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.

Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

  • Matt – Couple thoughts on the sermon:
    1) We need more ministers that write that well.
    2) Though I certainly understand the desire to do so, I’m leery of connecting the philosophical underpinnings of monasticism to the asceticism of Plato. No doubt there were many monks during the Middle Ages whose views were more Platonic than biblical, but that doesn’t mean all of monasticism was wrong. I think there is something to be said for the idea that Jesus is so beautiful, so satisfying, that we can forgo other pleasures. Of course, the key is not to sneak Platonism into this scheme through the back-door, ie: “The spiritual joy of knowing Jesus is greater than the merely physical pleasure of sex.” But as long as we avoid that backdoor Platonism, I think there’s something very much right about saying “Since the Bridegoom is gone and since he is my greatest need and pleasure, I can forgo other pleasures for a brief time.” (After all, isn’t the logic of monasticism simply the logic of fasting extended to the rest of life?)
    3) I’d like to learn more about his rationale for giving such trust to modern science. I’m not convinced by his argument that modern science is superior to ancient philosophy. (But then again, I’m a history major. So I tend to distrust anyone who has even the slightest hint of chronological snobbery, so this could just be me being horribly unfair and judgmental of Lee.)
    4) His conclusion/application is fascinating reading. I’m going to revisit it several times I think. Very interesting reading.

    Thanks for sharing!

    peace

    • Jake,

      late response, as always. Lame.

      Anyway, to your points…..

      1) I agree completely.
      2) I’m probably more open to a backdoor Platonism than you are. Unlike a lot of folks, I like the guy! So while I might connect some forms of asceticism among the monastics to Plato, I wouldn’t *blame* him. I might thank him. : )

      That’s too cheeky, of course, to really stand by. Excesses and abuses, yes, but on the whole asceticism wins and monasticism wasn’t a bad idea either. There’s lots of reasons for its rise, some of which are political (RA Markus has the definitive book on the rise of the desert fathers, I think).

      3) I couldn’t agree more with your reservations about giving preference to contemporary science over ancient philosophy. His arguments there didn’t really interest me as much as the fact that he made them. In that, he is like an earlier version of contemporary folks who make the exact same claims about Plato, etc. and the triumphs of contemporary science. I thought that interesting.

  • Christopher Benson

    In my humble opinion, the two contemporary evangelical writers that have addressed the body specifically––and most satisfactorily––are Lauren F. Winner in “Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity” and Rodney Clapp in “Tortured Wonders: Christian Spirituality for People, Not Angels.” These writers would not identify themselves as Evangelical with a capital E (because they are both Anglicans), but their sensibilities and commitments are thoroughly evangelical.