Resurrected Flesh  

Posted by Joe Rawls

The resurgence in popularity of  Gnostic writings over the past several decades is somewhat puzzling, given the Gnostic disparagement of matter and the rampant materialism of Western popular culture.  I suspect Gnosticism's interest  for contemporary people lies mainly in its  appeal to self-absorption and its thumbing of the nose at institutional religion.  The extreme contempt for the body, for sexuality, and for matter in general is conveniently overlooked by 21st-century enthusiasts, who may more accurately be described as practicing pop-Gnosticism or Gnostic-lite. Needless to say, there is no place for bodily resurrection in either ancient or modern Gnosticism.

A good explication of the contrasting Gnostic and orthodox Christian views of embodiment is found in Resurrection:  the power of God for Christians and Jews, by Kevin J Madigan and Jon D Levenson (Yale 2008), a study of how the notion of resurrection originated in Judaism and became a central tenet of both it and Christianity.  The excerpt below is found on pp 231-233.


Tertullian makes the important observation that most doubts about the resurrection begin with complaints about the flesh itself.  Of the Gnostics, he writes:  "Their great burden is...everywhere an invective against the flesh:  against its origins, its substance, against the casualties   and the invariable enf which await it; unclean from its first formation from the dregs of the ground, uncleaner afterwards from the mire of its own seminal transmission; worthless, weak, covered with guilt, laden with misery, full of trouble, and after all this record of its degradation dropping into its original earth and the appellation of a corpse and destined to dwindle away even from this loathsome name." 

Tertullian's response arises from the intuition that the flesh derives its dignity not from its intrinsic properties but from being the work of God.  It is God's molding and selection of the flesh that makes it worthy.  Thus it is both the dignity and the skill of the maker that give the flesh nobility and splendor.  So artistically is humankind created that it becomes impossible to distinguish flesh and spirit.  Drawing on Christological language about the relation of the divine and human in the incarnate Christ, Tertullian observes of humanity:  "so intimate is the union, that it may be deemed to be uncertain whether the flesh bears about the soul, or the soul the flesh; whether the flesh acts as servant to the soul or the soul to the flesh."  Besides, had not both testaments of the scriptures magnified the flesh?  Had not Isaiah declared, "all flesh, as one, shall behold [the Presence of the Lord]" (Isa 40:5).  Had not Paul called our bodies temples of the Lord, members of Christ? (1 Cor 6:19).  In their argument that the material creation cannot be redeemed, the Gnostics typically use Paul's point that "flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God" (1 Cor 15:50), as Irenaeus points out.  But Tertullian argues, it is not the substance of the flesh that Paul railed against, but its actions.  What is more, if flesh were not raised, would not death have preserved victory over that which God had created and hallowed?  Soul and body had acted coordinately in sinning and in doing good, and for justice to prevail, they must be judged together at the end of time, as both Jews (excepting the Sadducees, Tertullian  notes) and Christians believe.  At the end of time, the body will be changed; it will be incorruptible.  But it will be a fleshly body that will rise.  For Irenaeus the proof of this is in the raising of Jesus with the body that preserved the nail wounds, proof that we, too, would be raised in our bodies.

For orthodox writers like Tertullian and Irenaeus, it is the Gnostics and not the gospel of Jesus Christ that is negative regarding the body.  The Gnostic dismissal of the fleshly resurrection of the dead is but one symptom, though perhaps the most important one, of their inability to appreciate God's handiwork.

These second-century Christian writers are well aware that some of the scriptures, such as Colossians and parts of the letters of John, speak of the resurrection as a present reality, rather than an event of the end time.  These were particularly popular texts among the Gnostics.  But both Tertullian and Irenaeus use the same texts against the Gnostics in order to emphasize that there is a future, and bodily, dimension to resurrection.  Thus Tertullian quotes 1 John 3:2:  "Beloved, we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed."  He quotes other texts to the same effect.  John and Paul also speak of a future bodily resurrection.  Does not Paul say, "He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself" (Phil 3:21).  Although our flesh will undergo change, in other words, its substance will be preserved.  The notion that resurrection would be purely spiritual was wrongheaded and based on a misunderstanding of the scriptures, particularly Paul.  When Paul spoke of the human as a temple of the spirit, he was not referring to soul only but simply to the notion that it was an integral human being, body and soul, who became such a dwelling place for God.

Both Tertullian and Irenaeus go to some pains to argue against a view of salvation that is understood strictly in terms of the survival or salvation of the soul.  Again, the Gnostic message is in the background.  Both the Gnostics and the orthodox agreed that the soul would be "safe" after death, that is, that by virtue of its intrinsic immortality, it would survive and be saved.  What was at issue was whether that which was subject to decay and destruction--the flesh--would similarly be saved.  The Gnostics denied it would.  But the orthodox Christian view of God's creation, of human nature, and of justice could not allow for this partial understanding of salvation.  As the orthodox saw it, the texture of humanity was a seamless, invisible work of art, composed of flesh and soul--very much like the view of the rabbis we examined in the previous chapter.  God will reward the blessed, body and soul.  "How could we be blessed", Tertullian asks, "if any part of us were to perish?"  Only if the whole person, both elements of which were created by God, were raised could humanity be redeemed and justice achieved.  Also crucial, again, is the presumption of God's stupendous power.  As Irenaeus sums up the case, "For if He does not vivify what is mortal, and does not bring back the corruptible to incorruption, He is not a God of power."  Had the Gnostics not read Paul?  God would, in the end, clothe our perishable bodies in imperishability, our mortal bodies in immortality, and death would be swallowed up in victory (1 Cor 15:54).

Anglican Good Friday Meditations  

Posted by Joe Rawls

For Good Friday I offer two examples from Caroline divines representing the best of classical Anglicanism:  Lancelot Andrewes and Jeremy Taylor.  From a post on Catholicity and Covenant.


Lancelot Andrewes, Good Friday Sermon 1597

Inasmuch as His heart is pierced, and His side opened; the opening of the one, and the piercing of the other, is to the end somewhat may flow forth.  To which end, saith St Augustine, 'the Apostle was well advised when he used the word opening, for there issued out water and blood.  Mark it running out, and suffer it not to waste, but receive it.  Of the former, the water, the Prophet speaketh, that out of His pierced side God 'opened a fountain of water to the House of Israel for sin and for uncleanness of the fullness whereof we all have received in the Sacrament of Baptism.  Of the latter, the blood, which the Prophet calleth 'the blood of the New Testament', we may receive this day; for it will run in the high and holy mysteries of the Body and Blood of Christ.  There may we be partakers of flesh of the Morning Hart, as upon this day killed.  There may we be partakers of 'the cup of salvation', the precious blood, which was shed for the remission of sins.  And shall we always receive grace, even streams of grace issuing from Him that is pierced.

Jeremy Taylor, The Great Exemplar

And now behold the priest and sacrifice of all the world laid upon the altar of the cross, bleeding and tortured, and dying to reconcile His Father to us:  and was arrayed with ornaments more glorious than the robes of Aaron.  The crown of thorns was his mitre, the cross his pastoral staff, the nails piercing his hands were instead of rings, the ancient ornaments of priests and his flesh rased and chequered with blue and blood, instead of the parti-coloured robes.  This object calls for our devotion, our love and our eucharist to our dearest Lord. 

Celtic Penance  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Given the trendiness of "Celtic spirituality", one does not expect to hear the word "penitence" mentioned in conjunction with it.  On this St Patrick's day, which falls, as always,  during Lent, we can stand to delve into how the actual Celtic church dealt with sin and repentance.  There exist a number of "penitentials", manuscripts listing sins and recommended penances, which were written to advise priests and other spiritual masters in dealing with those needing to morally unburden themselves.  If one is only familiar with the sort of Celtic spirituality found in New Age bookstores, these penitentials are likely to come as a rude shock.  One such penance, for example, consisted in standing up to one's neck in the sea in the middle of the night while reciting Psalm 119 (the longest) in its entirety. 

But the Christian Celts were not merely obsessed with sin as a bad deed earning demerits.  Irish Roman Catholic priest Liam Tracey, OSM, deals with broader issues in an article appearing in Thinking Faith, the online journal of the British Jesuits. 


Perhaps one of the greatest contributions of the Irish Church to the Christian tradition is one that is usually ignored by most popular treatments of 'Celtic Spirituality'.  That is the contribution made to the Sacrament of Penance and its codification in the genre of literature called the Penitentials, sometimes seen just as lists of sins and their appropriate penances, but perhaps more to be understood as part of the pastoral care of the Church...In the fifth and sixth centuries, right across Western Christianity, the normal modes of celebrating the Sacrament of Penance had broken down.  The system of public penance that was normative for serious sinners, which was modelled on the system of the catechumenate and seen as a second baptism, was rarely practiced.  As this system was a once off, a singular second chance, many people delayed approaching the sacrament until the end of their lives.  The realm of God's forgiving love and mercy was lost in practice.  The Irish had their own particular way of dealing with this pastoral issue that brought them into conflict with other mainland Churches.  The Irish, drawing from their background in monasticism and the great monastic teacher John Cassian, saw sin not so much as a crime but rather as something that impedes the development of a full Christian life.  One's soul friend would enable one to root out such imperfection, very often by replacing a 'vice' with a 'virtue'.  A soul friend is not just a relationship of friendship, it is much more one of mentor and disciple.  Not unique to the Irish, it became one of the most distinguishing features of their practice of monasticism.  The goal of the Christian life is conversion, and to ever deepen one's conversion to Christ.  The role of the soul friend is to help the Christian to remove what may be a block on that road.  The penitentials began in this atmosphere and are an attempt to codify the teachings and insights of these spiritual guides.  Yes, it does lead to an increasing individualistic sense of sin that has little contact with a concrete community.  It moves penance into a more private setting but it does also see sin as less than a crime and more as a sickness that needs treatment and the intervention of a skilled person, the soul friend.  also important for the Irish practice is what seems to be an Irish tradition--that of reparation.  This is where the offense to a person or group is offset by the payment of a fine by the guilty party.  Each offense has a particular price and it is easy to see how this notion could make its way into an already existing monastic practice.  The clash between the Irish system of penance and the Continental ones may also be read as a clash between and older Roman world and a newer emerging North European one.