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Friday, May 23, 2014

Ante-Nicene Fathers – Volume 2 – Athenagoras: Treatise on the Resurrection of the Dead

So I have this 10 volume collection of writings by the Ante-Nicene Fathers (the Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325) that I’ve been carrying around with me for several years.  I bought them from a library that was about to discard them and over the years I have used them occasionally as I’ve studied and prepared for sermons.  A couple of years ago I finally challenged myself to actually read through them all.  I got through the first volume before we moved again, and so they went into boxes, were moved, were unpacked, and then placed on new shelves – and my challenge was, not quite forgotten, but put on hold. I’d lost my inertia.  But now I’m back to it, and I’ve made a good start into volume 2.

I’ve just finished reading the second work by Athenagoras in this volume – his Treatise on the Resurrection of the Dead.[1]  Sometimes the challenge I’ve given myself, namely- to read through all the volumes of this series, is and enjoyable and profitable exercise.  Sometimes, however, it is just a challenge.  Athenagoras’ second work was a challenge. 

He sets out to defend the truth of the resurrection of the dead – that all those human beings that have died will, at some point in the future, be resurrected - and that is a bodily resurrection - in order to face judgment for their life.  And he does this completely without reference to scripture or to the death and resurrection of Jesus. 

This might strike us as somewhat odd – that a Christian would attempt to defend the idea of a general resurrection without recourse to the specific resurrection of Jesus.  But 1) Athenagoras was debating with folks who didn’t necessarily believe in the resurrection of Jesus.  Using his story as a proof of his argument wouldn’t have held much weight.  Athenagoras was starting with them where they were, working with their shared common assumptions and ideas about the nature of the world.  And 2) At the beginning of the work he informs readers that his arguments often take two parts – the first being a defense of the idea and the second being an exposition of the idea (149).[2]  We seem to have only this first part.  Whether or not he ever wrote the second part, or if it’s been lost, we don’t know, but we might presume that he would have described the resurrection of Jesus in it. 

The Treatise on the Resurrection of the Dead is difficult to read.  He doesn’t use a lot of technical terms or difficult words – but he takes so long in coming to the point that his sentences are difficult to follow. They go on and on and on… Take this as an example:

A thing is in strictness of language considered impossible to a person, when it is of such a kind that he either does not know what is to be done, or has not sufficient power for the proper doing of the thing known.  For he who is ignorant of anything that requires to be done, is utter unable either to attempt or to do what he is ignorant of; and he, too, who knows ever so well what has to be done, and by what means, and how, but either has no power at all to do the thing known, or not power sufficient, will not even make the attempt, if he be wise and consider his powers; and if he did attempt it without due consideration, he would not accomplish his purpose (150).”[3]

He gets to the point – eventually – but only after much convolution. 

It’s difficult for me to judge how successful Athenagoras would have been in persuading his contemporaries about the truthfulness of the proposition of a future bodily resurrection because his arguments are so entrenched in the assumptions of that day, and so limited by their scientific understanding.  I doubt that anyone would be convinced by them today.  It may not be fair to read him out of historical context against the knowledge of our times, but …

A large portion of his argument for defense of the idea of a future bodily resurrection is directed against those who would argue that a bodily resurrection is implausible because of the difficulty in separating out what parts belong to whom.

It’s a common argument – and not quite as frivolous as it sounds. It goes something like this:  Suppose person A is attacked by a wild animal – say a bear.  The bear eats person A.  The flesh – the material body of person A becomes nutrition for the bear and is incorporated into the body of the bear. Then at some point later person B kills and eats the bear – including the material that had formerly composed the body of person A – and that material now becomes part of the body of person B.

Or, even more directly:  Person A is eaten by the cannibalistic person B.  Person A’s body now becomes part of person B. 

In a future bodily resurrection such as that defended by Athenagoras (and many still today) how are both persons resurrected from the same material?  Athenagoras sidesteps the entire issue by claiming that such scenarios are irrelevant.  In the case of animals – human flesh wouldn’t be appropriate nutrition for them, and so is not absorbed into their bodies. 

“If, therefore, according to the different nature of animals, different kinds of food have been provided suitable to their nature, and none of that which the animal may have taken, not even an accidental part of it, admits of being blended with the body that is nourished, but only that part which has been purified by an entire  digestion, and undergone a complete change for union with a particular body, and adapted to the parts which are to receive nourishment, - it is very plain that none of the things contrary to nature can be united with those bodies for which it is not suitable and correspondent nourishment, but either passes off by the bowels before it produces some other humour, crude and corrupted; or, if it continue for a longer time, produces suffering or disease hard to cure, destroying at the same time the natural nourishment, or even the flesh itself which needs nourishment.  But even though it be expelled at length, overcome by certain medicines, or by better food, or by the natural forces, it is not got rid of without doing much harm, since it bears no peaceful aspect toward what is natural, because it cannot coalesce with nature (152).” [4]

(See what I mean about convoluted?  All of that is just two sentences!)

And in the case of cannibalism – it is obvious that cannibalism is against nature, “…and what is against nature can never pass into nourishment for the limbs and parts requiring it, and what does not pass into nourishment can never become united with that which it is not adapted to nourish – then can the bodies of men never combine with bodies like themselves, to which this nourishment would be against nature, even though it were to pass many times through their stomach, owing to some most bitter mischance… (153)”[5]

That sentence actually goes on quite a bit longer, but I think you get the point…  People today are probably not going to be convinced by that argument.  We don't share his idea of what is obvious and "against nature," and our understanding of physical science discredits his reasoning. 

Athenagoras makes another argument towards the end of the work that I thought was interesting, if not fully convincing.  He argues that if there is no future judgment (and thus a resurrection) then human beings “…would have no advantage over the irrational creatures, but rather would fare worse than these do, inasmuch as they keep in subjection their passions, and concern themselves about purity and righteousness, and the other virtues… (159)”[6]

It’s an interesting argument despite the assumptions it makes – namely that animals have no sense of morality.  It’s a question that is debated today – but some research seems to indicate that animals do have some sort of sense of right and wrong.  

[1] Ante-Nicene Fathers: Volume II, WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, 1962.
[2] Chapter i
[3] Chapter ii
[4] Chapter vi
[5] Chapter vii
[6] Chapter xix

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