Human embodiment is the ‘proper state of human existence,’ argued Allison during faculty lecture
God designed human beings to live fully embodied lives as the proper state of their existence, argued theology professor Gregg R. Allison during a faculty lecture at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, September 4.
The lecture, titled “Four Theses on Human Embodiment,” was delivered in the historic Broadus Chapel, which was filled to capacity with students, faculty, and staff of Southern Seminary.
Allison, who is Professor of Christian Theology at Southern Seminary, said a robust theology of embodiment (having, being in, or being associated with a body) has become as important as ever with the resurgence of gnosticism and neo-gnosticism in the modern church.
Gnosticism, Allison argued, considers spiritual realities as inherently good and physical realities as inherently evil. This movement first developed within Christianity during the earliest days of the church and has been rejected by the church as heresy, in part because it dilutes the incarnation of Christ. But gnosticism continues to affect the church today, leading to a broad deemphasis of the body’s importance in the Christian life, Allison said.
Because of the rise of neo-gnosticism and continued cultural confusion regarding what it means for human beings to be made in God’s image, the theological discipline of anthropology is a crucial “systematic theological locus” of the contemporary church, he said. The church needs clear, biblical teaching on the body’s importance within a framework of “theological anthropology,” the study of what it means to be human.
Allison countered this neo-gnostic mindset in his first thesis, the “created body thesis,” which posits that embodiment is the “proper state of human existence” and reflects God’s design for his image bearers. According to Allison, believers should reject common ideas such as “I am a soul; I have a body” and instead affirm a more biblical statement: “I am my body.”
“We are fearfully and wonderfully made, and God's good and perfect will for us is being fulfilled in and through us as embodied beings,” Allison said.
Allison’s second thesis, the “gendered/sexed body thesis,” argued that maleness and femaleness is a fundamental given of human existence. Human gender or sex, which Allison used interchangeably in his lecture, closely correspond with a theology of human embodiment, he said.
“Gendered embodiment is beautiful and gestures beyond itself, prompting belief in the goodness of God, its creator,” Allison said. “Gender is the most fundamental particularity of human embodied experience.”
The third thesis, the “particularity thesis,” argues that human existence is partially defined by the condition of being an individual. In other words, each human person carries personal qualities that make all people uniquely themselves.
Allison identified six core particularities in the human experience: ethnicity, family, temporality (one’s place in history and personal experience of the passage of time), spatiality, context, and story (the “narrative constitution” of humans, according to Allison, who frame and recount their stories in ways that become part of who they are).
Being human means each gender-embodied individual is characterized by these six areas. Allison emphasized that the particularity thesis is different from intersectionality, which measures the complex and cumulated effects of discrimination and traces how they disenfranchise and divide people from one another, he said. The particularity thesis, on the other hand, simply identifies the existence of these particularities.
The fourth thesis, the “sociality thesis,” states that humans are meant to associate with one another. God designed human beings to be social creatures who express their sociality in appropriate interpersonal relationships, Allison argued. In marriage, this sociality is expressed in sexual activity.
Allison defined “sociality” as the universal human condition of desiring human relationships, bonding, community, and companionship. To be human is to have a personal and relational identity, he said.
Human sociality comes with both a divine design for all gendered human beings to desire relationships and a capacity to either embrace that design or pervert it in their relationships. Sociality encourages Christians to care for one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, Allison said.
“Human sociality prompts men and women in the church to love, respect, cherish, encourage, and care for one another as siblings,” Allison said. “The Scripture as their guide and the indwelling Holy Spirit as their empowerment for holy living and pure relationships, Christian brothers and sisters live and champion exemplary, godly friendships.”
Allison concluded his lecture with a series of implications for a theology of human embodiment for the Christian life, from sanctification and worship to clothing, suffering, and death. If embodiment is the proper state of human existence, then its importance will be expressed in many areas of the Christian life, Allison said.
“God’s design for his image bearers is that they are holistically sanctified, which includes growing in holiness in the body,” Allison said. “Such progressive, embodied sanctification fights against deadly sins of the body … and embraces disciplines such as fasting and silence. This perspective should lead to a lessening of gnostically influenced approaches to sanctification — approaches that compartmentalize Chrsitian maturity into spiritual and physical elements.”
Allison has taught at Southern Seminary since 2003 and is the author of many books, including Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine and The Baker Compact Dictionary of Theological Terms. He is a pastor of Sojourn Church East, where he also serves on the leadership council.
He earned his master of divinity and doctor of philosophy from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and his bachelor of science from Northern Illinois University.