Gnosticism and the human body
In the early centuries of our era, the church had to contend with several heresies, most of which concerned the person of Christ and the Trinity. But there were other heresies afoot that touched on the nature of the human person, who, as scripture affirms, is created in God’s image. In the New Testament itself we see hints concerning the negative influence of Gnosticism, which may have been the heresy associated with the mysterious Nicolaitans referred to in Revelation 6:2, 14.
The Gnostics held that salvation is attained through a higher knowledge (gnosis in Greek) unavailable to most people. Borrowing from the philosopher Plato, they taught that redemption comes from nurturing the intellect and deprecating our corporeal existence. Because the mind was deemed superior to the body, captive as it is to the forces of decay and the messiness of ordinary existence, the Gnostics sought to free the mind from the prison of the body and managed to read this into Christian doctrine. The survival of an immortal soul after death replaced the biblical hope of bodily resurrection and a new heaven and new earth.
This Gnostic influence led in one of two possible directions: asceticism or antinomianism. While asceticism called for fleeing bodily pleasures, antinomianism took a different approach. If the body is of little importance compared to the soul, then, some reasoned, it matters not what we do with it. This led in some cases to drunkenness, gluttony and sexual promiscuity, against which the Apostle Paul wrote in his two letters to the church in Corinth.
The capstone to Paul’s theology of the body comes at the beginning of Romans 12: “I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (RSV).
What we do with our bodies matters to our life in Christ because we are created as corporeal beings firmly embedded in God’s good, though fallen, creation. This teaching is only partially foreign to the larger culture, which heavily emphasizes physical health and safety – sometimes to excess. Gone and unlamented are the days when we non-smokers had to endure the cigars and cigarettes of yore, whose acrid fumes wafted our way from the adjacent table at the local diner. But gone as well are the jungle gyms in our playgrounds, where children, at some slight risk to themselves, had to learn to climb with only blacktop beneath them. Such concerns seem to manifest a respect for the body and its integrity.
Ego vs. body
Yet all of this is wedded to a worldview which tells us that our bodies belong to ourselves and that we can do with them as we please. This is particularly obvious with respect to the abortion issue. “Keep your hands & laws off my body,” read one of the placards at last year’s women’s march on Washington, DC. But it also has relevance to sexual activity in general and even physician-assisted suicide, though few are willing to accept the inevitable logic that I should be allowed to sell myself into slavery.
Remarkably, the notion that I can do with my body as I please is predicated on the very Gnostic dualism that plagued the early church. The real “me” is a transcendent ego that “uses” its body for its own desired purposes. The opposition between the ego and the body, coupled with the belief in the supremacy of the ego, produces a society in which everyone is thought to have absolute ownership over this biological dwelling he or she just happens to inhabit.
By contrast, a biblical worldview affirms, in the words of the Heidelberg Catechism, that we are not our own but belong, in body and soul, in life and in death, to our faithful saviour Jesus Christ. Accordingly, we look forward to the day when we will be healed at last as whole persons in resurrected bodies.