And so here is my final response to the issues surrounding the publication of Real Marriage. The fundamental issue here is hermeneutics — how do we read God’s Word, and more important contextually, how do we read God’s Word in the context of God’s world? This is actually an issue having to do with the intersection of natural revelation and special revelation.
My beginning assumption is that they are not two books in the library, which can somehow be checked out and read independently of one another. They are interlocking realities.
Calvin famously began the Institutes by saying that we cannot know God unless we know ourselves, and we cannot know ourselves apart from knowing God. We have a similar kind of thing with the relationship of special revelation and general revelation. I cannot understand general revelation apart from the grace of God brought to me through His Word — enough general revelation gets through so that I am “without excuse” for suppressing it, but unless the Spirit quickens me, I cannot read the world rightly. By the same token, I cannot get to the special revelation God has offered us except by routing it through natural revelation. How can I hear without a preacher? My Bible is outside me in just the same way that the starry heavens are, or the bowl of oranges in the kitchen. I must assume something about God’s reliability in the world to even pick up a Bible, or drive to an evangelistic meeting.
I must read the Word to read the world, and I must read the world to read the Word. This extends beyond natural phenomena like planets, spiders, oceans, and lawn crickets. It also includes fallen human culture, and all its tawdry sins. I cannot understand the culture apart from the Word, but I do not approach the Word from “nowhere.” I come to the Word with a particular set of cultural assumptions, some of which may be retained, and others which must be jettisoned. But if I had none of those assumptions, if I were a tabula rasa, this would not enable me to come in a pristine condition; it would prevent me from being able to come at all.
The grace of God is what happens when the Spirit straightens out all the dislocations that sin and evil have introduced. When He causes new life to spring into being in a man’s heart, He is in the process of restoring that man’s relationship to everything. God reconciles, not just man with God, but also heaven with earth, male with female, parents with children, man and animals, and man and the created order. In order to accomplish this sweeping set of reconciliations, it is absolutely necessary for man who has been put right with God to see how he needs to be put right with everything else. He cannot see this unless and until the Spirit enables him to read creation, read the other sex, read his children, read his history, and read his culture.
And this knowledge, this literacy, is not just something that comes to us as the end result of a chain of reasoning. Newborn infants know how to suck, and this not because they “figured it out.” They know this bodily. When Adam and Eve made love for the first time, this was not because they had passed the sex ed course. They hadn’t read a book on it. They knew what to do because their bodies were configured to know what to do. Sin freqently dislocates this kind of knowledge, but it does not eradicate it. When we are converted, and when we start to grow in grace, our dislocated forms of knowledge are gradually restored and put right.
“About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Heb. 5:11-14).
There are many things that can be said about this passage, but let me draw just a few things from it for now. The first is that discerning good from evil is a kingly act (one which Adam and Eve grasped for prematurely), and kings are those who have been given a gift for rule. Kings make decisions. They sort out; they adjudicate. Those who have not grown up to this, who are still on the milk rations, are not up to the task. People who claim to have kingly maturity before they actually do, legislate poorly.
Now those who are not up to the task can do one of two things. They can grasp for decision-making authority anyway, and this is where we get numerous petty legalisms. For example, people get drunk, so let’s ban drink. People live in fear of “it might lead to.” Well, sure, in the sense that enrolling in school leads to the possibility of poor grades, and getting married leads to the possibility of adultery.
But the other thing that they can do is refuse to budge. They take the dominion task that God assigned to us, and refuse to do anything with it — except perhaps to wrap it up in a napkin and bury it in the ground. The refusal to move away from “black letter” instructions is a refusal to grow up, a refusal to mature. And of course, the petty legalisms generated by the group in the previous paragraph gives this group plenty to point to as a cautionary tale. But the so-called liberties that this group can tumble into provide the legalist group with their own cautionary tales.
Legalists give application a bad name. Libertines give lack of application a bad name. They both lean against one another, and the only way out is to learn how to read culture like a grown-up. The only way out is to learn how to make the applications that the Holy Spirit is leading us to make.
This is why we should not want to ban, discourage, or prohibit anything except what God has expressly prohibited, along with anything which the Spirit of God is leading us to discourage as we make necessary applications from the Scriptures. A whole host of scriptural requirements requires us to be able to read the culture in which we are making those applications.
Honor all men (1 Pet. 2:17). How exactly? Standing up, saluting, bowing, what? Elders should have a good reputation with outsiders (1 Tim. 3:7). What does it take to accomplish that? Membership in the Chamber of Commerce? Wives are to be obedient to their husbands so that the way of God will not be blasphemed by outsiders (Tit. 2:5). What is that to look like to outsiders?
Women, dress yourselves modestly (1 Tim. 2:9). But how? We see that obedience to Scripture requires careful thought while shopping, while applying make-up, and while buying jewelry. A woman has to make decisions about modesty while sorting through a rack of dresses at Macy’s, and we may be confident that the apostle Paul never saw any one of those dresses in all his born days, or in any of his dreams, and would not know what to make of them if he did. The Bible tells women to dress a certain way, in order to achieve a certain effect, and tells them to do this without giving them a dress code. This means that obedience requires women to make decisions about their sexual attractiveness in their culture. Here is the principle — certain kinds of obedience cannot happen unless we learn how to go beyond Scripture. Women need to learn how to be attractive without attracting all and sundry, and they must do this without specific warrant from the Scriptures for any one of their particular decisions.
All these same realities apply to the marriage bed. For example, the apostle Paul says nothing about video-recording a marital sex act on your cell phone. This is because he wrote to the Ephesians, to the Galatians, and not to the Idiots. If he were writing to the Idiots, he might have felt constrained to mentioned it. Oh, no, you might reply, feeling a little stung by my insensitive use of the word Idiot with an upper case I, you are your wife are being “very careful.” Very careful. I see. So careful that when you both die in a car wreck nobody is going to go through your effects?
So in closing, this approach, an insistence on cultivating obedient cultural literacy, brings us back to the principle I discussed earlier.
“That every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honour; Not in the lust of concupiscence, even as the Gentiles which know not God” (1 Thess. 4:4-5).
In order to able to obey this, in order to make love not like they do, it is required that we be able to read what they are doing. And when we read what they are doing, and why, we are not reading it in the pages of the Bible. But we are doing something better — we are obeying the pages of the Bible.
If culture is the externalization of worship, and it is, then our worship of God in the twenty-first century is going to have a certain cultural embodiment. This is inescapable. We ought not to run away from it, and we must not grasp for the decision-making authority in it prematurely. How can we avoid these twin errors? The author of Hebrews says that it takes “constant practice.” That is our problem — we are afraid to practice this.