God not only declared the physical creation “good” and the creation of man in his image as “very good,” but he actually fashioned us from the earth itself (Gen. 2:7). This demonstrates that neither God nor humanity have a denigrated or tainted view of the physical creation. In fact, the physical creation is given to us as a testimony of God’s presence (Ps. 24) and power (Ps. 19). The phrase “Maker of heaven and earth” appears in the opening line of the Apostles’ Creed because the doctrine of creation is foundational to God’s entire unfolding plan of redemption (see Pss. 115:15; 121:2; 124:8; 134:3; 146:6; Neh. 9:6; Jer. 32:17; Isa. 45:12, 18; Acts 17:24). The New Testament reaffirms the understanding that creation is good. For example, in a passage that mirrors Psalm 24:1, Paul exhorts Timothy, “For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim. 4:4, 5). The goodness, reliability, and orderliness of creation is a foundational underpinning of science, providing the basis for reliable scientific inquiry, hypotheses, and testing.
Today, one of the signs of the broken world we live in is the growing distrust of the human body. We see this particularly in the increase of gender dysphoria that is occurring in our culture. While gender dysphoria occurs in less than 1 percent of the overall population, the rapid rise of this experience, along with high profile transgender celebrities such as Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner, has brought it into the national spotlight. It is not uncommon for someone who is struggling with their gender identity to declare that although they are biologically a male, they feel “trapped in their body,” which is masking their true identity as a female, or vice versa. Gender identity is becoming decoupled from any of the normal biological markers that have distinguished male and female since the creation of the world.9 The decoupling of gender identity from biology is already being incorporated into our legal system. Increasingly, any notion that we should trust our bodies’ biological gender markers is considered an unwarranted assumption. However, this violates the Christian view, which is to trust the inherent goodness of the physical order in general and of our created bodies in particular.
The goodness of the body also serves as the foundation that enables us to resist a range of ideas that prioritize the spirit over the body. In the creation account, Genesis 2:7 intentionally unites in one verse both the fashioning of the human body and the breathing of God’s spirit into us: “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” With its bright, glorious, unifying vision of who we are, this one stunning verse sweeps away all the fragmenting, dichotomizing divisions between body and spirit that have plagued the human race.
Fragmentation between body and spirit, which devalues the body and heightens the inner “true” spirit of one’s inner self, is a gnostic rather than Judeo-Christian view of the human body. Broadly speaking, gnosticism refers to a variety of philosophical and religious ideas that emerged in the first and second centuries. One common theme in the gnostic worldview is the belief that all matter, including the material world, is evil and that only the spiritual realm is good. For gnostics, God is not the creator of the universe; rather, a lesser deity or inferior spirit (demiurge) created the material world. Salvation is defined as becoming “awakened” to this “higher knowledge.” The word gnostic comes from the Greek word gnosis, meaning “knowledge.” Gnostics viewed the mind and inner self as captive to the body. Thus, a person’s spirit—a person’s true self—is a transcendent self that must be separated from the restraints and biological markers of the body, which is untrustworthy. The early church decisively denounced gnosticism and any heresies that arose from it, such as emphasizing the divine and spiritual side of the incarnation rather than embracing Jesus in both his full humanity and his full deity.
Our integrated unity of body, soul, spirit as a whole person is an “icon” in the world of both the triune nature of God (three persons, one unity) and also of Christ (two natures united in one person). In this book, the word icon refers to a person or a thing that serves as a representative symbol. Another way of thinking about it is to see our bodies as physical signs or pointers to a divine mystery. In fact, the physical body makes visible the spiritual realities of God’s nature and covenantal love. This is what is meant by the phrase “theology of the body.” When we separate our “spiritual” lives from our day-to-day physical embodiment, we are left with a deficient theology of the body.
What we are encountering in our culture today is not the first reemergence of gnostic ideas of the body. In the eighteenth century, for example, we see gnostic ideas of the body in various philosophies that elevated a person’s individual consciousness. This view exalted a person’s individual consciousness. Rene Descartes (1596–1650) made famous the phrase “I think, therefore I am,” which exalted human reason as the primary identifier of our personhood over any physical or biological markers. Later, Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), the philosopher of the German enlightenment, helped to push religion out of the sphere of public facts and embodied events in human history and inward to the privatized world of faith, where the role of religion was to satisfy our own internal, psychological needs. The Kantian philosophical revolution is behind the separation of the sacred and the secular, or the spiritual and the physical. If religion is merely a matter of the heart or inner perspective, then the bodily historicity of either the incarnation or the resurrection ceases to really matter. The Christian worldview cannot accept such a disembodied faith.
Whenever the Christian worldview comes under attack, as it did in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and is today, the Christian view of the body is always supplanted by some version of a neognostic view of the body. While it is important for the church to develop pastoral sensitivities and appropriate pastoral care for people who experience gender dysphoria, we should recognize that the disorder is based on a non-Christian view of the body. Christianity has traditionally taught that the heart is deceitful (Jer. 17:9), but the body is trustworthy because it was created to be the dwelling place of God himself (1 John 4:2; 1 Cor. 6:19, 20). Today, the emerging assumption is precisely the opposite: the heart is considered to be a trustworthy guide, but your body might deceive you. This has led to the growing attitude that the body gives us no clues as to our true identity. The body has no story to tell. In short, matter does not matter. In contrast, a Christian theology of the body points to a tremendous, positive view of the material body. We believe that our bodies have a story to tell. In short, your body matters!
This is an excerpt from Timothy Tennent’s new book, For the Body: Recovering a Theology of Gender, Sexuality, and the Human Body (Seedbed, Zondervan). Through these pages, you will:
- Understand why our bodies matter on a host of issues
- Discover a positive vision for human sexuality
- Be equipped to engage culture from a positive posture
The human body is an amazing gift, yet today, many people downplay its importance and fail to understand what Christianity teaches about our bodies and their God-given purposes. We misunderstand how the body was designed, its role in relating to others, and lack awareness of the dangers of objectifying the body, divorcing it from its intended purpose.
In For the Body, author Timothy Tennent looks at what it means to be created in the image of God and how our bodies serve as icons that illuminate God’s purposes. Tennent examines topics like marriage, family, singleness, and friendship, and he looks at how the human body has been objectified in art and media today. He also offers a framework for discipling people today in a Christian theology of the body. Get it from our store here. Video and companion study for groups releases January 2021.