I began the process of organizing this panel discussion of Tom McGlothlin’s Resurrection as Salvation in late 2019, at a time when I, along with most others, was still naively taking for granted the imperturbability of our twenty-first-century securities and certainties, blissfully unaware that within a matter of months a global pandemic would emerge and disrupt life around the world on a scale not seen in over a century. The far-reaching effects of the virus have touched upon this very symposium. At least one of our contributors contracted a severe and prolonged case of COVID-19 while writing a response to the book. Others have dealt with complications from vaccines. All have had their professional and personal lives altered in ways that would have seemed unimaginable in 2019.
As one might have predicted, the impact of the pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities. Those who were already disadvantaged have tended to suffer more from the virus than those who were comparatively more secure in terms of their finances, relationships, and health. Yet the pandemic has also shined a spotlight on the vulnerability that is common to being human, indeed that represents an ineliminable aspect of the human experience. No one, no matter their privilege, can completely remove themselves from all risk of infection. The elderly and those with compromised health might have a greater chance of developing fatal complications from COVID-19, but the healthy bodies of competitive athletes have also succumbed to it. And of course, those who imagine they are relatively safe at present due to their good health or age might find themselves in a different situation when the next pandemic arrives. Pain, suffering, and death are universal, even if unequally spread, and our renewed appreciation of this fundamental human solidarity forces upon us the question of how humans can flourish in the midst of such adversity and what hope we can have for life beyond the inescapable fact of death.
I begin with COVID-19 not simply to highlight its impact upon this symposium but also because the events of the past year have made the themes of McGlothlin’s book more resonant than they might have been only a short while ago, for his goal is to trace the development of early Christian reflection on the transformed life created by the resurrection of Jesus and how that new life relates to human post-mortem existence. Like an ellipse rather than a circle, the book revolves around the two foci of its main title—resurrection and salvation—elucidating the manifold ways ancient Christian authors positioned these two ideas in relation to each other, beginning with Irenaeus of Lyons in the second century and ending with Methodius of Olympus in the early fourth, and considering along the way Tertullian, the Valentinians, and Origen. A central contention of the book, alluded to in McGlothlin’s subtitle, is that, as these figures were busy reflecting upon and at times arguing over the relationship between resurrection and salvation, they were engaged in a common project of seeking to make sense of the starting points provided to them in the letters that were collected together into the corpus Paulinum in the second century. It is easy to overlook that one of the achievements of McGlothlin’s monograph is precisely to highlight the centrality of Pauline texts and Pauline logic to early Christian reflection upon these themes. The fact that all of the contributors to our symposium accept this as the unobjectionable premise of their remarks underscores the subtle persuasiveness of his account.
One might expect McGlothlin to focus upon the debates over the nature of the resurrected body in early Christianity. However, he avoids this well-trodden terrain, or rather cuts new paths across it, by asking not whether the body is raised but rather why resurrection happens at all. Central to his reading of the Pauline corpus and its later reception is a distinction between two competing rationales for the resurrection of humanity. On the one hand there is the resurrection-for-judgment scheme that is probably more well-known among modern scholars and more widespread in antiquity, being a notion shared with non-Christian belief systems as well. On this view all humanity is raised from the dead at the end of time to face judgment, whether to receive punishment for wrongs committed or rewards for a righteous life. One can find articulations of this idea in pre-Christian Jewish texts and parts of the New Testament, but it is not clearly expressed in the Pauline corpus. On the other side stands the Pauline-resurrection-schema (PRS), McGlothlin’s term for a constellation of themes in the Pauline corpus that are tied together by an inner logic. On this view, “the resurrection of Christ is the paradigm for a twofold conformity [of the believer] effected by the Spirit, first in a life that breaks free from enslavement to sin and second in a future glorification of the mortal body” (39). That is, according to the PRS, the two foci of the ellipse are identical and it resolves into a circle with a single center, since “resurrection is God’s reward for the righteous” (1), leaving no room for a resurrection to judgment. Or so it may seem. The substance of McGlothlin’s book is a sustained and careful analysis of how the heirs of Paul responded to the tension between these two rationales for resurrection in various ways: by ignoring it (Irenaeus), by sacrificing one for the other (Tertullian, the Valentinians), or by creatively synthesizing them into a single system (Origen, Methodius).
At the core of this book, therefore, are three central questions. First, given that each of us will face death, as the last year has so powerfully reminded us, are we to assume that all humanity faces a similar post-mortem destiny of resurrection? Second, how does the resurrection of humans from the dead relate to the founding Christian narrative of Jesus’ experience of death and triumph over it? Finally, how does the post-mortem salvation promised to followers of Jesus undergird their efforts at enacting this new christological life even while on this side of death? In the background of all three questions are the issues of the extent and nature of human solidarity; of how we account for the diverse range of human experiences of suffering, vulnerability, and moral achievement; and of how we can maintain the hope required for efforts to improve ourselves and our world, including caring for the sick, comforting the lonely, and ensuring a just distribution of vaccines. McGlothlin advocates for no singular, normative answer to such pressing questions but does a masterful job mapping the possibilities presented by his source material.
It remains for me to outline the themes introduced by our panelists in their essays. Jennifer Strawbridge suggests that the impulse towards finding a unified theory that would resolve all tensions and remove all ambiguities in the Pauline inheritance is a Faustian endeavor. McGlothlin, however, in her estimation manages to resist the temptation and offers us instead a “set of new questions” for interrogating the Pauline corpus. Han-luen Kantzer Komline extends this line of inquiry by asking, if a unified theory is impossible, how we should define fidelity to Paul, and what criteria we should use in assessing it. Is there a center to Paul’s thinking that must be sufficiently determinative for any account of resurrection and salvation that could plausibly claim to be Pauline? Joseph Longarino offers a different perspective by approaching the topic of resurrection from its antonym—death. Given that the PRS might be taken to imply that believers should no longer die at all, can we better understand what resurrection meant for early Christians by attending to the rationale they provide for the ongoing existence of death? Ben White wonders whether McGlothlin has perhaps downplayed the centrality of the resurrection-to-judgment schema in early Christian thought and the way in which it is integrated with other important themes. If the allure of the PRS is so arresting and powerful, why was the resurrection-to-judgment scheme the one that found a home in the regula fidei of the second century, and might Paul himself have held to it? Finally, Sarah Coakley brings us back full circle to the question of whether a unified, or more strictly univocal, theory of resurrection is attainable or even desirable. Perhaps the concept of resurrection instead possesses such a rich surplus of meaning that it ever exceeds our attempts to explain it and our best response is to journey into the contemplative mystery, praying that our own epistemic limitations may be transformed in the process.