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When science meets faith

By Rev Associate Professor Geoff Thompson

Claiming to be a “born scientist”, Rev Bob Thomas in a Crosslight magazine feature, dismisses various alleged “absurdities” of the Christian faith, including that of rising from the dead.

He suggests that there is an opt-out clause from this absurdity by suggesting that Paul’s language of “resurrection” is synonymous with his language of “new creation.” Rev Thomas claims that Paul uses the terms interchangeably to refer to what happened to him in his personal experience of Christ. This seems just a little too convenient, as is the appeal to science.

No one is born a scientist. Yes, some people are born with inquisitive minds. But scientists are made. Becoming a scientist involves being apprenticed in particular ways of thinking and inducted into particular bodies of knowledge.

It also includes learning the discipline of resisting simplistic solutions to complex problems.

Claiming resurrection is synonymous with new creation risks being a simplistic solution to a complex problem.

Of course, interpreting the New Testament witness to the resurrection of Jesus does present problems of great complexity. Rev Thomas is right to encourage us to confront them.

The New Testament authors themselves seem to push back against simplistic accounts. But there is a shared and resilient conviction that God raised Jesus from the dead. Arguably, Paul was its most ardent exponent.

In Paul’s thought, Jesus’ resurrection was the presupposition of new creation (1 Cor 15 and 2 Cor 5). If Jesus was not raised, there was no new creation. The terms were not synonymous.

Paul’s language about new creation is shaped by the Jewish messianic vision of God’s ultimate reordering of the cosmos in which evil is defeated and God’s justice reigns. It’s the vision outlined in Isaiah 61 and 65 and claimed by Jesus in Luke 4.

In invoking these messianic ideas, Paul understands the resurrection of Jesus to have inaugurated this new condition of the cosmos. As the Roman Empire saw its social order as a reflection of the cosmic order, so Paul saw the new way of Christ as a reflection of a new cosmic order.

Paul did not use the language of new creation to describe his experience of the risen Christ. Rather, he used it to claim that his or anyone else’s experience of Christ was possible only because of Jesus’ resurrection and that it was a reflection of a reality much larger than their own religious experience.

As one scholar has said, “The individual convert is a microcosm of the ultimate act of redemption which God plans for the whole cosmos.”[1]

“New creation” isn’t an opt-out clause from the alleged absurdity of “resurrection.” By the criterion of “science”, it’s just as problematic as resurrection.

The challenge that confronts any appeal to science in order to trump theological claims is that of knowing where to draw the line. After all, why not regard belief in God itself as an absurdity – as many scientists do on what they claim are scientific grounds?

As Easter Day approaches, I look forward confidently to joining in the church’s proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection and to once again being reminded of this new order of justice, love and hope, and being summoned to live accordingly.

[1] T. Ryan Jackson, New Creation in Paul’s Letters: A Study of the Historical and Social Setting of a Pauline Concept (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010), 148.

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