Discussions of human sexuality according to Scripture have long been caught up in proof-texting verses, usually from the (in)famous culprits: Genesis, Leviticus, 1 Corinthians, 1 Timothy, Jude, and Romans. These “clobber verses” have been used to critique same-sex sexual intimacy and same-sex marriage as unbiblical by theological conservatives as long as the conversation has been relevant. However, in isolation they hardly bear the Scriptural weight they are typically forced to carry. I have thought for a while that the better approach to Scriptural sexuality should instead be found in Scripture’s canonical (i.e. its whole and coherent) witness, and this short blog represents an attempt at gathering what that might be.
A Biblical account of human sexuality begins at the beginning. In Gen 3:21, God gives Adam and Eve “garments of skins” to cloth them. In doing so, He gives them a way of being human: i.e., a shape or form to their lives that defines their boundaries. This gift of skins takes place after what we traditionally call ‘the Fall,’ the time after their first sin, which thrusts the world into disarray and sends them out of Eden. Though these skins are given after the first sin, they are nevertheless given. They remain a gift. Already in the narrative of a freshly fallen world, we see the intertwined relationship between death (animal skins) and grace (gift).
But why the gift of skins? They are given in the context of Adam naming his wife Eve, “the mother of all living”(3:20), and they quickly result in the birth of Cain and Abel (4:2). This birth-giving is the first step in fulfilling the promise which God gave Eve a few verses earlier, that her “offspring,” or “seed,” will overcome Satan. This verse is later quoted by St. Paul, identifying this “seed” with Jesus Christ (Gal 3:16). The singularity of Jesus as Eve’s seed is summative rather than merely exceptional; Jesus is the whole of Adam and Eve’s genealogical progeny: what we call “humankind”– the “last Adam” according to St. Paul (1 Cor 15:45). Therefore, according to the final analysis, God’s gift of skins serves to structure humanity genealogically so that the ultimate gift of Eve’s “seed” would be birthed. This genealogical structuring is the foundation of human sexuality, ordered for the gift of God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ. We are shown here and throughout the proceeding Scriptural witness that sexuality, with its complex genealogical contingencies, exists for the advent of Christ. Death and life are intertwined for the sake of God’s incarnation, grace amidst the fall.
Across the span of human genealogy we see the narrative whole of Jesus, Israel, and humankind. Genealogy functions as the perdurance of life amidst sin’s wage, death. This perdurance is constituted by successive life and death, and all this entails in particularity: birth, learning, marriage, family, giving birth, raising children, growing old, and finally dying. Human life, formed as it is by “skins,” is shaped precisely by this existential passage through the stages between life and death. There are numerous medieval paintings of these ‘stages of life,’ which show that the whole life is unified around distinct transitions. These transitions are also defined sexually: e.g., puberty, child-bearing, infertility, etc.
Life stages frame personal lives within an irreducible network of relational and mortal contingencies; the traditional context for all stages bears a certain standing among filial contexts. That is to say, every stage has its positioning in relation to (not the nuclear) family, and at each step, this filial contingency is determinative of each person. All of this is to say hardly more than the now popular truism that we are irreducibly relational beings. What I want to add is that relational constitution is thoroughly genealogical and thus sexual, and, Scripturally speaking, for the sake of God’s advent in Christ.
Sexuality, then, is more and less than a fixed state we all possess intrinsically. It is less because it is more transitory than any sexual ‘ideal’– whether that ideal is stated on either side of the objectivist, foundationalist coin (e.g. between biological objectification or sexual orientation). But this transitory character also makes sexuality more real. It is more because it changes as death makes its mark; we are not in the same sexual state which defined us as children.
A major faux pas of contemporary discussions surrounding sexuality is that, in addition to reducing sexuality’s meaning to mere impulse and affective self-expression, it has been the specifically adolescent sexual experience that has been valorized and eternalized. This should be no surprise in a society which prizes ‘youthfulness’– youthful bodies, especially– above the time-worn wisdom of aging and the grace of dying well. But no matter how much we fight it, sexuality continues to bear the characteristics of mortality’s unyielding corporeality– the contingencies of birth, growth, change, relationships, and death. Thus, the sexual shape of our lives– the form given to them by God– is determined amidst death. In contemporary terms, Biblical sexuality is not essentialist in the positivist sense. Still, it is shaped– with much grace, amidst sinful opposition– by the given form of genealogy, by the “garments of skins” which mark the God-given way of being human.
In Christ, God takes on this human shape or form (Phil 2:7), which is His taking on of “flesh” (Jn 1:14). The genealogical figure given to humanity in Genesis 3 and 4 results in the birth of the Son of God, Eve’s “seed” who overcomes Satan. The advent of Christ reveals that the purpose of God’s genealogical ordering of human life– i.e., His gift of garments of skins– was to bring Christ into the world; in this sense, Christ is the fullness of humanity– its teleological end and beginning: e.g., “what has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (Jn 1:4). If this is the case, then it is within our mortal and sexual lives that Christ is revealed, rather than in the escaping of precisely this existential shaping. The incarnation of Christ is the emphatic affirmation and revelation, not only of God-as-such, but also of the truth of our lives, which are made reciprocally revelatory of God by the grace of the Spirit who makes us witnesses of Christ. Therefore, what is at stake for sexuality is whether and how the Gospel of Jesus Christ is able to take root in the particularities of our lived condition, which is the soil of our growth in godliness and the shape of our witness.
It must be said, however, that the New Testament presentation of Christ’s genealogical advent is not entirely without difficulty. Yes, He is born of a virgin, but he is also born of a virgin. There are also two difficult to understand scenes in the life of Jesus: 1. the “who is my family?” episode which seems to demote His literal kin, and 2. the teaching that there will be no marriage in heaven. Further complicating the specifically Christian understanding of sexuality is the strong– if somewhat caricatured– tradition that saw sexual difference (male and female) as a concession of God to the ensuing Fall. That great Greek Father, St Gregory of Nyssa, championed this understanding. He saw the “garments of skins” as the very condition of Fallenness, rather than grace. Nyssa understood the imago Dei as a fundamental androgyny. According to this logic, marriage will not occur in heaven because maleness and femaleness will no longer exist as a fundamental differentiating aspect of persons. The virgin birth serves to sever Christ from His genealogy, rather than emphasize it– to transcend genealogy altogether. These are deep and admirable challenges to what I have laid out here.
By my reading, whatever the virgin birth means, it cannot serve to sever Christ from His genealogical advent. Otherwise, why would the Gospels of Matthew and Luke emphasize this genealogy as a fundamental logic for their presentation of Christ? Far from down-grading Christ’s ancestry, it serves to place Him squarely within the genealogy that is Israel. And of course, the purpose of the genealogical connection is the identity of Jesus with Eve’s seed. The virgin birth does not even sever the genealogical ties between Jesus and Joseph. Luke’s account traces through Joseph, making the earthly father of Christ genealogically essential (though not biologically, which is an interesting and difficult point. Nevertheless, there is certainly a figural connection).
These Scriptural difficulties are far from dealt with here, and I’m not sure they can be easily dealt with at all. However, the whole of the Biblical witness, which appears to be fundamentally genealogical in its narrative presentation of created reality, is culminated in, rather than overthrown by, the advent of Christ. Christ comes into our midst through the means of what we can call ordinary human life– the life of birth, growth, decay, and death. It is the life of relational burden and the gift of friendship. It is the irreducibly human life that He sanctifies in His very flesh. Wherever we fall on the issue of human sexuality and how it relates to marriage in our contemporary context, it is crucial to remember and reaffirm that the Bible is very much concerned with sexuality. And this is so because the Bible is determined to present humanity as made in God’s image, for His glory, persisting genealogically as a corporate, anticipatory vitality, which is the life given in baptism, the life of the Spirit.