Josh Butler, a fellow at the newly launched Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics and author of a forthcoming book, Beautiful Union (Multnomah, 2023), has written a provocative essay, “Sex Won’t Save You (But It Points To The One Who Will).”1 He raises some interesting questions: what is the function of natural revelation and what are its limits? How does Paul employ the union of husband and wife in Ephesians 5:31–32, and are evangelicals re-sacralizing nature (i.e., is marriage a sacrament or is the act of sex, within marriage, a sacrament)?
He begins by arresting our attention: “I used to look to sex for salvation.” Our culture, he writes, “looks to sex for salvation too” but idolizing sex, he writes, “results in slavery.” “Sex,” he argues, “wasn’t designed to be your salvation but to point you to the One who is” (italics original). He argues “[s]ex is an icon of Christ and the church” and it is “an icon of salvation.” To illustrate he appeals to the categories of generosity and hospitality. He appeals to the Hebrew expression for sexual union and urges that each sex brings something unique to the union. He concludes by appealing to Paul’s analogy to say that Christ and his church have the same sort of reciprocal relationship. Warning: the language is relatively graphic. You may not want to read his essay out loud to children, teens, or your grandmother. Let it suffice to say that he appeals to images of giving and receiving.
It is doubtless true that, in our porn-saturated, sex-saturated, neo-pagan age, sex has become an avenue of a kind of salvation or at least self-medication. The Gnostics and others who denied the reality and goodness of creation could never decide whether they should utterly abstain (they hated marriage) or whether, because the body is not real, they were free to indulge. This is our age. Most seemed to have sided with the libertines on this.
The theses Butler proposes are quite clear but, in the space of his brief essay, he does not quite justify them from Ephesians 5 or from Christian theology. People have been expressing shock (and even outrage) about this essay to me privately but also publicly on social media. I submit that they may be upset about the wrong things.
His rhetoric belongs to a tradition in the broader church. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153) might well have written this and, in his commentary on the Song of Songs, he used equally graphic language to describe the relations between Christ and his church. Bernard was not scorned for it and Luther and Calvin regarded him as their favorite medieval theologian. Indeed, just this morning, in a seminar, we were working through Bernard’s treatise on Grace and Free Choice, which led to an excellent discussion. It was through this text that I came to understand the traditional Christian view of free choice as distinct from Manichaean notion that humans can will the contrary to God almighty.
Nevertheless, there are some fundamental problems with Butler’s approach. The thesis that sex between a husband and a wife is an “icon of Christ and his church” misses Paul’s point and assumes a relation between nature and grace that we should reject. Heterosexual activity, insofar as it is a natural, creational institution is not a sacrament, i.e., it is not, to use Augustine’s language, a visible sign of an invisible grace or a sign of a sacred thing. Further, Butler has changed Paul’s terms. Paul does not say that “sex” per se signifies anything. By framing the question as he has, Butler has distorted Paul’s language and intent. I will return to this.
Second, Butler has failed to distinguish nature and grace. Heterosexual sex is a creational good but it is not sacred. It is not an institution of grace. It is not saving nor does it reveal the gospel or salvation. By failing to make this distinction, Butler seeks to make nature do more than it was intended to do or can do. Paul is clear about the limits of natural revelation: it reveals that God is, his eternal power, and his divinity. Paul says that these things have been clearly perceived from creation since the beginning so that all humans are without excuse (Rom 1:19–20). Natural revelation is true. It is sufficient to leave all humans without excuse but it is never saving. Put in traditional Reformed and Lutheran categories: natural revelation is law, it is not gospel. For those outside of Christ, the law (e.g., natural revelation) is only bad news. The gospel is good news: it declares Christ to helpless sinners who have been stricken by the law. Like the doctrine of the two natures of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity, the gospel is revealed only in special revelation, i.e., in holy Scripture.
In the same way, we should dissent from his claim that sex is an “icon” of Christ and the church and an “icon” of salvation. Icons, stylized, flat representations of Christ and the saints, were intended to function something like sacraments broadly construed. They pointed away from the icon to the thing represented but one was supposed to get to the thing through the icon. They were substitutes for the divinely instituted media: Word and sacrament. The ancient, pre-iconodule church consistently rejected icons. As one influenced by the pre-iconodule consensus of the ancient church and as confessional Reformed pastor I doubt the righteousness and utility of icons generally. Thus, I doubt that it is helpful or useful to speak of a creational institution as an “icon” or Christ and church or of salvation. Further, as I have argued thus far, insofar as heterosexual sex belongs to nature it cannot be an icon.
That Butler speaks this way, however, suggests that he wants to re-sacralize nature, i.e., he wants to make nature sacramental. This was a mistake rejected by the Reformed Reformation, which de-sacralized nature. They re-asserted the distinction between nature and grace. Nature does not need to be swallowed up by grace or even perfected (in the sense that nature per se is intrinsically wanting) but after the fall human nature needs, they argued, to be renewed by grace. The Anabaptists had destroyed nature with grace. The Reformed orthodox regularly quoted the Thomistic dictum, grace does not destroy nature but perfects it, against the Anabaptists on this very point.
American evangelicals, insofar as they came to agree, in the 19th century, with the Anabaptists tend not only to ignore the nature/grace distinction but to assume the nature is either destroyed by grace or sacralized (e.g., made sacramental).
Finally, what about Paul’s appeal to the sexual union between husband and wife? Paul writes,
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church (ESV).
This passage is part of Paul’s consideration of our new life in Christ and sanctification, the mortification of sin and the making alive (vivification) of the new man, in Christ. Christian husbands and wives ought to love one another for Christ’s sake. Husbands are to model Christ’s self-giving. Wives are to submit to that self-giving love just as the church submits to Christ. Paul invokes the category of mystery. The mystery here is of the spiritual union of Christ with his church. The mystery is not sex. Paul uses marital relations as an analogy of the church’s union with Christ. He does not use sex as a sacrament and certainly not as an apologetic to be made to those outside the church. He does not sacralized sex. He does not treat sex as an “icon” of salvation or of Christ and his church. An analogy shows us how one thing is like another. An icon is not an analogy. An icon is an ostensible representation of the thing, through which medium we come into contact with the thing represented. An icon is at least quasi-sacramental. Paul does no such thing with marriage here.
By ignoring some traditional and useful distinctions, e.g., nature and grace, law and gospel, Butler has sacralized and sacramentalized nature. As Paul has it, the union of a husband and wife form an analogy of Christ and his church but it was not intended to be treated as a natural theology of salvation.
The pagan world is sex-obsessed and sex is an idol of our age but telling pagans that sex points them to Christ is not an apologetic or evangelistic strategy we should employ. It is not a biblical strategy. When Paul condemns the sexual immorality of the Greco-Roman world in Romans 1 he preaches the law. He never treats heterosexual sex as a gospel witness or a gospel sacrament. We preach the law to pagans because it is through that message, as Paul showed at the Areopagus (Acts 17), that God the Holy Spirit is pleased to operate to bring his elect to new life and true faith. When people are cut to the quick, as at Pentecost (Acts 2), we preach the gospel of the resurrected Christ as did the Apostles. Some will believe and some will not. Blessed be the name of the God who is sovereign over the sheep and the goats.
1. The original article has been replaced with a link to the introduction to Butler’s book and to chapter 1.
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What concerned me most about this article is that it’s maybe the first launch out of the Keller Center, whose purpose is to platform people of insight into culture, because “the church needs to be resourced” to reach the West again. My assessment is the author over-leveraged the subject of sex to provide some transcendent theological point. But I can’t think of a single non-believer I would present these ideas to in hopes of evangelization. I just don’t think it was a very auspicious start for the Keller Center.
Oh ugh. I hate it when these guys ( Josh and others like him, who clearly are sex-obsessed, and want to bring that obsession into the Church) write these sorts of things. It’s always so silly and so smarmy.
Excellent rebuttal, Dr. Clark. Thank you!
Thank you, Dr. Clark! I woke up this morning trying to crystallize my thoughts about the article referenced. Your reflection here has been very beneficial.
I don’t know if you want to address this any further Dr. Clark. But today Rod Dreher posted a second piece about this entire kerfuffle in which he quotes from Greek Orthodox theologian Timothy Patitsas’s book The Ethics Of Beauty (https://www.theamericanconservative.com/the-metaphysical-joy-of-orthodox-sex/).
I take Patitsas’s point in the qotations about ignoring the physical and becoming gnostic. But judging by Dreher’s other quotations from Patitsas’s book, Patitsas seems to make the mistake you describe of confusing grace and nature. One quotation: “If creation is not a symbol of heaven, then its beauty and its goodness are no longer anchored in an underlying and eternal truth. In fact, an arbitrary world is somehow not only ‘false,’ but also neither beautiful nor good. Instead, the physical form of the world would just be the imposition of a capricious divine will. The world would be nothing more than a power play, in other words, a dead object of God’s creative whim.”
I’m not sure what this means if taken to it’s logical conclusion. Every pebble and paperclip and paramecium is an icon of something in heaven and therefore sacramental? If everything is sacramental is anything sacramental? There’s no room simply for God’s being good and his creating a world that’s good (as we read in Genesis) and beautiful although many things in the world could have been otherwise but still good and beautiful? God in his infinite wisdom isn’t allowed to say, “True, I could have done this differently, but this will be pretty, or beneficial”?
Making all of creation an icon or a sacrament seems to make it just as illusory but to do it by taking the long way around. Am I missing something?
Yes, I read Dreher’s essay this AM.
He is in the (Greek) Orthodox tradition, so we probably disagree about the sacramentalizing of nature and about the nature and use of icons.
The argument that nature must be sacred or divine or else it is meaningless is not persuasive to me because it ignores or misunderstands the biblical category of goodness. There were, according to our older Reformed writers, sacraments (according to Witsius, 7 of them–if memory serves) in the garden before the fall. Nature per se is not sacralized in the Genesis narrative. It is “Tov, i.e., good. In the Heidelberg Catechism we say that we were “created in righteousness and true holiness, that we might rightly know God our Creator, heartily love him, and live with him in eternal blessedness.” That blessedness was to be attained by obedience to the law and passing a probation. Our theologians called it a “covenant of nature” and later a “covenant of works.” Adam was created able to obey. The significance of creation was/is not that it is divine but that it was made good by God.
Adam was an image bearer. Scripture says this explicitly. All humans are image bearers, even if that image is severely marred after the fall but the Reformed reject the notion that divinization (theosis) is a prerequisite for being. This approach misses the point of being an “image” or an analogue. Creatures, not even God’s greatest creatures (humans) are not on a continuum with God. We are never more than analogues of God. Adam’s sin might be said to have been his attempt to overcome his status as image bearer/analogue to God and to seek to grasp deity itself.
If everything is sacramental then nothing is sacramental. This is why the earlier Reformed distinction between sacred and secular is so helpful.
Yes, insofar as we are thinking about a continuum of being, with God at the top and we on the bottom, it does or may lead to a Platonic notion that the physical/sensory world is illusory.
The old Reformed tended to be what later came to be called “common sense realists.” They believed that the world was made to be known and we were made to know it. Our sense experiences, though not infallible (far from it!) are generally reliable. The disciples saw and touched Christ before and after his resurrection. Christ ate fish after his resurrection. He was raised in a true human body as we shall be. He the first fruits and we the harvest, as it were.
Thanks for this article. I’m a little confused about sex not being sacred/holy. If it isn’t holy, what is its relationship to holiness? In Lev 18 and 20, sexuality has some relationship to holiness. Paul in his letters to the Corinithians several times emphasizes that the church is holy and that sexual immorality is antithetical to holiness. Isn’t sex a part of God’s created blessing and set apart in some way? Thanks
I’m not saying that Christians should not sanctify themselves regarding sexual desires and actions. Far from it. You are quite right that the Apostle Paul is very plain about this in 1 Cor 6 and in other places.
In this essay, I’m using the ancient Christian and older Reformed distinction between nature and grace as two distinct categories. I’m objecting to the confusion of nature and grace in his argument. I argued that heterosexual activity is a creational good, to be sanctified certainly, but it is not a form of special revelation (grace). It is neither a sacrament (as I defined it in the essay) nor is it sacramental.
Nature, as such does not need to be sacralized, i.e., to be made sacred, in order to be good. Creation was good in the beginning. It was the Gnostics and others who rejected the original and inherent goodness of creation.
Human beings do need to be renewed in all their faculties, which includes their affections, and including their desires, dispositions (habits), and behaviors but that doesn’t make sex sacred as such. It still belongs to nature.
So, the fundamental question here is whether there is a distinction between nature and grace. I don’t know if this distinction is familiar to you. If not, there are resources at the end of the article on this topic. It’s a distinction that has been, unfortunately, lost to a lot of modern Christians. I was not familiar with it until I started reading the Reformed and Medieval scholastics, who helped me to see its value.
Thanks for your kind and helpful response. That helps me, but I’m still chewing on this: “Heterosexual sex is a creational good but it is not sacred. It is not an institution of grace.”
I have a basic understanding of nature / grace distinction. But is that a different category than holy/sacred?
I guess my wrestle is that it seems like God is holy. It also seems like some created things in relationship to him are holy – set apart in various degrees of holiness in relationship to him. (Israel is holy, the priests have a greater degree of holiness // tabernacle courtyard vs. holy of holies, etc.). Does it make sense to say that life and sex aren’t sacrements (means of grace ) but that they are sacred?
For example, according to 1 Cor 6:11, I am washed, sanctified, and justified. I am holy in Christ. But I myself am not a sacrement. But I am holy, set apart to him, I do not belong to myself but to him. So, could a created good be holy but not a sacrement? And does sex fall in that category?
I’m kind of spinning around the question, so forgive my lack of clarity in asking it. Any thoughts appreciated. Thanks!
Thanks for the breakdown. I especially love the list of articles on nature and grace—it will give me a lot to read over the coming days.