The worldview of Gnosticism, which was one of the first heresies facing the first Christians, is alive and well today-and it has permeated the church. As a result, we end neglecting or disparaging our bodies, seeing them as holding us back from spiritual growth and longing for the day we will be free of them. In this episode, we talk with author and professor Greg Allison about his fascinating and timely new book Embodied. We discuss transgender ideology, plastic surgery, and many more issues that we face as embodied beings.
Greg Allison is a professor of theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He spent 18 years working with Campus Crusade (Cru) and is the author of many books including Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine, and Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment.
Sean McDowell: Welcome to Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. A podcast from Talbot School of Theology Biola University. I'm your host Sean McDowell, professor of Christian Apologetics.
Scott Rae: And I'm your co-host Scott Rae, Dean of Faculty and professor of Christian Ethics.
Sean McDowell: Today, we've got a guest, Dr. Gregg Allison who's a professor at Southern Seminary where I did my doctorate, by the way. And he's written a fascinating new book that's both timely and timeless called Embodied: Living as Whole People in a Fractured World. Dr. Allison really appreciate you joining us. I want to jump in and ask you start the book with a story of about Drake. Can you share that story with us and how it motivated writing Embodied.
Gregg Allison: Sean and Scott thank you for having me on this podcast. And I'm glad to share this story of Drake, who was a student of mine toward the beginning of my teaching career at Western Seminary. He came into my office one day complaining of many physical problems, some gastrointestinal problems. He was lethargic, couldn't concentrate. He would read books for his classes and wouldn't remember anything, often nauseous, couldn't sleep, things like that. And he asked me, "So doc, what are the spirit ritual problems at the heart of my physical problems?" And so I began to kind of ply him with questions about his physical being like what is he eating? How is he resting and sleeping? Is he exercising?
Gregg Allison: And basically he had a cavalier attitude just dismissing this line of questioning because he wanted a spiritual solution to his physical problems. And I was thinking his physical problems were due to physical problems and he didn't like that. So very displeased with my questions he got up from his seat and with a huff just left my office. But that plunged me into kind of a crisis is so what should I, as a professor at an evangelical seminary, what should I say to students who are wrestling with physical problems? What should I say from scripture and from sound theology that will help them to understand what's going on? This launch my decades long study of a theology of human embodiment.
Scott Rae: So Gregg tell us a little bit more about as you've been on this journey for the last 20 years or so, why is the theology of embodiment so important today and why do you think it's been neglected in the past?
Gregg Allison: Let me just tick off a couple of contemporary problems that are addressed by a theology of human embodiment. Many Americans, probably around 95% wrestle with body image problems sometime during their life. So they're not pleased with how tall or short they are, what they weigh or how skinny they are and so forth. So body image problems I think are directly addressed by a robust theology of embodiment. People who wrestle with gender dysphoria and transgenderism, I think a theology of human embodiment addresses those struggles. Some of us, many of us wrestle with sins of the body like lust, gluttony, and sloth. And so this theology of embodiment addresses how to grapple with those problems.
Gregg Allison: If we, as Christians, as we should desire a holistic sanctification, we should not just engage in spiritual disciplines, but also physical disciplines which we rarely talk about in our churches, but are addressed by a theology of embodiment. If we grapple with physical suffering, disabilities, illnesses like MS or Alzheimer's disease, a theology of embodiment addresses those physical difficulties.
Gregg Allison: If we question what happens to us after death, a theology of embodiment addresses that kind of line of questioning. So there's all kinds of contemporary questions, social moral problems, and realities that I think a robust theology of embodiment addresses.
Sean McDowell: Luke 2:52 says Jesus grew in wisdom and in stature favor with God and favor with man. So there's this intellectual, this spiritual, but also this physical development of him. He was a whole being and yet your book is written to correct that this has gotten out of balance. How has this gotten out of balance and where did this student get this idea that if he had a physical problem, it should be solved solely through some kind of spiritual or intellectual route?
Gregg Allison: I think the church for much of its history has been infected with the heretical idea of narcissism, which privileges the immaterial part of human nature, call it the soul, call it the spirit, call it the soul and spirit. That which is immaterial is most true of us, is primary, is the most important aspect. And our physical reality, our body is really a hindrance to God's will it could become the seat of our sin. It's to be diminished, deprecated, certainly we should not give any thought to our physicality. And so people like Drake, I think influenced by this and then I think the church at large just really wrestling with how do we live as whole people in a fractured world as embodied people, given this background and this infection of we really place our embodiment on a second level as being unimportant as just not something we should be concerned about.
Scott Rae: A couple things on this, maybe just to get clear for our listeners. We are as the scripture describes a combination of both body and soul today, but what will happen after our death and when the Lord returns? What is our bodily destiny in those two areas?
Gregg Allison: So all of us are moving inexorably toward death, which is the cessation of activity by our physical being, our physical functioning ceases. And then we become unzipped that is we, as believers in Jesus Christ, will go immediately into the presence of the Lord, but we will be disembodied. So I, at my death in however many years from now, I will go immediately into the presence of the Lord, but I will be disembodied. I will not be fully human, I cannot be fully conformed to the image of Christ yet because he is the God man. I will still be awaiting the fullness of my salvation because God holistically saves me. So I think there will be a longing for an anticipation of the return of Jesus Christ. At which point I will receive my resurrected glorified body.
Gregg Allison: I will, once again, become fully human because the proper state of a human existence is embodiment. I will, once again, become fully human. I will be fully redeemed. I will be fully conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. And depending on one's eschatology, eventually I will live in the new heavens and the new earth, which is a physical reality. And so that's the destiny of myself as an embodied image bearer of God who believes in Jesus Christ.
Scott Rae: So, but there will be a title. I like the phrase you use we'll be unzipped to where we will exist for a time in a disembodied state. I take it that's what Paul means when he says it to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord?
Gregg Allison: Yes. 2 Corinthians 5:1-9. Exactly is the key passage about this and it's interesting as we look at that passage, Paul really shudders in horror at this idea of being disembodied. He uses the metaphor of nakedness or the metaphor of being unclothed not pleasant metaphors. He shudders in horror at this intermediate state because we will not be fully human, we'll be disembodied and that's not the way it's supposed to be.
Scott Rae: So when the Lord returns and we are fully resurrected and embodied again in a resurrection glorified body, I've heard some theologians suggest that we may have some of the same physical infirmities in our resurrection body that we have in our earthly bodies. What do you make of a claim like that?
Gregg Allison: If our resurrected glorified bodies are perfect, I don't see how we could affirm that we will still be beset by our infirmities, our disabilities. I don't know how God will redeem them and how they will be expressed, but to the extent that disabilities and physical suffering and illnesses are somehow tied in ultimately to the fall, if the curse of the fall is reversed if the glorification of our bodies, I'm not of the opinion that we will continue to suffer from those infirmities. I think all things will be made new and will be completely glorified and not have those disabilities and sufferings.
Scott Rae: So my shoulder's going to work just fine for eternity?
Gregg Allison: And you know what? I'm going to be 6'9" dunk over LeBron James.
Scott Rae: Right.
Gregg Allison: That's what I'm waiting for.
Scott Rae: I didn't think we said the resurrection body would be subject to wishful thinking though.
Gregg Allison: That's true. You can always hope. I can always hope.
Sean McDowell: A lot of your book rests on what it means to be human and that we've misunderstood that we are embodied beings, body, and soul together. And to do so you go back to Genesis at the beginning that God makes us of dust and breathes life into us. And as bodies you say were male and female, yet you resist what's called gender essentialism. Can you explain what's meant by gender essentialism and how you differ from it?
Gregg Allison: Gender essentialism is the view that men and women are of distinctly different natures. So according to this view, we can list unique, distinct masculine traits like initiative taking, aggressiveness, never asking directions. And we can list unique, distinct feminine traits like responding, gentleness, multitasking. So the idea is men are or should be manly men because they hunt, drive trucks and they never change diapers and women are, or should be womanly women because they bake, do yoga, have long hair. This is gender essentialism.
Gregg Allison: My view maintains that there are no particular human capacities, obviously outside of reproductive capabilities. There are no particular human capacities and no particular human properties that belong exclusively to women, or that belong exclusively to men. Instead, there are common human capacities such as reasoning, feeling, willing, purposing. These capacities aren't gender specific, but are common human capacities that are, and will be inherently expressed by women and men in ways that reflect their femaleness and their maleness.
Gregg Allison: Additionally, there are common human properties that are indeed given gendered embodiment must be expressed by women in ways that are fitting to women and that are expressed by men in ways that are fitting to men. Human properties, such as gentleness, courage, initiative, nurturing, patience, protectiveness, et cetera. These are not gender specific, but common human properties. Some we would call Christian virtues. Some we would say are the fruit of the spirit. They are, and indeed must be expressed by women and men in ways that reflect their femaleness and their maleness. So my view is not gender essentialism, nor does it focus on roles of men and women. I'm trying to get down to the ontology, the metaphysics of what we are as male gendered embodied image bearers and female gendered embodied image bearers.
Sean McDowell: Okay. So tell me in practice, why that distinction which you carefully lay out in your book is so important to understand and to get right?
Gregg Allison: I think there's a tremendous amount of confusion in evangelical circles, in evangelical churches about what a man is, what a woman is. And again, I think there is probably a very strong connection to gender essentialism. So we may say nurturing is a female attribute, but we would be reluctant to say nurturing is a male attribute. And I just begged to disagree, nurturing, done by a woman and nurturing done by a man may very differently, but we would still say it's nurturing. So for example, a new mom nurtures her new baby by breastfeeding him or her. The father, given the child that grows up a little bit, the father who may be say an electrician, maybe a plumber takes his children and nurtures them by teaching them the trades of electricity and plumbing.
Gregg Allison: Nurture would be a common human property that would be expressed according to our genderness, but I'm trying to move us away from these lists. These are manly men. These are womanly women. What happens if I'm a man, but I don't like to chew tobacco and hunt and things like that, but I prefer to bake and paint beautiful portraits? Is that communicating to me that in some way, I'm actually not a man? Is that going to stir up in me, gender dysphoria? Is that going to prompt me to pursue becoming a woman through hormone and through sex reassignment surgery? I think this is a really important topic because we're creating confusion and there's a lot of infusion out there among us.
Scott Rae: Gregg, I take it that you also reject the notion that male and female are interchangeable?
Gregg Allison: Absolutely. These common human properties and common human capacities will always be expressed by men in ways that are appropriate to maleness and by women in ways that are appropriate to femaleness. But notice that we're not talking at all about roles, which is where most of our discussions, if not all of our discussions devolve to this point. And I just think that there's a fundamental area, more important area that we need to explore before we get into the roles.
Scott Rae: And the phrase appropriate to their maleness or femaleness, there's a lot riding on what we mean by that phrase. Who or what determines what is appropriate to maleness or femaleness? Is that something that's culturally driven or is that something that's more ontological?
Gregg Allison: To a great degree the expression of these common human capacities and common human properties to a great degree they are expressed given certain cultural norms, certain cultural expectations. So yes, culture exercises a great influence how we express these. So that is a very key point. But what is appropriate? There's a spectrum, right? So there's a spectrum for men to express nurturing and gentleness. There's a spectrum for women expressing gentleness and nurturing, but we need to have a wide enough spectrum so that we don't pigeonhole people. And if they don't fit into that spectrum, they become very confused. Do you remember the book in the movie Hidden Figures? It's about three African American women. They were literally inventing new mathematical computations in order to land a man on the moon.
Gregg Allison: Now we would often say mathematical computations, that's male stuff, right? Men are really good at these kinds of mathematical computations. Does that mean an African American woman who is inventing new mathematical computations is really a man? That she's manly? That she is acting like a man? No, it doesn't. The spectrum needs to be broad enough so that woman who is exceptionally strong, incredibly strong in this mathematical computation, we don't say, well, she's a man. She's acting like a man. She must be a manly woman. That's just not the way we should approach this.
Scott Rae: So Gregg, let me just one more follow up on this. If on the one hand we're saying that expression of male and female is largely culturally-driven, but on the other hand, I think we'd also agree that there are lots of cultural expressions of both masculinity and femininity that we would say are out of bounds or unbiblical. That's why I wonder to what degree is it actually culturally-driven, what these appropriate expressions of male and femaleness are? I think we need to be willing to critique some of those cultural expressions as well.
Gregg Allison: Absolutely. The expressions are largely culturally-formed and influence, so that we're on a spectrum. But I think we know given biblical instructions where the bounds of the spectrum when we leave those bounds. So just to use a word that Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 6, I think it's Malakoi kind of like soft men. I think when we see a man who is expressing himself in very effeminate ways, by the way he conducts himself, behaves, acts, I think we can say, this is beyond the bounds of scripture. And we should then say, there's something amiss here. It's more than just a cultural expression, it's actually violating a biblical norm, but we have to be really careful to make sure that we're expressing biblical norms and not just our cultural preferences.
Sean McDowell: That's a great way to put it, that there are biblical kind of patterns the Bible says we're male and female, and we're to live out in congruence with our biological sex, but doesn't always tell us exactly how to do that. So there's boundaries and yet flexibility. And sometimes we take those areas that should be flexible, and we turn them into boundaries and thus hurt people. And I think that's the heart of what you're getting at. Let me shift gears here a little bit, you cover so much in this book, but you make a distinction between particularity and intersectionality. Explain what that distinction is and why it's important to understand it?
Gregg Allison: So my third chapter of the book is entitled The Particular Body. And by particularity, I mean that each person is an individual. God explicitly designs and creates each human being to be a particular gendered embodied individual. Specifically, to get you a little bit more in detail, each person is a particularity in terms of their ethnicity or race, in terms of their family or kinship, in terms of their temporality where they're located in time, in terms of their spaciality where they're located in space, their context, their culture, and all like that and their story. That's what I mean by particularity.
Gregg Allison: Intersectionality is an approach very common today that basically divides the world into haves and have-nots. Those in the former category, the haves, there are people of privilege. Those in the latter category have-nots they are marginalized. Examples of the first category, the privileged or haves, are wealthy, straight, educated white males. Examples of the second category, those who are marginalized, the have-nots, poor, lesbian, uneducated, black female.
Gregg Allison: According to intersectionality, people exist along a spectrum of identities. So those with more prized characteristics, the first category are individuals who possess power, prestige. They snob, they guideline the others, or they simply live in a cavalier ways such that they're blind to the many privileges that they have. Those with the more disfavored characteristics, the second category, they lack access to power. They're marginalized, they're disenfranchised by the others and they should claim the right to protest against the first category, they're oppressors.
Gregg Allison: So key to intersectionality is its emphasis on differences among individuals rather than commonalities shared by them. So my approach is oriented to particularity and questions of how understanding our uniqueness can lead to human flourishing for all human beings.
Scott Rae: Gregg, one of the passages of scripture that's always sort of puzzled me is one you address in the book and very helpfully. And since 1 Corinthians 6:18, that every other sin person commits is outside the body, but the sexually moral person sins against his own body. Help our listeners understand more of what you think Paul meant by that. In what way does sexual immorality sin against your own body in ways that other sins might not?
Gregg Allison: It's quite a startling verse, isn't it?
Scott Rae: It is.
Gregg Allison: I'm glad you asked the question. So the context here, Paul rebukes the Corinthian men for engaging in sexual intercourse with temple prostitutes, and then these Corinthian men cavalierly dismiss that activity. They think it's fine because it's just a normal human activity like eating food to fill their stomachs. Paul offers this correction to the Corinthians. Sex isn't like that. Sex is profoundly different because an intimate union is forged between the man and the woman engaged in sexual intercourse. Sexual intercourse, therefore is in a class by itself, but some might object, what about alcoholism? What about drug abuse use? What about gluttony? Aren't these also sins against the body?
Gregg Allison: In my view, they may be abuses of the body, but they are introduced from the outside. So whiskey, heroin, excessive food these are external substances that are ingested or injected into the body and wreak havoc with it. But still sexual immorality is profoundly different because it engages parts of the body itself in an illicit activity. It contradicts the truth, purpose, and destiny of the body. And because of the intimacy of the sexual bond forged in sexual intercourse, sexual immorality is a devastatingly evil sin in a category all by itself.
Sean McDowell: I appreciate the clarity with which you speak to these issues. You don't pull any punches, so to speak where our culture is at, but you're always tethered to what scripture is saying. So let me ask you this question. You told the story at the beginning about Drake and how he had a physical issue, but felt like there could be a spiritual solution alone to it. If we tether that back to sexuality, sometimes I get the impression that some evangelicals think even in marriage, any sexual activity between a husband and a wife is fine ignoring a theology of the body as long as intellectually or in terms of faith they feel like it's okay. I wonder if you could give us some boundaries for even sexual behavior between a husband and a wife when we think about ourselves as embodied beings?
Gregg Allison: Yeah. Paul addresses sexual activity between a husband and wife in several places in his writings. And to summarize what he instructs, I would say sexual activity between a husband and a wife must bear all the marks of mature holiness. So forced sexual intercourse is precluded. Tragically, there is such a thing as marital rape, and it is heinous. It is repugnant. Additionally, forms of sexual activity to which one's spouse objects they should be precluded as well. So if your spouse objects to some sexual activity that you find appealing, then your spouse's preference not to engage in that activity must be respected. On the contrary, sexual expression must be set in an atmosphere of love, companionship, tenderness, respect, honor, and nurture. So sexual activity is to be expressed in a God-honoring and spouse respecting way.
Sean McDowell: That's a great answer. I've got one last question for you and we're shifting gears here, but I want our listeners to get a sense of the scope of questions you address that relate to being embodied beings. And you had a section I thought was fascinating about plastic surgery. What biblical principles should shape how Christians think about plastic surgery?
Gregg Allison: So if plastic surgery is necessary to reverse the curse of the fall, a soldier who's been in a war and who's had his face partially or completely disfigured by a bomb that goes off I think it's proper for him or her to undergo plastic surgery because the face should not be that way. So as long as plastic surgery is to reverse the curse of the fall I think it's okay. It's fine. It would be legitimate.
Gregg Allison: When plastic surgery is employed to enhance our appearance beyond what it should be, what is human for example. When we want to exaggerate certain parts of our embodiment in a way that they have not been designed by God, then I think we move outside the bounds of what is legitimate. We begin to in a sense, metaphorically, slap God's face and say, you've made me wrong. I'm not happy with the way that you've embodied me so I'm going to disrespect the way you've created and embodied me and I'm going to enhance my appearance. I'm going to enhance certain portions of my body often in conformity with cultural norms. And there's a dishonoring of God, His design and the way He's created us as His embodied image bearers.
Sean McDowell: I hope our audience is just listening and appreciating just the clarity and thoughtfulness you're bringing to these issues. We had so many more questions for you that didn't get a chance to cover that you discuss in your book. You talk about polyamory, you talk about modesty and how the fact that we're embodied beings should shape the way that we dress. And I put those out there, because I hope our listeners will pick up a copy of your book.
Sean McDowell: Again, we're here with Dr. Gregg Allison and his book is Embodied: Living as Whole People in a Fractured World. Thanks for writing an excellent book and thanks so much for carving out time to join us today.
Gregg Allison: Sean and Scott, it's been a great pleasure, great privilege. Thanks for your excellent questions.
Sean McDowell: This has been an episode of the podcast, Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. This podcast is brought to you by Talbot School of Theology of Biola University, offering programs in Southern California and online, including our Masters in Christian Apologetics in which I teach full-time, which is now fully offered online. Just search apologetics, Biola or Talbot, and it'll pop up. If you enjoyed today's conversation give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.