My body has been a gift and a torment to me. Some of my earliest boyhood memories are of throwing stones from the shore of Lake Superior far into the incoming waves. I had so much joy in the slingshot that God had given me for a left arm. My body also produces stones, kidney stones, and gallstones. These have caused excruciating pain, not to mention costly medical interventions.
Our bodies are both gift and gall.
They aid and ail us in ways that are deeply moral. The neurotransmitter dopamine has been involved in every spiritually transformative moment of my life, just as the stress hormone cortisol has played a role in despairing moments. Multiple physiological systems have been involved in my sexual desire, from adolescent shameful lusts to the beautiful intimacy of holy matrimony. There is no disentangling embodiment from our spiritual lives before God.
What God Has to Say About Our Bodies: How the Gospel Is Good News for Our Physical Selves
What God Has to Say About Our Bodies: How the Gospel Is Good News for Our Physical Selves
There’s a danger in focusing too much on the body. There’s also a danger in not valuing it enough. In fact, the Bible has lots to say about the body. With the coming of Jesus, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us”—flesh that was pierced and crushed for the sins of the world.
In What God Has to Say About Our Bodies, Sam Allberry explains that all of us are fearfully and wonderfully made, and should regard our physicality as a gift. He offers biblical guidance for living, including understanding gender, sexuality, and identity; dealing with aging, illness, and death; and considering the physical future hope that we have in Christ.
In this powerfully written book, you’ll gain a new understanding for the immeasurable value of our bodies and God’s ultimate plan to redeem them.
Many evangelicals seem uncomfortable with this entanglement, and as a result have been relatively silent on the topic. Because it’s easier to avoid the topic than to risk blurring the lines between the moral and the medical, the implications of human embodiment remain underdeveloped. So, it is welcome to receive three books that highlight and clarify the place of embodiment in Christian doctrine: Sam Allberry’s What God Has to Say About Our Bodies (Crossway), Gregg Allison’s Embodied (Baker), and John Kleinig’s Wonderfully Made (Lexham).
All three are a significant gift to the church.
Bodies Created, Fallen, and Redeemed
Sam Allberry’s book follows a common paradigm of creation, fall, and redemption while investigating the body’s role in topics such as identity, biological sex and gender, shame, sin, and discipleship. Allberry emphasizes that our bodies are good. They were created good; they are redeemed; they are us, even if not the totality of what we are. Our bodies are also sexed, male and female (in spite of the reality of intersex conditions and the resulting hardships). He emphasizes some implications of embodiment for gender roles, connecting these with other complementary pairs in the creation account (heaven and earth, sea and land, and so on). He also emphasizes the overwhelming alikeness of men and women, urging readers against exaggerating differences even as we notice them. He writes, “Gender comes in specialities. . . . We may do many things for each other that are the same, but the gender magic happens when we lean into the asymmetries” (83).
There is no disentangling embodiment from our spiritual lives before God.
Our bodies are also broken. We are subject to natural, social, and moral evils ranging from body shame to body dysphoria to sickness and death. Allberry treats the body’s relationship with sin with more nuance than most biblical commentators by emphasizing that the body can actually be malformed toward a deep loyalty to sin. He writes, “It can feel as though there is a force within that isn’t actually on our side” (103).
This is an important theological observation. The body is capable of being formed toward sinfulness or sanctification. Allberry also recognizes the natural brokenness of the body in suffering, as with body dysphoria. He points sufferers of this dislocation both to the sympathy of the bodily afflicted Christ and to the hope of relocation in his body. Union with Christ brings us into fellowship with the triune God and makes us members of his body. This changes how we cherish, steward, and discipline our bodies as people who await glorious resurrected bodies.
Theology of Embodiment
Gregg Allison covers much of the same area as Allberry, but with slightly different aims. Embodied aims to provide a brief and practical theology of embodiment. Allison cites the importance of embodiment for a variety of theological areas, including the doctrines of God, man, sin, Christ, the Holy Spirit, and eschatology. The book touches on most of these doctrines along with other practical topics.
The first half explores the body as created, gendered, particular, social, and social. Male and female embodiment, contends Allison, is the proper state of human existence. He highlights our individuality and sociality, pushing readers to receive their particularity, but also to embrace how it is recreated through God’s redemptive work. He also argues that humans are made for sociality, for relationships. And one aspect of how humans relate to others is sexuality. Allison balances created goodness and sinful brokenness, urging Christians toward a sanctified reception of God’s gifts.
The second half of the book focuses mainly on the sanctification, suffering, death, and resurrection of the body. Allison treats both the sins of the body and the sanctification of the body. The body needs discipline but is a blessing. This captures the biblical tension between the continuation of God’s created order and the futility spawned by the curse (Rom. 8:19–23). Allison finishes with three chapters of hope-filled reflection on suffering, death, and resurrection.
I am slightly concerned that Allison’s treatment of embodiment in both sin and sanctification lacks robust integration. Five pages in, he warns against lingering Gnosticism, saying that our tendency toward sin infects not just our body but our entire being. “The flesh refers not to our body but to our sinful nature,” he writes (26). But in a noble desire to avoid Gnosticism, he may unwittingly perpetuate it by not identifying an embodied aspect of “flesh.” The problem is that any theological move in doctrine of sin tends to have an equal and opposite reaction in the doctrine of sanctification. Diminish the role of the body in sin and you diminish its role in sanctification. But Paul ascribes a role to our bodies in both (Rom. 6–8).
Diminish the role of the body in sin and you diminish its role in sanctification.
I appreciated Allison’s treatment of lust, gluttony, and sloth, but I quibbled with his special designation of just these as bodily sins (or vices). Isn’t the body involved in all our vices, just as it is in every thought? I am also grateful for Allison’s acknowledgment of the biological and social factors intertwined with inordinate desire (he cites genes, neurochemicals, and parenting), but I wonder about how the body is involved in same-sex attraction—and what relevance this has on the status and sanctification of these desires. Finally, it is conspicuous that in speaking of “relationships” rather than “social groups,” Allison adopts a more individualist than communitarian framework. I would’ve liked to hear how Christ’s spiritual body nurtures our physical bodies, how embodiment functions within social systems and relations.
Wonderful Vision of Embodiment
John Kleinig’s Wonderfully Made might be my favorite of the three books. Kleinig is not conscientiously engaging contemporary issues as much as Allberry and Allison, but he offers a pastoral Lutheran voice that is confidently Christian. It is a voice from outside the noise that commends the beauty of Christian embodiment and sexuality. His work is diligently biblical in its orientation, unpacking God’s multifaceted conferral of body and identity to human agents. As God delights to make us and to see us, so we are. Kleinig invites us into this vision.
As God delights to make us and to see us, so we are.
Kleinig ably highlights the blessing and honor of created embodiment, along with the shame and confusion we experience after the fall. Consequently, Jesus “takes our humanity to God,” enduring the whole “lifecycle from birth to death in order to purify and sanctify our whole life in the body for eternal life with God” (65). In this way he is host, ushering us into the divine fellowship. Our bodies are redeemed in and by his flesh. So, Kleinig argues, bodily care begins with baptism, the spoken word, the Lord’s Supper, and the holy congregation. And in light of Christ’s redemption, God sees our bodies as holy. Even as our outer selves are wasting away, our bodies also show the life of Christ (2 Cor. 4:11–18). And so, being “planted” in a death like Jesus, we are also planted with him in resurrection (122; Rom. 6:3–8 KJV).
Kleining’s chapter on ‘The Sexual Body’ is the best I’ve read on the topic.
Toward the end of the book, Kleinig turns to marriage and sexuality in light of his redemptive theology of the body. His chapter on “The Sexual Body” is the best I’ve read on the topic. He begins by lamenting the crudeness of our imaginations regarding sexuality: “We lack the language to extol the beauty of chaste sexuality . . . our imagination is often too stunted and blunted to appreciate it properly” (149). He celebrates Christian sexuality by placing it into the proper context of a “confident, convivial relationship between husband and wife” (154). Their union prefigures the ultimate perfect union between Christ and the saints. Nuptial love is like a cultivated garden for mutual, shameless intimacy; it is like the private heart of a house built on God’s Word, walled by separation from parents to each other, and roofed by mutual commitment. We consecrate our eyes to each other to purify our imagination for the beloved. This sort of conjugal union is free of shame and disgust. This is how we receive God’s gift.
Toward the Redemption of Our Bodies
I recommend all three books for different purposes. Given his experience as an apologist, Allberry is skillful at communicating broadly. His personal ethos and experience lend credibility to his work. It would be a great book for those on the margins, and those learning to communicate to those on the margins. Allison’s book is a good introductory theology of embodiment for pastors, students, and laypeople. Kleinig’s book is the most devotional of the three, and with rich biblical and theological content. It deserves slow, attentive reading. Anyone would be richly blessed by it.
These books are a good step toward appreciating how to see our bodies in light of God’s creative gift and his redemptive restoration of our fallen brokenness. They situate the body in a redemptive context, while also speaking to contemporary issues. They push away from a rigid disjunction between body and soul, where the soul directs and the body carries out its directives. Evangelical theology is moving toward a more biblical appreciation for God’s creative and redemptive purposes for our bodies, not merely our souls.
These books push away from a rigid disjunction between body and soul, where the soul directs and the body carries out its directives.
And there is more work to do. We are right to prioritize theological work grounded in biblical narrative, but we must continue to push toward deeper integrative work that attends to the body itself. Our appreciation for the gift and gall of human embodiment will only increase as we understand the workings of our brain and autonomic nervous systems. And understanding these things will enable us to especially care well for those for whom the body itself has become an affliction.