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Love Your Body, Step 3: Get Theology

April 14, 2010

“The body is not a tomb, but a wondrous masterpiece of God, constituting the essence of man as fully as the soul.” -Herman Bavinck

Good News

I have some good news to share…life-changing news. But before I tell you, I want you to forget about “the power of positive thinking”, self-esteem propaganda, and O Magazine.

Instead, I want you to put on your theologian hat and consider this declaration: you have an amazing body.

I’m not trying to make you feel good, I’m telling you because its good doctrine.

More than a suitcase?

“My body’s just a suitcase for the soul”, sings Willie Nelson, in a song by the same name: “When my last breath is drawn, I’ll unpack and ramble on, And play my blues down on those streets of gold. My body’s just a suitcase for my soul.”

I wish this sentiment had stayed within the confines of country music, but unfortunately, such phrases have crept their way into christianspeak.  It’s not uncommon to hear the body described as a prison, a cage, a necessary evil–ideological throwbacks, not to the Bible, but to the ancient Greek philosophers.

But if the greatest purpose and final destiny of the human body is to haul around our soul for a few decades until the wheels fall off and we are rendered obsolete, then it could be said that we are to be “most pitied“.

What does the Bible teach about our bodies? A commonly quoted chapter is Psalm 139, in which we learn that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made”, having been “knit together” in our mother’s wombs.  This is rich doctrine, but we tend to limit the application to arguing against abortion, and promoting self-esteem among junior high schoolers–worthy goals, but merely scratches on the surface of a much deeper body of theology.

Back to Genesis

Prompted by curiosity and friends’ rave reviews, I recently began to delve into Pope John Paul II’s much heralded Theology of the Body, an integrated view of human love and sexuality which teaches, “the physical human body has a specific meaning and is capable of revealing answers regarding fundamental questions about us and our lives.”

Among Catholics, (particularly young Catholics), it’s a big deal. Papal biographer George Weigel describes it as a “theological time bomb set to go off with dramatic consequences …perhaps in the twenty-first century”.

As I began my own self-study course, I ran into two personal obstacles: (1) John Paul II is a philosophical genius and his writing far surpasses my comprehension, and (2) as a Protestant, I stumbled over some of the language and particular interpretations. Nonetheless, my cursory investigation of Theology of the Body served an important role, acting as a wake-up call to the importance of the human body, and pointing back to the Bible for answers regarding our physical origins.

It is in Genesis where we find the beginning of the relationship between God and His creation–both spiritual and physical. It is here that we learn of our identity and purpose as human beings:  “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it…'” (Genesis 1:27-28). And it is here where we learn that God looked on all that He had made, and declared that it was very good.

Imaging God

Volumes have been written on what it means to be made in the image and likeness of God.  Does the image of God refer only to the spiritual, emotional, mental, and relational dimensions of our being, or does it also include the physical body? Many theologians would argue that the body is excluded in imaging God, for the Bible teaches that the eternal, omnipresent, invisible God is spirit (John 4:24) and is not bound by a physical body. But others (while still maintaining this doctrine) have argued for a more integrated view of the human body.

John Calvin, for example, seeks a middle ground, saying that at the creation of man, “the primary seat of the divine image was in the mind and heart, or in the soul and its powers, yet there was no part of man, not even the body itself, in which some sparks did not glow.” Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck explains it this way, “Man’s body also belongs to the image of God…The body is not a tomb, but a wondrous masterpiece of God, constituting the essence of man as fully as the soul.”

Regardless of where they fall on the spectrum, most theologians would agree that the physical body has profound sacredness and meaning within the Christian faith–a meaning that extends far beyond biological function or “suitcaseness”.

Body Language

In the upcoming sections, we will be surveying a few of the ways the human body speaks about our identity and purpose, in harmony with God’s word and natural theology.

Psalm 19 declares that “The heavens are telling of the glory of God; and their expanse is declaring the work of His hands. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.”

On a clear evening, we marvel at the expanse and beauty of the stars and galaxies, and yet we do not need to look all the way to the heavens to receive testimony of the glory of God. On a cloud-covered night, we need only look in the mirror to be reminded–not only of the glory of God–but of His tender mercies towards His people, and the unique purpose He has written into the language of our bodies.

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