Methodist Theology of Body

on December 7, 2020

(Downloadable Podcast here)

Tooley: Hello this is Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, speaking today with Tim Tennent, president, fellow president, in fact he became president the same year I became president of the IRD, but he’s at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, which is, he can correct me if I’m wrong, the largest Methodist, or Wesleyan, seminary in the world. And he has written an important new book about which we’re going to talk on Theology of the Body. So, Tim, thank you for joining this conversation.

Tennent: Thank you, Mark. It’s great to be here.

Tooley: So, most people if they’ve even heard of Theology of the Body would associate it with Pope John Paul II, who crafted this body of teaching by that name. You’ve written a book on this topic. As a Methodist theologian, why did you write this book?

Tennent: Well, I wrote this book because the Methodist Western world, like so many parts of our culture, is in crisis on this particular issue. I think the John Paul II work is wonderful, but it’s not as accessible to people perhaps as it could be, because it’s a massive book. It was done over many years of time, in short 15-minute homilies. So, though I appreciate some of the books that are out there, I felt like it was important to have a book that came out of our own tradition and thinking. And I think that the neo-Gnostic resurgence of ideas that would basically denigrate the body are a major theological challenge. And so, this book, I felt, was trying to address that in a way that can be read by ordinary lay people and leaders in the church.

Tooley: Now, the book is about Christian teaching regarding sex, but it’s not just about sex is it?

Tennent: No. This book, I really tried to actually address the question differently. I think if you were to talk to non-Christians around the country, they would probably largely believe that Christians are against a lot of this behavior, like homosexual behavior or gender reassignment and so forth. And so, I was kind of considering the fact that the culture realizes that we are against these things. But the question is, what are we for? What is the compelling vision that unites Christians historically regarding the body? So, this book is actually entitled for the body because it’s meant to be a positive affirmation. And so, the book deals with everything from not just sexual activity, but things like gender reassignment, the way advertisements happen on billboards and media, how we talk about the way the body is portrayed in a wide variety of settings and culture, obviously pornography, etc. So, it’s dealing with a lot of issues, even things like doctor assisted suicide, abortion, just so many issues. And so, I think one of my concerns actually was that the church has felt like we’re fighting like 15 separate battles or skirmishes. And what I argue in the book is, in fact, we don’t have 15 battles. We actually have one battle, the central challenge to our time is about the body. And is the body merely a biological functional utilitarian category or is it in fact a theological category which points to divine mysteries? And that really is at the heart of the book.

Tooley: Well, often, perhaps most of the time, we Protestants have a hard time in that we’ll rely exclusively on a few Bible verses to make our arguments, but typically don’t come up with whole systematic arguments based on the fullness of Christian teaching, which is essentially what you’re striving to do in this book if I understand correctly?

Tennent: Yes. This book really is rooted in a theological understanding. So, it’s of course drawn from verses in the scripture, but it’s a horizontal look across scripture, from creation to new creation. So, it looks at things like for example the human body. What does it mean that we’re created and called good? So, it looks at the goodness of the body. The body is meant to be a pointer to the incarnation, marriage, a pointer to Christ and the church, bearing children, a pointer to the Trinity. So, it’s looking at really deep theological concepts like the incarnation, ecclesiology, Trinitarian theology, and showing that God actually put a lot of these truths into our bodies, into what I call the related body, how our bodies relate to other bodies, as a way of pointers to divine mysteries. So, in that sense, it’s not simply a proof texting type work where you look at certain verses. It’s actually looking at large, broad categories of creation and community and how would the community, the Trinity, for example, we believe the Trinity is the ultimate community. Would God have designed the human family to reflect his own inner life and the Trinity? Those are theological questions; what this book tries to explore.

Tooley: As you say, Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body was based on a series of homilies across years. Your book is based on several sermons you delivered at the chapel at Asbury Seminary, correct?

Tennent: That’s true. I’ve done two different versions of it. Originally some years ago after I read John Paul II’s work, I decided to try to craft them into maybe seven or eight messages which would basically summarize what the Pope was trying to say, and then kind of recast it in a Wesleyan framework. So, that was my initial thought on it. It was interesting because even things like, there was some topics I had avoided. Like one of the themes of course in the book is contraception. And so, I’ve started, there’s no point in really addressing that. So, I said in passing to the student body that I wasn’t going to talk about contraception. But then later on, it was a huge student come back. They said well, we want to know what does the Pope say about contraception and why. And so, I said well, I’ll have a special session on this after lunch one day in the cafeteria. A massive number of students showed up. And they wanted to know what does the Roman Catholic Church actually teach about contraception, and why did Protestants disagree with it? We had a really interesting conversation about it. It kind of alerted me to the fact that there really is a hunger in young people to explore some of these deep questions about the nature of the body and to get to maybe more of a theological read on these things. So, anyway, yeah it did start out with sermons some years ago. Now I’m not actually preaching them again this semester, more directly from my own work and thoughts on it.

Tooley: Is there a specifically Protestant angle on Theology of the Body, and is there even more so, a distinctively Wesleyan perspective?

Tennent: Yeah, that’s a great question. I do think there is in some ways. I think the main connection has to do with the sacramental body. The book is divided into three sections. One is, I call it the created body. What’s it mean to be created? The other is the related body. How we’re related one to another. In that sense, I think the only I would say deficit the Protestants would have in the second section is the idea of what is an icon. You have to accept the idea that the body can be a pointer to a spiritual mystery. That’s something which is not as developed in our theology. When you come to the third section on the sacramental body, it really comes down to how we talked about sacraments. And so, the sacraments of course in the present tradition generally I think have two challenges. One is that we tend to reduce them to the two, eucharist and baptism. And we don’t look at any sacraments Trinitarian wise, just through what Christ established. But then, secondly, we’ve typically viewed kind of ministry of the pastor to the word in sacrament. And so, the word is the public ministry of the church to the world. And second is God’s work in our lives. So, I have to recast that in ways. But this one, I think the Wesleyan message really helps, because the Wesleyan is, you know, part of Wesley’s work was to address certain things in the Reformation he felt were not properly developed well. And one was Trinitarian theology, right. So, you have much more of a stronger pneumatology. Although Wesley didn’t introduce multiple sacraments beyond the two, he did institute the means of grace. To the means of grace, which is much more developed, he got it from the Puritans, but he developed it more profoundly in his own writings. I think it actually helped me a lot because I’m actually making the point in the book, for example, that all the means of grace can only happen in the body. So, the eucharist happens in the body. The baptism happens in the body. You hear scripture with your ears, etc. Serving the poor happens with your body. So, a lot of ways that Wesley was very intentional about connecting the theology of Christian living with the whole of life, not just a justification or kind of reductionism of salvation, to me, is a very beautiful Wesleyan contribution. So, I think the synergistic kind of vision of Wesleyanism was much more conducive to this than some Protestant theologies.

Tooley: Your book is very timely, not just because of what’s happening in our secular culture, but also because of what’s happening in Methodism with the impending division of the United Methodist Church and the creation of a new orthodox global Methodist communion that will need to have a thick theology of sexuality and of the body. So, hopefully your book will play a major role in that process.

Tennent: Well, we hope so. I mean, obviously, one of the concerns I have, all of us have, whenever I’m moving this bird, it always can be birthed out of a lot of pietism and people who really want to, who love the Lord, and who want to get a fresh start. Which is wonderful. But at the end of the day, the church will be sustained over a long period of time by good theological rootedness. And so, if we could dig some deeper wells on human sexuality and issues of the body, that would serve us very well. Because as you know, Mark, this issue is not going away. This has a lot of force to it. And H.R. 5, the Equality Act, and these types of endeavors are going to challenge the church profoundly to think how, where do we stand, and how does this affect our witness in our culture? So, yeah, I hope this book will help those reflections.

Tooley: Now, these dicey issues regarding the body and sexuality, you’re preaching about them at Asbury Seminary to overwhelmingly young people who are facing these issues among their own generation. Generally, what is the reaction when you present the orthodox Christian teaching?

Tennent: It’s very positive. I think we’ve had some very good conversations. I have done some Facebook as well. So, we have in addition to the sermons, which is more of a more of a one-way kind of communication event, we have these Facebook events where I will talk about these issues on an open Facebook page. So, students are allowed. And we’ve had, I did one recently with 800 students participating. And so, they could write in any question they wanted. So, by virtue of the questions you get a feel for it. What I found was that the largest questions were not so much opposing it kind of in a negative way, or that this is not a good direction for the church to pose this, but really more of really hard pastoral questions. What do you do when people in the church come to you and say, no, my daughter has just come to me and said she feels like she’s a man trapped in a woman’s body. So, those are really important questions of course when people have gender dysphoria or they say, you know, all my life I felt like I was attracted to the same sex and all of this. And the whole dynamic in the book, I deal with this difference between God made me that way as kind of one of the ways we frame this today. Is it the same to say we’re born that way as God created me that way? Those are two different questions. But our students, I think, are largely concerned about pastoral issues. What does it mean to actually go into the church and actually confront real people with real questions? And that to me is good. Those are good things. I felt mostly those are the kinds of things students raised questions about.

Tooley: I mentioned that Asbury is the largest Methodist, or Wesleyan, seminary in the world, but it’s quite extraordinary that you have experienced an increase in enrollment this semester, even in the middle of a pandemic, and you have is it 1,700 students now?

Tennent: Now over 1,800 students now. So, yeah. Well, there’s 270 schools in the Association of Theological Schools, that’s across all of North America, that are accredited. And only nine of those schools in the 270, and then another 30 associate members, almost 300 schools, only nine of the schools have grown in five consecutive years. And we’ve actually grown seven consecutive years. So, it’s a pretty unusual grace of God at Asbury at this time to be growing as the industry as a whole has been under a lot of pressure. We count it as God has plans for the Wesleyan movement and God keeps sending the students. And our students actually tell us, we learn a lot about why someone comes, we interview every student and ask why are you coming here as opposed to somewhere else, and they tell us they come in because they believe that we are committed to historic orthodoxy. It’s the number one reason why someone comes to Asbury. That tells me that students, actually young people, are actually interested in historic orthodoxy, which is very encouraging.

Tooley: And not just historic orthodoxy, but the historic orthodox Wesleyan principles. That’s unusual in American seminary education.

Tennent: It is. It really is. Asbury is confessionally Wesleyan, and a lot of our students come here who may not know exactly what that means, but they feel instinctively there’s something about Wesleyanism which tends to combine a lot of things that have traditionally been dichotomous in the church. They tend to synthesize those very well, including things like evangelical faith and social action, or things that students today are more attentive to or aware of, like justice issues. And so, they sense in the Wesleyan vision, a way all of that comes together in a beautiful way that is still resonate with the gospel. So, anyway, those are some reasons why we’re mostly just thankful to God.

Tooley: Of course, Asbury is pan-Wesleyan. You have students from many Wesleyan denominations and some who come from not specifically Wesleyan denominations. But a majority of your students are United Methodist and will be facing this impending division of their denomination, and there will be a lot of responsibility on the part of Asbury in being the leader of seminary education and the new orthodox global Methodism. Are you ready for that new responsibility?

Tennent: We are ready. We are ready. We’ve got a great faculty; got great facilities. One of things we are doing to accommodate that is to launch what we call Asbury Global. So, if you haven’t followed Asbury for some years, you’ll probably be surprised to know that we now have Asbury locations not only in Orlando, which we’ve had for 15 years, but now we have a new site. It’s flourishing in Memphis, and in Tulsa, and in Colorado Springs. So, we are moving. We have more locations planned to develop yet. So, we’re hoping to have opportunities for people all over the country to have access to an education. And the great thing about our Asbury Global is we’re not using adjuncts, there’s no second-tier education. Actually, our main core faculty are teaching in these sites. So, we’re very excited. And we’ve had a lot of great responses to our new students in Tulsa and Colorado Springs. So, that’s another development. We’re hoping to make it accessible to Methodists all over the country.

Tooley: And of course, you need to open a campus in Washington, DC ineffably.

Tennent: Yeah, of course.

Tooley: Tim Tennent, president of Asbury Seminary, thank you so much for a wonderful conversation, and congratulations on your book. If you have a copy of it, if you could hold it up?

Tennent: I do. Right here. It’s called For the Body. It’s a joint publication of Zondervan and Seedbed, and the subtitle is Recovering a Theology of Gender, Sexuality, and the Human Body.

Tooley: Thank you, Tim.

Tennent: God bless you, Mark. Have a good day.

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