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Christian Perspectives on the Human Body

By Keenan, James F. | Theological Studies, June 1994 | Go to article overview

Christian Perspectives on the Human Body


Keenan, James F., Theological Studies


The subject of the human body has appeared recently in debates concerning both the beginning and the end of human life. In order to determine the question of the personhood of the unborn, ethicists ask when it is that a human embryo becomes a body that can be informed by a soul.(1) Despite disagreement about when the embryo actually does become a human body, all agree nowadays, just as medieval writers did, that the condition for ensoulment is the presence of a true human body.(2) Concerning the end of life, ethicists, having debated the respect due to dead human bodies,(3) now ask whether human beings enjoy proprietary rights over their body parts.(4)

These debates indicate to some degree the accuracy of Robert Brungs's remark in the fiftieth-anniversary volume of this journal that "all the major issues agitating the Church today .... revolve about the meaning of our bodiedness."(5) Referring to a diversity of issues from homosexuality and reproduction to celibacy and women's ordination, Brungs believes that the resources of our historical faith should assist us as we accept "both the opportunity and the need for a major doctrinal development |on the body.'"(6) Though a doctrinal development on the body is still forthcoming,(7) scholars have turned to the Christian tradition to study the human body.(8) As the early church historian Gedaliahu Stroumsa remarks, "The body is fashionable."(9)

This note will provide a survey of that historical research in order to establish the foundation and background of the theological interest we Christians have in the human body. In particular, it will review those Christian sources in which more attention is given to the human body: the Scriptures, the early Church, and medieval and renaissance church histories. Turning to the Enlightenment, we will ask why that period also marks an abrupt turn away from the human body. The note will conclude with summary reflections pointing to practical insights that result from this historical survey.

Reflections on the Scriptures

Despite a commonplace belief that Christianity has maintained a negative stance toward the human body,(10) a singular consensus among historians, scripture scholars, and theologians contradicts that assumption, asserting instead that the Christian tradition has always regarded the body as constitutive of human identity, and some strands of that tradition have vigorously combatted various expressions of dualism.(11) This insight into the tradition first entered contemporary thought from the scripture studies of Rudolf Bultmann.

Reflecting on the Greek word soma ("body"), Bultmann argues that for Paul "soma belongs inseparably, constitutively, to human existence.... The only human existence there is--even in the sphere of the Spirit--is somatic existence."(12) Emphasizing human existence as bodily, Bultmann notes that Paul never uses soma to describe a corpse. Moreover, the body is so integrated into human existence that, Bultmann claims, the human does not have a soma, but rather is soma.

Robert Jewett develops these insights. He begins his work with the remark that "for Paul theology is anthropology."(13) Investigating anthropological terms in the Pauline epistles, Jewett finds on the one hand that the word sarx ("flesh") generally describes those urges for our own personal righteousness that keep us from God. On the other hand, the word soma is used to combat gnostic individualism and provides the basis both for the metaphysical unity of the person and for the possibility of "relationship between persons."(14)

Recent scholars advance these arguments. While granting that the Greek soma conveys a "circumscribed totality" which serves as the basis of personal unity, Antoine Vergote notes that the Semitic notion of body is clear from organs, like the heart, kidneys, and lungs, that metaphorically represent "the ensemble of rapports" that we enjoy with the world and God.

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