The Limits of Sex as an Icon for God
Thinking through the meaning of sex in light of The Gospel Coalition's controversy
What are the uses and limits of sex for understanding God’s relationship to the world?
Evangelicals have found themselves facing up to the question directly the past few weeks, and it has gone about as well as one would expect. The Gospel Coalition published an excerpt from Josh Butler’s new book on sex, and evangelical Twitter subsequently melted down. Endorsers cravenly unendorsed the book, Butler resigned from the newly announced “Keller Center,” and The Gospel Coalition published a mea culpa.
Though much has been written about the controversy itself, I am not particularly interested in it. Many of Butler’s critics have opportunistically accused him of all manner of evils, while his defenders have argued that his approach is in keeping with the Biblical witness and the tradition of understanding marriage as an icon for God’s relationship to the church.
Whatever other problems we might charge Butler with, there is at least a formal similarity between his view and those who think marriage and the family function as an image of Christ and the church, and even (as Josh argues later in the book) of God’s own Triune life. Nuptial imagery for the church is everywhere in Scripture, in ways that have often been eclipsed by Protestants—to the point, even, that most of the major recent translations of Scripture distort the filial imagery at work in Matthew 9:15 by translating ‘uioi’ (sons) as “wedding guests.” John Paul II brought such imagery into close contact with theological anthropology in Theology of the Body (which has been more talked about among evangelicals than read), and even Matthew Levering endorses the notion that family can be an image for God in his book on marriage.
Still, I do think that Josh’s book is wrong—though wrong in ways that I suspect equally implicate his progressive critics. My objections will not be a surprise to Josh. Early on in the development of this book, we had a conversation about the issues which included, if memory serves, me saying something to the effect of “I hate this view.” While I suspect the differences between us bottom out in emphases and pedagogy, they are no less important for that. And though others might not think so, my disagreement is the grounds real theological friendship: I am glad that Josh is publishing his very wrong book, and that The Keller Center posted the worst excerpt from it, precisely because I think evangelicals need to think more deeply about the nuptial imagery of Scripture and the significance of the body—even if not, in the end, the way Josh does.
Beautiful Union is a book about sex, not marriage. We can start there, as I think it lends itself to getting the pedagogy for sex backward. There is real biblical work that can be done on the way the imagery of the Garden, the Temple, and so on recapitulates and transposes sex and fertility into a different key. While Josh does much of that work, his presentation in his first chapter abstracts the sexual act from that context and presents it to us as an object for theological reflection, in itself, in a way that pushes marriage into the background. His citation of Ephesians 5 acknowledges that the passage is about marriage, but selectively focuses on the fact that Paul quotes that the “two will be one flesh.” Only later in the book does Josh tell us that “‘Leave and cleave’ comes before ‘one flesh.’”
As Josh recognizes, though, the iconicity of sex cannot ground a sexual ethic on its own. If sex is an icon of salvation in itself, without being contextualized within marriage, why not enjoy that icon with as many people as possible? Why not participate in it in heaven? The litmus test for any coherent Christian sexual ethic is whether it can explain why pre-marital sex is morally wrong—but that argument is impossible without invoking the language of vows, covenants and promises as the necessary moral context for understanding the significance of sex. To his credit, Josh does make that switch when he turns to the subject—yet his subtle shifts are indicative, I think, of how distorted his pedagogy of sex is.
This distortion is tied to the pornographic nature of Josh’s description of sex in the first chapter, and with it Christ’s relationship to the church. While I have no doubt our pornified imaginations are too-easily titillated, I think the responsibility here lies on Josh’s rhetoric. “This should be shocking!” he tells us in suggesting that the consummation of Christ and the church should be understand through sexual terms. He is aware that he is being provocative—and having sown the wind, he has certainly reaped a whirlwind.
Even if Paul is framing the church’s union through sexual imagery—and more on that below, as they say—our speech about sex and the nature of that union is a separate matter. “The two shall become one flesh” names an act, but in ways that still preserve a kind of elusiveness. The first time the creation speaks about the act occurring, it says that “Adam knew his wife” (Genesis 4:1).
It is curious, in fact, how little the Old Testament reaches for “one flesh” to speak of sex itself. (Perhaps there are more instances than I am aware of—in which case, I welcome your corrections.) There is a lesson here, I think, for understanding Old Testament anthropology: as Hans Wolter Wolff argues in his (still unsurpassed) volume on the subject, the Old Testament regularly uses body parts to name emotions, feelings, and concepts that have some conceptual link to those parts—but point to much broader realities. In that respect, “flesh” might well name the organic union of male and female—but it names much more than that at the same time, as well.
The weight of Josh’s argument for his sexualized speech about the relationship between Christ and the church arises out of his interpretation of wayyabo eleha, which most English translations render as “he went into her.” On Butler’s reading, translations soften the explicit imagery for modern ears. “But the Bible is less prudish than we are,” he suggests, “using more graphic language to describe what happens in the honeymoon tent.” Josh supplies no argument for this reading of the phrase: it is an assertion, and if we object to it we are simply being “prudish.” It is important to Josh’s argument that we extend our imaginations to the details of sex—hence objections from some quarters that his view is “pornographic.”
Readers of this newsletter know I have no problem parting with majority translations (of the New Testament) when necessary. This is not one of those cases. The worry here is not that Josh speaks explicitly—rather, it is that he thinks we can and should speak explicitly about what the Old Testament leaves elusive, which supplies warrant for doing the same with respect to Christ’s relationship to the church. As a rule, writers who want to offer a minority reading of a passage should show their work. Josh does not. Instead, he simply asserts that the Old Testament uses the term most often to speak of sex, and that it should be understood anatomically.
Should we read it as Josh does, or treat it geographically—as in, he “went in to her” room, where she was waiting for him? Genesis knows how to speak of sex in other ways. As noted above, Genesis 4:1 speaks of sex as knowledge. And Genesis 16:5 names a body part: Sarai says to Abram that she gave Hagar “to [his] embrace,” his bosom.
In fact, a careful reading of two different Old Testament texts supplies significant reasons to think that wayyabo eleha should not be understood anatomically. In Genesis 19:31, Lot’s daughters complain that there is no man to ‘come in to them,’ as is the custom in all the land. Yet when describing their actual sexual activity in the subsequent verses, the narrator opts for a different term, “lie down with (shakab). If we are supposed to take “come in to” in the manner that Josh proposes, why would the narrator shift terms here? And why would the narrator shift to a more obviously “pornographic” image? The issue is not that Lot’s daughters take sexual initiative: 2 Samuel 13:14 uses “lie down with” to describe Amnon’s rape of Tamar, which means it works in both directions.
If Genesis uses “lie down with” to make explicit what “he went in to her” implies, 2 Samuel 16:22 seems to indicate that wayyabo eleha is geographical, rather than anatomical. The text says that Absalom “goes in to” David’s concubines “before the eyes of all Israel,” as he is interested in scandalizing them. If we are to understand him as engaging in exhibitionism, why does the narrative explain that he built the concubines a tent on the roof of David’s house to engage in the act? Perhaps this is a tent without walls. Yet the most plausible inference is that the phrase describes going in to a room to engage in sexual activity, not the act itself.
The conjunction of Josh’s decision to subordinate marriage to sex in his argument and his (failed) defense of explicit speech about sex together lead him to distort Paul’s emphases in speaking about such matters. While Josh stresses that Christ is ‘in’ the church the way a husband is in the bride, the consummation of the union between Christ and the church is not yet. When Josh frames the Spirit’s presence within the church in explicitly sexual terms, it distorts the proleptic and promissory character of the Spirit’s work: the Spirit hurtles us toward the consummation of Christ and the church, rather than initiating it. While Paul rarely speaks of Christ’s presence in us, his most definitive use of the term (Colossians 1:27) is future-facing: “Christ in us” means “the hope of glory,” rather than the glory itself.
It is telling, in fact, how little Paul is thinking of sex as the model for Christ’s relationship in the church that the very letter where he invokes the analogy is preoccupied with the church being in Christ. If Paul wants us to theorize Christ’s relationship to the church in the sexual terms that Josh defends (even non-graphic terms!), why does he not make use of the image?
One answer, it seems to me, is that for Paul the pedagogy of sex goes the inverse direction from that which Josh employs: Christ’s relationship to the church is meant to teach us about sex, rather than the other way around. More specifically, Christ’s particular life, death, resurrection, and future return are the grounds for our knowledge of what it means that Christ is the bridegroom and the church the bride.
I think such a starting point, though, is likely to yield very different results from those Butler supplies—not to mention from his many critics. Starting with Christ’s life places sharp and obvious limits on sex’s pedagogical function within the church. While Butler acknowledges that celibate people “have the substance” of union with Christ while married people have the sign, that qualification ignores the way celibacy embodies the eschatological life of the kingdom in a way marriage does not. Josh says that “singleness can be prophetic”—but by that he means that it can signal that sex is not necessary for human fulfillment, rather than signaling that it is the state to which each and every Christian is ultimately headed. Which it is, a fact which is crucial for understanding what the “icon” of sex can and cannot do. Jesus makes clear in Matthew 19 that some will be called “as eunuchs” for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, while Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 underscores that marriage is bound to this world, and “the form of this world is passing away.” Even more prominently, Jesus says in Matthew 22:30 that “in the resurrection, [we] neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like the angels in heaven.” No responsible account of how sex functions as an “icon” for God’s relationship to his people can remain silent about such passages.
Behind this teaching lies the New Testament’s pervasive (though often tacit) awareness of the reality of fertility without sex, and marriage without consummation. Where Josh reads the Holy Spirit in terms that are sexualized, the early church was everywhere concerned to distance the conception of Christ by the Spirit in the Virgin Birth from sex itself. The Spirit does not impregnate Mary, for she remains a virgin. While the New Testament frequently speaks of “faith” in procreative terms, the “new birth” of faith is only the beginning of our life with Christ, rather than its ending. In that respect, the procreative imagery of faith is the inverse of what happens in sex—a use of imagery that is only possible if birth has been de-sexualized (as the Virgin Birth entails).
The early church took this one step farther, though, and argued that Mary remained a virgin—a fact that did not, in their minds, invalidate her marriage to Joseph. The perpetual virginity of Mary has no purchase on evangelical theology. And, to be clear, its significance is not reducible to arguments about sex and gender. Yet we also cannot extract it from those arguments, as the possibility of valid, non-consummated marriages shifts the emphasis for what marriage is away from what happens in the bedroom, to what happens within the will.
The main positive arguments for Mary’s virginity are typological: the exodus from Egypt, for instance, is depicted as a birth—and once the waters of the Red Sea close, they are never again reopened. Yet the exegetical arguments about it require endorsing kinship bonds that are not grounded in the “one flesh” union of sexuality. James is Jesus’ brother not because Mary had other children, but because Jesus entrusts Mary to John on the cross in John 19—a scene that is unintelligible if Mary had other children. The sexless marriage of Mary is still fruitful: she is, in one sense, the “barren” woman of Hannah’s song who has borne seven children, a verse to which her own Magnificat alludes (1 Sam. 2:4).
This is not the place to write a full book on sex and marriage. Nor, though, do I think my critique of Josh bottoms out in the claim that it is not the book I would have written. Rather, I think his stress on the iconicity of sex obscures this framework, and enables him to enter into a rhetorical and moral register for speaking about sex that is alien to, say, Paul’s rhetoric in 1 Corinthians seven. There, Paul enjoins couples to give themselves to each other, as Josh commends. The architecture of mutual-self giving that he endorses is doubtlessly right: I also invoked such language in my early treatment of the subject.
Yet Paul also in the same passage underscores the need for self-control as the basis and grounds for the gift to be given in freedom. It is paramount in Paul’s mind that the center of marriage is the cross—renunciation, self-denial, chastity, self-control, death—and not the “little death” of an orgasm, but the willingness to forgo one for the sake of the other. Living beneath the eschaton means, for Paul, that “those who have wives” should “live as though they had none,” an elusive phrase that strikes at the very heart of the sexual eroticism that pervades Butler’s book. Butler says nothing about what sort of pedagogy we need to cultivate the gift of sex: there is nothing about self-control in the book, for instance, and astonishingly little about how the cross should structure our understanding of sex, even though the image structures the whole of Paul’s thinking about Christ’s relationship to the church in Ephesians 5:26ff.
Perhaps I am making too much of these differences. However, I think the pedagogy on offer in Butler’s book is the wrong one for evangelicals, whose sexual imaginations have been deeply formed by what Daniel Heimbach has called a “therapeutic sexual morality.” Even in theologically sophisticated circles, this has led to serious people really believing that we would enjoy the “icon” of sex in heaven—a position that manifestly contradicts Paul’s claim in 1 Corinthians 7 that the form of this world is “passing away.” I will not name names, but I assure you such individuals exist—and make decisions over the content evangelicals read. I do not know whether Butler endorses such a view—but it is not entirely clear to me that he builds in the kinds of guardrails that would keep people from affirming it. Butler’s account is still therapeutic, even if his rhetoric is all eroticized. It fits the same apologetic framework that animated the evangelical sex-manual explosion, and invokes the same type of sexual rhetoric—even if its theological underpinnings are more sophisticated.
It is true, of course, that Christians have at various places and times used sexual imagery to describe our relationship to God. Augustine does not often use nuptial imagery to speak of virginity; instead, the main place where he invokes the “bridegroom” motif is for the Incarnation, where Christ’s divinity is united with humanity, which (ironically) feminizes us in relationship to Jesus. Within this motif, Mary is not the bride, but the bridal chamber.At the same time, I think he does so just enough to animate the medievals’ correlation of those who are celibate with being espoused to Christ. Within an ecclesiastical context that clearly privileged virgins and framed their spiritual lives in nuptial terms, erotic imagery flourished—but not as a way of funding sex, but as a way of articulating the peculiar interdependence that arises within the contemplative life of prayer.
Such a vision is not “sex-negative” (to use an ugly and dumb term); rather, it arises out of the recognition that the church’s relationship to sex inherently qualifies its scope and domain, transposing its goods into another register even while honoring them as real goods of creation. The church could freely make use of sexual metaphors, precisely because it had tight controls on what they did—and did not—mean. Yet even within that erotic context, they did not embrace the kind of explicit, graphically sexualized imagery Josh thinks we should employ. After all, even the Song of Songs speaks of the body not directly, but through metaphors—which simultaneously heightens its significance, and also detaches our imaginations from the immediate experience of its sex. One has to work to figure out what the images are alluding to, which is (in part) the point: the Song eroticizes the body, but in so doing abstracts it, and makes it serviceable as an image for purposes other than sex—without either diminishing the value of sex, or crassly sexualizing it. It is a fine line to walk, but one which can only happen if we start our pedagogy somewhere besides the details of the sexual act.
This has gone on overly long, and additional questions remain. For instance, what implications does Paul’s pedagogy have for understanding how, if at all, marriage might image Christ and the church—and from there, the life of the Trinity? There is a huge leap in theological imagination from Augustine and Aquinas to John Paul II. While Augustine rejects the family as an image for the Trinity in De Trinitate, and Aquinas calls the idea “absurd,” John Paul II’s rehabilitation of the concept has always made me wary. (If you read the aforementioned chapter expounding on his work, you will discover I nowhere tied sex to the Triune life of God.)
Yet the family’s role as an image of God also plays a less significant role in Theology of the Body than some have made it seem, and it comes after John Paul II undertakes an extensive reflection on Matthew 22:30’s claim that we will be “like the angels in heaven” in the resurrection and the corresponding defense of continence for the sake of the kingdom of heaven in both Matthew 19 and 1 Corinthians 7. Moreover, his discussion of what we learn about Christ’s relationship to the church from the spousal analogy is drawn from the Song of Songs, which emphasizes the metaphors that are at the heart of the wonder of erotic love—metaphors that express, in John Paul II’s lovely phrase, the “language of the body.” In this respect, Theology of the Body offers a pedagogy for love and marriage that is, if I may say so, miles away from that which is on offer in this book. Stripping his affirmation of the family as an image of the Trinity from the primary pedagogical context that he locates it within, and failing to include the eschatological abrogations of sexuality that he includes, grossly distorts the significance of the family as an “image” of the Trinity within the broader scope of the economies of creation and redemption.
Evangelicals doubtlessly need an ethics of marriage and sex that captures its significance, both within the boundaries of creation and as a sign and indicator for the eschatological life. Yet the pedagogy of sex is fraught with dangers on every side, and liable to lead us into theological distortions if not handled with the utmost care. Evangelicals were never going to win the “sexual arms race” to outdo our neighbors in being “sex-positive.” Nor should we try. The fruitfulness of the church’s witness does not depend upon how many different colors of crayons we use to paint the glories of sex, but how faithfully we embody the quiet continence and chastity within our homes and families.
Around the Web
Look, if you read this far, you should just become a member already. As a reminder: you can get ‘full memberships’ for free, if you want, if you respond to this email. There are also discounts for everyone as well. My aim here is to get people to become members at whatever level of financial sponsorship they feel comfortable giving.
Here is something I have been up to in recent weeks. This is a really wonderful discussion, and it was honor to have been able to moderate it.
I would like to welcome Ross Douthat to my “Quit Netflix” campaign. While my original argument for opting out of streaming services (which is no longer on the internet!) did not include a general case in defense of the humanities, I did stress that opting out was necessary to preserve my humanity. And I can confidently say it worked: I have read more novels in the past few years than at any point in my life.
But I also still read essays about Cary Grant’s suit in North by Northwest! I think I have always had that suit in my mind as the high point of men’s fashion, but had never articulated it to myself until reading this.
I recently learned about ‘negative capability’ (Liz Breunig mentioned it in the forgiveness discussion). I wish I had known about it much earlier in life.
From the ‘Drafts’ Folder
In a world dominated by sin, our wills are unstable, unmoored, incapable of finding rest because they lack the stability and permanence of God: they cannot rest until they find the real, but are trapped within the unreality and nothingness of sin. They float upon the sea, and are tossed hither and thither by waves of pleasure that are no more permanent than the fading trends of Tik-Tok. Trapped within the vicisstitudes of time, the will attaches itself to one good—only to see it, too, fade away into impermanence. Augustine’s search in Confessions is an attempt to escape a world of intense and potent pleasures, that lacks deep and permanent goods. “If Adam had not fallen from you,” Augustine writes in Book XIII, “there would not have flowed from his womb that salty sea-water, the human race—curious, like a sea in a stormy swell, unsteady and lax.” The sea is marked by the barren faithlessness of a world that has renounced God, which cuts us off from the fruitful generativity and solidity of land. The bitterness of the waters has made them undrinkable, leaving us within what is effectively an unstable desert, void of the resources we need to live. “For the sea is a figure of this present age,” Augustine writes in his Exposition of Psalm 69, “bitterness being signified by salt and turbulence by storms.”
How can we escape the upheavals of the sea, and find our way to shore? Our hearts are restless until they rest in God—until they enjoy the tranquility of peace, the stability of a harmonious order, land beneath our feet. There is no path out of the sea that does not cross it, by embracing the hot, salty tears that pour out our misshapen loves and enable us to grieve for the sins of others. We do not know what it is we love until we are confronted its loss, which gives rise to either fear or grief. Augustine weeps for Dido’s death in Book I, but not for his own lack of love for God. He was thrown into the “river of custom” as a boy, which gave him tears for the wrong reasons. That river, with its misshapen loves, carried him along into “the great and fearful sea which can be crossed, with difficulty, only by those who have embarked on the Wood of the cross”. — From a talk entitled “Drunk Tears on a Barren Sea: Augustinian Reflections on Desire”
The Penultimate Word
By coming to the wedding when he was invited, the Lord intended quite apart from the mystical significance in his doing so, to confirm that he had instituted marriage. You see, there were going to be people, about whom the apostle spoke, who would forbid marriage and say that it was an evil and that it had been instituted by the devil, while the Lord himself in the gospel, when asked whether it was lawful for a man to put away his wife for any reason at all, said that it was not, apart from the case of fornication. In his reply, if you remember, he said this: What God has joined together, let no one put asunder (Mt 19:6). And those who have been well instructed in the Catholic faith know that God established marriage, and that just as the joming of couples together comes from God, so divorce comes from the devil. But the reason why it is lawful in the case of fornication to put away one’s wife is that she was first unwilling to be a wife, in that she did not keep marital faith with her husband.
Nor do those women who dedicate their virginity to God by a vow—though they hold a higher rank of honor and holiness in ‘the Church—nor do they go without a wedding, seeing that they too take part with the whole Church in the wedding at which the bridegroom is Christ. And thus it is, then, that the Lord on being invited came to the wedding groom, who was told, You have kept the good wine until now (Jn 2:10). Christ, you see has kept the good wine until now, that is to say, his gospel.” — Augustine, Homilies on John
A representative sampling: “The Word, you see, is the bridegroom, and the bride is human flesh; and each is the only Son of God, who is at the same time the Son of Man. When he became the head of the Church, that womb of the Virgin Mary was his bridal chamber, from which he came forth like bridegroom from his chamber, as scripture had foretold: And he, like a bridegroom coming forth from his chamber, exulted like a giant to run along the way (Ps 18:6). He came forth from the chamber like a bridegroom, and, an invited guest, he came to the wedding.” — From the Homilies on John
I have proposed in the past year to read through John Paul II’s Theology of the Body within this newsletter, though events intervened. I am nearly entirely caught up on major writing projects, and beginning to map out my next steps—which include, I think, finally committing to such a project. Stay tuned.
Fantastic explanation! I knew you would have helpful thoughts on this!