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The centrality of the body in Christian theology

By Peter Sellick - posted Friday, 5 January 2007


In the biblical mentality there is no such thing as life outside the body. All life is enfleshed. If you want to talk about souls then you must make a statement like “man is the soul of his body”. It may be unremarkable that the Old Testament escaped the influence of Greek dualism but the New Testament is written in Greek and was thus surrounded by Greek culture.

The inheritance of ideas about the human person from the Old Testament was apparently strong enough to hold off Greek body-soul dualism. Unfortunately, this was not to hold true in the early church where the influences of neo-Platonism profoundly influence some of the church fathers, particularly Augustine.

The adherence to the body as the only vehicle of life is reflected in the church’s future expectation of the resurrection of the dead in opposition to the transmigration of souls. This means that bodily life is to be taken seriously and never as a preparation for real life in a disembodied heaven. The extent that a people is dominated by the idea of the heavenly afterlife is often reflected in the chaos of this life, earthly life is traded in favour of heavenly life.

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The body orientation of Christian thought was brought home to me while reading Douglas Farrow’s Ascension and Ecclesia in which he traces our various attitudes to the ascension and how those attitudes affected the church.

While only Luke (at the end of the gospel and in Acts) gives us a picture of the ascension there are numerous references toJesus being taken up into heaven after the 40 days of resurrection appearances.

The striking thing about the Jesus history related in the New Testament is that the embodied nature of Jesus is affirmed at his birth, during his life, at his death, in the resurrection and the ascension, and presumably, in his sitting at the right hand of the Father. At no time does Jesus become spirit or idea or mere memory.

Jesus descends in the flesh, is raised in the flesh and ascends in the flesh and this is recognised in the creeds of the church. The one who is raised and ascends is the one who was crucified who bears the marks in his hands and his sides.

That this produces all kinds of logical problems to do with our cosmology (is Jesus in low orbit around the earth?) is born witness to by how even the early church fathers fell away from the biblical insistence on the continuity of Jesus’ body (long before Copernicus naturalised the heavenly places). Irenaeus is the only early theologian who clings to the bodily nature of the ascension.

Pretty well everyone else made their Christology subject to cosmology. Under the pressure of needing a consistent cosmology it is the spirit of Christ that ascends or Christ becomes a universal idea or principle. Christ is robbed of his body. When this happens we are robbed of ours since we are made in the image of God. Christianity inevitably becomes a spiritualising influence, life without or outside the body. The nature of the human person, not to mention the church, is distorted.

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It may be argued that this fundamental mistake is at the root of how the church went wrong. For example the burning of heretics was rationalised by saying that the flames of the pyre were but an extension of the flames of hell which the person was to meet. It also has a lot to do with our confusion about sex and bodily life in general.

But the question remains, how do we operate with a theology that denies our cosmology? While we know that Jesus was born of a woman, walked this earth like you and I, it is a different thing to believe that it was the same body that rose and ascended. However, unless we do so think our whole idea of the human person becomes subject to spiritualising and dualism. When Jesus is robbed of his body we are robbed of ours.

I am reminded of how useful imaginary numbers are in mathematics. Everyone knows that there can be no such number as the root of minus one. But this gives rise to the idea of imaginary numbers that are very useful. Could it be that the bodily resurrection and ascension of Christ is similar? While we all know that the event is impossible, we must cling to the concept in order to save our theology from distortion.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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