Gnosticism was one of the earliest and worst of the heresies that threatened the early Church. One of the characteristics
of Gnosticism was a rejection of the physical side of reality. The Gnostics developed a theology that made it the goal of
spiritual life to escape from the physical and ascend to the purely spiritual realm. They even decided that the Creator of
the Hebrew Scriptures was actually an evil demon, and the creation itself was also something bad to be transcended. Accordingly,
they had nothing but disdain for bodies or the Earth or anything representing the physical dimension.
Orthodox Christianity, on the other hand, took the opposite view. They affirmed the goodness of creation and the physical
side of existence. Not only did they insist on keeping the Hebrew Scriptures’ account of creation by the same God who
is the Father of Jesus Christ, they saw the goodness of creation ratified in the incarnation. In Jesus Christ, God is not
a rarefied spiritual entity; God becomes "flesh to dwell among us." God is blessing the physical by literally inhabiting it
in Christ. Not only is the physical not evil, it is profoundly good, permeated with God’s blessing and Presence. Finally,
orthodox Christianity affirms the resurrection of the body. In the Apostles’ Creed this refers not only to Christ’s
body, but to all our bodies. We affirm the mystery that at the end there will be a final resurrection when our souls and
bodies will be reunited and judged. This doctrine is of a piece with the good creation and the incarnation; they all flow
together in Christianity’s assertion that physical reality is good and blessed.
The early Church placed a deep value on the physicality of God in Christ, and on the way God’s Spirit dwells in the
creation and in the people. The places where God’s activity intersected with our time-space world were considered holy
and revered. Christians have always held up the actual places in the Holy Land where Christ walked and taught, the most important
being the sites of the crucifixion and resurrection. These places have attracted pilgrims since the beginnings of the Church.
The early Church also took special care over the mortal remains of the saints and used the theology of creation’s goodness
to underwrite doctrines in which sacred pictures called icons could be vehicles of grace, at some level.
Over time, in the Roman Church in the medieval era, some of these doctrines were twisted in superstitious ways. The Church
degenerated to where it allowed bizarre and grotesque practices involving relics — artifacts and even body parts from
the saints and events in the Bible. These purported holy objects became valuable in worldly ways, which encouraged many counterfeits
and abuses. By the 16th century the marketing and proliferation of relics was a corrupt embarrassment to the faith.
Enter the Reformers, who recognized this sad situation and set out to remedy it. Wherever the Reformation took root, the
obscene trafficking in relics was suppressed, as well it should have been. The Reformers sought to return to practices and
doctrines which had a basis in the Bible and in the faith of the apostles. Scripture commands us nowhere to worship objects
relating even to Jesus, let alone the saints.
Christian doctrine and theology, though, is always a delicate balance. It is ever easy to veer to the right or the left,
and fall away from the narrow path. Just as the Roman Church allowed the doctrine of the good creation and incarnation to
degenerate into an idolatry of relics, it is easy for the Protestant churches to err on the other side. In attacking excesses
like relic-worship, we too easily fall into doctrines and practices that at least start implying a fall into a kind of Gnosticism
where the physical is devalued.
Gnosticism retains its lure over us because it paradoxically has many material benefits. If the creation, the body, and
the physical world are thought of as unimportant or even evil, we more readily allow ourselves to neglect or abuse them in
pursuit of our own agendas. The systematic assault by the modern world on nature is grounded in a latent Gnosticism. Spiritualities
that do deliberate harm to the body, assault women, fear death, destroy holy places, and elevate mental activity above everything
else, are informed by a Gnostic, anti-Christian, sensibility.
The Church, including the Reformed churches, has always made sure that, while we do not fall into superstition and idolatry
by worshiping any objects in the world, we still recognize that the creation is good, our bodies are temples, and the physical-temporal
dimension of reality is blessed. Therefore, we care for and respect, cherish and sanctify, the world and individual things
in it. This is especially true for objects through which we have experienced something of God’s grace.
A family Bible. An old communion set. A cross worn by a beloved relative. An ancient hymnal. Stained glass from an ancestral
church. My father’s liturgical stoles. A picture of Jesus that hung in your room as a child. We Presbyterians would
never worship such relics. But we do cherish them and protect them. They represent for us a kind of continuation of the incarnation.
They help us remember and connect with times and places when God’s grace was communicated to us and to others.
In the same way, we would never worship the mortal remains of a loved one, even someone saintly. But neither do we carelessly
throw a body away as if it were merely an insignificant and anonymous shell, a disposable wrapper. The funeral rites in the
Reformed tradition have always, to this day, understood that it is normal and beneficial for a person’s body to be a
present, though not visible, part of worship in the place where the community normally gathers. We recognize the body, cherish
it, care for it, and even pray over it, as we respectfully escort it to the place where it will rest until the resurrection,
be it buried in the ground or reduced to ashes.
To frown on or discourage this practice is to stumble towards a Gnostic suspicion of all things physical, which at least
implies a weakness in our theology of creation and incarnation. It may lead to the false conclusion that we are not identical
with our bodies, but that we are really unphysical spirits imprisoned for a time in flesh. Yet how do we make it a central
confession of our faith that Christ became flesh, and then say at the same time that we are not flesh ourselves? Are we somehow
claiming to be more spiritual than he?
No. And there are enough precautions in our tradition and practice to prevent our falling in the opposite direction and
turning dead bodies into objects of worship.
I would not bother writing about this were it not for the importance of the theological issues at stake. Superstition is
foolish and damaging to the spirit; but Gnosticism is a soul-killing cancer that has done immense damage to the Earth and
to people, especially in its virulent modern forms. The goodness of creation, the incarnation of God in Christ, the resurrection
of the body... these are essential parts of the faith leading us to value our own bodies and live responsibly in God’s