Resurrection and Relativity: The Defeat of Absolute Law

The world reflects a mathematical like order, which is a fact that could easily be turned around to say that the world is constrained or produced by this order. The same thing is true in every area of human endeavor, such that the law or order of any system can be confused with the system and its existence. Theories of progress attached to the Enlightenment, for example, came to see progress as a product of history. The world is improving, in this theory, and the trajectory of this improvement might be traced in every field – science is progressing, culture is progressing, the human species is progressing, and this progress is not simply a description but is a law which is driving this progress. Human progress in the sciences, in the accumulation of knowledge, in the improvements of medicine, is propelled by an immanent force called progress. The descriptor “progress” becomes its own cause. This was reified in a Newtonian world in which the laws of time and space were not mere descriptions of the way things are but they became the only possibility, such that even God works within these laws productive of reality. Biological evolution can be read as a product of the Enlightenment notion applied to the life sciences. Political science, social science, physics, or simply the advancement of human culture, each seemed to follow the same law. The law of progress is a drive that presumes perfection, utopia, justice, morality, is the end product of this law. In short, life and life more abundant is to be found in the law of progress.

Intrinsic to the idea of progress is the idea that human society had to progress to the point where it discovered the idea of progress. Just thinking the idea is already a sign that we no longer have to do with ancient thought, Christian thought, or unenlightened thought. Only those who have been enlightened by the thought of progress – the key thought of enlightenment – have thought the greatest thought that can be thought (to mix periods if not ideas). This is the most cherished idea of the enlightenment and the thought itself is a sign of what it speaks. Only a true modern could have conceived of this idea as it is only now, in this modern period, that the ideas of fate and of the fall have been defeated in notions of a real world (as opposed to other-worldly) progress.

 All of which is, of course, simply untrue, as Ludwig Edelstein provides us with The Idea of Progress in Antiquity, filled out by W.K.C. Guthrie, in his In the Beginning and E.R. Dodds, The Ancient Concept of Progress, and F.J. Teggart’s, Theory of History, each of which inform us the idea of progress is an ancient notion. As Edelstein sums it up, the ancients “formulated most of the thoughts and sentiments that later generations down to the nineteenth century were accustomed to associate with the blessed or cursed word progress.” The modern idea of progress, the central achievement of the enlightenment, a proof that proves itself, turns out to be an ancient idea traceable throughout human history.

My point here is not simply to point out the self-refuting, tautologous, or absurd nature of the idea of progress, but it is to suggest that this idea is a manifestation of a form of thought which endlessly repeats itself. Life is in the law, philosophy contains the truth, I think therefore I am, God is the greatest thought that can be thought, and progress is an idea that gives us itself, are all manifestations of the same tautologous system. It is a closed form of thought which presumes thought, or the symbolic order, or the law, or philosophy, can deliver life, truth, or God. In this understanding, truth is a method that simply has to be applied to confirm the method as it produces the truth. The law is the law, or progress is its own proof, or, as Anselm will describe it, do what I am doing now in thinking the greatest thought. Each is an irrefutable proof made irrefutable on the terms of having the thought, believing the idea, or sharing the insight.

 As Thomas Kuhn demonstrates, normal science cannot challenge the paradigm of normal science (with its notion of progress), because the paradigm is itself equated with the scientific method. Normal science, as he describes it, is written in texts uniquely exemplified by the observations, laws, and theories described in their pages (what we are doing now). Science is a constellation of facts, theories, and methods collected in current texts and scientists are those who do the collecting. Scientists are those who apply the method and have added to the ever-growing stockpile of scientific knowledge and if one would challenge the method or stockpile, by definition this person is not a scientist. There is no backward movement in science as science is a method that deploys progress as part of its method. Kuhn’s introduction of the false starts and backward movement of history and humanity into the sciences is a challenge to normal science, which presumes these are somehow excluded. The method is, after all, the truth.

The Einsteinian revolution not only revolutionizes physics, but in Kuhn’s telling, it is a key example of the new understanding of paradigms and of science, which Kuhn is developing. Einstein revolutionizes science by incorporating humanity into the method – time is relative to an observer. Though the popularization of this notion makes of it more than what Einstein meant in his theory of relativity, this is the significance Kuhn links (but does not necessarily attribute to Einstein) to paradigm shifts and their grounding in the human condition. Einstein’s fusion of space/time and his notion that this continuum bends, that the universe has a beginning, and that time is relative to an observer, changes up the meaning of scientific law and scientific method. The law as productive of order has its limits, whether we are speaking of the laws of the universe or the method of science. Einstein does not refute Newtonian laws, but he suggests that they have a limited application, which is a refutation of their absoluteness. Non-absolute or relative law was not, however, a thought that even Einstein was comfortable with; a discomfort he expressed with quantum mechanics.[1]

I presume that the key biblical insight, repeated in a variety of forms, is a refutation of any system which would fold in on itself and continually reproduce itself. The notion that the sacrificial system of the temple is an end in itself is refuted by the prophetic witness which culminates in the claim “sacrifice and burnt offering I (God) never desired” (Heb. 10:8). Whether it is the food laws, the sabbath laws, or simply the law per se, the biblical witness is that there is no life in the law. To presume that the scriptures or the letter of the law contains life or that it is an absolute, is equated with death. The Sabbath was made for man and not the other way round. The letter of the law, or the scriptures, or the law of the mind, or the law of the body, are relative, finite, created, and limited. The law of sin and death describes the absolutizing of the law and it is this all-encompassing law which Christ overturned in his resurrection.

Strangely, and as its name implies, contractual theology presumes the law is absolute. The law is a perfect expression of God’s righteous character and human failure to live up to the law is definitive of sin. The punishment for sin is a balancing of the books, as God’s honor has been impugned and his legal/righteous requirement is set right through punishment. In a contractual reading of how we know God, it is assumed we can know all we really need on the basis of a natural (law) understanding. God is known as omnipotent and omniscient from the cosmos through reason and conscience and this knowledge makes all people legally culpable. God’s ethical demands are clear to Jews through the law and innately (the law written on the heart) by everyone else, so that reward and punishment are determined on the basis of keeping the law. Humans are sinful and everyone violates the law or fails to meet its ethical demands, and honest introspection reveals this fact so that everyone knows they are damned (all rational people are afraid and want a way out). Luckily, Christ offers a resolution to the double problem of knowing God in his omniscient justice, knowing the law, knowing of one’s incapacity to keep the law, and being afraid of one’s deserved punishment. He provides the legal balance in his death. Believing in his death, somehow adds the legal benefits he accrues to the believer. (In this system one knows just enough to be legally culpable and yet cannot know or do enough to be legally exculpable.)

The alternative to this misconstrued legal knowing is what Paul describes as resurrection knowing. As he describes in both Romans and Philippians, there is knowing grounded in the law and this is contrasted with what he describes (in 2 Cor 3) as resurrection knowing. Apart from knowing the resurrected Jesus one is bound by sin and death (the law of sin and death) in which state one has believed a lie (Ro 1:18ff, 7:7ff; Php 3:10-11).  This lie is the lie which contractual theology repeats, but which every system which would make the law absolute repeats. Paul’s proclamation is that there is no available light (natural law adequate for righteousness), there is no possibility of arriving (through the law) at absolute truth as one is given over to a lie (the lie that the law, made absolute, contains life). Resurrection knowing (knowing by the power of resurrection) is guided by the Spirit and Paul contrasts this with knowing according to the letter of the law which kills (II Cor. 3:6).

In contractual theology God is known as a just, law giving, angry judge such that a theodicy (the answer to the problem of evil is that God causes it) is extrapolated (by Calvin) as flowing out of the character of God. Paul says, the death and resurrection of Christ is the vindicating act of God (Rom. 4:25). It is not simply that he is making things legally right but he is bringing about justice and righteousness in the world. God’s justice in this understanding is not focused on application of law but deliverance from death (as the orientation to death is what is wrong and what needs to be made right). God is the one who delivers from the punishing effects of sin and death, and this is his righteousness (Ro 8:1).

The contractual form of the Christian faith poses the wrong problem (God’s anger), gives us the wrong answer (law is satisfied through the death of Christ – law being the main thing), and concludes death and resurrection are secondary to the main problem (God’s wrath due to the transgression of the law). It divides out ethics and says righteousness is a legality (on the part of God and in the answer), as it does not bring about a real or necessary change (it is legally imputed).  A religion which imagines God must punish the sinner as the law requires it, which then says he does not punish the sinner, but punishes a perfectly righteous man instead, and then attributes his righteousness to the sinner, is working in the very abstract legal fiction which the New Testament consistently refutes. Paul describes himself as perfect in regard to the law and the chief of sinners. Jesus ministry is a continual challenge to the law – “you have heard it said, but I say unto you.” He points out that the sick need a physician, the blind need to see, and the point of the sabbath is not to obstruct human need but to serve it. The law is a death dealing instrument where it is not relativized by love, as this is its true purpose which Jesus fulfills in the law of the Spirit. “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death” (Ro 8:2).

Where resurrection is understood as the answer to the problem, law is not a primary category but the focus is on the misorientation to the law resulting in a living death. The system that imagines life is in the knowledge of good and evil, life is in progress, life is the symbolic order, is called the law of sin and death. Law in the lie that is sin, is thought to be a means to life and this “life in the law” sort of life is a living death. Yet the economy of salvation in contractual theory is presumed to operate on the basis of this lie in regard to the law.

Paul says that apart from the resurrection of Christ you are still in your sins (I Cor. 15:17) because sin reigns through death and death no longer reigns only where Christ’s death and resurrection have defeated the orientation to death. Without the resurrection the redemptive, liberating effect of Christ’s death remains ineffective, for his death and resurrection are two sides of the redemption from the bondage to sin and death. New life (resurrection life) is the direct correlate of this delivery from bondage to the slavery of fear of death.

So, whether it is the law of progress, the laws of physics, or the law of Moses, the failed human tendency is to make this symbolic order absolute. Language or law is made to serve in place of life. The resurrection relativizes every law, pointing to the one who is above and over the law and who holds the power of resurrection life.


[1] Faith and I recently watched the National Geographic dramatization of Einstein, which depicted Niels Bohr quoting Einstein to Einstein, who had challenged the absolute nature of Newtonian law. Bohr suggested he was not willing to apply his own critique to himself in his refusal to believe that physical systems have only probabilities and that specific properties are a by-product of being measured. Einstein’s relativity theory is stretched by quantum mechanics, as it not only incorporates the human observer into the equation but makes his observation a determining factor in the outcome. This was too relative for the Father of relativity, as Einstein argued that entities such as electrons have an independent reality. He summed up his view with, “God does not play dice,” and as he would later explain, “What we call science has the sole purpose of determining what is.”  


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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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