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The Meaning of Sex: Christian Ethics and the Moral Life

Dennis P. Hollinger.
Published by Baker Publishing in 2009

Although Christian ethics masquerades sometimes as a discrete discipline, it is understood better as an ambitious multidisciplinary enterprise, requiring knowledge of (at the very least) biblical studies, theology, philosophy, and the social sciences. Dennis P. Hollinger ’s The Meaning of Sex draws on material from across all these fields as he articulates and defends the traditional Christian thesis that “sex is a good gift of God with very specific purposes, and those purposes best find their fulfillment in a very specific context—the marriage of a man and a woman” (13). The position he stakes out will be very familiar to most evangelical scholars, as will most of the arguments he presents in support of it.

In Part I, Hollinger lays the theoretical foundations for Part II’s treatment of several controversial issues in sexual ethics. Chapter 1 characterizes three families of ethical theorybriefly: consequentialism, deontology (principle ethics), and character/virtue ethics. In chapter 2 Hollinger introduces readers to five worldviews—asceticism, naturalism, humanism, monism, and pluralism—and then he discusses the implications of each for the meaning of sex. These first two chapters are largely polemical. Hollinger highlights well-known problems with each of the three branches of ethical theory and argues that no ethical theory has the resources to address the problems of sexual ethics unless it is embedded in a larger worldview. He contends further that all of the five worldviews he considers are problematic and none of them “can truly produce authentic sexual morality as God intended” (68).

Chapters 3 and 4 present Hollinger ’s positive sketch of a Christian worldview and explore the nature and meaning of sex within that framework. In chapter 3 Hollinger uses the categories of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation to narrate what Scripture says about sex. The physical and sexual dimensions of humanity are part of the good gifts of God’s creation; in particular, human relationality, which includes sexuality, is an aspect of the imago Dei. However, like the rest of creation, human sexuality is fallen, and our broken sexuality is manifested in distorted relationships with God, self, other, and nature. Thankfully, redemption even of our sexuality is possible, both via a common grace that works throughout the world and the salvific grace through which God forgives his people and fulfills his ultimate purposes by bringing them into his kingdom. Chapter 4 focuses more tightly on the nature and purposes of sex. Hollinger argues that Scripture and natural revelation both teach that there are four purposes of sex: consummation of marriage, procreation, love, and pleasure. The ethical status of any sexual act or relationship will depend on how well it achieves these purposes, and he claims they can be well and truly achieved only in heterosexual marriage.

Part II opens with Chapter 5’s examination of premarital sex. Hollinger laments the prevalence of sexual activity before marriage and argues that Christians should neither buy into popular arguments for linking sex to maturity or intimacy rather than to marriage nor rely too much on common consequentialist arguments against premarital sex. Rather, the real point is that sex outside of marriage “misses the full meaning of God’s design and is sin against the Creator of the universe” (135). Hollinger does not limit all physical affection to marriage, but he does urge caution and argues that oral sex, like genital sex, belongs inside the bounds of marriage. He concludes the chapter by suggesting that pre-marital masturbation is acceptable within certain limits and then he issues a stern warning that the use of pornography is immoral. Chapter 6 expands and revises this ethic to include sex within marriage, as Hollinger recognizes rightly that marriage still leaves room for sexual behavior to be either morally commendable or objectionable. Throughout these two chapters he offers plenty of pragmatic advice along with his moral arguments.

In chapter 7 Hollinger gives his take on the volatile topic of homosexuality. He rejects several revisionist positions on which homosexual relationships might be morally acceptable and defends the standard evangelical view that having a homosexual orientation is not sinful, largely because it is not something one chooses. However, it is a sin either to forge a homosexual identity or to engage in homosexual behavior. Chapter 8 contains a discussion of reproductive technologies. Hollinger is very worried about these relatively new possibilities, rejecting surrogacy and reproductive cloning outright while registering serious reservations about both in vitro fertilization and artificial insemination by a donor. Hollinger is driven by a familiar concern that children ought to be begotten rather than made and a less familiar worry about introducing an asymmetry into a parental relationship if only one is the genetic parent.

The final chapter is titled “Living in a Sex-Crazed World.” Here and throughout the book Hollinger makes it clear that a Christian sexual ethic depends crucially on the particular contents of the Christian worldview he presents in chapter 3, so that this ethic can be taught and lived out truly in the church alone. However, since sexual issues have serious social repercussions, and since there are good secular reasons to defend certain traditional norms, such as heterosexual marriage, Hollinger argues that Christians should not be reluctant to defend these norms both in the cultural and the legal spheres.

The Meaning of Sex provides a concise and accessible look at a compassionate and enlightened conservative evangelical view of sex. Sex is God’s good gift to us, and we should rejoice in it without shame—within the limits set by God’s design. Christians should talk honestly about sex in the church. We should preach a healthy Christian view of sex to one another and to the world; more importantly, we should embody that view and be a community that offers hope and accountability to those who struggle with sexual issues. If someone is unacquainted with this outlook, and thus unfamiliar with the many issues involved in the ongoing debates about sex both within Christendom and between the church and the world, Hollinger’s book may serve as a useful entry point.

However, even this judgment must be tentative, because The Meaning of Sex suffers from a number of serious faults, only a few of which can be identified in this review. Most generally, and perhaps most importantly, often its argumentation is very thin, probably because of how much ground is covered in such a relatively short book. Often Hollinger takes no longer than a paragraph or two to present reasons for his decisive rejection of a rival view, and this is rarely enough space for a suitably charitable and critical discussion. This mode of presentation suggests that Hollinger underestimates the force of his interlocutors’ arguments and implies that many of these issues are a lot more tractable than they really are. As a philosopher, I am dismayed to see someone try to define and dismiss secular ethical theory tout court in just twenty pages (23-42). And surely Hollinger overreaches when he declares that “when we look honestly at the teachings of God’s Word, including those of Jesus, it is evident that Christians and the church cannot legitimize same-sex relations,” after only ten pages of analysis of those biblical teachings (194). On the very next page he appeals to Stanton Jones and Mark Yarhouse’s Ex-Gays? A Longitudinal Study of Religiously Mediated Change in Sexual Orientation (2007) in making the case for change of sexual orientation. But not all psychologists will agree with Hollinger’s claim that Jones and Yarhouse “established methodological procedures and standards that matched the best scientific studies in psychology”(195). Let me be perfectly clear: my point here is to raise an alarm about the weakness of the arguments Hollinger gives rather than to quarrel with his conclusions. Christian scholars ought to avoid this kind of exaggerated confidence and lack of charity and humility at all costs, especially given their unfortunate prevalence in much popular evangelical writing.

Hollinger ’s facile use of the all-too-familiar worldview approach is also troubling. Certainly we should try to ascertain the ethical implications of Scripture against the backdrop of “the big picture story of biblical faith” rather than resorting to “proof-texting” (69; cf. 13). Yet it is unclear that one can move back and forth between a narrative approach and a worldview approach as quickly and conveniently as Hollinger does. Does it make no difference whether we think of the context of our investigations as a story or as a framework? A story that can easily stand in for a framework is no longer really a story. Further, Hollinger’s appeals to Scripture seem remarkably similar to the kind of proof-texting on these issues that many of us have heard for decades. For example, according to Hollinger, in Genesis 1 and 2 the Bible says that only a married heterosexual couple is allowed to have sex, and this moral verdict is confirmed further by Jesus’ own reference to these passages in the Gospels. Yet if the shift to a worldview-cum-narrative approach makes little difference in how we actually handle and interpret the biblical text, what is all the fuss about?

Hollinger pays surprisingly little attention to the distance between the strange world of the Bible and the world in which we now live. He extracts familiar evangelical convictionsfrom the pages of Scripture quite easily. Yet while we see adultery as one spouse betraying the other and worry about fornication because teenagers are not ready for such a commitment, often the Bible’s condemnation of these sexual sins seems to have much more to do with protecting a man’s rights over his wife and daughters from the poaching of his neighbors. Furthermore, what the Bible has to say about sex seems embedded in a purity code that most (post)modern people will find bizarre both in general and in the particulars. Thus, to read passages against the backdrop of the biblical narrative requires that we reckon with elements of an ancient Near Eastern culture that cannot easily find a home in any worldview we might call our own. And yet rarely is a hint of this difficulty to be found in Hollinger’s book.

The chapter 2 typology of worldviews is also problematic. These worldviews strike me as too thin and abstract to deserve their title. It is difficult to believe that Peter Singer and Michel Foucault share the same worldview, although here both are labeled naturalists. While it may be useful to organize worldviews into five categories for heuristic purposes, Hollinger seems to reify these categories. Of course, he is not alone in this. Unfortunately, naturalism is defined so that it is incompatible with theism. Yet there are many theists who are naturalists about some features of the cosmos, including human sexuality. Further, the boundaries between naturalism and humanism are unclear. After arguing that naturalism offers only a bleak picture of human life, largely because he seems unaware of either the existence or plausibility of compatibilism (51), Hollinger goes on to commend humanism for “its affirmation of the human person as a being of true worth, value, and dignity” (59). Given that secular humanists are likely to think of themselves as naturalists, this is extremely puzzling. At the end of the day, Hollinger’s typology seems to obscure and confuse as much as it illuminates.

Given the limitations of a short review, these few illustrations of the book’s various problems will have to suffice. All in all, I cannot recommend this book very highly. The Meaning of Sex is not rigorous or careful enough to be useful for scholars or to be taught in a classroom. As a work for the fabled general reader, no doubt it is superior in some respects to many other Christian books about sex. However, I fear that Hollinger’s book is likely to leave its readers with a false sense of comfort about some very uncomfortable issues.

Randall M. Jensen

Northwestern College (IA)
Randall M. Jensen, Philosophy, Northwestern College (IA)