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 – link now fixed), 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.