Read: 1 Cor 6:19-20; 10:31
Lord of our Body Temples. How does taking care of our bodies, in the name of Christ, affect our relationship with others? Do we have a responsibility for their temples, too?
- The body belongs to God: 1 Corinthians 6:19-20. How does one balance the call for self-denial with the understanding that all our bodily needs, appetites and natural endowments come from God?
- All to God’s glory: 1 Corinthians 10:31. Some Christians emphasize joy in the Lord while others focus on our sinful, depraved status. What are the reasons for these differing perspectives? Are both right? Right at different times in a person’s life?
- Revelation, common sense, and science. When it comes to caring for our bodies, three “authorities” stand in a certain tension with each other. 1) Divine revelation and divinely inspired counsel; 2) Reason and common sense; 3) Science. Crucial question: Can reason, common sense, or science overrule revelation and divinely inspired counsel? Two factors should temper our response:
- Divine adaptation to human need. If God adapts his revelations to limited human capability, then specific revelations must always be seen in their historical and cultural context and not be granted absolute value.
- Evolving nature of scientific discovery. While the basic principles which guide scientific discovery are remarkably stable, specific scientific conclusions may be quite short-lived and should not be granted absolute value.
Popular misconceptions: In connection with the key factors just noted, popular but misleading misconceptions are worth noting and discussing: Two of them involve the relationship between science and revelation. A) Properly understood, science and revelation fully agree. B) Science has to catch up with revelation. While these two misconceptions are related, each deserves a specific attention.
- Misconception: Properly understood, science and revelation fully agree. If humans could grasp ultimate truth, then this statement would certainly true. But Ellen White’s comment that “God and heaven alone are infallible” (Selected Messages 1:37 [RH, July 26, 1892]), reminds us of our human limitations. Yet within those limitations God is constantly seeking to help us grow. The principle of growth in connection with health reform is nicely captured by this Ellen White quotation from 1872:
“We must go no faster than we can take those with us whose consciences and intellects are convinced of the truths we advocate. We must meet the people where they are. Some of us have been many years in arriving at our present position in health reform. It is slow work to obtain a reform in diet. We have powerful appetites to meet; for the world is given to gluttony. If we should allow the people as much time as we have required to come up to the present advanced state in reform, we would be very patient with them, and allow them to advance step by step, as we have done, until their feet are firmly established upon the health reform platform. But we should be very cautious not to advance too fast, lest we be obliged to retrace our steps. In reforms we would better come one step short of the mark than to go one step beyond it. And if there is error at all, let it be on the side next to the people” Testimonies 3:20-21 (1872).
Given the principles of growth and adaptation, it is possible to see how Ellen White could “improve” her observations about health. Note, for example, how she affirmed the value of phrenology and mesmerism at an early point in her ministry, but revised her position some twenty years later:
1862: “Phrenology and mesmerism are very much exalted. They are good in their place, but they are seized upon by Satan as his most powerful agents to deceive and destroy souls.” (Testimonies 1:296 )
1884: “The sciences which treat of the human mind are very much exalted. They are good in their place; but they are seized upon by Satan as his powerful agents to deceive and destroy souls.” (Signs of the Times, Nov. 6, 1884)
An Australian physician, Don McMahon, has recently published the results of his research on Ellen White’s health message. In The Prophet and Her Critics (Pacific Press, 2005), McMahon, with Leonard Brand, shows how God led Ellen White step by step toward a clearer understanding of health. What God was giving her was not absolute truth, but truth adapted to her ability and the ability of the church to understand.
Because scientific conclusions are constantly subject to change, it is as risky to judge the validity of God’s messages by the current understandings of science as it is to wait for science to confirm specific statements from inspired messengers. Writing after he had become a Christian, psychiatrist M. Scott Peck, in People of the Lie (1983), makes the following observations under the heading, “The Danger of Cloaking Moral Judgment in Scientific Authority”:
This is a major pitfall. It is a pitfall because we ascribe to science much more authority than it deserves. We do so for two reasons. One is that very few of us understand the limitations of science. The other is that we are too dependent upon authority in general.
When our children were infants we were blessed by the very best of pediatricians, a kind and dedicated gentle man of great erudition. When we visited him a month after the birth of our oldest child, he instructed us to start feeding her solid foods almost immediately, because such supplementation was needed for babies being breast-fed. A year later, when we visited him a month after the birth of our second daughter, he directed us to delay feeding this one solid food as long as possible so as not to deprive her of the extraordinary nutrition in breast milk. The state of “science” had changed! When I was in medical school we were taught that the essential treatment for diverticulosis was a low-roughage diet. Now medical students are taught that the essential treatment is a high-roughage diet.
Such experiences have taught me that what is paraded as scientific fact is simply the current belief of some scientists. We are accustomed to regard science as Truth with a capital T. What scientific knowledge is, in fact, is the best available approximation of the truth in the judgment of the majority of scientists who work in the particular specialty involved. Truth is not something that we possess; it is a goal toward which we, hopefully, strive. (People of the Lie, 257)
- Misconception: Science has to catch up with revelation. Popular rhetoric in the general Christian press as well as within Adventism reinforces the idea that God’s inspired messengers are always first with the best. A good illustration of the rhetoric reinforcing this idea is provided by None of These Diseases, the popular little book by S. I. McMillen, a Christian physician, who is arguing for the great value of the health messages which God gave to Moses for the people of Israel. One of the early editions splashed this blurb on the cover: “Science – 4000 years behind times! Sacred writings predate modern medicine.” Both the original edition (1963) and the current one (2000) note the potentially dire consequences if Moses had overruled revelation by reason or common sense, or by the prevailing “scientific” view as represented, for example, in an Egyptian source known as Papyrus Ebers. This is how McMillen puts it in his original edition:
God proceeded to give Moses a number of commandments, which form part of our Bible today. Because these divinely given medical directions were altogether different from those in the Papyrus Ebers, God surely was not copying from the medical authorities of the day. Would Moses, trained in the royal postgraduate universities, have enough faith to accept the divine innovations without adding some of the things he had been taught? From the record we discover that Moses had so much faith in God’s regulations that he did not incorporate a single current medical misconception into the inspired instructions. If Moses had yielded to a natural inclination to add even a little of his modern university training, we would be reading such prescriptions as ‘the heel of an Abyssinian greyhound,’ or ‘the tooth of a donkey crushed in honey,’ not to mention the drugs the leading physicians were compounding out of the bacteria-laden dung of dogs, cats and flies.” – S. I. McMillen, None of These Diseases (Revell, 1963), 10 (cf. 2000 edition, p. 11)
Interestingly enough, McMillen does not cite any of the biblical laws which might temper the absoluteness of his judgment. The procedure for determining whether an accused wife has been faithful to her husband, for example, calls for her to drink holy water mixed with “some of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle” (Num. 5:17). According to Numbers 5, if she is guilty, drinking this water would cause a miscarriage.
Similar “science-behind-the-times” rhetoric has been used to argue the superiority of the revelations given to Ellen White. One of the chapters in Rene Noorbergen’s Ellen G. White: Prophet of Destiny (1972) is entitled, “Science Catches Up with a Prophet.” Noorbergen cites her warnings against tobacco to illustrate her advanced (revealed) knowledge. Noting that her counsel came “at a time when the medical world regarded tobacco and cigar smoke as an effective cure for lung diseases” (p. 106), he then declares that “science discovered the facts nearly a century after the Spirit of Prophecy had revealed this danger to Ellen White” (p. 107).
With reference to tobacco, Ellen White was indeed taking a radical stance for her day. But even that seems rather curious in light of the fact that King James I, of King James Bible fame, published a tract in 1604 entitled, Counterblaste to Tobacco. In that tract he called smoking “a custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs” (cited by Antonia Fraser in Faith and Treason, p. 219). Given King James’ enlightened stance on tobacco, one could legitimately query the role of both Holy Spirit and “science” in his pronouncement.
- Misconception: One size fits all. Though not directly related to the previous two misconceptions, this one can also be very troubling for devout believers. The haunting fear is that they might rationalize away a duty or a responsibility which is important to their standing with God. Thus they are reluctant to say clearly and out loud that a particular piece of health counsel does not apply to them. Perhaps the best antidote to that problem, at least within Adventism, is a quotation from Ellen White:
“Some wish that an exact rule could be prescribed for their diet. They overeat, and then regret it, and so they keep thinking about what they eat and drink. This is not as it should be. One person cannot lay down an exact rule for another. Everyone should exercise reason and self-control, and should act from principle.” (Ministry of Healing, 310 )
- Overlooked dangers. In seeking to care for our bodies, we can be so focused on major issues like alcohol and tobacco that we overlook more subtle dangers which can be equally deadly, at least for some. Given the strong stance which Adventists have adopted on tobacco, the following quote is both intriguing and sobering. It was published in the Adventist Review (02-13-1992) and was based on a study published in 1988: “The absence of social ties is as strongly linked to a shortened life span as is cigarette smoking .”In short, if we are to truly take care of our bodies as the temple of God, we must be alert to many possible dangers, even ones that may seem quite innocent.