Some time back I wrote an article called “Run for your life” found where I warned of a very troubling concept found in a book by Ann Voskamp, namely to think of our union with God in sexual terms. For many days afterwards I was bombarded with hostile personal attacks in the comments, many of which I had to delete, and yet, no one was able to say that I had misunderstood the author’s words or taken them out of context in any way at all. Anyway, regarding this, here’s a question I received today (edited slightly):
Pastor Samson, I am in absolutely disagreement with Ann Voskamp’s book; but now I have a question, that I am not finding “easy” to answer. Ann has posted a sort of a response to criticisms she has received, in which she quotes men like John Piper, C.H. Spurgeon and Jonathan Edwards, using the “same kind” of metaphor that she used. I find this very dangerous because many Reformed women now are feeling “safe” about following her lead. That is why I want to be ready to give them an answer. What are your thoughts? Would you consider writing a post explaining what Edwards and Spurgeon meant when they used these words? Thank you.
Thanks for your question. I am not sure I could write with any degree of authority or certainty concerning what was in the minds of the men quoted when they wrote. God would know that for certain, but quite obviously, I do not.
I will say this though. A writer often uses hyperbole and every legitimate means to grab the attention of the reader and rightfully so. May God preserve us from boring writers! Because of this, we should always seek to believe the best of a writer until it is absolutely impossible than to see their words as crossing a theological boundary of heresy and blasphemy. I tend towards giving the benefit of the doubt to any author until I am absolutely forced by sheer weight NOT to do so. I would also hope that those who read my words would extend to me the same degree of courtesy.
Of course, though these men are very highly respected, their own writings would seek to remind all of us that neither any of them individually or all of them collectively are in any way infallible. Even the greatest teachers of the Church should be subject to the God breathed Scriptures and the boundaries of orthodoxy found there.
Regarding Jonathan Edwards’ statement: For Christ being united to the human nature, we have advantage for a more free and full enjoyment of him, than we could have had if he had remained only in the divine nature. So again, we being united to a divine person, as his members – can have a more intimate union and intercourse with God the Father. ~ Jonathan Edwards: the Excellency of Christ
I believe this to be merely a poor choice of words on Edwards part. I say this with all humility, for who am I to suggest that the great Edwards might have found a better word to use?
Yet I do so here, for the simple reason that while, of course, we have a wonderful intimacy with God in our union with Him, nowhere does Scripture refer to us having sexual intercourse with God the Father, and I feel absolutely sure Edwards would have affirmed that. All I have read of Edwards would affirm that, especially in that he does not go beyond these words here to more explicit sexual language or try to encourage his readers to view their relationship with Him by thinking of God in sexual terms.
Update: I feel that a comment made by “Stan” (in the fifth comment below) is well worth our consideration and so I am restating it here. He writes, “What we have here is a failure to communicate. When Jonathan Edwards wrote of “intercourse”, it didn’t occur to him that it would have the crass, purely sexual connotation we think of today (an indictment in itself of today’s moral decline). According to the dictionary (and as others have indicated), the first definition for the word, “intercourse”, is “dealings or communications between persons or groups.” In that perfectly normal sense, we do indeed have intercourse with God, and only someone twisted by today’s sexual mores would think otherwise… With the clear biblical sense that the Church is the Bride of Christ, that marriage is an image of the relationship of Christ with the Church, where “union” in the physical sense is a simplistic, crass parallel of the utter union between believer and Christ, to express it in terms of sex is of little use. That’s why Piper, in his statement, had the ellipsis in the quote. Using that simile (and, as you pointed out) was on the edge for him, so he intended it with caution. But today’s over-sexualized, over-indulged, adulterous, pornographic society is going to see things rather differently there, and that is where Ann Voskamp’s approach runs into real problems.”
Concerning the quote of C.H. Spurgeon: “Art thou, beloved one, with Christ Jesus? Does a vital union knit thee to Him? … Come, my soul, if thou art indeed His own beloved, thou canst not be far from Him. If His friends and His neighbours are called together to see His glory, what thinkest thou if thou art married to Him? Shalt thou be distant? Though it be a day of judgment, yet thou canst not be far from that heart which, having admitted angels into intimacy, has admitted thee into union. Has He not said to thee, O my soul, “I will betroth thee unto Me in righteousness, and in judgment, and in lovingkindness”? Have not His own lips said it, “I am married unto thee, and My delight is in thee”? If the angels, who are but friends and neighbours, shall be with Him, it is abundantly certain that His own beloved Hephzibah, in whom is all His delight, shall be near to Him, and sit at His right hand. Here is a morning star of hope for thee, of such exceeding brilliance, that it may well light up the darkest and most desolate experience.”
There is a vast chasm of difference between the vital truth of our present day holy union with Christ which is typified in the marriage relationship, and explicit sexual references regarding our walk with the Lord. As far as I can see, Spurgeon does not cross that line here.
Ezekiel 16:8-10, 32 is quoted “Yet you were naked and bare. Then I passed by you and saw you, and behold, you were at the time for love; so I spread My skirt over you and covered your nakedness I also swore to you and entered into a covenant with you so that you became Mine,” declares the Lord GOD. Then I bathed you with water, washed off your blood from you and anointed you with oil… 32?You adulteress wife, who takes strangers instead of her husband!“
Those in covenant relationship with God are united with Him in such a way that God is in fact “married” to them. To be unfaithful to God is likened to spiritual adultery. There’s no doubt of that. But to then say that we are to think, pray and walk with God, thinking of the Father our of our Lord in sexual terms and physical body parts… Scripture just does not go there or allow for that. This is the line that must be kept in view in all this.
The statement by Calvin: “God very commonly takes on the character of a husband to us. Indeed, the union by which he binds us to himself when he receives us into the bosom of the church is like sacred wedlock…“Therefore that joining together of head and members, that indwelling of Christ in our hearts—in short that mystical union—are accorded by us the highest degree of importance.” John Calvin ~ Institutes of Christian Religion
Again, as above with the Spurgeon quote, I don’t believe Calvin crosses the line.
Regarding Hosea 2:14-20 (ESV) – 14?Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her…16 ?And in that day, declares the LORD, you will call me ‘My Husband,’ and no longer will you call me ‘My Baal.’…19 And I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. 20 I will betroth you to me in faithfulness. And you shall know the LORD.
How exactly does God allure us? By speaking to us, tenderly drawing us ever closer with Himself to seek vital intimacy and union with Him.. but does He do this by alluring us with x-rated or r-rated descriptions of foreplay or genitalia? God forbid! Again, lets keep the Scriptural boundary line always in view, allowing for the vital union without the sexual connotations.
The quote of Piper: “Hosea 2:14-23 is one of the tenderest and most beautiful love songs in the Bible…But the most daring statement of all is the last one in verse 20: “And you shall know the Lord.” To see what this means recall the peculiar use of the word “know” in the Bible. For example, Genesis 4:1, “Adam knew Eve his wife and she conceived and bore Cain.” And Matthew 1:25, “Joseph knew her [Mary] not until she had borne a son.” In the context of a broken marriage being renewed with the fresh vows of betrothal must not the words, “and you shall know the Lord,” (v. 20) mean, you shall enjoy an intimacy like that of … intercourse. When the wife of harlotry returns to her husband, he will withhold nothing. He will not keep her at a distance. The fellowship and communion and profoundest union he will give to his prodigal wife when she comes home broken and empty.” ~ John Piper
Again, there is a HUGE difference between saying something is “like” that of intercourse, to saying it IS that of intercourse. John Piper is alive and well, thankfully, and I think if we were to ask him if he means that all Christians are to think of having sex with God, I don’t believe for one moment he would say “yes.”
I would also point out that the word for “know” in Hebrew “yada” can indeed be used the way Dr. Piper expresses it, but the word has a far larger semantic domain. It can also simply mean deep personal knowledge of a person that has nothing to do with sexuality. For instance, in Amos 3:2 God says of Israel, “you only have I known amongst all the nations.” The word “know” there has no sexual reference, but speaks of deep intimacy, even of a redemptive relationship, for God had a relationship with Israel in a special way, unlike other nations. There is no way the verse would be legitimately translated as “You only have I had sexual relations with.” That is not what is in view in any way at all. The NASB translates the word here as “chosen” – “you only have I chosen.”
I point this out to say that when there is a wide spectrum in a semantic domain (the way a word can be used) it is context that shows us the appropriate meaning.
The rest of the quotes seem to follow a similar pattern, and I feel I would simply be repeating myself to quote each one of them and respond here.
I hope that’s a help. God bless you, John