A Biblical Theology Of Sex

Feb 26th, 2011 | By | Category: Christian Life

Years ago, my wife and I watched a movie based on a famous book by Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago.  The movie, made in 1965, is a gorgeous movie:  The scenery of Russia in the winter is breathtaking and stunning.  The movie is set during the tumultuous years of the Bolshevik Revolution that swept Russia from 1917-1920.  As the forces of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, who took the name of Lenin, ravaged the country of Russia, they killed, pillaged and destroyed as they built their communist utopia in Russia.  Dr. Zhivago is caught in this tumult and, when he returns from the front in World War I, he finds his home ransacked and occupied by 13 families.  But the movie is really not about the Bolshevik Revolution; it is a love story.  Actually, as writer Andree Seu comments, ?it was the first film to make adultery beautiful.?  The movie is powerful and seductive.  It portrays Zhivago?s wife (Tonya) as a neutral, almost boring figure in the movie.  There is very little focus on his son either, only ?enough to establish that Zhivago is a good father.?  As Zhivago deepens his adulterous relationship with his lover, Lara, there are no lingering shots of his son crying himself to sleep because his daddy is no longer at home.  As Seu argues, ?The goal is that the audience should fall in love with the doctor and the mistress, and not only forgive but root for their love affair.?  His wife, Tonya, sends Zhivago a letter in which she declares she has no hard feelings, that she and her father are going to Paris for safety (so they will be fine), and the doctor responds with some grief, but not too much.  Zhivago and his mistress, Lara, volunteer for the army to serve [they are good people!!] and their love deepens for one another.  Fate seems to have brought them together and, although they are caught in the trauma of the Bolshevik Revolution, their love is right and secure.  As Seu comments, ?By the time David Lean [the director] was done with me, God was a scowling moralist, a pinprick of light in a faraway galaxy.  And you would think that all the best things on earth?fields of daffodils, snow-sculpted minarets, and Song of Songs?were the gifts given under the sun.?  Captivating, seductive and beautiful are the emotionally-laden words that summarize the viewer?s response to this powerful movie.  We find ourselves approving that which God finds abominable!!  As I read Seu?s essay on this remarkable movie, I was convinced of the need for a biblical view of sex, a theology of sex if you will.  So, in this Perspective, I seek to establish just that.

  • First of all, permit me as well a few comments about a recent essay from the religion writer of Newsweek magazine, Lisa Miller.  Miller?s essay is really a summary of two books about sex and the Bible?Michael Coogan, God and Sex: What the Bible Really Says, and Jennifer Wright Knust, Unprotected Texts: The Bible?s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire.  Miller reaches four conclusions from her study of these two books:  1.  The Bible is an ancient text, inapplicable in its particulars to the modern world.  2.  Sex in the Bible is sometimes hidden.  3.  That which is forbidden is also allowed.  4.  Accepted interpretations are sometimes wrong.

In a very real sense, much of what Coogan and Knust are arguing is not all that new or provocative.  Both of them, but perhaps more intensely Knust, follow the standard theologically liberal stance when it comes to the Bible and sex.  The Bible is not the Word of God.  When it talks about sex, the text merely reflects the presuppositions, prejudices and ideas of its various authors.  The Bible is just simply not the objective Word of God.  The challenge is that the typical Christian is not as enlightened as the liberal scholar about the Bible.  Many still maintain that it is God?s Word.  With that said, Coogan and especially Knust, see the Bible as a book filled with errors, contradictions and no consistent ethic or theology of sex.  Theologian Albert Mohler correctly captures the essence of what Coogan and Knust and Lisa Miller are arguing:  ?Consider the audacity of their claim:  They claim that no one has rightly understood the Bible for over two thousand years.  No Jewish or Christian interpreter of the Bible has ever suggested [for example] that the relationship between David and Jonathan was homosexual [which Knust forthrightly does]?at least not until recent decades.  The revisionist case is equally ludicrous across the board.  We are only now able to understand what Paul was talking about in Romans 1?  The church was wrong for two millennia??  The Bible does in fact present a clear and consistent ethic and theology of sex.  The problem with so many recent revisionist and liberal theologians is that they both revile and reject that ethic and that theology.  That is the real issue.

  • Second, so is there a theology of sex that can be discerned from the Bible?  The answer is incontrovertibly yes.  Stanton L. Jones, provost of Wheaton College, has written masterfully about this and I want to summarize his work in presenting a theology of sex, rooted in God?s Word.  Without a theology of sex, without a sexual ethic, we are, in the words of theologian David Bentley Hart, ?. . . first and foremost, heroic and insatiable consumers, and we must not allow the specters of transcendent law or personal guilt render us indecisive.  For us, it is choice itself, and not what we choose, that is the first good.?  This obsession with autonomy, a law unto ourselves, consumes the person of the 21st century who has no transcendent standards.  Sexuality becomes the foundation of our personal identity and our pursuit of selfish, self-centered pleasure.  But there is a positive, truthful vision of sexuality?and it is found in the Bible.  Permit me, then, to summarize Jones?s theology of sex:
  1. We are embodied.  To be human is to be a physical, biological creature.  Christians view all of physical existence, from the grandeur of the cosmos to the particularity of the human body, as the good creation of a benevolent God.  Physical existence is not divine, but it is good.  We are more than bodies, but we are bodies?and we will live forever as a soul-body unit in our glorified, resurrected bodies.
  2. We are sexual beings.  We are gendered and we are sexual beings.  Genesis declares God?s creation of gendered people to be the divine purpose, with both sexes made in the image of God and humanity corporately, male and female, declared to be very good.  Scripture extols the physical pleasures of sexual union (Proverbs 5) and links eroticism explicitly with romantic love and intimacy (Song of Songs).  The apostle Paul sternly admonishes married couples to fulfill one another?s sexual needs and does so in a remarkably egalitarian fashion (1 Cor. 7:1-6).  ?Our sexuality is expressed in but not reduced to the sexual experiences of marriage.  All persons are fully sexual as gendered beings with uniquely male or female bodies, beings with sensations, desires, and gender-grounded emotional and cognitive capacities.  Gender is only one facet of sexuality, and gender itself is a construct with many biological, psychological, emotional and relational dimensions.?
  3. We are relational.  Genesis teaches us to think of human nature as fundamentally relational.  Even though Adam lived in a perfect environment, God declared it not good for him to be alone.  So God created a perfect partner, a complement in every way to him.  Romantic love, as with Adam and Eve (Genesis 2:24-25), became an important way that the relational reality of being human was experienced.  That is still true today.
  4. We are made in God?s image.  The way Genesis 5 mirrors the language of Genesis 1:26ff is stunning.  The conception and birth of a son to our primal parents parallels the way God ?fathered? the first humans.  God?s image cannot be reduced to simple procreation, but the act of human procreation is somehow part of what it means to be in the image and likeness of God.
  5. We are broken and twisted.  Our sexual longings are grounded in our good capacities for union, love and pleasure, but are always tainted with selfishness, sensuality and the desire to dominate.  ?This is why we experience a deep sense of conflict in our sexuality.  We know the beauty, potential and realized good of our sexual natures, but we never experience that good distilled and pure.?
  6. We encounter objective reality when we have sex.  Sexual intercourse creates a one-flesh union.  The Creation Ordinance, Christ?s teaching on divorce, and such pivotal passages as 1 Corinthians 6 and 7 teach us that God made sexual intercourse to create and sustain a permanent, one-flesh union in a male-female married couple.  ?The fact that intercourse creates a one-flesh union profoundly challenges our individualism. . . We learn from Paul that the marriage union testifies to something bigger than itself (Ephesians 5:32).  All Christians participate in a mystical body, which is truly the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12) and the consummation of history is not the redemption of a gaggle of individuals but a marriage between the Bridegroom Lamb and his (collective singular) Bride. . . There is more to sex than meets the eye.?
  7. We are souls under construction.  The Christian vision of personhood means that the true self is both discovered and formed.  Proper self formation occurs when our self is submitted to God, who transforms us as we obey His revealed will and we abide in relationship with a Savior who indwells and molds us.  A self that is only discovered is an undeveloped, impoverished self.  ?A self that is discovered and then formed in the joyful, painful, humbling and intimate process of celebrating the gift of sexuality God has given, dying to one?s sin nature, and living in costly obedience to God will be the truest and most real self.?

Christian ethicist, Gilbert Meilaender has argued that ?To be human . . . is to learn of our embodied, mortal life, the limits of those whose being opens to God.  It is to acknowledge, honor, and esteem the particular place?between beasts and God?that we occupy in the creation.?  A theology of sex, a sexual ethic is therefore liberating and freeing.  May God in His grace enable the church to teach and model this ethic to a fallen world.

See Andree Seu in World (12 February 2011), p. 79; Lisa Miller in Newsweek (6 February 2011); AlbertMohler.com (9 February 2011); and Stanton L. Jones in Christianity Today (January 2011), pp. 34-39.

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