The Resurrection of Christ in Pauline Theology. Part 3/3: Resurrection and Pauline Soteriology

Our earlier discussion on the resurrected Christ as the life-giving Spirit leads us to consider how crucial the resurrection of Christ is in Pauline soteriology, seen especially in 1 Cor. 15. There is a debate over who Paul’s Corinthian opponents really were. /1/ Some suggest that they were those who because of Hellenistic philosophy denied the resurrection of the body or flesh and looked for a survival of the immortal soul beyond the grave. /2/ However, this view implies that Paul missed the point of his opponents and that he failed to argue why a disembodied survival is not an adequate hope.

William Dykstra observes that Paul responds to the denial of resurrection not with a simple logical argument but with a salvation-historical argument. For the Corinthians could still accept Christ’s resurrection and at the same time deny any future resurrection for others, Christ’s case being a unique one for them. As such, a good case can be made for arguing that the Corinthians were guilty of the error of over-realized eschatology, as it gives a more consistent reading of the rest of the epistle. /3/

Like the false teachers in 2 Tim. 2:18, the Corinthians claimed that the “resurrection” had already taken place in them when they were baptized, hence the futurity of the resurrection was denied. As such, these men considered themselves to be in full possession of God’s Spirit “here and now”. Indeed, they were already enjoying the privileges of heaven. A.J. Wedderburn objects to this position on the ground that the idea of a present resurrection was alien to the Corinthians with their background of Hellenistic philosophical beliefs. But we must not forget that the Corinthians would have been sufficiently exposed to Paul’s teachings of the resurrection during his eighteen-month stay with them. Rather, we might then say that they misunderstood Paul’s teaching.

The over-realized eschatology hypothesis is more plausible because it allows us to understand the flow and consistency of Paul’s arguments. As R.P. Martin points out, the Corinthians ‘were acting as though the triumph were a reality now in this present age. Paul has to insert the “eschatological proviso” (eschatologische Vorbehalt) that in effect says, Not yet – but the end will assuredly come in God’s own good time” /4/ (cf. 1 Cor. 15:35-58). Indeed, the fact that witnesses of the resurrection had died (1 Cor. 15:6) proved that there was to be a resurrection for them (and thus for all) in the future. /5/ Furthermore, while Paul agrees that Christ’s resurrection is a unique case as the Corinthians rightly assumed, Christ nevertheless is the head of the body of believers and his relation to his own is one of corporate solidarity (1 Cor. 15:12ff). The fate of those who died in Christ then depends on whether Christ has indeed been raised as the solidarity head of the body. If God did raise Christ, /6/ the Corinthians’ assertion that the dead shall not rise is thus refuted because Christ’s resurrection exerts a causal influence upon those who follow him. Christ is risen as the first fruits (ἀπαρχή, aparchē); in his resurrection lies the guarantee that those in Christ shall rise (1 Cor. 15:20 ff; also Col. 1:18).

We note also Gaffin’s stress that while there is a temporal distinction between Christ’s resurrection and the other believers, nevertheless “first fruits” goes beyond a mere temporal force. Rather, “it expresses the notion of organic connection and unity, the inseparability of the initial quantity for the whole…His resurrection is not simply a guarantee; it is a pledge in the sense that it is the actual beginning of the general event. In fact, on the basis of this verse it can be said that Paul views the two resurrections not so much as two events but as two episodes of the same event.” /7/ Only this recognition of the unity of Christ’s resurrection and ours will enable us to understand why Paul argues in two directions for he also writes, “But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised” (1 Cor. 15:13). The point is that in view of the solidarity (and not merely a logical connection), what happens to the head happens to the body and vice-versa. /8/

Because many of the problems at Corinth arise from the eschatological misconceptions of the Corinthians, Paul corrects them of their failure to see that the new age is entered only by a transformation of the body that is still in the future. He writes, “Flesh and blood (ie., human beings still indwelling their mortal bodies with all their frailty and still bearing the characteristics of this age) cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 15:50). Only when we are transformed into the likeness of the last Adam will we enter into God’s eschatological kingdom (v. 49). In fact, there is a radical discontinuity /9/ between the natural body (σῶμα ψυχικόν, sōma psychikon) which we inherited from the first Adam and the supernatural body which we will receive as the image of the last Adam. This is highlighted in the four antithesis listed by Paul in verses 1 Cor. 15: 42 -44a:

Characteristics of the natural body Characteristics of the supernatural body
1. φθορά, phthora = corruption  ἀφθαρσία, aphtharsia = incorruption
2. ἀτιμία, atimia = wretchedness  Δόξα, Doxa = glory
3. ἀσθένεια, astheneia = weakness  ΔύναμιςDynamis = strength
4. σῶμα ψυχικόν, sōma psychikon = natural body σῶμα πνευματικόν, sōma pneumatikon = supernatural body. /10/

The radical contrast reveals that the Corinthian were mistaken in thinking that they had already attained spiritual fullness here and now. Fee observes that the problem for the Corinthians is that they could assume that they had already the heavenly existence because “for them was an existence in the Spirit that discounted earthly existence both in its physical and in its behavioral expressions. What Paul is most likely doing once again is refuting both notions.” /11/ This mistaken notion drew a firm refutation from Paul who reminded the Corinthians that they too “must await the resurrection (or transformation, 1 Cor. 15:52) before their “spirituality” is complete, since, as with Christ, it must include a somatic expression.” /12/ However, the fullness, or newness (both in the physical and moral sense) will be attained only at the future coming of Christ, a coming which will be sudden but unmistakable – “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet” (1 Cor. 15:52). As God was sovereign in his raising of Christ so shall he be in bringing about the final transformation of believers. Such a realization should prove to be a good antidote for the Corinthians’ misconduct which arose when they reduced and thus distorted their new life into a mere spiritual experience rather than in terms of submitting to the sovereign work of God in their lives. They were hindered from fully appreciating the true significance of the resurrection hope.

It is true that the Corinthians had preserved a valid insight, namely, that Christ’s resurrection is an experiential reality for the believers. /13/ They had, however, failed to see the ethical implications underlying this experience. The believer’s solidarity with the resurrection of Christ should entail a decisive transition in the life of the believer here and now. This is especially stressed by Paul in Rom. 6:3-11 were through baptism the believer is united with Christ in all phases of his salvific work. The unity of the resurrection of Christ and the believer’s new life may be seen in the following parallels: /14/

Aspects of Christ’s resurrection Similar aspects in the believer’s co-resurrection (raised with Christ: Col. 3:1; Eph. 2: 5,6)
1. Justified in the Spirit: 1 Tim 3:16, Rom. 4:25  Rom. 8:34; 10:9,10
2. Adoption: Rom. 1:3,4 Gal. 3:26
3. Died to sin: Rom. 6:10 Rom. 6:11
4. Glorification: 1 Cor. 15:42ff 2 Cor. 3:18, 4:4-6, Rom 8:29

It is clear then that because Christ was raised from the dead, so believers by virtue of their union with him in his resurrection have been raised to walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:4). Paul expects such a newness of life from the Corinthians because the living Christ indwells in their inner man, giving them strength for renewal (Eph. 3: 16, 17). Indeed, what distinguishes Christian experience from any other spiritual experience is that it bears the imprint of Jesus’ character and conforms the believer to Christ’s image (2 Cor. 3:18). It is only when men in their belief in Christ exhibit a supernatural vitalizing power that transforms lives that unbelievers will be persuaded of the reality of Christ’s resurrection. Surely this is the challenge that underlies Paul’s exhortation to the Corinthians to persevere in their Christian service (1 Cor. 15:58).

/1/ Two good surveys of the various interpretations are Jack Wilson’s “The Corinthians Who Say There is no Resurrection of the Dead,” ZNW, vol. 59, pp. 90-107, and A.J. Wedderburn’s “The Problem of the Denial of the Resurrection in 1 Cor. 15,” Novum Testamentum, vol. 23 No. 3 (1981), pp.229-241.
/2/ Grosheide, 1 Cor (NIC), p. 356; Leon Morris, 1 Cor (TNTC) p. 209; Robertson-Pliummer, 1 Cor (ICC), p. 329.
/3/ Cf. Anthony Thiselton, “Realized Eschatology at Corinth”; Barrett, 1 Cor, p.109; FF Bruce, 1 & 2 Cor., pp. 49-50; William Dykstra, “1 Cor. 15:20-28, An Essential Part of Paul’s Argument Against Those Who Deny the Resurrection.” in Calvin Theo. Journal, vol. 4, Nov 1969, pp. 195-211.
/4/ R.P. Martin, The Spirit and the Congregation, p. 130; Thiselton, “Realized Eschatology,” p. 524, adds, “As over against their realized eschatology Paul opens their horizon towards a destiny not yet achieved.”
/5/ Cf. Conzelmann, 1 Cor., p.258
/6/ The scriptural emphasis is that God raised Christ from the dead and not that Christ rose up himself; cf. Dahl, The Resurrection of the Body, pp. 96-100.
/7/ Gaffin, Resurrection and Redemption, pp. 34, 35. Fee concurs, “Paul is asserting by way of metaphor that the resurrection of the believing dead is absolutely inevitable; it has been guaranteed by the eternal God, the living God, who in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection has set that future in motion.” 1 Cor., p. 830.
/8/ Godet, 1 Cor., vol 2, p. 344: “Paul is not reasoning as an abstract logician, but as an apostle…The basis of his argument is a fact which pertains to the essence of the Christian salvation: our new life, flowing from union with Christ, is nothing else than participation in His life.”
/9/ Ronald Sider, however, also points out that “the fundamental continuity is underlined by the fact that it is precisely the mortal, weak man who exists now who undergoes the transformation…The subject persists through the radical change” in “the Pauline Conception of the Resurrection Body in 1 Cor 15:35-54”, New Testament Studies, vol. 21, 1975.
/10/ The contrast here is also moral or ethical. C.F.D. Moule notes that ‘spiritual’ (πνευματικός, pneumatikos) is a word denoting a quality not of substance but of relationship (cf. Rom. 12:2; 2 Cor. 3:18). He also refers to Paul’s consistently moral interpretation of the transformation of “St. Paul and Dualism,” New Testament Studies, vol. 12, pp. 108, 113.
/11/ Fee, 1 Cor., p. 880.
/12/ Fee, 1 Cor., p. 874.
/13/ Dunn notes that “the nature of the believing community’s experience of Spirit enables Paul to affirm that Jesus has become πνεῦμα ζῳοποιοῦν, pneuma zōopoioun and therefore also σῶμα πνευματικόν, sōma pneumatikon” in “1 Cor. 15:45 – Last Adam, Life-giving Spirit,” p. 134.
/14/ It should also be noted that each of the parallels is not to be taken as a separate stage in an ordo salutis but an aspect of the single, indivisible event of being joined to Christ experientially (cf. Gaffin, Resurrection and Redemption, p. 52; Ridderbos, Paul, p. 206).

Related Posts:
The Resurrection of Christ in Pauline Theology. Part 1/3: Resurrection and Apostolic Commissioning
The Resurrection of Christ in Pauline Theology. Part 2/3: Resurrection and Pauline Christology