There’s a little bit of controversy right now over the future bodily resurrection of the dead and a future judgment / second coming. In the course of the discussion on Twitter and elsewhere some have made a few claims about the early church, creeds, and councils.
To contribute to the discussion, below are a few things I can see in these conciliar documents that may be useful about resurrection, the human body, and the second coming. All references are to Norman Tanner’s two-volume “Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils,” a book that contains conciliar documents in their original languages along with an English translation.
First Council of Constantinople (381)
The creed produced by the First Council of Constantinople (381) doesn’t just express a belief in the resurrection of the dead. It affirms an explicit future time element. “prosdoxomen anastasin nekron” (Greek) – “we look forward to a resurrection of the dead” (Translation, Norman Tanner, p. 24). The Latin translation has “expectamus” – we expect / look forward to.
Council of Ephesus (431)
The council of Ephesus (431) produced a lengthy discussion in which the body of Christ as firstfruits from the dead is a major focus, quoting Col 1:18 and extensively from 1 Cor 15. The discussion includes a future judgment in glory – “At the right time he will come as one Son and Lord in the glory of the Father, to judge the world in justice, as it is written” (a reference to Acts 17:31). While we Presbyterians (with Calvin) would definitely affirm that the life-giving flesh we receive in the Lord’s supper is the flesh of the resurrected Christ, Ephesus emphasizes that the flesh became life-giving at the incarnation (“when he [the Word] became one with his own flesh” – Tanner, pg. 54). In fact, his incarnation was, “in order that he might bless the beginning of our existence, in order that seeing that it was a woman that had given birth to him, united to the flesh, the curse against the whole race should thereafter cease, which was consigning all our earthly bodies to death, and in order that the removal through him of the curse, ‘in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children’ [Gn. 3:16] should demonstrate the truth of the words of the prophet, ‘Strong death swallowed them up’ [1 Cor. 15:54, Isa 25:8], and again, ‘God has wiped every tear away from all faces.’ [Is 25:8]” (Tanner, 58) This quotation links the consolation of our future bodily resurrection deeply to the body of Christ. It also illustrates the point that these churchmen were working with the scriptures to formulate and defend doctrinal commonplaces.
In the anathemas of Ephesus, Jesus “is made partaker of blood and flesh precisely like us” (Heb 2:14 – Tanner, 60). In the tenth anathema, there is an emphasis on the Word of God’s suffering in the flesh, being crucified in the flesh, tasting death in the flesh, and Jesus’ being firstborn from the dead, a reference to Col. 1:18 (Tanner, 61).
Council of Chalcedon (451)
Related to the Council of Chalcedon (451), specifically in the letter about Eutyches from Pope Leo to Flavian, the bishop of Constantinople, Leo writes: “After the Lord’s resurrection – which was certainly the resurrection of a real body, since the one brought back to life is none other than the one who had been crucified and had died… he talked to his disciples and lived and ate with them, and let himself be touched attentively and carefully by those who were in the grip of doubt…” (Tanner, 80). A comment on this point – anyone who would deny that our actual bodies are the ones that are resurrected must contend with the empty tomb; Jesus, at least, rose in the same body in which he died. If he is the firstfruits, why do we dare to innovate and think that somehow the union our present living bodies have with Christ will transfer to a new body in another dimension and leave our current ones (even if atomized by burial at sea)? Would Jesus abandon our present bodies any sooner than he would abandon our present souls?
Lateran IV (1215)
Skipping a bit, hah, by Lateran IV (1215), there is a clear affirmation of the futurity of judgment in the body, “Indeed, having suffered and died on the wood of the cross for the salvation of the human race, he descended to the underworld, rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. He descended in the soul, rose in the flesh, and ascended in both. He will come at the end of time to judge the living and the dead, to render to every person according to his works, both to the reprobate and to the elect. All of them will rise with their own bodies, which they now wear, so as to receive according to their deserts, whether these be good or bad….” (Tanner, 230). The quotes from scripture here are implicit. Obviously between 451 and 1215 there were numerous theologians who defended a future general resurrection exegetically, but I’m just including this here for completeness.
I have no idea how to provide a systematic exegetical account of every verse that could be talking about AD 70 or the future second coming, but focusing on Jesus’s personal eschatology seems to be systematically useful in sorting out the resurrection of the body and, in fact, scripture invites us to do this (1 Cor. 15). Not only should we base our model of what resurrection looks like on Jesus’s experience, but his experience is what gives us hope. The alternative accounts I’m hearing (yes, even C.S. Lewis’s) are asking me to take hope in a novel account of what it means to die and be resurrected. I don’t need another model nor do the scriptures invite me to find one when I have the model of Jesus, the forerunner who rises in the same body in which he died and ate fish while in that resurrected body. The power of the early church statements is not in ecclesiastical authority, it is in the ministering of the word of God to me and in illustrating the commonplace thoughts of believers as they worked through the claims of heretics about the nature of the incarnation. Hopefully it is useful to see the material above; I know that it is hard to get a copy of Tanner at a reasonable price.