Category Archives: Earthen Vessels

Earthen Vessels in Evangelicalism

Here goes! An introduction to my engagement of Matthew Lee Anderson’s Earthen Bodies. You may find his own offerings on his own work at his blog Mere Orthodoxy. What appears here my blog is my own engagement with key ideas of Anderson’s book. And, there will be some ideas in his book I spend several blogs on, others which I ignore because they do not contribute to my purpose here in this blog.

With that caveat, I begin with Anderson’s introduction to his book, and I focus on an idea that lept out at me in his admittedly brief overview of evangelicalism, what I term the BEAPERs (Broadly Evangelical American Protestants). Here’s what Anderson wrote that I wish to comment on further. In a section with the heading “The Context for This Book,” Anderson writes:

The story of evangelicalism’s malaise is an easy one to tell, but there are some indications that the movement isn’t quite as unhealthy as we frequently hear. … The problem – and here I implicate myself – is that we writers, pastors, and thinkers often depend upon solving problems for our livelihood, and so we have a vested interest in pointing out what’s wrong and why our solution is right.

And evangelicals have, if nothing else, been very successful at harnessing energy into those solutions. The worldview and apologetics movement, the emerging church, the Gospel Coalition, Catalyst – these developments don’t arise in a vacuum. Their successes stem from a genuine desire to reorient evangelicalism around their respective understandings of the kingdom of God, but also point to a significant number of evangelicals who are open and eager for the message. These could be signs that evangelicalism has a rich store of energy waiting to be directed and not signs that evangelicalism’s day is past.

These two paragraphs are a flash from my past – 21 years in my past (as I write this), when Anderson was about to enter the second grade. I was embarking on a study/writing project that would produce two curricula – Five Aspects of Man and Five Aspects of Woman – designed to give an overview of the Bible’s understanding of the nature of masculinity and femininity. At the beginning of this project, I sought out John Hannah, one of my professors in Church history when I was in seminary, to ask him about who and when and where any fathers of the Church had written on such a topic, where any controversies about the intrinsic nature of manhood and womanhood had arisen. As a Church historian he would perforce know the history of Christian doctrine. I did not expect him to be an expert in this particular area, but I did expect him to point me to someone, hopefully a few, in the past who had turned up the Biblical soil.

After listening to me explain my project and the subject matter I wished to study, he rocked back in his office chair and his eyes began a slow journey around the top shelves of the bookcases in his office (it was wall-to-wall bookcases). Was he looking for a particular tome to recommend? He must have had some trouble finding it, for his eyes soon floated downward to fix themselves on me. He said nothing, but he pursed his lips. Finally, he said this:

Bill, we evangelicals are very skilled at telling people what is good to do. But we almost never tell people what is good to think.”

We stared at one another across his desk for a long moment. “There is no one you can recommend for me to read in this area?” I asked.

Among evangelicals? No. For that you will have to go to our Catholic friends.”

He politely wished me well. His allotment of time for me had run out. I thanked him and went on my way.

Obviously, I have never forgotten Dr. Hannah’s words that afternoon. And, for that reason, when reading Anderson’s two paragraphs above, Hannah’s two sentences flashed in my mind. For Anderson is saying in the introduction to his book what Dr. Hannah said to me 21 years ago, except Dr. Hannah was far more blunt. And Anderson agrees with what Dr. Hannah implied that evangelicals really need to do:

Evangelicals desperately need, then, an ordered account of how Scripture informs our understanding of the human body and its uses. But with few exceptions—like James K. A. Smith and Amos Yong—evangelical theology is still playing catch-up. As Westmont College theologian Telford Work recently pointed out in these pages, the theology of the body is one of evangelicalism’s least developed doctrines.

I fully agree with Anderson here, as did Dr. Hannah 21 years ago before Anderson said this in Christianity Today. I frame the need a tad differently, viz. to set forth an ordered account of what Scripture teaches us about human sexuality (including, obviously, the human body’s relationship to sexuality).

And, Dr. Hannah’s recommendation to me – to look to our Catholic friends – is advice which Anderson himself would follow 20 years later when compiling his own book. In an essay in Christianity Today in September of this year (2011), Anderson observed:

We need to develop an account of the body that avoids treating it as an instrument of personal pleasure bound only by a commandment not to harm others. Otherwise, we end up allowing hedonistic, self-centered attitudes to infiltrate our teaching and ultimately undermine our witness.

To develop such a theology, evangelicals should look deep into our own tradition, using the resources we have at hand. But we should not be afraid to consult other sources of Christian teaching. Probably the work that stands readiest for evangelical dialogue is John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, a compilation of weekly radio addresses the pope gave between 1979 and 1984. It has been influential within Roman Catholicism, but evangelicals have had virtually no engagement with it. Glenn Stanton of Focus on the Family has been something of a prophet crying out in the wilderness. From what I can tell, his 2011 pamphlet from Ascension Press—A Christian Response to the Sexual Revolution: An Evangelical Discovers the Theology of the Body—constitutes nearly the whole of printed evangelical reflection about this unjustly neglected topic.

By all means, let us consult Roman sources of Christian teaching on human sexuality – advice from my evangelical Protestant Church history professor 21 years ago! But, why should not evangelicals – who claim to honor the Bible as an inerrant and sufficient authority for teaching, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness – derive from the Scripture a comprehensive theology of sexuality? Anderson urges us first to look “deep into our own tradition;” but quickly he acknowledges that there seems very little to find there, something Dr. Hannah flatly admitted to me 21 years ago!

Even if one were to grant John Paul’s success in that enterprise (see the comments at Anderson’s essay at Christianity Today on this point), such teaching from a modern Pope, even one so popular as John Paul, is not going to percolate very well into the current BEAPER mind. Where the evangelical mind is not already hostile to any teaching from that quarter, it is never even aware of Roman instruction, looking with far more enthusiasm toward more fashionable instruction from the world.

Anderson at mereorthodoxy.comAnd, so, in Earthen Vessels Anderson sets out to begin a conversation about the human body. For a couple of decades now, I have attempted a conversation about manhood and womanhood, one that mostly attempts to articulate what it is good for us to think about men and women before one considers what is good for men and women to do.

To be sure, sex is something to do (or not, depending on the circumstance). But, sex is also something to be. The Bible says a lot about the latter, but almost no one within evangelicalism’s “writers, pastors, and thinkers” (Anderson’s catalog of evangelicalism’s academy) ever addresses this dimension of Holy Writ.

I commend Anderson for beginning that conversation again. I intend to respond to some (not all) of what he sets forth. God grant that a fruitful conversation will result.

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