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Weekend Edification: What Christianity Teaches about the Body

April 30th, 2010 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

One of the most interesting side-projects I've been working on during my research has been trying to find evangelicals who address the body specifically.

That it has proved mildly challenging isn't a condemnation of evangelicalism per se--the sort of direct talk about embodiment that all the cool kids are engaging in today (your humble author being the lone exception to that rule!) is a recent phenomenon in both the philosophical and theological worlds.

My mother, who has been enormously helpful in this, sent over this intriguing sermon by one Robert Lee.  Not quite an evangelical, Lee was a Presybeterian who seems to be most famous for bringing back--gasp!--stained glass to the Scottish church.  He's largely been forgotten to history, but I was able to find an interesting memoir of him by a contemporary on the all-knowing Google Books.

But his sermon on the body might as well have been written by someone today.  It leads off, as we might expect, with a severe critique of the gnosticism of Plato and Plotinus.  Appropriately, he posits them as the wisest of the ancient sages--which is to say, the best of folly.

From there, he turns toward science to defend a high view of the body.  The sermon was written two years before the Origin of Species was published, but after distinguishing proper science from its imitators on grounds that all creation is God's, Lee is happy to speak of how science has revealed the necessity of the body to the soul.

But not content to let the words of science suffice, Lee appeals to the authority of Scripture.  Here he makes all the right exegetical moves.  He isn't quite ready to give up the soul, claiming that it is of the "first concern," but quickly follows up that the body is our second, "and in its weal, the body is in many ways implicated."

Lee really starts to soar, though, in describing how a Christian view of the body might motivate us to serve the poor.  There's a medicalizing note throughout that's hard to miss, but Lee repeatedly directs our attention to obligation that Christianity imposes to relieve the plight of those who suffer bodily.  In his best note, he writes:

Unless mankind shall be taught to take a conscientious interest in their bodily welfare, they will hardly be persuaded to feel that concern which ought, in the health and salvation of their souls.

There's more to say about this, but I'm out of time. If you have 20 minutes this weekend, though, the entire sermon is worth a read.  And if you do read it, I'd love to hear your thoughts on it.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.