Top critical review
Wright in context: weighed and found wanting
Reviewed in the United States on August 19, 2020
These four studies of the resurrection should be studied together
The Structure of Resurrection Belief. By Peter Carnley. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987. Pp. xiii, 394, paper.)
The Resurrection of the Son of God. By N. T. Wright. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003. xxi, 817, paper)
Resurrection in Retrospect: A Critical Examination of the Theology of N. T. Wright. By Peter Carnley. (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2019. Pp. xiii, 312, paper.)
The Reconstruction of Resurrection Belief. By Peter Carnley. (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2019. Pp. xiv, 335, paper.)
Forty-some years ago an Australian Anglican scholar, Peter Carnley, set out to write a study of Christian faith in the resurrection. The book was delayed by his selection as Archbishop of Western Australia, but he took a sabbatical to complete the book and publish it in 1987 as The Structure of Resurrection Belief. It remains a clear and valuable statement of the structure of a Christian faith grounded on the reality of the resurrection of Jesus. Carefully analyzing the then popular writing of such theologians as Barth, Bultmann, Knox, Schillebeeckx and many others, Carnley insisted that the resurrection cannot simply be labeled a “myth” on the one hand, nor a matter to be evaluated by historians on the other, but must nevertheless take a central role in the formation of Christian faith, and, whether in the first century or in our own time, must be carefully analyzed and proclaimed. “The Jesus story,” Carnley wrote, “points us to the quality of the self-giving remembered to have been in his life; the Easter stories of the empty tomb and the first appearances in turn raise the possibility of knowing that same self-giving still in the ongoing life and work of the Christian fellowship . . .”
Some ten years later, N. T. Wright, not yet a bishop of the Church of England, began work on a multi-volume series entitled Christian Origins and the Question of God. Although he had thought of writing about the resurrection in one chapter of one of those volumes, he produced, in fact, an entire volume of over 800 pages titled The Resurrection of the Son of God. Wright’s approach is encyclopedic: one quarter of the book is devoted to ideas about resurrection in the pagan world, the Old Testament, and post-Biblical Judaism; two hundred pages are then given to Paul’s teaching about the resurrection, one hundred and fifty pages to non-Biblical sources from the first century, and the final two hundred pages to “the Easter story” as found in the Gospels and as Wright understands it. Along the way, Wright gives particular attention to Carnley’s book and his fundamental disagreement with Carnley’s perspective. In his analysis of the resurrection faith, Wright concludes that “the historian of whatever persuasion, has no option but to affirm both the empty tomb and the ‘meetings’ with Jesus as ‘historical events’ (and) in the normal sense required by historians, provable events . . .” He argues that Second Temple Judaism believed in a resurrection body of flesh and blood and the first Christians could only have understood Jesus’ resurrection in those terms.
Carnley, in turn, having completed his service as an archbishop, “retired” to a visiting professorship at the General Theological Seminary in New York and responded to Wright in 2019 with a new volume, Resurrection in Retrospect, a Critical Examination of the Theology of N. T. Wright, in which he speaks of Wright’s perspective as “‘the reigning paradigm’ of the approach to the Resurrection evaluated as an event of past historical time” and expresses his appreciation of Wright’s “generous response” to the news that his work was to be “subjected to critical public scrutiny.” In providing that scrutiny, Carnley argues that “we are asking too much of ourselves” if, “at two thousand years remove and with only meager fragments of evidential reports to work with” we insist on grounding our faith on those reports, but “if I come to trusting faith in the raised Christ, whom I claim to know by acquaintance as the life-giving presence of his spirit of self-giving in the distinctive form of life that is characteristic of the Christian community . . . then I know that he must have been raised from the dead.”
Carnley then reasserted his views in the same year in another volume titled The Reconstruction of Resurrection Belief in which he updated his earlier work with reference to some hundred and fifty works written since 1987.
The differences between Carnley and Wright are real and important, but both, it might be noticed, are distinctively Anglican in their emphases. Wright, for example, speaks of “the goodness of the created order,” and Carnley ends his first volume by noting the priority of worship in our response to God’s action in Christ: “One of the glories of Anglicanism, perhaps the glory of Anglicanism, is its preference for liturgy as a way of expressing truth over the Latin proclivity for defining doctrines and dogmas.”
None of these four volumes is easy reading, but all are valuable assertions of the centrality of the resurrection to Christian faith and the historical reality of the events, with or without an empty tomb, that produced that faith. Of the four volumes, Carnley’s 1987 volume may still be the most valuable of the four and the clearest in its statement of the meaning of a resurrection faith. “Resurrection theology,” Carnley tells us, “is . . . the foundation of all theology in the sense that secondary affirmations of belief are drawn from it concerning Christ’s messianic role and divine status . . . The experience of the presence of the raised Christ marks the historical beginning of the telling of the Christian story.” The problem, from Carnley’s perspective, is that Christians have not always grounded their faith on that experience, but rather on the stories of the empty tomb. The challenges to those stories in the last two centuries have left Christians with an array of views ranging from a continuing assertion of historical fact to various interpretations of the resurrection as “a religiously useful story or myth.” Carnley gives us a summary of these developments and then provides his own analysis of the historic events that culminated in the stories of resurrection. Important to his analysis is Paul’s testimony in the epistles, written prior to the Gospel accounts, which never speaks of an empty tomb, but centers instead on a series of appearances. Paul’s account of these appearances does not include any appearances at the tomb to the women, but does include the appearance to Paul on the road to Damascus, which took place well after the forty post-Easter days of appearances leading to the Ascension. The historicity of an empty tomb seems unimportant, indeed unknown, to Paul. Carnley does not dismiss the gospel stories, but, like Paul, does not ground his faith on them. Stories of an empty tomb, he contends, are valueless apart from the evidence of a living Lord in the life of the church. When that faith is encountered, Carnley tells us, it is possible to say, “‘This is what they are talking about. This is none other than the Spirit of the living Christ’ . . . The more immediate response is to stand in his presence in the silent awe of worship . . . for Christ is risen . . .”
Christopher L. Webber San Francisco, California