Why getting our theology around sex and marriage is important but difficult

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A few weeks back, controversy erupted around The Gospel Coalition publishing an extract from Josh Butler’s up and coming book, Beautiful Union.  Recently, Preston Sprinkle hosted Josh along with Sandy Richter, an OT scholar and Brenna Blain, an advocate for abuse victims on his podcast to discuss the book and the controversy.  You can watch the episode here and I’d strongly encourage to to watch it in full as I think it models well robust, thoughtful and gracious conversation. 

Some people have suggested that it is a shame that something like this didn’t happen sooner. Perhaps this would have been a better response from The Gospel Coalition? I would go further and suggest that a lot of the problems might have been avoided if a conversation like this had happened first. However, we are where we are and what the podcast has done has prompted me to reflect a bit more on the subject.  So, my intention is to share some further thoughts on the subject, interacting with the podcast. In a later article, I want to talk about the pastoral risks and pitfalls about trying to talk about sex and marriage. First though, I want to give further attention to the theological issues.

My reason for doing this is for three reasons:

  1. I think that Sandy Richter really bossed the theological parts of the conversation but I didn’t see much evidence that Josh was really getting what she was saying and why this was so important to the theological foundations of his own thinking.
  2. Preston Sprinkle sticks to his assertion that the book is “a killer book” despite the problems.  I think this reflects his affirmation of the theology being rooted in Catholic theology and specifically the work of John Paul II.
  3. Brenna Blain’s reaction, which we need to give attention to is that she was shocked and angry at the excerpt but when she read the whole book, as a victim and as someone who experiences same sex attraction she felt heard and seen. It’s important to recognise that despite the attacks on Josh, people have found him pastorally sensitive. However, I want to suggest that hearing and seeing people well may not lead to pastoring them well if we get the theology wrong that underpins our approach. Remember that “what we believe affects how we live.”

So, in this article I want to highlight a few things. 

  1. Flesh and bone/One Flesh

First I want to go back to the point about “One Flesh” which I’ve discussed previously.  Like me, Sandy Richter takes the position that the description “one flesh” is about more than the sex act.  Despite protestations that whenever the Bible talks about “one flesh” it is talking about sex, the only place where it does explicitly draw the connection is in 1 Corinthians and as we’ve seen before, the point there is not that sex equals one flesh but that sex leads to a one flesh commitment.

Sandy argues that “one flesh” is a term to indicate what anthropologists call “fictive kinship”. The idea is that, as with a legal fiction, you have something that might not be literally true but becomes fact.  Therefore, people who are physically related may be referred to as sharing “bone and flesh”, drawing on Adam’s ode to Eve in Genesis 2 or  “flesh and blood”.  However, “one flesh” is about identity so that a close relationship is created between two people even though they were not physically related.  Along with marriage, Richter uses the example of adoption where the adoptee becomes the legal and very much real son or daughter of their adoptive parents. They are properly part of the family.  It’s worth observing that this helps us understand why Levitical incest laws imposed restrictions beyond flesh and blood or bone and flesh relationships.  We might also observe that a kind of fictive kinship is created when people become Christians and part of the church. We become brothers and sisters.

In the conversation, Josh doesn’t seem too willing to accept this concept.  He insists that “one flesh” is different to “bone and flesh” and so not about kinship.  I would suggest that this misses the point that we are not arguing that one flesh equals bone and flesh but that the language of one flesh and the possibility of it arises out of the prior concept of bone and flesh. It is possible for Eve to be united with Adam because she came from him so that she is like him as well as different to him.

As I’ve observed previously, by failing to understand what “one flesh” is about, Josh risks failing to see sex in its correct place within marriage, our perspective becomes distorted so that sex is either  over elevated or diminished (and sometimes both at the same time).

  • Pagans and Temples

In a fascinating, extended interaction, Sandy explains why it’s important to be so careful about how we think theologically about sex.  She shows how for ancient near eastern idol worship, sex took on a religious, ritual and even magical identity.  So, it was through the sex act that the gods were brought near and people and land were blessed with fertility.  So, we need to be careful about casually talking about sex in terms of the sanctuary when the Torah was careful to move it out of that domain, not to diminish sex but to avoid idolatrous connotations and indeed to elevate normal day to day life as having value.  Sex is good in itself not because it enables religious experience but because it helps us to fulfil God’s creation mandate.

Josh responds by insisting that Scripture does bring sex back into the Temple. He goes particularly to Song of Songs, though I’m not convinced by his attempt to make the language there allegorical for the Temple. He argues that God’s people are identified with the Temple and as God’s bride this permits him to think in terms of the female genitalia as inner sanctuary.  I have two problems with this.  Yes, there are some references to God’s people, collectively and individually as the house of God.  However, the focus there is on the church being where God’s presence is manifest as the Holy Spirit comes to dwell among us.  In that respect, it is the heart which acts as inner sanctuary.  The connection is not drawn between church as temple and church as bride.

However, the dominant image is not of church as temple and Christ as worshipper coming to make his sacrificial offering there. Rather, he is himself the Temple, he offers in his own body the sacrifice for sin.  The church as bride is primarily identified not with the Temple but with the Holy  city, the new Jerusalem.

  • Re-importing Catholicism

Sandy’s point is brilliant, we are protestant and reformed for a reason.  The reformer saw the horrendous damage that Catholic religion did in terms of compromising faith and grace.  They also saw that treating marriage as sacrament (let alone sex on its own) was damaging pastorally for both the married and the celibate. This is not to say that individual Catholics are not and cannot be believers but rather to say that we had The Reformation for a reason. 

Catholic theology is deeply problematic for so many reasons but central to the problems are its sacramentalism.  In recent years, especially through the Federal Vision approach of Wilson and Leithart I think we’ve seen significant attempts to re-import what was intentionally rejected into reformed theology. I don’t think this approach has been wise or helpful.


Butler’s theological foundations matter and I don’t think they can be shrugged off as just a badly chosen out of context except.  His theological foundation will affect the pastoral advice he is giving.  He will either have to give advice in line with that theology, advise I would suggest that would fail, or he will have to give advice that is inconsistent, at odds even with his theology.  I’m intrigued as to the direction the book will take.

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