This review appeared in the Jan-Mar 2013 vol. 170 no. 1 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.Subscribe Today
Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our FaithBethany House Publishers, Minneapolis June 11, 2011
One would think that after two thousand years of Christian teaching on the flesh believers would hold a high view of both the spirit and matter. Most understand that “spirit” is important, but still some hold that what they do with their bodies matters little. Those who slide fully into the error of thinking that matter and the body are unimportant for Christians are guilty of holding to the error of “Gnosticism,” a word that comes from the Greek word gnw'si" meaning “knowledge.” Generally speaking Gnosticism taught that salvation is achieved through special knowledge (gnw'si"). This knowledge usually related to the individual’s relationship to the transcendent God. Thus knowledge became supreme, whereas the body and issues related to it were thought of as earthly or unimportant.
Anderson tackles this old heresy afresh in this thought-provoking book. He is the editor of the popular blog “Mere Orthodoxy,” and he writes with the balance of a social media guru and an Oxford University graduate. He deftly avoids the unhealthy extremes so prevalent in contemporary society. One is that the body is to be avoided and or shamed, thinking that only “spirit” is critical. And the other extreme is that believers should focus on their bodies at all costs, eating and drinking whatever they desire, pleasuring themselves with no regard for moderation. Anderson provides a “golden mean” of the body when he writes, “This is the paradox of the body: The body is a temple, but the body is in ruins. The incarnation of Jesus affirms the body’s original goodness. The death of Jesus reminds us of its need for redemption. And the resurrection of Jesus gives us hope for its restoration” (p. 31).
Anderson does not shy away from the thorny, controversial issues the body raises. He tackles the subject of tattoos. (In North America one in five persons has a tattoo.) “My goal is not to offer an outright dismissal of them as a practice, but simply to raise the question of what tattoos mean in our own culture and whether we are taking our cues from Scripture or from the prevailing winds of fashion” (p. 119). Also he does not back away from the subject of homosexuality. “I am convinced that voluntary celibacy and heterosexual marriage are the two patterns of sexual expression that Scripture reveals” (p. 159). Also Anderson discusses the ultimate end of all earthly bodies: death. “The disintegration, the corruption, the instability that death works and that culminates in our departure from this world is not the deepest reality of the Christian life, even though suffering and pain are extraordinarily difficult to live with” (p. 180).
For all the relevant topics raised—suicide, sex, food, spiritual disciplines, pleasure, grace, and the world’s view of the body—this book is a reminder of what the apostle Paul wrote as he battled incipient Gnosticism in Corinth: “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us” (2 Cor. 4:7, NKJV).
—Paul E. Pettit