The Gendered Soul: Eugene Peterson, T.F. Torrance, and the Spiritual Nature of Human Sexuality

In the last couple of days since Jonathan Merritt’s interview with Eugene Peterson went live on the Religion News Service website, the internet has been ablaze over Peterson’s alleged affirmation of same-sex marriage, eliciting responses of all kinds, including a rather humorous article on The Babylon Bee. Evidently however, according to Christianity TodayPeterson has since retracted/clarified his statements and re-affirmed Wedding-rings-hands-on-biblethe traditional (i.e. orthodox) Christian view of marriage as between one man and one woman.

I have to admit that I was deeply disappointed (at first, but somewhat relieved by the CT retraction), but that is really neither here nor there with respect to what I would like to address in this post. I typically don’t write about “current events” such as this, and yet it just so happened (in the providence of God) that I just came across a stimulating passage in Geordie Ziegler’s excellent study of grace in the theology of Scottish theologian T.F. Torrance. Irrespective of where Eugene Peterson does or does not stand on the issue of same-sex marriage (or even more basic, the morality of same-sex relations in general), Ziegler’s explanation of how Torrance defines, on the basis of Scripture, what it means to be human has profound implications for how the church — committed as it must be to biblical authority — should think about these issues. Ziegler writes:

Torrance views male and female co-humanity as basic to the onto-relational and functional structure of humanness. The basis of Torrance’s argument depends heavily on the unity of soul and body in the human being and on the teachings of Jesus on marriage. Since sexual differentiation is not “merely adventitious or accidental” but is actually “intrinsic to the human soul,” Torrance asserts that “the human soul … is either male or female.” Gendered existence is ontologically constitutive, such that the “man-woman relation generates a dynamic ontological relationship within human existence.”

Thus, “the essential human nucleus … is neither man by himself nor woman by herself, but only man and woman.” Torrance considers the not good of Genesis 2:18 a disclosure of the fundamentally sexual or gendered character of humanity’s isolation. Torrance’s concept of sexually differentiated co-humanity fittingly integrates with his holistic understanding of the human being as an onto-relational physical and rational creature designed for communion—with both God and one another. In this sense, the structural reality of sexuality functions as an innate drive toward bonding and also as a need to find completion in another human person which would complement and match our basic onto-relationality as persons.[1]

There is a bit a technical language here, but the basic idea should be easily comprehensible when we understand what Ziegler, and Torrance, mean by “onto-relationality”. Essentially, this term is a combination of the words “ontology” — which denotes what a thing is and what makes it what it is — and “relationality”. Fundamental to Torrance’s view of what it means to be human is the biblical concept of the “image of God”, the imago Dei, which at root is a relational concept. To be created in the image of God implies that human beings are what they are only in relation to him inasmuch as they exist to image him. According to Genesis 1, this holds true not only for the God-human relation but also for the human-human relation. When God created humanity in his image, he created them “male and female”. It is only in their “co-humanity” that they fully image forth their Creator, and thus, in a secondary sense, they need each other to be what they were created to be. In other words, human beings are what they are (ontology) not apart from God and each other, but only in right relation to God and each other. Relationships are constitutive of what it means to be human. Hence, “onto-relationality”.

Now the crucial point that Ziegler brings out is Torrance’s assertion that the maleness and femaleness that makes such onto-relationality possible is more than skin-deep; it is, in fact, an inherent feature of the human soul. That is, Torrance argues that according to Scripture, the human soul is not a generic or androgynous entity that depends on the physical structures of the body in order to determine sexuality. Rather, when the Bible says that God created them “male and female”, it speaks of a fundamental reality that encompasses all of what it means to be either male or female. As Ziegler notes, the fact that it was “not good” for the man to be alone does not bespeak the mere lack of a biologically compatible partner suitable for reproduction. Instead, it is the man in the fullness of what makes him who he is that needs the woman in the fullness of what makes her who she is. Succinctly stated, human sexual differentiation is a matter of the soul and not merely of the body. We do not have either “male parts” or “female parts”; we are either a male soul or a female soul.

Now the implications of this for contemporary questions on same-sex marriage or unions (not to mention transgender issues) are profound. To be human persons created in the image of God means that our very existence is bound up in our relationships with “the other”. According to Genesis 1-2, God’s design in the creation of humanity was very specific: “male and female he created them”. “It is not good for man to be alone”, so God made the woman and brought her to the man. The problem with same-sex unions (civil, sexual, or otherwise) is that they violate not just the biological distinctions inherent in our human existence but, more importantly, the spiritual and ontological distinctions that go to the root of who we are. To conceive or practice the imago Dei relation — reflected in Scripture’s affirmation that the man and the woman become “one flesh” in marriage — in any sense other than the one exclusively established by God in creation is suicidal. It constitutes a dehumanizing, self-destructive attack on the very thing that makes us human. The exclusively “one man-one woman” nature of marital relations is not one that can be modified or redefined (as though it were purely a matter of genetics, preference, or biological compatibility) without doing spiritual and ontological damage to the inner structure of our very humanness. Same-sex unions do not simply constitute a transgression of divine law; they are a corrosion of our very essence as human beings.

Certainly this concept could be extended to address the transgender issue. If our sexuality is not merely “embodied” but also “ensouled” within us, then why would we automatically assume that it is the body, rather than the soul, that is broken? That is, why would we suppose that by altering the biology of someone who struggles with sexual identity we have therefore fixed the problem? In reality, perhaps (and in light of biblical teaching I think we can confidently say) it is the soul that is sick, that it is a person’s spiritual alienation from God that has produced a twisted view of the self. Developing this point further, however, would take this post too far afield.

In conclusion then, I think that regardless of whatever Eugene Peterson may think about same-sex marriage, Christians who are called to seek the healing and salvation of sinners cannot approve of a practice or lifestyle that ultimately leads to their destruction. Such would be a contradiction in terms. Just as we would never condone someone putting a gun to his or her head and pulling the trigger, so also we should never condone someone engaging in a sexual relation that constitutes a suicide of the soul. In such circumstances, affirmation would not be love, but hate. When confronted by the destruction of human beings, love does not smile and speak of tolerance; it warns of imminent danger and, if possible, intervenes. By God’s grace, may the church of Jesus Christ take its stand for life and not against it.

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[1] Geordie W. Ziegler, Trinitarian Grace and Participation: An Entry into the Theology of T.F. Torrance (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2017), 161-162. For citations of Torrance’s works, see Ziegler, 160.

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6 thoughts on “The Gendered Soul: Eugene Peterson, T.F. Torrance, and the Spiritual Nature of Human Sexuality

  1. Armando Gutierrez 20 July 2017 / 17:07

    May I did not understand – Is T. F. Torrance saying that there are human souls housed in the wrong vessels?

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    • Jonathan Kleis 20 July 2017 / 17:20

      No, not at all! He is simply making the argument that our sexual identities are not just tied to our bodies but to our souls as well. The problem, as I commented later, is that it is thought that by changing the body it is possible to change sex. That is simply not the case. Biblically speaking, we are primarily soul-sick because of sin. Thus, if anything, it is not that some people receive the wrongly-sexed body vis-à-vis their soul (a female soul that receives a male body), but rather that sin has so marred and defaced the soul’s identity that it is confused about what its true identity is.

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      • Armando Gutierrez 20 July 2017 / 20:00

        Thank you Jonathan

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