Sunday, March 27, 2011

The “Traditional” Christian View of Nakedness – Introduction

I recently had a reader contact me and ask me to comment on an article by John Piper about nudity entitled, The Rebellion of Nudity and the Meaning of Clothing. I thought it might be appropriate to include my responses here on the blog.
Before I do, however, let me explain why I put “Traditional” in quotes for the title of this post.
For the past 300 years or so, the view put forth by Mr. Piper has been the prevailing orthodox view on nakedness. That makes it pretty “traditional.” It is indeed the view that pervades just about all the conservative theological resources available in English today. However, the view cannot be considered Traditional in the same way we would categorize a doctrine that can be traced back to the early church’s beliefs and practices; in the scope of Christian history, this view of nakedness is a relatively recent theological perspective.
My purpose for quoting Mr. Piper’s article here is to demonstrate that while in some ways “traditional,” it is not fundamentally biblical.
I mean no disrespect or insult to Mr. Piper, of course. He has written many wonderful things and has had a tremendously positive impact on the Kingdom of God in our time.
However, in his article on this topic, I am suggesting that Mr. Piper has only restated the theological traditions that he and every other English-speaking student of theology have been taught in the past 300 or so years. In my opinion, it is a fair and reasonable summary of the “traditional” position on nakedness… but I fear that he and so many others have failed to critically examine the biblical foundation for the position. I’m confident that if they really had, they would have found it to be as weak and inconsistent as I have found.
It may sound like I’m making myself out to be “smarter” than all the theologians for the past 300 years… but I am not. I simply believe that others have not (for whatever reason) genuinely and/or honestly questioned the biblical integrity of the view, so they haven’t seen or acknowledged its faults.
To begin this series, my first post simply quotes the article in its entirety without any written comment. However, I am going to highlight in red the portions that I consider to be indefensible from the Scriptures; these portions of the position are the “traditional” understandings that I believe are actually in error. I will save my comments on them for another post.
As you read through it, see if you can think of any Scripture passages that definitively teach the portions of the article in red.
[All links within the text are original to the article as posted by Mr. Piper]

The Rebellion of Nudity and the Meaning of Clothing

April 24, 2008 | by John Piper |
The first consequence of Adam’s and Eve’s sin mentioned in Genesis 3:7 is that “the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.”
Suddenly they are self-conscious about their bodies. Before their rebellion against God, there was no shame. “The man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed” (Genesis 2:25). Now there is shame. Why?
There is no reason to think that it’s because they suddenly became ugly. Their beauty wasn’t the focus in Genesis 2:25, and their ugliness is not the focus here in Genesis 3:7. Why then the shame? Because the foundation of covenant-keeping love collapsed. And with it the sweet, all-trusting security of marriage disappeared forever.
The foundation of covenant-keeping love between a man and a woman is the unbroken covenant between them and God—God governing them for their good and they enjoying him in that security and relying on him. When they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, that covenant was broken and the foundation of their own covenant-keeping collapsed.
They experienced this immediately in the corruption of their own covenant love for each other. It happened in two ways. Both relate to the experience of shame. In the first case, the one viewing my nakedness is no longer trustworthy, so I am afraid I will be shamed. In the second, I myself am no longer at peace with God, but I feel guilty and defiled and unworthy—I deserve to be shamed.
In the first case, I am self-conscious of my body, and I feel vulnerable to shame because I know Eve has chosen to be independent from God. She has made herself central in the place of God. She is essentially now a selfish person. From this day forward, she will put herself first. She is no longer a servant. So she is not safe. And I feel vulnerable around her, because she is very likely to put me down for her own sake. So suddenly my nakedness is precarious. I don’t trust her any more to love me with pure covenant-keeping love. That’s one source of my shame.
The other source is that Adam himself, not just his spouse, has broken covenant with God. If she is rebellious and selfish, and therefore unsafe, so am I. But the way I experience it in myself is that I feel defiled and guilty and unworthy. That’s, in fact, what I am. Before the Fall, what was and what ought to have been were the same. But now, what is and what ought to be are not the same.
I ought to be humbly and gladly submissive to God. But I am not. This huge gap between what I am and what I ought to be colors everything about me—including how I feel about my body. So my wife might be the safest person in the world, but now my own sense of guilt and unworthiness makes me feel vulnerable. The simple, open nakedness of innocence now feels inconsistent with the guilty person that I am. I feel ashamed.
So the shame of nakedness arises from two sources, and both of them are owing to the collapse of the foundation of covenant love in our relationship with God. One is that Eve is no longer reliable to cherish me; she has become selfish and I feel vulnerable that she will put me down for her own selfish ends. The other is that I already know that I am guilty myself, and the nakedness of innocence contradicts my unworthiness—I am ashamed of it.
Genesis 3:7 says that they tried to cope with this new situation by making clothing: “They sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.” Adam’s and Eve’s effort to clothe themselves was a sinful effort to conceal what had really happened. They tried to hide from God (Genesis 3:8). Their nakedness felt too revealing and too vulnerable. So they tried to close the gap between what they were and what they ought to be by covering what is, and presenting themselves in a new way.
So what does it mean that God clothed them with animal skins? Was he confirming their hypocrisy? Was he aiding and abetting their pretense? If they were naked and shame-free before the Fall, and if they put on clothes to minimize their shame after the Fall, then what is God doing by clothing them even better than they can clothe themselves? I think the answer is that he is giving a negative message and a positive message.
Negatively, he is saying, You are not what you were and you are not what you ought to be. The chasm between what you are and what you ought to be is huge. Covering yourself with clothing is a right response to this—not to conceal it, but to confess it. Henceforth, you shall wear clothing, not to conceal that you are not what you should be, but to confess that you are not what you should be.
One practical implication of this is that public nudity today is not a return to innocence but rebellion against moral reality. God ordains clothes to witness to the glory we have lost, and it is added rebellion to throw them off.
And for those who rebel in the other direction and make clothes themselves a means of power and prestige and attention getting, God’s answer is not a return to nudity but a return to simplicity (1 Timothy 2:9-10; 1 Peter 3:4-5). Clothes are not meant to make people think about what is under them. Clothes are meant to direct attention to what is not under them: merciful hands that serve others in the name of Christ, beautiful feet that carry the gospel where it is needed, and the brightness of a face that has beheld the glory of Jesus.
Now we have already crossed over to the more positive meaning of clothing that God had in his mind when he clothed Adam and Eve with animal skins. This was not only a witness to the glory we lost and a confession that we are not what we should be, but it is also a testimony that God himself would one day make us what we should be. God rejected their own self-clothing. Then he did it himself. He showed mercy with superior clothing.
Together with the other hopeful signs in the context (like the defeat of the serpent in Genesis 3:15), God’s mercy points to the day when he will solve the problem of our shame decisively and permanently. He will do it with the blood of his own Son (as there apparently was blood shed in the killing of the animals of the skins). And he will do it with the clothing of righteousness and the radiance of his glory (Galatians 3:27; Philippians 3:21).
Which means that our clothes are a witness both to our past and present failure and to our future glory. They testify to the chasm between what we are and what we should be. And they testify to God’s merciful intention to bridge that chasm through Jesus Christ and his death for our sins.
There were some portions which I did not highlight because I judged them to be defensible in the whole of Scripture. However, I believe that I can make a logical—if not biblical—case for an alternative explanation for each section which I highlighted.
I welcome any comments or questions about sections that anyone might believe I have highlighted in red unfairly or inaccurately. I will be happy to include my reasoning and alternative understandings in subsequent posts.
— Matthew Neal
(See my follow-up articles: Part 1, Part 2, & Part 3 )


Anonymous said...

I'm not a theologian or scholar, but it seems to me there are a lot of unknowns in the Genesis account of the Fall. I've heard many different points of view stating what God intended by clothing Adam and Eve by people on both sides of the issue. And in most cases, each side attempts to solve the issue by postulating and assuming answers to those unknowns. These unknowns or "gaps" appear to be filled in by one's pre-existing bias on the matter.

Mr. Piper's view is just one of many. He postulates that the loss of covenant-keeping love, shame, loss of trust, etc. were the basis for God clothing Adam and Eve. He states that clothing represents that we are no longer what we were or ought to be. These are his "best guesses" about the unknowns in the story. Maybe he's right in some of these points. But where's the proof? Why are his speculations, assumptions and postulations any more valid than someone elses?

Bottom line for me is that I find arguments using the Genesis account of the Fall to support or attack chaste social nudity too dependent on wild interpolations of what may have been going on between the lines. There's too much danger of inserting one's own bias. And I believe Mr. Piper has done just that.

Matthew Neal said...

Thanks for writing. That's exactly what I hoped would be seen when I posted this article.

You are absolutely right about the fact that we can only postulate as to why God gave Adam and Eve clothing. The only thing we don't have to postulate is the fact that God chose not to tell us why. That in itself is an important observation.

At the same time, we as humans struggle with unanswered questions, so when faced with one like this, we do postulate as to why. And, I would suggest, that's not a problem, so long as we acknowledge that's what we're doing. As you have observed here, Mr. Piper does not admit that, but rather fills in the "gaps" with statements that he seems to expect us to accept without challenge or question.

Since we do postulate (on all sides of the question), at least we can assess one postulate's merits over against another's to determine which theories are most credible, based upon the immediate context, the whole counsel of Scripture, and logic. So long as we retain the attitude that we are still discussing a postulate, this can be an interesting and instructive exercise.

I hope that as I post further articles in response to Mr. Piper's, you'll feel free to weigh in with your level-headed observations regarding my assertions as well.

I surmise that you are neither of a naturist nor adversarial mindset. For that reason, I'm especially glad that you've written. This discussion within the Christian community especially needs open and honest evaluation from people like you.

SentientOne said...

I can't wait to read your comments on Piper's article. He makes some good points, but, probably like you, I feel that he is way off on his theological thesis, which seems to be this: "God ordains clothes to witness to the glory we have lost, and it is added rebellion to throw them off."'

Wow! What a hard statement! Now, I do appreciate many of Piper's teachings. I have read his materials online and have listened to podcasts. He loves the Word of God and teaches it well. However, this is an example of how even a great teacher can allow his own biases to enter into his teaching.

You will, no doubt, easily show how that thesis is not scriptural, and I am anxious to see you do it.

I am sure that Piper believes what he wrote and feels strongly about it. Before offering such a strong theological statement, though (God ordaining clothes), we'd better get a lot more scriptural backup. His current argument is weak in theological support and heavy in personal interpretation, psychological assumptions, and fear. I'm sorry, but if you are going to convince me that nakedness is wrong, you're going to have to do better than that.

At least Piper did not go down the road of equating nakedness with sexual activity, which is a tiresome stance. His idea about vulnerability is interesting, but even there, I think he is applying too much modern pop psychology, as if we can get into Adam and Eve's heads. They were perfect humans, still closer to perfection moments after their sin than we are today! So what makes us think that we can correctly analyze them. Too much conjecture there.

Looking forward to your coming posts.

Matthew Neal said...


I think you're right on the money in seeing that Mr. Piper did not support his crucial points from Scripture. His entire argument hinges on those points, but they are largely conjecture or assumptions.

I would go so far as to say that the assumptions are, upon careful consideration, actually contrary to reason and the Scriptural context. But because they assumptions are never challenged in that way, the conclusions that he's hung on them are never questioned either.

I will get to my responses soon. Thanks for your interest.

— Matt