Christian Theology and the Body
By David Cregg
April 9th, 2015
Recently, a colleague asked for my opinion on Christian theology and the body: how does Christianity view the body, and why should Christians be concerned about the body’s health? I was surprised to find that I could not give an immediately obvious answer. Isn’t health of the body just self-evidently a good thing to pursue? I am by no means an expert in theology, but as a layman who has soaked up a fair bit of theology over the years, I find this lack of clarity very puzzling. These are such important questions to address, and yet they seemingly do not receive the emphasis they deserve. Fueled by curiosity, I set out to investigate a bit. What follows is a very brief reflection from some of the readings I came across. Those interested to learn more should explore the excellent resources listed in the footnotes.
Overall, the Christian concern with the body seems to follow the Aristotelian principle of the “golden mean.” In other words, having the right amount of concern for the body, not too much and not too little. It’s possible, from a Christian view, to have an excessive concern with the importance of the body. For instance, if health of the body is seen as the ultimate end of the human being, rather than communion with God, that is seen as a grave error. An example might be an overriding concern with sculpting a perfect physique for oneself to the point that it fosters vanity and distracts from the spiritual life. Oversaturating the body with sustenance is seen as equally perilous, e.g., Proverbs 23:16 “Do not join those who drink too much wine or gorge themselves on meat, for drunkards and gluttons become poor, and drowsiness clothes them in rags.” Essentially hedonism – pursuing health & pleasure bereft of spiritual devotion to God – is rejected.
Conversely, Christianity also rejects depreciation of the body, or a tendency to undervalue its spiritual significance. You can see the way the human body’s form is appreciated and described in a sacred, mysterious sense in the Song of Solomon. You can also see asceticism (extreme denial of bodily needs/pleasures) rejected in 1 Timothy 4:3, in which Paul denounces those who encourage abstinence from food and marriage. The overall view is that there’s an intimate connection between body and spirit. This intimate connection is affirmed in several places in the New Testament. For instance, in the hours preceding Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus instructs his disciples to keep watch over him while he goes off alone to meditate. Jesus returns to find his disciples sleeping instead, and remarks “the spirit is willing, but the body is weak,” (Matthew 26:41). The implication being that the body’s limitation, its need for sleep, directly restricts the ability of the human spirit to thrive. In this case, the disciples’ ability to show compassion and comfort Jesus in his time of anguish was limited by their exhaustion. The human spirit has great difficulty thriving without the cooperation of the body.
Elsewhere, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians that the body is to be respected as a temple in which the spirit of God dwells: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Cor. 3:16). And a few chapters later: “do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.” Again, in Paul’s epistle to the Romans, he speaks of keeping the body pristine as a means of worship: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” As in the passage from Matthew, we see the notion that the spirit of God cannot thrive in humans without care of the body. Perhaps for this reason, Paul instructs Timothy to take a little wine for his stomach in addition to water (1 Timothy 5:23).
So the essential message in all of this is that, in the Christian view, the health of the body is important insofar as it facilitates a relationship with God. Humanity’s connection with God is seen as the ultimate end and superior good for human beings; bodily health is an important, but not sufficient, vehicle for spiritual and moral development. It is not an end in itself. I think this notion is summed up nicely in 1 Timothy 4:8 – “Train yourself in godliness, for, while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.” And elsewhere it is said that the body exists for the Lord, and the Lord for the body (1 Corinthians 6:13). The body is to be enjoyed and cared for, but with thanksgiving as a means of worship (1 Timothy 4: 3 – 4), and God in turn is a source of support and strength for the body. The two are seen as inseparable. Neglect of the body tends toward a destructive hyper-spiritual asceticism, and neglect of God tends toward an equally destructive hyper-indulgent hedonism.
As a caveat, I do want to add that early Greek philosophers such as Plato saw the body as a prison for an immaterial soul, and thus encouraged asceticism as a way of freeing the soul from the constraints of the body. Due to the large influence of Greek philosophers on the early church fathers such as Origen, there has been a tendency within some Christian theologies to uphold a very strong body/soul division. Consequently, the body has historically been seen at times as either outright evil or else of little importance to the spiritual life. I’ve chosen to focus in this blog on Christianity as I think it’s presented in the Christian scriptures, rather than the fusion between Christian theology and neo-platonic philosophy. But keep in mind that this Greek body/soul duality is still highly influential to some theologies today. This is a far too complex topic to touch upon here, but for more on this see NT Wright’s excellent paper “Mind, Spirit, Soul, and Body” in the second link for a more extensive discussion. I welcome your comments, criticisms, and anything else you’d like to share!
David Cregg is the research and congregational outreach coordinator for ISH. He is a graduate of The University of Texas at Austin, where he studied psychology with minors in philosophy and religious studies.