“Wonderfully Made: A Protestant Theology of the Body,” by John Kleinig
What are bodies for? Why do we have bodies? John Kleinig sets out to answer such simple, yet profound, questions in his recent book Wonderfully Made: A Protestant Theology of the Body. As Kleinig puts it, such an inquiry “is not a theoretical question for idle speculation, something for philosophers to consider. It is a practical matter that determines the course of our lives” (2). Yet another excellent offering from Lexham Press, Wonderfully Made wonderfully celebrates the goodness of the body in what Kleinig calls a “theological rhapsody on the body—a written reflection in praise of the human body, meant to appeal to the imagination and evoke a vision of its divinely given splendor” (18). Kleinig offers several different lenses through which we can understand our bodies rightly, which taken together provide a robust picture of bodily life as “the triune God designed it for himself and for participation in his own eternal life” (14). Kleinig’s accessible yet thoughtful meditation is another great resource to add to the growing body (pun intended) of work addressing human embodiment from a biblical and theological perspective.
We Are Bodies: A Positive Vision of Bodily Life
Kleinig begins with the foundational point that “we human beings are not just spirits, like the angels, nor animated bodies, like the animals, but are embodied spirits, or if you will, spiritual bodies. We do not just have bodies; we are bodies” (4). This drives home the same point as Gregg Allison in Embodied with his phrase “I am my body.” There is something jarring about both phrases, “we are bodies” and “I am my body” (emphasis mine), but that is the point—such direct claims are needed to counteract the mind-body dualism or gnostic tendencies so common today. Neither author argues that humans are only bodies, but they are trying to offset faulty thinking that even many Christians have absorbed that body = material = bad and that spirit = immaterial = good. As Allison puts it, “I do not mean that I am only my body,” but rather, “that we human beings are complex, consisting of both a material aspect and an immaterial aspect.” Kleinig offers the same when he writes, “human beings do not possess a body or a mind; they are both bodies and minds. They cannot be reduced to either of these….And yet they are also more than both….Their personal nature and identity, their souls, transcend both their bodies and their minds” (9).
This firm grounding in the goodness of creation and the holistic human body is essential since so many challenges in the church and in society today “stem, in large part, from confusion about the body” (5). But furthermore, rightly understanding the body generates an alternative and enchanting vision of life saturated with meaning and significance. This is how Kleinig approaches his task: by “providing an attractive vision of what is right and good and true, a theological vision of the beauty of physical human life and of the world as God’s creation, an appealing vision of the beauty of marriage and sexual intercourse between husband and wife, a persuasive vision of the beauty of sexual chastity and marital faithfulness” (16-17). Such a captivating image is not found by cynically recounting today’s “physical, social, moral, and spiritual ugliness,” or simply decrying “how badly the body is used and abused,” but by providing “a positive theological vision of its creation by God, its redemption from corruption by Jesus, and its renovation by the Holy Spirit” (17). The book’s first section is structured around this journey of the body through creation, redemption, and renovation, and the second section explores its implications for living.
The Created, Redeemed, and Spiritual Body
While there is no shortage of theological writing on creation, Kleinig explores a facet sometimes overlooked in what he terms the “theophanic body,” meaning that God “made it as it is so that he could give himself and his gifts bodily to people on earth and work with them in caring bodily for others and the world” (14). Kleinig argues that “human bodies do not just belong to this world, but also to the eternal world of God” (14). In other words, “the human body was made to bridge two realms: the invisible, eternal realm of God and the visible, temporal realm of his creation” (14). Although this embodied communion between God and humanity was lost in the fall as humans “lost their access to God and live corruptly apart from him,” Christ would eventually take “on a human body to reclaim us bodily for fellowship with God the Father [as] our bodies once again become what they were meant to be” (14-15). God “designed it so that he could show himself bodily to other embodied people and give them bodily access to himself by his theophany, his physical appearance to them in Jesus” (14).
Kleinig’s reflections on creation and redemption provide a firm footing for a proper understanding of our bodies as “spiritual,” which does not mean immaterial. Kleinig strongly counters the idea of simply saving souls or going to heaven with the richer, biblical and historic Christian understanding of entering the Kingdom and the resurrection of the body. As he explains, “people commonly view their bodies as a temporary, earthly home for their souls,” something to be liberated from “like dirty clothes in order to free our souls from our bodies, as if they were a burden or perhaps even a prison for our souls” (110-111). Kleinig offers the biblical view: “we are not destined to become discarnate souls, naked wraiths, disembodied ghosts, when we die. Nothing could be worse than that! Instead, we long to overcome all that now oppresses and distresses us in our bodies by becoming even more fully embodied” (113). And yet, this is not just a future promise, but a reality that has already begun in our union with Christ. The body’s renewal and recreation “does not just happen when we die a physical death. Jesus began to do it for us and with us when we were baptized. In baptism he took off our old self, the old Adam, and dressed us up with a new self, a new Adam… It is not just a passing intervention at one point in our lives; it is an ongoing process…until we are completely dressed and fully re-embodied in him” (111).
The Sexual, Spousal, and Living Body
The strong theological foundation in “the body created in God’s image, redeemed by Christ, and sanctified for eternal life with God” provided by the book’s first section supports the practical matters attended to in the second section, especially regarding “the sexual nature of our bodies” (148). Kleinig’s transparency as a writer comes through in this section, as he writes, “it is, I must confess, hard for me to strike the right note in writing about the sexual nature of our bodies” because “the matter of sex touches us more deeply,” and “because of our own sexual failures as men and women, the limitations of language to convey it’s complexity, and the current terminology that confuses our understanding and discussion of it” (148).
He finds three main approaches to sexual discourse today, “none of which is completely truthful.” One approach is “the shocking discourse of crude vulgarity that…degrades sex and the people who speak of it.” Another outlook comes from “the technical, anatomical language of medical discourse, which can only describe the mechanics of sexual intercourse.” And then there is “the graphic depiction of sexual activity in pornography, which overlooks the sensory, mental, emotional, imaginative, and personal dimensions of sex by its relentless focus on the genitalia.” These three anemic views result in “sexual disillusionment and disenchantment” (150). While Kleinig is clear that “sexual sins do not make me a worse sinner in God’s eyes than do my other sins,” he suggests “sexual sins affect me more obviously and comprehensively in my body and soul, my mind and my spirit” and are “an index of my sinfully disordered heart” (148).
Kleinig then offers a beautiful picture of Christian sexuality for those in different stages of life, whether single or married. His remarks on single life are especially needed, as he says it “serves its own God-given purpose and has its own beauty,” even though “its importance receives far too little attention in the church” (187). He explores singlehood as “the primary mode of human life in the body that even those who marry share before they marry and still share when they are married.” Everyone experiences singlehood and such “original solitude is an essential part of our humanity” (187). Yet one of the biggest challenges for singles is how “our obsession with sex and our sexual identity darkens and distorts all our relationships” and moves friendship from being a gift to being something “regarded with suspicion as latently or blatantly erotic. When all relationships are sexualized, friendships are greatly diminished and often undone.” The church then should be “a safe place sexually that contributes much to the recovery and promotion of friendship for…single people” (189).
As with his enriching treatment of singleness, Kleinig paints a vivid picture of marriage as the “garden of nuptial love” to augment the traditional concept of marriage as an estate, which he finds “a bit too abstract and disembodied.” Instead, he prefers “the picture that the Songs of Songs provides” where “marriage is the garden of love, the place of love for the beloved wife and her lover” (158). It is in his rich reflections on singleness and marriage that the book’s clearest resonance with Pope John Paul II’s work on the theology of the body are found, whom Kleinig notes “has done more than any other theologian in recent times to expound this topic scripturally and philosophically” (182). In similar fashion, Kleinig argues that “the bodies of all men and women are essentially spousal” meaning not that they were “just designed for sexual intercourse and human reproduction,” but for “bodily self-giving love, whether it be in singleness or marriage.” And then most of all, “they were made for a spousal union of self-giving love with Christ as their common bridegroom” (182).
This teleological view of the human body is a refreshing corrective to the messages on offer from every corner of society. Kleinig shows us that Christians can do more than “just say no” to sexual immorality or gender ideology. We can offer something more enchanting and beautiful by treasuring gendered embodiment: where maleness and femaleness are understood not as acts we perform, but as our very bodily essence. Embracing the gift of our sexed bodies in relation to others in the context of family and community offers more lasting meaning than professed liberation from these so-called limits. Our bodies also place us in a story—the story of stories—of creation and fall, of redemption and re-creation. A story that accounts for the tragedies of human brokenness, yet aligns with the captivating splendor of actual, physical reality; the fecund creation of male and female, the new life that emanates from their union, and their ultimate union with Christ, the embodied One.
Joshua Pauling teaches high school history, and was educated at Messiah College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Winthrop University. In addition to Modern Reformation, Josh has written for Areo Magazine, Front Porch Republic, Mere Orthodoxy, Public Discourse, Quillette Magazine, Salvo Magazine, and The Imaginative Conservative. He is also head elder at All Saints Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Charlotte, North Carolina.
See for example the increasing number of Protestants developing a more robust theology of the body: Gregg Allison, Embodied: Living as Whole People in a Fragmented World (Baker, 2021); Sam Allberry, What God Has to Say about Our Bodies: How the Gospel is Good News for Our Physical Selves (Crossway, 2021); Nancy Pearcey, Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions about Life and Sexuality (Baker, 2019); Matthew Lee Anderson, Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith (Bethany House Publishers, 2011). And of course, what stands behind many of these works as the foundation is John Paul II, Male and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body (Pauline, 2006).