Guest post: A biblical theology of clothing

Alastair Roberts left a great comment on a blog post by Richard Beck the other day, outlining a “theology of clothing”. Alastair has now expanded this into a longer essay (PDF), which is highly recommended. As a taster, Alastair has kindly agreed to let me re-post his original comment (with a couple of very minor tweaks) as a guest post.

There are rich scriptural resources for a biblical theology of clothing, which is why it is regrettable that the subject receives far less attention than it merits.

It seems to me that many theological approaches to the concept of clothing focus too much upon its connection with the covering up of shame. This is a part of the role of clothing, but clothing is also for glory and beauty, as one sees in the clothing of the High Priest.

Nakedness is not always shameful. A significant portion of our population can go around naked without feeling any shame whatsoever. Nakedness is characteristic of infancy. Clothing is a sign of maturity and a place of our own within society. Clothing is also a badge of office, which is why we speak of ‘investiture’.

The tunics that God fashions for Adam and Eve in the creation narrative are garments of office and status, comparable to the tunic of Joseph, David’s daughters and counsellors, etc. Their own garments of leaves are insufficient for exercising the authority that comes with the knowledge of good and evil (observe the positive use of the knowledge of good and evil in the context of kingly rule, e.g. 2 Samuel 14:17).

The greatest resources for a biblical theology of clothing comes from reflection on the clothing of the High Priest. The High Priest wears holy clothes for covering nakedness, but also clothes for ‘glory and beauty’. The descriptions of the manner in which such clothes are constructed, first worn, divested and reworn, etc. is immensely detailed. For instance, the clothing instructions on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16) are significant here. Simple linen garments are worn for the atonement (or ‘covering’) ceremony and then divested, for the glorious garments of office to be put on again when all is done. The investiture with the garments of office also presumes the offering of sacrifices and washing of the person.

In this connection we should pay attention to the description of Christ’s clothes in the context of the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension: his seamless undergarment, the linen clothes left after the resurrection, the glorious garments of the ascended Christ, etc.

The clothes of the High Priest are a means by which he wears the natural creation and the nation upon himself. The bottom and most basic layer of holy clothes to cover nakedness are vegetable – linen – garments. The outer layers of the priestly garments include animal fabrics (woollen yarns) and then precious metals and minerals (precious stones and gold).

Bound up in a theology of clothing is a theology of God’s relationship with the world. God wears the creation like a garment and later discards of it when it is old to replace it with a more glorious one. The world is the veil that both hides and enables proximity to God’s presence. In Christ, God assumes the garment of the creation most fully, clothing himself in flesh, filling that garment with his glory. In the Church Christ is fashioning us into a perfect and spotless garment.

A theology of clothing also teaches us about man’s relationship with the world. Implicit in our understanding of clothing is an ecology. The High Priest’s glorious clothes are a ‘world-wearing’ akin to God’s world-wearing. Peculiarly among the animals, human beings are nude – we are the naked apes. We do not have the coverings of fur, feathers, and scales that other creatures enjoy, nor do we have the glorious raiment of the lilies. Man, alone upon the animals, is called to fashion the creation to himself, tailoring the world around himself in a manner that glorifies both him and the creation, just as God’s wearing of the creation both declares his glory, and glorifies the creation.

Clothing must also reflect a sense of occasion (e.g. wedding garments for the wedding feast). Clothing expresses the differentiation that God has built into the creation (e.g. Paul’s teaching on sexually differentiating clothing in 1 Corinthians 11). There are clothes for work, for festivity, for mourning. Clothing can also be a mark of service. The simple clothes of the priest speak of this.

Clothes are a form of gift. In our clothes we ‘present’ ourselves to each other. We use our clothes to honour the ‘presence’ of others. The gift of garments is bound up with the gift of status. Clothes make the man or woman, and we form each other by giving clothes for new office.

Richard Beck’s comment in reply was “You need to start work on a book on this”. Sadly, Alastair demurred (“And be the guy who wrote the work on theological dress sense?”), but you can (and indeed should) at least read his essay (PDF).

(Oh, and I should add that this post, and the essay, are © Alastair Roberts, and the usual creative commons licensing for my blog does not apply to them.)

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7 Responses to Guest post: A biblical theology of clothing

  1. Good stuff. This dovetails beautifully with the biblical theology of justification through faith at baptism: Those who have been baptised into Christ were clothed with Christ (Gal. 3:27), and so in the heavenly worship they wear white linen, which is their righteousness (Rev. 3:18; 7:14; et al).

    Adam and Eve wore the skins of beasts killed for the purpose—their lives sacrificed for their lives in fallen first creation. The children of second Adam wear the righteousness of Christ—his life sacrificed for their lives in the new creation.

    That book needs to be writ!

  2. Ah, I have now read the longer essay, and find these themes (see prev. comment) dealt with. Would it be too blatant a Lutheran bias to wonder whether the baptismal clothing with Christ is not “a moment of investiture” but “the moment of investiture”?

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  4. Alastair Roberts says:

    Tapiani, I think that your ‘Lutheran bias’ on this matter is a biblical one in many respects. In terms of the Christian life, baptism must not be thought of as a mere watery boundary that we cross at one point in time and move beyond as we grow in faith. Rather the waters of baptism are the spring at the centre of all Christian life and identity. We can no more ‘move beyond’ baptism than a tree can shake itself loose from its roots and fly off. In terms of our Christian life, then, baptism is THE investiture, the Event that contains all else in nuce, the Event that we spend the entirety of our lives growing out of and into. Even the eschatological ‘clothing’ of the resurrection can be thought of in this way.

    The only reticence that I have about referring to it as ‘the moment of initiation’ (beyond the fact that ‘moment’ was not the best word for me to use in this context) is due to my concern to maintain the ‘exocentric’ character of Christian baptism. The Baptism and Investiture is Christ’s baptism and investiture – his anointing for ministry in the Jordan, his shedding of the garments of flesh in his death and receiving the garments of the resurrection, his crowning with glory and honour in the ascension. Our baptism is Christ’s taking of his bride under the corner of his garment, his throwing the mantle over our shoulders, his bestowal of the clothes of his authority, his dressing of his in his armour, his gift of the white robes washed in his own blood. Our baptism is a participation in his Baptism, which must always be the Baptism.

  5. Chris Williams says:

    Alastair, you are chrysostomos. Thank you so much for writing this (and your written work in general). My eyes well up reading it.

  6. Rick Ritchie says:

    I do remember a film clip where Marshall McLuhan told the young people what their blue jeans meant. I don’t remember the precise word, but I can find something close in a quote where he says that “Jeans represent a ripoff and a rage against the establishment.” Now that was speaking to a particular generation. What is a statement in one generation is not in another. (I’m not claiming that blue jeans are currently meaningless. But the meaning has shifted to some degree. I think that’s undeniable.) Figuring out how to speak of these matters so that we recognize both the timeless and timebound elements is a challenge.

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