Catholic Professor Protests

By Wayne Jackson

On December 24, 2001, we published a book review of Thomas West’s recently-published volume, “Jesus and the Quest for Meaning”. Dr. West, a Roman Catholic scholar, is Professor of Theology at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Our review was a plain-spoken rebuke of Professor West’s modernistic views relative to the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. We encourage our readers to review our article, “Roman Catholic Professor Denies the Resurrection of Christ,” and note the citations from our esteemed adversary’s book—to determine whether or not we fairly represented him. We mention this because Dr. West has issued a vigorous protest of our review. Below, we present his response in full—to be followed by our own commentary.

Sunday, April 20, 2003

Dear Mr. Wayne Jackson:

I am the author of the book Jesus and the Quest for Meaning, a book that you reviewed for the Christian Courier late last year (12/24/03). [Note: Actually it was 12/24/01. WJ]. Several weeks [later] I responded to your review with an email to the Christian Courier. [Note: In point of fact, it was 13 months later. WJ] I received a boilerplate response, telling me simply that my email had arrived.

I think I deserve a more detailed response, from you or the CC. At the very least I think my response should be printed in the CC.

Here is the text of my email (with a few corrections and minor additions):

I do not deny the resurrection of Jesus or of his followers who are faithful to the Risen Lord in their life and death. I believe Christ is risen, possesses a risen body, and is present to us now in his Word and Spirit.

The question I raised in the book was about the precise connection between the risen body and the earthly body. Is it literally this particular flesh that is resurrected? Are our very cells going to pass into the risen life? Or is the reconstitution that comes with resurrection going to be less literal, more dramatic, less continuous with our earthly body in a highly “physicalist” sense?

At the time of Jesus, Jews who believed in the resurrection had a variety of views on its exact nature. Indeed, some, under the influence of Hellenism, had spiritualized the resurrection to the point of all but reducing it to the resurrection of a soul, not a body (which helped undergird the later Christian doctrine of the “immortality of the soul”). Others preserved the idea of a resurrected body, but had this body spiritualized and transformed so that it could not be said to be a literally indentical [sic] with the cells of our earthly body. Paul, with his hope for a “pnuematized body” may have had a notion along this line. And yes, still others, much more “physicalist” in their view, saw the resurrection as a literal reconstitution of our bodily cells, so that the risen body somehow becames [sic] literally identical with our earthly bodies. It was perhaps this more literalist view that for centuries led many Christian bodies to prohibit cremation.

This last, more physicalist view, may be the majority view of the New Testament writers, but it is not the only view. As I say in my book, New Testament eschatology is a thicket: it is very hard to put together out of NT sources a neat, utterly coherent view of the “last things” (heaven, hell, resurrection, the interim state, etc.).

One last point: To portray me as “controversial,” as some whacky liberal, as a member of the skeptical mob, is a comical distortion of my theological position. I am not the least bit controversial. True, I am a moderately progressive Roman Catholic thinker, but since Roman Catholicism is a quite conservative denomination, this puts me about in the middle of the great Christian mainstream.

I invite readers of the Courier to read my book, and to read it carefully. Read the endnotes with special concentration. There is a lot of refining there. I do question one particular interpretation of the resurrection, but I don’t deny the resurrection.

I do not claim in my book to have all the answers. I am deeply committed to God in Christ and to the Resurrection, but I make no claim to infallibilty [sic] in my interpretation of the fine points. I offer a view that strikes me as faithful to the Christian tradition and plausible to contemporary believers.

Sincerely yours in the Risen Christ.

Thomas H. West, Ph.D.
Professor of Theology
College of St. Catherine
Mail #4222
St. Paul, MN 55105

A RESPONSIVE COMMENT

We do not feel compelled to rehearse the material in our previous article (“Roman Catholic Professor Denies the Resurrection of Christ.”). It stands on its own, and Dr. West was not misrepresented. His allegations regarding the resurrection of Christ, and the future resurrection of the dead, were as transparent as could possibly be desired. In fact, his letter of protest does not exculpate him from difficulty; rather, if anything, he digs himself deeper into the quagmire of theological “modernism.”

I use the term “modernism” in the sense stigmatized by the Professor’s own pontiff, Pope Pius X, in his Allocution of April 17, 1907, and subsequently in his encyclical “Pascendi,” of September 8, 1907. The pope described modernism as the “synthesis of all heresies.” At that time, the Roman Church was undergoing radical changes in dogma due to a revolutionary movement among certain Catholic scholars (a legacy that Dr. West has inherited).

The “heresy” that was under scathing review in the writings of Pius X was the notion that long-recognized theological ideals, e.g., truth, faith, revelation, etc., must be viewed no longer in their older formats, but rather in a more-enlightened, “modern” sense (see: An Encyclopedia of Religion, Vergilius Ferm, Ed., New York: Philosophical Library, 1945, p. 498).

Professor Van Harvey, in his volume, A Handbook of Theological Terms (New York: Macmillan, 1964), addressed this very matter. Harvey noted that a number of Catholic scholars, in the early part of the 20th century, began to spin this new “modernistic” ideology. Of particular interest -in view of our present exchange with Dr. West - is the example Harvey introduced relative to Catholic writer E. Le Roy (1870-1954). Harvey wrote:

“To believe, for example, that ‘Christ is risen’ is not to believe in the resuscitation of a corpse, Le Roy insisted, but to live as if Christ were our contemporary” (p. 153).

While it is not clear in just what “sense” Professor West claims to believe that Christ possessed a “risen body,” one thing is plain. He does not subscribe to the biblical view of a literal bodily resurrection of Jesus from the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. This means, of course, that he denies a “resurrection” in the legitimate, biblical usage of that term. When a person redefines Bible terms (e.g., “resurrection”), in order to fit his own theological agenda, he has committed a monstrous travesty against the Word of God. Read for yourself, very carefully, the Professor’s comments. They reveal more than he intended. We now offer the following additional comments.

(1) How does one harmonize Professor West’s view of Christ’s resurrection with the declaration of Peter on the day of Pentecost (see Acts 2:14ff)? The apostle, citing Psalm 16, declared that Jesus’ “flesh” would dwell in hope (v. 26), i.e., it would not undergo corruption; rather, it would be raised from the grave (v. 31). That this was a physical resurrection is demonstrated by the fact that Peter calls attention to David’s undisturbed tomb as proof that the king of Israel had not spoken regarding himself. The prophecy had been about the ruler’s illustrious offspring (vv. 29ff). Our professor friend, with his own theory of “resurrection,” would impeach an apostle of Christ—not to mention the fact that Catholicism claims (though erroneously so) that Peter was the first pope.

(2) When another “Thomas” questioned the report that Jesus had been raised from the dead (Jn. 20:24-25), the Lord subsequently invited him to put the issue to a scientific test—one that involved seeing and touching (v. 27). When that “doubter” investigated the matter, he exclaimed: “My Lord and my God!” (v. 28). Would that the “Thomas” of Minneapolis were as open to the evidence as the “Thomas” of Galilee was.

On another occasion, when the disciples beheld the resurrected Savior, and assumed that he was speaking from a “pnuematized body” (to use Dr. West’s expression), the misguided notion was corrected by these words from Christ.

“See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit [pneuma] does not have flesh and bones, as you see that I have” (Lk. 24:39).

(3) Professor West makes a devastatingly revealing statement when he suggests that the concept of a physical resurrection “may be the majority view of the New Testament writers, but it is not the only view” (emp. WJ). Two things may be said regarding this declaration.

First, the affirmation that Christ rose from the dead with a physical body is not merely a “majority” New Testament view; it is the only position that is argued in the divine records.

Second, when the Professor thrusts aside the New Testament writers, and claims there are other possibilities, he arrogates himself above the sacred documents of antiquity. This is not an enviable position. His additional inference — that New Testament doctrine pertaining to eschatology is not “coherent” — is a demonstration, if one may respectfully say so, of his own confusion, rather than a legitimate assessment of New Testament information relating to “end-time” issues.

(4) Finally, our professor friend objects to what he characterizes as the “comical” way in which I, in his judgment, “distorted” his position. I must kindly (though firmly) insist that I did not “distort” the gentleman’s “theological position.”

Moreover, there was nothing “comical” about my review. It was deadly serious. Granted, my censure was at times sharp. But there is ample New Testament precedent for severe rebuke when warranted. “For this cause reprove them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith.” (Tit. 1:13).

If a denial of the bodily resurrection of Christ does not constitute such an occasion, whenever would there be one? One must be sobered by the fact that a repudiation of the Savior’s resurrection is, in reality, an assault upon the very deity of the Son of God. As Paul affirmed, Christ “was declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection of the dead.” (Rom. 1:4).

Conclusion

Because it constitutes a teaching of error, we must reject the radical theses of Thomas West’s book. As an individual created in the image of God, we love the man personally, and entertain nothing but the fond desire that eventually he might come to a knowledge of the truth and enjoy the salvation that is available through the redemptive mission of the risen Savior (1 Tim. 2:3-4). But such can be accessed only when one truly obeys the gospel of Christ (2 Thes. 1:8; 1 Pet. 4:17; Heb. 5:8-9).

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.