Posted by: mattcolvin | June 21, 2019

Trinity Lecture Series 2019, 2

Here are my notes for the second, shorter lecture, focused mainly on consequences of the first lecture for the Church in its use of the sacraments and its expectation for the life to come. An audio recording of both talks can be found here (via SoundCloud).


Above: detail from Rembrandt, Return of the Prodigal Son, 1665

In our first talk, we saw that the Bible considers the body as the seat of personhood. I now want to consider what this means for the Church in its rituals and life.

Alastair Roberts has written a delightful book in which he points out that the body is the unchosen site of our agency and consciousness. He says:

My body defies the distinction between subject and object: it is both the site of my interiority and subjectivity, yet also an object that exists in continuity with the world and as a part of nature that others can act upon. My body is the site of my consciousness, my sense of self, and my action, but before these come into being, my body receives meaning and identity from other sources. My ‘self’ is never simply my subjectivity: it is also my bodily objectivity and in this objectivity my body is the bearer of ‘given’ meanings that precede me, my subjectivity, my choices, and my actions. (Baptism and the Body)

It is as a body that we encounter the world. I recall that my older daughter, who is now 15, and she’s not here, so I can talk about her, was born covered in slimy white vernix, so that the midwife had to take a washcloth and scrub her face with it so that she would be able to breath without congestion. The result was that well after age 5, Naomi had a complicated relationship with washcloths and with anyone approaching her to scrub her face. My other daughter, who is here tonight, fell down a small flight of four stairs when she was learning to walk. It took her a little longer than most people to feel comfortable on escalators.

Our knowledge of the world is embodied knowing: as Jamie Smith points out, we experience stairs as fitting and adapted to our bodies; likewise, we learn to pick up a mug by discovering that the handle is fitted to our hands. This interface between our embodied selves and the outside world sometimes comes painfully to the fore: think of Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes, learning to ride his bike.

Before and alongside this embodied knowledge of the world is our knowing of our own bodies – what philosophers call “proprioception”, Latin for perception of what is one’s own, or what belongs to be self. Babies develop this: we see them staring at their own hands with apparent wonder; we put mittens on newborns to prevent them from scratching their own eyeballs with their fingernails, because their hands are not fully under their control yet; they bop themselves; they put their feet in their mouths. But before too long, they have figured out what is themselves and what is the outside world.

This sort of knowing is formative. It makes us who we are. And it can be disrupted if things go wrong: Bessel Van Der Kolk speaks of how survivors of sexual abuse or incest will disassociate from their own bodies: they may remember the abuse as though from a perspective above, looking down on their bodies from outside themselves. Some trauma survivors find themselves unable to feel their own limbs; they may have trouble assuming yoga poses that involve parts of their bodies that were abused. Above all, their ability to relate to others via their bodies is impaired: abuse survivors may be unable to engage in sexual relations with a spouse without triggering unwanted responses from their own bodies; they may have great difficulty being in public or around other people; they may feel exposed and vulnerable. As Van Der Kolk puts it in his title, The Body Keeps the Score. The church must show the love of Christ to the traumatized, and it must do so by bodily means; it is not enough to just talk about Jesus.

At the same time, the body is a powerful way that we experience healing and love. The Canadian Catholic Jean Vanier narrates one instance:

I met Eric for the first time in 1977. He was in the children’s ward of the local psychiatric hospital, 40 kilometres from the l’Arche community in Trosly, France. He was blind and deaf, as well as severely intellectually disabled; he could neither walk nor eat by himself. He came to l’Arche at the age of sixteen, full of tremendous needs, anguish, and fears. He often sat on the ground and whenever he felt someone close by, would stretch out his arms and try to clutch that person and to climb up on them. Once he had succeeded in getting someone to hold him, his actions would become wild: he would lose control, struggling to be held and, at the same time, jumping up and down. Holding Eric under these conditions became intolerable for anyone and, inevitably, it ended in a struggle, trying to get rid of him as he fought to remain held. He was someone who seemed to be living in immense anguish.

What stands out in this instance is that because other sorts of knowing were pretty much impossible – verbal, abstract, cognitive, rational, all out of the question – all that was left was knowing by the body, by being held.

A similar thing happened with Helen Keller, who was also deaf and blind. Van Der Kolk tells the story of how her teacher Anne Sullivan established relationship with Helen by her body:

Anne began immediately to teach Helen the manual alphabet, spelling words into her hand letter by letter, but it took ten weeks of trying to connect with this wild child before the breakthrough occurred. It came as Anne spelled the word “water” into one of Helen’s hands while she held the other under the water pump.

Helen later recalled that moment in The Story of My Life: “Water! That word startled my soul, and it awoke, full of the spirit of the morning. . . . Until that day my mind had been like a darkened chamber, waiting for words to enter and light the lamp, which is thought. I learned a great many words that day.

The result is that Helen now can experience and know the world, because Anne persisted in addressing her body. Ten weeks of trying to connect! A body at peace is a body in relationship to others, and a body able to relate to and know the world.

We see in the Bible that Jesus addresses himself to the bodies of those whom he heals. There is the blind man in John 9 for whom “Having said these things, he spit on the ground and made mud with the saliva. Then he anointed the man’s eyes with the mud.” (John 9:6). Then is there is the man in Mark 7:32-35

And they brought to him a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment, and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33 And taking him aside from the crowd privately, he put his fingers into his ears, and after spitting touched his tongue. 34 And looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35 And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.

There are some people who, like Naaman the Syrian with Elisha, are bothered by the physicality of these things, this spit, this mud, these fingers in ears. They wish that Jesus would just wave his hand and say the magic words and heal people. But he addresses himself to their bodies.

In another passage, Mark 5, Jesus heals without even trying:

She had heard the reports about Jesus and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his garment. 28 For she said, “If I touch even his garments, I will be made well.” 29 And immediately the flow of blood dried up, and she knew in her body that she was healed of her disease.

The Greek says ἔγνω τῷ σώματι, “she knew in her body.” Not just with her head.

Accordingly, the Christian faith addresses itself not only to our minds, but to our bodies. We saw in our previous lecture that the body is given by God; He makes it and forms it; Alastair Roberts points out that because of this, the body is…

simultaneously precondition for, yet also resistance to, the freedom of my subjectivity and action. The body constantly alerts us to the givenness of the self, to the fact that I am neither autonomous nor self-defined, but that I receive my identity in large measure from without. My freedom to ‘speak’ my own self necessarily presupposes that self has always already been ‘spoken’. I must always express myself from the unchosen site of identity and meaning represented by my body.

It is for this reason that the sacraments are applied to the body. If Christianity were just an ideology, like Marxism or Objectivism or Progressivism, then it might be adequate to just persuade people of it verbally, just get them to accept some ideas. But God wants you, not just your assent to some propositions. Therefore, He addresses His promises, by the hand of his ministers, to your bodies.

We can see here that Baptist theology is making a terrible mistake when it makes baptism primarily something that results from an individual’s conscious agency and choice. Says Roberts:

Insistence upon the reality of original sin is, in part, insistence that alienation from God is an aspect of our givenness in a fallen world, not merely a result of our subjectively chosen action. The waters of baptism run deeper than action, deeper than choice, and even deeper than consciousness and subjectivity. They declare a new givenness, that my body is now defined by its relation to Jesus Christ and his body.

So there is one givenness in our natural birth descended from Adam, and it must be replaced with a new givenness that is found in Christ, and applied to our bodies by baptism. This is why a Baptistic understanding of baptism is mistaken: “When we speak of baptism as expressive of the candidate’s ‘decision’, we either implicitly resist the givenness of our selves, or we fail to address God’s salvation to the most basic dimension of our humanity.”

One of the most important aspects of our bodily givenness is the sexual aspect of our being, that our bodies themselves are made for union with the opposite sex; that there is a sense in which men are made for women and women for men; there is a natural function and rightness to the union of the two, and a fruitfulness that is wholly in accord with our bodies’ givenness and functions.

This is the central issue in the conflict between Christianity and the LGBT movement: are our bodies our own, so that all sexual acts and orientations must be celebrated as the crowning expressions of individual freedom and self-determination? Are we indeed at liberty to construct our own identity? Or has God, by knitting us together and moulding all the parts of our bodies, given us an identity that we must live in terms of? As the apostle Paul puts it in 1 Cor 6:18, “Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body.” — against the given meaning of his body, and the cosmic truth of Christ’s relation to the Church that is inscribed in our bodies, and which Pope John Paul II speaks of as “the spousal meaning of the body.”

Because of this givenness of the body, and the fact that baptism is addressed to this givenness, it is especially disturbing on a moral and theological level that the Church of England recently approved the use of baptismal liturgies to celebrate gender transition. Baptism is the rite by which God makes us into new creatures, sealing our bodies with a promise that they will be resurrected. “Gender transition” is an attempt by human beings to make themselves into new creatures, rejecting their sexed bodies that God created, rejecting the ways that God and their bodies themselves tell them they must relate to others. Using baptismal liturgy to celebrate gender transition is blasphemous.

A proper understanding of the body shapes the church’s use of the other sacrament as well. As you know, our church practices paedocommunion. We do so not only because we believe that baptized children are members of Christ, but because the Supper is a way for infants to “know in their bodies” that Jesus loves them and that they are “very members incorporate in the mystical body of God’s Son, which is the blessed company of all faithful people.” This is the apostolic practice; it is attested by Cyprian in 250 AD, just in passing, with no hint that the communion of infants was unusual. To those who object that “The infant doesn’t know what the Supper is about”, we reply, “Does a nursing infant know that his mother loves him? Isn’t she nursing him precisely as a way to love him and a way for him to know that he is loved? He knows it in his body. And so do our children at the table of Holy Communion.” Otherwise the Supper becomes an attainment for the mature.

Some traditions of the Church have had a hard time with this because they treat the Supper as though it worked by people thinking. In Westminster Larger Catechism’s formulations, partaking of the Lord’s Supper is a positively daunting feat of reverence and emotions, requiring 14 different mental acts beforehand, another 13 during the Supper, and another 7 if you judge yourself to have partaken successfully, or 5 if unsuccessfully! Astonishingly, the Westminster Divines do not actually state that those “that receive the sacrament” must eat and drink the bread and wine. Every action specified in Q. 174 (as well as those in Q. 171 and 175) is something Christians do with their minds. By contrast, all of the commands of Jesus concerning the Supper—“take, eat, drink, do this”—are things that Christians do with their bodies.

We have said that baptism and the Eucharist unite our bodies to Christ’s body, so that we look for the resurrection of our bodies in the same way that His body was raised from the dead. And here, too, the Christian faith stands out by contrast with unbelief. Consider the views of the ancient Greeks. What happens at death? Epicurus said that your soul dissipates like smoke and is gone; the Stoics said that you are absorbed by the divine Logos, sort of the way a dead Jedi becomes one with the Force; Plato said that your soul is reincarnated in another life, and that the quality of that reincarnation depends on how much wisdom you gained in this life. Well, what do our secular friends say now?

Consider this, from an NBC News article last July:

Entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and beyond are attempting to disrupt what has long been seen as one of the only inevitabilities of life: death.

Computer scientists and artificial intelligence specialists are developing programs that allow people to theoretically avoid death, opening the door to near-everlasting life… Nectome is a startup that believes a person will be able to digitize their consciousness within the next century. Nectome’s founders, MIT graduates Robert McIntyre and Michael McCanna, claim to have already successfully preserved an animal’s brain’s connectomesthe neural maps that play a vital role in memory storage — and are researching the possibility of extending the technique to human brains…

Ray Kurzweil, director of engineering at Google, has predicted that by 2030 we will be able to connect our brain to the cloud. Investor Sam Altman, who co-founded the prestigious Y Combinator program that funds and supports start-ups, is another believer. “I assume my brain will be uploaded on the cloud,” he recently told the MIT Technology Review, explaining why he has joined Nectome’s list of subscribers.

I trust I don’t need to elaborate much on why this is a bad idea. It is the logical consequence of mind-body dualism. It stands in direct descent from the Ancient Greek views of the soul and personal identity. It is a form of metempsychosis, or transmigration of souls, but it is more audacious than anything the Greeks imagined: it is literally an attempt to do what God does in resurrection, to give ourselves a new or newly remade body and eternal life. It is the fruit of the same drive for human autonomy that motivates us to abort our children, that justifies the perversion of sex, that celebrates the pollution of our bodies by unclean sex acts; that pushes for unrestrained consumerism and sees technology as the giver of all freedom.

My friends, the Lord who made your body loves you. You should believe this because He loves your body: if you come to Him, He will feed your body with the bread and wine that are the body and blood of His Son. He has promised that if we follow Jesus, then He will raise our bodies from the dead just as He raised His body. Let us, then, submit ourselves to Him, that we may have life, both now and hereafter. “You are not your own. You were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your body.”


  1. We were guests at Trinity for Sunday School and church. Enjoyed your teaching and preaching very much. God bless you in all you do.

    Scott Linn

  2. “Every action specified in Q. 174 (as well as those in Q. 171 and 175) is something Christians do with their minds.”

    I have no real interest in defending Presbyterian sacramental theology (my sympathies are more with Luther), but this doesn’t seem true. Since attending is a bodily action (and being reverent is arguably one) “wait[ing] upon God in [the] ordinance” “with all holy reverence and attention” at least has prominent bodily aspects. And “diligently observing the sacramental elements and actions” is clearly a bodily action. Furthermore, whatever one makes of “hungering and thirsting after Christ” the language is bodily (though I suspect it’s a metaphor: they don’t seem to mean hungering and thirsting after something perceptible). Similarly for other actions: For instance, “rejoicing in his love” and “giving thanks for his grace” are often realized through hymn singing or praying particular prayers (though, of course we are capable of giving thanks to God while sitting silently in a train, but not, I think, if we have never sung prayed or thanked externally).

    Furthermore, even setting aside whether the actions in WLC 174 are bodily, it isn’t clear to me that the WLC “treat[s] the Supper as though it worked by people thinking”, for two reasons. First, whether the actions in WLC 174 are in some sense mental, with the possible exception of meditating (which is often accomplished through singing hymns) they are not collapsible to mere thinking. More importantly, however, WLC 174 does not describe the mechanism through which the supper works but duties incumbent on people who receive—indeed, it cannot here describe the mechanism, since if it did these actions would be works. If the WLC answers that question, it does so in Qs. 169 and 170, where it says that people who faithfully eat and drink the bread and wine feed on the body and blood of Christ. These considerations also answer the bizarre objection that they do not say that those who receive the sacrament must eat and drink: They have already said that to receive the sacrament is to faithfully eat and drink.

    • “Attending” and “observing” are not necessarily bodily actions; I and many others have taken these verbs as things done with the mind.

      The contrast I intended was with how Judaism prescribes participation in the Passover: they are concerned to regulate where, when, and with whom you must eat; to specify which foods must be consumed; and to stipulate minimum quantities of those foods. They have relatively little to say about what participants need to be thinking.

  3. I think the internet are my response.

    • *ate

  4. Sorry if is a repeat post, I think the internet ate my comment (twice), but perhaps not, and then this is a duplicate.

    Since the WLC instructs us to wait attentively upon God during the celebration of the supper, the attention should be directed to the ordinance itself. That is, to use the WLC’s language, to attend to both the outward, visible sign, and the inward grace the sign signifies. We attend to the outward sign with our bodies, and one way we attend to the internal reality is by attentively listening to the words of institution. Likewise, we observe the elements (sc. the bread and the wine) and the [liturgical] actions with our eyes and ears.

    I’m honestly not sure why you find that objectionable: Do you not instruct your children to attend and observe, as well as they are able? If you thought everyone in your congregation was thinking about football during the celebration (and you’d see that in their posture), wouldn’t you address the lack of attention?

    Anyway, the WLC does not suggest that these actions are the means whereby the sacrament works. The sacrament works, according to the WLC, by uniting us to Christ’s body and blood. Like all Calvinists, they say we receive it by faith. But faith isn’t a kind of thinking(!), it’s yielding obedience, trembling, embracing, accepting, receiving and resting (according to the Westminster Confession).

    As to whether WLC addresses the same things the Talmud does: Questions 168 and 169 do address what elements should be used, etc. But I grant that there could be more emphasis on who receives. The difference, however, seems to stem more from the different genera: The WLC is devotional literature (to put it coarsely), the Talmud is a law code. I suspect if you looked at Presbyterian books of order, you would find something much more like the Talmudic concern with the detains of the celebration. And modern Orthodox Jews do attempt to engage in their liturgies through thinking, as can be see in this fantastic video: (the exegeses is stunning).

    • “Attending” in the sense you suggest is appropriate if the elements of the Supper are “deiknumena” in Jane Harrison’s sense: things displayed to be objects of our contemplation. But that is not what the bread and wine are.

    • I would add that there are many in the history of Presbyterianism who have thought that the Supper works by thinking. From my book:

      E. Brooks Holifield, writing in his history of Puritan sacramental theology, notes precisely this connection among the early Puritans: “Corresponding to suspicion of the outward and material was a conviction that conceptual understanding was essential to sacramental worship . . . Thus in the Lord’s Supper the Puritan reformers insisted that every outward action of the cer-emony ought to produce an inward comprehension of doctrinal truths.”12

      This tendency is borne out in the Puritans. William Perkins (1558–1602) writes:

      “The signes and visible elements affect the sense outward and inward: the senses convey their object to the minde: the minde directed by the holy Ghost reasoneth on this manner, out of the promise annexed to the Sacrament: He that useth the elements aright, shall receive grace thereby: but I use the elements aright in faith and repentance, saith the minde of the believer: therefore shall I receive from God increase of grace. Thus, then, faith is confirmed not by the work done, but by a kinde of reasoning caused in the mind, the argument or proofe whereof is borrowed from the elements, being signes and pledges of God’s mercie.13”

      (emphasis in the original)

      The Cambridge Puritan divine William Bradshaw (1571–1618) similarly explains what it means to eat the flesh of Christ in the Lord’s Supper:

      “Hence also it appeares, that we specially eate the flesh of Christ, and drink his bloud, when with a beleeving heart and mind, we effectually remember and in our remembrance, we seriously meditate of, and in our meditations are religiously affected, and in our affections thoroughly inflamed with the love of Christ, grounded upon that which Christ has done for us, and which is repre-sented and sealed unto us in this Sacrament.14”

      Thus, the working of the Supper is explained as mental remembrance leading to the stirring up of religious affections. In the Bible, however, the efficacy of the Lord’s Supper is not located in any accompanying mental acts. …To be fair, there are other theologians in the Reformed tradition—e.g. John Williamson Nevin and John Calvin himself—who viewed the Supper as more than a mental exercise.

  5. Thank you for these, Matt. Have you read Paula Gooder’s book “Body” (SPCK/Fortress)?

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