Toward a Protestant theology of the body
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In a recent essay for First Things, Carl Trueman said that we exist today in “a battle for the body.” “The status of the body as it relates to us as human persons,” Trueman posits, “seems to be the issue that lies, often unseen, behind many of the other more prominent debates of our age.”
Take, for example, the debate about what a woman is. Or, to be more church-centric, the many denominational splits that occur over issues of sex and gender, including the issue of same-sex marriage. Likewise, consider one of the primary reasons Christians (some of whom identify as “ex-vangelical”) “deconstruct”: The church’s teaching on sex, marriage, and gender. Debates about abortion, or IVF, or surrogacy—all these are related to Christian teaching on the body. Trueman is right: There is a battle for the body. But Protestants are late: the battle has been raging for a very long time. If we are to meet our secular, post-Christian culture with grace and truth on these matters, it will be the defining task of our age to embrace a robust and comprehensive theology of the body.
Until recently, the Protestant ethic concerning the body has been a reactionary one in which individuals and church leaders either respond reactively against the secular culture’s belief about the body or else, much like Aaron raising up the golden calf, compromise Christian teaching and cave in to it. Examples abound: On one end of the spectrum, some churches struggle to minister to Christians who suffer from same-sex attraction, sometimes driving them (intentionally or unintentionally) from their midst. On the other end of the spectrum, some Protestants have abandoned the historic Christian teaching on sex and marriage, blessing and ordaining same-sex marriages and priests, and celebrating various kinds of sexual immoralities.
In the face of the sexual revolution, Protestants were caught on their back foot, without a theology of the body that could help us meet the most pressing issues of our day. And while we’re now in the midst of the battle for the body, we still have an opportunity—an imperative—to meet the demands of our sex-crazed culture like Moses instead of Aaron, looking to God for our instruction instead of to our culture.
Philosopher Alastair MacIntyre has said that to answer the question, what are we to do?, we must first answer the prior question, what are human beings for? This is the perfect starting place for questions about the body, for the things we should or should not do with them. What are we to do with our bodies? can only be answered by asking the prior question, What are our bodies for? These two questions, together, will lay the groundwork for developing a robust and comprehensive theology of the body, the only thing that will render coherent our response to many of the most pressing issues of the day.
Thankfully, we need not start this work from scratch but can enter into the work that Catholics have sustained for some time. Much evangelical interest in the theology of the body has been sparked by Pope John Paul II, who greatly expanded Catholic teaching on the body during the mid-to-late twentieth century. At that time, and to our shame, Protestants, by and large, did not contribute to nor converse with this theology. And while we should have begun the work a long time ago, there is hope, as a groundswell of evangelical interest in the theology of the body has emerged, signaling a new era of Protestant engagement.
In September, Protestants gathered in Washington, D.C., to discuss, in a first-ever conference of its kind, what a Protestant theology of the body might look like. Topics ranged from singleness and celibacy to CRISPR and surrogacy, with much in between. I lectured on the history of contraceptive technology, considering Protestant theology for the female body. And there was much we could have covered but did not in our short time: disability, infertility, abortion, adoption, suffering, death, and so much more. There is rich ground to till. The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.
Yet, we are hopeful. There are faithful Christians who have begun or contributed to this work, not least of which the ones who spoke at September’s Protestant Theology of the Body Conference. It was a hopeful sign that Protestants are reinvigorating this work of engaging thoughtfully with what it means to be embodied creatures in this good but fallen world the Lord created and is redeeming. And it will be the defining task of our age to meet the challenges of our post-Christian world with a robust and comprehensive theology of the body, in thought, word, and practice. The world needs it.
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