From the Battle for the Bible to the Battle for the Body

From the Battle for the Bible to the Battle for the Body October 13, 2023

Not too long ago, Christian institutions and denominations were torn over disputes about the truth of the Scriptures, a controversy that became known as “the Battle for the Bible.”  Today, argues Carl Trueman, the issue is “The Battle for the Body.”

He makes that case in an article of that title in First Things, a follow-up to an earlier article we blogged about in our post The New Difference Between Liberal and Conservative Theology.

He points out how and why the status of the body underlies so many of the other issues that Christians are struggling with and explains what is at stake.  Read the whole article.  Here are some excerpts:

The status of the body as it relates to us as human persons seems to be the issue that lies, often unseen, behind many of the other more prominent debates of our age. Take the most controversial question of recent years: What is a woman? This is remarkably simple to answer if bodies have importance, but it is now staggeringly difficult to answer because our culture denies the authority of the body in this matter. . . ..

Confusion over this is in large part the result of the immense power that technology has delivered into our hands. Take, for example, medicine. This was once understood to be restorative. Its purpose was to repair that which had broken and to replace that which should be there but for some reason was not. It assumed a normative notion of what it meant to be human, a normative notion closely connected to a normative concept of what a body should be and how it should function. Once society lost its normative understanding of this, however, the goal of restoration was replaced by that of transformation. And the loss of this normative understanding is inextricably bound up with technology. Technology opens up previously unimagined possibilities—changing from male to female, fusing our bodies with machines, downloading ourselves into a giant computer, developing means of living forever. . . .The increasingly frictionless and disembodied manner in which we engage online only further reinforces this view of our bodies: at best, raw material, to be remade as we see fit; at worst, a problematic limitation to be overcome at any cost. . . .

This war against the body lies at the heart of so much of our modern politics. It connects to the sexual politics that deny that human genitals are to be used in some ways and not in others. It connects to gender politics that see the significance traditionally ascribed to sexed bodies as an oppressive social construct. It connects to debates about abortion and the status of the bodies of both mother and the child in utero. And it connects to the politics of parenting that replace the significance of biology with notions of functional parenthood. In each area, the authority of the body is utterly denied.

He says that churches need to teach Christian anthropology and to develop its theology of the body. He praises the work of the late Pope John Paul II on the subject, but notes that Protestants need to pursue this as well.

Trueman, who is of the Reformed persuasion,  says that Catholics with their sacramental theology have an advantage in treating this topic.  Citing the lack of sacraments in most Protestant churches, he observes that if worship is nothing more than hearing a sermon, Christians may just as well worship online.  He urges Protestants to make the sacraments central in worship, since the battle for the body has to do not only with doctrine but with the imagination.  “If the battle for the status of the body is as much a battle for the imagination as it is for doctrine, then those physical dimensions of worship—the water, the bread, the wine—need to have their proper place.”

We Lutherans already have a strong emphasis on the sacraments, which involve not only our bodies but the Body of Christ.  The rejection of the body is a revival of the ancient heresy of Gnosticism, which explicitly denied the Biblical doctrines of creation, incarnation, atonement, resurrection, and sacraments.  Anti-sacramental Protestants have been downplaying the physical realm, including the body, ever since the later Reformers turned against Luther for “not going far enough.”

But Lutherans can help other Protestants do what Trueman recommends.  The Australian Lutheran theologian and Bible scholar John W. Kleinig has made a major contribution to the topic with his book Wonderfully Made:  A Protestant Theology of the Body.

To be sure, St. John Paul II the Great (to use his full title) has done foundational work in the field, as in the collection of his writings on the subject entitled Man and Woman He Created Them:  A Theology of the Body .  Of course, it is very Catholic, as one would expect.

I also recommend the book by Nancy Pearcey, Love Thy Body:  Answering Hard Question about Life and Sexuality.  A Reformed evangelical who teaches at Houston Baptist University, Pearcey offers practical applications of the Biblical view of the body.



Illustration from Pikist, Public Domain.

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