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After listening to the interview with Joshua Butler on Theology in the Raw regarding the controversy over a concerning excerpt of his book that was posted on The Gospel Coalition, I was glad to see healthy critique and for Butler to be given a friendly platform to respond. However, by the end, my whole body was signaling to me that I was disturbed by it. I have a lot in common with Butler in delighting in the allegory and symbols in the Song of Songs. I too resource Roman Catholic theologians on it, even as I don’t take it all in the same direction and have plenty of disagreements. I too think our sexuality tells the story of a beautiful union. I too think temple language is used in Scripture to describe woman (even from the beginning of creation when it is revealed that God fashioned woman from man’s side, which in Hebrew points us to the tabernacle walls).

In the interview, Butler did not sound like someone who intends to use theology to subordinate women. I appreciate that he is speaking out against abuse, and how he even explains in the podcast how allegory itself does that. But sadly, he did not see the problem with the language in chapter one of his book, Beautiful Union. He just said that in hindsight it was unwise to use as the excerpt for TGC out of context. There are multiple things that troubled me, but given my love for the Song and typology, and that I wrote a book about that myself, I want to focus on this one aspect. I’m not disturbed that Butler wants to emphasize that our bodies tell a story. I am disturbed by the way he does typology in that chapter (I’ve only read what was shared online) and how that can ruin the beauty that is meant to delight us. I’m disturbed that while modeling to us the “right way” of doing critique, we were distracted from the wrong way Butler does typology. And that really matters. So let’s go to the Song.

“Eat, friends! Drink, be intoxicated with caresses!”

Song of Songs 5:1

I believe that this line in the climax of the Song of Songs—the consummation of the marital union of the Bridegroom and bride—is the marital blessing from Yahweh on the union of the ascended, incarnate Christ and his bride/church.[1] Right in the middle of our Bibles, we have erotic poetry. Why? The sexual provocation in the Song leads some to say that it is merely allegory and doesn’t speak to actual sexual relations and why others say that this book is about sex and marriage and cannot be about God.

But can we say there is a book in the canon of Scripture that is not sacred, that is not about God? In his conversation with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, Jesus teaches us a little something about reading Scripture. He is present in all his word (Luke 24:27). Leaders from the early church, through the Middle Ages, straight up until the nineteenth century interpreted the Song of Songs as an allegory of Christ’s unitive love for his bride. Along with some of the gems that have been passed down to us in its interpretation, they sometimes veered off course a bit, falling into allegorism, trying to crack some code under every word. We are not to read into the text what isn’t there, but allow it to reveal its own richness in meaning through its interaction with other canonical texts through its usage of imagery, allusion, and typology. Modern interpreters also have a point that we should not avoid the erotic language of the Song as it applies to married, sexual love between man and wife. More than one meaning lies within these magnificent lyrics. We need to avoid both allegorism and flat-footed[2] interpretations.

Why would God use such erotic language throughout the Song as analogous to his love for us? Is God using something that we know, like erotic love, to show the power of his love? Robert Jenson says that would be getting it backward: “Human lovers’ relations to each other are recognizable in their true eroticism only by noting their analogy to an eroticism that is God’s alone.”[3] He compares it to how we know anything about righteousness now—we learn about it by looking to Christ, not to our own feeble attempts at righteousness. Our attempts now are only anticipatory of what is to come. In this way, sex doesn’t teach us about the Song or God’s eroticism, but from the Song we learn that erotic love is a gift that is to be within covenantal bounds. We see that there is meaningfulness in our sexuality and in the covenant of marriage. In it, we are pointing to, anticipating, a covenantal, mutual love between the incarnate Son and his people.

In the Song, we see the metanarrative of Scripture in concentrate. The Bible begins and ends with a wedding. In the creation account, we read of the man bonding with his wife, becoming one flesh (Gen. 2:24). And at the end of Revelation, we are given a vision of the bride of Christ, the new Jerusalem (Rev. 21). Isaiah, Hosea, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah all spoke of marriage between God and his people.[4] The first miracle Jesus performed was at a wedding (John 2:1–11). John the Baptist called himself the best man to the Bridegroom, Jesus (John 3:29–30). And Paul wrote of Christ’s love for his bride, the church, saying that it is the great mystery to which our own marriages point (Eph. 5:32).

It’s all coming together. The picture of the triune God sending forth the Son, born of a woman, to invite us into covenantal communion. This blessing from Yahweh to join him in the love of the Father for the Son by the Spirit (Song 5:1). Much contemporary teaching on the Song and on sexuality seems driven by pragmatics and cultural ideologies of man and woman, missing the rich, divine melody of it all. This is the mistake we can make with metaphor, typology, and allegory. We look the wrong way.

And this is where Joshua Butler looks the wrong way in his book Beautiful Union. We see this in Butler’s focus on male orgasm in sex, comparing it to the “generative seed of God’s Word and life-giving presence of his Spirit” and the husband “pour[ing] out his very presence not only upon but within his wife.” In looking to the act of sex, and particularly male penetration of the woman, Butler makes the same anthropological mistake that we are still trying to recover from as a church. He begins with himself and then arrives at his typology. Unlike the story we see in the Song and even in the women listed in the genealogy of Christ, woman is viewed as a passive receptacle.[5] Man’s value is in his virility. This thinking has fueled a history of abuse. It’s merely an evolved, softer version of Aristotelian sex polarity that has permeated the teachings in the church of those before us.

By focusing on sex as the icon representing salvation rather than man and woman as icons representing the triune God, Butler misses how our human nature is directed towards covenantal communion. He misses his aim, the meaningfulness in how our very bodies in their masculinity and femininity are typological symbols of the redemptive covenantal union in Christ that brings us to this end. He conflates our typology into our nature with a dangerous notion that male sexual dominance is gospel, reducing it even to the vitality of male bodily fluids. Levitical law teaches that bodily fluids make one unclean, unable to approach the alter (Lev. 15:2). In this, God teaches us that sex is sub-eschatological.[6] So let’s not look the wrong way.

I am disturbed because I know who pays the cost when the beautiful picture is twisted. When there isn’t retraction of it, but explanation that we are too sensitive to handle sexual language or don’t understand allegory or are wary to glean rich teaching from the Roman Catholics. When we are told instead to read the whole book. That the other parts are very good. When those who were upset by its teaching are viewed as overreacting mobs of outrage. When parachurch organizations want to front this anthropology and then cut and release, and the nothing to see here, move along, keep coming to our conferences mentality continues. Women pay the cost. Those who are typico-symbolically pointing us to Zion. And therefore, the entire church. Christ’s bride pays the cost.

The Song of Songs is a theological song; it helps us, both men and women, single or married, to know God better. It is saturated with Old Testament imagery, echoes, and allusions, woven together all in poetic fashion, teaching us how Jesus is the ultimate Lover. We learn that we are so loved by God that we are betrothed to the Son, being made ready for that great day when he comes to consummate this union, giving us new, glorified bodies made to worship and commune with him and one another perfectly in the new heavens and the new earth. The Song is profoundly Deuteronomic. It is the enactment of the greatest command, given in Deuteronomy 6:5, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.”

This properly displays the agency of men and women in the call to love, even as the distinction of our sexuality typology points to the means and end of this love.

I am also disturbed that our fear from how allegory and typology is misused will cause people to reject it. The bathwater is dirty, but the baby is precious. Why use allegory to teach what is already stated elsewhere in Scripture? These allegories and typologies of Christ and his church/bride do something to us—they surprise and delight us, stirring our affections.[7] And they integrate Scripture, showing us the radiance of these stories coming together, activating each other, and giving us enhanced meaning. We are left amazed by the Divine Author of Scripture and the beauty of his word to us. And we are drawn into it.

God uses allegory to help us see him. We are the body of Christ. We are the wild branch grafted into the olive tree (Romans 9-11). Our worship services and sacraments are full of allegory: baptism, the preached word of God, Eucharist. We find Christ there. He interrupts our default systems to turn inward with himself. He disrupts us with his reality. We are truly given Christ through them. And we are sent out to give Christ still.

That invitation in the Song of Songs, “Eat, friends! Drink, be intoxicated with caresses!” is one of participation in the Father’s love for the Son by the Spirit (whom she beckons in the preceding verse). He doesn’t just call our brains with doctrine, but beckons all of our senses in covenantal love. This is why it is so very imperative to be looking the right way.

[1] This is an instance of prosopological exegesis. Matthew Bates shares a basic

definition, saying “prosopological exegesis—involved assigning dramatic characters to otherwise ambivalent speeches in inspired texts as an explanatory method.” Matthew Bates, The Birth of the Trinity: Jesus, God, and Spirit in New Testament and Early Christian Interpretations of the Old Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 3. What appears as an ambiguous passage is the Father’s voice blessing this union.

[2] Paul J. Griffiths, Song of Songs (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2011), 5.

[3] Robert W. Jenson, Song of Songs (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005), 14.

[4] I.e.,Isa.50:1;54:5–8;62:4–5;Jer.2:2,32;3:6–24;31:31–33;Ezek.16;Hos. 1:2; 2:2, 14–16; 3:1–3; 9:1.

[5] In his interview on Theology in the Raw Podcast, Butler explains that he sees the word “hospitality” to include agency..

[6] An important point my friend Anna Anderson noted to me in conversation.

[7] See Jason Byasse, Praise Seeking Understanding: Reading the Psalms with Augustine (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2007), 51.