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Topic: Eikon

On the Body and Its Meaning

June 8, 2021

Editor’s note: the following essay appears in the Spring 2021 issue of Eikon.

Charles Taylor argues that modernity has stripped the created world of its meaning: “The cosmos is no longer seen as an embodiment of meaningful order which can define the good for us.”[1] Historian Jacques Barzun lays part of the blame at the feet of the father of modern naturalism: “The denial of purpose is Darwin’s distinctive contention.”[2] If there is no creator, as Darwin implied, then there can be no purpose to creation. But Christians understand that denying the Creator and thus the Creator’s purposes is as old as sin; that is to say, such denial is almost as old as the world itself, which is why we must go back to the beginning to gain perspective on meaning and purpose of creation, especially the human body.

The human body looms large in Christian thought and life, standing at the beginning, the middle, and the end of a properly Christian accounting of history and theology. In the beginning, God formed a human body out of the dust of the ground and then animated it with his own breath, after which he built another body out of the side of the first as a natural complement. At the center of Christian history and theology, the Son of God took on flesh by assuming a human body in the form of a tiny babe, inside the body of another; he was born into the world and then grew to full maturity as a man to walk the earth and be crucified bodily on a tree, buried bodily in a tomb, and raised again from the dead bodily on the third day. Christians await the bodily resurrection of all humanity at the end of all things, when the redeemed are re-embodied for immortality and the unredeemed for eternal death.

Because of the prominence of the human body, we would do well to pay attention to its meaning and purpose in a day when such considerations are often not only trivialized, but increasingly subjectivized and, worse still, categorized out of contemplation altogether by agnostic scoffers. Scripture helps us avoid the twin errors of the world’s approach: neither despising the body through a kind of gnostic, untethered spiritual asceticism, nor worshipping the body through hedonistic or naturalistic materialism.

In this essay, I want to reflect on the meaning of the human body in conversation with the inspired narrative of its origin in the first chapters of the book of Genesis. In this text, we see at least three elements of bodily purpose or meaning: (I) materializing human agency in the visible world and manifesting personal identity; (II) expressing sexual complementarity; and (III) displaying familial and historical congruity.

I. The human body materializes human agency in the visible world and manifests personal identity.

In Genesis chapter one, we read that God made man male and female on the sixth day in order to image himself in creation and to have dominion over the material created order — sea, sky, and earth; fish birds, and animals — through the fruitful multiplication in, and the benevolent subjugation of, the world. But it isn’t until Genesis chapter two that we read about the nature of man’s constitution, when the narrative zooms in on the special creation of the first man and woman.

Then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature (Gen. 2:7).

After creating out of nothing the earth and everything in it, God proceeds on the sixth day to take some of the created earth and mould it like clay into the body of something not yet seen in the world: a man. It is noteworthy that before God’s breath of life comes to animate him, there lying on the ground is not just an ordered pile of dirt, but something God calls the “man of dust.” This detail is perhaps intended to signify the priority and irreducibility of man’s bodily constitution. God made man a hybrid, a mediating creature with visible (bodily) and invisible (spiritual) attributes, in order to represent the invisible to the visible, and the visible to the invisible — indeed, even to make visible the invisible.

Upon receiving the breath of life from the mouth of God, the man awakes a living creature into a creation alive with God’s creativity — God’s plants and animals and flowing streams and beauty all around. The first words the man hears are from the mouth of God, as God addresses the man as a “Thou,” a personal agent distinguished in this divine address from the rest of creation. It is at this point in the narrative that the Septuagint begins to translate the generic word for man, ‘adam, with the personal name, Adam, in place of the heretofore impersonal anthropos. The subsequent events seem designed by God to drive home this point, to punctuate man’s personal identity and agency as he acts in the visible world with visible effect.

Looking on Adam in creation, God recognizes the man’s place in the world. To access Augustine’s tripartite division of the Good, he is a creature with a measure and form set apart from the rest of creation. In this way, he is recognized to be “alone” by his Creator. Not only is his spirit unlike the rest of the visible order, but his bodily constitution reflects his elevated status as lord of the material cosmos. But Adam is slower to recognize his unique place. As God brings the beasts of the field to him for names, Adam’s bodily and intellectual configuration is set in contrast to that of the animals. Adam is not “alone” among the living or the embodied — there are embodied creatures parading all around. But Adam is “alone” among the self-conscious, the self-determined, and the psychosomatic. Adam’s embodied experience teaches him this as he names the different yet complementary pairs of lower creatures passing by. He looks at his own hands, his own feet, his own torso, and in his body and in his spirit he feels himself to be an “I,” and to be alone.

So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. (Gen. 2:21–22)

Adam’s experience of his own existence was to be a self-aware man in soul and body before he knew himself to be, properly speaking, male. For to be male is to correspond to female, and vice versa (more on this below). This observation may account for why Adam’s response to God’s special formation of the woman — a divine undertaking intentionally and purposefully distinct from his own — is a declaration of constitutional sameness: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gen 2:23). Here is one whose bodily existence corresponds to his, another “I” who not only can be addressed eye to eye, but communed with in love and in perfect equality. The Puritan Matthew Henry eloquently reflects on the symbolic significance of the woman being created from Adam’s rib:

[T]he woman was made of a rib out of the side of Adam; not made out of his head to rule over him, nor out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected, and near his heart to be beloved.[3]

The woman stands beside the man in like bodily form and measure, and it is only then that Adam is no longer alone. In this way, the human body manifests not only Adam’s, but Eve’s personal identity, to be recognized and affirmed visibly and intellectually by one another and manifested in the visible realm as each acts as an independent bodily agent.

II. The human body expresses sexual complementarity.

In God’s good providence, mankind is made to image his Creator in two distinct yet complementary modes or forms: “male and female he created them.” This distinction is most apparent bodily, and less apparent — to the point of inexpressible mystery — in what is invisible in soul and intellect. The human body both makes visible what is invisible and communicates according to its embodied sexual differentiation. The human body’s dimorphic differentiation follows the pattern of creation — heaven and earth, sun and moon, land and sea, masculine and feminine — which is perhaps a reflection itself of the pattern of God’s two-faceted self-revelation: he is truth and love, emet and hesed.

Mankind’s sexual complementarity is a necessary and ordered reality of creation from the beginning. God makes man male and female for communion and multiplication, man and woman fulfilling complementary roles in relationship toward one another and a unified role toward the invisible and visible realm.

Mankind’s sexual complementarity is especially emphasized in the narrative that follows the first chapter in Genesis. The man’s body is made, formed, and sculpted from the earth, while the woman’s body is constructed, erected, and built around (oikodomeo, LXX) the man’s rib as a house. Their bodily constitution is not merely different in form and genesis — a paradigmatic reality that persists in men and women today, who issue forth male or female having different sexual organs prompted in development by the genomic donation from the side of man and housed inside the body of a woman — but they reflect a way of being in the world. For example, according to Genesis 4:1, in sexual relations the woman is the one who is known and the man is the one who knows, a fact that points to an interiority and exteriority of bodily person that affects and reflects the male and female personality.

In his Theology of the Body, John Paul II refers to the “spousal” meaning of the body with respect to the male and female sexual constitution.[4] Whether or not “spousal” is the right word to describe the sexual meaning of the human body — I have my own reservations — he nevertheless rightly directs our attention to discerning a meaning and purpose behind God’s bodily design for male and female sexual complementarity.

In the Genesis text, several reasons are apparent for mankind’s bodily sexual differentiation: (1) to address the man’s aloneness; (2) to catechize man in love, that is, in belonging and in self-giving; (3) to provide reciprocal aid.

First, the woman corresponds entirely to the man in a fitting manner — measure and form — thus rendering him no longer alone. But in addition, through their sexual union, mankind’s potential for being alone diminishes exponentially with each generation as their fruitfulness fills the earth with others who share their like measure and form.

Second, God creates the woman out of the man’s side and brings her to him to have and to hold, and man’s response is instant recognition of a part of himself in her, part himself already belonging to her: “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” Then he names her, which itself is an act of authority, giving part of his name, himself, to have as her own: “she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” To know the bodily constitution of man and woman is to know they are not for themselves, but for another. As Oliver O’Donovan states, “To have a male body is to have a body structurally ordered to loving union with a female body, and  vice versa.[5] Ultimately, God’s sexual design for man and woman has its meaning in marriage, which points beyond itself to God’s redemptive work in Christ — the ultimate catechesis in love, belonging, and self-giving.

Third, God’s expressed purpose for making the woman is aid: “I will make him a helper fit for him” (Gen. 2:18). The woman is given work that corresponds to and benefits the man, and the man in return does work that benefits the woman. Some of this work overlaps in conjunction with the man and woman’s corresponding dignity and bodily capabilities, while some of the work is differentiated according to sexual difference. God’s curses in Genesis chapter three may act as a kind of photo negative toward highlighting these differences in vocational emphases; the quintessential work with quintessential differentiation is the work of procreation and familial life.

Suffice it to say, though, that without the meaning and purpose of bodily sexual differentiation — yes, even dimorphic sexual differentiation — monogamous marriage remains ungrounded, familial life is undetermined, and man is no longer naturally directed from birth toward the other, but turned into himself in self-love.

III. The human body displays familial and historical congruity.

One of the natural realities of bodily existence that isn’t explicit in the Genesis text, but is common to human experience and thus inherently self-evident, is the reality of familial congruity on display through the generations, which gifts humanity with congeniality and historical continuity. When Eve gives birth to her son Cain, she extends the sense of belonging across a generation as she exclaims, “I have gotten a man with the help of the LORD” (Gen. 4:1). Cain belongs in a sense to his mother and father, and his physical resemblance bears witness to this reality.

Familial resemblance is not a non-purposeful coincidence, but serves as a reminder of man’s dependence on and place within the human story. Some have experienced the uncanny feeling of looking at a century-old photograph from a family attic and seeing in the eyes or face shape or expression of an individual long-dead their own child, or brother, or mother. Even those who do not know their biological kin know what it is to discover a people who looks like you, who shares the same bodily features that connect you and another to ancestors long passed.

To be sure, resemblance is a feature of the human race that should be a blessing, but has too often served as a curse. That is, to identity those who look like me is also to recognize there are those who do not. If I treat them differently on this basis alone — an all-too-common source of grave evil in human history — I have committed the sin of partiality. Instead, I should give glory to the Creator who created us not only male and female, but also with recognizable familial resemblance that should serve not to isolate us from one another in consanguine uniformity, but instead cause us to celebrate God’s diversity in creating a beautiful array of familial rootedness — knowing that my grandfather’s grandfather, and his grandfather’s grandfather, and the generations on, share a converging resemblance that binds us together as sons of Adam. Our bodies should serve to remind us of this as we note our resemblances, resemblances which display continuity with peoples, and these peoples with a common history.

The Resurrection of the Body

It is noteworthy that the Apostle’s Creed, this ancient summary of the Christian faith, includes a confession of belief about the human body: “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” The prominence of this escatological confession reminds us that God created the human body, that the Son of God assumed a body, and that at the end of all things God plans to redeem the bodies of all who are united in the body of Christ, the church, at the resurrection of the dead. And this all for a purpose revealed in Scripture, a purpose that understands our bodies belong to another: “For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s” (1 Cor. 6:20).

Colin Smothers serves as Executive Director of CBMW. 

[1] Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity (Cambridge, MA; Harvard University Press, 1989), 148–49.

[2] Jacques Barzun, Darwin, Marx, Wagner (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 11. I am indebted to Nancy Pearcey for drawing my attention to these two quotes in her excellent book, Love Thy Body (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2018).

[3] Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 1 (1706), n.p.,

[4] John Paul II defines this “spousal” attribute as “the power to express love: precisely that love in which the human person becomes a gift and—through this gift—fulfills the very meaning of his being and existence.” Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body (Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 2006, 1997), 185–86.

[5] Oliver O’Donovan, Transsexualism and Christian Marriage (Cambridge, UK: Grove Books, 1982, 2007), 19.

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