Chapter 6: Good Friday And Easter by D. M. MacKinnon

The Resurrection: A Dialogue
by G.W.H. Lampe and D.M. MacKinnon

Chapter 6: Good Friday And Easter by D. M. MacKinnon


Professor MacKinnon looks again at his Meditation and, in the light of it, considers Professor Lampe’s statement.


To re-read after an interval of more than a decade the preceding meditation is to be conscious of the extent to which my thinking on the topics with which it dealt has moved and has become much less confident, the outlines far less secure. In the meditation I was prepared to take a number of categories for granted which further reflection has led me to question: for instance, the notion of sacrifice that informed a part of what I then wrote.

I mention this concept of sacrifice in particular because if I have to ask wherein I still differ from Professor Lampe (whose consummate New Testament scholarship I would not venture to query), it touches the question of the unique and creative quality of Christ’s work.

Christ leads me through no darker rooms

Than he went through before.

Baxter’s hymn which Professor Lampe quotes is almost certainly among the greatest in the English language, and I do not question its relevance to the issue we are discussing. But what exactly do the words say? Surely that whatever experience may be ours, it is not to be regarded as in itself more terrible than Christ’s Passion; it is not suggested that the dark experiences may not be quite different one from another.

Many years ago I recall hearing an address on Good Friday evening in which the preacher suggested to his congregation that it might fall to them in ‘filling up what is lacking in the suffering of Christ for his Body’s sake’ to endure kinds of ill of whose occurrence in his brief human life we have no record, for instance, prolonged physical illness. To one facing the ordeal of cancer, awaiting, for instance, the passage of the common two years’ interval between the appearance of the first malignant growth and its possible recrudescence, there may be consolation in the recollection of Christ’s ordeal, but a consolation, the preacher implicitly argued, that need not be diminished by the sense that here is an experience which in a quite literal sense the Lord did not share. The argument of this sermon was open to criticism on the ground that the preacher seemed to take for granted a highly debatable view of the redemptive value of human suffering; yet he was calling attention to something very important, namely, that if we quote Baxter’s words as Professor Lampe has done, we must not forget that the scope of Christ’s suffering is limited. It included extremities of human pain; but it was not the only sort of ordeal that overtakes humankind.

Again one thinks of the monstrous indignities of the geriatric wards of a modern hospital, of the fantasies of the senile, of the disintegration typified by the onset of double incontinence. No one who has had one whom he loved die in such straits will fail to welcome the compassionate realism of the graveside prayer, ‘Suffer us not at the last from any pains of death to fall from thee’. In the original of Isaac Watts’ hymn, it was the ‘young Prince of Glory’ who died on Calvary, forgoing most certainly opportunities of profound service to his fellows that might well have been his, had he avoided the issue of his supreme hour. But we must not let our proper embarrassment at the unfeeling vulgarity of, e.g., the notorious Armistice hymn, ‘The Supreme Sacrifice’, lead us to forget that death in youth at least spares the one who dies the degeneration which so often today marks the way to the tomb.

On Easter Day, 1962 (April 22nd), Mr. Kingsley Amis, the novelist, published in the Sunday Telegraph an article in which he tried to formulate his attitude to the central figure of the Gospels. He, rightly in my judgement, remarked that one of the aspects of his life which seemed to set a question-mark against his claim was the fact that he avoided what for very many, if not most, men is the most testing of all human experiences, viz, marriage and the begetting of children. Here lies not only the most inexorable of all human responsibilities, but here as nowhere else men are revealed to themselves as what they are, tested and unmasked. Here is, no doubt, a place of glory, but for others also the setting of their most tragic experience, and first-hand knowledge of failure and despair. ‘The Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head.’ Such rootlessness protects its subject from human demands even as it exposes him to the pains of homelessness. Those who know from within what marriage may demand are often unimpressed with the claim of the celibate that his way of life is renunciation for the service of the higher good, even when it is conceded to be innocent altogether of any unconscious homosexuality. Those who have suffered through marriage or even known its average demands, are aware of the foot-loose ease that rejection of its responsibilities confers and are unwilling to see here nothing but renunciation. And what is validly brought in criticism against the devoted monk in the mission field must surely have a prima facie relevance to the Lord himself.

The point is a very important one, and it can only be met if we can show that Christ was by the nature of his mission constrained to accept certain limitations, this because only by doing so could he fulfill a task, the task which touches the heart and center of human life. What I dare to query in Professor Lampe’s argument is a bias in the direction of exemplarism; this though he insists that the Resurrection of Christ has much more than a purely cognitive significance. It may indeed seem that what I have done so far is to offer a tentative argument against the claims of an exemplarist interpretation of Christ’s work, namely, that if he is offered us as an exemplar his experience is in crucial respects too relative and limited to offer a wholly significant guide-post to men and women in all the circumstances of their lives. This, of course, is not to say he is not rightly esteemed truly human, a man of flesh and blood with the peculiar Biblical force of that phrase; indeed it might be claimed that the very stress laid on the limited character of his experience makes us more vividly aware of the reality of his human nature. Yet we need to recognize the problems raised for us by the fact that if his limitation emphasizes his humanity, it is expressed in a deliberate selection from the range of activities open to him, such a selection indeed as men and women are always compelled to make. For him as for others choice closed some doors even as it opened others. Yet the doors which he was content should remain closed were among the most significant confronting humankind, and if we are to vindicate his readiness that they should so remain sealed, we can only do so if we suppose that his mission imposed on him a particular set of choices.

Where an understanding of the Resurrection of Christ is concerned, historical, philosophical and theological problems are inextricably intertwined. But they do not concern simply the relative lateness of the emergence of the empty tomb tradition; they concern much more Christ’s approach to his Passion, the intention with which he confronted his supreme hour. In what sense do we regard the Cross as an act creative in itself, as an opus operatum whose agent in the loneliness of his total rejection achieved something new, radically affected the scheme of things entire, established in respect of the relations of men and women to God a new foundation? Or are we, partly by the paucity of our records, whose composition has been so largely shaped by factors quite other than a modern demand for historical, factual accuracy, partly by the demands of a theology that would emphasize divine acceptance above divine judgement, compelled 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? In my meditation it was to the former view that I was committed; I would not now use confidently the almost liturgical language I made free with them. I would try rather to say at least a considerable part of what I said then in a very different way.

Consider this passage from a Cambridge philosopher : (Professor John Wisdom, Paradox and Discovery, Blackwell, 1966, p. 33.)

But though we do make and need to make limited judgements we need again and again to call to mind how different they are from the divine judgement in which both easy forgiveness and easy condemnation are impossible. This is the judgement we ask for ourselves. For we ask that at our own trial counsel and judge shall proceed with infinite patience. We ask that they shall not judge a part of the picture without seeing the whole. We ask that they shall consider, ruthlessly but with understanding, circumstance beyond circumstance, wheel within wheel.

Asking for this patience for ourselves we then ask it for others and so ask it of ourselves.

Is it not an element in Christian belief that in the Passion of Christ precisely that marriage of truth and justice with mercy which Professor Wisdom seems to desiderate was achieved? Wisdom is writing of the human situation, and we must not suppose that if we agree with what he writes, we are assuming a schism between God’s justice and his mercy. What we are supposing and implying is that in our heart of hearts we ask for what seems beyond possibility of bestowal, a judgement that neither spares our capacity for self-deceit in respect of our selves and our relationships, nor annihilates the springs of our tenderness towards our neighbors and indeed towards ourselves.

Where the understanding of Christ’s Passion is concerned we are, as always, involved inextricably in historical questions of great difficulty. In the Synoptic Gospels the framework of the narrative is in a measure provided by the movement of the Lord from Galilee to Jerusalem, from life to death. The earliest of the three (St. Mark) is clearly the work of a writer almost obsessed by the apologetic necessity of somehow making intelligible to his readers the scandalous outcome in rejection and death of the ministry of one whom he clearly believed to be the expected Messiah. The very depth of his preoccupation with the theological problem presented by the terrible fate meted out to Jesus as a result of the Jewish and Roman leaders’ readiness to co-operate in his destruction makes him a questionable witness to the motives and intentions with which the Lord approached and confronted his supreme hour. In the very different narrative of St. Luke we are continually reminded that a triumphal progress, begun when the day of Christ’s assumption was near, provides the (artificial) context of many of the events he records. The movement from Nazareth to Galilee is followed by one from Galilee to Jerusalem; and in his sequel, the Acts of the Apostles, the Evangelist will continue the progress to Rome itself again, if the writer of the Fourth Gospel radically departs from the topographical scheme of his predecessors, his whole presentation is dominated by references to an hour ‘that is not yet come’, but which controls and directs by its ever hastening approach the sequence of events he sets forth.

There is no escaping the extreme difficulty that confronts any attempt to frame a doctrine of the Atonement as a result of the growing recognition of the extent to which motives of theological and apologetic construction determine the Gospels as we have them. Yet suppose we allow ourselves for a moment to attend to the Lucan portrait of the central figure. An intelligible portrait certainly emerges of one who of fixed intention consorts with the socially and morally outcast in preference to the religious and moral élite of the society in which he lived and acted. It is indeed arguable that the order in which Luke sets out the temptations of Christ sets the tone for his presentation of his ministry. The climactic temptation is not the offer of the kingdoms of the world and their glory, but the suggestion of a bloodless victory achieved by a miraculous descent upon the central scene of devotion and worship. Such a descent would immediately set its subject alongside those concerned to promote authoritatively the cause of religion and morals, and establish an immediate gulf between him and those of whom he spoke as ‘the lost sheep of Israel’. Certainly Luke’s Christ is one who follows to the end the way of presence, repudiating at the last the challenge to descend from the Cross, preferring to keep company to the end with the thief whose stumbling confession of his lordship Luke includes in his Passion-narrative. Yet a student of this portrait must ask himself how such association is possible, how it may be pursued without risk of corruption to the one who attempts it, without indeed risk of perpetuating a kind of deceit concerning the way of life adopted by those who are thus made welcome by Christ. No one who knows anything of the darker side of human life will deny that acceptance in itself can pass easily into a sentimental condonation of evil which obscures the truth of human existence. A father who welcomes home his prodigal son must be careful lest in his old age he become a Lear, easy prey to the flatteries of a Goneril or Regan, blind to the devotion of a Cordelia and unable until almost too late to find healing for his fantasies in her fidelity to the truth. It is indeed part of the depth of Christ’s parables, and of his own ministry seen as in itself the supreme parable, that they point beyond themselves. The parable of the two brothers is full of the ambiguity of human life; its ending is not the happy ending which closes for ever the issues with which it deals. It points beyond itself. So analogously does the ministry of Jesus. Luke sets it forth as the actualization of a sustained choice of acceptance; but it is an acceptance by one whose face is set steadfastly to go to Jerusalem, a triumphant progress indeed but one suffused by a resolution that can only be indicated by use of the active (esterixen) of that verb used in the perfect passive in the parable of Dives and Lazarus to convey the gulf between Heaven and Hell.

The depths of human ambiguity are opened and plumbed by Christ himself. Such seems to me to be part of the burden of the Johannine theological sequel to the Synoptic narratives, as well as of those narratives themselves. To plumb these depths he gave himself in obedience to his Father; he so lived that he opened to the seemingly fathomless bottom the central contradiction of human existence, the inescapable conflict of the claims of love and truth. We can surely read off from the Gospels something of the cost of this, something indeed of the uncertainty that hemmed his choice; the Outrage of the Pharisees, the seeming desertion at the last of the common people who had heard him gladly and whom in a sense he left to their fate in the coming sack of their city and desolation of their land. One can even discern the stamp of the homelessness to which his being as ‘the man for God’ condemned him, on his ministry from the beginning. Yet it is more than a stamp; it is a burden laid upon him which makes him wholly acceptable, vulnerable, disponible, and yet withdraws him to the task of ‘giving his flesh for the life of the world’: almost in the moment when an outburst of popular devotion would bestow upon him the splendor of kingship, a kingship of popular acclaim which he refused without seeming even to consider attempting to manage it. The very possibility of such status is presented by John as intractable by one whose destiny it is to be presented in the end to the world as Son of Man, with mock robes of royalty upon him, to pick out the unique dignity and situation of the one by whom the world is finally judged. Because it is intractable he simply dodges the kingship of acclaim, awaiting instead the coronation that will be his in his supreme hour, a coronation which by its quality of contempt suggests, even partially reveals, the many-leveled mystery of the Son of Man.

Of course this is not a doctrine of the Atonement. It is at best a prolegomenon which seeks to suggest an element in the ministry of Jesus that gives it a constitutive as distinct from an exemplary character, that makes it the supreme action of all history (action that is fully and entirely human, yet unique), action which crowns a ministry in which the ambiguities of human life are progressively articulated, being action in which their burden is endured à l’outrance.

In his recently published book, According to Your Faith, Mr. T. S. Gregory, who produced the meditation when it was broadcast in 1953, wrote as follows: ‘The Cross is Love without remorse or reprieve, sovereign and everlasting, the sole image of omnipotence known to me’.(Op. cit., p. 108.) This is a wholly admirable statement of the revelation of the ways of God with men that is afforded to their perceptions in Christ’s Cross. By this event they are enabled, even compelled, radically to redefine their notion of his sovereign power as it affects their lives; but if they are allowed in that place to glimpse the ultimate secret of his ways, this would seem in part at least to be because there he made, in the person of his Son, their perplexity and their pain his own. We are brought face to face here with some of the deepest intellectual problems, and indeed most searching spiritual mysteries of the Christian faith, namely the manner of our dependence on God in Christ and the detail, so far as we can trace it, of God’s dealing with us in him. If writing a technical philosophical or theological essay, I should wish here to urge how much work needs to be done by way of analysis on the notion of dependence.(In the second series of my Gifford Lectures delivered in Edinburgh, I include [especially in the version to be published] extended discussion of this notion.) What do we mean when we speak of our dependence on God? Further, what did, for instance, the late Dom Gregory Dix, in the last and most permanently valuable chapter of his Shape of the Liturgy,(Dacre Press [1945]) mean when he said that ‘we depend upon God for our very dependence’? He was speaking of that which he saw articulated in the Catholic tradition of Eucharistic worship, as he understood it; yet his words unconsciously echoed a great deal that is most deeply characteristic of Dr. Karl Barth’s criticism of what he regards as the very heart and centre of Catholic dogmatics, namely the doctrine of the analogy of being. These are matters as technical as they are difficult; yet the attempt to present in the simplest, I had almost said most naked, terms the elements of the Christian faith raises them very sharply. It is a paradox, yet true, that the more deeply we seek to affirm the reality of God’s condescension to the depths of our human situation, the more we are enabled, and indeed led, somehow to represent the content of his act in Christ in objective terms. This is not to deny for one moment what Mr. Gregory has recently written with such authoritative perception; rather it is to say that the Cross only reveals the secret of the divine ways because it is dealing with men and women as they are.

It is currently fashionable to write as if the very heart and center of the Christian gospel was a simple message of divine acceptance. This is a very healthy corrective to a great deal that has unquestionably disfigured the history of institutional Christianity; for instance, the sometimes subtle but persistent belittling of the richest and most profound of human experiences, as if the joys of human love were somehow suspect, and not among the most sheerly precious experiences that life has to offer. But the message of divine acceptance is sometimes presented as an ultimately sentimental underwriting of every sort of self-indulgence, disregard of the claims of others, cruelty and self-deception, as if everything, but everything, was for the best in the best of all possible worlds. The deadliness of what Plato referred to as the ‘lie in the soul’, succeeding in no small measure in characterizing its inwardness, is too lightly dismissed. We rightly reject the sort of spiritual shallowness which expresses itself in an affected superiority in the presence of the extraordinary richness of human life, that underplays the wonder and the joy of married love, and at the same time (there is a connection) depreciates the worlds of natural beauty and of the arts. But we could too easily replace this shallowness by another, cruel as sentimental attitudes inevitably are, which leaves out of account the presence in human life of the sheerly irrevocable, of that which has been done, and it is now too late to undo, of the damage inflicted on others that cannot be put right and that no interpretation can possible render edifying. It is such considerations as these that have weighed with those who have insisted that the atoning work of Christ must be construed in objective terms, who have indeed sometimes found themselves driven by recollection of the Cross to give this temper to their humanism.

I may seem to have moved a long way from the issues with which this discussion is primarily concerned. Yet I agree with Professor Lampe profoundly in thinking that no simple treatment of the Resurrection narratives is possible. I mean they are not capable of allowing us the comfort of a simple yes or no to what they imply. I will not deny that I give more weight than he does to the fact of the apparent inability of the opponents of the early Christian preaching to silence the message of the Resurrection once for all by producing Christ’s remains. The account we have of this preaching in Acts raises every sort of historical critical problem, and I would not pretend to any knowledge in depth of the issues involved. But there seems to me at the common-sense level something here that we must take seriously, more seriously than any other element in the traditional Easter apologetic. Yet when that is said and done the narratives need to be studied not only in the closest detail but also in relation to the whole problem of Christ’s person and work. If we say that we suppose the sense of that work to reside in the end in a definitive declaration of the ways of God with men, made in man for men, we will, I suspect, incline towards a view that diminishes the element of uniqueness we attribute to Christ’s Resurrection. If, on the other hand, we suppose something done here once for all, we will not be surprised to find in the manner of the Amen spoken to that work an element of the unique. I say an element of the unique; for clearly there is some sort of analogy between the content of the Christian hope and the manner of Christ’s raising from the dead. Again we are brought up against the obscurities attending the use here of the notion of dependence. How does that for which we hope, however uncertainly and precariously, depend upon that which Christ received as vindication of his work? This is a matter on which there is most urgent need of co-operation between those whose studies are, in the first instance, historical, and those whose concern lies on the frontiers between systematic theological understanding and the clamant need to relate the supposed Christian verity to our growing and changing perceptions of our human situation. I say this because I realize that in what I have written it is not simply a matter of a dogmatic theologian commenting on the work of a disciplined historical critic; there are issues involved here which are neither purely theological nor historical; they touch the manner in which we understand our existence and our need, an existence and an understanding that we allow it possible that Christ has redefined for us. But what is the manner, what the secret, of that redefinition? Here, as so often when one really tries to get to grips with the Christian message, its articulation in hard and fast terms seems to elude us; we are pulled in a whole number of directions at once, no more able to say simply that here we deal with historical questions, here with questions of general philosophy or of human psychology, here with matters of revealed theology. It is almost as if we have here a kind of dependence that deprives us of the sort of security that we tend uncritically to associate with a dependence for which we claim ultimacy. We are left asking questions in a process of interrogation that is partly, though not entirely, self-interrogation, to which we see no easy end; but this may be as it is because the mysteries that set our inquiring in motion have their authority over us, thus continually to disturb our minds, only because they do touch what is ultimate, which is at once within and yet wholly beyond our comprehension.

It may seem odd to end these comments with what may seem to many needless epistemological obscurities; but I am driven to write in these terms because I sometimes think that only when we bring out into the open what it is that defeats our every attempt to handle the things of the Christian faith confidently and without hesitation, will we be able to perceive at least a small measure of its uniqueness. There is, perhaps, no place at which these issues are more sharply raised than consideration of the gospel of the Resurrection.