The Error of Spiritual Christianity

We’re in a series of posts discussing the relationship between Christian discipleship and environmental concern, or “creation care.” In order to take the next step, we have to clear up some theological confusion on a critical point.  Here it is: The great unrecognized heresy of Western Christianity is that we have “spiritualized” our faith.

In other words we think of the Christian faith as being primarily about our immaterial selves, i.e. souls.  Likewise we tend to speak of our experience of the Christian life in terms of cognition (how we think) or in terms of the “heart” (the nexus of will and emotion).  Those of us who are Evangelical Christians are particularly prone to this error.

In this scheme the material world and our own physical bodies are viewed as a distraction or even impediment to communion with God.  Christianity in this system becomes an exercise in right knowledge, thinking, and subjective experience that frees us from material distractions and enables us to have fellowship with God.  In other words, it is the old heresy of Gnosticism.

Among other things, the Gnostics believed that the material world, including the human body, was inherently evil and stood between God and us.  The body was seen as a “prison house for the soul.”  Gnostics believed that if one gained special, esoteric, spiritual knowledge (gnosis is the Greek word for knowledge) then the “divine spark” within us could be reunited with the good, immaterial god.  Consequentially, many Gnostics believed that Jesus, since he was truly good, only seemed to have a human body.  Instead they taught that he was an immaterial spirit-being.  So if you are shocked or offended if someone mentions that Jesus had to use the first century version of a toilet, then you probably have imbibed some version of Gnosticism.

This Gnostic tendency is what St Paul warned Timothy about when he wrote:

The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons.  Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron.  They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth.  For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.  (1 Timothy 4:1-5 NIV)

A sacramental worldview runs counter to both the heresy of Gnosticism and of pantheism (the teaching that everything is god).  I will say more about this in later posts.

Far from what many people erroneously believe, humanity’s problem is not the material world on our physical bodies.  The problem is that our “fallen-ness” hinders us from the right use of creation.  St Augustine of Hippo spoke of this when he dealt with the problem of disordered affections.  He said that we had confused amor frui with amor uti.  In other worlds, we tend to love creation with the love of enjoyment (as an end in itself) and the Creator with the love of use (as a means to achieve our sinful goal of self-pleasing).

Instead we should love created things with the love of use and the Creator with the love of enjoyment. That is to say, our pleasure in creation and our love of it ought to direct our greater love and affection to its true end: the triune God, whom we are to love with the love of enjoyment.  In our disordered affections if we love God at all we love him with the love of use – God for us is a means of attaining other ends which we love with the love of enjoyment.  In the words, we love God for his goodies, not for his goodness.

The Sacraments are the God-ordained, God-given means of reordering our affections and restoring a right love for creation, and for the Creator.  So here’s where the rubber meets the road: in the Sacraments God communicates his divine, supernatural grace (his powerful blessing) via material, physical, natural means.

Now here is the really shocking thing that sends our latent Gnosticism reeling: God’s only means to provide for our salvation and to bestow upon us eternal life is via the material world.  Please let that sink in and really scandalize you.

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  (1 Cor. 1:22-24)

Do you see the scandal of Christ crucified?  The Jews demanded some great supernatural sign that would obviously surpass the natural order (as with Moses and the parting of the Red Sea).  Greeks sought for immaterial wisdom that would be a bridge between the good and perfect immaterial God with the imperfect and evil material world.

Instead, God in his wisdom

used a real man

with a real body

who lived in a real place

and a real time

and met his very real death

at the hands of a real government

driven by real political machinations

and then raised him to life again in a real, physical (though glorified) human body

as God’s ONE and ONLY means

to effect our salvation and the restoration of the created universe!

We could say to all this that creation itself is at the heart of the sacramental worldview.  However, I think that for us it is the mystery of the incarnation that is the archetype of our encounter with God in the Sacraments:  God fully entered into his creation in Jesus Christ.  The God-Man Jesus Christ embodies God’s redeeming work through the expulsion of the demonic powers and principalities, calling men and women into a circle of friendship with himself, the healing of human sickness, bringing peace to disordered physical creation that threatens humanity (Mk. 4:35-41), and the trampling down of death by death.

Seeing the natural realm through the lens of this sacramental worldview will have radical implications for how we view and interact with the environment.  In my next blog post I will deal specifically with the relationship between the Sacrament of Holy Baptism and the environment.


The Rev Ben Sharpe is Rector of Christ Church in Winston Salem an Anglican Mission church that was planted a few years ago.

Ben has been married to his childhood sweetheart, Lisa, for 29 years. They are the parents of three lovely young women.

The Rev. Ben Sharpe has served in pastoral and church planting ministry for over 20 years. In 1995 he planted Cornerstone United Methodist Church in Fayetteville NC. In 2004 he and his family “came home” to the Anglican Mission in America. Ben received his undergraduate degree from the University of NC – Chapel Hill. He is a 1991 magna cum laude graduate (MDiv) from The Divinity School of Duke University.

Ben is deeply interested in early church history and sees our post-modern culture as significantly similar to the world the Church experienced for the first 400 years of the Christian era. He believes these connections offer direction for evangelism and discipleship in the 21st century.

Ben is an avid “section hiker” of the Appalachian Trail and claims his one athletic ability is carrying heavy objects over long distances. He also brews his own beer.

Most of all, Ben loves Jesus Christ, is passionate about the Gospel of salvation, and authentic Christian discipleship.

you can read more from his blog here

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