Believing in the body

Dr John Shepherd and the denial of the bodily resurrection.

It was revealed last week that the new interim head of the Anglican Centre in Roman, John Shepherd, appears not to believe that Jesus rose bodily from the dead.

In an Easter message from 2008 unearthed by the conservative Anglican commentator David Ould, Dr Shepherd, who was then the Dean of Perth Cathedral in Western Australia, declares:

‘The Resurrection of Jesus ought not to be seen in physical terms, but as a new spiritual reality. It is important for Christians to be set free from the idea that the Resurrection was an extraordinary physical event which restored to life Jesus’ original earthly body.’

He goes on to say that:

‘Jesus’ early followers felt His presence after His death as strongly as if it were a physical presence and incorporated this sense of a resurrection experience into their gospel accounts;. But they’re not historical records as we understand them. They are symbolic images of the breaking through of the resurrection spirit into human lives.’

As he sees it, the truth behind the bodily imagery used to describe Jesus in the resurrection accounts in the Gospels is that ‘Jesus lived … as a transformed spiritual reality.’[1]

In response to criticisms of what he said in this message, Dr Shepherd has now stated: ‘It is my faith that Jesus rose from the dead and I have never denied the reality of the empty tomb.’[2]

How is one to square this new statement with what he said in 2008 (and which he has never repudiated)? As far as I can see, the only way to make sense of his position is to say he believes that the tomb was empty because Jesus’ physical body came to be transformed into a new form of existence which was entirely spiritual, and therefore non-corporeal. There was no body in the tomb because the body had ceased to exist.

The problems with his teaching.

This account of Jesus’ resurrection is clearly at variance with classical Anglican teaching which holds, in the words of Article IV of the Thirty Nine Articles, that ‘Christ did truly rise again from death, and took again his body, with flesh, bones, and all things appertaining to the perfection of Man’s nature.’

More importantly, it is contrary to the witness of the New Testament which uses the term ‘resurrection’ in its first century Jewish sense of the bodily resurrection of those who have died. The belief witnessed to consistently in the New Testament is that resurrection means neither a purely spiritual mode of post-mortem existence, nor a reanimation of our bodies into the same state that they were in before they died. Rather, the belief found in the New Testament is that following the pattern of Christ’s resurrection our bodies will be given new life by God, a new life in which they will be animated by the Holy Spirit and free from the decay and mortality which afflicts them in this world.[3]

This is what St. Paul means when he writes in 1 Corinthians 15:43-44 that the body of the Christian ‘…is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.’ As Tom Wright notes, the contrast here is not between our present physical existence and a future non-physical one. ‘The contrast is between the present body, corruptible, decaying and doomed to die, and the future body, incorruptible, un-decaying, never to die again.’[4] It is the self-same body, but in two very different modes of existence. [5]

Why people have ceased to believe in the bodily resurrection.

If we ask why Shepherd and many other theologians, members of the clergy and ordinary lay Christians, have ceased to believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus the answer is twofold.

Firstly, there is the influence of the scepticism about the possibility of miracles that has become a central part of Western thought since the Enlightenment. Nature is seen as closed system which God (if he exists) either cannot, or does not, alter. Within this closed system bodies die and then decay and the same, it is held, must have been true of the body of Jesus.

This, however, does not seem to be the road which Dr Shepherd has gone down. What his thinking reflects is another prevalent strand of Western thought, one which denies the unity of the human person.

The Christian tradition, following the Bible, has taught that human beings have been created by God as a ‘psychosomatic unity.’ That is to say they, are neither purely spiritual (like angels), nor purely material (like rocks), but an inseparable combination of a spiritual soul and a material body. In the words of Karl Barth, a human being:

‘…is soul as he is a body and this is his body. Hence he is not only soul that ‘has’ a body which perhaps it might not have, but he is bodily soul, as he also besouled body.’ [6]

Much modern Western thought, however, has denied the unity of the human person. Following a tradition going back to Plato it has held instead that the true self is a purely spiritual entity which is only tangentially and temporarily attached to a body.

On this view of the matter it does not matter if the body of Christ ceased to exist because the real Jesus was his immortal soul which entered after his death into a new form of purely spiritual existence and the Christian hope becomes that the same will be true for us.

For orthodox Christianity this notion is heretical because it denies the reality of how God has made us and the hope which he has given us through Christ’s resurrection that this reality will find its fulfilment in the world to come. As we have seen, the New Testament witness is that we who have an embodied existence in this world will also live for ever in a glorious embodied existence in the world to come, and genuine Christian hope is based on the conviction that this witness is true.

Disregard of the body and the acceptance of same-sex sexual activity and gender transition.

The disregard of the importance of the body which results in this form of denial of belief in the resurrection of the body is what also lies behind the modern arguments for the acceptance of same-sexual activity and gender transition.

Modern liberal arguments for the acceptance of both are based on the belief that whatever the immaterial self desires should be viewed as good. Thus if I want to have sex with a member of my own sex that should be viewed as good because it is what I desire. [7] Thus also, if I desire to adopt a gender identity that is at variance with my biological identity this too should be viewed as good because it is what I desire.

At the heart of this approach is a belief in freedom as absolute self-determination. In the words of John Webster:

‘Modern accounts of freedom identify freedom as unfettered liberty for self-creation and therefore contrast freedom and nature: freedom is the antithesis of the given, a move over and against any sense that I have a determinate identity.’ [8]

From an orthodox Christian perspective, however, simply focusing on what we desire is insufficient. This is because, to quote Webster again, being human is not about ‘an utterly original making of life and history.’ Rather ‘to be human is to live and act in conformity to the given truth (nature) of who I am.’[9] This given nature of who I am is good like everything else that God has made (Genesis 1:31) and true freedom is the ability to accept this given nature as God’s gift and live accordingly.

Central to what God has given us is bodies which have a particular sex (Genesis 1:26-27) [10] and which are designed by him for sexual intercourse with a member of the opposite sex in the context of marriage (Genesis 2:18-24).[11] The path of Christian virtue consequently lies in working to conform our desires to this key aspect of our embodiment rather than disregarding our embodiment for the sake of our desires.

In specific terms what this means is that we need to obey St. Paul’s injunction to ‘glorify God in your body (1 Corinthians 6:20) by accepting the sex of our bodies as our sex and restricting our sexual activity to the opposite sex marital end for which it was designed.

This is a hard calling for those who suffer from gender dysphoria or who are same-sex attracted, but it is not a calling that the Church is free to say that they can therefore disregard. This is because it is a particular form of a general calling to all Christians to die to self in order to live for God. It is the concrete meaning for them of Jesus’ declaration ‘If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me’ (Matthew 16:24).

Believing in the body and living it out.

In summary, the Christian faith tells us that we are embodied beings. We have no self outside the particular embodied self God has created us to be. On this basis our hope lies in the belief that, like Jesus, we shall be raised from the dead to live a new embodied life free from corruption, decay and death in God’s eternal kingdom. On this basis also our present calling is to live out our embodiment according to the sex of the bodies that God has given us and to engage in sexual activity only with a member of the opposite sex and in the context of marriage.

These are the truths by which, with God’s assistance, we are called to live in the midst of the theological and moral confusion of our day and these are the truths we are called to make known to those around us so that they may live by them too.

[1] David Ould, ‘New head of Anglican Centre in Rome is denier of Jesus’ resurrection,’ at https://davidould.net/new-head-of-anglican-centre-in-rome-is-denier-of-jesus-resurrection/.

[2] Anglican Communion News Service, ‘Interim Director of the Anglican Centre in Rome rebuffs “resurrection” Criticism,’ January 15, 2019, at: https://www.anglicannews.org/news/2019/01/interim-director-of-the- anglican-centre-in-rome-rebuffs-resurrection-criticism.aspx.

[3] For this see N T Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, London: SPCK, 2003.

[4] Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope, London: SPCK, 2007, p.167.

[5] An analogy would be the way in which the self-same body is in both continuity and difference the body of a baby, a child and an adult.

[6] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III.2, London and New York: T&T Clark, 2004, p.350.

[7] The contemporary emphasis on consent fits into this approach because it says that sex is something that both people involved should desire.

[8] John Webster, Holiness, London: SCM, 2003, p. 88.

[9] Ibid, p.88.

[10] The only exceptions are the tiny number of people (some 0.018% of live births) who due to a disorder in their sexual development are genuinely intersex in the sense that they have both male and female elements in their biology.

[11] When St. Paul says in Romans 1:26 that same-sex activity is ‘unnatural’ what he means is that it goes against the way that human bodies are designed. For this point see Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001, pp.254-270.

 

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One thought on “Believing in the body

  1. The trouble is that he has written it in such a way that, knowing some time it will be criticised for denying the bodily resurrection, he can claim that his words on the “spiritual resurrection” go beyond without denying. This is the lie we are faced with by the liberals today. I was writing to David Jenkins back in the 80’s pulling him up about his denial of the Resurrection and will continue to hold bishops to account for such denials. But now they go down a path that they will deny it but blur the language. They are all liars.

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