April 1, 2012

Health, Salvation and the Kingdom of God (Part 2)

The proper role of the doctor

The ministry of health and salvation finds parallels between pastors and doctors in promoting total health. Over against the pagan Greco-Roman understanding of the doctor as a god-like figure, the biblical teaching is that the power of health, and indeed of life and death, is God's alone.

Pastors and Doctors

There was remarkable overlap between the practice of medicine and the work of the Christian pastor, because both were seen as aspects of the work of salvation.  Medicine was thus seen by Christians from the early centuries as a holy and priestly calling, so much so that by the fifth century it became a common requirement that doctors, like monks, be celibate.  It is interesting that the tradition of privileged communication between a doctor and patient mirrors the privileged communication between a pastor and his congregants.  When we confess to a pastor our sin, we are effectively confessing to God through his servants as we seek spiritual healing and health.  Over my years in ministry I have had people come to me and confess all manner of sins, seeking a route to make restitution and to find healing and restoration in their lives.  Likewise when we go to the doctor, we are confessing to certain physical infirmities, and a similar kind of self-humbling is required in submitting ourselves to physical examination for the purpose of healing and health.  Both forms of confession are privileged (confidential) communication that is closed to others, and both are religious in that they are done in search of healing, wholeness, and salvation.  As the church has retreated from its task of ministering a gospel that deals with sin, doctors today often find their office more like a confessional, where they listen to all manner of confessions from people seeking a sympathetic ear and counsel.

The Doctor as Agent of Redemption

The doctor or physician has then a priestly calling as an aspect of God’s salvific purpose of redemption and healing.  The very term doctor, in Latin, means ‘teacher,’ from docere (“to teach”).  From the early church, a doctor was one who taught Christian doctrine, and so the great teachers were called ‘doctors.’  This is the origin of the university doctorate degree for advanced teaching.  The earlier term for the medical practitioner was physician, from the Greek concept of a natural philosopher or expert in physics.  In the Western world then, in popular usage, we have essentially taken a term applied to Christian teachers of salvation and applied it to the medical profession; an abstract and impersonal title, ’physician,’ became the more personal and relational title of ‘doctor.’  For the Christian world, the doctor was one upon whose words and actions people depended for their physical care and treatment as an aspect of God’s grace and healing work in history.

Materialism, Magic, or Biblical Faith   

Clearly then, the medical practitioner, whether a surgeon, general practitioner, dentist or specialist in any given field, has a high calling and one which must be carried out in terms of God’s word and purposes for creation.  The philosophy which informs the practice of medicine is therefore critical.  In the pagan worldview the doctor (physician) was a god or a semi-incarnate agent of a god, like Asklepios, the chief god of healing who was the first Greek god received into the Roman pantheon. This meant that medical healing was interwoven with occultism and magic in the Greco-Roman world, and relied on oracles in the healing tradition of Asklepieia.  The pagan and superstitious character of Greek medicine comes through in the famous Hippocratic Oath.  While the oath has many admirable aspects, like a commitment to confidentiality and opposition to both abortion and euthanasia,[i] nevertheless Greek medicine was weakened by its chaotic polytheism and superstitious character.  The beginning of the Oath reads, “I swear by Apollo the healer, by Aesculapius, by Health and all the powers of healing, and call to witness all the gods and goddesses that I may keep this Oath and Promise to the best of my ability and judgment.”[ii]   

Healing is ultimately from God

This led to the idea of total liability for the physician – a belief that meant if a physician lost a patient he might lose his right hand or even his life.  If you represent the gods, you have the liability of a god.  In the Christian view, however, no man or woman can have total liability or total responsibility.  That is for God alone.  Our powers of healing are extremely limited.  We can ask the living God to heal, but if He does not act supernaturally, we are limited to treatment, observation, and diligent scientific study – we cannot manipulate reality and work miracles.  Doctors can do their best and no more.  Criminal negligence is one thing; human fallibility is another. The litigious risks facing doctors in modern medicine are largely due to the resurgent paganism of our age in the form of materialism.


For a more complete treatment of this subject, see the article “Health, Salvation and the Kingdom of God,” in the Spring 2012 issue of Jubilee.


[i] Would that modern medicine could affirm the same.

[ii] Roy Porter, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997), p. 63.

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