This short piece will introduce key views on the body, in accordance with Christian writers; such as Saint Augustine (and his influence on reformed theologians such as Calvin), Saint Gregory of Nyssa, and the well received 'Theology of the Body' written by Pope John Paul II. The post will argue that the body is indeed holy, created by God as a gift to man for the means of glorification and unification with Him.
For Saint Augustine, the body is always treated in the context of a comparison with the soul. The dialectical polarities of soul-body, immortal-mortal, rational-irrational are rhetorical antithesis; giving us a clear picture of Augustine's model of man's structure. Fr R.J O'Connell argues that his anthropology is centred on the view that 'the soul is the man' (an opinion repeated from Plotinus) and 'the body is an instrument.. put at our service for a certain time.' For St Augustine, 'the highest good of the body is not its desires, nor absence of pain, nor its strength, not its beauty.. but indeed, the soul.' 'The very presence of the soul offers the body all that which excels.. namely, life.' So, as psychosomatic human beings, we cannot physically live without our souls. The soul gives necessary life to the body. Significantly, Augustine had suggested that the resurrected body would be entirely spiritual. In his reconsiderations however, he modifies this view to suggest that corruptibility would not be a feature of the resurrected body, whereas the substance of the flesh would survive. These developments towards a more positive perception of embodiment occurred during the early 5th century. Also in this period, Augustine begins to re-evaluate the relation between body and soul. Augustine had affirmed in 'On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis' that the created nature of the soul means that it wishes to be in a body “just as it is natural for us to wish to live.” (Gen. lit. 7. 27.38). By the final book, he concludes that the disembodied human soul is incapable of enjoying the vision of God, where it remains separate from the human body.
Augustine latterly acknowledges that the source of evil is not matter, or the human body, but rather a movement of the will. For Augustine, the Fall represented “a fracture of the original unity and harmony between body and soul that characterised the first human beings.” For Augustine, sin had immediate effects on the body. At the moment of their sin, Adam and Eve experienced what Augustine called the “concupiscence of the flesh”. In turn, this caused the first humans to feel ashamed of their nakedness. The bodies of Adam and Eve now became subject to disease and death. They also became subject to sexual desire, which Augustine viewed as evil.
The idea that the soul is inherently more valuable than the body is associated with Augustine, who seemed to stand against all that is material, particularly the baseness of sex. Peter Brown has pointed out that it was not so much the body itself that was problematic for Saint Augustine, but rather he stressed the body's tendency to need discipline or control.
Asceticism is very important in regards to the Christian understanding of the human body. For Augustine, asceticism and productive suffering for Christ is 'the fruit of love, not of insensibility.' So, through our struggle and strive for the holy, the body can be used purely for the good. The reason for our need of asceticism is due to the tremendous energy contained in the body - an energy which must be retained and made available for the Spirit. Saint Augustine therefore stresses the fact that we are called to bond the body's activities within the whole human being. As the body is quite literally included in salvation, the Christian cannot avoid the difficult task of integrating his or her sexuality; but rather use this gift in our task of glorifying, and uniting with our great God and Saviour. For many this is of course offering our sexuality to marriage, and to the creation of a family; where as for others it is totally sacrificed for God, transforming this energy into prayer, writing, and generally offering our time and efforts to Christ's body. It is vital to remember we are eternally 'members of Christ,' and not merely 'as spirits.' (1 Cor 6:15) This is why Saint Paul rhetorically asks, 'shall I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitution? Never!'
Influenced by Augustine, John Calvin unfortunately picked out the cynical and negative aspects of his theology - leading to the view of the body as the primary source of human wickedness. According to Calvin, the body, as 'the prison of the soul' prevents us from recognising God. Even though the act of sex is a clear act of love between spouses, and leads to new life and the building of the family, Calvin views it as a shameful act. One of the only positive attitudes we find in his writings on the body, is the fact he agrees with it providing opportunity for obedience (as well as offering the opportunity for the sinful inclinations of the flesh).
Pope John Paul II, gave a series of lectures between 1979 and 1984 titled 'Theology of the Body.' He interestingly delves into the writings of Kant, Descartes and other philosophers in order to share a balanced reflection on the creation of man (as male and female) as a sexual being. He concludes that the body can never be reduced to mere matter, and is capable of 'making visible what is invisible' as Christopher West writes, reviewing the Papal lectures. 'The body is created to transfer into the visible reality of the world, the mystery hidden since time immemorial in God and thus to be a sign of it.' Therefore the human body is in fact an expression of God's love, purpose and mystery. Perhaps one of the greatest gifts granted to man is to bring life to this world, through the unity of two persons in loving communion. Pope John's culmination of his 'Theology of the Body' refers to the relation between agape and eros. Through the mystery of the incarnate person and the biblical analogy of spousal love, John Paul's catechesis highlights God's plan for human life - from origin to eschaton.
Saint Gregory of Nyssa emphasises the body's holiness, and God-given sovereignty as 'man's form is upright, and extends aloft towards heaven.' The very upright structure of man's body marks the fact that the human being is truly bound to God's Kingdom, and his whole life should be one leading to His eternal glory and union with his Creator. This follows the Scriptural teaching of Saint Paul - that the body is indeed the temple of the Holy Spirit, so we are therefore called to glorify God in our bodies (1 Cor 6:19-20). The Lord's will is the sanctification of both our bodies and souls, so that we may completely unite with Him. For this, we need to struggle for self-control, abstinence, humility, and primarily honour and respect for God's holy creation of the human body. I think it is important we remember that the imago dei incorporates the body - as it makes reference to the human person as a whole. For our Lord to affirm that we are indeed created in His image (Gen 1:27), means that the body is fundamentally good, and holy. We are fallen and imperfect, but Christ, perfect man and perfect God offers us the opportunity to give our whole selves; body and soul, eternally to Christ our God.
- Miles, Augustine on the Body.
- John Paul II, Theology of the Body.
- Gregory of Nyssa, On the Making of Man.
- R.J. O'Connell, St Augustine's Early Theory of Man.