Beauty, Order, and Mystery: A Christian Vision of Human SexualityWritten by Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson, eds. Reviewed By Sam Allberry
Scripture urges us to “taste and see that the LORD is good!” (Ps 34:8). Our God is not just mighty, he is not just true—he is good, and this goodness can and should be tasted by the people he has made. The world around us can only offer flavorless gruel. Only God can truly excite the taste-buds of our soul.
When it comes to the issue of human sexuality, Psalm 34 might suggest to us that merely demonstrating what the Bible says about marriage, sexuality, and gender while necessary is not sufficient. We need in this area of life—as with all others—to show the beauty of God’s ways. Increasingly today people are not going to care if our words are true if they don’t believe they are good.
So this volume from the Center for Pastor Theologians (CPT) is very welcome indeed. It draws on presentations given at the CPT 2016 annual conference and aims to present a theological vision of faithful human sexuality for the church today. Given its genesis in the CPT, it combines academic insights with practical and ground-level application. It is, consequently, neither an academic tome nor a popular level introduction; rather, it successfully occupies a halfway space between the two. As such it is well-suited to pastors and thinking lay Christians, and especially to those thinking through the challenging issues of human sexuality in the church today who are happy to delve a little deeper but might not have any formal theological training.
Despite its various contributors and the wide range of subjects covered, the book’s common basis is “the historical Christian consensus on sexuality,” including “the significance of biological sexuality” and of the theological importance of our having been made male and female (p. 3). The book’s title indicates something of the vision it offers—that human sexuality evidences beauty, order, and mystery.
In this respect the book is largely successful. In today’s context, it is common for treatments of human sexuality to major on the negatives; that is, upon the biblical prohibitions and the ways in which our culture has drifted further and further away from a Scriptural framework in how it thinks about issues of marriage, sexual ethics, and gender identity. This is a necessary part of being faithful to the biblical witness, and the book does not shy away from this. Wesley Hill’s essay in particular is a model of careful, critical engagement with the likes of “affirming” thinkers such Robert Song, James Brownson, and Eugene Rogers, and offers a sparkling exposition of Jesus’s teaching on marriage and sexuality in Matthew 19.
But the overall thrust of the book is to help us both to think through and to communicate a positive message of human sexuality. As Todd Wilson points out, this is an urgent missional task for the church today. We need to be “not just convinced of the truth” but “ravished by the beauty” of this biblical vision (p. 18). Wilson summarizes this vision as “mere sexuality,” something he has gone on to expound more fully in his excellent book, Mere Sexuality: Rediscovering the Christian Vision of Sexuality (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017).
Elements of this vision include our creation as male and female, and our embodied humanity. As well as affirming these elements the book also takes care to account for the various ways in which life in a fallen world has taken its toll on all of us. There are careful treatments of gender dysphoria, transgenderism, and of unwanted same-sex attraction. This is perhaps where the book is most helpful, and where its origins in a gathering of pastor-theologians is most valuable. The theology is scholarly and insightful, as one would expect and require from those with one foot in the academy, but also pastorally applied, as one would expect and require from having the other foot in the life of the local church. One senses that the authors have encountered the issues about which they write, not just in books but in flesh and blood pastoral encounters. It is one thing to deal with, say, transgenderism in the abstract; quite another to deal well with someone on the church doorstep. Throughout this book is earthed and applied.
Another strength of the book, which comes from the diversity of the contributions, is that it pulls together doctrines which are not normally deployed in our consideration of human sexuality. For example, in his essay, “The Wounded It Heals: Gender Dysphoria and the Resurrection of the Body” (ch. 10), Matthew Mason does a sterling job of showing how our future resurrection brings to full fruition in us the original creation design.
There are, of course, more areas the book could have usefully addressed. Not much reflection is given to the issue of nomenclature, especially to the treatment by some evangelicals of sexual orientation as a matter of ontology—an issue which has become urgent especially in the US church over recent months.
On the whole, this is a very helpful book, and I found fresh insight in virtually every chapter. It deserves to be on the shelf of every pastor. I look forward to more volumes of this standard coming from the Center.
Ravi Zacharias International Ministries
Oxford, England, UK