Review: 'The Scalpel and the Cross: A Theology of Surgery'

By Greg Feulner  ·  Nov 18, 2021

The Scalpel and the Cross: A Theology of Surgery by Gene L. Green (Zondervan, 96 pages)


Some people are unnerved when they hear the word “theology.” Isn’t theology hopelessly involved and distant, a technical discipline irrelevant to everyday life appropriately reserved for out-of-touch academics who like to argue over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

Theology, many conclude, takes a personal and living God and reduces Him to cold, sterile concepts. Nothing could be further from the truth. Theology is simply “words that express thoughts about God,” writes New Testament scholar and former missionary Gene L. Green in The Scalpel and the Cross: A Theology of Surgery. In fact, “[f]or the Christian, life and theology cannot be separated” as all Christians have thoughts about God. Green explores what God’s Word has to say about surgery and why that should matter to us as God’s people. Green brings not only his expertise in the New Testament to the table but also his own personal reflections on having open-heart surgery and how that relates to our faith.

Surgery and theology are not two ideas we typically think of together, but the Bible really has much to say about the terrifying, sometimes routine event of surgery, and we would do well to consider it. Surgery reminds us of our own frailty and brokenness in a fallen world and of our desperate need for something beyond temporary physical healing: spiritual healing and the ultimate renewal of all things. Surgery affords us opportunity for reflection on the hope of the resurrection when our bodies will no longer suffer under the curse of sin.

The structure of Green’s book follows the progression of the surgical process, from the day before surgery all the way through to recovery.

In the first chapter, “Reflections From the Day Before,” Green begins with this straightforward declaration: “Tomorrow they cut.”

Despite being an avid cyclist and an otherwise healthy individual, Green’s aortic valve has a calcium buildup, and it needs to be replaced. Numerous practical considerations flood his mind going into surgery: Who will take care of things while I’m in the hospital? How long will the recovery time be and what will be needed after surgery? Is my will in order in the event things do not turn out as planned? Did I make the right decision going with the bioprosthetic valve or should I have chosen the mechanical valve instead?

The approaching surgery arouses consideration of everyday things we easily overlook such as the vital importance of community and our dependence on others. The prayers of others are a great encouragement in times of uncertainty and distress. Meals, offers of help with chores around the house, the kindness (or unkindness) of the hospital staff, and the assurance the surgeon offers through his knowledge and years of experience all work together to contribute to the experience the patient has.

Here we see the particular importance of being part of a local church. God does not save us into a vacuum. He transfers us from the kingdom of darkness into a life-giving, Spirit-filled community of believers who exist to glorify God by encouraging and edifying one another as Christ’s Body. Just as one among us undergoes surgery to find healing for their earthly body, Christ’s Body recognizes when one of its members is in need and comes alongside to be the conduits of the life-giving Spirit we all share. Interwoven throughout Green’s book is this idea of community as the outworking of the Gospel. The witness of Christ’s Church is on glorious display when she loves her own in obedience to the Great King who is sovereign over life and death. Theology has much to say about surgery.

Christ’s Body recognizes when one of its members is in need.

At some point, it’s important to note that in reflecting upon ordinary life and theology, we are not forcing connections between Scripture and everyday life where connections do not truly exist. The purpose of such an exercise is to explore further what God has to say about every aspect of our lives, as His creatures, and to receive instruction and encouragement from that. In the surgeon, for instance, we see that he has very specific instructions for the patient going into surgery, instructions which promote life and reduce risk based on his wisdom and expertise. In the same way, we are called to trust the Great Physician and to obey His instruction for our lives. The difference here is that this instruction finds its source not in the wisdom of an expert in his field but in the infinite wisdom of an Almighty God laid out for us in the pages of Scripture. Even when we do not fully understand (or understand at all!), we listen to the surgeon. How much more should we trust in the wisdom of an all-knowing Creator? The surgeon brings healing and restoration to a broken body, and we praise God for the abilities and resources which make that possible. But the healing the surgeon offers is only physical and temporary. This reminds us of the greatness of God’s healing work when He takes a person who is dead in his sin and makes him alive eternally.

The surgeon has compassion on the one suffering as Jesus had compassion on us. In turn, we are reminded to have compassion for others. Here, the surgery itself reminds us of the cross. “Surgery is a violent act carried out in compassion.” In this violent and intrusive act (the cutting of a knife into flesh), the goal is not destruction but restoration. Much like the Gospel, the means of bringing healing and restoration entails suffering (Isaiah 53:5, John 18:11). As such, surgery “offers a glimmer of the good things to come with the final advent of His Kingdom that rules over all creation,” Green writes.

Further reflection takes us beyond the basic elements of surgeon and surgery. It can be easy to overlook, but should not be forgotten, that there is an entire medical team working with the surgeon to ensure the surgery is successful, a hospital staff scheduling appointments, working hard to keep rooms and utensils clean for use and everything in order. We could consider the town that wanted a hospital in the first place and made the surgery possible to the individuals who designed and built the hospital; all these things are at play in every surgery that happens in every hospital around the world. “Each surgery enjoys the support of countless people who facilitate this specialized endeavor.” We could go further back to the beginning of the hospital as a concept which came about through the early Church seeking to live out the teachings of Jesus. Surgery involves more than a surgeon and a patient.

Surgery, unfortunately, does not always go as planned. Green devotes a chapter of reflection on surgeries that end in the worsening of the condition or even death. Here the importance of community is most crucial, especially in the simple but tangible act of being present with those who suffer. Jesus asked that His disciples stay awake with Him in the Garden of Gethsemane before His trial and execution (Matthew 26:38). Luke was a comfort to Paul simply by being present with him (2 Timothy 4:11).

The patient undergoing surgery needs the prayer of others and the support of his church, family, and friends—even just their presence can be a blessing. Green cites research to show that “[s]ocial support in all its aspects contributes to a person’s recovery after surgery. Solitude is crushing, while in community we are strong.” Helping a patient’s family with a task or errand, for instance, relieves stress for that family member and frees them to devote more direct attention to a loved one. Sending an encouraging card brightens one’s day. Surgery can be intimidating. Helping a loved one think through different options can turn an overwhelming problem into something more manageable. This is why we as the Church exist. Everyone’s gifts can and should be used to lift up the Body for God’s glory.

Not all readers will agree with some of Green’s views. In his chapter on surgery and justice, for instance, he praises the Affordable Care Act. But the uniqueness of a book that offers a theological perspective on surgery from a New Testament scholar with his own personal experience can be useful for anyone wanting to consider ways surgery might intersect with our faith.

Surgery and theology. These and other “ordinary” things are not topics we normally put together, but if God calls us to take every thought captive and to devote all of ourselves to Him, maybe that needs to change. 

Greg Feulner is a Communications Specialist for Samaritan Ministries.

Also read:

Finding God in the anxiety of the waiting room

How you can gain revelation from hard times---and why it matters