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How far is the body God’s living oracle?

18 December 2015

John Saxbee considers a theology that gives experience priority

The Revelatory Body: Theology as inductive art
Luke Timothy Johnson
Eerdmans £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30

LUKE TIMOTHY JOHNSON is on the warpath. He has in his sights those for whom scripture and creeds are sufficiently revelatory to render otiose, or even heretical, any appeal to everyday bodily experience as also revealing God — active in what is currently coming-into-being.

For him, scripture is a necessary but not complete source of revelation. It participates in revelation “by providing the lens for perceiving human experience and by being given new meaning and pertinence through engagement with God’s living work”.

He first of all trains his fire on the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae and Pope John Paul II in defence of it in a series of lectures delivered at papal audiences and published with the title Theology of the Body in 1997. Johnson is convinced that such a theology must be about more than sex, and the freedom of God’s spirit to act through bodily experience must not be constrained by selec-tive reference to a few biblical texts and the injunctions of a hierarchy intent on controlling rather than liberating day-to-day lived experience.

After this full-frontal assault on the abuse of scripture, Johnson settles down to consider a series of issues that characterise everyday bodily experience, and which, he believes, have the potential to reveal the spirit of the Living God and empower us to interpret and re- interpret scripture and tradition in the light of such experiences.

The Bible consistently reveals God through the bodily experiences of the people of Israel, the prophets, Jesus, and the apostles. So, why should the body not continue to be revelatory in accordance with scriptural precedent?

The issues that he addresses relate to play, pain, work, ageing, bodily passions, and physical diversity. He shows how these everyday categories of bodily experience are either ignored by scripture or are subject to attenuated and unbalanced treatment. He draws on his own life story to illustrate how these experiences can distort and diminish the human spirit, but can also enlarge the human spirit to the point where something of God’s nature and spirit is revealed. Such experience can then feed back into our understanding of scripture as revelatory for today.

Developments in socio-political and feminist theologies are cited as examples of how experience of slavery, colonialism, and patriarchy have made an impact on the ways in which scripture is interpreted for today’s world.

Johnson is a celebrated New Testament scholar, who writes in a clear and engaging way. His judgements here are, by the nature of the case, subjective and experiential. They range from the almost banal to the almost sublime. As an exercise in inductive rather than deductive theology, they are suggestive rather than prescriptive.

Theology is for him more an art than a science. But he is disarmingly candid about his own lived experience, and, although privileging this over and against scripture as revelation will alienate many readers, others will find his down-to-earth-honesty refreshing and, yes, a revelation.


The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.

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