Bishop John Shelby Spong: Resurrection: Myth or Reality. "A Critique"
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Synopsis. The object of this critique is to look at the Christology of Bishop Shelby Spong in his book Resurrection Myth or Reality. It is hoped by a careful analysis of the method used by Spong to prove that his account of the Resurrection is more of the kind he claims the Orthodox view to be. That is, some kind of fairy tales or fable.
By use of proper Theological Method it will be shown that by his use of presupposition, an ignorance of historical data, a failure to consult leading authorities and a twisted view of the use of Jewish Midrash, Spong has failed to arrive at the Jesus of the bible.
Rather it will be shown that when the proper Method is applied that the Jesus of the bible is the only possible outcome for such a search, because the facts when considered verify the biblical account as historical.
For Bishop Shelby Spong the New Testament story is just that, a story. His journey into the secrets of the resurrection starts with a presupposition that, the biblical story cannot be taken literally. This is no more evident than when he states, "In today’s world evangelical and fundamentalist elements of the Christian church, Catholic and Protestant, cling to the fading possibility of a literal truth being present in the details of the faith story"1 or "I will not allow my 20th century mind to be compromised by the literalism of another era that is not capable of being believed in a literal way today"2 . Spong like others before him has been the product of the Enlightenment3 and has set out on a quest to find the historical Jesus. This is why he cannot accept the Jesus of the bible4. However, as Willi Marxsen so aptly points out, "there is no answer to the quest for the historical Jesus"5.
Bishop Spong, through a series of discourses, claims that the biblical record of Jesus life and death was written in a form of Jewish Midrash6, used by the writers to incorporate the evolving faith story into one with, "no closed chapters and claimed no frozen infallibility"7. By the end of the first century he claims, the writers of the faith story had finished their respective works, but by the end of the second century those who were now interpreting the faith story, knew nothing of Midrashic history. Spong obviously struggles to come to terms with the resurrection, an event which he describes as so indescribable that it was outside of linear time and required something as eloquent as Midrash to convey it8.
For him, the resurrection became not a bodily resurrection9 of Jesus but an existential resurrection for each individual starting with Peter10. Jesus instead was exalted straight to heaven, and there he sat at the right hand of the Father11. John MacQuarie for instance would agree with Spong on this point because he see the ascension as, "a purely mythical event"12. He was not however, resurrected back into life but "into God and God’s heaven by God’s divine action"13. He claims in the preface to his book, "I believe and affirm that Jesus, in the experience called Easter, transcends the limits of human finitude expressed in the ultimate symbol of that finitude-death"14. This to the casual reader would almost convince them that he held an orthodox view of Scripture. He also claims that those called by this Jesus will live in him, however as one reads on they find he rejects the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Rather seeing the body of Jesus still lying in the ground in an unmarked common grave15. If we combine the Jesus who failed to rise from the dead and the Jesus he talks about, who was not the product of a virgin birth but the illegitimate child of Mary, the product of a possible rape, then God in exalting Jesus was only righting the scales of justice16.
Jesus then is not the pre-existent perfect one but rather "a" son of God, not "the" son of God17. Likewise Jesus for Spong was not a valid priest, and as such a valid claim to priesthood had to be developed for him by the early Jewish Christians18.
Within his argument, lies a fundamental belief that, angelic messengers, the miraculous which include the virgin birth19, as well as the resurrection are nothing more than fancifully created legends20. He suffers from, so to speak, of a terminal case of fundamentalism, of which he is loath to speak. He claims, instead, these literal and fundamental interpretations have been used by those in authority to control the power they hold over people in a religious experience21.
Spong’s argument hinges precariously on these several points, that the New Testament was a collection of Midrashic stories or legends, and as a result the Scriptures are unreliable with regard to historical accuracy, also, that the resurrection was not a bodily resurrection, and finally, that the Apostle Paul does not write about a bodily resurrection in the early work of 1 Corinthians 15.
To be able see the real Jesus and not the shadowy Jesus of Spong it is important to examine and prove that the resurrection of Jesus did occur in a bodily manner and was not an event outside history but an actual historically verifiable event. In the process it will be attempted to refute all of the points on which his argument rests.
Doing good Theology requires good Theological Method, and good Theological Method according to scholars like Erickson and Berkhof requires the bringing of no presuppositions to the text22. It is necessary then to approach the topic of resurrection without any presupposition and let the evidence speak for it’s self.
Firstly let us look at the issue of the New Testament being what Spong refers to as Jewish Midrash. This is point where he is guilty of scientific fraud. When looking at ancient documents with a view to their authenticity, the Ancient Documents Rule is just one means which can be used when it comes to authenticating an ancient document, like the New Testament23. As such the New Testament writings or much of them would be quite admissible in any court of law. How could such historically accurate documents be called legends or folk stories?
As well Archaeological evidence, had by the late 19th century confirmed the accuracy of the New Testament and scholars such as William Albright were making statements to this fact24. Marxsen brakes the issue of the historical record of Jesus down into facts that are historically verifiable and those which are accepted by faith alone. The statement that Jesus has risen is a historical statement because it can, as Albright and others claim, be verified by the evidence25.
The statement that "God raised Jesus from the dead", however relies on faith for it has a prehistory of expectation that God will raise Jesus from the dead. This issue is also raised by Clifford who makes note that just because the Gospels could be admitted in a court of law as evidence, does not mean that, that by itself authenticates them26. Rather, the Scriptures of the New Testament would be seen as historical but only those portions which contained the writers eyewitness detail, where they were reporting on "what they knew to be fact from personal observation"27, would be admitted. Hence to say that the New Testament is no historical means one must ignore the evidence to the contrary.
To help accept the Gospel accounts as historical there is a need to look at the way in which the early church and historians viewed them.
Irenaeus who was a Bishop at Lyons and studied under Polycarp, reacted to heresies of his day, and was the first writer of his day whose list of New Testament books corresponded with the New Testament canon28 held to, by the church today29. This puts him in a good position as a witness to reliability of the gospels especially when we read how Irenaeus sees the history behind the gospels themselves30. For Irenaeus "Matthew published his gospel among the Hebrews in their own tongue, when Peter and Paul were preaching the Gospel in Rome and Founding the Church there". He goes onto say that Mark was a disciple and interpreter of Peter, and had handed down in writing the teaching of Peter. Irenaeus confirms that both Luke and John produced their own account of the gospel story31.
Papias, who was a Bishop of Hierapolis32 , confirms that what Irenaeus has said about the writers of the gospels was true33. Papias tells how he confirms what is written because it does not disagree with the oral teaching he received from the Elders themselves.
Finally, from history comes the evidence from the Muratorian Canon, which supports Luke and John as the writers of their respective gospels. "The fourth gospel is that of John, one of the disciples, moreover the Acts of all the Apostles are included in one book, Luke addressed them to the most excellent Theophilus"34, is how it is worded and leaves little room for not accepting what is historical truth35.
It is therefore true, that the resurrection story told in the gospels is true in it’s historical detail and it is only the means of the resurrection which cannot be verified36. If then, we can acknowledge the New Testament as true historical fact, we can then explain why Spong’s use of a Midrashic tradition is not valid.
To add weight to the historical perspective, N.T. Wright points out that Spong’s use of Midrash is not even close to the Jewish use of this literary genre37. That there is such a thing as midrash is a verifiable fact and to claim that the Scriptures must in all cases be understood literally is the one area where it must be agreed with Spong, especially when he states "we need to separate ourselves from literalism38". Spong however omits to recognise the work of scholars like Geza Vermes ad Jacob Neusner who are the acknowledged experts in the field of Midrashic study39. Proper Midrash is made up of commentary on a particular biblical text, the evidence is overwhelming and Wright40 is correct, when he sees Spong’s use of it as the fanciful retelling of a verbal story. For Spong there is no original text, rather the writer of Mark used this particular style and the rest of the Gospel writers followed his lead41.
Having established, that firstly, Spong’s presupposition that nothing that his 20th century mind could not imagine, could be fact, goes against good Theological Method and secondly that his implication that the New Testament Scriptures are not verifiable fact but Midrashic interpretations of the oral stories, are questionable enough to be contradicted, it is important then to let the Gospel stories speak for themselves.
Even those who view the gospels with some scepticism usually try to argue for an early date for the composition of the gospels. Spong, however holds to a late dating of all the Gospels42. Spong who claims to an heir of J.A.T. Robinson43 even fails to consider his arguments for the early dating of the gospels44. This early dating means that only a period of 30 to 40 years elapsed between Jesus death and the writing of the gospels. As such with the known ability of the Jewish society to commit facts to memory and accurately transmit an oral tradition comes the likelihood that there was little or no embellishment of the text45. This stands in direct contrast to the claims of Spong. Clifford rightly picks up on this point making note that, "many scholars hold that in the Gospels it is clear that Aramaic expressions undergird the Greek", this however should not be taken as Spong does, to mean that the transmission from Aramaic to Greek is a corrupting of the text46, but more rightly what Clifford states it to be, "clearly the writers are trying to transcribe the actual teachings of Jesus and are not supplying their own embellished thoughts or paraphrase"47.
Peterson goes onto point out that both Luke and John have internal claims to be accurate accounts of eyewitnesses set down as Luke puts it, to show what had been fulfilled among them (Luke 1:1-2). John 21:24 holds an explicit claim to be eyewitness evidence.
With regard to what Spong infers was an empty tomb (because Jesus was buried in a common grave), the fact that it is recorded in all four Gospels that Jesus was buried in the tomb, does seem to outweigh his argument. Peterson rightly puts it when he says that just because there are differences between the empty tomb accounts, does not warrant the scepticism of Spong48 and others49. These differences are seen by Clifford as a verification of the truth, rather than a reason to discount the evidence altogether. For when witness set out to deceive they usually contradict themselves and instead the Gospel accounts can be harmonised50.
Against this backdrop of unbelief by Spong in a bodily resurrection, it can be seen that when the historical validity of the Gospels has been verified, they do, contain eyewitness accounts of Jesus appearing to his disciples and many others. Stories like Matthew 28:9-10, find parallels in John 20:11-18 and Luke 24:13-25. It again can be seen that these accounts differ in their detail and as has been discussed this should be seen as a verification rather than a denial of the event. Peterson puts it plainly by stating, "Harmonisation of the resurrection narratives is not always easy because the Gospel writers have particular reasons for recording certain events and presenting them as they do"51.
Lastly there is a need to look at the issue of his use of Paul’s writings to refute the resurrection. Paul Barnett believes that Spong makes four errors or presuppositions with regard to Paul’s works. Of these three only will be looked at.
Firstly, he claims that Paul never knew the Jesus of bible52. This is highly unlikely because Paul was active in Jerusalem during the period of Jesus ministry there. Barnett sees the verse in 2 Corinthians 5:16 as meaning, he had seen Jesus in the flesh. In support of this Philip E. Hughes sees this verse as a "rejoinder to those who have sought to discredit him (Paul) by alleging that he had no first hand knowledge of Christ"53. This added to the fact that he would have had a personal knowledge of the early Christian movement because of his vehement desire to see it terminated, means that Paul must have acquired a greater understanding than we give him credit for54.
The second presupposition is that because the Gospels were written after Paul had composed much of his work, he would have not had access to much or any of the material of the very physical nature of the resurrected Jesus55. Barnett calls this a dubious assertion, because as he points out many of the component parts would have already been in circulation. The words of Luke’s opening statement ring true in the mind of those who seek the truth, "since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word"(Luke 1:1-2; NRSV). Just because Paul does not mention any resurrection stories, is not a reason to claim he denies the bodily resurrection56, neither do any other Letters57.
Thirdly, Spong in the words of Barnett, "assumes, without argument, that resurrection as used in the New Testament, can be redefined as exaltation"58. However, Jewish and internal evidence of the Gospels point to a reanimation or resuscitation of the dead, not simply the exaltation of the spirit to become one with the father59. In those crucial verses of 1 Corinthians 15 Paul actually refers to being raised from dead, understanding as all Jews of his time did that, "it meant dead persons being alive again"60. Berkhof61 looks at this expectation among the Jews and rightly draws the same conclusion as Paul Barnett.
What then is the true character of Jesus, is he some illegitimate child, born to Mary after she had been raped62, who was exalted by God just to set the scales of Justice aright63. Surely this Jesus is unable to bring to us knowledge of God, and come as the judge at the end of the age, as the one who sits at the right hand of the Father. Surely this Jesus is not able to conquer death if his mortal remains still lie some where buried in the ground. He would be nothing more than another dead guru64.
How could he be worshipped as Matthew would have us worship him, because the resurrection of Jesus demonstrates his divine status65. Jesus is a legitimate object of worship and God has granted him full universal authority66. For Luke, the resurrection of Jesus is the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy and a necessary vindication of a suffering servant.
It can be seen that after careful and proper Theological investigation, that the Jesus of Bishop Spong is not the Jesus of the bible. The Jesus of bible is the divine image of the Father67, worthy of worship and praise, who gives us a reflection of God so we know him even more intimately. For, if we take the view of the resurrection not being physical, we are subject as Peter Jensen puts it, "to having nothing left to believe in"68. For the Jesus of the bible entered our world as a man, to fight the battle for us, he in the process was exposed to all the elements of an earthly life, which ended in his bearing our transgression on the cross69. He did not have a make believe body70. Even Thomas Aquinas reflected on the resurrection of Jesus, pointing to his ability to have control over his own destiny, thus having the ability to have control over our destiny71. Let the words of Paul Barnett close this investigation into the slanted Christology of Bishop Spong, "The (bodily72) resurrection reverses the judgement of God in the very arena in which we first experience it, in the body"73.
A Response to Bishop Spong:
In any scientific endeavour there needs to be proper controls set in place to guard the information that produced from being tainted either by deliberate act or by misadventure. Bishop Spong has failed to guard against either of these two likelihood’s.
Firstly, he has ignored one of the most important hallmarks of a Scientist, "the scientist should have an open mind. He should not rule out anything without examining the probability of its occurring".
He does this not only with the facts which he in some cases ignores, but he also does this with his own presuppositions, with which he is bound. Hence he cannot believe, because he cannot or will not accept the facts as they are presented.
Secondly, having a closed mind he ignores the facts, he goes onto ignore, other scientific and critical authorities, many who are experts in their respective fields.
He does this obviously with his use of Midrash, where he completely ignores two of the leading experts in this field to propose his own theory. To do this he must again break the first rule of scientific endeavour. He ignores the historical usage of Midrash, as has been recorded from the earliest times.
Thirdly Spong having made these elementary omissions in his scientific method, then goes onto challenge the writings of the New Testament by putting the thoughts of his own into the mouths of it’s authors.
Fourthly Spong has failed to move beyond the Enlightenment model of world events. He is still living in a closed continuum of natural causes and effects. Since this view has been rejected by modern science, we unlike Spong, cannot postulate scientific or historical absolutes which are capable of ruling out events without an investigation.
Fifthly it is then necessary to notice that since the unpredictable and unexpected does occur, they cannot be ruled out simply because our mind cannot imagine the processes by which the occur.
Sixthly it is no longer possible to come to any subject with an a priori that it could not have happened.
In a age, which both expects and searches for things beyond the known, Spong as become a relic of a past age, unable to bring his own mind into the twentieth century. Rather he still lives in the past and has been unable to move beyond his own short sightedness.
Seventhly, correct inductive research requires all possibilities to be examined before conclusions are drawn.
Lastly it is not necessary to bring an argument from the New Testament itself to refute the claims of Bishop Spong. It is only necessary to show that in writing his book Resurrection, Myth or Reality, he has failed to fulfil the role as a scientist in all areas of scholarly endeavour.
He is what he loathes the most, "a fundamentalist".
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- 1. John Shelby Spong, Resurrection Myth or Reality. (San Francisco; Harper Collins, 1994) 10.
- 2. Spong, 237.
- 3. Daniel Fuller, Easter Faith and History. (London; Tyndale Press, 1968) 27 ff. In these pages looks how the Enlightenment influenced biblical scholarship and takes a close look at Theologians like Kant, Lessing, Paulus and Hegel. He summarises his findings this way: "Schleiermacher, Hegel, and Strauss take their place with Kant and Paulus on the same side of the ugly ditch as Lessing, for they too, found the ultimate basis for truth in an idea that they shared with all men, rather than in some particular point of history. History was simply the place where the mind, by a process of selection and arrangement, finds illustrations of the idea that could be grasped without history. And, because truth was found in the mind rather than in history, Jesus, who is a part of history, ceased to be the crucial source for truth".
- 4. G.P. Gilmour, The Memoirs Called Gospels. (London; Hodder & Stoughten, 1959) 154-172. Here Gilmour looks at some of the reasons people of the Enlightenment, or those who believe in a closed world system, have for rejecting the miraculous. This rejection appears to go with the world view held by Spong and others.
- 5. Willi Marxsen, Jesus and Easter. Did God raise the historical Jesus from the Dead? (Nashville; Abingdon Press, 1990) 13: James M. Robinson, "A New Quest of the Historical Jesus", Studies in Biblical Theology. Vol 25 (1963) 12f. Even Bultmann held that a quest for the Historical Jesus was illegitimate.
- 6. Spong, 16.
- 7. Spong, 16.
- 8. Spong, 20.
- 9. Spong, 50.
- 10. Spong, 197.
- 11. Spong, 119.
- 12. John MacQuarie, Principles of Christian Theology. (London; SCM Press, 1966) 266.
- 13. Spong, 119.
- 14. Spong, xi.
- 15. Spong, 228.
- 16. Spong, 119.
- 17. Spong, 122.
- 18. Spong, 125.
- 19. Spong 19.
- 20. Spong, 237.
- 21. Spong, 35.
- 22. Hendrikus Berkhof, Introduction to the Study of Dogmatics. (Grand Rapids; Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1985) 23 ff. Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology. (Grand Rapids; Baker Book House, 1985) 59 ff. Daniel Fuller, Easter Faith and History. (London; Tyndale Press, 1968) 20-26.
- 23. Ross Clifford, The Case of the Empty Tomb. (Sutherland, NSW; Albatross Books, 1991) 140. Here Clifford quotes the rule as interpreted by Simon Greenleaf: Every document, apparently ancient, coming from the proper repository or custody, and bearing on its face no evident marks of forgery, the law presumes to be genuine and devolves on the opposing party the burden of proving it to be otherwise.
- 24. William Albright, Recent Discoveries in Biblical Lands. (New York; Funk & Wagnells, 1955) 136.
- 25. Marxsen, Jesus and Easter. 44.
- 26. Clifford, 141.
- 27. Clifford, 142.
- 28. F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture. (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1988). Bruce gives extensive treatment of the witness of Irenaeus: 23, 71, 126, 170-177.
- 29. Henry Chadwick, The Early Church. (London; Penguin Books, 1990) 80.
- 30. Henry Bettensen Ed, Documents of the Early Church. (Ed. Henry Bettensen; Oxford; Oxford Press, 1977) 28.
- 31. Bettensen, 28.
- 32. Bruce, 119, 123, 124-26, 156, 198. Bruce gives his affirmation to the genuiness of Papias’ testimony.
- 33. Bettensen, 27.
- 34. Bettensen, 26.
- 35. Bruce, 158. Bruce gives an extensive treatment of the Muratorian Fragment.
- 36. Gilmour, 204.
- 37. N.T. Wright, Who was Jesus. (London; SPCK, 1992) 72.
- 38. Spong, 18.
- 39. G. Vermes, Post-Biblical Jewish Studies. (Leiden; E.J Brill, 1975); J. Neusner, Midrash in Context. (Atlanta; Scholars Press, 1988).
- 40. Wright, 72.
- 41. Spong, 58.
- 42. Spong, 47 ff, 57 ff. Here Spong Dates both Paul works of 1 Corinthians and Galations at approx 25 to 30 years after the final days of Jesus life. This was followed by Mark after another 15 to 20 years, Matthew after another 25 to 30 years and finally John after another 40 years. This put the writing of John at 100 years after the death of Jesus.
- 43. Spong, 13.
- 44. David Peterson, et. al, Resurrection: Myth or Reality: Three Scholars reply to Bishop Spong. (Sydney; Aquila Press, 1994) 10.
- 45. Barnett, Jensen, Peterson, 11.
- 46. Spong, 43f.
- 47. Clifford, 51.
- 48. Barnett, Jensen, Peterson, 13.
- 49. John Frederick Jansen, The Resurrection of Jesus Christ in New Testament Theology. (Philadelphia; Westminster Press, 1980) 40 ff. Here Jansen looks at several different views of the empty tomb and outlines the reasons why other like Spong find difficult to accept it as historically accurate. He however concludes "Over against the hypothesis that the story of the grave is a later effort to demonstrate and "prove" the resurrection, the Gospel accounts do not make it so: Gilmour, 204f.
- 50. Clifford, 59f: John Wenham, Easter Enigma. (Exeter; Paternoster Press, 1984) 127 ff. Wenham put forward a case for the legitimate harmonisation of the accounts even though he states many scholars today frown on such harmonisation because they feel "that each Gospel must be considered in its own terms and be allowed to tell its own story.... This he says "is generally a sound principle.... if one regards the Gospels as late creations which retain little contact with history". But the story of Jesus is not "an end product of a long process of development, which took place in widely separated parts of the world".
- 51. Barnett, Jensen, Peterson, 16.
- 52. Spong, 47.
- 53. Philip E. Hughes, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Second Epistle to the Corinthians. (Ed. F.F. Bruce: Grand Rapids; Eerdmans, 1992) 201.
- 54. Barnett, Jensen, Peterson, 20.
- 55. Barnett, Jensen, Peterson, 21.
- 56. Spong, 50. The words of Bishop Spong say it all: There is no sense at all in Paul of a physical resurrection of Jesus back into the life on this earth.
- 57. Barnett, Jensen, Peterson, 21.
- 58. Barnett, Jensen, Peterson, 21.
- 59. Spong, 56. For Paul, Jesus was the one exalted into God’s realm, vindicated by God’s action, and raised from death to God’s right hand. Only later in Christian history, as we shall see, do legends of tombs that were empty, resuscitated bodies that were real, and ascensions that were cosmic appear in the Christian tradition.
- 60. Barnett, Jensen, Peterson, 22.
- 61. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology. (Edinburgh; Banner of Truth, 1976) 720 ff.
- 62. Wright, 65.
- 63. Jansen, 46f. Jansen sees that vindication is not just something God did to write the scales of Justice, but rather it is God’s recognition that Jesus ministry was valid.
- 64. Clifford, 85. Fuller, 73. Fuller points out the search of Albert Schweitzer who come up with a poor miserable guru style person worthy of emulation.
- 65. Wenham, 9.
- 66. Barnett, Jensen, Peterson, 16.
- 67. Morton Kelsey, Resurrection: Release from Oppression. (New York; Paulist Press, 1985) 63.
- 68. Barnett, Jensen, Peterson, 38.
- 69. Kelsey, 79.
- 70. Barnett, Jensen, Peterson, 41f.
- 71. Brian Davies, The Thoughts of Thomas Aquinas. (Oxford; Clarendon Press, 1993) 340.
- 72. This is the resurrection Barnett is arguing for.
- 73. Barnett, Jensen, Peterson, 42.
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