Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Cremation Is Not Of Christian Origin

By William Childs Robinson
[excerpted from The Southern Presbyterian Journal 11.10 (9 July 1952): 6-7.]
This is not written to upset loved ones who may have inadvertently acted unwisely in this matter, nor to disturb soldiers who have seen the bodies of buddies destroyed in the horrors of war. Nor is it intended to put limits on the power of God. Certainly, the martyrs who were burned for the faith, are to be resurrected. But it is written to urge our people to conform to the faith and the practice of the Christian Church. An analogy to our position here may be found in that of baptism. God can save a believer without baptism as he saved the penitent thief; but that does not mean a believer is free to neglect or to substitute something else for the sacrament of God.
The forms, provided for burial in The Book of Church Order and in The Book of Common Worship, state that the graves of the saints are sanctified by Christ’s rest in the tomb. This thought is a fair summary of the teaching of the New Testament. Each of the Gospels tells of the burial of Jesus and that constitutes the background of Peter’s words in Acts 2:23-32. Some deny that Paul refers to the tomb of Christ, but a careful reading of the Greek in I Cor. 15:3-4, Romans 6:4 shows that the Apostle does have before him the entombment of the Saviour. Moreover, his thought is that we are entombed with Him. Christ is the head of the elect, our substitute and representative. What occurred to Him is to be, at least in part, parallelled by what occurs to us. Christ and His people belong together in death, entombment, and resurrection. 
While the Apostles’ Creed never speaks of the immortality of the soul it twice mentions the resurrection. And in the earliest commentary on the Creed, Rufinus insists that our resurrection will be after the manner of Christ’s Whose Resurrection opened the gates of life. The Gospels and Acts represent Jesus as eating and drinking with the disciples after His Resurrection. Luke records His command to them to handle Him; Matthew tells how the women took hold of His feet; John gives Jesus’ word to Mary .20:17) which many of the best scholars are now translating “Release Me,” “Cease clinging to Me.” First John says that our hands handled the Word of Life, apparently refer-
ring to Christ’s appearances as recorded in the Fourth Gospel. In speaking of the Spiritual body. Paul means not a ghost, but a real body controlled by the Spirit
—even as “a natural body” is in the Greek a psychical or psychologically controlled body.
In the second century, the Church held to this faith in the resurrection of the body against every effort of Gnosticism and Platonism to decode the faith into a mere survival of the soul. Ignatius records how Jesus came to those who were with Peter saying, “Lay hold, handle me, and see that I am not an incorporeal phantom.” Irenaeus insisted that God created earth as well as heaven, that the Word took a human body as well as a human reasonable soul, that Christ suffered in the flesh and rose in the body, and that there shall be a new earth as well as a new heaven.
Accordingly, the early Church followed the Jewish custom of burying the dead and rejected the pagan practice of cremation. The Bible gives no encouragement to cremation. The bodies of Saul and of his sons were outwardly burned to purify them from the defilement caused by days of hanging yet their bones were not destroyed but buried and re-interred later—I Sam. 31:11-13; I Chron. 10: 11-12; II Sam. 21:12-14. When the plague became so severe as to make burning necessary, the people were forbidden to make mention of the Name of the Lord, Amos 6:10.
The Roman persecutors tried to ridicule the Christian faith in the resurrection by burning the martyrs. In reply, John presents the souls of the martyrs living and reigning with Christ for a thousand years, Rev. 20:4. The martyrs who gave their bodies to be burned, thereby witnessed to their faith in Christ. When we die natural deaths, let us commend our bodies to loved ones to be placed in the grave in the posture of sleep, that they may witness to our blessed hope of rising to meet Christ Coming in His Glory. The bodies of believers, “being still united to Christ” and resting “in their graves till the Resurrection” bear testimony to Christ, to His Resurrection and to His Return.
We put no limits on the power of God. He is most free, most absolute, all-sufficient. But let us follow the faith and the custom He has given us in His Word and in the life and practice of the primitive Christian community.
—Wm.C.R.
[Three weeks later, Dr. Robinson’s wrote another brief article on this same topic, titled “Your Bodies Are Temples Of The Holy Ghost:
Another Word Against Cremation”
he Southern Presbyterian Journal 11.13 (30 July 1952): 4-5.]
In the six weeks since the former article commenting on cremation was written three times the matter has come into the writer’s purview. A very old father left instruction for his body to be cremated, and according to reports, the only son sorrowfully carried out the instructions. A middle-ages doctor passed with such instructions, but his widow disregarded them and the writer buried the body of the deceased. A phone call came to the Shenandoah Church asking that the supply pastor officiate at a funeral. The able secretary asked what was the deceased’s church connection. The reply was that the deceased had little, but some Roman Catholic attachment. Then it was added that this evidently was not strong as he wanted cremation which they did not do. The secretary replied : “Well, I don’t think Dr. Robbie will officiate for that, either.” He did not. Where this practice is developing, perhaps a wise pastor ought to arrange with such undertakers as do not cremate to give a funeral at a minimum charge to the needy, or else have a Church Burial Fund to help such.
After showing that the early Christians adopted the customs of the country when these did not clash with their own views, Lietzmann adds : “On the other hand, Christians unanimously repudiated cremation which was customary in the time of the early Empire in Rome.” Schaff writes : “The primitive Christians always showed a tender care for the dead ; under a vivid impression of the unbroken communion of saints and the future resurrection of the body in glory. For Christianity redeems the body as well as the soul and consecrates it a temple of the Holy Spirit. Hence the Greek and Roman custom of burning the corpse (crematio) was repugnant to Christian feeling and the sacredness of the body.”
When the pestilence raged in Carthage at the time of the persecution under Gallus, the heathen threw out their dead for fear of the contagion, and cursed the Christians as the supposed authors of the plague. But Cyprian assembled his congregation, and exhorted them to love their enemies. Whereupon all went to work, the rich with their money, the poor with their hands, and rested not until the dead were buried, the sick cared for, and the city saved from desolation.
Following the Jewish custom, the Christian washed the bodies of the dead, wrapped them in linen cloths, sometimes embalmed them, and then, in the presence of ministers, relatives and friends, with prayer and the singing of psalms, committed their deceased bodies as seeds of the Resurrection bodies to the bosom of the earth. Generally these burials were in sepulchral chambers with square-cornered recesses (loculi) in the walls as burial places. The corpses were wound in wrappings, without coffin, and the openings were closed with tiles of brick or marble. The Christian catacombs, as visible witnesses to the hope of the Resurrection, carried their weight with the Roman people. Indeed, even Julian the Apostate traced the rapid spread and power of Christianity to three causes : benevolence, care of the dead, and honesty.
The Christian custom was sustained by several texts from First and Second Corinthians. In opposing fornication, the Apostle wrote : “Know ye not that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, which is in you, which ye have from God? And ye are not your own ; for yet were bought with a price : glorify God therefore in your body.” In opposing inter-marriage with unbelievers he reminds the Christians : “What agreement hath a temple of god with idols? For ye are a temple of the living God.” In warning against dividing the congregation, he says : “Know ye not that ye are a temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man destroy the temple of God, him shall God destroy ; for the temple of God is holy, and such are ye.” In the great Resurrection chapter he finds an analogy between our sowing seed and having the seed sprout into a living body and our burying the dead body and looking for its resurrection in incorruption—glory—power—a SPIRITUAL body.
Brethren, weigh these several texts, before you exchange the Christian custom of burying or entombing the bodies that are temples of the Holy Ghost for a custom which primitive Christianity universally rejected. The graves of the saints are sanctified by Christ’s rest in the tomb; and the bodies of believers still united to Christ do rest in their graves until the resurrection.
–W.C.R.zz

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