Timothy Tennent ~ Marriage, Human Sexuality, & the Body: The Meaning of Our Original Nakedness

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Junia or Junias? One little letter makes a big difference in how Romans 16:7 is interpreted. The question this passage poses is one that has divided the church for decades – do women belong in the pulpit? Scot McKnight is shouting a resounding “YES!” with the publication of his ebook Junia is Not Alone.

This is part of a series of articles on marriage, human sexuality and the body. Read Part I here. Read Part II here. Read Part III here.

I am using as the basis for these homilies the wonderful theological work done by the late Pope, John Paul II which he delivered in his weekly homilies between 1979-1984 and which remains, in my estimation, one of the most comprehensive theological explorations of a theology of the body, marriage and human sexuality I have read.  The purpose of this blog series is to underscore how utterly inadequate it is for us to be merely against something like homosexual behavior without being able to articulate what we are joyfully for.  I am concerned mainly about our own conversation in the church, because we have to recover that before we have anything to say to the wider culture.  In my view, we have at least 20 years of homework to do before we can regain any form of public witness on these issues.  It is far too tiny of a strategy to try to come up with five clever objections to this or that practice, without recognizing the deeper void of theological work which addresses the very foundation which will enable us to speak to the whole spectrum of brokenness in our society ranging from divorce to digital pornography to homosexual practice to adultery to fornication to gender reassignment, and so forth.  It is your generation which must regain your theological composure.  To put it bluntly, we cannot Twitter our way out of this!

During the last three blog entries, we have seen how our creation as “male” and “female” are not solely biological, functional categories, but steeped in deep mysteries and theological realities which reflect God’s own nature and his original design for his creation.  Even in a post-Fallen world, we saw how in Matthew 19, Jesus reminds his questioners that despite the rise of human sin and brokenness, despite our hardness of heart and the cultural fog we are in, the original design remains joyfully intact.  The phrase which Jesus uses twice in that text should be our reminder today:  “From the beginning it was not so.”   We began to realize that we actually lost the struggle decades ago when we accepted the world’s definition of marriage as a shifting cultural arrangement designed to deliver happiness, companionship, sexual fulfillment and economic efficiency.  In contrast, the Scriptures summon us to remember how families are intended to reflect the Trinity, the sacramental nature of the body, what it means to be image bearers in our very physicality, the power of self-donation, and the mystery of actually becoming co-creators with God in the reproducibility of children, not to mention how our very bodies prepare the world to receive the incarnation of Jesus Christ. There is a mighty chasm between these two visions and we had better recapture the original vision and design.  The former is a utilitarian vision which sees marriage as a commodity; the latter is a biblical vision which sees marriage as covenant.

The utilitarian vision sees the body of a  man or woman as an object which can be assessed like a car. Is it bright, new, shiny and full of power, or not?  Is your body thin or fat; does it conform to the shapes we admire or not; is your hair the right texture and color or not; are your teeth shiny and straight or not?  In the covenantal vision, the mystery and glory is that we have bodies, and those bodies are beautiful to God because they are living sacraments in the world, an outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace, since all of the means of grace come through the physicality of the body.

In Genesis 2, we have the joyous creation of “male” and “female” which culminates in their awakening and the remarkable passage in Genesis 2:25 which says, “the man and his wife were both naked and they felt no shame.”

First, John Paul asks us to consider the meaning of our original nakedness.  Remember, we had to go back (as Jesus did in Matthew 19) and look at the pre-Fallen Adam.  Our theologies have focused primarily on fallen Adam and Christ as the second Adam (as in Romans 5 and I Cor. 15:45), but we needed to remember the pre-fallen Adam and the original design. In the same way, we must also go back to the pre-fall Adam and Eve and remember our original nakedness.  We know nakedness today only through the lens of the Fall.  Therefore, nakedness for us is a sign of our shame.  In the Western theological traditions, we have mostly viewed the Fall as the portal through which we have been cast into guilt as transgressors of God’s law.  That testimony is true.

Adam_and_Eve._DownfallBut, the actual account in Genesis names two other, perhaps even deeper, realities of the Fall; namely fear and shame.  It is fear, shame and guilt which have destroyed the original communion of persons in the primordial design, whether between man and woman, or between ourselves and the communion of the Triune God.  In a post-fig leaf world which clothes our shame, it is difficult for us to even conceptualize what it means to stand naked without shame.  But it is here that we discover the true nature of our original design.  The reason the man felt no shame before Eve, and Eve before Adam is because they were one flesh.  They were in the state of original unity.  And that was the design: “a man shall leave his mother and father and be united to his wife and the two shall become one flesh.”  Sin pushes us back into our autonomous solitude, destroys the communion of persons, and heaps shame upon ourselves and our bodies.  It is sin which brings this new self-consciousness, or shall I say, self-orientation.  Adam and Eve become aware of their nakedness and feel shame and fear.  All of this is revealed through two questions God himself asks us after the Fall.  The first question is  “Where are you?” (loss of communion).  Adam answers that he and Eve had hidden themselves because  “I was afraid (fear) and I was naked (self-consciousness).

The second question is, “Who told you that you were naked?”  Adam’s response reveals a profound loss of communion and the newly emerging self-orientation.  Eve, who was before the Fall one flesh with Adam, now becomes an object – an object upon which Adam heaps blame and guilt.  “The woman you gave me…”

You see, shame robs us of the self-donation which is integral to God’s own nature where we fully give ourselves to the other such that we are one flesh.   All the ways we shame the body of another and heap shame upon our own body is because of the loss of original nakedness.  We, of course, joyfully recapture a glimmer of the original design through the covenant of marriage when a man and woman can stand before one another naked and without shame, and say, “this is my body, given for you.”  Remember those words in Ephesians 5:28, “husbands have a duty to love their wives as their own bodies.”  To shame your wife’s body is to shame yourself, and to shame the Triune God from whom all bodies come as gifts.  Outside of covenant, we can only know shame.    Inside the covenant, we have the summons to be free from all shame and enter into joyful communion with the Triune God.

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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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