acknowledge that this gap in the human experience of the Word Incarnate causes difficulty to some people, for it seems on the surface that this most vital area of personal relationship and responsibility is to some extent a room which Christ has not been through before us. This means that the opportunities for direct imitation of Christ by us are correspondingly limited. Indeed, if the imitation of Christ is conceived in terms of a detailed reproduction of the actual manner in which he lived, the fact that he did not marry may have, and has had, serious consequences. It can constitute a ground for the notion that celibacy must form part of the ideal Christian life: the ‘evangelical life’ which the Church of the fourth and later centuries identified with monasticism. The result of this has sometimes been to misconceive the Christian virtue of chastity and distort it into an avoidance of personal responsibility in the centrally important areas of sex, married partnership and parenthood.
It is, however, as I have already argued, a fundamental mistake to interpret the imitatio Christi in this narrow fashion. The Christian is called, not to reproduce the externals of the life of Jesus, but to live in the spirit of Jesus: as St. Paul would say, to know the indwelling presence of the Spirit whom God has sent into our hearts, by whom we can venture to call God ‘Father’. We have to try to share Jesus’ attitudes. It would, indeed, be a serious defect in his attitude to man if he had depreciated, or had no understanding of, marriage and parenthood, or if his life and teaching had been such as to have no relevance to married and family life. But this is far from the case. On the contrary, his sayings about marriage, his attitude to children, and the effect on his own thought of his early unrecorded home life, which is supremely evident in his attitude to God as Father and in his great parables of fatherhood, are of the most profound significance for married people at all times; and it was through reflection upon the divine love mediated by him to all men that the ancient picture of Israel as God’s bride came to be applied in a new way, so as to make human marriage a fitting analogy to the risen Christ’s communion with his people. ‘The state of matrimony’, as the Prayer Book puts it, has been ‘consecrated to such an excellent mystery that in it is signified and represented the spiritual marriage and unity betwixt Christ and his Church.’
Old age, too, is an area of human experience which lies outside the immediate range of the Incarnation. Irenaeus seems to have felt this difficulty as he worked out the parallel between the second Adam and the first, and tried to show how the totality of human life had been taken up and transformed in the Incarnation; and it may strike us as rather absurd when he uses the saying of the Jews to Jesus, ‘Thou art not yet fifty years old’, as evidence that Jesus was in his forties at the time, and had thus reached an age which by ancient standards could be reckoned old. Yet although the geriatric ward as such is another ‘darker room’ than the one Christ actually went through, and though he was not called to face physical decay and senility, similar considerations are relevant here. Apart from the obvious fact that if Jesus had experienced the troubles of old age the Incarnation might have seemed of little relevance to those who are cut off in youth by violent death in battle or otherwise, old age, although a far more general condition in our time than ever before, is still not a part of the universal lot of man. It is not necessary to the completeness of the humanity of the second Adam that he should have suffered in this particular way, any more than that he should have experienced every kind of death that may befall us. On the other hand, Jesus did know many of the distresses that may afflict the aged; loneliness, poverty, abandonment, and, if the ‘cry of dereliction’ is to be taken in its full horror, as I think it should be, the extremity of physical weakness and mental dissolution. It is true for the old, as for the rest of us, that ‘we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses’.
Those things, however, which inescapably belong to human existence as such are a different matter altogether. If the Word of God has entered into our condition in reality and not in mere appearance, he must have shared our birth. Hence there arises what I think is one of the major reasons why the miraculous birth recorded in Matthew and Luke should not be regarded as a historical fact but as a midrashic or mythical way of expressing the truth that the person of Christ cannot be understood exclusively within the dimension of humanity, but belongs also to the divine dimension. For it is apparent to us, as it was not to the ancients with their ignorance of genetics, that physical generation is involved in what it means to be ‘man’; and Jesus is not a demi-god but the Son of God truly made man.
He must have been born. He must have grown up; and the value of Luke’s emphasis on his ‘increase in wisdom and stature’ can be measured by the difficulty which this caused to later Christians who could not easily accept Christ’s full manhood. He must have experienced death. No one, save some Docetist heretics, has doubted this; but the truth of it receives special emphasis, as I am inclined to think, in the inclusion of Jesus’ actual burial in the very early tradition cited by Paul in I Corinthians 15: 4, and in the elaborate accounts by the Evangelists of the burial and of the size of the stone which barred the tomb.
He shared our human death; and I remain convinced that his entry into life beyond death was not dissimilar in its mode from ours. What may await us on the other side of death must not, if the Incarnation is real and Christ is the second Adam, be a room into which his presence has not preceded us. Unless we take an impossibly ‘spiritualist’ view of our human make-up, we cannot lightly contemplate the dissolution of the body without which we are unable, since we are physical beings, to conceive of a personality. Yet the dissolution of the body is most certainly part of the universal lot of man. I do not find it possible to believe that bodily corruption, that ultimate negation, as it seems, of all human endeavor, aspiration and hope, can be something from which the manhood of Christ was exempt. If God will raise us from death to a new life of fuller communion with himself then this will be sheer miracle: God’s re-creative Word affirming us in the moment of our utter nothingness. And if Christ is the firstfruits of the dead, his Resurrection cannot be of a different order from this. A Resurrection of his physical body, such as is implied by the empty tomb and by some of the stories in the Gospels of his appearances, would point towards a docetic Christ who does not fully share the lot of men; unless, indeed, bodily corruption were to be regarded as being bound up with the sinfulness of man which Christ did not share (but, unless we accept an impossibly literalistic interpretation of Genesis 3 as factual history, it is impossible to hold that physical dissolution is not part of the Creator’s original and constant intention for his creatures in this world). Such a Resurrection, moreover, would offer in itself no promise of risen life beyond death for those who have to face both death and corruption. The miracle which we need would never yet have taken place.
In saying this I am not in any way denying the uniqueness and decisiveness of God’s act in raising Jesus from the dead. Quite the contrary. I am not starting with a belief that all men are destined to survive death, and with a conviction that, because their bodies decay, this survival must somehow be in a non-material mode, and then arguing, from this belief:, that if Jesus was truly man his Resurrection must therefore conform to the universal human pattern. The starting point must be the decisive event: Christ’s Resurrection. It is unique, in the sense that, whereas we have no ground in ourselves for confidence that our destiny is to survive death, he was such that ‘it was not possible for him to be held by it’. It was ‘not possible’ because of the perfection of his one-ness with the eternal and unchanging God. It is decisive because, through his unbroken union with the Father, his death and the overcoming of death in his Resurrection are, as Professor MacKinnon says, the act of God’s final mercy, the victory which is the subduing of all things to the purposes of his mercy. Therefore, it is only in so far as we are, as Paul expresses it, ‘in Christ’, united with him by faith which responds to God’s grace reaching out to us in him, that we may hope to be raised to a share in his risen life of communion with the eternal God.
Our hope is grounded in God’s final affirmation of Jesus in raising him to life. This need not imply that the hope of certain pre-Christian Jews that those who died in faith and loyalty to God, especially those whose allegiance to him had led them to martyrdom, would be raised to life after death was vain. That hope was based, like our own, on confidence that God would not abandon, even in death, those whose lives had been centered upon him and who had responded faithfully to his call to serve him. Nor need we dismiss as empty illusion the hopes of men of other religions who have trusted in God, or the gods, to renew, after death, a relation of grace and communion with their servants. But for us Christ is the way, the truth and the life, and his Resurrection is the one pledge that our trust is not futile. And since our hope is to participate in his Resurrection life, and since we clearly cannot expect to be raised in our fleshly bodies, then our resurrection from death (which will not be physical) cannot be different in kind from his.
Professor MacKinnon’s other most important contribution is his very proper contention that we must not consider the Resurrection of Christ in isolation, but in the closest relation to the nature and purpose of his Passion. He lays great emphasis on the decisiveness and uniqueness of both, as divine acts which are Creative in themselves. He asks whether we are to regard the Cross as an opus operatum whose agent achieved something new, radically affected the scheme of things in time, and established in respect of the relations of men and women to God a new foundation: or whether we are compelled, partly by the demands of a theology that would emphasize divine acceptance above divine judgement, to say that all we find here is the most sublime presentation in time of the eternal readiness of God to receive to himself the truly penitent.
To the first part of the question my answer is unhesitatingly, Yes. In his death on the Cross Christ did achieve something new and established a new foundation for the relations of men and women to God. His death is a decisive act of God in history which changed the relation of man to himself for all time. It is decisive, because at this focal point in history men decisively rejected God in Christ, and God in Christ decisively accepted them by an act of sovereign love, which was at the same time his revelation of the measure of their sin and his judgement of it. It is opus operatum, an objective act, because its agent is not a good man setting the rest of mankind an example of noble conduct which may perhaps induce them to resolve to mend their ways, but is God Incarnate definitively declaring, as Professor MacKinnon says in another context, his ways to man, in his once-for-all acceptance of man (at his very worst) with a sovereign love which judges man’s sin, forgives the sinner, and transforms him by receiving him into communion with himself.
I prefer to avoid the term ‘objective’ in speaking of the Atonement, partly because of its obvious philosophical difficulties and partly because many theologians have assumed that the death of Christ can have objective efficacy only if it is an act directed either towards God, in satisfaction of his justice or in somehow making it possible for his love to operate for the forgiveness of sinners without compromising his holiness, or towards a personal devil in somehow liberating sinners from his clutches. I should wish, on the contrary, to say that the objective efficacy of the death of Christ lies in it being an act of God Incarnate directed towards man, placing him in a new relation to himself by a decisive act of acceptance.
For this reason I am unable to take the second part of Professor MacKinnon’s question as contrary, or alternative, to the first. I should wish to say that the act of God in Christ on the Cross is both a decisive event in time which transformed man’s relation to God, and also, since it certainly did not transform God’s attitude to man, the most sublime presentation of that eternal attitude. It is indeed the focal point where that eternal attitude of love comes to a decisive and unique expression in the act of the Incarnate Son. But that act, by which the wholly impenitent are received (and judged in being received), set free and recreated, is not discontinuous with that eternal readiness to accept sinful men with invincible love, which was already revealed to such a prophet as Hosea. The God of Hosea was not an illusion. He is the God who acts in Christ, translating Hosea’s vision into actuality and making it possible for men to repent, as Israel could not, because he assures them, in the most objective way possible, that they are already accepted by him.
I cannot set acceptance over against judgement as though there were any incompatibility between them. The Cross is a place of judgement and condemnation. Not of any judgement or condemnation of Jesus by God the Father. The judge is Jesus. Calvary is a place of execution, the execution of the Son of God by sinners, but by becoming this it is made to be Christ’s judgement seat. Man’s sin is disclosed there in its fullest odiousness. It is shown up and condemned by its encounter with steadfast love. Christ’s acceptance of sinners is no easy tolerance. He offers no sanction for that artificial, blindly uncritical, ‘Christian goodwill’ which sometimes does duty for true charity. The Cross itself is the measure of the cost of acceptance. The width of the gulf between heaven and hell is revealed there, where the greatest act of human sin is wrought out in a darkness that covered all the land. Acceptance at the hands of the victim of that sin is itself the judgement and condemnation of sin; for it is only when the sinner is accepted that the judgement of his sin becomes effective, and only divine love is able to condemn sin by accepting the sinner. It makes no compromise with sin, nor does it need to be safeguarded from contamination by sinners, for it has sovereign power to reclaim them in the act of accepting them. Acceptance and judgement do not have to be balanced against each other. At the Cross the divine mercy, justice and truth are united, for they are inseparable aspects of that definitive declaration of the ways of God to man.
All this, which is only a part of what ought to be said about the Atonement, is not irrelevant to our discussion; for like Professor MacKinnon, though in a rather different way, I want to lay the greatest emphasis on the decisiveness and uniqueness of the Cross and the Resurrection In both these acts of God, however, I find no inconsistency between their decisiveness and ‘objectivity’ and the fact that they are directed towards men: the former as conveying to them the divine acceptance which is also judgement, the latter by bringing to them, in the Easter experiences, the active presence of the living Lord.
In something of the same way in which the story of the miraculous birth of Christ stands as a sign to indicate that in the life which the Gospels describe there is revealed a decisive act of God -- that in that life we encounter one who is not mere man but God Incarnate -- , so the story of the empty tomb stands as a sign to tell us that the transformation of the frightened and disillusioned disciples into apostles, and the emergence of the Christian community, are grounded in an objective act of God, of a decisive and final character. Read as factual history, however, it does nothing to guarantee the truth of the Christian conviction that God has raised Jesus from the dead: as witness the fact that from the legend of the guard in St. Matthew’s Gospel to the theory advanced recently by H. J. Schonfield, in The Passover Plot, the story of the empty tomb has persuaded many people, not that God acted in a unique and decisive way but that the body was stolen, that Jesus revived in the grave, and many other implausible hypotheses. Without the appearances, the empty tomb is not significant; and the reality of the presence of the living Lord, as it was known by his followers, needs no external confirmation by the empty tomb. Nothing, of course, but faith can in fact attest the truth of the Resurrection; and to look for some confirmation of its truth, independent of faith, would be, as both the present writers would agree, to ‘seek after a sign’ which ‘shall not be given’.