HOW HUMAN SEXUALITY REVEALS GOD
Robert C. Newman
Biblical Theological Seminary
Copyright © 1996 by Robert C. Newman. All rights reserved.
Although the author is in agreement with the doctrinal statement of IBRI, it does not follow that all of the viewpoints espoused in this paper represent official positions of IBRI. Since one of the purposes of the IBRI report series is to serve as a preprint forum, it is possible that the author has revised some aspects of this work since it was first written.
To an extraterrestrial observer, modern society must seem inordinately preoccupied with sex. Consider the economic power of the industries that specifically trade in it. Think of how it is used to sell everything from toothpaste to cigarettes. Look at the number and variety of stores in a typical shopping mall which are devoted to making one sex look more attractive to the other. Examine the content of our popular TV shows and films, not to mention pop songs and MTV. C. S. Lewis has effectively illustrated this fascination by imagining a society which has the same level of interest in eating. In that land, people would pay money just to see someone gradually uncover a dish of food!
Yet this preoccupation with sex is not restricted to modern times. It is powerfully present in nearly every human culture we know about. Of course, differences in culture, technology, and the presence or absence of slavery will influence how these desires will be gratified. But they will be gratified!
Clearly the human sexual relationship is very powerful. And within a good marriage, it helps to build the strongest human bond that most people ever experience.
From our vantage point within the Christian worldview, we can see that enormous distortions have been introduced into human sexuality by our rebellion against God, by the curses which followed the fall, and by our sins against one another. Yet granting all this, we must admit that God invented sex. Why on earth, we wonder, did He make it so powerful? At least in pre-industrial societies, one would think that the advantages of having children would be strong enough to guarantee the continuation of the human race without such an incentive. What is going on here?
The Bible gives us reason to believe that the relation between husband and wife is a picture of the relation between God and human, both individually — of God and the believer — and collectively — of God and His people. We would like to suggest that one form of God's revelation of Himself in nature is through this relationship, which woos us to seek Him and to know Him intimately.
I am no specialist in the field of human sexuality. In fact, I have
never been married and am still a virgin! So this paper is of necessity
"a preliminary study" (to borrow the subtitle from C. S. Lewis' book, On
Miracles). I leave it to others with more expertise to test the thesis
and (if it seems to have merit) to work it out in more detail.
Marriage as a Picture of our Relation to God: the Biblical Data
We begin with a brief sketch of the major passages where something of this sort is mentioned.
The relation of God to his people collectively (both real and professing believers) is pictured in terms of marriage in a number of OT passages. In Isaiah 54, Zion is pictured as God's wife, now rejected, but one day to be restored. Hosea 1-3 provides a similar picture of God's relation to Israel by means of the acted parable of the prophet's marriage to his unfaithful wife Gomer. In Jeremiah 3, Israel and Judah are the LORD's wives, but Judah is unable to learn from the divorce of her unfaithful sister Israel. In Jer 31:32, Israel broke her covenant with God, though he was a husband to her. In the end times God will rejoice over Zion as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride (Isa 62:5). The queen in Psalm 45 has been taken by many to be the wife of the Messiah, and thus the people he has redeemed. So, too, the Song of Solomon has often been interpreted as depicting the relationship between God and Israel or between Christ and the church.
In the NT, the clearest passage for this collective picture of the relation between God and His people is found in Eph 5:22-33, where Paul sees marriage as a "profound mystery" depicting Christ and the church. Elsewhere (2 Cor 11:2-3) Paul says that the Corinthian believers have been promised to Christ as their husband, and Paul wishes to present them to him as a pure virgin.
The NT goes beyond this to develop the marriage figure for the relationship
between God and the individual believer as well. In Rom 7:1-6, Paul says
to the Roman Christians that they were previously married to the Law, but
now they have "died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might
belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we
might bear fruit to God." In 1 Cor 6:12-20, Paul notes that union with
a prostitute makes a man one in body with her, but he who unites himself
with the Lord is one in spirit with him. In 1 Cor 7:32-35, Paul notes the
competition that exists between devotion to the Lord and devotion to one's
spouse. In Gal 4:19, Paul speaks to the Galatian believers as their mother,
"with whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed
in you." The puzzling passage in 1 Cor 11:7 - "A man ought not to cover
his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the
glory of man" — is probably best understood as referring to the marriage
relationship in particular, since we know from other passages that both
man and woman are created in the image of God. Here, Paul seems to be saying
that in the marriage bond, the husband is a picture of God and the wife
of mankind, but not vice versa. Similarly, the best text of Jas 4:4 speaks
to humans, both male and female, using the feminine term "adultresses"
for their friendship with the world, apparently viewing this as unfaithfulness
to their marriage relationship to God.
Features of Human Sexuality (esp. Marriage) that May be Relevant
So, granting that the Bible in many cases pictures the relationship between God and humans as that of a marriage, what features of human sexuality as actually experienced might be relevant in revealing something about the nature of God and his relation to us as humans?
Before we get into this, we should remind ourselves that on this thesis human sexuality is only an analogy for the relation of God and mankind, not the thing itself. We would expect that this relation is best pictured in the best marriages; that it will be more distorted in worse marriages and in sex outside marriage. Some features of the analogy may appear even in mammalian (or lower) sexuality, but we would expect that many are restricted to human sexuality, given that among the creatures created in Genesis 1, only mankind is reported to have been created in God's image.
Sexuality in General. For organisms that only reproduce sexually, there will be no offspring without both partners. Sexuality is a system designed to have input from two individuals of opposite sex. This seems to parallel the picture Jesus provides in John 15 of the vine and branches, in which we humans can do nothing spiritually without the divine partnership of Jesus.
For offspring produced by a sexual union, the children typically have a resemblance to both parents and actually share genetic material from both. The results of spiritual union with God can be viewed in two ways — as divine characteristics imparted to the individual (the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, etc., Gal 5:22-23) or as the creation of another regenerate human (a spiritual son or daughter, 1 Tim 1:2). In both cases there is a combination of the divine and human in the new creation.
In mammalian and human reproduction, the female carries the child from conception to birth, and she is the main caregiver in the earlier stages of the child's growth. Perhaps this corresponds to the fact that believers each have particular responsibilities for their own sanctification, and for the spiritual growth of those to whom they have physically or spritually given birth.
In many but not all forms of sexual union, the initiative lies with the male, the female being more passive. Certainly the Bible emphasizes that in, spiritual relationships, the initiative lies with God
Human sexuality. Among humans, there is a distinctive mating position. The partners are able to have intercourse while facing one another, unlike most animals, in which the male mounts the female from behind. This certainly makes for a more personal relationship between the partners, consistent with the personal relationship which God desires between Himself and humans.
Among humans, when the marriage relationship is functioning normally, the husband is protector and provider for his wife. This certainly corresponds to the relation between God and humans.
Marriage is intended by Scripture to be a life-long bond of fidelity and commitment. This would correspond on the spiritual plane to an eternal bond of fidelity and commitment.
Human mating is typically very private. There are indications in Scripture that besides those times in which we will worship and commune with God along with the angels and our Christian brothers and sisters, our personal relationship with God will have private aspects as well (e.g., a secret name, Rev 2:17).
The marriage embrace, as well as hugging, kissing and caressing, all seem to share in the ideas of closeness, of oneness, even of possessing one another. God desires a relation of oneness with us (1 Cor 6:17), in which he will be our God and we will be his very own people.
Love, in fact, could be described as freely giving oneself to another. God has certainly freely given himself to us. This is seen most clearly in Jesus, who became a creature and took upon himself a human nature forever, and then who gave up his life for us. We are called upon to do the same — freely, with joy — for him.
The marriage relationship, so it seems, involves a greater investment by the woman. She not only gives up a great deal of her freedom (as does the man), but she commits herself to long-term confinement for the bearing and raising of young children and to foregoing both a career and many wider contacts outside the home (which the husband does not). God does not cease to be God of all other humans and creatures when he becomes ours, but we cease to have any other gods.
The marriage relationship ideally means great intimacy with another, transparency to that one, and vulnerability. The Lord, who already knows us inside and out, and who is powerful enough destroy us at any moment, offers us an intimate relation with himself, a chance to know him as we are known. He makes himself vulnerable to us by suffering for us and with us, and sharing with us many of his choice secrets (John 15:15).
Marriage, as the Episcopal liturgy has it, is "for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health." God wants us to join him in his work, sharing in his joys and his sufferings as he is despised and rejected of men (Isa 53).
In marriage, the wife in particular needs to be able to let herself go, to relax, and to be vulnerable in order to enjoy the closest intimacy with her husband. God wants us to trust him in this ultimate way, to let ourselves go in facing the circumstances he brings into our lives, and to relax and enjoy the adventure that he sends us. He wants us to be vulnerable to him in order to learn for ourselves and to show others that our God is fully trustworthy.
Abuses of human sexuality. But we humans are a messed up lot. Having decided to be our own gods and to make our own way in life, we have turned the earth into a mockery of Eden and made our cities more like Sodom and Gomorrah than the New Jerusalem. Naturally, this shows up in human sexuality as much or more than anywhere else. What are we to make of such things as abusive husbands, rebellious wives, polygamy, polyandry, adultery, living together without marriage, homosexuality, and bestiality? How do they fit with the idea that human sexuality is a revelation of God?
They tell us, I think, what a world would be like in which there is no god. Or even worse, what a world would be like in which the god who rules over all is not good.
Abusive husbands give their wives (and children) a small but terrifying picture of what it would be like to have Satan as the god of this world. So does rape — for rape, abuse and oppression are Satan's style of personal relationships. We have learned a great deal from him in the course of our long apprenticeship!
Polygamy, on the other hand, is peculiar. It is not expressly forbidden in Scripture as is adultery. But it always seems to produce serious problems in those biblical narratives where it occurs, especially among the wives and children. The king of Israel was forbidden to have many wives (Deut 17:17), and Christian leaders are to have no more than one (Tit 1:6). Since we have shown above that God in the spiritual sense has more than one wife, perhaps this is an indication that no one but God can have the sort of intimacy that marriage ought to represent with more than one person at a time. Are we to see the ancient kings with their harems as a particulary vivid example of trying to be God?
Polyandry, adultery, and sexual relations outside marriage are all condemned. They picture in various ways a lack of commitment or infidelity toward God that is so continually rebuked as idolatry throughout Scripture.
The rebellion of the wife against her husband (though wives are metaphysically the equals of their husbands, both sharing the full image of God) is one of a whole class of situations in which the one under authority refuses to obey the leader. This act is seen as particularly heinous in Scripture not because it condones husbands oppressing their wives, but because the rebellion occurs in what should be the most intimate of all human relationships and because it pictures the relationship which God desires us to have with himself. A woman's rebellion against her husband thus images our rebellion against God.
What are we to make of homosexuality and lesbianism? They are clearly a distortion of the picture which God has built into human sexuality. Perhaps homosexuality pictures selfish gods who want nothing to do with humans, and lesbianism humans who think they can find real fulfillment without God.
Bestiality, then, would represent those who are seeking personal fulfillment
in that which is less than human, a sure recipe for disillusionment and
Deciphering the Message
We have given a quick tour of how some of the features of human sexuality might be understood as an analogy for the relationship which God desires to have with humans, plus various distortions thereof. Is this anything more than allegorizing — like the claim of some to find the Gospel spelled out in the traditional constellations? That will depend on what one means by allegorizing. If one means the illegitimate converting of a text into an allegory that the author did not intend, I hope we are doing better than that. If one means assigning allegorical significance to a text so designed by its author, I hope that is what we are doing. Let's see.
I take revelation to be a form of communication, like messages which humans send to one another, consisting of a message carried on a medium. Among human communications we could include speaking — spoken words travelling on the medium of sound waves; radio transmission — various modulations travelling on electro-magnetic waves; writing — ink markings on paper; computer communication — various bit patterns on diskettes or internal memory; deaf communication — various hand motions relative to the body; and the ancient Inca communcation system — knot patterns tied into strings. Art and music seem to be some form of communication also.
General revelation, then, is a message sent by God using the natural features of creation as its medium. This message might be encoded in various created structures (fine tuning in basic forces, DNA in living organisms), in various behaviors (as here, and in several other pictures God uses in Scripture to picture his relationship to humans), or in history (God's moral laws, or the fulfillment side of fulfilled prophecy).
Special revelation, by contrast, is a message sent by God using supernatural intervention to put the message on some medium which may itself be supernatural (e.g., a vision or voice) or not (e.g., a dream or thought). It was often mediated through a prophet and subsequently recorded in writing to become Scripture.
Now all these communications are given in a specific language or symbol system. They will not communicate if the receiver does not know or recognize the system in which the communication is encoded. Even a pictographic message might not be decipherable if the receiver does not know important conventions of the pictography. Thus one may need a key, lexicon or grammar to decipher the communication.
Given that our thesis is correct, how much of the message is getting through? There certainly seems to be a widespread realization that sex is pointing to something transcendent. For some, sex is their only religion. For many throughout the world, sacred sex is a prominent feature in their religion. But even so, the message is certainly being distorted. Does that mean there is no such message? The Bible's message is also regularly distorted.
In the case of human sexuality, it may be that the communication is designed to evoke certain longings. Recall C. S. Lewis' experience that he sketches for us in Surprised by Joy and Pilgrim's Regress. In that case, the pictures employed in Scripture might function as a decoder of this message, indicating that the author of Scripture is the author of that message in nature, or at least one who understands the message.
The Scriptural key, in this case, is that God is offering humans an intimate relationship with himself, of which a perfect human marriage is the closest analog. It will be a relation of love, personal knowledge, fidelity, permanence, fruitfulness, fulfillment, understanding, cooperative accomplishment, submission,...
Bible believers who have come to incorporate in their lives the characteristics
of God's own nature that we are called upon to imitate will find that their
marriages will most clearly reflect the features of the God-human relation
that marriage is intended to picture. Consequently, their marriages will
be attractive to others, and will serve to draw them to the God they picture.
In this way, the lives of believers will function to amplify general revelation,
as they become "witnesses" to the God of the Bible.