Theology of the Body: Part 1


John Paul II (JP II) launches into his Theology of the Body by means of Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees about the grounds for divorce. In this well known passage Jesus, instead of taking sides in an intra-religious squabble over competing rabbinic interpretations, rather looks further back than the law of Moses, to the very beginning of marriage itself in its primordial form apart from any juridical structure.

JP II notices that Jesus twice makes reference to the ‘beginning,’ and by doing so is grounding the nature of marriage and the relations between the sexes in the Genesis account of creation. The logic of “for this reason a man will leave his father and mother and unite with his wife, and the two will become one flesh” as the state of marriage in the ‘beginning’ flows naturally into Jesus’ subsequent conclusion that “therefore, what God has joined together let man not separate.” JPII finds Jesus statement here important, for by referencing this account as the ‘beginning’ he seems to draw out of it a normative meaning; that is, there is something in terminology such as ‘will leave,’ ‘will unite,’ ‘will be one flesh’ which points to a fundamental understanding of human beings in the relations to each other as man and woman created in the image of God.

As such, Jesus’ conclusion from the ‘beginning’ not only avoids the juridical squabbling into which his interlocutors wished to push him, but draws out a more primordial understanding of human nature in respect to sexuality. JP II states:

That phrase, “let man not separate,” is decisive. In light of this word of Christ, Genesis 2:24 states the principle of the unity and indissolubility of marriage as the very content of the word of God expressed in the most ancient revelation. (TOB 1.3)

This statement is tantalizing, for JP II is essentially stating that there is a revelatory content to the nature of marriage as it existed ‘in the beginning;’ that is, there is something about “the Creator created them male and female” and “for this reason a man will leave his father and mother and unite with his wife, and the two will become one flesh” which expresses a profoundly theological understanding of who we are as those created in the image of God, male and female.

This understanding, of course, goes beyond merely questions about marriage and its indissolubility, for the normative meaning that Jesus establishes here by appealing to the beginning is not meant to end the question he is put to, but rather to expand it:

Yet that significant expression, “from the beginning,” repeated twice, clearly leads the interlocutors to reflect about the way in which, in the mystery of creation, man was formed precisely as “male and female,” in order to understand correctly the normative meaning of the words in Genesis. (TOB 1.4)

In looking back at the text in Genesis, JP II observes the well-known distinctions between the first account of the creation of man in Genesis 1 which occurs in the seven day cycle of creation and the second account which he considers more in the conceptual and stylistic unity of the account of man’s innocence, happiness and fall. Concerning the first, JP II notices that by placing man’s creation in the seven day cycle the author of Genesis locates mankind squarely within the world and a part of it:

One could attribute to it above all a cosmological character: man is created on earth together with the visible worlds. At the same time, however, the Creator orders him to subdue and rule the earth (Genesis 1:28): he is therefore placed above the world.

Thus, although there is a certain immanence to our creation as humankind placed on earth and a part of it, there is nevertheless an intrinsic transcendence by virtue of bearing God’s image as male and female. This will be brought out more later on, but even though we have a certain likeness with creation in regards to many things, the primordial likeness which the Genesis account draws out is not between man and creation but rather between man and God. Thus, while there is a certain rhythm to the seven day cycle of creation and a “step-by-step progression.”

…man, by contrast, is not created according to a natural succession, but the Creator seems two halt before calling him into existence, as if he entered back into himself to make a decision, “Let us make man in our image in our likeness.” (Gen. 1:27) (TOB 2.3)

The upshot of this is that while humankind will certainly have an affinity with creation, the deeper similarity exists between man and God, which is a staggering thought in and of itself. Because of this, the first account of creation, according to JP II, has an ultimately “theological character” to it. What is being said in the creation account, as he hinted at earlier, is that written into our very nature as human beings is a revelation not only of who we are but also of our relation to each other and also our relation to God himself.

Given this preeminent theological character, man cannot ultimately be reduced to “the world:”

An indication of this is above all the definition of man based on his relationship with God (“in the image of God he created him”), which includes at the dame time an affirmation of the absolute impossibility of reusing man to the “world.” Already in light of the Bible’s first sentences, man can neither be understood nor explained in his full depth with the categories taken from the “world,” that is, from the visible totality of bodies. Nevertheless, man too is a body. Genesis 1:27 establishes that this essential truth about man refers to the male as much as to the female: “God created man in his image…; male and female he created them.” (TOB 2.4)

JP II understands the first account of creation as containing no “trace of subjectivism;” that is, this account is rather an objective one concerning the reality of human nature as it exists in male and female and further as it contains the first blessing of God to “be fruitful and multiply…” Here in this profoundly theological account JP II draws out a correspondingly insightful metaphysical principle. He sees man described in the Genesis account primarily in terms of “being and existing.” In fact, JP II sees man defined “in a more metaphysical than physical way.” For we find coupled to the creation of man the aspect of procreation which characterizes the relation between male and female as made in God’s image; this procreative aspect of existence points to the utter contingency of our being and existence, and this “metaphysical situation” both identifies us with creations a whole but also sets us above in sense, for, as was stated earlier, man is defined more in likeness to God than to creation. In the mystery of existence and procreation is a seemingly contradictory immanence (by virtue of the contingent nature of our being) and transcendence (since we in a sense bring forth existence from ourselves). Yet the synthesis is achieved in our very being, for our embodied nature is brought to fruition by being made in God’s image.

As such, while we are bodies, we are not simply our bodies, as has already been mentioned. Because of this, the very nature of us as bodies speaks a profound theological truth and has some sort of revelatory character. The goodness of creation, which reaches its crescendo with the creation of man, lays open the philosophical notion of the convertibility of goodness and being, which, naturally,

has its own significance for theology as well, and above all for the theology of the body. (TOB, 2.5)

The second account of creation is different, of course, for while the first account has a more “objective” nature, the second is more subjective. JP II even characterizes it as in some way “psychological:”

Chapter 2 of Genesis constitutes in some way the oldest description and record of man’s self-understanding and, together with chapter 3, it is the first witness of human conscience…

One could say that Genesis 2 presents the creation of man especially in the aspect of his subjectivity. (TOB 3.1)

In referring to the ‘beginning,’ Jesus only references this second account of creation immediately after establishing the creation of man as it occurs in the first. By doing so he

…not only links the “beginning” with the mystery of creation, but also leads us to the boundary, so to speak, between man’s primordial innocence and original sin. (TOB 3.2)

What JP II seems to be getting at is that the question put to Jesus essentially asks a question meant to be answered in respect to the fall; since we are sinful beings, and since we make sinful choices, what are the types of choices or reasons which would validate the dissolving of a marriage? The answer to this question- on its terms– thus essentially devolves into determining what sorts of things are worse than others and how to limit the consequences of an already bad situation. There is a thus a contextualization that can hardly seem to push any further than its immediate concerns; certainly nothing that could go so far beyond itself as to locate itself in ‘the beginning’ to which Jesus appeals.

Jesus’ response, on the other hand, seems to almost naively presume that the fall has never happened and that humans still exist in a state of innocence. Thus, the relation between man and woman is not characterized primarily by disunity (which the original question presumes) but rather by an even deeper and more profound unity, both in respect to being created in God’s image but also in terms of the “beginning.” Thus, Jesus’ response brings us to this boundary, as JP II has stated. This boundary line, he states, is found in Genesis 3 where the choice to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is made. The tree in and of itself forms the boundary line between the Pharisees’ question and Jesus’ response, between the situation of innocence and that of being fallen:

The first situation is that of original innocence in which man (male and female) finds himself, as it were, outside of the knowledge of good and evil, until the moment in which he transgresses the Creator’s prohibition and eats the fruit of the tree of knowledge. The second situation, by contrast, is that in which man, after having transgressed the Creator’s command at the suggestion of the evil spirit symbolized by the serpent, finds himself in some way within the knowledge of good and evil. The second situation determines the state of human sinfulness, contrasting with the state of primeval innocence. (TOB 3.3)

It is of course fascinating to note the effects of the knowledge of good and evil as it manifests itself in Jesus’ interlocutors’ questions. For only in state of fallenness and having a knowledge of ‘good and evil’ could such a question arise; after all, in the state of innocence such a question has no meaning. Thus, the author of Genesis provides us with a sinisterly amusing irony, for even though man was already primevally like God, in trying to become like God (per the serpent’s prodding) man lost much of what he had which made him like God in the first place, even “in the beginning.” Jesus perhaps picks up on this irony and notes that in the beginning the types of questions he is being asked need not be asked, for the “situation” in which man existed was such were those types of questions would be meaningless, for a state of unity need not trouble itself with questions about disunity, whereas the converse is always seeking for that which it has lost or trying to deny it has been lost at all.

Ultimately, Jesus’ appeal to the beginning lays bare the sinfulness of humanity and draws out with absolute clarity the distinction between the state of innocence and the state of fallenness. The corollary of this is that even though humankind exists in a fallen situation, the relation between man and woman in the beginning is still in effect:

This means that this order has not lost its force, although man has lost his primeval innocence. Christ’s answer is decisive and clear. For this reason, we must draw the normative conclusions from it, which have essential significance not only for ethics, but above all for the theology of man and theology of the body, which, as a particular aspect of theological anthropology, is constituted on the foundation of the word of God who reveals himself. (TOB 3.4)

JP II sees in Christ’s appeal to the beginning “an essential continuity in man and a link between these two different states or dimensions of human being.” This link, of course, extends to all man, and thus in each one of us is that thread of continuity from original innocence to fallenness:

The state of sin is part of “historical man,” of the human beings about whom we read in Matthew 19, that is, of Christ’s interlocutors then, as well as every potential or actual interlocutor at all times of history and thus, of course, also of man today. Yet in every man without exception, this state- the “historical” state- plunges its roots deeply into theological “prehistory,” which is a state of original innocence. (TOB 4.1)

JP II does not see this understanding as merely dialectical but rather rooted in the “laws of knowing” which correspond to “those of being.” In other words, we cannot understand what it means to be fallen and sinful if we do not understand the heights from which we have fallen or the state of innocence which has been supplanted by sinfulness. JP II sees in Christ’s response to his interlocutors an intrinsic appeal to original innocence, and thus an appeal to the “historical man” of which all men at all times are a part. To be human is to share in both the “historical man” of sin by virtue of sinfulness but also to share in some sense in the “prehistory” of innocence since the very state of being fallen presupposes a state from which one has fallen. As such, even though historical man is marked by the situation of sinfulness, that situation nevertheless intrinsically contains a link to primeval innocence:

The emergence of sinfulness as a state, as a dimension of human existence, has thus from the beginning been linked with man’s real innocence as an original and fundamental state, as a dimension of being created “in the image of God.” And this point applies not only to the case of the first an, male and female, as “dramatis personae” and protagonists of the events described in the Yahwist text of Genesis 2 and 3, but also to the entire historical course if human existence. (TOB 4.2)

The upshot of this is that

historical man is rooted, so to speak, in his revealed theological prehistory; and for this reason, every point of historical sinfulness must be explained (both in the case of the soul nd the body) with reference to original innocence. (TOB 4.2)

As such, our very sinfulness is inherently hearkening back to original innocence, however obliquely, for

…while in every historical man this signifies a state of lost grace, it also carries with itself a reference to that grace, which was precisely the grace of original innocence. (TOB 4.2)

JP II thus sees in Jesus’ words not merely some wistful recollection of purer days, but rather “the whole eloquence of the mystery of redemption.” The beginning of man is thereby not a theoretical yardstick against which to measure rights or wrongs (although it can, in some sense, serve this purpose) but rather contains within itself the kernel of redemption, the mystery of God’s purpose in creation in general and of man in particular. Many commentators have noticed that immediately after man entered into the situation of fallenness we find the first promise of making things right, of bringing man back into union with God. JP II sees this promise as historical man beginning to live “in the theological perspective of redemption,” in which of course the link to the beginning already proclaimed by Jesus is found and deeply intertwined. This link has profound implications for historical man (and thus for every man in history), for although we experience the historicity of the fall in our sinfulness, this very participation brings us in view of the promise of redemption. Sin, although vastly destructive for humanity, cannot efface the image and likeness of God nor the grace which forms the ground of our being in the first place:

He (historical man) is thus not merely shut out from original innocence due to his sinfulness, but also at the same time open to the mystery of redemption realized in Christ and through Christ. Paul, in author of the Letter to the Romans, expresses this perspective of redemption, in which “historical” man lives, when he writes, “We ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for… the redemption of our bodies.” (Rom. 8:23) (TOB 4.3)

JP II sees the promise of the redemption of the body as at the decisive link between historical man’s experience of sinfulness and the grace of innocence in the beginning, and the only way in which Jesus’ appeal to the beginning ultimately has any meaning. It is because there exists the possibility of redemption (promised by God, the one who brought us into a state of innocence in the first place) that the original order still applies, even though our experience is of the order of sinfulness. Yet this very experience forms the beginning of a point of reference for original innocence, as already described, even though this experience is clearly inadequate for us to reach what has been lost in and of ourselves. It seems that there exists a link between the subjective state of man in the second creation account and his experience (both of original innocence and of fallenness) and that of the objective state of man in creation and revelation which enables us to peer beyond the boundary of sin into the primeval order.

The light of revelation will thus bring more clarity to the ‘beginning’ and the theological understanding of the body.

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