Theology, Bible, and Disability: An Overview

David F. Watson

In recent years, the awareness of the scholarly community regarding the theology, Bible, and disability has grown significantly. More than ever, scholars in seminaries and departments of religion are turning their attention to these important matters. In this essay, I will say a bit about the landscape of ideas related to academic theological discourse around people with disabilities and discuss a few bibliographic resources along the way.

I’ve a personal interest in theology and disability. My ten-year-old son, Sean, has Down syndrome. I’ve seen firsthand the good, the bad, and the ugly of the way people interact with Sean, both within and outside of the church. There’s been a lot more good than bad or ugly, but the bad and ugly are quite real, and we must reckon with these matters using all of the theological resources at our disposal.

It will be helpful to begin with some discussion of appropriate terminology. Although “disability” is a generally accepted term in academic discourse, not everyone is satisfied with this language. We no longer use language like “crippled” or “retarded” for people with particular medical conditions, though these were once entirely acceptable. Likewise, the term “handicapped” has fallen out of favor. It seems likely that in time terms like “disabled” and “disability” will also drop out of common usage in favor of more helpful descriptive words. For now, however, it is generally considered most appropriate to speak of “people with disabilities.”

The term “people with disabilities” is a bit of a mouthful. It is quicker and easier simply to say “the disabled” or “disabled people.” I catch myself doing this from time to time. Nevertheless, “person-first” language is important. This is not simply a matter of political correctness. To describe people as “the disabled” is to define them by a particular characteristic. To describe them as “people with disabilities” prioritizes their humanity — that they are first and foremost people — and acknowledges the fact that they live with disabilities.

There are three common models for thinking about disability (see Candida R. Moss and Jeremy Schipper, eds., Disability Studies and Biblical Literature [Palgrave MacMillan, 2011], 2-4). The first is the medical model, according to which a disability is a particular medical condition, such as the inability to see or hear. The medical model does not account for the social consequences of the disabling condition.

Far more common and useful in theological discussions of disability is the social model, which distinguishes between an impairment and a disability. According to this model, an impairment is a physical, mental, or emotional condition that is generally considered atypical. If one is missing an arm or leg, has an imbalance of chemicals in the brain causing chronic depression, or has an extra copy of the twenty-first chromosome (Down syndrome), one has an impairment. A disability, however, is the set of effects caused by an impairment. Take the example of a person with a spinal injury that requires him or her to use a wheelchair. The impairment is the injury to the spine. The disability, however, emerges from the fact that our world is not generally set up for people who must use wheelchairs. Think about the effect that a few small steps leading up to the front porch of a house can have on this person.

Some scholars also use a cultural model of disability, a postmodern approach that explores the ways we shape the world around us by reference to physical and cognitive differences. Those who employ this model are not primarily interested in a medical diagnosis or in social discrimination related to impairments, but in the interpretive categories by which we narrate and organize the world in which we live.

Prior to Sean’s birth I had engaged with theology and disability in only limited ways, though those engagements did make an impression on me. In retrospect, I can see God’s providential hand preparing me for what was to come. Twice I had the privilege of hearing Frances M. Young give lectures reflecting theologically on life with her son Arthur, who is profoundly disabled, both intellectually and physically. Young’s work, Brokenness and Blessing: Towards a Biblical Spirituality (Baker Academic, 2007), though not focused exclusively on disability, provides some helpful resources for theological reflection on the topic. Later, in preparation for a seminary course I was teaching at United, I came across a moving essay by Richard Steele of Seattle Pacific University called “Unremitting Compassion: The Moral Psychology of Parenting Children with Genetic Disorders” (Theology Today 57, no. 2 [2000]: 161–74). In this essay, Steele discusses life with his daughter, Sarah, who was diagnosed at a young age with a debilitating and quite rare genetic disorder.

Some time after Sean was born, a friend recommended that I read Amos Yong’s newly published work, Theology and Down Syndrome: Reimagining Disability in Late Modernity (Baylor University Press, 2007). Reading that book was a watershed moment. It opened up a brave new world of theological discourse for me by its extensive engagement with literature from both secular disability studies and the burgeoning field of theology and disability. It is a weighty theological tome, both rich and rigorous. Not everyone, however, will wish to engage such a heavy piece. For those who would like a more accessible volume, I recommend Yong’s The Bible, Disability, and the Church: A New Vision of the People of God (Eerdmans, 2011).

Shortly after reading Theology and Down Syndrome, I picked up Nancy Eiesland’s landmark work, The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability (Abingdon, 1994). Though not the first book published in the field of theology and disability, it was the fountainhead for many other works on the same topic. Its publication marks the beginning of a new movement aimed at deepening our theological and biblical engagement with these matters. One should note, however, that Christians have through the centuries engaged in theological reflection on the lives of people with disabilities. In recent decades John Vanier and Stanley Hauerwas have provided numerous and powerful discussions of the lives of people with disabilities and related theological topics. They, of course, stand on the shoulders of significant thinkers who went before them. For those who want to trace the history and development of theology and disability, I recommend Disability in the Christian Tradition: A Reader, edited by Brian Brock and John Swinton (Eerdmans, 2012).

My academic training is in biblical studies, so I am particularly interested in works of biblical scholarship that relate to the lives of people with disabilities. At this point, there has been more scholarship related to the OT and disability than the NT. We might consider, for example, Rebecca Raphael’s Biblical Corpora: Representations of Disability in Hebrew Biblical Literature (T&T Clark, 2008) and Jeremy Schipper’s Disability Studies in the Hebrew Bible: Figuring Mephibosheth in the David Story (T&T Clark, 2009). Although I have no documentation or opinion poll to explain why the literature on Bible and disability leans so heavily toward the OT, one plausible explanation is that, in the NT, most people with impairments are healed. There are exceptions to this, such as the Ethiopian eunuch of Acts 8. Particularly in the Gospels and Acts, however, people are most often healed of their impairments, and we thus find therein less abundant material for theological reflection on life with ongoing, long-term disabilities.

Moss and Schipper’s edited volume on Disability Studies and Biblical Literature includes several exceptionally helpful pieces. One might also consult another essay collection, This Abled Body: Rethinking Disabilities in Biblical Studies, edited by Hector Avalos and Sarah J. Melcher (Society of Biblical Literature, 2007). I also recommend a forthcoming text from Baylor University Press called Disability and the Bible: A Commentary. As the title suggests, this one-volume Bible commentary adopts a hermeneutical focus on the lives of people with disabilities.

Numerous topics related to theology, Bible, and disability studies warrant deeper exploration. As indicated above, there is a paucity of NT scholarship in this area. Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor 12:7) and the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40), for example, provide rich material for exegetical and hermeneutical exploration. Cognitive, mental, and emotional disabilities, from developmental delay to depression to PTSD, are ripe for theological engagement. Studies on these topics would be timely and quite relevant to the life of the church and the wider culture. Additionally, there is surely more to be said about the theological connections between disablement and crucifixion, as well as the theology of disability and kenosis.

A particularly promising area for further consideration is the relationship between theological anthropology and people with disabilities. Although Roman Catholics have a well-developed body of literature on theological anthropology, most Protestant groups don’t. What work there is on theological anthropology does not consistently address people with disabilities. Exactly what it means to be human is a contested issue in Western culture. Christians need to think clearly and carefully about these matters, lest the confusion of the ambient culture seep more deeply into our churches. What does it mean to be human? What does the Bible teach about such matters? Is our humanity tied to our ability to do things – to walk, to speak, to think? In other words, is our humanness somehow determined by particular functions that we can perform? Is a person who has limited cognitive function somehow less human, and therefore less inherently valuable, than a person with typical or super-typical intellectual capacities? To put the matter more concretely, does a person with Alzheimer’s become less human as his or her condition advances? Most Christians would (I hope) say no to this question, but I suspect that fewer could clearly say why. For a work that engages the complexity of questions of humanity, I highly recommend So You Think You’re Human: A Brief History of Humankind, by Felipe Fernández Armesto (Oxford University Press, 2004).

One of the finest books I’ve read on the topic of theology and disability is Hans S. Reinders’s Receiving the Gift of Friendship: Profound Disability, Theological Anthropology, and Ethics (Eerdmans, 2008). Reinders takes up the matter of the humanity of, and friendship with, people with profound intellectual disabilities, by which he means, those whose mental development “has not gone beyond a toddler’s” (48). In the first chapter, Reinders discusses a profoundly disabled woman named Kelly. Many people would refer to Kelly as a “vegetable,” though Reinders rightly objects to this term. As he describes the purpose of his writing, “I am trying to understand what makes approaching Kelly as a human being an intelligible act” (31). Understanding Kelly as human means that we must be open to the possibility of friendship with her. To be human is to be in a particular kind of relationship with God that instructs the ways we should think about our relationships with each other. What would it mean, however, to be friends with someone like Kelly? The key to answering this question is that, though she cannot consciously respond to God’s love for her, this love is in fact real, and God does indeed have a relationship with her. Just as God loves her, we too are called to love her, even though she cannot respond. Further, despite the fact that she cannot consciously offer us anything, we nevertheless receive from her. “Kelly cannot return gifts of friendship in the sense of a human act. Thus what we have received is the gift of her presence, not the gift of her response” (378). In this sense, the relationship is one of mutuality.

Unfortunately, though not surprisingly, this understanding of humanity as a God-given identity, rather than a functional trait tied to one’s abilities, puts Christians at a considerable distance from secular culture. Euthanasia is on the rise in Western Europe, and not just for the elderly, but also for disabled children. In the US, 80-90% of pregnancies are terminated when Down syndrome is identified in prenatal screening. This practice is not only allowed, but often encouraged, by members of the medical community. Our culture is attempting to eliminate this people group from society because many people see no value in them. Simply put, this is a form of eugenics. Moreover, this eugenic initiative goes unnoticed because, for people with Down syndrome, self-advocacy is very difficult. They can struggle with self-expression, even with speech itself, and certainly with being taken seriously.

There are many other volumes I wish I could mention here, but word-limit constraints prevent my doing so. Part of me, however, rejoices in this problem, as even ten years ago the bibliography of works related to theology, Bible, and disability would have been much shorter. If you have an interest in these areas, I recommend attending the Summer Institute on Theology and Disability. It is a diverse gathering of scholars, pastors, and other interested parties to engage in high-level theological discourse. At this event, one has the opportunity to learn from such accomplished scholars as Hans Reinders and John Swinton, the latter of whom recently received the Michael Ramsey Prize for theological writing for his work, Dementia: Living in the Memories of God (Eerdmans, 2012). Despite the ongoing challenges of people with disabilities and their loved ones, both the church and the academy are becoming ever more cognizant of their presence, their value, and the myriad ways they can contribute to our communities of faith and learning.

Posted Feb 08, 2017