Timothy Tennent ~ Marriage, Human Sexuality, and the Body: Let's Go Back to the Beginning

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This is the beginning of a series of blogs on marriage, human sexuality and the body.

Brother and sisters, we are living in the wake of a multi-generational neglect of a biblical vision of the body, marriage and human sexuality.  The church’s inability in recent years to articulate a compelling response to issues like same-sex marriage and gender reassignment has highlighted the deeper neglect of our thinking on these, and many other issues.  It is grossly ineffective and inadequate for the church to be simply against something in culture without the capacity to articulate what the biblical vision calls us to; namely, the positive vision which is so beautifully set forth in Scripture.  On this issue, we must confess that our Roman Catholic friends are about twenty years ahead of us, and we need to listen to what they are saying and find appropriate ways to bring this into our own theological frameworks.  Wesleyan theology is itself a synthesis movement, because Wesley loved to draw from and learn from every Christian tradition, including Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, the Puritans, etc.—all of which find their way into the great Wesleyan synthesis.

Between Sept. 5, 1979 and Nov. 28, 1984, the late Pope John Paul II preached a five year series of weekly homilies on the Theology of the Body, which remains one of the most beautiful expositions of this theme I have ever read.  My goal this semester is to share with you the broad outlines of that study.   I can hardly begin to unfold this in just seven installments, but I hope to provide a kind of scenic overview which, in turn, might inspire you to capture a vision for the kind of theological spadework which you must learn to do.

Think about it:  What might happen if we really took time to think through these issues?  In comparing some of the basic impulses of Protestants vs. Roman Catholics, I often joke that when a new social-cultural issue emerges—whether it be on human sexuality, nuclear armaments or global immigration—the Jesuits are called in by the Pope and told to go out and think about it and return in twenty years with a report which forms the basis of a papal encyclical.  In contrast, the Protestants jot down a few thoughts on the back of an envelope while they are in their car on the way to a mass rally to address the issue.  I am, of course, exaggerating, but I think you get my point.  What kind of robust theology might emerge if we really took time to think about these issues?  We cannot simply “cut and paste” Roman Catholic reflections into our tradition, but we would be foolish not to listen to those who have already thought about this deeply.

Discussions about marriage, divorce and issues of human sexuality are not new.  What is new is our unpreparedness for the current questions being asked.  It is way too simplistic and reductionistic to think that the task before the church is to come up with a clever answer against, for example, homosexual practice, without stepping back and seeing it within the larger picture of a whole host of sexual brokenness on the cultural landscape—like digital pornography, adultery, fornication, gender re-assignment, etc. These problems cannot properly be addressed in isolation from the larger theology of the body.  This is why when the Pharisees tested Jesus in Matthew 19:3-8 with the question “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?” it is a question which, in some ways, mirrors a hosts of questions which are today being hurled at the church:  Is it lawful for a man to marry another man;  Is it lawful for a person to change their gender.  It is important to be clear about biblical ethics and historic faith, and straightforward answers are necessary.  However, we should also accept responsibility for our own theological sloppiness in grasping the larger picture.  We have about twenty years of homework which we have neglected to do.  We are like the school boy who complains that he failed an exam, even though he never actually took time to study.  The culture has given us a test, and we have failed it.  It is not the time to lament or to place blame, we just have to start doing our homework.  Personally, I think it will take us decades to get on the right side of these tests.  I may not see it my lifetime, but I am reminded of the famous reply by John F. Kennedy when he asked that certain fruit trees be planted on the lawn of the White House. The seasoned White House gardener said, “but Mr. President, it will take 40 years for those particular kind of trees to bear fruit,” and Kennedy reportedly said, “Well, then you had better plant this afternoon!”

The first phrase of Jesus’ reply to the Pharisees receives quite a bit of space in the early homilies of Pope John Paul.  What Jesus does methodologically is very instructive for us.  Jesus doesn’t answer the question right off the bat.  They ask, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?”  It is a question which, on the surface, begs for a simple “yes” or “ no” answer.  Yet, Jesus perceives that just answering the question will not help the questioner, because the problem is found, more fundamentally, in the very foundation of the question itself.   Jesus often looks beyond the question and to the questioner in his personal encounters, revealing his interest in the larger picture, not just answering a question per se.  Jesus wisely opts to expose their presuppositions and, in the process, gives us a glimpse into the deeper theological foundations upon which any answer, however simple and straightforward, must be based and built.   Therefore, Jesus calls them and us “back to the beginning.”  That is the title of this first homily, “Let us Go Back to the Beginning.”   Jesus brings up the original Creation twice in the short discourse with the amazing phrase, “from the beginning.”  In verse 4, “from the beginning the Creator made them male and female…”  and again in verse 9, in reference to Moses allowing the certificates of divorce” he says,  “from the beginning it was not so.”

The Protestant focus on the creation account in Genesis has been focused overwhelmingly in response to questions about material creation and issues around evolution and included precious little about human sexuality.  This is why false teaching is so good for the church. It actually forces the church to go back and examine texts which we have not read deeply enough.  Jesus masterfully brings together two texts from Genesis.  He quotes Gen. 1:27, that God “created them male and female,” which he joins with a quotation from Gen. 2:24: “for this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.”  These texts deserve closer scrutiny.  What becomes clear is that when God created us, male and female, these are not merely biological categories; or, if I can put it more bluntly, these are not mere functional categories.  They are never less than that, of course, but to be ‘man’ or ‘woman’ are enfleshed realities which are deeply embedded in theological realities which reflect God himself.

In the future, we will explore how the Trinity is reflected in the creation of man, woman and child, as we join God’s creative work.  But that is to get ahead of ourselves.  The current point is to recognize the impossibility of understanding or explaining our identity from the world’s perspective.

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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.

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