Theology of the body has become increasingly popular and relevant in the past few years. Until recently, however, the most extended treatment on the subject is a dense tome written by Catholic philosopher-theologian, Pope John Paul II. Sam Allberry’s new book, What God Has to Say About Our Bodies: How the Gospel is Good News for Our Physical Selves, provides a more accessible entry way into this critical topic for those less versed in the academic philosophy and theology of John Paul II. Whatever one’s familiarity with theology of the body, What God Has to Say About Our Bodies is a timely reintroduction to Scripture’s affirmation of the body for believers living in a culture that has come to reject the body.
Though the book helpfully explores how scriptural teaching on the human body applies to various culturally relevant issues — connection in the digital age, gender dysphoria, body shame, and disability — Allberry’s chief concern is to lay out a holistic picture of Scripture’s teaching on the meaning of our physical bodies, from creation to new creation. Naturally, the book is broken up into three parts, according to the basic outline of redemptive history: creation, fall, and redemption.
Part I begins where the Bible does: with creation. At creation, God made humanity from the dust — that is, with physical bodies. The body is not an accident. Nor is the body external to the true self. Instead, the body is a gift from God that is originally and intrinsically good, and an essential part of the self. Scripture affirms this. Even after the fall, David could recognize that humans, including their bodies, are “fearfully and wonderfully made” by God. In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul equates “your body” with “you,” thus equating the body with the person.
God also made humans male and female. This means that God intended sexual dimorphism, that it is intrinsically good, essential to the self, and the basis for masculinity and femininity. Scripture does not allow us to say anything less than this. But Allberry also warns that we cannot say more than Scripture says about masculinity and femininity. Allberry is especially helpful here.
Too often the views of masculinity or femininity peddled in the church are incomplete or are distorted ideas rooted in culture than in Scripture. According to Allberry, “masculinity is what long-term sanctification produces in Christian men and femininity is what long-term sanctification produces in women” (78). However, Scripture’s sex-specific characteristics and exhortations are typically or generally true rather than universally, absolutely, or exclusively true of one sex over the other. Thus, although masculinity and femininity are distinct, Scripture calls all Christians, both men and women, to bear the same fruit of the Spirit. Gentleness is not only for women, or self-control only for men. Allberry is reminiscent of Herman Bavinck, who wrote: “No man is complete without feminine qualities, and no woman is complete without some masculine qualities” (8, The Christian Family).
In Part II, Allberry considers the impact of the fall on the human body. Although intrinsically good as part of God’s intended creation, the body has become subject to death and brokenness through sin. Our bodies are not as they were made to be. As part of the creation subjected to futility, the human body is prone to decay, weakness, infirmity, and shame (even when our bodies are otherwise healthy and whole). The body has also become ground zero for our fallen, sinful nature. That is, our bodies are implicated in our sinfulness, as instruments of sin. Above all, death is the greatest proof of sin’s effect.
But death is not the last word. As Allberry notes, the incarnation is the greatest compliment given to the human body. Christ’s embodiment affirms the intrinsic goodness of the body. The incarnation is also the greatest comfort to those in broken bodies. By taking on flesh, Christ fully stepped into our bodily futility and mortality. Consequently, he is able to perfectly sympathize with our frailties. Ultimately, through his death on the cross, Christ experienced the greatest depths of bodily brokenness.
Of course, death is not the final word. In Part III, Allberry explores what redemption means for our bodies, both in the now and in the not yet. Though the redeemed are not yet in glorified bodies, the bible is clear that our bodies have become members of Christ as a result of our union with him. Christ is the firstborn from the dead, and believers have been raised with him to new life in the present. Christ’s own resurrection not only gives resurrection life in the present, it promises a more glorious life to come, and it means that the body matters even more. Scripture calls believers to nourish, cherish, discipline, and offer up their bodies for the sake of Christ. Hence the importance given throughout Scripture to food, sleep, clothing, physical training, resisting fleshly temptation, and embodied forms in worship.
Allberry is at his strongest when he exhorts readers to consider seriously the role of the body in discipleship. If Paul describes sin as hijacking every member of the body in Romans 3:13-18, then his command for Christians to present their bodily members to Christ as a living sacrifice must be taken seriously:
In too many areas of our discipleship have separated our Christianity from our bodies. There are aspects of our physical life that we think are irrelevant to our faith, and there are parts of our Christian life that we think have nothing to do with our bodies. The truth is that the New Testament often speaks of discipleship in bodily terms (170).
For Christians, the body will still die. But the hope of resurrection, begun already in our hearts, means that death is not the end of the body. God will give us new bodies for a new creation. The life to come is not some dull, disembodied existence. It is, as Lewis put it, more solid, more concrete. From the vantage point of the resurrection, then, the Christian is freed from the need to rapaciously consume the sights, experiences, and pleasures of this physical life, as if it were never to be seen again. Rather this life is but an appetizer to an even more glorious life in resurrected bodies.
For those familiar with theology of the body, Allberry’s book may not offer any particularly fresh insights. Yet, it’s chief value lies in its re-articulation of a crucial Christian distinctive about which the church was acutely aware in its earlier battles with gnostic dualism—namely the affirmation of the intrinsic goodness of the body and the physical creation. Additionally, because it is written at a popular level by a Protestant, Allberry’s book will be able to reach those Christians who might not otherwise pick up Pope John Paul II’s Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body (despite the fact that its teaching and exegesis is not all that different from Allberry’s on a number of crucial points). Allberry’s work, then, is important if for no other reason than it exposes more Christians to a biblical theology of the body.
Allberry’s work also expands the scope of theology of the body. John Paul II’s theology of the body focused mainly, even if not exclusively, on the body’s significance in marriage and sexual ethics. Of course, the Pope would have acknowledged that the scope of theology of the body extends beyond marriage and sex. But whereas the Pope’s work is prized for its in depth treatment on marriage and sex, Allberry’s should be cherished for its breadth. Christianity’s affirmation of the body — both its persistent, created goodness and its future glory — is quite unique. But its affirmation of the body, as Allberry has shown, extends beyond marriage and sex. Allberry’s work offers a glimpse into just how comprehensive this affirmation is and opens rich lines of inquiry that others will hopefully follow.