Author Archives: Timothy Tennent

Timothy Tennent ~ Marriage, Human Sexuality, & the Body: The Meaning of Our Original Nakedness

This is part of a series of articles on marriage, human sexuality and the body. Read Part I here. Read Part II here. Read Part III here.

I am using as the basis for these homilies the wonderful theological work done by the late Pope, John Paul II which he delivered in his weekly homilies between 1979-1984 and which remains, in my estimation, one of the most comprehensive theological explorations of a theology of the body, marriage and human sexuality I have read.  The purpose of this blog series is to underscore how utterly inadequate it is for us to be merely against something like homosexual behavior without being able to articulate what we are joyfully for.  I am concerned mainly about our own conversation in the church, because we have to recover that before we have anything to say to the wider culture.  In my view, we have at least 20 years of homework to do before we can regain any form of public witness on these issues.  It is far too tiny of a strategy to try to come up with five clever objections to this or that practice, without recognizing the deeper void of theological work which addresses the very foundation which will enable us to speak to the whole spectrum of brokenness in our society ranging from divorce to digital pornography to homosexual practice to adultery to fornication to gender reassignment, and so forth.  It is your generation which must regain your theological composure.  To put it bluntly, we cannot Twitter our way out of this!

During the last three blog entries, we have seen how our creation as “male” and “female” are not solely biological, functional categories, but steeped in deep mysteries and theological realities which reflect God’s own nature and his original design for his creation.  Even in a post-Fallen world, we saw how in Matthew 19, Jesus reminds his questioners that despite the rise of human sin and brokenness, despite our hardness of heart and the cultural fog we are in, the original design remains joyfully intact.  The phrase which Jesus uses twice in that text should be our reminder today:  “From the beginning it was not so.”   We began to realize that we actually lost the struggle decades ago when we accepted the world’s definition of marriage as a shifting cultural arrangement designed to deliver happiness, companionship, sexual fulfillment and economic efficiency.  In contrast, the Scriptures summon us to remember how families are intended to reflect the Trinity, the sacramental nature of the body, what it means to be image bearers in our very physicality, the power of self-donation, and the mystery of actually becoming co-creators with God in the reproducibility of children, not to mention how our very bodies prepare the world to receive the incarnation of Jesus Christ. There is a mighty chasm between these two visions and we had better recapture the original vision and design.  The former is a utilitarian vision which sees marriage as a commodity; the latter is a biblical vision which sees marriage as covenant.

The utilitarian vision sees the body of a  man or woman as an object which can be assessed like a car. Is it bright, new, shiny and full of power, or not?  Is your body thin or fat; does it conform to the shapes we admire or not; is your hair the right texture and color or not; are your teeth shiny and straight or not?  In the covenantal vision, the mystery and glory is that we have bodies, and those bodies are beautiful to God because they are living sacraments in the world, an outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace, since all of the means of grace come through the physicality of the body.

In Genesis 2, we have the joyous creation of “male” and “female” which culminates in their awakening and the remarkable passage in Genesis 2:25 which says, “the man and his wife were both naked and they felt no shame.”

First, John Paul asks us to consider the meaning of our original nakedness.  Remember, we had to go back (as Jesus did in Matthew 19) and look at the pre-Fallen Adam.  Our theologies have focused primarily on fallen Adam and Christ as the second Adam (as in Romans 5 and I Cor. 15:45), but we needed to remember the pre-fallen Adam and the original design. In the same way, we must also go back to the pre-fall Adam and Eve and remember our original nakedness.  We know nakedness today only through the lens of the Fall.  Therefore, nakedness for us is a sign of our shame.  In the Western theological traditions, we have mostly viewed the Fall as the portal through which we have been cast into guilt as transgressors of God’s law.  That testimony is true.

But, the actual account in Genesis names two other, perhaps even deeper, realities of the Fall; namely fear and shame.  It is fear, shame and guilt which have destroyed the original communion of persons in the primordial design, whether between man and woman, or between ourselves and the communion of the Triune God.  In a post-fig leaf world which clothes our shame, it is difficult for us to even conceptualize what it means to stand naked without shame.  But it is here that we discover the true nature of our original design.  The reason the man felt no shame before Eve, and Eve before Adam is because they were one flesh.  They were in the state of original unity.  And that was the design: “a man shall leave his mother and father and be united to his wife and the two shall become one flesh.”  Sin pushes us back into our autonomous solitude, destroys the communion of persons, and heaps shame upon ourselves and our bodies.  It is sin which brings this new self-consciousness, or shall I say, self-orientation.  Adam and Eve become aware of their nakedness and feel shame and fear.  All of this is revealed through two questions God himself asks us after the Fall.  The first question is  “Where are you?” (loss of communion).  Adam answers that he and Eve had hidden themselves because  “I was afraid (fear) and I was naked (self-consciousness).

The second question is, “Who told you that you were naked?”  Adam’s response reveals a profound loss of communion and the newly emerging self-orientation.  Eve, who was before the Fall one flesh with Adam, now becomes an object – an object upon which Adam heaps blame and guilt.  “The woman you gave me…”

You see, shame robs us of the self-donation which is integral to God’s own nature where we fully give ourselves to the other such that we are one flesh.   All the ways we shame the body of another and heap shame upon our own body is because of the loss of original nakedness.  We, of course, joyfully recapture a glimmer of the original design through the covenant of marriage when a man and woman can stand before one another naked and without shame, and say, “this is my body, given for you.”  Remember those words in Ephesians 5:28, “husbands have a duty to love their wives as their own bodies.”  To shame your wife’s body is to shame yourself, and to shame the Triune God from whom all bodies come as gifts.  Outside of covenant, we can only know shame.    Inside the covenant, we have the summons to be free from all shame and enter into joyful communion with the Triune God.

Timothy Tennent ~ Marriage, Human Sexuality, and the Body: From the Beginning It Was Not So

Note from the Editor: This post is part of a series by Dr. Timothy Tennent on theology of the body, sexuality, and marriage.

The problem we face today is actually much deeper than we realize.  The Christian church in the West has largely embraced the wider cultural views regarding the very purpose of marriage—and therefore, we get off on the wrong foot to begin with.  Marriage is, in the wider culture, broadly understood as a shifting cultural arrangement to promote happiness, companionship, sexual fulfillment and economic efficiency.  Marriage in the contemporary period is a commodity.  Like all commodities you should expect returns, (in this case emotional or romantic returns) or you can abandon or discard the relationship and opt for one which is better.

For the last forty years, the church has largely adopted the world’s definition of marriage.  The deeper vision of reflecting the Trinity, the sacramental nature of the body, being image bearers in our physicality, not just our spirits, the power of self-donation, joining God as creators in the reproduction of children, and, indeed, the very foundation for the future incarnation, and so forth have not been a prominent part of the Christian discourse about marriage.  Therefore, once we accepted the wider cultural, social, pragmatic and biological definition of marriage, we really had no proper ground on which to stand in order to oppose potentially any kind of marriage arrangements.  But, in the beginning, it was not so, as the whole creation of male and female is cast in a larger theological context; it is not merely social and biological; it is also spiritual and theological.

For example, we often describe a “sacrament” as an outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace, but then we limit ourselves by thinking of sacraments only in terms of the two which Christ established: baptism and the Eucharist.  Wesley, on the other hand, prodded us to think more deeply and expansively about all the means of grace which, for Wesley, is a much larger category than baptism and Eucharist.  John Paul II makes the point that Christ is not the only one who provides sacramental means of grace.  There are sacraments which flow from the Father and the Spirit.  We will actually explore how marriage is the primordial sacrament later in this series.  But, for now, let us lay the groundwork that your physical body itself is a kind of sacrament.  It is an outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace, because we have been created in the image of God.  In Genesis, this is what distinguishes us from the animals and which roots us as spiritual and theological beings—not just a spirit inside of us, but the whole of who we are as image bearers.  We are, bodily, a living sacrament and our bodies are a sign to the world of God’s presence—ultimately fulfilled in the incarnation and expressed through the physical community of the church.  In fact, the human body is the bridge between theology and anthropology.  Indeed, without the physicality of the body the “means of grace” as we know it would cease.  Think about it. You baptize a body, you take the Eucharist into your body, you confess Christ with your lips, you lay hands on the body of the sick and anoint with oil, or lay hands on someone to set apart for ministry, etc. Even Scripture is read with our eyes or listened to with our ears.  Only the body can make the invisible, visible.  It is the ultimate outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace.  It is just so close to us that we can easily miss it.

Going Back to the Beginning

John Paul II’s Theology of the Body takes Jesus’ point and goes back to the beginning as he asks us to consider more carefully the “pre-fallenAdam.  Many of our theological constructs only view humanity through the lens of the Fall.  The first Adam embodies the Fall, the Second Adam, Jesus Christ, embodies redemption.  So, theologically, we have mostly developed the two Adams: the fallen Adam and Christ as the Second Adam, because that is found in Romans 5 and I Cor. 15:45.  But, when Jesus refers to these pre-Fall texts in Matthew 19, he is referring to the pre-fallen Adam, the original, creational Adam.  When Paul says, “in Adam all die and in Christ all are made alive”, that is a reference to only Christ and the fallen Adam.  But, when Jesus says “from the beginning it was not so” he is calling us to look back even before the Fall.  We have to go back to the original design and understand something of the theology of creation, the theology of the body, and God’s original intention for the cosmic role of Adam and Eve in the original creation, which we must examine before we rush too quickly to Genesis 3 and the entrance of sin.

It has long been a complaint against popular evangelical theology that our Bible begins with Genesis 3 and end with Revelation 20, a theological omission of the opening two chapters and the closing two chapters.  The result has been a theologically reductionistic narrative which stretches from Fall to Judgment, rather than the actual biblical narrative which stretches from Creation to New Creation.  (This “whole Bible” approach was one of the many restorations brought about through the Wesleyan revivals).   But, can we fully understand the fulfillment of the New Creation unless we first understand the origin, intention, purpose and moral framework of the original creation?

The fact that Jesus, in a post-Fallen world as recorded in Matthew 19, quotes and masterfully combines Gen. 1:27 (male and female) and 2:24 (two united as one flesh)—both pre-Fall texts—is a powerful reminder that, despite the Fall and the tragic entrance of sin into the world, the original design of creation, as embodied in unfallen Adam and Eve who were created “male” and “female” and were united to become “one flesh,” remains intact as God’s plan and design for us, and He will not relinquish this even in the face of sin, hardness of heart and a whole spectrum of cultural issues which seek to cloud everything.  A few years ago, the Supreme Court of India ruled that that every person “has the right to choose their gender” because Hindus have no doctrine of creation and therefore there are no moral boundaries inherent in our creational design.  Jesus, in contrast, says to us as he said to them, “from the beginning it was not so…”  We must remember this.

Timothy Tennent ~ Marriage, Human Sexuality, and the Body: Let’s Go Back to the Beginning

This is the beginning of a series of blogs on marriage, human sexuality and the body.

Brother and sisters, we are living in the wake of a multi-generational neglect of a biblical vision of the body, marriage and human sexuality.  The church’s inability in recent years to articulate a compelling response to issues like same-sex marriage and gender reassignment has highlighted the deeper neglect of our thinking on these, and many other issues.  It is grossly ineffective and inadequate for the church to be simply against something in culture without the capacity to articulate what the biblical vision calls us to; namely, the positive vision which is so beautifully set forth in Scripture.  On this issue, we must confess that our Roman Catholic friends are about twenty years ahead of us, and we need to listen to what they are saying and find appropriate ways to bring this into our own theological frameworks.  Wesleyan theology is itself a synthesis movement, because Wesley loved to draw from and learn from every Christian tradition, including Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, the Puritans, etc.—all of which find their way into the great Wesleyan synthesis.

Between Sept. 5, 1979 and Nov. 28, 1984, the late Pope John Paul II preached a five year series of weekly homilies on the Theology of the Body, which remains one of the most beautiful expositions of this theme I have ever read.  My goal this semester is to share with you the broad outlines of that study.   I can hardly begin to unfold this in just seven installments, but I hope to provide a kind of scenic overview which, in turn, might inspire you to capture a vision for the kind of theological spadework which you must learn to do.

Think about it:  What might happen if we really took time to think through these issues?  In comparing some of the basic impulses of Protestants vs. Roman Catholics, I often joke that when a new social-cultural issue emerges—whether it be on human sexuality, nuclear armaments or global immigration—the Jesuits are called in by the Pope and told to go out and think about it and return in twenty years with a report which forms the basis of a papal encyclical.  In contrast, the Protestants jot down a few thoughts on the back of an envelope while they are in their car on the way to a mass rally to address the issue.  I am, of course, exaggerating, but I think you get my point.  What kind of robust theology might emerge if we really took time to think about these issues?  We cannot simply “cut and paste” Roman Catholic reflections into our tradition, but we would be foolish not to listen to those who have already thought about this deeply.

Discussions about marriage, divorce and issues of human sexuality are not new.  What is new is our unpreparedness for the current questions being asked.  It is way too simplistic and reductionistic to think that the task before the church is to come up with a clever answer against, for example, homosexual practice, without stepping back and seeing it within the larger picture of a whole host of sexual brokenness on the cultural landscape—like digital pornography, adultery, fornication, gender re-assignment, etc. These problems cannot properly be addressed in isolation from the larger theology of the body.  This is why when the Pharisees tested Jesus in Matthew 19:3-8 with the question “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?” it is a question which, in some ways, mirrors a hosts of questions which are today being hurled at the church:  Is it lawful for a man to marry another man;  Is it lawful for a person to change their gender.  It is important to be clear about biblical ethics and historic faith, and straightforward answers are necessary.  However, we should also accept responsibility for our own theological sloppiness in grasping the larger picture.  We have about twenty years of homework which we have neglected to do.  We are like the school boy who complains that he failed an exam, even though he never actually took time to study.  The culture has given us a test, and we have failed it.  It is not the time to lament or to place blame, we just have to start doing our homework.  Personally, I think it will take us decades to get on the right side of these tests.  I may not see it my lifetime, but I am reminded of the famous reply by John F. Kennedy when he asked that certain fruit trees be planted on the lawn of the White House. The seasoned White House gardener said, “but Mr. President, it will take 40 years for those particular kind of trees to bear fruit,” and Kennedy reportedly said, “Well, then you had better plant this afternoon!”

The first phrase of Jesus’ reply to the Pharisees receives quite a bit of space in the early homilies of Pope John Paul.  What Jesus does methodologically is very instructive for us.  Jesus doesn’t answer the question right off the bat.  They ask, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?”  It is a question which, on the surface, begs for a simple “yes” or “ no” answer.  Yet, Jesus perceives that just answering the question will not help the questioner, because the problem is found, more fundamentally, in the very foundation of the question itself.   Jesus often looks beyond the question and to the questioner in his personal encounters, revealing his interest in the larger picture, not just answering a question per se.  Jesus wisely opts to expose their presuppositions and, in the process, gives us a glimpse into the deeper theological foundations upon which any answer, however simple and straightforward, must be based and built.   Therefore, Jesus calls them and us “back to the beginning.”  That is the title of this first homily, “Let us Go Back to the Beginning.”   Jesus brings up the original Creation twice in the short discourse with the amazing phrase, “from the beginning.”  In verse 4, “from the beginning the Creator made them male and female…”  and again in verse 9, in reference to Moses allowing the certificates of divorce” he says,  “from the beginning it was not so.”

The Protestant focus on the creation account in Genesis has been focused overwhelmingly in response to questions about material creation and issues around evolution and included precious little about human sexuality.  This is why false teaching is so good for the church. It actually forces the church to go back and examine texts which we have not read deeply enough.  Jesus masterfully brings together two texts from Genesis.  He quotes Gen. 1:27, that God “created them male and female,” which he joins with a quotation from Gen. 2:24: “for this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.”  These texts deserve closer scrutiny.  What becomes clear is that when God created us, male and female, these are not merely biological categories; or, if I can put it more bluntly, these are not mere functional categories.  They are never less than that, of course, but to be ‘man’ or ‘woman’ are enfleshed realities which are deeply embedded in theological realities which reflect God himself.

In the future, we will explore how the Trinity is reflected in the creation of man, woman and child, as we join God’s creative work.  But that is to get ahead of ourselves.  The current point is to recognize the impossibility of understanding or explaining our identity from the world’s perspective.

Timothy Tennent ~ What the Church Can Do During Exile

One of the most remarkable, and often overlooked, passages in the Old Testament is the letter Jeremiah wrote to his fellow Israelites who had been carried off into Babylonian exile (See Jeremiah 29). He told them (contra the false prophets of his day) to settle down, accept the judgment of God, plant crops, have children and hope for a better day – which will be 70 years down the road when they will be restored to their land.

They were now captives in a foreign land. The Babylonians were as cruel then as ISIS is today. It would be difficult to erase from your mind the picture of your enemy coming and ripping open the wombs of mothers, destroying your homes, stripping the gold off of the Temple and then burning it to the ground. The anguish and pain is beyond description. This is why it is astonishing when Jeremiah goes on to say something which is unprecedented in the ancient world: “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it” (Jeremiah 29:7). This is the Old Testament equivalent of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). When Jesus said, “You have heard it said, love your neighbor and hate your enemies” he was not quoting the Old Testament, but the popular distorted ethic of his time. When Jesus said, “love your enemies” he was actually re-stating what Jeremiah had said in his letter centuries earlier. This is because the same God who revealed himself to Jeremiah was walking among us in Jesus Christ.

We are all indebted to N. T. Wright for his tremendous work in helping us to reframe our perspective from “those who have passed through the Red Sea and are dwelling in the Promised Land” to “those who have been taken into exile and are awaiting our future promises.” We all grew up singing songs like “I’m dwelling in Beulah Land!” and “We’re marching to Zion!” We are still awaiting the new songs of lament which will guide us as we dwell in our own version of Babylonian exile. Our captors will demand that we “sing the songs of joy; sing for us one of the songs of Zion” (Psalm 137:3). But, we cannot sing the songs of Zion when we are in exile.

But Jeremiah reminds us that we do not respond with hatred or anger to those who have plotted our demise. We pray for the peace and prosperity of the country. We pray for the well-being of a church which celebrates false prophets (Jeremiah 28).  We realize – and this is the real lesson of Jeremiah – that judgement is actually a “means of grace.” The historic churches in the western world are under God’s judgment. I do not want to add to anyone’s weariness by repeating all the signs of this. But I do think we need to remember that Jeremiah promised that in 70 years their exile would come to an end and that God would, once again, bless them.

In other words, sometimes we have to trust God to do his work in the lives of our grandchildren. We may not see it in our lifetime. But, in time, God will show us that even this time of judgment was because of His love for us. He purges us and prunes us so we will, once again, bear fruit. I am now preparing for exile. I am asking God to help me to settle down and even prosper during this time. I want to learn new songs of lament. In the process, we will be deepened in our love, enlivened in our witness, and fruitful in our faith.

Dr. Timothy Tennent is President of Asbury Theological Seminary, which launched Seedbed resources. Wesleyan Accent is hosted by Seedbed and is pleased to reprint this piece originally found at