The Justification of the Body
Geoffrey J. Paxton
We seldom think of justification as the justification — or at least as including the justification — of the body. For some strange reason we conceive of the sinner in a disembodied manner.
Despite this cold exclusion of the body from the merciful justification of the sinner, what else can the justification of the sinner mean except the inclusion of his body? What sinner is ever justified in a disembodied state? What sinner is there that may be thought of apart from his body?
Why do we ignore the body in the justification of the sinner? "The sinner is more than his body," we may say. This, however, is not the issue. The issue is: is the body included in the sinner? Can we meaningfully speak of the justification of the sinner without his body? Is not the body constitutive of existence in the world?
By and large, the evangelical church has tended to neglect the body. Such neglect is deep in the tradition of Western thought. From Plato to Descartes and modern idealism it has been thought that the true self or the real man lies within and that the body is an appendage. In the words of philosopher Gilbert Ryle, man has been thought of as the "ghost-in-the- machine" (cf. The Concept of Mind).
The neglect of the body and the wider neglect of the world in much evangelical pietism is the sad testimony to the hegemony of Greek thought over the church. We have listened to Plato and Aristotle and not to Jesus Christ.
It is clear that this approach to the world and to the body in particular is a constituent element of the two-sphere mentality of Roman Catholics and pietistic evangelicals. Strong in our thinking and behaving has been the idea that there is the supernatural and the natural spheres, the "sacred" and the "profane," the "spiritual" and the "secular." The two spheres have been seen as two conflicting and irreconcilable antitheses. The former (i.e., the "supernatural," "sacred" or "spiritual" sphere) is the domain of God, while the latter (the "natural," "secular" or "profane") is the domain of the devil.
This mentality has caused (and is still causing) havoc in the church. To begin with, it has given many Christian employees a deep-seated inferiority about their type of employment. They find themselves in the "secular." Has God put them there? Perhaps they have only been able to maintain God's second best! Not a few are apologetic about this, especially if there are members of the same family in "the full-time service for the Lord" in some "spiritual" work.
Next, the mind has been given uncontested position over the manual. Do we not instinctively bow to the professor and take the factory hand for granted? How many of such factory hands do we find on our church boards and in our church sessions? Have we not heard people say, "He is only an ordinary carpenter"? What is meant, of course, is not that there are extraordinary carpenters but that all carpenters are ordinary when compared (even subconsciously) with the academic.
Not least — and the particular concern of this article — is the approach to the body that such a Grecian two-sphere mentality has produced. To many the body is a necessary evil. The body is the bridgehead to the powers of darkness. The body is passing away, while the soul will live forever. Why then afford the body too much recognition? Indeed, it needs to be kept back or kept under. It must not be dressed too nicely or accentuated in the slightest. It may ensnare some would-be-innocent soul. Of course, if this is the status of the body, it matters not too much what sort of material is fed into it or how much. Evangelical Christians, by and large, accept (without complaint) the most atrocious quality of food in their pantries and in their stomachs. Some of the food is not fit to be served to animals, yet it is blithely consumed by the evangelical.
The body has little or no connection with the soul or the spiritual in this widespread type of thinking among evangelicals. What difference does it make if this or that food is consumed in this or that amount?
However, the fact is that this is a question which matters much, because the ill effects of this kind of mentality have reached epidemic proportions. Good members of the army of the Lord are being killed with alarming rapidity. Of those who survive there are cripples or those who are so stuffed and clogged up that they are virtually useless anyway. In Australia cardiovascular disease is a major killer. Obesity is a major problem in the United States as well as in some other countries.
To die of old age is now a rarity. But it is even more tragic that so many evangelical Christians accept this fact with fatalistic resignation as "the way things are today." Of course, death is the doorway to "higher service" (not spatio—temporally but qualitatively!). Why bemoan it, then? Should not the (keen) Christian welcome it? Is it not unspiritual to shake the fist at death?
Of course, satiating the body because of its evil nature is but one way of approach. The other way is to ascetically beat the body to death — or very close to death. Starvation and socio-physical flagellation will keep it in check.
Yes, the two-sphere mentality is coming back upon us with a vengeance. The ill health of all too many of us moderns is eloquent enough testimony to that. So is the ecological problem which is but the extension of our treatment of the body to the wider creation. Modern man—and this includes all too many of us Christians—is on a rampage of pollution and destruction.
What is the proper perspective? Is there anything that will provide us with a way out of this dilemma? Indeed there is. Thank God there is.
The Gospel and the Body
There are at least two ways in which we may state the bearing of the Christian gospel upon our approach to our body. Note, however, that they are two ways of stating the same reality.
1. God has taken to Himself the human body. Notice, we did not say that God has taken to Himself (in Jesus Christ) a human body. People used to say that God assumed "human nature" (a universal phenomenon) and not a single individual. But the phrase "human nature" is now under fire as an abstraction. Today (and correctly so) it is more proper to speak in a way that emphasizes the total man (totus homo). We must affirm that God assumed the human body (meaning the body of every man and not just of one man).
Notice also that we say that God has taken to Himself in Jesus Christ the human body. God has assumed matter in the incarnation. All who wish to deny matter in whatever form are forced to deny the incarnation also. In Jesus Christ, the God-Man, we have the reality of God and the reality of the world. We do not have one without the other.
Since the coming of the Christian gospel in Jesus Christ, it is not possible to deprecate the body (and matter generally) without at the same time deprecating God. God has taken the body into the Godhead — forever. There could not be a stronger antidote to Greek thinking than this. It is no wonder that the Greek philosopher sought to deny that Jesus was truly man and that He had a true body. The philosopher postulated that it simply appeared as though (Docetism) Christ had a body. Matter was thought to be evil, and therefore it was claimed that Christ could not really have been human. The heretic, Apollinarius, tried to improve upon this Docetic heresy but ended up being tutored by Plato and denying the full manhood of the Saviour.
Both these heresies (Docetism and Apollinarianism) represent the recoil of the Greek mentality at the assuming of human flesh by God. All who wish to deprecate the body must join either the Docetists or the Apollinarians. But this much they should realize before embarking on either course: if you do not have the body, you cannot have God either. Body-haters are God-haters.
2. Another way of putting the situation is to say that what God has joined together (Himself and matter, Himself and the human body), let no man put asunder. Whereas we previously stressed what it was that God assumed (the body), here we stress the union of God and the body.
The Christian gospel is the end of a two-sphere mentality. The reality of God is to be seen in the reality of the world. There is an inseparable union between the "supernatural" and the "natural," the "sacred" and the "secular."
Notwithstanding the fact that God is greater than His Self-presentation in the world (cf. Extra-Calvinisticum), it remains an unalterable dictum that the reality of God is to be found within the reality of this world.
Some today have fallen into the trap of reducing God to the world on the basis of the truth of our previous paragraph. This is to try to have the world at the expense of the Almighty God. However, those who have tried to have God without the world are in no better position. Both ways are false and gospel-denying. The reality of God and the reality of the world are present in the one (union) reality, Jesus Christ.
Some have tried to deny this fact. Nestorius — or if not he, his followers — sought to make Jesus Christ into "two persons and two natures." To this the church said a firm "No!" (cf. Chalcedon, A.D. 451). Jesus Christ is the reality of God (divine) and the reality of the world (human) in one Person.
Matter (and the body) is more than justified by the gospel of the God-Man, Jesus Christ. To deny the body is to deny the gospel. It is as simple and as tragic as that. To affirm God without the body is to deny the gospel, and to affirm the body without God is to deny the gospel.
The church Fathers in the Council of Chalcedon gave us the proper perspective. There is a union without fusion of God and the body (God cannot be reduced to body, and body cannot be elevated to Godhood); there is a distinction but no separation of God and the body in the Person of Jesus Christ.
If God has justified the human body of believers in Jesus Christ, then where is our sanctification of the body as the (only proper) loving response to that action of God? Are we showing that we believe the gospel of the reconciliation of the world (and that means the body) to God in Jesus Christ? Are we convinced that now the body has been put into its right relationship to God in Christ? Or do we have a "half-Christ"? Our approach to the body is our approach to the gospel. Do we believe, then?