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A former dean of St George’s cathedral runs afoul of the evangelicals

By Peter Sellick - posted Tuesday, 15 January 2019

I was greeted on Monday morning (Jan 14 2019) with a headline in the West Australian that shouted "Wow Father" and with the by-line "WA priest causes worldwide furore over Jesus theory". The article tells us that prominent churchmen are incensed by the appointment of former Dean of St George's cathedral John Shepherd to be interim Anglican representative to Rome because he had preached in a sermon that "It's important for Christians to be set free from the idea that the resurrection was an extraordinary physical event, which restored to life Jesus's original earthly body."

It is important to place this controversy in the context of the culture wars raging in the Church as to how the bible is to be read. Those complaining about John's appointment are on the evangelical side of these wars who insist that the bible be read literally rather than analogically or metaphorically. It is important to them that the body of Jesus was resuscitated as evidence that God exists and has power in the world. The evangelicals accuse the other side whom they call "liberals" of disregarding key biblical texts because they do not fit with our modern scientific view of the world and hence sell the gospel out to unbelievers.

Before we discuss the culture wars it is useful to examine the claim that the bible must be read literally ie without the aid of analogy and metaphor.


When we read a statement like "The cat sat on the mat." we realise that there is a direct relationship between the text and its referent. An agent (cat) does something (sat) to an object (mat). The texts is properly read literally since there is no discrepancy between the text and its referent. We can understand the meaning without remainder. Similar statements may be found in the Bible, such as the account of Jesus death: "Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last." (Mark 15:37) Here, again, there is no reason not to take the text literally. However, there is more than the literal meaning in that "breathed his last" is a metaphor that refers to something other; "died". So, even with the simplest statements we find that a purely literalist reading is in some trouble.

It is quickly apparent that statements that only have a literal meaning are very limited in what they can express. Indeed, most of language exists in the form of analogy and metaphor. A table "leg" relies on an analogy with a human leg. When Jesus refers to Herod as "that fox" (Luke 13:32) he uses an analogy; Herod is not actually a fox but has the same wiles as a fox. An analogy is a comparison between two things. A metaphor is a figure of speech that is not literally accurate, as is illustrated in the following.

The verse quoted above from Mark is followed by: "And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom." (Mark 15:38) This is a statement that seems to have nothing to do with the death of Jesus and lacks an agent. If we are to understand how it refers to the death of Jesus we must have knowledge that fills in its context. When we realise that the curtain in the temple divided the holy of holies from the common people we understand the metaphor, the death of Jesus provides common access to God. God is to be found in this man breathing his last. This conclusion is supported by the following verse: "Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, "Truly this man was God's Son!"God has been revealed even to the Gentiles, even to the direct persecutors of Jesus!

A literalist reading of these verses makes no sense and misses the theological point. A liberal reading that ignores the curtain being torn also misses the point. The answer to biblical interpretation is to take all of the text seriously as having semantic power while understanding that meaning is often hidden in analogy and metaphor.

Theological language is most tested when we come to speak of God because God is not an object in the world for whom human language is adequate. We have to fall back on analogy and use terms that describe the human person. God may be said to have an arm, a voice, sight, hearing etc. When we uses these terms we know that they are analogies, that God does not in fact have these things as a human being has them but they serve to tell us of the character of God. We may address Him as Father knowing that He is not a father in the human sense. His fatherhood lies in His generation of all things.

Such speech acknowledges that God is "wholly other" and that ordinary speech does not apply as it usually does to persons or objects in the world. The only way we can speak about God is via analogy. Literalism does not acknowledge this and consequently flounders in its speech about God. But, more importantly, it succumbs to an objectification of God that makes Him part of the world.


There is no area more fraught from an exegetical point of view, than the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. The passion narratives of the first gospels present us with historical information about the crucifixion of Jesus and there is no reason to suspect that the bare bones of this narrative do not represent the actual events. But even within this seemingly historical account there is embedded extra-historical insertions as we have seen above with the matter of the torn curtain and the profession of the centurion. The passion narratives are not blank uninterpreted history even if we can point to a time and persons in the past. For example, the Nicene creed refers to Jesus "being crucified under Pontius Pilate."

It is when we get to the accounts of the Resurrection that things become difficult and not only because we moderns cannot conceive of a dead person rising from the grave. The texts themselves indicated that something other than an historical account is presented to us. It may seem strange, but in order to understand the theological point being made in the resurrection narratives, we need to understand the theology of the Church and ask who is present in every sermon and Eucharist. The answer is "the risen Lord". This is the unifying element to all of the resurrection narratives as well as the ascension. For example, the empty tomb serves, not as a source of belief in itself, but in how it proclaims that Jesus is not to be found among the dead but as the living Lord present to even two or three who are gathered in His name.

This makes theological sense and becomes the basis of how we understand what the Church is. A literal reading is fraught with all kinds of difficulties. If the empty tomb refers to the resuscitation of a corpse does this mean that Jesus must die a second time? When the disciples see him ascend into the heavens does that happen to a living body? The only way these texts make any sense is to understand them as metaphors that point to theological understanding. One has only to read Luke's Emmaus story to see that it is loaded with metaphor in a way than an historical account could never be.

A liberalism that would erase texts that do not fit with the modern world view and refuses anthropomorphic references to God is as much a danger to the Church's understanding as literalism because any talk about God is reduced to abstract concepts. We may see this in the theology of Paul Tillich in which the Trinitarian name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit is reduced to abyss, logos and reunification. The elimination of anthropomorphic references resulted in abstractions that have no real reference. The faith is reduced to an existential message about the courage to be and God to "the ground of being" whatever that is! The vacuity of such a system bears witness to the necessity and power of analogical language when we talk about God. Expressions such as "the force" of star wars fame refer to nothing at all. God may not be a person but the only language we have to talk about Him is personal. How does one pray to the "ground of being"?

Speech about the resurrection must deal with a certain amount of subtlety. There is a danger in liberalism of spiritualising the resurrection and explaining it in terms of a feeling state in disciples. While this is true, (the Emmaus story in Luke says as much), it is also fundamental that the one who is present to us is the crucified one complete with his wounds and that presence is a physical presence. Every Eucharist expresses this in the form of bread and wine, the Church as the body of Christ is made up of physical bodies. It is not just a gathering of like-minded religious people. It is therefore acceptable to say that we believe in the physical resurrection of Christ. What it is dangerous to say is that we believe in the resuscitation of his corpse. This invokes a different theological world that is not only at odds with the subtleties of the biblical texts, but that acts as a deterrent to most people of our time who have experienced the usual forms of secular education. What we need is a theological understanding of the resurrection rather than an attempted historicism or a nature miracle.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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