Sexual Ethics and the Trinity: A Follow-Up

Yesterday’s post on Sexual Ethics and the Trinity was mostly very well received (for which I am grateful). But I did get some criticisms, which I’d like to try to respond to. (I suppose it’s inevitable, when you try to push the conversation in a very different direction, that some readers will not understand where you are going.)

Social and religious context

Why did I write this in the first place? What problem was I trying to address?

In the last 40 years, western culture has gone through a profound shift in its understanding of marriage, human sexuality, and procreation.

This shift has also affected Christians in various ways. In the Catholic Church, contraception, remarriage after divorce, and same-sex unions remain contrary to Church teaching, but this teaching does not receive anything like universal assent in the pews. In other Christian communions, there have been divisive debates about a variety of issues in sexual ethics, with varying levels of official acceptance of changing attitudes toward sexual ethics.

What I am (and am not) trying to accomplish

I am an orthodox Catholic who embraces the Church’s teaching on sexual ethics. I am concerned with the climate in which Catholic teaching on contraception, divorce, same-sex marriage, and a number of related issues has become unintelligible. I am not, however, trying to defend any particular rule the the Church has made on sexual ethics here. Instead, I am trying to suggest an alternative way of thinking about marriage and sexual ethics as a whole. So if you think I have failed to provide a convincing argument for a particular rule, you are right. I haven’t even tried to do so.

Blog post vs. theological treatise

In an effort to make a succinct statement of where I was going with my previous post, I began with the words, “God reveals Himself primarily as Father.” This confused some readers.

Here’s what I was trying to say. The New Testament refers to God using a variety of images. In my previous post, I focused on just two of those images. First, the image of fatherhood: Jesus refers to God as His Father, and invites us to refer to Him as Our Father. Second the marital image: Jesus refers to Himself as the Bridegroom, and to the Church as His Bride.

If I had been writing a theological treatise on the Trinity, I would have spoken more carefully about God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit. Since I was trying to write a (relatively) short blog post, I did not use this Trinitarian language, and some readers thought that this reflected confusion on my part.

In more precise language, what I meant by “God reveals Himself primarily as Father,” is this: in the New Testament, Jesus uses the image of fatherhood as the primary image for revealing our relationship with God. In particular, He uses it more frequently than He uses the marital image.

Another concern: Some readers were confused about why I would write a post titled “Sexual Ethics and the Trinity,” and say nothing about the Holy Spirit. Yes, the Holy Spirit is a member of the Trinity. But I wanted to focus on the importance of the relationship between the Father and Son for thinking about human procreation and parenthood. I didn’t see how discussing the Holy Spirit fit into that particular point (especially in a short blog post), so, I didn’t mention Him.

The problem of analogy

One reader, a seminary professor, wrote:

While there are analogies between the way that God is Father and the way that human beings can be fathers, there are significant differences as well. For example, God’s Fatherhood is essential and eternal, and Father and Son share one essential Nature with one will, one intellect. The Son is to the Father as the Word or intellect is to human intentionality, and the Spirit is to the Father as love or will is to human intentionality. The Son as a person receives his Being as an eternal procession from the Father, and the Spirit receives his Being as an eternal procession of the love between Father and Son. All three of the persons exist only as they are in relational unity with the other two persons, either as processor, as processing and processed, or as processed but not processing.

The differences with human Fatherhood are significant. Human fatherhood is a matter of will, not essential being. Human sons are both temporally and ontologically separate beings from their fathers. Human fathers proceed their sons temporally. Human sonship is not possible without participation of a human mother, from whom human children literally proceed, etc.

All of this is true. It is also true that, while there are analogies between the way that Christ is Bridegroom and the way that human beings can be bridegroom, there are significant differences as well. (I could also point out that the Divine intellect is only analogically related to human intellect, and make a similar point about will and all of the other terms that this professor uses to discuss the Persons of the Trinity and their relations.)

Any term that we use to describe human loves can only apply analogically to divine love. However, both the image of fatherhood and the marital image are New Testament images. If we are to think about God at all, we have think about Him through analogies, and I am trying to think using the analogies handed down to us by the authors of the New Testament.

So, yes, the image of fatherhood gives us only a limited and analogical connection between God’s Fatherhood and human fatherhood. But the marital image, which many, many pastors and theologians invoke when trying to think about how Christians should respond to the sexual revolution, is similarly limited.

For example, Christ’s union with the Church is not, I presume, consummated in a physical act of coitus. But we Christians in the post-sexual-revolution west are trying to use this image to help us understand what to do about sex.

I think this reflection on the marital image is useful and fruitful.

However, I am suggesting that reflection on the image of fatherhood is, potentially, even more useful and more fruitful. God the Father does not eternally beget the Son through an act of coitus, either. However, since this is the act by which human beings become fathers (and mothers), God’s Fatherhood should be a helpful image for us to think about when we are trying to understand the meaning of this human act.

Conclusion

Both the marital image and the image of Fatherhood are, I believe, relevant for Christians trying to think their way out of the challenges created by the sexual revolution. However, the New Testament uses the image of fatherhood far, far more frequently than it uses the marital image. On the other hand, at the present time, it seems to me that Christians spend far more time thinking about the marital image.

There is no way, in two short blog posts, to work out all of the implications of taking the image of fatherhood seriously in thinking through the challenges created by the sexual revolution. But I hope that I have been able to convince you that the image of fatherhood has something to contribute to that discussion, and to invite further discussion and reflection.

Ron BelgauRon Belgau is completing a PhD in Philosophy, and teaches medical ethics, philosophy of the human person, ethics, and philosophy of religion. He can be followed on Twitter: @RonBelgau.

2 thoughts on “Sexual Ethics and the Trinity: A Follow-Up

  1. Pingback: Sexual Ethics and the Trinity | Spiritual Friendship

  2. Pingback: Love, Covenant, and Friendship | Spiritual Friendship

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