(The following post is from a friend and avid reader who wants to remain anonymous. We asked him to write up some book reviews for our blog. This is his second installment.)
Sex and the Supremacy of Christ, published in 2005 by Crossway, is a collection of 11 essays written by 10 authors (John Piper, Ben Patterson, David Powlison). The book is divided into five parts: (1) God and Sex (2) Sin and Sex (3) Men and Sex (4) Women and Sex (5) History and Sex.
The content of the book came from talks given at the 2004 Desiring God National Conference. With many of the authors holding a PhD in theology, it should not be surprising that the writing is far more theological, erudite, and intellectual than that of books such as The Purity Principle or Sex Isn’t The Problem. Similarly, with 10 different authors, it is not surprising that the book discusses a wide range of topics in various styles.
The content is written from a decidedly evangelical Reformed perspective. The aim of the authors is to lay a coherent and wide-ranging theological framework with which to think about sexuality in the 21st century.
A Theology of Sex
Perhaps the greatest strength of Sex and the Supremacy of Christ is its thoroughly scriptural and theological framework. On the first two full pages of the book, I counted over 20 Scripture citations. Unlike other books on purity, Sex and the Supremacy of Christ goes far beyond proof-texting and develops a framework for thinking about sexuality. The authors speak at considerable length about sexuality and the union between a man and a woman as being designed to point toward the union of Christ and the church. For example, in the introductory chapter, a subsection entitled “Sex is a Pointer to, Not a Substitute for, God” (15). Similarly, on the first full page of the opening chapter, John Piper writes,
“I have two simple and weighty points to make. I think everything in this book will be the explanation and application of these two points. The first is that sexuality is designed by God as a way to know God in Christ more fully. The second [point] is that knowing God in Christ more fully is designed as a way of guarding and guiding our sexuality” (26).
Where The Purity Principle makes an appeal to self-interest (see previous post), Sex and the Supremacy of Christ makes an appeal to our ability to know and understand God. “All misuses of our sexuality…distort the true knowledge of God” (30).
More “progressive” Christians are likely to level criticism at the authors’ advocacy for a traditional view about the relationship between men and women. Although the authors do not dedicate an entire chapter to the relationship between men and women, the thoughts of the writers on this controversial topic are not difficult to discern. For a better understanding of the authors’ thoughts on gender, see John Piper’s Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and What’s the Difference?: Manhood and Womanhood Defined According to the Bible. Similarly, Carolyn Mahaney wrote Feminine Appeal and Carolyn McCulley wrote Radical Womanhood: Feminine Faith in a Feminist World.
A Pro-Sex Book
A second strength of the book is its radically positive view toward sexuality. The third chapter, entitled “The Goodness of Sex and the Glory of God” by Ben Patterson, is a poignant and theologically-rooted argument for the inherent goodness of sexuality. Drawing on the account of creation, the goodness of God, the redemption of the Gospel, and the purpose of sexuality, Patterson makes the impassioned case that C.S. Lewis made long ago: Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with sexual immorality when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased (paraphrased from C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory). Patterson writes,
“What are the theological foundations for this celebration of sex—and what does it have to do with the glory of God? The gigantic secret of the joy of sex is this: sex is good because the God who created sex is good. And God is glorified greatly when we receive his gift with thanksgiving and enjoy it the way he meant for it to be enjoyed. The reason we like sex so much is that it is a little bit like the God who created it. Therefore, the more sex is enjoyed in ways redolent of its creator, the better sex is for all involved” (55).
Still, even with this positive view of sex expressed throughout the book, the biggest criticism leveled against the book by Christians is likely to be the charge that it is legalistic and restrictive on some points. For example, the chapter entitled “Sex and the Single Man,” written by four men at Capital Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC, warns that “physical intimacy with a woman—at any level—to whom one is not married is potentially fraudulent, dangerous, and just as unacceptable for a man prior to marriage as it is after marriage” (142). (In the interest of full disclosure, I must say that I attended Capital Hill Baptist Church and found it to be a relationally strong, theologically deep, and gospel-driven church. I have nothing but respect for these men, especially Dr. Dever). Although these points are rooted in the book’s “theology of sex,” which maintains that any expression of sexuality between a man and women is strictly for marriage, one must wonder whether this is not a recipe for sexual repression and guilt that impugns the lofty talk of sexuality. Is there not some level at which expressions of intimacy are acceptable in a growing relationship? I’ll leave this to the reader to decide.
A Holistic Approach
A third strength of Sex and the Supremacy of Christ is its holistic focus, which manifests itself in two respects. First, the books covers a litany of topics ranging from sexual addiction recovery to homosexuality and the influence of Martin Luther’s marriage on sexuality to practical tips for improving the process of dating. Second, David Powlison’s chapter entitled “Making All Things New: Restoring Pure Joy to the Sexually Broken” is one of the best 40 pages on understanding and recovering from sexual brokenness I have ever read. Based in Plowison’s extensive counseling work, the chapter sheds tremendous light on a myriad of forms of sexual brokenness, including some seemingly benign beliefs that are often overlooked (or subtly encouraged) by Christians.