A friend of mine once named his own body. He called it Bob, joking that, as it was separate from his soul, it deserved a name of its own. If he didn’t want to do something, he could ‘tell Bob to do it’ for him.
This may have helped him clean his apartment more regularly, and it surely gave his friends a few laughs. But it didn’t help him understand what the relationship between body and soul is actually like—in fact, it revealed that he didn’t understand his own makeup very well.
It’s no wonder. We in the twenty-first century, despite our unprecedented medical knowledge, understand the interactions between body and soul little better than our oldest ancestors did. While many of us have benefitted from Pope John Paul II’s invaluable Theology of the Body, and while philosophers like J.P. Moreland have written on the state and nature of the soul, Protestants have done relatively little to work out just how the soul relates to the physical body. Matt Anderson tries to unpack such interactions in his new book, Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith.
Moderns, argues Anderson, tend to envision the body as a sort of soul-filled machine—an image that may be traced back, to among other things, a misreading of Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy, a misunderstanding of some of the Apostle Paul’s teaching, and the unfortunate Gnostic leanings of some strains of Evangelicalism. Though the machine image leaves much to be desired, Protestants in particular have done little to refine and replace it with a more accurate understanding of the way body and soul work together.
Worse, some have actually described the body as a prison for the soul—John Calvin, for instance, uses the unfortunate description several times in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, though his overall teachings about the body are quite orthodox.
Such images are particularly unhelpful to the physically handicapped, especially those people whose bodily limitations have dramatically shaped the way they think about, experience, and react to the world around them. Anderson uses his own grandfather as an example of this—though childhood disease left the man with the use of only one of his arms, he learned to approach the world with a strength and determination not easily found among the untested. “What the body is”—argues Anderson—“shapes what the body does.” And as the body does, the person does:
As human persons, we live, communicate, and move in the flesh and bones that we indwell. Our bodies are not instruments for us to operate, as though we were driving them about like captains of a ship. They are not tools for us to communicate with others, or pieces of property to dispose of as we wish.
Sometimes, Anderson points out, God changes a person by working directly with his soul. Those whose sins Jesus forgave in the Biblical accounts fit in this category. Other times, Jesus chose to reach the soul by means of the body:
The same God who forgives sins shapes and reshapes human bodies. In Matthew 9, Jesus forgives the sins of a paralytic, and the scribes and Pharisees grumble. In response, Jesus reveals the fullness of authority: “ ‘But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he then said to the paralytic—‘Rise, pick up your bed and go home’” (v. 6). Jesus does not associate paralysis with sinning, nor should we. But his authority to forgive sins in connected to his authority over our human bodies.
Anderson’s book is necessarily limited. At 255 pages, Earthen Vessels is an all-too-brief introduction to the problem at hand, and Anderson raises more questions than he answers. That’s not a bad thing. The questions raised in this book would take scores of volumes to answer. Anderson makes it clear that, rather than offering a definitive treatment of the issue himself, he hopes to draw others into a conversation about the proper role of the body in life, in worship, and in culture.
He means that literally. If you’d like to join the conversation yourself, ask Matt Anderson to join your reading group–but hurry, his time is limited.
It’s a conversation worth joining—just ask my friend Bob.