Timothy Tennent, a conservative Methodist and president of Asbury Seminary, contends that in our current cultural moment Christians have largely come to be known more for what we are against rather than what we are for. And this is especially true when it comes to current issues concerning human sexuality and gender identity.
We expend all our energy decrying the moral trajectory of the broader society when instead we should be working to present a compelling vision of human flourishing — a vision that incorporates a distinctly Christian perspective on human embodiment and sexuality.
I, for one, am inclined to agree with Tennent, which is why I greatly appreciated his brief and readable work, For the Body: Recovering a Theology of Gender, Sexuality, and the Human Body.
The key word in this title is “Recovering.” Tennent does not claim to be providing a comprehensive theology of the body for Protestant Christians; instead, he sets out to explain some of the basic principles by which one could construct such a theology for themselves, and to give some advice for Christian leaders looking to help others do so.
The Body of the Book
Tennent argues (effectively, in my opinion), that a compelling theology of the body is precisely what is needed right now in order for traditional Christians to have a say in the current public discourse. In his words,
“We must listen carefully to what Scripture tells us about the body if we are to counter the confused, idolatrous narratives of our day. Having a theology of the body rooted in the image of God provides a positive vision to counter the destructive idolatry of contemporary culture’s distorted view of the body. But to develop this theology, we must have a greater awareness of the design and purpose of our bodies. To put it simply, a theology of the body means that we understand the body as not merely a biological category but supremely as a theological category, designed for God’s revelatory and saving purposes. In short, the body makes the invisible mysteries of God’s nature and redemption manifest and visible as a tangible marker in the world. Our bodies, therefore, have a story to tell, and we want to hear what God is telling us through our bodies” (pg. 14).
Tennent provides seven building blocks that are essential elements for constructing such a theology. These include such principles as the initial goodness of the created order; humanity’s status as being made “in the image of God”; marriage as a symbol of Christ’s relationship to the church; family as a reflection of God’s creative activity; singleness as a pointer to resurrection life; and the spirituality of time, rituals, and everyday life with God.
He then goes on to discuss the counter-vision of the body that contemporary culture is teaching, and concludes with helpful perspective for Christian leaders looking to instill a positive theology of the body in the next generation of disciples.
Tennent maintains a hopeful tone throughout, reminding readers that the church has survived such tumultuous cultural tides before. Even as Western society becomes increasingly post-Christian, those believers who will devote themselves to cultivating, articulating, and embodying a gospel-centered vision of human community will continue to shine as a light in any generation, no matter what comes.
Strengths and Weaknesses
As he lays out his seven principles, Tennent manages to cover a lot of theological ground in a concise and easy-to-grasp manner. Among the things I found most helpful were:
- The way he compared both marriage and singleness as “icons” pointing to spiritual realities. Protestant Christians especially are quick to point out the theological symbolism of marriage between a husband and a wife as reflecting the relationship between Christ and the church, but aren’t typically as attentive to the fact that celibacy, too, sacramentally points to the nature of the life to come, wherein we “neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Matt 22:30).
- His summary of the nature and value of sacraments in general as physical means by which God dispenses spiritual grace to us, reflecting the broader principle that God works through matter and blesses it.
- His brief reflections on the topic of transhumanism (something that will only become more relevant as technology continues to advance) and his balanced comments on environmentalism.
- His immensely helpful engagement with the biblical passages pertaining to homosexuality. Tennent summarizes the key texts in their contexts and gives a well-reasoned response to the strongest revisionist arguments without getting lost in hermeneutical rabbit-trails.
- HIs perspective on transgenderism, rightly identifying it as almost a sort of neo-gnostic conception pitting the soul against the body. Tennent points out that while our bodies are fallen and do suffer from disorders, the Bible actually says that it is the heart that is deceitful above all things (Jer 17:9), whereas our bodies were created male and female and labeled “very good” (Gen 1:31).
The only critique I have of For the Body is that I wish it was longer. I know Tennent wasn’t aiming to be comprehensive, but what is here is very helpful and so clearly communicated that I really wanted to hear his perspective on other issues pertaining to the body and sexuality. It’s clear that the controversies over LGBT+ issues were the main motivating factor in writing this particular volume, but any adequate Christian theology of the body needs to address other topics such as race and culture, nudity and modesty, and (if one is going to promote celibacy) masturbation.
Not that Tennent’s building blocks don’t give a helpful trajectory for beginning to think about these issues, but I know some readers may come away with many unanswered questions. An easy fix would have been to give a list at the back of the book or of each chapter providing resources for further reading on such topics.
The Bottom Line
All in all, Tennent has provided the church with a very useful resource to get people thinking for themselves about how to approach the topics of human embodiment and sexuality from a historic, biblically- and theologically-literate Christian perspective. His insights are reasonable, orthodox, and communicated with both charity and conviction (a tough balance to nail), and the work is very reader-friendly.
This would be an excellent book to read and discuss in small groups or catechesis classes, or to give to anyone looking to explore a Christian view on such topics. Teachers and ministers will also likely benefit, although much of it may be familiar territory for those already experienced in this subject.
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