Sexual Identity and Theological Anthropology

In their recently released Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017), Cornelis van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink offer a view of biological sex and sexuality grounded in theological anthropology. They focus particularly on the connection between sex and the relational aspect of the imago dei, and do so in order to argue that our sexual nature (that is, that we are made as “male and female,” with a biological sex) is not limited to or only realized in marriage and procreation. While the family unit may be the “primary and prototypical manner in which this basic desire for bonding and solidarity is expressed” (285-86), it is nevertheless not the only way in which this fundamentally relational aspect of our humanity can be realized. van der Kooi and van den Brink differentiate, for the most part, between “sexual” and “sexuality,” the former denoting our human nature as “male and female,” the latter referring to sexual activities.¬† A few choice quotes in this regard:

Sexuality is not everything, and those who are hardly, or not at all, involved in sexual activities can be excellent and complete human beings (281).

Our sexuality [here they mean sexual nature] is not a kind of secondary embellishment of what is at root asexual. An asexual human being is an abstraction. We do not have a genderless or bisexual core that relativizes our male or female state, but from the very first God created as thoroughly physical, sexual beings: male and female God created us (282).

Admittedly, there are intrinsic differences between men and women, and neither persons nor societies will function optimally when they are ignored. But…much of what we consider to be typically male or female is undoubtedly culturally determined (283).

…it is not correct to regard procreation as the only purpose of our sexuality. If that were the case, a major part of humanity (including Jesus of Nazareth) would not be fully fledged humans (284).

This seems to me to be a very balanced section on sexuality and sexual identity. On the one hand, the authors acknowledge the “fact of nature” (284) of our sexual nature as human beings, and therefore that God made us male and female. In doing so, they also acknowledge that heterosexual marriage leading to procreation is the “prototypical manner” (286) in which this sexual nature is expressed. They also importantly, though, leaven the lump, so to speak, and say with Jesus that marriage is relativized in the eschaton, with Paul that singleness is a gift from God, and with modern studies in theological anthropology that we cannot reduce “male and female” to unbiblical cultural norms. They are also careful to speak about ways in which our sexual nature can remain relational, since it is part of the imago dei, without requiring sexual activity.

Unfortunately, though, the authors punt at the end of the section on the issue of same-sex marriage. This is not uncommon for this book; on most of the major issues in theology, one is left asking for more of the authors’ own perspectives and arguments. Some of this can be chalked up to the fact that it is intended to be an introductory textbook, but there are places where taking a stance seems to be required. In my mind this is one of them. I wish they had.

Sex, Beauty, and Songs

Today at the Gospel Coalition Andrew Shanks posted an article on the difference between Song of Solomon and erotica literature. Shanks points out that while Songs wants to celebrate marital love and beauty as expressed in human sexuality, erotica merely wants to celebrate and exploit sexuality.

I appreciate Andrew’s points there, and I hope this post doesn’t come across as me too harshly critiquing a fellow brother. But this post, and my reference to Andrew’s, are about much more than either of us individually. Instead, this post for me is about how evangelicals continue to read the Song of Solomon as not much more than a Christianized Kama Sutra. In my estimation it still seems like we are, as Christian readers of Songs, lowering the bar on the ultimate meaning of the book. Looking back to my series on theological method, Andrew’s article, along with much of evangelicalism, leaves out the bigger and more important hermeneutical question of how Songs points us to Christ and his gospel. I would say that perhaps Andrew merely wanted to focus on another aspect of Songs, not the primary one of pointing to Christ, but he makes this statement towards the beginning: “In his Song, Solomon’s primary goal is to describe love and beauty” (emphasis mine). This is commonplace in evangelicalism (think Driscoll’s sermons on the book). For many of us, Songs is primarily about the beauty of marriage, the intimate and physical connection that consummates it, the way to handle difficulty before and during it, etc. Don’t get me wrong – each of those things is important. Andrew’s point is important. Many other evangelical teachers’ points, that the book gives us a picture of what marriage ought to be and that we ought to emulate it, are important. But in my understanding these are neither the divine nor human author’s primary goals in any book of Scripture, including Songs. Rather, the Spirit’s, and through the inspiration of the Spirit the human author’s, primary goal is to show us Christ so that through seeing him we might see the Father. And it is only by seeing the Son in the power of the Spirit that we can then move on to understanding the implications for ethical living in areas like marriage and sexuality.

The human author of Songs actually gives us clues that he is talking about much more than beauty, sex, and marriage by making explicit textual connections and allusions to Davidic, Temple, Garden, eschatological, and Lady Wisdom language elsewhere in Scripture. This is highly charged OT language – it encompasses the major facets of OT eschatological hope. It gives us a picture of the wise king and his virtuous bride in a restored garden. It follows the search for a wise king and virtuous woman in the Hebrew Bible order of Psalms, Job, Proverbs, and Ruth. The mystery of marriage is that it a picture of Christ and his Church (Eph. 5:22-32). There are abundant reasons for thinking this book is about much more than beauty or sex. But in the name of the historical-grammatical method, we focus on the physical to the detriment of its spiritual message.

I think we ought to continue to think through the way Songs confronts the sexual ethic (or non-ethic) of our day, as Andrew has. And once again, I am appreciative of that type of work. I think work on the moral sense of Scripture is vitally important. But our understanding and interpretation of Scripture must remember that the primary goal of both the Spirit and the human author is always to point to Christ so that by seeing him we might see the Father and be changed into his image.