Posts Tagged ‘Steffen Lösel’

My journey home to evangelicalism

August 28, 2014

This week, I had lunch with a clergy friend, who, like me, is an evangelical United Methodist. Unlike me, he didn’t go to a liberal mainline Protestant seminary like my alma mater, the Candler School of Theology. He heard me say once that while I graduated happily liberal on most theological questions back in 2007, I changed: within a few years, I became a conservative (by UMC standards) evangelical Christian. I had what I’ve called an “evangelical reawakening,” having returned, in many ways, to the evangelicalism of my youth—only far better informed. It was nothing less than a conversion experience.

My friend wanted to hear about my journey. What accounted for the change?

Many things, I’m sure, but below are the three most important. Two of them were seeds planted at Candler itself, in spite of its theological liberalism, which later bore fruit.

Dr. Steffen Lösel

Dr. Steffen Lösel

First, I took a systematic theology class (CT503) that was taught by a brilliant young German Lutheran pastor named Steffen Lösel. Dr. Lösel had us study the work of theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg. He told our class on Day 1 that one critical task of pastors and theologians is to be able to defend the faith. He said that in modernity, we can’t easily separate the work of theology from apologetics.

On that note, he justified belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus on historical and scientific grounds. Frankly, this shocked me. I half-expected him to describe the resurrection as some kind of spiritual event that took place in the hearts of the disciples—a “mystery” that we shouldn’t try to solve. But no: while the resurrection was more than merely physical, it was at least physical. The tomb was empty, and the disciples encountered the risen Lord.

He also taught the exclusivity of God’s revelation in Christ. While we shouldn’t be surprised that Christianity shares much in common with other religions—there is, after all, one Spirit performing the revelatory work—the revelation of God in Christ is definitive. Indeed, as Peter said, “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Moreover, we’re not respecting other religions if we disregard their competing truth claims and say, “All these paths to God are equal. We really believe the same things.”

Dr. Lösel also affirmed the reality of hell and the Second Coming.


Dr. Lewis Ayres

Another professor at Candler planted an important seed in my mind: Lewis Ayres, a Patristics scholar. Dr. Ayres, an English Catholic, was a well-known theological conservative on the faculty (there weren’t many!), which I didn’t know when I signed up for his class on the theology of Augustine. During one lecture he described Augustine’s view of Satan and the demonic realm. At the time, I didn’t believe in a literal Satan, so I objected: “I don’t need the devil to tempt me to sin—I sin just fine on my own! I don’t understand what role Satan or demons play in human sin!”

He looked at me and said, “Just because you don’t understand what role Satan plays doesn’t mean Satan isn’t real!”

I remember being shocked: this very smart scholar, who more than holds his own, intellectually, alongside the faculty at this mainline Protestant seminary, believes in a literal Satan! I’m sure he wasn’t the only faculty member who did so, but he was the only one who admitted that he did—who didn’t speak as if the demonic merely symbolized evil in our world.

The third and possibly most important influence on my evangelical reawakening was reading, in 2009, N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God. While acknowledging the debt to resurrection-affirming Wolfhart Pannenberg (Dr. Lösel’s protégé), Wright argues that Pannenberg concedes far too much ground to modernity. Wright’s massive book, around 1,000 pages, explored historical evidence for the resurrection much more deeply. Wright argues that the evidence we possess for the resurrection is precisely the evidence we should expect if the bodily resurrection of Christ happened. Moreover, Wright wrote this and his many other academic books within the realm of critical, as opposed to evangelical, scholarship.

Reading Wright blew me away. And unlike Lösel and Ayres, Wright is a self-identified evangelical. Intellectual evangelicals? To my shame, thanks in part to Candler, I didn’t know they existed!

My point is, once I began to believe—really believe—that the resurrection happened, that the Bible is telling the truth not only about the resurrection but about the exclusivity of Christ, the Second Coming, Final Judgment, heaven and hell, and Satan, and that I didn’t have to check my brain at the door in order to embrace a high view of the inspiration and authority of scripture, I was ready to become an evangelical.

And so I did… and here I am. I can say, along with Wesley, “My ground is the Bible. Yea, I am a Bible bigot. I follow it in all things, both great and small.” Or at least I’m trying to!

Wright on reasons to believe that Jesus’ bodily resurrection happened

June 19, 2014


N.T. Wright, New Testament scholar and former bishop of Durham in the Church of England, is by far the most formative influence in my movement away from the liberal Protestant mainline five years ago toward conservative evangelicalism. If you could blame just one person, blame him. And if you could blame one of his books, blame his magisterial work The Resurrection of the Son of God.

It’s not that I hadn’t been exposed to scholarly apologetic defenses for the historicity of Jesus’ bodily resurrection. Among other things, my Systematic Theology professor, Steffen Lösel, a student of Wolfhart Pannenberg’s, believed in bodily resurrection and offered a defense of it on historical grounds. (I’m deeply indebted to Dr. Lösel; his was the most positive influence on my thinking in seminary.) But even Dr. Lösel’s (and, by extension, Pannenberg’s) defense mostly sold the Bible short as a resource for that defense.

By contrast, Wright, an evangelical writing and ministering well within the Protestant mainline, acknowledged Pannenberg’s contributions, while saying that he didn’t go nearly far enough. Scripture, alongside many extrabiblical sources, enables us to say a great deal about the extreme likelihood of the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection.

Needless to say, the more confident we are that Jesus’ bodily resurrection happened, the more confident we can be about everything else that the Bible says. Thus, in my case, an evangelical was born. If we get squishy on bodily resurrection, it’s easier to get squishy on everything else—the virgin birth, salvation through Christ alone, final judgment, hell—and, while we’re at it, even God’s intentions for human sexuality.

But enough of my story…

At nearly a thousand pages, I appreciated the nice summary chapter of Wright’s arguments for resurrection in his new book aimed at general audiences, Surprised by Scripture. After dismissing the popular contemporary idea that resurrection is coherent within the worldview of ancient paganism, he talks about seven important “mutations” of ancient Jewish belief, each of which was universally held by early Christians. What accounts for these significant revisions to traditional Jewish thought—by many people who were, after all, previously faithful Jews? Nothing, Wright says, other than that these early Christians believed that Jesus was really bodily resurrected.

These mutations are the following:

1. No spectrum of beliefs about life after death. 

Early Christians came from Jewish and pagan backgrounds that held diverse beliefs about life after death, yet they held to one common belief about resurrection.

2. The centrality of resurrection (both Jesus’ and our own future resurrection) in Christianity.

“In Second Temple Judaism,” Wright says, “resurrection is important but not that important… Take away the stories of Jesus’ birth, and all you lose is four chapters of the Gospels. Take away the resurrection and you lose the entire New Testament, and most of the second-century fathers as well.”[1]

3. No spectrum of belief about the kind of body that the resurrected will possess.

Ancient Jews held different beliefs about what resurrection means. Not so within Christianity: resurrected bodies will be physical and in continuity with our present bodies, but transformed and incorruptible, possessing new properties.

4. The belief that resurrection splits history in two.

In other words, prior to Jesus, Jews who believed in resurrection believed that it was an event that happened to everyone at the end of history as we know it, not an event that first happened to one person in the middle of history.

5. The belief in “collaborative eschatology.”

Eschatology refers to events that relate to the end of the world or the end of history as we know it. Early Christians believed, uniquely, that they were to live now in anticipation of God’s new world. “If Jesus, the Messiah, was God’s future arriving in person in the present, then those who belonged to Jesus and followed him in the power of his spirit were charged with transforming the present, as far as they were able, in the light of that future.”[2]

6. A new metaphorical use of the word “resurrection.”

In the Old Testament, the word resurrection was used as a metaphor exactly once: to describe the Jews’ return from exile in Ezekiel 37. This metaphorical usage disappears in the New Testament, and a new one replaces it: resurrection is used in relation to baptism and holiness, “though without, importantly, affecting the concrete referent of a future resurrection (Romans 8).”[3]

7. The association of resurrection with Messiahship.

No one in first-century Judaism expected the Messiah to be killed, much less raised from the dead. Yet early Christians believed that Jesus was Messiah precisely because of his resurrection.

To illustrate the improbability of first-century Jews believing that Jesus had been resurrected, let me excerpt Wright extensively:

We know of several other Jewish movements, messianic movements, prophetic movements, during the one or two centuries on either side of Jesus’s public career. Routinely they ended with the violent death of the central figure. Members of the movement (always supposing they got away with their own skins) then faced a choice: either give up the struggle or find a new messiah. Had the early Christians wanted to go the latter route, they had an obvious  candidate: James, the Lord’s brother, a great and devout teacher, the central figure in the early Jerusalem church. But nobody ever imagined that James might be the Messiah.

This rules out the revisionist positions on Jesus’s resurrection that have been offered by so many writers in recent years. Suppose we go to Rome in AD 70 and there witness the flogging and execution of Simon bar Giora, the supposed king of the Jews, brought back in Titus’s triumph. Suppose we imagine a few Jewish revolutionaries three days or three weeks later.

The first revolutionary says, “You know, I think Simon really was the Messiah—and he still is!”

The others would be puzzled. “Of course he isn’t; the Romans got him, as they always do. If you want a messiah, you’d better find another one.”

“Ah,” says the first, “but I believe he’s been raised from the dead.”

“What d’you mean?” his friends ask. “He’s dead and buried.”

“Oh no,” replies the first, “I believe he’s been exalted to heaven.”

The others look puzzled. “All the righteous martyrs are with God; everybody knows that. Their souls are in God’s hand, but that doesn’t mean they’ve already been raised from the dead. Anyway, the resurrection will happen to us all at the end of time, not to one person in the middle of continuing history.”

“No,” replies the first, anticipating the position of twentieth-century existentialist theology, “you don’t understand. I’ve had a strong sense of God’s love surrounding me. I have felt God forgiving me—forgiving us all. I’ve had my heart strangely warmed. What’s more, last night, I saw Simon; he was there with me….”

The others interrupt, now angry. “We can all have visions. Plenty of people dream about recently dead friends. Sometimes it’s very vivid. That doesn’t mean they’ve been raised from the dead. It certainly doesn’t mean that one of them is the Messiah. And if your heart has been warmed, then for goodness’s sake sing a psalm, but don’t make wild claims about Simon.”[4]

1. N.T. Wright, Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues (New York: HarperCollins, 2014), 47.

2. Ibid., 48-9.

3. Ibid., 49.

4. Ibid., 50-1.