“Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of the daughter of my people not been restored?” Jer. 8:22 (ESV)
The Ashes of Eden and the New Creation
Few things are more humbling, or remind us more of our mortality and frailty, than epidemics of disease. The medical self-confidence of the twentieth century has been shaken more than once. We have been relatively powerless against the devastations of AIDS across the world, and there are many other deadly viruses that loom, such as the Marburg and Ebola viruses. The bottom line is that despite all our technical, diagnostic, and scientific headway, we are still perpetually bowed before death, disease and decay. This should not surprise any Christian. Biblical revelation makes it abundantly clear that the whole human person has been affected by sin, both body and soul. At the Fall, the whole of creation itself was cursed, and subjected to futility and corruption. The doctrine of the Fall means that as a consequence of sin, death, disease and suffering entered into God’s good creation (Gen. 3:4-24; Rom. 8:19-23; 1 Cor. 15:21-26) and we are all affected by it.
Health of Body and Soul
In the biblical perspective, the diseased character of the world is critical to understand because it speaks directly to the plan of salvation, redemption and restoration in the covenant. Because of the work of Christ, the second Adam, the Scriptures speak not only of the salvation of souls, but of the whole person, and of the redemption of the entire creation (Rom. 8:22-24; Col. 1:19-20; 2 Cor. 5:17-19; Eph. 1:7-10; 2 Pet. 3:13). When Jesus preached the gospel, he also healed the sick, as a visible manifestation of the kingdom of God, indicating by doing so the direction of history toward the new creation. Indeed the forgiveness of sin and healing of the body are very closely associated throughout Scripture (Ps. 103:3; 2 Chr. 7:14; Luke. 5:23; Matt. 9:1-8; 10:8; Jas. 5:14-16). The outworking of the gospel in history, as time moves toward the restoration of all things in Jesus Christ, is total healing or wholeness for the whole man. Citing the prophet Isaiah, St Peter writes, “by his wounds, you have been healed” (1 Pet. 2:24).
Health and Salvation
In the English language the word health comes from the old English root hal which means ‘whole.’ The words holiness, wholeness, health, and healing all have a common root. The whole person is one in whom all parts are in perfect harmony, working together properly. Health then is an aspect of salvation. The Latin word salve from which we derive our English word salvation, likewise has at its root the word health – so salvation is total health of body and soul, which culminates in the resurrection (Phil. 3:21). When we are regenerated in Jesus Christ, the principle of health and life is now at work within us, and we grow in terms of the principle of wholeness – health and holiness in every aspect of life. It follows from this that care for the body is a religious concern, and an important part of our duty as Christians. Therefore, seeking the health and physical wellbeing of others is a priestly calling and ministry as we serve as a kingdom of priests (Rev. 5:10) in the reconciliation of all things to God.
The Priestly Role of the Doctor
It is no surprise, then, to find that in the Christian tradition the doctor has had a priestly role and vocation in bringing care and treatment to the sick. The biblical view of medical care and healthcare is Levitical in origin and continued in the New Testament era. Laws are found in Scripture and in Jewish applications of Levitical law concerning social gatherings, personal hygiene, circumcision, unclean animals, and sexual relations, which all furthered public health.[i] Furthermore, wells could not be dug near burial or waste ground, water was to be boiled before drinking, and waste had to be burned outside the camp. If these laws had been followed consistently in a rudimentary way during the Middle Ages, many communities would have been spared many outbreaks of disease and plague. It is also interesting to note that if ancient Greek medicine had followed what the Scriptures teach, that “the life of every creature is its blood: its blood is its life” (Lev. 17:14), the foolish practice of blood-letting would not have prevailed for the centuries that it did. The apostle James also urges prayer and the application of oil to the sick – possibly more than just a ritual anointing, as Christian healing is both spiritual and physical. In the biblical view, the body belongs to God, not to man or Satan, and is to be looked after as the temple of God (1 Cor. 6:19).
The Early Christian History of Medicine
The story of the substantially Christian character of medical practice and the doctor’s vocation goes on through the Middle Ages into the modern world, and is fascinating in its own right. For centuries, monks and clerics were the only body of learned people, and so they commonly practiced medicine. The Benedictine Rule stated that “the care of the sick is to be placed above and before every other duty, as if indeed Christ were being directly served by waiting on them.”[ii] As a result the monasteries became key medical centres across Europe. The medieval hospital was a Christian foundation. In England, by 1400, there were almost five hundred hospitals, including London’s Bartholomew’s, which dates from 1123. These were all funded by the Christian church, as there was no such thing as state welfare.
[i] Whilst the primary purpose of circumcision in Scripture is clearly set forth as being a sign of the covenant, we can now see that this law also furthered public health amongst the people of God as well, which is a mark of the wisdom of God. Likewise, dietary laws marked the set-apart character of the Israelites to holiness, and we now also know that many of the forbidden foods represent a significant health risk to humans because of the creature’s habitat, diet or other characteristics.
[ii] The Holy Rule of St. Benedict, , trans. Rev. Boniface Verheyen, OSB, (St. Benedict's Abbey: Atchison, KS), 1949. Electronic text (with added scripture references) prepared by Br. Boniface Butterworth, OSB, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/benedict/rule2/files/rule2.html.