Toward a Critical Review of Robert Song’s Covenant and Calling

Toward a Critical Review of Robert Song’s Covenant and Calling May 27, 2016

Dr. Robert Song

My last blog summarized Robert Song’s provocative book, Covenant and Calling. As I previously said, Song’s argument is nuanced and clear, and it just might be one of the best affirming arguments I’ve read since James Brownson’s Bible, Sex, Gender. In any case, I do believe Song’s thesis runs into at least three problems.

First, Song argues that covenant partnerships can be sexual in nature, even though they shouldn’t be considered marriages. He also argues that covenant partnerships aren’t limited to same-sex couples, but include opposite-sex couples as well (pp. 51, 81, 84). My first pushback (to state the obvious) is: Does the Bible allow for sex outside of marriage? When two college students don’t want to get married, but want to pursue a “covenant partnership,” should the church sanction such a relationship?

Call me a prude, but I do believe that God designed sex for marriage, which I’ve written about elsewhere. I only raise these questions here because sex outside of marriage would be the logical outcome of Song’s view, and I’m a bit surprised that he never mentioned this. Are there any biblical arguments that human relations can be sexual—even as “covenant partners”—and not be marriages?

Second, and most significantly, Song assumes (and in some places argues) that all marriages should be oriented toward procreation. This doesn’t mean that every sexual act should aim to procreate, but every marital relationship should be open to procreation. This view isn’t novel, of course. It’s actually shared by several traditional scholars like Wesley Hill and Stephen Holmes, along with the bulk of church tradition. But I’m afraid I disagree with my non-affirming and affirming friends on this one.

While procreation appears to be one of the primary goods of marriage according to the Old Testament, we don’t see the same emphasis in the New. I’ve sometimes heard people say that procreation was so self-evident within Judaism that Christianity didn’t need to repeat the point. It was already assumed and accepted. But there are two problems with this line of reasoning.

First, most early Jewish writers who talked about sex and marriage often made the case for procreation. We see this especially in Josephus and Philo, but elsewhere among Jewish writings. If procreation was the assumed good of marriage, then why are Jewish writers still arguing for it in the first century? What’s striking is that some Jewish writings, such as Joseph and Aseneth, Jubilees (e.g. ch. 3), and Pseudo-Philo (50:1-5) seem to downplay the role of procreation in marriage. Not every Jew (or Christian) assumed that sex should be ordered toward procreation (See Loader, Sexuality, pp. 37-41)

The point is: if Jewish thinkers maintained the strict “marriage for procreation” motif found in the Old Testament, they argued for it. The New Testament doesn’t.

Also, some of the New Testament’s most thorough statements about marriage were written to a Greco-Roman audience (e.g. Eph 5; Col 3). And unlike Judaism (most branches, anyway), the Greco-Roman culture didn’t prioritize procreation. They were much closer to 21st century westerners than the patriarchs of the Middle Bronze era. If Paul wanted to school his audience in God’s intended goal for marriage and sex (namely, procreation) we would expect to see him do so. But again—he doesn’t. It’s striking, actually, that Jesus and Paul can talk extensively about marriage and never argue that procreation is a “good” of marriage (see e.g. Matt 19:1-10; Eph 5:22-33).

I remain unconvinced that the “marriage for procreation” argument is as strong of a biblical argument as Song assumes, even if it finds much resonance with the early church fathers.

My disagreement here is no small point. Song’s entire thesis rests on the claim that sexual relations should be divided into two categories: procreative and non-procreative. Marital relations are procreative and non-marital relations—regardless of gender—are non-procreative. But if procreation isn’t one of the goods that qualifies a marriage, then Song’s two-fold categorization starts to break down.

I would argue that God’s design for sex difference within marriage can’t be limited to just procreation, which brings me to my third criticism.

Song argues that the only reason why sex difference is necessary for marriage is because marriage is oriented toward procreation. Song devotes an entire chapter (ch. 3) to the logic of sex-difference and even explores all the reasons for sex-difference, including anatomical fittedness (the parts just fit), psychological complementarity (men are from Mars, women are from Venus), and Barth’s view of difference in encounter (or however he puts it). Song argues that each of these 3 options aren’t sufficient enough to prove that all relations must be between a male and female. For example, most men may be better map readers than women, but all it takes is a few women who are better map readers to show that these stereotypes aren’t universally true. Most men are taller than women, but most Swedish women are taller than Nepalese men.

I agree with Song that some of the proposed “men are from Mars and women from Venus” type arguments lack the universality to stand-alone. But there appears to be a cumulative kaleidoscope of difference—psychological, physical, physiological, social, emotional, neurological, and sexual differences between men and women, along with their procreative capacity—that are displayed in the creational sex-difference in the male-female pair.

Wow, that was a mouthful. Broke a lot of writing rules in that last line. Okay, here’s the skinny: I don’t think sex difference can be reduced to different well-functioning genitals. I think Song sets up a bit of a straw man by showing that each individual aspect of sex difference is too general to show why sex difference is necessary for marriage, other than the capacity to procreate. And it’s striking that in the biblical passages where sex difference in marriage is a main theme (Gen 2:18-25; Matt 19:3-6; 1 Cor 11:3; Eph 5:22-33), procreation is never mentioned.

Fourth, Song’s chapter on the biblical prohibitions of same-sex sexual relations (Lev 18:22; Rom 1:26-27, etc.) was underdeveloped and somewhat simplistic. I understand that working through these prohibition passages wasn’t his main point. But it’s a bit hard to argue for his thesis without addressing more thoroughly and much more convincingly those passages which directly counter his thesis. Anyway, you’ll have to check out his treatment for yourself and see what you think.

While Song builds a provocative argument and makes some good points along the way, I don’t think he’s made a rock-solid case for his view. We have no examples of non-marital sexually active covenant partnerships that are endorsed by Scripture, and I don’t think the theological foundation Song uses to support this “third vocation” can bear the weight of the problems it creates.

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