What Is The Meaning of Sex?

December 31, 2013 — 1 Comment

9781433536090

Denny Burk, What Is The Meaning of Sex? Wheaton: Crossway, October, 2013. 262 pp. Paperback, $17.99.

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Thanks to Crossway for the review copy!

Denny Burk is associate professor of biblical studies at Boyce College, which is the undergraduate arm of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also an associate pastor at Kenwood Baptist Church, edits the Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, speaks on gender and sexuality (among other things), and blogs frequently.

In a kind of culmination of all those activities, Burk has written a book on the meaning, or purpose, of sex. Think of it as a kind of theology/philosophy of sex. Certainly this is a combination most would scratch their heads at, and this my friends is part of what’s wrong with our culture.

As Burk explains in his preface,

This book is an attempt to show from the Bible what the meaning of sex is and thereby how we ought to order our sexual lives under God. Having said that, it will be useful to set forth some parameters about what this book is and what it is not (12).

Those parameters, are as follows:

  • This book is a primer (not a comprehensive treatment, but “enough interaction with the sources to give the reader a basic idea of how the issues are being discussed and enough principles to guide the reader to make sound ethical judgments about the issues covered” 13)
  • This book is biblical (“not philosophical” as Burk says, though I’ve already called it philosophical. We’re both right since Burk means he is not interacting with actual philosophical arguments, and I’m right because he is having a second order conversation about the nature and purpose of sex, which though based on Scripture, is a kind of philosophical discourse)
  • This is a book for sinners (this is kind of self-explanatory. Burk doesn’t claim to have sexuality figured out and mastered. He does however hope to explain from Scripture what our sexuality is all about, and though he is just one sinner talking to another, he is hopefully doing so in the light of Scripture, instead of groping in the dark)

With all that in mind, the introduction begins with a vignette that explains some of the motivation behind the book. I had actually already read this from an ETS paper Burk delivered last year (2012) and the challenge of intersex (people who are born with a biological condition making it difficult to determine their sex, and who typically have corrective surgery, but can often later feel the wrong choice was made). The incident in question prompted Burk to dig deeper into the telos of sex itself, and the result is the book in question.

The initial question is the title of the book: “What is the meaning of sex?” This leads to a discussion of ethical theories to determine the purpose. Burk opts for a nice blended approach and mentions Frame’s triperspectivalism in a footnote so he gets mega-bonus points. Using this blended approach and Scripture, Burk identifies the ultimate purpose of sex as “the glory of God,” but then lists four subordinate purposes of sex, whereby it will ultimately glorify God:

  • Consummation of marriage
  • Procreation
  • Expression of love
  • Pleasure

These of course are not mutually exclusive but work together in tandem. You could say that the biblical ideal is that sex would glorify God by being the consummate expression of love in a marriage that brings pleasure to both parties and overflows into the procreation of new life. Anything less than that is intentionally less than that is not glorifying God to the fullest extent.

Because we live in a less than ideal world and have a less than ideal culture, most people do not think of sex this way (much less as a picture of the mutual indwelling of the persons of the Trinity, but that’s another story). To unpack his identified purpose of sex, Burk spends chapter 1 in 1 Corinthians, and explains how the individual can glorify God with his or her body. Chapter 2 is a kind of aside, though an important one, concerning how we read the New Testament. His main argument is that we should not pit Jesus against Paul, and he draws several examples from popular culture of people doing just that. Burk explains an alternate route, which amounts to a more sound hermeneutical approach.

These first two chapters then buttress the topics covered in chapters 3-8. You can if you like, read these chapters in order of interest (that’s what I did). Chapter 3-5 deal with marriage, conjugal union (married sex as most people would say), and family planning. Readers will find much better biblical advice and sound teaching here than in say Real Marriage (which is a real waste of a book), which is pretty good since this isn’t a marriage book per se. However, Burk covers sex within marriage, divorce, and the wise use of birth control, and I found much helpful advice.

Chapters 6 and 7 are where things get controversial. And by that I mean, you can see why Rachel Held Evans didn’t blurb the book, and why this might get classified as “hate speech” in the wider culture. In chapter 6, Burk takes the complementarian stance he is well-known for, and deals with both traditional gender roles, as well as how to address questions linked with transgender and intersex. 1 In chapter 7, Burk discusses sexuality, and gives a biblical defense of the sinfulness of homosexual acts (via Romans and 1 Corinthians), noting that even commentators who do not agree with the ethical position, do agree that it is what Paul means. I think it would have been more helpful to distinguish between same sex attraction and homosexual orientation versus living the homosexual lifestyle. The latter is overtly sinful according to Scripture, but the former falls into the same category as inappropriate heterosexual lust. Which is to say, it is still wrong to have sexual thought about someone not your spouse, but you could live a single, chaste life as a committed Christian who experiences same-sex attraction, but could not do the same as someone who lives the gay lifestyle. You can glorify God with your body/gender/sexuality in the midst of living with same-sex attractions, but you cannot glorify God by living in the midst of the gay lifestyle, even a committed monogamous gay relationship. Burk I think would agree with all of this, but it could have been spelled out a bit better in his treatment.Overall though, I think it is better to frame it the way he does though, that is, the question rests more on what is glorifying to God, not on condemning certain variants as sinful.

The final chapter is on glorifying God in your singleness, and I’m glad Burk included it in his book instead of just ending with sexuality. In the end, the book is well designed in that Burk introduces the problem when it comes to thinking theologically about intersex, but then spends an introduction and 5 chapters talking about more foundational issues before coming back to it, and only deals with the question of homosexuality in the second to last chapter. This I think is an important lesson for the conversations need to go. We don’t start with the discussion of homosexuality, we start with God’s design and intentions for sex and marriage. Once those are spelled out, we are ready to discuss the other issues. In the absence of a solid, biblical framework for dealing with those questions, we are bound to be driven about by every wind of bad doctrine and sloppy thinking. If you want to think biblically about sex from the ground up, then pick up Burk’s book and give it a read.

Notes:

  1. the difference between these is that the former is a person who feels the actual way they were born is “wrong” and that they are really the opposite sex. The latter is someone who is born with ambiguous genitalia, has an operation to go with one gender, and later feels the wrong choice was made (and in some cases, it can be chromosomally proven that that is the case)

Nate

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I’m an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let’s connect!

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