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God’s Good Design: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Guide to Human Sexuality (Book Review)

November 21, 2023
By Samuel Parkison

Editor’s note: The following essay appears in the Fall 2023 issue of Eikon.

Michael Clary, God’s Good Design: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Guide to Human Sexuality, Ann Arbor, MI: Reformation Zion Publishing, 2023.

In his recently published, God’s Good Design, D. Michael Clary speaks about the moral and emotional bankruptcy promised by the sexual revolution, and, by contrast, the beauty and goodness of the Christian sexual ethic. Clary’s book is not merely a diatribe against modern sexual madness; he posits a better story and revels in the beauty of God’s design in human gender and sexuality. “In this book,” Clary states up front, “we will demonstrate the truth, goodness, and beauty of God’s design for sexuality. We will show how God’s story of his covenant love for his people, ultimately revealed in the gospel, was a profound mystery, written into the created order from the beginning of time” (3). In this book, Clary neither engages in cowardly obfuscation nor boastful pugilism. Which is to say, the author refrains from virtue signaling, regardless of the audience. Instead, Clary writes with all the calm and clarity one should hope for in a trustworthy pastor. Because of this, Clary is sure to garner the approval of not a few evangelicals exhausted by the whiplash of late modernity. Unfortunately, this book also comes with some significant downsides.

Structurally, God’s Good Design does not necessarily hang together as a single, unbroken argument. Clary lays the foundation for what he intends to argue in the first three chapters, but for the rest of the book, he structures his chapters topically. While I think the book could have benefited from some rigorous editorial work to cut down repeated and redundant material, its topical arrangement (and repetitive content) means that it can serve fruitfully as a reference book of sorts.

Rather than offering a blow-by-blow summary of the book, I would like to commend three of its strengths (of which there are many more I could enumerate), before concluding with a reflection on three of its weaknesses (which, though far outnumbered by the many positive features of the book, are nevertheless significant and, unfortunately, quite costly).

First, in terms of the book’s strengths, Clary demonstrates a non-anxious confidence in the Christian vision of gender, sex, and sexuality. He understands that the blustering pearl-clutching of reactionaries (even of the conservative variety) is neither profitable nor becoming. The author opts instead to outshine the secular script with a story that is better, truer, and more beautiful than its secular alternative. Relatedly, Clary does marvelously at showing the mutual enrichment of men and women. The sexes, he shows convincingly, are made for one another (132).

Second, Clary attends carefully to both books of divine revelation: sacred Scripture and Nature. In this way, he shows how God’s specially revealed assigned gender roles in the home and in the church are not arbitrary; they cohere with the way in which he made man and woman. In other words, to submit to divine revelation regarding matters like headship and submission (in the home and in the church) is to go along with the grain of created reality. Clary concludes, along with the best of the Great Tradition’s reflections on natural theology, that the difference between men and women has everything to do with biological teleology: fatherhood and motherhood. In this way, Clary approaches his subject material from numerous vantage points to tie together again what should have never been torn asunder: marriage, sex, and procreation.

Third, Clary writes with a pastoral sensitivity that is desperately needed in today’s discourse. Clary is direct but not callused; tender but not cowardly. He is also careful to distinguish between what Scripture plainly teaches and requires, and what he thinks is a wise application of biblical truth. One can tell that Clary is a shepherd who has learned to take seriously the requirement to bind his flock’s consciences to what Scripture requires without overstepping the boundary of “teaching as commandments the teaching of men” (cf., Matt. 15:9).

So much for Clary’s strengths. The first of the few weaknesses in Clary’s book is his appeal to “Gnosticism,” which stands in as a bogeyman throughout the volume. “The modern confusion around sexuality,” Clary asserts, “bears much resemblance to ancient Gnosticism, a heresy condemned by the early church” (8). How so? What hath twenty-first century sexual madness to do with ancient Gnosticism? Unfortunately, the comparison Clary brings out is grossly superficial: “the modern claim that someone’s gender can be different than their biological sex is a gnostic idea” (8). Clary seems to imply that there is only one philosophy that can drive an insurmountable wedge between the “self” and the “material world,” and it is called “Gnosticism.” But such a wedge does not a Gnostic make. For one thing, antipathy for the material world is not a solely Gnostic idea: it is an idea that Gnosticism has in common with other systems of thought that have little or nothing to do with Gnosticism, properly speaking. If Clary wishes to call the modern confusion about sexuality “Gnosticism,” he will need to substantiate that claim with more than the passing resemblance of hatred for the material world.

Further, even the feature of Gnosticism that distinguishes between “the spiritual” and “the material” to such a high degree bears little substantive resemblance to late modernity’s contemporary weirdness surrounding gender and sexuality. The idea that “material is evil and we must escape it” does not equate to “the material universe is endlessly malleable and we can therefore conform it to our wishes.” In fact, the gender ideology of the trans movement today positively requires some kind of embrace of the material world. The “trans person” is not happy to transcend or escape his material body. Quite the opposite. He cannot be happy until his material body conforms to his inner “her-ness” — he needs the material body for fulfillment. This desire is a far cry from Gnosticism.

Second, Clary’s lack of precision in language becomes a liability at a number of important junctures. One example regards his elaborations on the difference between men and women which, Clary says, correspond to “differing natures” (46). What Clary means by this is not entirely clear, from a philosophical point of view. On the one hand, Clary affirms that men and women both fit in the category of “humanity,” and therefore share a common human nature and human telos: namely, to glorify God and enjoy him forever. However, Clary states that men and women have differing natures corresponding to differences manifested in masculinity and femininity. But positing different natures is not necessary for making sense of the intrinsic difference between men and women, even considering Clary’s (helpful) reflections on potency and teleology. If human nature includes the potentiality to procreate, men reach their biological telos by begetting, and women reach theirs by conceiving. This does not mean they have different natures, only that they substantiate a common nature (i.e., human nature) in distinctly gendered ways — an individual existence of the human essence is always either male or female. Unfortunately, Clary’s imprecision of language opens the possibility that he intends to communicate that men and women are of a different ontological kind.

A third and related weakness outweighs the other two previously mentioned: Clary errs in developing his broad theological framework for gender roles. Rather than stumbling into the common mistake of rooting gender roles in some sort of hierarchy within the godhead,[1] Clary (rightly) roots gender roles in the divine economy. However, Clary errs by rooting their differences in the relationship between God and his creation. In this framework, the cosmos is God’s household, with man as God’s analogue, and woman as creation’s (29–39). Clary states emphatically that the “creator-creature distinction is mirrored in the sexual differences between men and women” (32). “This does not mean,” he hastens to assure us, “that men are more like God than women, or that women are less like God than men” (29). But the overall structure of Clary’s argument screams otherwise. While I appreciate Clary’s intention to defend the biblical practice of referring to God in strictly masculine terms, he defends this practice on inappropriate grounds by muddling the conceptual difference between theologia and oikonomia. For Clary, man glorifies God by being like God, and woman glorifies God by being like creation. When it comes to gender relations, man’s analogical referent is God, while woman’s is creation. But Scripture has already given a theological corollary between the relationship between man and woman (or, more precisely, husbands and wives), and it is not the creator-creature distinction; it is rather the Christ-Church distinction (Eph. 5:22–33).

Further, not only is Clary’s framework strictly unnecessary (since it is not the framework Scripture explicitly provides), and not only does it run the risk of placing man ontologically higher than woman, it also runs the risk of mutualizing the God-creation relationship. Let me explain. If the creator-creature distinction is mirrored in the way that men and women relate, it seems we must conclude that either (a) man is superior to, and definitional for, woman, or (b) God needs creation just like man needs woman, such that both are mutually enriched by one another. Both alternatives are theologically disastrous. Clary is right to see a clue for the foundation of the relationship between man and woman in the notion of headship, but he is wrong in identifying the creator-creature distinction as the archetypal instance of headship (36–38). The archetypal instance of headship is, rather, Christ and his headship over the Church.[2] All this being the case, while I appreciated the majority of God’s Good Design, I cannot commend it without these sober caveats.

Samuel G. Parkison (PhD, Midwestern Seminary) is Associate Professor Theological Studies and Director of the Abu Dhabi Extension Site at Gulf Theological Seminary in the United Arab Emirates. Samuel is the author of several books, including Thinking Christianly: Bringing Sundry Thoughts Captive to Christ (H&E, 2022) and Irresistible Beauty: Beholding Triune Glory in the Face of Jesus Christ (Christian Focus, 2022). Samuel is also a regular contributor and editor at Credo Magazine.

[1] This is what we call Eternal Functional Subordinationism (EFS) or Eternal Roles of Authority and Submission (ERAS).

[2] I should hasten to point out that Christ is not our head by virtue of his divine nature, but rather by virtue of his human nature. In other words, it is true that Christ is God the Son incarnate. But to be the head of a new humanity, he himself had to be man. We might clarify the point with proper emphases. What renders Christ our head is not that he is “God the Son incarnate,” but rather that he is “God the Son incarnate.”

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