Theologies have the life of a mayfly. They come into fashion, rise, and then slip away, mostly unnoticed. It might be good, then, for seminarians and other readers to first learn some of the old theologies before traipsing off through the daisy fields of any new ones.
Oscar Cullmann (1902-1999) is one such theologian. By the time my generation entered seminary he was no longer at the summit of discourse. His name, best I recall, never came up in Church history classes. Bultmann was barely mentioned, and Barth didn’t fare too well, either. Whatever it was they said so cogently to their generation, well, now there were new voices clamoring for attention.
A Lutheran German contemporary to and friends with Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann, Cullmann was an invited observer at Vatican II. He taught at the Reformed seminary in Basel, Switzerland, and following World War II taught at the Sorbonne, Paris, while continuing at Basel. Barth is said to have teased him about being “an advisor to three popes.” It is hard to see what might be so funny about that today.
There is little of Cullmann’s work that did not focus on the early church, the topic he taught in both Basel and Paris. He always asked, “What did the earliest Christians believe and teach?”, and almost always found that what they taught and believed never quite fit the neat compartments devised by later Christians. It wasn’t that Christianity “matured” or “evolved,” and never that later Christianity was “worse.” He simply dug through scripture and presented his results.
Equally, his studies were often at odds with his contemporaries. Against Bultmann’s demythologized existentialist Christ, Cullmann stressed the reality of redemption. Where Bultmann argued against an accessible historicity to the Resurrection, Cullmann’s investigations in redemptive history (Heilsgeschichte) suggest there was something finally objectively available about it. Against Barth’s “natural death,” Cullmann insists, biblically, that death is unnatural, unwilled by God and opposed to God.
The greatest instance of this insistence is Immortality or Resurrection. Originally a 1956 journal article, it has been long available as a book of sixty brief pages. Reading Cullmann, for me, is like reading Richard Neuhaus; they both have the ability to say exactly what my inchoate thought is struggling to form. But they use actual words; I grunt and point.
Cullmann argues that there is no biblical link between resurrection of the body and the soul’s immortality. The ordinary Christian confuses the two, mistaking one as a synonym for the other. The later church affected a connection between two opposite beliefs, going through a period of gentile Hellenization. But the linkage created “between the expectation of the ‘resurrection of the dead’ and the belief in ‘the immortality of the soul’ is not in fact a link at all but a renunciation of one in the favor of the other.”
He sharply contrasts the death of Socrates with that of Jesus. (Ancient critics of Christianity did the same.) Plato’s Phaedo (also known as On the Soul) finds the condemned man housing an imprisoned soul. Death is a great liberator. Approaching hemlock, Socrates impressively “did not merely teach this doctrine: at that moment he lived his doctrine.”
By contrast Jesus in Gethsemane approaches death declaring he “is troubled, even to death” (Mark 14:33). “Jesus,” Cullmann explains, “is so thoroughly human that he shares the natural fear of death. . . . He is afraid of death.” The synoptic gospels offer nothing of Socratic composure. Jesus does not greet death with friendly acquiescence.
Cullmann’s New Testament study reveals the very Jewish sentiment that death is the result of sin. The Letter to the Hebrews (5:7) understands this: In the face of death, Jesus wept and cried. If immortality of the soul is the case of the immortal soul freed from the body, we might have expected a more Socratic Jesus. Instead he is frightened, reduced to tears. This is why the Third Day is such a shocking, shattering surprise.
Immortality is being snatched from this dismal physical life with all its limitations. Resurrection is divine deliverance, not from this life, but from death. Sin and death must be conquered. We can’t do it; Christ has. Resurrection is God’s triumph in Christ swooping us up into his promised future age.
Somehow this gets lost. We don’t hear enough of it in present preaching and very little if any of it in funeral preaching. Pastors should reflect on this deeply. If they do not preach resurrection then they neglect the power of death and the achingly dry used-up feeling of grief that it leaves. To do that, whether by design or negligence, ignores the greater power of Christ over death.
Confronted with death there is a thrill in preaching resurrection. Resurrection declares a boldness of purpose, even in death. The Christian martyr often died with spirited passion, completely unnerving to Socratic dispassion. The martyr knew the call of Christ’s cause, and answered it in hope. He was part of a redemptive story that extendedanother Cullmann themethrough time and eternity. We do not die into immortality, not as Cullmann saw it. We die into God.
Russell E. Saltzman is a dean in the North American Lutheran Church, assistant pastor of St. Matthew’s Church in Riverside, Missouri, and an online homilist for the University of Mary Christian Leadership Center. His latest book, Speaking of the Dead, is being published this year by ALPB Books. His previous articles can be found here.