Matthew Lee Anderson is the author of the recently released Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter To Our Faith (you can read my review here). He's also a Biola grad (not Wheaton! Biola!), a reader of old books (50 years old is probably too recent for his tastes), a lover of musicals (even Rogers and Hammerstein) and, sad to say, a compulsive double spacer (even after colons).
More importantly, he's a thoughtful writer with a real passion for gospel-saturated lives and God-shaped theology. You can read more of his work at the group blog he runs, Mere Orthodoxy. He's generously given us a slice of his time to discuss some of the important points raised by the book. We hope you enjoy this first part of our interview—look for the remainder next week! And don't forget to pick up a copy of the book!
I really enjoyed Earthen Vessels, and I think you've done the evangelical community a service in starting this conversation at a more popular level. Here's my first question: what got you started on this topic? And as an immediate follow-up, how exactly would you describe this topic (physical anthropological theology might work, but it's a bit wordy)?
Thanks. I'm not sure I've started this conversation, but I'm definitely trying to inject some life into it. I had lots of life events that moved me into the topic, but the first time I reflected about it intentionally was reading Dallas Willard's Spirit of the Disciplines, which made me realize just how pervasive the body is in St. Paul's thought. And then I read Plato and realized that Paul's understanding of the body wasn't just good because it's inspired by the Holy Spirit. It's good because Paul is a world-class genius who understands the body better than maybe anyone else in history, save Jesus. Dude is smart, and his stuff on the body is good.
You get lots of descriptions of the topic. Some go with body theology, others with theology of the body. I think I prefer the latter: it's not theology proper, which is about the doctrine of God, and it's not quite theological anthropology either. It's akin to a theology of work or a theology of technology. Stare long enough at it and you're going to find yourself entangled in all the problems of any properly theological problem, but the route into them is not through the doctrine of God but through the physical body.
Obviously, this theme is one that runs throughout Paul's letters, but of course there are places where it comes to the forefront. What are the main places where Paul develops his theology of the body?
Absolutely there are places that come to the forefront. It's hard to single out places in Romans, but chapters 6 and 8 are obviously crucial. 1 Corinthians 6 is a major passage, as is 1 Corinthians 15. And you can't leave out 2 Corinthians 4 and 5. Read all those and you'll have a solid handle on what Paul thinks about the body.
As someone with a background in a charismatic church, one of your more intriguing statements was,
"Yet emphasizing physical healing also carries risks; when it overwhelms our belief in the resurrection from the dead, it can easily slip into the sort of word of faith and prosperity gospel preaching that preys on the worst parts of the charismatic movement."
Similarly, you wrote,
"But it also narrows our attention to God’s power to heal the body, rather than God’s power to sanctify the body through reforming its habits and dispositions."
Would you elaborate on how the charismatic movement's emphasis on physical healing can overwhelm our belief in the resurrection, and how that leads to both the abuses and neglect of discipline for the body we sometimes see there?
I think bodily healing is possible, but it's important to ensure that is distinguished from the bodily transformation that is sanctification. Healing restores the health of the body, while sanctification conforms us to the unique reality of God's love which is revealed in the person of Jesus. While bodily health is obviously a good, it's a good that won't be made permanent until the resurrection from the dead, when the good of bodily healing is united with the good of sanctification. Keeping those two notions of how the Spirit interacts with physicality separate helps explain why not everyone who believes will be physically healed, even while (I think) some people might be.
That points me back to another thought: throughout the book, you note the ways that the Incarnation informs our view of the human body. What are some of the particulars we should take away when it comes to the body in view of Christ's taking on flesh?
By the same token, what are the ways that the Resurrection in particular should affect our understanding of the human body?
Rather than giving you a full answer to either of the first two questions, let me point out two quick points that I've been pondering. It's very easy to move quickly from thinking about the incarnation to being "incarnational." We've expended a lot of effort within the church in the last few years talking about the latter. But a lot of times, "incarnational" gets separated from the Incarnation and we end up with blanket affirmations of 'engagement' rather than a more narrowly construed understanding that takes its lead from the specific revelation of Jesus. As Karl Barth points out, the Gospels are almost wholly unconcerned with depicting the "normal affairs" of Jesus' earthly life and almost wholly consumed with his status as Lord and his unique mission. That should be instructive for thinking about our own bodily lives, I think.
As to the resurrection, I think we often lose sight of permanence as a theological category, but one of the many things the resurrection seems to do is underscore both the transience of our own lives and the stability and endurance of the life which God has for us.
As to your final question, though he doesn't directly talk about the body much, Oliver O'Donovan is always floating around there, as is C.S. Lewis. But go behind both of them and you'll find the thinker who they both learned from: Augustine.
We hope you have enjoyed the first part of our interview with Matthew Lee Anderson. Leave a comment sharing your thoughts—and go buy the book!