"Design" language and theologizing about embodiment topics

So, THE topic on Christian Twitter for the last two days has been this book chapter posted on The Gospel Coalition, by a pastor named Joshua Butler. It has generated signficant controversy. (reader discretion advised, there should be some trigger warnings for SA and misogyny survivors.)

What I want to talk about with my good people here and not on Twitter is how presuppositions about special creation affect the ways we speak theologically about topics related to embodiment.

The fundamental flaw in this piece is a failure to understand how metaphorical reasoning works and that we reason from embodied domains to abstract domains and not the other direction. Butler is trying to reason about “Christian sex,” moving from abstract theological ideas to very concrete embodied biological mechanics. The result is bad.

Normally when we are doing metaphorical reasoning and moving from body realms to spiritual realms, it really doesn’t matter what a person assumes about how the body realm came to be. Whether it was specially created or evolved doesn’t matter when it comes to using embodied experience to understand abstract things. BUT, if you try to go the other direction and understand biology in terms of theological metaphors, these assumptions about whether biological features are nature’s adaptations or prototypes based on God’s blueprints matters a lot.

I don’t have any problem with using design language to talk about love, marriage, relationship with God, humanity in general, or even abstractions like sexuality or attraction. But when people use design language to talk about the biological realities of sex, I feel like it is asserting a given (our bodies were specially created in a certain way) that we never agreed on.

From the book chapter linked above:

“Sex is iconic. It’s designed to point to greater things”
“God has designed sex to point beyond itself to greater things”
“The Beauty of Sex” (chapters 1–5), exploring not only what God has to say about sex but what sex is designed to say about God."
“God designed sex to reveal his love for us in technicolor.”
“Sex wasn’t designed to be your salvation but to point you to the One who is.”
“A husband and wife’s life of faithful love is designed to point to greater things, but so is their sexual union!”
“Our Creator has designed us, majestically and intentionally, with the ability to come together as one.”
“the one-flesh nature of our species’ design is a sign of something much more majestic: You were made to be united with God.”
“Sexual assault violates the safety, beauty, and faithfulness sex is designed for in marriage, turning the beautiful into something brutal, intimacy into invasion. Because sex is designed for something so powerful, its abuse can wield that much more damage.”
“They reveal that sex is designed for mutual selfgiving, characterized by generosity and hospitality.”

My discussion question is this: How do we have discussions in faith communities about embodied topics like sex (but it could be others like disability, illness, physical pain, rest, exercise/nutrition) and bring in theological ideas when we clearly share different assumptions about how our human bodies came to be the way they are? Do we humor the design assumptions and focus on the theological points? Is it even possible to find common ground on the theological points if you don’t initially agree on the design assumptions?


It’s not like procreation or even the human sexual geography/topography and mechanics are all that different from other primates or many other mammals. So how to we talk about sexuality-related topics in a way that doesn’t grant the premise that God gave men and women their different bits intentionally to teach them about Jesus and what God wants from male/female gender roles in society?


Christy, I’ll read this in the morning. I’ve ran across some of the views you described in a women’s Bible study last summer and almost lost it. Very publicly. I was absolutely taken off guard.
Thanks for bringing this to people’s attention.


Just know, I am working very, very hard to hold back emoting my revulsion at this piece and focus on your questions.

How do we have discussions in faith communities about embodied topics like sex and bring in theological ideas when we clearly share different assumptions about how our human bodies came to be the ways they are?

I think your points about how metaphorical reasoning works is a key to the discussion we might have. As you had pointed out, it’s an enormous problem in the book sample, and I think it is, no matter how one understands origins. I found much of the interpretation Butler employs nearly pornographic and certainly blasphemous. My reaction has nothing to do with special creation vs evolution.
In spite of Butler’s excesses (which are extreme) I think it is possible to talk about the values and limits of metaphors and how we use them to read (and alter how we read) texts. Design statements that Butler made strike me as new applications of metaphors that even the Puritan allegorical readings of Song of Songs wouldn’t approach.

When this kind of interpretative practice demonstrated itself at the Bible study last summer, I utterly failed at gracious anything. My reaction had nothing to do with misapplication of metaphor, but rather the self-righteous, exclusivist, unbiblical attitude about marital status that was being promoted — that being married is better/more important, because it pictures Christ’s relationship with the church. In this case, while the reasoning was painful, I think the majority of people there would be terrified by the idea of evolution, would have been able to argue biblically against the view being presented—if they could have thought past the constricts of the purity and BMW culture they have been steeped in.

You mentioned other example topics (illness, disability, pain, rest, etc) which forces me to think past this book. (Good!) I don’t think we can “fix” every interpretive difference that stem from differing understandings of human origins. Sometimes I would be looking more at the conclusions and what they do and don’t square with, what else has to be bent or ignored to make them work. If the conclusions are implying, for example, various classes of Christians, and “special classes” (I think that was the term that she employed), the conclusions are unscriptural. Period.

We can also talk about our inability to assign intepretation to things (why someone is born with or develops a disability, for example) that only Jesus is qualified to interpret.

You asked about finding common ground theologically.
I think it’s (usually/often) possible. However, it might depend on the topic as well as the church. Some topics have less theology riding on them than others.
It’s going to depend on the church or denomination as well. My “new” church understands a range of views, but relies on the WCF to underpin its teaching. There is not a lot of wiggle room in the WCF on a lot of things that would related ot human origins. So arguing backward from obviously wrong conclusions may have to be the workable approach.

I’m looking forward to reading more replies here. You’ve brought up an important topic.


I hesitate to say anything since I have no theological investment here. But on the face of it, shouldn’t we be careful not to divide up the various qualities of our humanity into domains assigned on the basis of a fairly arbitrary physical or psychic characteristic. At the very least we have to question the motivation for doing so and look at the advantages and disadvantages inherent in each assigned domain. In particular, what does the person proposing the assigned domains stand to gain by virtue of how it benefits himself?

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Thanks for this explanation – I had never thought much about the direction of a metaphor, whether abstraction was the beginning or the end, so that was helpful to think about.

I’m not on Twitter but I saw your Twitter thread linked on Dr. Camden Morgante’s most recent email newsletter, so that was neat!

Yes, this has been a problem in the American Evangelical ideologies that surrounded me all during my growing-up years. I don’t think anyone came right out and said explicitly that marriage was more spiritual than singleness (unless a single person becomes a missionary), but it would be difficult not to come to that conclusion.

I wonder if this is related to the degree of free will that a person/denomination believes in. If we really believe that every single thing or action that exists has been imbued from the beginning of time with deep spiritual significance at every turn, there will be (in this culture anyway) a long line of people ready and waiting to explain it to the rest of us. I sometimes wonder if some Christians in my tradition (me included) are afraid to enjoy or take pleasure in anything unless we can clearly explain and prooftext why it’s okay to do so. Maybe it’s our puritanical spiritual heritage, I don’t know. There is a place for guidelines and obedience, but also a place for simply thanking God for his gifts without making everything into a lesson. Otherwise we might be trying too hard to assign motives to God.


Christy, looking back over my reply earlier, I see I really didn’t approach your question the way you asked it. And every time I look at the text to look for details or examples, I see something worse than the time before. I’ll try again to engage with your questions.

I’m not sure what you mean here, Christy. Is the given you mention specific to human origins?

Regarding what I italicized: I think this is similar to the problem of natural theology, and will be hard to reconcile, if the “we” in your conversation group are convinced that natural theology is an effective apologetic model. Attempting to develop a proof that starts with nature (and here specifically human sexuality) and works back to a god, much less God’s design for sex as informative about Christ’s relationship to the church, seems like an inversion of metaphor, and even circular reasoning.
I’m far more willing to accept that the use of marriage metaphors in relation to biblical references to Christ’s relationship to the church (as a (ideal) husband’s (ideal) relationship to his (ideal) wife) were developed to possibly help Christians by faith better understand Christ’s relationship to the church. Sexuality was not designed to help us understand God through a metaphor. The metaphor (lens) was designed to help us view an idealized sexuality as a way to understand an aspect of God.

I think the part in bold is spot on. Many (if not all) of the metaphors Butler is using are commonly used to support views of female submission to male headship/leadership. Following Butler’s thinking that the metaphors, through which reality must be interpreted, reveal something about God’s design for women and men, a compliant reader will conclude that female/male gender roles as understood by the creators of the metaphors are reality.

Secular feminist theory frequently refers to “lenses” through which to view a “text”. The conceptual tool (a metaphorical lens) and the technique (the use of conceptual tools in interpretation) are openly acknowledged and evaluated for their ability to help examine “texts.” This is not the case with Butler. He states that sex is an icon through which to understand God, Christ and the church (probably all of reality), and then defines his lens as THE icon. Reading further in his text, I find his lenses suspect, but they are never presented as what they are – metaphors, subjective lenses used to examine a text in a particular (perhaps wrong) way. The way that supports his view on female submission to male headship and a wide variety of traditional (not necessarily Christian) views on female/male relationships.

His interpretation of rape and prostitiution are extreme examples of his subjectivity and ignorance presented as “reality” viewed through his view of “generosity and hospitality.”

Laura, I would not have thought of this, but I think you make a good point. He is certainly trying to force his subjective spiritualized interpetation of human sexuality on something that exists no matter how we understand it.

Good advice we don’t have any track record of following.



Especially if you have a pastor telling you that you can only understand deep mysteries of how Christ relates to the church through a certain married, man-as-agentive-woman-as-passive, kind of sex.

Plus, I just struggle with the whole idea that sex was “designed” for anything other than reproduction. That’s like saying our taste buds were designed for gourmet coffee. Well, just because they have some capabilities that we can harness to make our lives richer, doesn’t mean we have them for that reason, or that people who don’t drink gourmet coffee are failing at God’s divine plan for taste buds.


I love this. Definitely going to keep that in my pocket and throw it out in a women’s Bible study sometime. :wink:


LOL, it wasn’t a test so I won’t take off any points. You should definitely stop looking at that chapter. I don’t want to be complicit in inflicting harm or tainting your date nights for weeks to come.

Like when someone says God has designed sex to teach us things about God, they are asserting something that does not follow logically in my mind from the premise that sexual reproduction is an adaptation common in animals and there isn’t anything all that unique about the way humans reproduce. The ways we behave differently than animals sexually is more about sociology and psychology than biology, but this author was zoned in on the biology and mechanics, not things like attatchment or monogamy. The idea that God designed sex in order to teach us things does flow from a premise that everything about our biology is intelligently designed or specially created.

I guess in my mind there is an important difference between God saying, look, you are embodied beings and your sexuality is a convenient jumping off point for me to teach you some important things, so I am going to use it as a tool for explaining spiritual truth versus God saying, oh you noticed you have man parts, let me explain to you the deep spiritual significance of why I gave them to you.

I think you are right. It is the main point of contention with the whole ID crowd.


There is a lot of things that are very implicitly asserted. Some I think are probably so unconscious that author was unaware that other lenses (i.e. women’s, celibates, queer people of various identifications) even exist.

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Without getting into the weeds and stepping on a landmine, I would like to interject one thing from a safe altitude, I do think our social nature is representative of God’s nature.

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If you mean that we use our own experience as social creatures who have attachments, families, friends, lovers and enemies as a reference point to to understand more about God and how he relates to the world, I agree.

As someone who does not believe we as a species were intentionally created, I don’t see a reason to fit god into subjects like sex…. Like what does sex teach me about god…. Nothing. Neither does marriage, friendship or anything. Not even nature. What I see is reflections of something I learned about for from the Bible. But when god is good…. That means anything that is good could just suddenly be linked to god even though it’s not actually teaching us god is good.

Our personhood and its accompanying social nature is part of what the image of God in us is. The Godhead is ‘social’ in its nature.

Something which I am just beginning to appreciate is that the image of God in man and the invisible attributes of God in the world can overlap but are also distinct. Animal life can display social nature, so I wouldn’t see that as something specific to the image of God.

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I’m not sure I see how that’s different than seeing sex between two social creatures who are uniquely different (physically and emotionally) come together to be one as also a faint but true representation of God.

But it’s humanity, male and female that is created to image God, not marriage/sex, male and female that is created to image God.

It would seem without question that marriage is how the image can function as a representation of God in the world. It’s not the only way, as singleness is also a blessing for those with that gift. There are of course a diversity of gifts and functions.

I think this is totally off theologically to link marriage with some kind of “complete” image of God or with the Trinity. The Bible doesn’t do that, it uses marriage as an example of unity, the unity of the Godhead as an example for how to be unified in marriage, and the unity of marriage to talk about the unity of Christ and the church.


Who said complete?

The image of God functions as it was ordained in marriage. This is one legitimate function for it.

And yes there is a view looking forward to the marriage supper of the Lamb and the consummation of the age.