Author: Todd A. Wilson
Publish Date: October 3, 2017
Pages: 192 pages (Paperback)
Sometime around the year 401 AD, Augustine wrote two books in which he argued that virginity is superior to marriage. He was writing in response to a rogue heretic monk named Jovinian. Jovinian taught that Christian virgins, widows, and married people were all equal in merit because they had been washed in Christ in the same waters of baptism. Furthermore, once they were baptized, both married and virgins alike were permanently saved and would one day enjoy the same reward in the kingdom of heaven. Because of this grace of God, irrespective of merit, there is no difference between abstinence and fasting, provided that it is received in thanksgiving. With these bold claims, Jovinian called into question the ascetic, monastic tradition of the church.
If this sounds Reformation-ish to you, you’re not alone. John Henry Newman, in the heat of his polemics against the Protestantism he had abandoned, once called Jovinian “the Calvin of the fourth century.”1 He did not mean it as a compliment.
But Jovinian’s views were universally condemned. Augustine’s rejection was mild compared to the scathing attack of Jerome who called him “The Epicurus of the Christians”2 and accused him of copulating in the bushes with Dionysian abandon. Because of his beliefs, Jovinian was flogged and exiled.
I tell this story because it raises a serious question about whether the church has had a consistent and coherent sexual ethic throughout its history. For Protestants, the answer is no. We are Jovinians. For all the continuity between Augustine and Luther and Calvin, we Protestants went with Jovinian by rejecting the hierarchy of celibacy over marriage. We went with Jovinian by grounding our sexuality not in ascetic rigor but in our baptismal identity. And we even went a step further by downgrading marriage from a sacrament to a civil institution; as a result, we paved the way for the civil understanding of marriage which currently dominates North American discourse. As Luther himself wrote, “ should be left to the lawyers and made subject to the secular government.”3
So, it comes as a surprise to read Todd Wilson’s new book Mere Sexuality in which he argues (from an evangelical perspective) for the very uniformity of the Christian tradition that the story of Jovinian calls into question. It needs to be said appreciatively at the outset that Wilson has packed a lot into a short book. He tackles sexual difference, gender complementarity, a multifaceted definition of marriage and the uses of sex, a discussion on friendship and celibacy, and a challenging call to reclaim eschatological patience as a theological virtue. (There is even an appendix on sexual abuse, written by Joel Willitts, which is so good that it is worth reading on its own.)
As Wilson traverses this wide terrain, he appeals to the tradition of the church, citing Alasdair MacIntyre’s definition of a living tradition as “an historically extended, socially embodied argument” (36-37). The “mere” in the title is a reference to C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, or, as Lewis put it, “what virtually all Christians everywhere have always believed” (34). Wilson plays on this with his title Mere Sexuality to describe a kind of bare-bones, universally-agreed-upon Christian sexual ethic that the church has held at all times and in all places. But, as Lewis once wrote in The Four Loves, “Mere is always a dangerous word.”4 And if the story of Jovinian is any warning, we should be careful not to claim false historical uniformity where it does not exist.
What exactly is “mere sexuality?” Wilson defines it as “the themes that have characterized the Christian vision of sexuality down through the ages” (34). He is forced to acknowledge that “there is real diversity and even divergence within the church’s tradition,” which leads him to seek out a central conviction that is non-negotiable, “at the heart of mere sexuality” (35). What is the core of the church’s teaching on sexuality? Wilson’s answer to that question says more about the current preoccupations of North American evangelicalism than it does about the broad history of the church. For Wilson, the “heart of mere sexuality…is the belief that sexual difference, being male and female, is both theologically and morally significant” (35). As the book progresses, it becomes clear that gender complementarity, as it is defined by contemporary North American conservative evangelicals, is Wilson’s foundation for a theology of sexuality.
There are two problems with this assertion. First, it is not clear to me that contemporary evangelical gender complementarity is the heart of the church’s teaching on sexuality. Even in scripture, it is often not the central theme. The sexual ethic of Leviticus is carved out between clean and unclean, holy and unholy. The sexual ethic of Proverbs bounces back and forth between wisdom and folly, faithfulness and adultery. The sexual ethic of I Corinthians is built on a theology of the “body-as-a-temple” belief. The sexual ethic of Jesus in Mark 10 is framed within his larger call to take up our crosses and follow him. Turning to examples within the tradition once again, gender complementarity does not float to the top as the key to everything. If anything, the church has been more preoccupied with two other complementarities: the two vocations of marriage and celibacy, in their interrelatedness and their uniqueness, and the messy relationship between divine desire and erotic love.5 I would argue that these complementarities occupy a more central place in the tradition than gender complementarity as an isolated concept.
And this isolation is itself the second problem. As soon as gender complementary is argued for its own sake, on the grounds of biology as a source of authority, things go off the rails. For Wilson (as it is for many evangelicals), gender complementarity is the last stand of the church against the sexual revolution. It has become a kind of Alamo or Helm’s Deep. And as evangelicals have clung to the “gender-complementary-as defined-by-biology” belief, they have unwittingly painted themselves into a corner. In the second part of this book review, I will explore the problems with isolating biological gender complementarity and offer a suggestion for a different way forward.
John Henry Newman, The Works of Cardinal Newman: Historical Sketches (London, UK: Longmans, Green, and Co.), 1914, 1:409. ↩
Jerome, Against Jovinianus, I.1. ↩
Martin Luther, Luthers’s Works (St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 1968), 21:93. ↩
C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (London: Fontana Books, 1963), 8. ↩
The church has been particularly captivated by the relationship between divine desire and erotic love. See Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Ephrem the Syrian, Bernard of Clairvaux, John of the Cross, John Donne, and Sarah Coakley, to name a few. ↩