Timothy Tennent ~ Marriage, Human Sexuality, and the Body: From the Beginning It Was Not So

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Note from the Editor: This post is part of a series by Dr. Timothy Tennent on theology of the body, sexuality, and marriage.

The problem we face today is actually much deeper than we realize.  The Christian church in the West has largely embraced the wider cultural views regarding the very purpose of marriage—and therefore, we get off on the wrong foot to begin with.  Marriage is, in the wider culture, broadly understood as a shifting cultural arrangement to promote happiness, companionship, sexual fulfillment and economic efficiency.  Marriage in the contemporary period is a commodity.  Like all commodities you should expect returns, (in this case emotional or romantic returns) or you can abandon or discard the relationship and opt for one which is better.

For the last forty years, the church has largely adopted the world’s definition of marriage.  The deeper vision of reflecting the Trinity, the sacramental nature of the body, being image bearers in our physicality, not just our spirits, the power of self-donation, joining God as creators in the reproduction of children, and, indeed, the very foundation for the future incarnation, and so forth have not been a prominent part of the Christian discourse about marriage.  Therefore, once we accepted the wider cultural, social, pragmatic and biological definition of marriage, we really had no proper ground on which to stand in order to oppose potentially any kind of marriage arrangements.  But, in the beginning, it was not so, as the whole creation of male and female is cast in a larger theological context; it is not merely social and biological; it is also spiritual and theological.

For example, we often describe a “sacrament” as an outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace, but then we limit ourselves by thinking of sacraments only in terms of the two which Christ established: baptism and the Eucharist.  Wesley, on the other hand, prodded us to think more deeply and expansively about all the means of grace which, for Wesley, is a much larger category than baptism and Eucharist.  John Paul II makes the point that Christ is not the only one who provides sacramental means of grace.  There are sacraments which flow from the Father and the Spirit.  We will actually explore how marriage is the primordial sacrament later in this series.  But, for now, let us lay the groundwork that your physical body itself is a kind of sacrament.  It is an outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace, because we have been created in the image of God.  In Genesis, this is what distinguishes us from the animals and which roots us as spiritual and theological beings—not just a spirit inside of us, but the whole of who we are as image bearers.  We are, bodily, a living sacrament and our bodies are a sign to the world of God’s presence—ultimately fulfilled in the incarnation and expressed through the physical community of the church.  In fact, the human body is the bridge between theology and anthropology.  Indeed, without the physicality of the body the “means of grace” as we know it would cease.  Think about it. You baptize a body, you take the Eucharist into your body, you confess Christ with your lips, you lay hands on the body of the sick and anoint with oil, or lay hands on someone to set apart for ministry, etc. Even Scripture is read with our eyes or listened to with our ears.  Only the body can make the invisible, visible.  It is the ultimate outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace.  It is just so close to us that we can easily miss it.

Going Back to the Beginning

John Paul II’s Theology of the Body takes Jesus’ point and goes back to the beginning as he asks us to consider more carefully the “pre-fallenAdam.  Many of our theological constructs only view humanity through the lens of the Fall.  The first Adam embodies the Fall, the Second Adam, Jesus Christ, embodies redemption.  So, theologically, we have mostly developed the two Adams: the fallen Adam and Christ as the Second Adam, because that is found in Romans 5 and I Cor. 15:45.  But, when Jesus refers to these pre-Fall texts in Matthew 19, he is referring to the pre-fallen Adam, the original, creational Adam.  When Paul says, “in Adam all die and in Christ all are made alive”, that is a reference to only Christ and the fallen Adam.  But, when Jesus says “from the beginning it was not so” he is calling us to look back even before the Fall.  We have to go back to the original design and understand something of the theology of creation, the theology of the body, and God’s original intention for the cosmic role of Adam and Eve in the original creation, which we must examine before we rush too quickly to Genesis 3 and the entrance of sin.

It has long been a complaint against popular evangelical theology that our Bible begins with Genesis 3 and end with Revelation 20, a theological omission of the opening two chapters and the closing two chapters.  The result has been a theologically reductionistic narrative which stretches from Fall to Judgment, rather than the actual biblical narrative which stretches from Creation to New Creation.  (This “whole Bible” approach was one of the many restorations brought about through the Wesleyan revivals).   But, can we fully understand the fulfillment of the New Creation unless we first understand the origin, intention, purpose and moral framework of the original creation?

The fact that Jesus, in a post-Fallen world as recorded in Matthew 19, quotes and masterfully combines Gen. 1:27 (male and female) and 2:24 (two united as one flesh)—both pre-Fall texts—is a powerful reminder that, despite the Fall and the tragic entrance of sin into the world, the original design of creation, as embodied in unfallen Adam and Eve who were created “male” and “female” and were united to become “one flesh,” remains intact as God’s plan and design for us, and He will not relinquish this even in the face of sin, hardness of heart and a whole spectrum of cultural issues which seek to cloud everything.  A few years ago, the Supreme Court of India ruled that that every person “has the right to choose their gender” because Hindus have no doctrine of creation and therefore there are no moral boundaries inherent in our creational design.  Jesus, in contrast, says to us as he said to them, “from the beginning it was not so…”  We must remember this.

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Timothy C. Tennent is the President of Asbury Theological Seminary and a Professor of Global Christianity. His works include Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-first Century and Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church Is Influencing the Way We Think about and Discuss Theology. He blogs at timothytennent.com and can be followed on twitter @TimTennent.

1 COMMENT

  1. Is that it? I know there is more fight in you than this Dr Tennent. Don’t let Asbury slowly die with the UMC. I know you are not a UM seminary but they are your biggest clients. You need to hire teachers who can teach pastors the spiritual gifts of tenacity and subversion. God deliver us from the academic eunuchs who poison us with Worm Tongue passivity.

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