Embodied Spirituality
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Embodied Spirituality

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Polycarp, a second-century church father, martyr, and disciple of the apostle John, told a story about John in his later days, when he was serving the church in Ephesus. One day, when going to the baths in Ephesus, John and his friends entered and, seeing a man named Cerinthus there, John turned and rushed out without bathing, saying, “Let us fly, lest even the bath-house fall down, because Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth is within!” Who was this Cerinthus with whom the apostle declined even to occupy the same building?

Cerinthus was an early heretic whom John had refuted on numerous occasions. Part of John’s purpose in writing his first and second epistles was to warn against the teaching of Cerinthus and others like him. These men taught a heresy known as Gnosticism, which, among other things, denied the incarnation of Jesus, and held that the material world is evil, the creation of a fallen being. This creator imprisoned humans in bodies, and salvation was found through a secret knowledge known only to the enlightened that allowed for an escape from the bodily prison into a pure spiritual existence. Of this kind of teaching John wrote, “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist” (1 John 4:23). 

John saw clearly what too many Christians through the ages have failed to see: that Christianity in no way affirms this denial of the material world. Unfortunately, the lure of Gnostic ideas has afflicted many understandings of Christian spirituality. Evangelicals have been affected by this as well. It seems that holding a balanced stance in relation to the biblical understanding of humanity is difficult to maintain, and the evangelical tradition has tended to drift toward spiritual over physical, toward soul over body, toward other-worldliness over earthliness. While evangelicals are not Gnostics like Cerinthus, there is a certain Gnostic cast to our popular expressions of spirituality, and it is growing worse, not better. How do we see this? Theologian Michael Svigel points out several ways: 

  • When we consider that the “true me” is entrapped in a body, regarding God’s physical creation as a mere “shell” that needs to be shed. 
  • When we spiritualize the ordinances of the church, considering them strictly as mere symbols and memorials of spiritual truths, rather than receiving them as physical signs which, while not “containers” of grace, are nevertheless essentially connected to the truth they celebrate. 
  • When we separate the spiritual church from the physical church, considering that membership in the spiritual does not also require membership in a local, physical body of believers. 
  • When we separate the experience of salvation from material and physical acts of love and obedience to God, radically dividing justification from sanctification. 
  • When we consider worship to be more a matter of individual experience of intimacy with God than a corporate response to his grace as revealed in Jesus Christ and his gospel.  
  • When we seek an immediate, personal communication from God through the Spirit apart from the inspired, inerrant, sufficient Word the Spirit has revealed through the prophets and apostles.

Just as John did, we ought also to see these ideas for what they areteachings of the enemy of the truth, ideas that ultimately deny the incarnation of Christ. 

The Bible clearly views humans as embodied beings by nature. In fact, the account of God’s creation of Adam says first of all that he was made of dust from the ground” (Gen. 2:7). It is true that humans are more than simply physical, but we are never less than embodied beings. In the Old Testament, the emphasis is on humans in their entirety as complex material and spiritual beings. We are different creatures from angels, and this is not a result of the “real” person having been imprisoned in a body, but by God’s design. In the New Testament, the embodied nature of humans could not be any more emphatic: Jesus himself took on our humanity by becoming flesh, redeeming us entirely, including our bodies. Furthermore, he rose from the dead, and his body was glorified. After that, he ascended into heaven in his resurrected body, and as the angels told the disciples, “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). That is, in his resurrected body. Paul states that Jesus is the firstfruits of the resurrection of all believers (1 Cor. 15:2021). We will not be spirits in eternity, but embodied beings in glorified bodies, living in a redeemed creation.  

These things are the clear teaching of the Scriptures and the apostles, and all of these ideas were held and taught and confessed by the Church from its earliest days. But oddly enough, some of these truths sound foreign to some present-day Christians. Even among church-goers, the idea that when Christians die they end up as ethereal beings in a world of white clouds for eternity continues to persist. I’ve even had people tell me sheepishly that this disembodied idea of eternity has left them secretly harboring a decided lack of excitement about “going to heaven” when they die. A far cry from Paul’s statement that we should encourage one another with the hope of the resurrection (1 Thess. 4:18)! 

Human embodiment is clearly quite important to include in our understanding of who we are as God has designed us. A negative assessment of the body ultimately is a rejection of God’s purposes for us as his image bearers. Building on what God has revealed, we can develop several important implications that will correct our thinking, our attitudes, and our actions in relation to our embodiment: 

  • The body is fragile. Our bodies are created to be finite, limited, and dependent upon God and his provision. To recognize and acknowledge this is to honor God, to live within the limits he created for us. To refuse to accept this is to seek for something beyond what God intended for us. We often speak of the need to learn to say no, to make choices, etc., but I’m not sure we really believe it. It is a manifestation of pride to think that we can do everything and to see limitation as inherently evil. Psalm 127:12 reminds us that wearing ourselves out is vain, and that God “gives to his beloved sleep. 
  • The body is not all of “me,” but I am not “me” without it. We are complex and unique creatures, and we are not reducible to a single entity. By God’s design we are both material and immaterial, body and soul. Both body and soul together are who we are. To view ourselves as essentially spirits inhabiting temporary suits of flesh is to make a fundamental mistake in our identity, the same mistake Cerinthus and other Gnostics made. We are not whole without our bodies. In the time before Christ’s establishment of the eternal state, death separates the soul from the body, such that believers are “with the Lord,” but this is not God’s intended destiny for humans, nor is it natural. This intermediate state will be finished at the resurrection, when soul and body are reunited. 
  • Both body and soul affect each other. We do not achieve health and wholeness by neglecting or minimizing either. Also, spiritual problems can affect the body, and bodily problems can affect the spirit. Furthermore, our fallenness affects both body and soul. Sin is not caused by our bodies, nor is it limited to our bodies, and sin cannot be eradicated by the denial or elimination of any aspect of who we are. Christian spirituality must take fully into account our embodiment, and must therefore be holistic in nature. 

In the end, an embodied spirituality recognizes that the body is valuable. To be spiritually whole, our bodies must not be denied, denigrated, or dehumanized, but treated with dignity. If God pronounced that humans as he created us were “very good” (Gen. 1:31), who are we to disagree?

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Words by Dr. Joseph A. Kim 

Bible & Theology Professor at Lancaster Bible College