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.

Is Nicaea Enough?

A sentiment with which I sympathize and which I hear often is that “Nicaea is enough.” By this people seem to mean that, when trying to articulate boundaries for orthodoxy and, thus, for who is and who isn’t a Christian, the Nicene Creed, or more often the Apostles’ Creed, serves as the arbiter. In this model, someone who affirms historic Christian teaching on the Trinity, the hypostatic union, the necessity of Christ’s work for salvation, the church as the people of God, and the expectation that Christ will return in glory should be considered a Christian. I sympathize with this approach because, well, look at that list! It covers many issues that are vitally important for the Christian faith.

But often when I hear or see people say, “Nicaea is enough,” it appears to me that what they mean is that we don’t need to hold others to doctrinal or ethical standards beyond what was laid down in the fourth through eighth centuries. On the former, I am not talking about those working toward an evangelical ecumenicity, like Timothy George; I am referring, rather, to those who seek to elide and escape doctrinal convictions beyond what is taught in the Nicene or Apostles’ Creed. So, for instance, bibliology is not addressed in the Creeds; therefore, according to this “Nicaea is enough” way of thinking, Christians can believe a whole host of different positions about Scripture. The latter rationale for “Nicaea is enough,” the ethical, is the more popular these days, though. In this respect “NiE” is used to say that, for instance, sexuality is not addressed in the Creeds, and therefore Christians can believe a whole host of different ideas about gender and sexuality. To be frank, it seems to me that “NiE” is used most often not as a genuine attempt at doctrinal catholicity but rather as a euphemism for giving in to our current cultural climate regarding sexuality. Rather than an attempt at a catholic (small c!) orthodoxy, this sentiment is more often used to sneak in non-traditional ethical or doctrinal teachings through a supposed creedal gap.

What can we say to this? As a Protestant and evangelical, I think there are at least four responses we can give to this sentiment and ultimately claim that Nicaea, or even the three ecumenical creeds and seven ecumenical councils all together, is not enough to measure what is properly Christian.

  1. Creeds and councils are not the ultimate measure of Christian doctrinal and ethical faithfulness; Scripture is. The first and most important point to make here is that the creeds and councils are not the ultimate arbiter of what counts as properly apostolic. That position, from a Protestant perspective, lies ultimately with Scripture alone. While creeds and confessions help codify, at a particular historical moment, the church’s ministerially and derivatively authoritative summary of Scripture, it is Scripture alone that holds the primary place. Therefore, even if we do not have a creed that addresses an explicit departure from Scripture, it is still just that – a departure from Scripture. And Scripture is clear that there are simple errors and then there are departures; the former, mistakes to be corrected, the latter, clear rejections of biblical teaching that results in communal exclusion (see point #2).
  2. There are a number of teachings, including permitting sexual immorality, that Scripture identifies as “false teaching” and enough to cast one out from the ecclesia. The idea that only those issues addressed by the early church warrant excommunication misses the force of many scriptural statements about casting out false teachers. And while many assume that “false teaching” is only directly related to doctrinal issues, like John’s forceful argument against docetism in 1 John 4, Scripture does not limit false teaching to doctrine. For instance, Jesus threatens covenant exclusion for those in the churches of Pergamum and Thyatira who follow, respectively, the Nicolatian and Jezebel-ian teachings about sexual immorality (Rev. 2:14-15; 19-23). We could add to this the instances where Paul addresses excommunication and ties it explicitly to divisiveness (e.g. Titus 3:10). The point is that exclusion from the covenant community is not limited in Scripture to doctrinal issues, or to some kind of arbitrary doctrinal ranking system. Instead, it covers doctrinal, ethical, and communal rejections of biblical authority.
  3. The “NiE” sentiment wrongly assumes that everything doctrinally or ethically important was settled in the first five centuries of the church’s history. This ignores both the function and history of creedal statements. Regarding the latter, it should be obvious from studying church history that, while the doctrines of the Trinity and Christology were relatively settled by the three ecumenical creeds and seven ecumenical councils, these are not the only doctrines that caused first-order controversies. One only needs to remember the Reformation to realize that, in that case, the doctrines of soteriology (esp. justification) and ecclesiology still needed to be clarified at an ecclesiastical level. For Protestants, the five solas of the Reformation function creedally, even while they are not technically formalized in a creed. The point is that, as important as the three ecumenical creeds and seven ecumenical councils are, they did not address every doctrinal issue that could be considered of first importance. And this brings us back to the former aspect of creeds and confessions that “NiE” ignores: they arise out of specific socio-cultural situations where certain doctrinal controversies must be addressed. In the providence of God, the church first had to deal with the Trinity and Christology. But this doesn’t mean that controversies surrounding other doctrines are not of first-order importance. Of course, that doesn’t mean that every controversy is of first-order importance. But it does mean that some deviations from traditional Christian teaching are. The Patristic and early Medieval period addressed the Trinity and Christology; the Reformation addressed soteriology and ecclesiology; and it seems to me that, today, we need to address bibliology and anthropology. The way to tell if modern deviations from traditional Christian teaching are first-order departures brings us back to point #1 – does it clearly depart from the apostolic deposit, Holy Scripture, and in such a way that it can be characterized as a rejection of Scripture’s authority? (FWIW here’s my attempt to describe what counts as “biblical.”) Yes, people can come to different interpretive conclusions, but this does not make them all correct. And as Protestants, our theological method calls us to return to Scripture again and again.
  4. “Orthodox” is not the only term we can use to communicate what counts as Christian teaching and what does not. But if we use another term, as Derek Rishmawy and others have argued, it had better have enough force to communicate that deviation from it warrants exclusion from the Christian community.

We could add other points here, like the fact that the entire Christian tradition has assumed a particular anthropology, which includes a particular sexual ethic, for the first two thousand years of its history. But I think these four points summarize the methodological problems with the “NiE” sentiment, even if we could say more about particular doctrinal issues and how to argue for the properly Christian position on them.