I am one who has not read extensively the works of Pope John Paul II. But everyone is telling me I need to. Maybe I’m intimidated by his mind, and the intensity I would have to approach his very intellectual writings. But I’m going to start, as apparently are many others as well from what I can read in the media. And many are translating his words to a broader audience as well.

Since we have just come off a series on sex, this seems like a good book to start with.

This review is interesting, and may encourage you to begin to read more of the Pope’s writings.

Theology of the Body (the article is posted below)

“Theology of the Body”
Pope John Paul II on the biblical foundations of marriage and sexuality.
By Laura Merzig Fabrycky

Body and Gift:
Reflections on Creation
Pope John Paul II,
paraphrased by Sam Torode
Philokalia, 2003
74 pp. $10.95, paper

Purity of Heart:
Reflections on
Love and Lust
Pope John Paul II,
paraphrased by Sam Torode
Philokalia, 2004
86 pp. $13.95, paper

When George Weigel published Witness to Hope (1999), his bestselling biography of John Paul II, he made a plea for more accessible secondary literature that explored the pope’s groundbreaking theological work on the human body and marital relations as “an icon of the interior life of God.” Weigel anticipated correctly that this teaching would have explosive reverberations throughout the world: “These 130 catechetical addresses, taken together, constitute a kind of theological time bomb set to go off, with dramatic consequences, sometime in the third millennium of the church.”

Sam Torode is an accomplice, if you will, in this benignly subversive enterprise. Already credentialed in the field through Open Embrace (Eerdmans, 2001), a Protestant consideration of natural family planning co-written with his wife Bethany, Torode takes language typically reserved for philosophers and theologians and makes the pope’s insights available to the general reader.

I am grateful for his efforts, although some may want to go straight to the source, which is The Theology of the Body: Human Love in the Divine Plan (Daughters of Saint Paul, 1997). My introduction to this theology was through Catholic friends who talked about it as if they were on fire with good news, irrespective of their marital status. One gave me a copy of The Theology of the Body, and—expecting to be pulled in with similar verve—I was surprised to find myself working hard through dense reflections. Along with the valuable work of Christopher West, who has labored to explicate the theology of the body to a more popular audience, we now have Sam Torode to thank for offering such lucid re-workings, the first two installments in a four-volume set that will, when complete, present the entirety of The Theology of the Body in an “everyday English” version.

Evangelical Protestants who pick up these books in their local Christian bookstore may be skeptical or suspicious. The very term “theology of the body” is likely to set off alarms. What are these books really about? Contraception? Not exactly, no. This theology is not primarily about opposition to contraception, although the logic in favor of non-contraceptive marital union is easier to understand after encountering this teaching. In fact, the pope’s theology of the body is not primarily about sex. It sets sex in a larger context, addressing the whole person, dividing joints from marrow in the way it tackles lust, “nuptial meaning,” and masculinity and femininity. It is a fundamental account of the place of “human love in the divine plan.”

If anyone could spark this conversation among evangelicals, it is John Paul II. As John Grabowski points out in his foreword to the published addresses in The Theology of the Body, the pope teaches what he does about marriage and sexuality from a foundation of biblical revelation, not natural law, thus arguing in terms familiar to evangelicals.

John Paul II began this conversation to weekly general audiences on September 5, 1979, concluding them in 1984. The first “cycle”—which Torode has published as Body and Gift—opens by reflecting on the passage from Matthew 19, where the Pharisees question Jesus about Moses’ teaching on divorce. Refusing to be trapped by the artificial boundaries the Pharisees placed on the debate, Jesus points them back to the Book of Genesis: “Jesus replied, ‘Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning’ ” (Matt. 19:8).

How has it been, then, from the beginning? God created us male and female—as individuals, naked and unashamed. We were created for relationship, reflecting his Trinitarian essence. We were designed to be given, spent, and poured out to others, not to use and abuse others to gratify ourselves. The hardness of our hearts in sin and separation has made abuse of the other ubiquitous. Through marriage, we participate in a mystery, reflecting how God relates to and loves himself in the Trinity, where each person mutually submits to and loves the other fully. Therefore, we are called to withhold nothing from our spouse in the same way the Godhead does—not just by God’s law, but by our very design as humans in the image of God.

In the “becoming one flesh” of sex, “each takes the other in, expanding the meaning of self.” Only in such self-giving marital love can a man or woman make sense of himself or herself as a gift; it is a perversion of marriage—God’s creation of marriage—to do otherwise. We are not our own. Procreation, God’s invitation for us to join him as co-creators, is the procession of life springing from the mutual love of the two who are one flesh, in the same way that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. Although this volume does not address contraception directly, the theo-logic flows from here—to deny one another by refusing to be open to procreation points to deeper spiritual trouble. It is a withholding of self from the one person with whom you image the Trinity. It is to deny the nature of God’s creation of marriage and “being known.”

The parallel is not exact, but it may be helpful to think of this teaching as typology, much in the same way that Jonathan Edwards saw Scripture and history as packed with typologies of Christ’s work of redemption, with salvific types poking out all over. Catholics reading that last sentence will bristle, and they should. Sacramentality is not symbolism. It is the real thing—the invisible made visible. Or, as this text puts it: “Our bodies are sacramental—they make the invisible visible.” And our bodies/ourselves only make sense as images of the divine. Torode’s John Paul delivers this punch line early in the exploration: “Ultimately, man can only be understood in relation to God,” and our lives as images of God.

In Purity of Heart, Torode unfolds John Paul’s reflections on how the Sermon on the Mount bears on these relationships—man and woman to God, and man to woman. It is in our bodies that our “nuptial meaning” is revealed. By virtue of our capacity for physical unity, we learn that we can be a gift and even develop in our capacity to give ourselves. But the battle remains not in the body, but in the body’s command center—the heart. Lust distorts the nuptial meaning of the body, makes objects out of subjects, and appropriates rather than unites. It is in the heart where that nuptial meaning is either nurtured and celebrated, or (as it’s put in the original) “habitually threatened.”

This is a “total vision of man,” a comprehensive theological anthropology. The theology of the body expands the boundaries of our theological imagination, going beyond the “Christian gender debates”—who’s in charge, who sinned first, and who gets to make the decisions in a family—and way beyond the debate of equality versus complementarity. Finally, the theology of the body gives an ethic to marriage as part of God’s plan for our lives. It is not just a “chosen lifestyle.” In the end, marriage and sex are God’s, and we had better think of both as such.

Evangelical Protestants have worked hard to promote good sexual ethics, particularly abstinence before marriage, but discussion about the ethics of sex within marriage itself is another matter. Local bookstores offer a cornucopia of Christian sex manuals that rightly make up for years of prudishness, but they usually address positions rather than the heart’s posture to God.

Marriage is not simply the arena where we get to “do it” legitimately, says the theologian of the body. God has something to say about “it” just as much as he has something to say about sin, redemption, and the restoration of all things. We have lifted marital sex high, but perhaps we have not plumbed its depths, embracing the spiritual and physical responsibilities that it demands. We have taken gifts and treated them lightly, and we are reaping the whirlwind through broken and spiritually bankrupt marriages in the church.

Even more disconcerting, treating sexual addictions and dealing with the effects of promiscuity is big business in the Christian subculture. It’s definitely a business we should be in, but we should be careful of restricting ourselves to thinking in “sin management” categories, as Dallas Willard would put it. Sexual confusion is nothing new in the church; think back to Paul’s dealings with the Corinthians. But that it is such a big business—from “Every Man’s Battle” conferences to online sex addicts discussion groups—indicates that we Christians are swallowing just as much brackish cultural water as our non-Christian neighbors. Our minds need renewing as much as our bodies. The good news is that the theological time bomb Weigel alluded to has reverberated even in evangelical circles. A friend of mine who works at Focus on the Family manages a website called PureIntimacy.org, which in May of this year was re-launched with articles revealing just how far the pope’s work has reached beyond the Catholic Church. May it continue to bear fruit.

Laura Merzig Fabrycky is a research associate with the Ethics and Public Policy Center and an mts student at Virginia Theological Seminary. She and her husband, David, live in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Copyright © 2004 by the author or Christianity Today International/Books & Culture magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Books & Culture.
September/October 2004, Vol. 10, No. 5, Page 28