The Primitive Church

A legend of great antiquity connects the foundation of the Church of England to Joseph of Arimathea. What little we know for certain about this figure comes from the canonical Gospels. Matthew described him as “a rich man” who was a disciple of Jesus Christ.1 Mark elaborated that he was an “honourable” member of the church council who “waited for the kingdom of God.”2 When Jesus was crucified it was Joseph who approached the Roman magistrate Pontius Pilate requesting “that he might take away the body of Jesus: and Pilate gave him leave.”3 Joseph “bought fine linen,” prepared the holy body for burial, “and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock.”4 According to Matthew it was the tomb that Joseph had prepared for himself.5 This is all that can be said with the authority of Scripture, but we can assume that he was among the disciples to whom Jesus appeared, when Jesus emerged from the tomb resurrected to life.

In the generation or two that followed the events of the New Testament, a wealth of biographical material and legend concerning Joseph was recorded. Extracanonical details appear in the writings of Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Tertullian and other Christian historians of the second and third centuries. Throughout the Middle Ages a folk memory persisted in England of Joseph having established a missionary church in Somerset or Cornwall on the southwest coast.

The Anglican clergyman Sabine Baring-Gould relates a very old Cornish story that, “Joseph of Arimathea came in a boat to Cornwall, and brought the child Jesus with him, and the latter taught him how to extract the tin and purge it of its wolfram.”6 The visionary poet William Blake made reference to this legend when he wrote, “And did those feet in ancient time, / Walk upon Englands mountains green: / And was the holy Lamb of God, / On Englands pleasant pastures seen!”7

Valuable metals have been mined in Cornwall for thousands of years. High demand for tin used in the manufacture of bronze led to the establishment of trade routes between Cornwall and Greece, Rome, and the Middle East in antiquity. Sources from the fifth and sixth centuries attribute Joseph’s wealth to the tin trade, identifying him either as a merchant or a “noble decurion” in charge of mining operations.8

But why would Jesus have been traveling with him? It is suggested by Lionel Smithett Lewis, who was vicar at Glastonbury in the early twentieth century, that Joseph of Arimathea was a member of the holy family. He cites “the Eastern tradition” that Joseph was the uncle of Mary and so the great-uncle of Jesus.This is pure speculation but it might explain why the body of Christ was given over to Joseph, and why Joseph performed the ritual preparations for burial, which were the duties of a family member.

In the Middle Ages it was considered a matter of historical record that Joseph of Arimathea returned to Britain as an apostle after the passion, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. William of Malmesbury, in his history De Antiquitate Glastonie Ecclesie, written around 1135, claimed that the apostle Philip “sent twelve of his disciples into Britain to teach the word of life. It is said that he appointed as their leader his very dear friend, Joseph of Arimathea, who had buried the Lord. They came to Britain in 63 AD”.10 As the title suggests, they established a church at Glastonbury in Somerset. It is believed by modern historians that the name of Joseph of Arimathea was interpolated by scribes who copied the manuscript several decades after it was written. But the description and date of the apostolic mission is original to William’s careful account. Moreover, the identification of Joseph is given context by the much earlier testimony of Maelgwyn of Llandaff, who wrote around 450 AD, that “Joseph of Arimathea, the noble decurion, entered his perpetual sleep with his XI companions in the Isle of Avalon.”11 Avalon is generally identified as Glastonbury Tor, which was formerly an island.

The English were sufficiently confident in the antiquity of their church that they asserted its seniority at multiple church councils in the fifteenth century. At Pisa in 1409, Constance in 1417, Siena in 1424, and Basel in 1434, the English delegations contended that, “the Churches of France and Spain must yield in points of antiquity and precedence to that of Britain as the latter Church was founded by Joseph of Arimathea immediately after the passion of Christ.”12

Is it true? Did Joseph of Arimathea convert the Britons? We do not know. It is a matter of legend, neither provable nor disprovable. But someoneconverted Britons to Christianity during the apostolic period. Before Patrick preached to the Celts in the fifth century, and long before the Church of Rome sent Augustine of Canterbury to Kent, at the turn of the seventh century, the Church of England was an autonomous ecclesiastical polity. Tertullian, who lived between 155 and 240 AD wrote, “the extremities of Spain, the various parts of Gaul, the regions of Britain which have never been penetrated by Roman arms have received the religion of Christ.”13 Eusebius, who lived between 260 and 340 AD, testified that, “The Apostles passed beyond the ocean to the isles called the Britannic Isles.”14 John Chrysostom, the great liturgist and Patriarch of Constantinople in the late fourth century, wrote that, “even the British Isles, which lie outside the boundaries of our world and our sea, in the midst of the ocean itself, have experienced the power of the Word, for even there churches and altars have been set up.”15

During the Reformation, English Protestants revived the history and legends of Primitive Christianity in Britain. As the Church of England purged itself of Medieval corruptions and innovations, the model of a pure and primitive church served as a symbol of the Anglican project.

Footnotes:

1. The Holy Bible: Authorized King James Version,Cameo Reference Bible. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010; Matthew 27:57. 
2. KJV, Mark 15:43.
4. KJV, Mark 15:46.
5. KJV, Matthew 27:60.
6. Sabine Baring-Gould, A Book of The West: Being An Introduction To Devon and Cornwall; A Book of Cornwall.London: Methuen Publishing, 1906; 57.
7. William Blake; David V. Erdman (ed.), The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, Newly Revised Edition. New York: Anchor Books, 1988; 95.
8. Lionel Smithett Lewis, St. Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury: Or, The Apostolic Church of Britain. (Pamphlet.) London: Covenant Publishing Company, 1927; 32.
9. Lionel Smithett Lewis, St. Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury: Or, The Apostolic Church of Britain. London: James Clark & Co, 1955; 52.
10. William of Malmesbury; John Scott (ed.), The Early History of Glastonbury: An Edition, Translation, and Study of William of Malmesbury’s De Antiquitate Glastonie Ecclesie. Rochester: Boydell Press, 1981.
11. Lewis, 1955; 18.
12. Lewis, 1927; 32.
13. Tertullian, Adversus Judaeos, ch. 7, v. 4, quoted in R.W. Morgan, St. Paul in Britain: Or, The Origin of British as Opposed to Papal Christianity. Oxford and London: James Parker and Co, 1880; 195.
14. Eusebius, De Demonstratione Evangelii, lib. iii, quoted in Morgan, 1880; 189.
15. William Richard Wood Stephens, Saint Chrysostom: His Life and Times: a Sketch of the Church and the Empire in the Fourth Century. London: John Murray, 1872; 129.

The First Christmas Card

In 1843 Henry Cole sent the first Christmas card. Cole was a British civil servant, later the founding director of the Victoria & Albert Museum. According to an article on the V&A website, he was “instrumental in reforming the British postal system, helping to set up the Uniform Penny Post which encouraged the sending of seasonal greetings on decorated letterheads and visiting cards.”

The same year that Dickens published A Christmas Carol, Cole commissioned a properly Pickwickian illustration by the artist John Callcott Horsley, which he reproduced on 1000 cards. These were “offered for sale at a shilling a piece, which was expensive at the time, and the venture was judged a commercial flop.” Though we now know it was ahead of its time.

Twenty-one copies of the card have survived. One of them is on display at the Charles Dickens Museum in London through April 2020 as part of the exhibition Beautiful Books: Dickens and the Business of Christmas.

The Revival of Old High Anglicanism

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An encouraging article in The Times this month reports a revival of traditional Anglican worship among younger churchgoers in Britain. “Twentysomethings are flocking to Anglo-Catholic services,” the headline reads. And indeed the London parish featured in the article, Great St Bart’s, is on the catholic side of the spectrum of Anglican churchmanship.

But digging deeper one finds that it is the patrimony of the Old High Church rather than the Oxford Movement that is resonating.

Reporter Tim Wyatt writes of parishioners he interviewed, “Several said they relished the connection to past generations of believers through reciting the Book of Common Prayer, which English Christians have been using since 1549. Others valued the beauty and history of the choral music and Shakespearean liturgy.” These are elements of formal worship from the English Reformation; they are unique treasures of Anglicanism.

One hopes that fact is not lost on the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, whose extraordinary nonchalance toward apostasy, in a recent interview at The Spectator, suggests an apathy toward the evangelical mission of the Church of England.

The Grave of William Blake Rediscovered

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Photo: Victoria Jones/PA

On August 12, 2018 a new memorial was unveiled at Bunhill Fields in London marking the grave of poet, artist, and printer William Blake (1757-1827). Previously a stone in the burial ground attested that Blake and his wife Catherine were interred “near by.” The unveiling of the new monument marks the 191st anniversary of Blake’s death and the culmination of fourteen years of work by Luis and Carol Garrido to identify the location of the grave.

The Guardian reports:

“When you see the stone that says ‘near by’, it’s so vague,” Luis Garrido said. “We wanted to know the exact spot.”

Finding it proved a bigger challenge than they imagined. Bunhill Fields was a cemetery popular with Dissenters, and when Blake died, largely unrecognised, in 1827, his was the fifth of eight coffins to be buried in the plot.

The graveyard had been arranged in a grid, and the co-ordinates were in the Bunhill Fields burial records, given as “77, east and west, 32, north and south”. But after bomb damage during the second world war, the Corporation of London decided to transform part of the site into gardens, leaving only two remaining gravestones, and moving Blake’s stone next to a memorial to an obelisk commemorating Daniel Defoe.

The burial records were not always precise, according to Carol Garrido, whose skills as a landscape architect were vital. “You could see the handwriting in the burial order book change,” she said. “We imagined someone who was a clerk in the office, writing what the foreman of the gravediggers told them.” By using the two existing graves to find a point of origin, after two years they had found the right place.

The crowd-funded monument was designed by Lida Cardozo and is inscribed with a passage from Blake’s poem Jerusalem: “I give you the end of a golden string / Only wind it into a ball / It will lead you in at Heavens gate / Built in Jerusalems wall.” A detailed account of how Luis and Carol Garrido located the grave can be read here.

See also: The Tomb of Coleridge Rediscovered.

Material Continuity

The resurrection of the body is an essential doctrine of Christian faith. I have written elsewhere that it should be emphasized more prominently in modern Christian formation and discourse. So I was happy to read the following treatment of the subject by an intelligent, thoughtful, and engaging theologian of my acquaintance. The Rev Canon Victor Lee Austin was formerly theologian-in-residence at my parish church in New York and now serves in that capacity for the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas. In a post to his online Diary last month, Austin addresses material continuity in relation to John 21.

It begins with Simon Peter saying he’s going fishing. Altogether, seven disciples are there in the boat. They spend a fruitless night fishing, then a word from (the unrecognized) Jesus results in a miraculously great haul of fish. On shore, they have a meal with Jesus, whom they now recognize. Along with the fish, the meal includes bread.

What’s going on here? I think we are being shown that, after the resurrection, life continues. To put it more precisely: we are shown that the life after resurrection is in continuity with the life before. Earlier, the disciples were fishermen. Earlier, they saw miraculous signs that Jesus did. Earlier, they had meals with Jesus, including a meal in which bread and fish were multiplied. This now, in John 21, is their old life continuing with their Lord who is, now, with them from the far side of death.

I used to think otherwise. I used to think that the resurrected body was a completely new thing, discontinuous from the body I now have. But along the way one of my teachers told me that Aquinas insists on material continuity. Aquinas says the resurrected body must be continuous with the mortal body I now have. Obviously my body will be changed, but it will also be the same.

Why is this important? Imagine a forged copy of a Rembrandt painting. In this forgery, the canvas is made to be the same as a canvas that Rembrandt might have used (for instance, if you performed carbon-14 dating on it, it would go back to the correct century). The paint would be the same as his, the brushstrokes would be perfect imitations, everything about it would say: this was made by Rembrandt. But in fact, it is a contemporary forgery done with such skill that it is indistinguishable from an original.

Why then would we call it a forgery? Because it lacks material continuity with Rembrandt. In fact, it is not a painting he did.

Similarly: if you or I are given new bodies that have no connection with the bodies we now have, there is a serious question about whether our identity has survived. If we believe that the body is an essential part of being human, then it matters that the resurrection body be in material continuity with our mortal body.

How do you know that the cat that comes out from behind the sofa is the same cat as the one who you saw go behind the sofa a minute ago? You know it because it’s the same body.

The 21st chapter of John, it seems to me, wants to show us what material continuity means: that each of us will have a personal story with connections and continuities from our life now to our life in the resurrection. If we are fisherfolk now, for instance, that will be part of our identity then.

In the resurrection, nothing that is real will be lost.

The Protestant Mysticism of Caspar David Friedrich

From Caspar David Friedrich and the Subject of Landscape by Joseph Leo Koerner:

A devoutly Protestant painter, Friedrich was a distant heir to the iconoclasts of the Reformation…His endeavor to void his canvas of all subjects except one—the believer or Christian subject vis-à-vis the hidden object of belief—obeys this pious imperative to negate. Friedrich’s Protestantism is more confessionally specific than this, however. His effort to create landscape painting as a new kind of religious icon, one resolutely in and of the secular world yet reaching beyond, transcendently, derives from the specifically Lutheran settlement on images. Although Luther repudiated church pictures as instruments of salvation, he condemned—more vehemently—violent iconoclasts, observing that their fanatic war against images made them the idolaters.

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Cross and Cathedral in the Mountains, 1812

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Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1818

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Two Men Contemplating the Moon, 1825-30

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Walk at Dusk (Man Contemplating a Megalith), 1830-35

Lord Tennyson in Camelot

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Alfred Tennyson with book, by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1865

Alfred, Lord Tennyson spent most of his career as a poet in the realm of Arthurian legend. It was not by any means his only subject, but it was one to which he returned again and again. His definitive treatment of the rise and fall of Camelot, the book-length cycle, Idylls of the King, was written over a quarter of a century between 1859 and 1885. But much earlier, at the outset of his career, Tennyson identified the unrealized potential in this iconic British mythology, writing that, “most of the big things except ‘King Arthur’ had been done.”

Previous generations of Romantic poets had consciously rejected the subject. “As to Arthur…What have we to do with him,” asked Coleridge. Lord Byron was likewise disinterested. “By the by,” he wrote, “I fear that Sir Tristem and Sir Lancelot were no better than they should be…So much for chivalry. Burke need not have regretted that its days are over.” Yet Tennyson dared to assert the relevancy of the Arthurian tradition to the modern world, and in so doing, achieved not only a masterpiece, but a renewal of the Victorian imagination.

Tennyson first read Sir Thomas Malory’s fifteenth-century prose epic, Le Morte d’Arthur, in his youth. “The vision of Arthur as I have drawn him,” he later told his son, “came upon me when, little more than a boy, I first lighted upon Malory.” Tennyson understood the character as “a man who spent himself in the cause of honour, duty and self-sacrifice, who felt and aspired with his nobler knights, though with a stronger and clearer conscience than any of them.”

It was not immediately clear to Tennyson how to approach the subject. In the 1830s he wrote four different poems that dealt with Arthur and Camelot in various ways. He also experimented with treatments and arrangements of the material in four outlines written during the same period.

The outlines were composed in the early 1830s, probably around 1833. The first describes the landscape of Camelot in prose, focusing on the mountain where Arthur’s hall was built: “The Mount was the most beautiful in the world…but all underneath it was hollow, and the mountain trembled…and there ran a prophecy that the mountain and the city on some wild morning would topple into the abyss and be no more.” The second outline records the symbolism that the young Tennyson attributed to various characters: the two Guineveres represent primitive Christianity versus Roman Catholicism; Mordred, the skeptical understanding; Merlin, science; the Round Table, liberal institutions; Excalibar, war. Another outline arranges the cast of characters based on their relationships to one another. The last is a proposed sequence for a five-act narrative connecting the legends. While none of these early sketches exactly predicted the form that Tennyson’s mature work would take, they give a sense of the systematic approach he used to arrive at it.

The most famous of the poems from this period was The Lady of Shalott. It was based on a medieval Italian novelette from the thirteenth century collection, Cento Novelle Antiche. Tennyson was, at the time, unfamiliar with Malory’s version of the tale and later said, “I doubt whether I should ever have put it in that shape if I had been then aware of the Maid of Astolat in Mori Arthur.” The subtext in Tennyson’s rendering is the movement of the artist from isolation and imitation of the world into experience of the world—in Tennyson’s words, “out of the region of shadows into that of realities.” To develop this theme, Tennyson modified the story substantially. Several important elements, like the Lady’s mirror, are his invention, not present in the original source.

The other three poems were Sir Launcelot and Queen GuinevereSir Galahad, and the Morte d’Arthur. In all of them Tennyson pays close attention to imagery, often expanding upon depictions in Malory’s narrative for heightened emphasis. For example, he turns Malory’s fairly straightforward image of Excalibur as a sword decorated with precious stones into a sword that “twinkled with diamond studs, / Myriads of topaz-lights, and jacinth-work / Of subtlest jewellery.” But he also drew out and expanded the interior life of the characters. The dramatic last words that Tennyson gives to Arthur, while of his own invention, add to Malory rather than contradicting him. The emphasis of Arthur’s speech in the Morte d’Arthur is on prayer; Arthur says, “More things are wrought by prayer / Than this world dreams of.” The entire speech reflects Tennyson’s skill at weaving his own moral vision into a poem that remains relatively faithful to the source material.

By the 1840s Tennyson had found in King Arthur a figure who could represent idealism and faith for Victorian society. His early experimentations would bear fruit in the Idylls of the King. In that work Tennyson navigated the knife’s edge between the heroic and tragic, achieving something sublime. In the end Arthur slays the traitor Mordred in battle but is left “all but slain himself,” his kingdom fallen. As in Malory, he is last seen taken by boat toward the mythical island of Avalon, “Somewhere far off, pass[ing] on and on, and go[ing] / From less to less and vanish[ing] into light.” To cite Tennyson’s own early symbolism: faith and virtue overcome materialism and doubt, but not without a cost. And indeed, the Victorian faith—Tennyson’s own faith—was even then retreating into mystery and mysticism. But this was not a final retreat. Arthur is an inherently Christlike figure, destined to “come again / To rule once more.” The Idylls end with another beginning: “And the new sun rose bringing the new year.”

Writing about the Victorian period at the turn of the millennium, philosopher John Michell recalled,

In my childhood some sixty years ago the code of behaviour one was supposed to live by was properly called Victorian. One source of that code was the Bible, and another was the romance of King Arthur. Putting them together, the Victorians conceived an ideal type of modern human being, the fair, kind, and honourable Christian gentleman.

Tennyson is in part to thank for that wonderful ideal.

The Resurrection of the Body

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During the Babylonian captivity, when the Kingdom of Judah was destroyed, and its nobility sent into exile throughout the empire, God vouchsafed to the prophet Ezekiel certain visions of Israel restored. Judah was the last of the old Kingdom of Israel. The northern tribes had rebelled against the royal line of King David and raised their own kings. These tribes had fallen to Assyria more than a century earlier and had been driven from the Holy Land. Now the Kingdom of Judah was lost as well. In this time of grief, God made a promise to Ezekiel. It was a promise to restore Israel, but it contained another, greater promise, that would be fulfilled through Jesus Christ: a promise to bring the dead back to life.

Ezekiel said, “The hand of the Lord came upon me and brought me out in the Spirit of the Lord, and set me down in the midst of the valley; and it was full of bones. Then He caused me to pass by them all around, and behold, there were very many in the open valley; and indeed they were very dry.”

God asked, “Son of man, can these bones live?”

Ezekiel answered, “O Lord God, You know.”

God then commanded, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them, ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Surely I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live. I will put sinews on you and bring flesh upon you, cover you with skin and put breath in you; and you shall live. Then you shall know that I am the Lord.’”

As He did for those bones, God would do for the Kingdom of Judah, and as He did for those bones, God will do for you and me.

One of the essential doctrines of the Christian faith is the general Resurrection of the Dead. The Christian hope is not for a disembodied “afterlife” but for life restored. We do not believe, with the Ancient Greeks, that the soul lives on only as a shade in the Underworld. We do not believe, with the Eastern religions, in reincarnation: that the soul takes different bodies over many lifetimes. We believe that a day will come when the earth is made new again, and the tombs are broken open, and the dead are raised up to real, physical life by God. This belief is inextricably connected to our belief in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In Christ, God was born a man, died nailed to the cross as a man, and was raised again to eternal life in the flesh as a man. By his conquest of death Christ made it possible that mortal men and women will return from their own deaths to life.

The doctrine of the Resurrection of the Dead has been affirmed by the Church, in all of its denominations, from apostolic times to the present. In the Gospel of Matthew, Christ uses the phrase, ἀναστάσεως τῶν νεκρῶν to describe the afterlife: the “raising up”—literally the “standing up again”—of the dead. The general resurrection is among the wonders, terrors, and glories of the end times, foretold by Saint John in the Book of Revelation. “For the trumpet will sound,” Saint Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians, “and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.” Paul emphasized the indispensability of this doctrine, writing to the Corinthians, “if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.”

The Church Fathers were adamant on this subject. Justin Martyr wrote, “Indeed, God calls even the body to resurrection and promises it everlasting life. When he promises to save the man, he thereby makes his promise to the flesh.” Theophilus of Antioch taught that, “God will raise up your flesh immortal with your soul.” Irenaeus proclaimed, “the raising up again of all flesh of all humanity.”

Tertullian and Augustine elaborated on what resurrection would entail. Tertullian wrote, “Therefore, the flesh shall rise again: certainly of every man, certainly the same flesh, and certainly in its entirety. Wherever it is, it is in safekeeping with God through that most faithful agent between God and man, Jesus Christ, who shall reconcile both God to man and man to God, the spirit to the flesh and the flesh to the spirit.” No matter how long the body has laid in the ground, or what is left of it, Augustine affirmed that “the omnipotence of the Creator” is able, “for the raising of our bodies and for the restoring of them to life, to recall all parts, which were consumed by beasts or by fire, or which disintegrated into dust or ashes, or were melted away into a fluid, or were evaporated away in vapors.”

The Church Fathers spoke with absolute clarity and literalness on this doctrine because it was a point of distinction from other religions in Late Antiquity. The Ancient Greeks had a traditional belief in bodily resurrection, attributing physical immortality to their great heroes. By the Classical period, however, this belief had been undermined by the philosophers. Likewise, the Israelites had become ambivalent about the doctrine of resurrection by the time of the coming of Christ.

For this reason the Church Fathers reiterated, again and again, in the creeds and in their personal writings, the doctrine of resurrection. They emphasized that resurrection was a literal physical process; it was not a metaphor or a mystery. As the Anglican theologian N.T. Wright explains in his excellent commentary, Revelation for Everyone: “Resurrection, in the first-century world, emphatically meant the undoing of death, not its reinterpretation. It meant that the processes of bodily corruption and decay were reversed, producing a new ‘physical’ body with ‘immortal’ properties.” In other words, the resurrected person would be the same person who died, made of the same genetic material, transformed, perfected, but not less or other than he or she was.

Today there is widespread ignorance about this core doctrine of Christianity. In 2006 the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University asked 1,007 American adults the following question: “Do you believe that, after you die, your physical body will be resurrected someday?” In a country that overwhelmingly professes the Christian faith, 54 percent answered “no.” Only 44 percent of Protestants and 38 percent of Roman Catholics answered “yes.” Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, attributed these findings to “the very low state of doctrinal preaching in our churches.” Commenting in the Scripps report, he wrote,

I continually am confronted by Christians, even active members of major churches, who have never heard this taught in their local congregations…We have a lowest-common-denominator Christianity being taught in so many denominations that has produced a people who simply do not know some of the most basic Christian truths…Most Americans, when asked survey questions about religion, tend to answer in very theistic ways. They tend to affirm what they believe Christianity teaches…Therefore, I have to conclude they simply do not know what orthodox Christianity teaches about the resurrection of the body.

Opinion surveys should be read with skepticism. One thousand random people simply do not speak for hundreds of millions. On the other hand these findings are entirely plausible. If one knew nothing about Christian eschatology, what would one learn about it from casual contact with modern American churches? One might come away with a general impression of the afterlife involving the survival of the soul in a disembodied state forever. Many well-meaning people seem to believe this. But it is not a Christian belief.

Clearly, as Mohler judged, there has been a failure of the churches to properly catechize. The general confusion about the nature of the life to come reflects a corresponding confusion about the nature of the human person. According to Christianity neither the soul nor the body alone is the person, only together. On this point, Christians have always agreed with Aristotle, who wrote, “If one regards a living substance as a composite of matter and form, then the soul is the form of a natural organic body.” The purpose and destiny of the soul is to impose upon matter the specific form of an individual human person.

When we speak of the survival of the soul we are speaking of the preservation of the soul from death. The soul is preserved by God not as an end unto itself. The unique “form” of a man is preserved so that it can reconstitute the whole: the living, physical man—body and soul. Incidentally, this is why reincarnation is impossible: the soul can regenerate the same form but it cannot generate different forms or different persons.

It reveals something about the state of Christianity in the modern world that such a key tenet could be marginalized. We live today in the shadow of the Enlightenment of the eighteenth-century, when philosophers proposed that, by reason alone, man could understand the universe and conquer nature. This belief was predicated upon the expectation that all things could be observed, examined, tested, measured, and manipulated; pushing to the margins anything that could not be. The intellectual prejudices of the Enlightenment created a sort of counter-religion or anti-religion that challenged Christianity and replaced our faith as the ruling paradigm of Western Civilization. After three centuries much of Christendom seems demoralized by the ongoing confrontation with this ideology. In many cases, Christian apologists have responded to the challenge in ways that inadvertently subvert orthodoxy. They have attempted to compromise, to rationalize Christianity, to subject it to the judgment of science or psychology, or else to put it outside the reach of critics by completely spiritualizing it. But none of this will do. Christianity requires us to believe things that are incompatible with the weltanschauung of the age. God intervenes in the world. The sacred and miraculous coexist with the mundane and the material. The dead will live again and dwell with Christ forever in a world made new.

I was drilled on the doctrine of bodily resurrection by the Anglican churchmen who taught me the faith and I consider myself blessed for having been. It is an article of faith that I cherish. I can think of no other doctrine that so urgently needs to be preached in our churches. Ignorance of it leaves a hole in the Christian’s faith. It is the key to a right understanding of so many other essential Christian concepts: the incarnation, the passion, and the resurrection of Christ; the nature of man; and God’s ultimate plan for His creation.

Recommended Reading:

Wright, N.T. (2011) Revelation for Everyone. Louisville [KY]: Westminster John Knox Press.

David Suchet at St Paul’s

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This past March I was privileged to attend a reading by David Suchet of the the Gospel According to Mark at St Paul’s Cathedral in London. Suchet is one of my favorite actors. I have seen him several times on stage, on both sides of the Atlantic: as Salieri in Amadeus on Broadway and in Long Day’s Journey Into Night on the West End. For this occasion the audience had come to see him not only as a performer but as a witness to Christ, which he has been, humbly yet forcefully, for many years. A convert to the Church of England, Suchet speaks often about his faith, and uses his talent in the service of evangelism. He has recorded an eighty-hour audiobook of the NIV translation of the Bible, presented television documentaries on the Apostles Peter and Paul, and serves as a Vice-President of the Bible Society.

His reading of Mark’s Gospel was riveting. He drew out the urgency and immediacy of what may be the earliest of the four canonical gospels, written in the immediate aftermath of the events described. Afterward, I introduced myself to Suchet to thank him. As we spoke briefly he was hugged and congratulated by members of his own parish church who had come to support him, which I think gives a good impression of both the man and the wonderful mood of the evening.

All of this is a long way of coming to the point that St Paul’s has now put a recording of the event on YouTube. I highly recommend that you watch it.