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The Theological Meaning of Jesus’ Resurrection: A Content Analysis of Mainline and Conservative Protestant Easter Sunday Sermons

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Abstract This Canadian study qualitatively analyzed the texts of 35 conservative and 34 mainline Protestant Easter Sunday sermons. With the goal of indentifying similarities and differences between the conservative and mainline texts, the sermons were examined to determine 1) what they said about the purpose and meaning of Jesus’ resurrection and 2) the degree to which those explanations more broadly reflected adherence to the doctrine of Biblical authority. Among other findings, it was determined that sermons in both groups linked Jesus’ resurrection to supernatural boons for believers (i.e., eternal life, divine power in this life, or both). However, when referencing these supernatural gains the two groups differed in terms of proportion and manner of explication. All the conservative Protestant sermons referenced one or more supernatural benefits but less than two-thirds of the mainline sermons did so; the remaining mainline texts posited that the resurrection’s theological meaning was metaphorical and served to reveal a key existential lesson. Furthermore, conservative Protestant sermons always supported their theological claims with scriptural proof-texts while the vast majority of mainline sermons did not (the exception being sermons preached in rural mainline churches). Overall, strong adherence to the doctrine of Biblical authority was evidenced in the conservative Protestant sermons while the mainline sermons did not evidence strong adherence to that doctrine. Implications and possible explanations of these results are discussed.

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73. FN3 3Other tentative findings closely related to this current study reinforce the premise that mainline clergy feel more at ease promoting an idea from scripture as true when that idea can be supported by corroborating, extra-Biblical sources. A dual analysis was conducted on the sermons from this study. The secondary analysis (which is currently under review) examined what clergy said about the factual nature of the resurrection. It found that mainline sermons that argued the gospels’ account of Jesus’ resurrection was factually accurate were also likely to appeal to empirical data to bolster that claim. Of the 18 mainline sermons to posit the literal resurrection, 13 sought to legitimate the Bible’s account of the event by appealing to evidence from contemporary Biblical scholarship. Specifically, applying concepts from textual criticism, these sermons referenced one or more apologetic proofs rooted in the criteria of dissimilarity, ecclesiastical embarrassment, or multiple attestation (cf. Craig 1989; Ehrman 2008, 495-498; Wright 2003). Conversely, the conservative Protestant sermons did not show the same need to support the Biblical account with outside evidence; that the physical resurrection of Jesus was recorded in the “divinely inspired” gospels was proof enough for them that the account was factual.
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/content/journals/10.1163/15709256-12341247
2012-01-01
2015-08-02

Affiliations: 1: Wilfrid Laurier University Canada dhaskell@wlu.ca

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