The Body Beautiful? Paul’s Theology of the Body

On Saturday January 23rd I went to a theology morning at St Mark’s Church Harrogate. The lecture was given by Dr Pauline Gooder, the Theologian in residence at the Bible Society. The theme of the lecture was ‘The Body beautiful?’ – The Importance of the Body in Paul’s Theology. We sang ‘For the beauty of the earth’ before we heard prayers and a reading from Psalm 139, as preparation to hear Dr Pauline Gooder.
Paul is deeply passionate about bodies. Pauline told us that there was a lot about bodies in the Bible. She introduced the theme by reference to the challenge of the modern world where beautiful bodies are very important; glossy ladies’ magazines continually dwell on how to make our bodies more beautiful with clothes, make-up even cosmetic surgery. Even men’s magazines tell men how to take care of their bodies, and improve their body image. There has been a 10 to 20% increase in cosmetic surgery each year, in fact that has increased to 30% annually. A lot of people see cosmetic surgery as normal and natural. Pauline admits that not all cosmetic surgery is bad, as long as it is to enhance the health of the body. It is not good when we feel ashamed of our bodies and feel we must do something to improve it. Teenage girls have huge image problems and 80% want to have their images photo-shopped.

Pauline reminded us of how the doll Barbie could not have lived with such a thin, long neck or miniscule waist and Pauline showed a picture of a Barbie doll with proper human proportions. Even men who want to have the sought after 6 pack have to starve for a month and then gorge eat for a month to get that!

What has the church said about bodies? Very little is said about beautiful bodies by the Church. Francis Crick even said that a body did not feel real emotions such as joys and sorrows as such apparent feelings are no more than ‘nerve cells and molecules’! He considered that we are just our body. Modern culture focuses on the body image; we have to all strive to have beautiful bodies. The church’s business has been summarised as Spiritual, but does that mean that the church is not concerned with the body? The Christian tradition states that we are soul and spirit not body. The body has nothing to do with our identity; we should fast or flagellate our bodies to subdue them and allow the Spirit free flow. We are in a muddle. Pauline does not find the definitions of Spirituality particularly helpful: incorporeal or immaterial nature or predominately spiritual in character. The Church seems to say nothing about the bodies.

So Pauline explained that was not what Paul thought. People have often assumed that for Paul understood body and flesh as the same and the contrast Spirit and Soul as the same, because we often read Paul through the lens of Plato. Pauline argued that we have an inner Plato in Western Culture; in Plato the soul gives life to the body but unlike the body the soul cannot die; the soul is who you are not your body; at death the soul returns to heaven and then later enters the next body. The Christian form was called ‘Neo-Platonism’ but we have a problem if we read what Paul says in a Neo-Platonic way; the Christian version was that our body is negative, the coffin of our soul and the soul can only become pure again when it leaves the body and returns to heaven. Plato regarded the soul as the seat of rationality, constrained by the body; it lost knowledge, so it had to be educated to bring to remembrance the lost knowledge. The soul is the rational way to encounter God, so very important in relationship with God.

Thus Paul is regarded as being opposed to material things of all kinds especially bodies, but Paul is not a dualist; what he placed in opposition was the old creation and the new creation; life now and life in the world to come. He contrasted the flesh with the spirit but NEVER body with soul. He believed in the resurrection of the body. He didn’t see the body as negative. The dominant metaphor he used to describe Christians was as the body of Christ. He thought that we should present our bodies to God (Rom 12.1-2).

We need to understand the term ‘soul’ in the Bible. The Hebrew word for ‘soul’ was ‘Nephesh’ and the Greek word was ‘Psuchē’. ‘Nephesh’ does not mean the same as we mean by ‘soul’; it refers to the whole of life, including the body. ‘Nephesh’ is part of the body and cannot be separated from it. Genesis 2.7 is ‘Nephesh’ is a ‘living being’, from the breath of God giving life. In Genesis 9 after Noah came out of the ark, God allowed them to eat meat, but only without blood; ‘Nephesh’ is the blood or life of the animal. In Genesis 1.20 ‘Nephesh Chayah’ which meant living creatures; animals have Nephesh and would still be needed in Paul’s new creation, as they were in the old creation. ‘Nephesh’ is often translated as life, the entirety of life; that is the body as well. Paul used the word, ‘psuchē’ rarely but he meant the same as the Hebrew, ‘Nephesh’; whatever ‘you’ do work at it with your whole heart i.e. put your whole self into it. Psuchē referred to the whole person not just your soul.

The Hebrew word for Spirit was ‘Ruah’; it refers to God’s Spirit, our spirits and the wind (see Ezekiel 37 – Spirit of God in the vision v. 6 – Ruah breath and Spirit to bring dry bones to life); creation in Genesis 1.7; Ruah and Nephesh have strong overlaps in the Old Testament. God’s Spirit, Ruah, falls from time to time and goes away again, but it comes to stay in Acts 2. In Greek the word for Spirit is ‘pneuma’. In Paul the Spirit is very important as it is the means by which we meet and are transformed by God. The difference between soul and body in Paul is very important in I Corinthians 15.44-45; it is sown a physical (psuchikos) body, it is raised a spiritual (pneumatikos) body. Thus it is written ‘The first man, Adam, became a living psuche, the last Adam became a life making Pneuma’, in Pauline’s translation. Bodies which had been made alive by psuche (heptesh), bodies will be made alive by the Spirit, pneuma. In the resurrection the body will be regenerated and so alive: the body has life but then the body will be especially alive. This is what this world looks like now that the world to come has started since Jesus’ resurrection and eventually we will have it in its entirety. This world is marked by what comes to an end, flesh comes to an end; the entirety of the human condition as we know it will come to an end. The world to come is marked by what never comes to an end, love, hope and life. Paul spoke of how our bodies, meaning our whole selves, including how we relate to each other, would receive new life inspired by the Spirit.

Why then wonders Paul would they tie themselves into the flesh by being circumcised when they don’t need to be, as flesh is coming to an end. Pauline wonders why the modern world is so obsessed by staying younger looking; there is no need to fear getting older. We need a body to make a relationship; it is how we relate to each other. Bodies were made alive with Nephesh but not always in close contact with God; in Christ our psuche and pneumatic bodies are always in relationship with Christ. We engage with God through his Spirit. Even those suffering from dementia are not cut off from God as they still have the Spirit of God in them. Paul would say that a beautiful body is integrated mind, body, Spirit and soul together with God’s Spirit, which is God’s goal for the world.

I found the lecture fascinating and Pauline’s enthusiasm was infectious. I came away with my mind buzzing with all the information, so I needed time to let the ideas ferment. I have tried to share what I understood from the lecture.

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2 Responses to The Body Beautiful? Paul’s Theology of the Body

  1. selwyngoodacre says:

    I am impressed by your fine and detailed account of what sounds a pretty academic talk. As regards the ‘six pack’ I should have thought exercise quite as important, indeed more important, than starving, then gorging (?). Was Pauline’s Barbie doll in proper proportion her own creation, or was it the new Barbie that I believe the firm has just issued?

  2. helenbeech says:

    Thanks for your comments. I am sure Dr Gooder was criticising that starving and gorging to get a six pack and certainly exercise is better. It was probably Pauline’s own creation of the properly proportioned Barbie.

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