Amma Theodora, Gnosticism, And The Goodness Of The Body

Amma Theodora, Gnosticism, And The Goodness Of The Body January 28, 2021

JohnHain: Woman Body Temple /Pixabay

Gnosticism, both directly and indirectly, has a history of confusing Christians concerning the world and our relationship to it.  Gnostics denied the goodness of material creation. This led them to declare that the human body, being a part of material creation, was bad. The material world, and all that is within it, was said to be created by an evil (or ignorant) creator. The human spirit was created by, or came from, a good creator, but found itself trapped by the body, so that the ideal was to find a way to have the spirit escape its prison and finds its way back to heaven (and the good creator).

Gnosticism, in its various forms, was concerned with establishing the proper way to escape the material world. The good creator found a way to break into the material world and reveal the path to salvation, but only those who have knowledge of this truth will find their way out of their material prison. There were a variety of ways in which Gnostics taught how we were to be saved.  Some suggested that once we know the truth, we would be saved, and so nothing we did in our body would hinder our salvation, leading many to engage a very licentious existence; others said that even if we know the basic truths given to us by Gnosticism, we could be impeded by the material world if we remained attached to it, and so they told us we must follow various ascetic practices if we wanted to be free from material bondage.

Manicheanism was the last major Gnostic sect. It engaged and took from a great variety of traditions, creating a cosmological picture which the ordinary Manichaean could believe, while also offering a complex philosophical discussion for those who were interested in or needed it. Simply put, Manichaeans taught there were two creative principles, a good spiritual God and an evil material God, and what was contained under the domain of the material God was evil, and what was contained under the domain of the spiritual God was good.  The body, being material, was evil. There were different levels of Manichaean adherence, from the basic auditors who listened to and agreed with the teachings, to the elect, those who took the teachings to the extreme, living strict ascetic-like lives, relying upon the charitable donations given to them from the auditors for their survival. Auditors hoped that their belief would lead them through a series of reincarnations until they became among the elect and found their way out of their materialistic prison.

Because Christian ascetics engaged similar disciplines as to their Gnostic counterparts, they often were in contact with Gnostics, reading their material, indeed, finding elements in them which they could agree with and learn from. This is why many libraries within Christian monasteries contained Gnostic texts in them. Nonetheless, Christians realized that there were grave errors in those texts. Where they found them, they fought against them. One such error was the denial of the body. Christians knew that the body was good for the Christian hope is not to exist as a disembodied spirit but as someone who will be resurrected with their body. The incarnation and resurrection of Christ served as proof of the goodness of material creation. When Christians discipline their body, they must not do so in such a way as to disregard it and its place in eternity.

Thus, when we read about dialogues or debates between Christians and Gnostics, Christians would point out that whatever discipline the body needs, it is needed in order to bring out the good of the body instead of leading us to reject it and its value. Amma Theodora, for example, said that when the body is properly disciplined, it will reveal its good character, thereby showing it was created by a good creator:

The same Amma Theodora said, ‘A devout man happened to be insulted by someone, and he said to him, “I could say as much to you, but the commandment of God keeps my mouth shut.”’ Again she said, ‘A Christian discussing the body with a Manichean expressed himself in these words, “Give the body discipline and you will see that the body is for him who made it.’” [1]

Saying the body is made for the one who made it means it was made for God, the one true and absolutely good Creator. As God is good, so the body made by God is good. Getting to know and realize what the body is, what it is capable of doing, how and why it acts as it acts, and how and why it can be directed by the spirit, should show the ascetic that it is fundamentally good. Far from being a prison for the spirit, it was given to us by God so that in and through it, we can come to know God.  Give it proper discipline, and it will act and do what is good; its impulses will serve the person, while the person will not serve them. Eating, sleeping, procreation, and other such desires of the body should be seen as good; they are good, but they must be engaged with proper discernment. If they are not guided by discipline, they can cause us harm: if we eat too much, we will grow fat and unhealthy; if we sleep too much, we will remain fatigued and unable to concentrate. When the body is put under proper control, its impulses can be used for our good. We need to eat, and hunger helps remind us of that need. We need to sleep, and fatigue can help us make sure we do not wear ourselves out. We need children, and so its sexual impulses help provide for the continuation of our species (as well as to help bring couples together and become one through their love). The pleasure given to us from doing what is good and needful itself is a gift of God, so that even such pleasures need not be rejected, only undue attachment to them. When the body is put under proper discipline, guided by good principles, then the body can be and will be used by us in a way which honors God.

When Amma Theodora learned how to discipline herself, she learned how to be charitable to others. She learned not to let anger get the best of her. This is the kind of discipline which is needed. Thus, getting control over her body, she learned how to control herself.  When insulted, she did not respond in kind. She was able to see through such insults and find no reason to be concerned about them. She learned how to respect the dignity God had given to everyone, realizing that in doing so, she honored God their creator.

Christians must recognize the goodness of the body, and in doing so, the goodness of its creator. God had good reasons for giving it its impulses. They are, in and of themselves, good. It is only when they are unregulated, when they are seen as unquestionable absolutes which must be fulfilled, we find that they can lead us astray. This should not be surprising, because this is how evil tends to work: it takes some particular good and directs us to follow it without restraint or concern for any other good which we should likewise engage. Far from being rejected, the body is something which should be embraced, as it is a part of us and will always be a part of us in eternity. Gnostics only knew the body as evil, and so could not see how its impulse could be good. They said we must disregard the body. Many Christians, sadly, have come to suffer from the same misconception; this is why many have come to believe that eternal life will be some sort of spiritual existence without a body. These Christians, following the Gnostics before them, end up concluding that material existence will not have a place in the kingdom of God, for eternity will only be a spiritual form of existence. From this comes the belief that what happens in the world is unimportant. Christians must not accept this line of reasoning, for Christ shows us otherwise in the reality of the incarnation.  God became one of us. God entered the world to lift it up. Thanks to the incarnation, the eschaton is immanent, and now, instead of disregarding the world and God’s wonderful creation, we should find the good within it and lift it up, so that by doing so, we honor and glorify God its creator.


[1] Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984),83 [Amma Theodora Saying 4].


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