We're coming up on possibly the most significant homiletic rerun in the history of Mars Hill church. For the next few months Driscoll will be revisiting the Song of Songs, one of the earliest books of the Bible he went through as he and Mike Gunn and Lief Moi worked on establishing the church.
For those who didn't hear the earlier sermons preached on this book of the Bible, they are probably no longer available. A great deal of Driscoll's earlier sermons are no longer accessible in the media library. Nothing from Proverbs for instance (a book that could be revisited because much of the preaching from that series touched on gender roles and money and not so much on other topics, perhaps not coincidentally three pastors preached on taming the tongue during that period but Driscoll didn't, that could be the subject of another blog entry regarding a few high profile incidents that are in the public record). And obviously nothing from the first 1 Corinthians sermon series is available because as Driscoll pointed out, he has by now become so ashamed of how badly he handled the biblical text from that epistle he started over.
In fact Driscoll has generally said from the pulpit that he prefers to avoid recycling old material and revisiting old territory. He has not been fond of pastors who have a few years' worth of sermons in them and start recycling their own material. He has also set a precedent in which he has said from the pulpit that he revisits books when he believes he mishandled Scripture the first time.
Which leads us, now, to the question of why Driscoll is embarking on another visit through the Song of Songs. Based on what he has said from the pulpit over the years it would be natural to suppose that he feels he didn't do justice to the biblical book the first time. Those of you who may have heard the original sermon series know that he spent eight sermons on the material and focused chiefly on sex within married life and marriage.
What Driscoll did not do was focus on a commonly held interpretation of Song of Songs that it is not just about marriage but also an allegory of God's love for His people. He has rejected this on the grounds that early church fathers and later theologians were so scandalized by a book about sex being in the canon they allegorized the sexual content into a manageable place by emphasizing an allegorical function that can't be defended from the text.
The book nearly didn't get canonized, of course, because it was about sex, but also because there is no reference to God anywhere in the book. Period. This introduces a fascinating question for Driscoll's hermeneutic since he has said that all Scripture rightly interpreted points to Christ. Okay, great, so how does Song of Songs point to Christ if it can't possibly be an allegory about God's love for His people and is also about sex in marriage?
As I have written earlier there is absolutely nothing wrong with affirming that the Song of Songs is first of all about marriage and romance and sexuality. However, a few concerns come up on the eve of this homiletic rerun.
First of all, Driscoll espouses a hermeneutic in which in just this one book of the Bible the groom and bride can't be referring to God and His people because Driscoll doesn't want to imagine Jesus looking at him with a hard-on. Of course the allegory being taken as that of God's love for the individual believer dates more from Bernard of Clairveaux than from the early church fathers or the rabbis. The reductio ad absurdum here is itself absurd. Driscoll doesn't reject the metaphor of Christ as groom and His people as His bride when it appears in Revelation, just when it is taken by theologians as applying in the case of Song of Songs.
But that raises the thorny historical question of how Paul could positively liken the husband and wife to Christ and the Church from Scripture in spirit or letter if the only precedent in the Old Testament is that the marriage between God and His people is described as one fraught with adultery, idolatry, murder, and the like. There is no positive typology from which Paul can draw if the Song of Songs can't possibly be about God and His people. And, as I have written elsewhere on this blog, Paul can't possibly invoke Revelation because he obviously got martyred before Revelation was given to John. This is true regardless of how late or early we assign the authorship of Revelation and since Driscoll preached through about half of Revelation he would know this.
There is, in short, a typological case to be made that Paul can't very well invoke the groom and bride as a positive analogy from Scripture WITHOUT appealing to Song of Songs by way of typology. Does Driscoll think that Paul coined the metaphor of Christ and the Church as a husband and bride out of thin air? Paul invokes Genesis' words that a man will leave his father and mother and will be united with his wife. This is a great mystery but I am speaking of Christ and the Church, Paul writes.
So what does that mystery refer to? Peter Leithart notes that one possible meaning is that the Incarnation is referred to, that Christ took on flesh and left the presence of the Father to be united with His Bride the Church through coming to us in the flesh. A problem with this typological interpretation is that we have no "mother" that Christ left. If it be said at this point that the "mother" could be the Spirit there are two considerations that weigh against this. First, Christ Himself says in John 16:12-14 that the Spirit of Truth will come and that He will guide the apostles into all truth. So clearly Jesus could not leave the presence of the Spirit even if we attempted to make that case (which I won't). Second, Jesus Himself was full of the Spirit, as Luke attests throughout his gospel. So it is apparent that there is no mother Christ leaves in His Incarnation. So Leithart is right that such an interpretation is weakened by the fact that there is no God the Mother Christ could leave to be united with His bride.
But Paul is apt to appropriate concepts that he says are in the Mosaic law that are nowhere to be found in the Mosaic law! Consider his words to the church in Corinth that women are to be silent, just as the Law says. The Torah never mentions that women are to be silent, at all! So where does Paul get this idea? No one would question that the passage is in Scripture and inspired but no one seems able to explain adequately how Paul derives such a precept from the Law. Yet no one would say that Paul is not writing inspired Scripture. So when Paul speaks of the mystery we affirm in Christ that the apostle is getting this idea from SOMEWHERE.
For that matter, let's take a brief aside to passages commonly interpreted as referring to Satan by millenia of Christian tradition that do not literally have much of anything to do with Satan. Driscoll has affirmed the validity of those allegorical interpretations when they apply to Satan and yet rejects the possibility of Song of Songs having any allegorical or typological function. Or at least he has so far over the last decade. Is Driscoll returning to Song of Songs because he has decided there is more merit to the allegorical and typological aspects now? If so then that would certainly merit revisiting the book. If not, then this homiletic rerun seems a bit mysterious.
But let's get back to Leithart's observation about the Christ-man/Church-wife metaphor. This is not something that is invoked literally but typologically by Paul. Clearly Paul knew the prophetic writings and knew of how in Isaiah and Hosea and elsewhere God describes His people as a wife. In Ezekiel the metaphor of Israel as a bride and God as a loving husband is explicit, and explicit in describing Israel's adultery. So when Paul invokes the husband and wife metaphor it has a history freighted with a lengthy history in the writings of being a very bad marriage indeed!
And yet Paul turns not to the prophetic literature where the metaphor is made plain, or the Song of Songs, but to Genesis. Why? It's especially baffling that he turns to Genesis because Adam and Eve were clearly not Christ. In his Corinthian correspondence Paul compares Adam as the first man to Christ the last Adam who is the forerunner of a new creation. Clearly Christ nourishes the Church as a man would cherish his own body, and we are the Body of Christ. The unity of these metaphors in the epistle is striking enough and easy to overlook (really easy). But what strikes me is that people don't seem to see the mystery as being how on earth Paul could invoke Genesis 2 as referring to Christ and the Church at all! That is a level of allegorical interpretation that, once accepted, opens the floodgates of seeing prescriptive statements about husbands and wives as referring to God and His people.
In other words, if you accept the analogy Paul uses in Ephesians 5 by quoting Genesis 2, how do you manage to reject the possibility of Song of Songs as an allegory?
But let's consider something in favor of Driscoll's approach. When Jesus met two disciples on the road at the end of Luke He said that the Law and the Prophets and the Psalms spoke of His coming. Nothing from the writings. Nothing from Job, nothing from Ecclesiastes, nothing from Song of Songs. And some rabbis have actually argued that certain of these books simply weren't canonized or weren't canon. Driscoll wouldn't dream of making that argument, would he? And Driscoll would probably not argue that Job contains no reference to Christ, and Ecclesiastes plays a role of demonstrating the futility of life apart from Christ (or at least apart from God, pending the revealing of Christ).
So, in favor of this position, let's suppose that Song of Songs simply wasn't considered part of the Scriptures because none of the writings were. After all, Jesus didn't mention them. But then we're back to the question of Paul's invocation of Genesis 2 as speaking of the mystery of Christ and the Church. And what positive typology could Paul draw on if he drew upon Adam and Eve, the first couple in history and the first people who turned against God among our race?
Genesis begins with a garden and ends with disaster, with God's people living in Egypt while the promised land languishes in famine. The Song of Songs speaks of a garden and of a man and a woman who love each other, which could potentially invoke a return or hope of restoration.
And the thing we should consider is that this is a song. Songs are meant to be sung or at least publicly performed. The songs we receive in Scripture are part of public worship. This mitigates against Driscoll's use of the text as a sort of Christian porn in which oral sex and various sexual positions can be discussed. Why? Well, simple, because for someone whom God has called to celibacy or someone who is not even of age this book of the Bible is effectively not for them and for them all Scripture is no longer useful for teaching or instruction because Christ is not present in the book in this hermeneutic, except perhaps to confer a blessing on some techniques the kiddies shouldn't know about.
If none of the names of God appear in the Song of Songs is that absence itself striking? No, because there are other books of the Bible in which the most common names of God simply don't appear. Esther, for instance, and Ecclesiastes.
It is likely that the allegorical interpretation of Song of Songs not happened just because of prudish theologians but also because the names of God are conspicuous by their absence. And yet Paul wrote that all Scripture is profitable. As I wrote earlier, if there is a positive example in which the marriage of God and His people existed in Scripture it did not exist in the prophetic literature, not even in Hosea, which merely included the PROMISE that the marriage would be good. There is also nothing in the New Testament at the time to indicate such an invocation except in Paul, who takes up the mystery of Christ and the Church from Genesis 2, the place where the metaphor clearly has no obvious textual precedent. If Paul invokes an interpretive tradition in which God is seen as the Husband by typology then there is a positive precedent within the Song of Songs that Paul could rely on.
In favor of an allegorical possibility, the Song of Songs is a superlative within Jewish idioms. Yet there is no sign of God. So how is it that the Song of Songs, which has a parallelism to holy of holies, makes no mention of God?
At a more practical level, I not only do not expect Driscoll to address any of these interpretive issues, I am not sure that the application he will bring to the text will necessarily consider the condition of a few groups of people. First of all, people who struggle with same-sex attraction won't find much of use if Driscoll revisits his approach in the past of talking about the joys of marriage and sex. It will be likely given as a goal to aspire to, to love Jesus, get married, and make babies, but it will not be something that everyone will actually attain. Since that is the case, what, really, is the value of preaching through Song of Songs for months the rest of this year if there are people in a thousands-strong church who Driscoll would rightly note may never get married? What is the benefit to them? That all these other people are getting nookie while the unmarried twiddle their thumbs?
Driscoll has a history of making jokes from the pulpit that are not necessarily always encouraging. When he joked several years ago that he didn't know how single people made it through the day it set a precedent in which he was capable of making a joke at the expense of the unmarried. He also made the argument that a single man couldn't possibly do more for the kingdom of God than a married man could, a statement he never really retracted but eventually counterbalanced. During the Proverbs series that is now removed from the Mars Hill media library Driscoll preached a sermon in 2002 that was so explicit in discussing what he believed the Song of Songs (interestingly enough) discussed about sexuality and sex that people left the sermon before he finished it and the sermon was not posted in the media library for quite some time [correction, it IS on there now, of course the burden on you as the weaker Christian is to have not stayed for the sermon when it was preached, which Driscoll joked about, or to make sure that if you're not supposed to hear this stuff because you're immature that you don't listen, either way the responsibility is yours now that they changed their minds and put it on the media library].
I happen to know this for several reasons: 1) I was there and heard the sermon myself and saw that it never got put on the media library 2) even if I wasn't there I met people who actually verified to me that they were there and that they did, in fact, leave, reasoning to themselves "I don't need to know this right now so I'm going to leave."
Driscoll has made a case that to talk frankly about sex from the pulpit is good because it is better that Christian young people hear about sex from the pulpit rather than from the world. But Song of Songs admonishes us to not waken or stir love until it is ready (or to awaken the lover until he is ready, depending on how you read or translate the text). The concern I have with Driscoll's precedent in hermeneutic is he has preached Song of Songs in a way that more or less lays out a litany of things that the unmarried are supposed to refrain from but that he explains with a great deal of fervor. Honestly, before I heard his sermons about Song of Songs I had no idea anyone would see oral sex in the text. If anything it seems that the Song of Songs as poetry allows people to read into the text and that is what Driscoll read into the text.
Another concern I have had over the years, since (as you can see) I have heard a lot of his teaching on the subject, is that he enjoins people to avoid sexual sin simply by saying "keep your pants on". Easier said than done seems to be the truth about most people and it is precisely on any practical considerations for how to do that (or not do that as the case may be) that Driscoll simply avers to reiterating a point without explanation. Don't have sex unless you're married and flee sexual immorality and temptation.
If Driscoll wants to revisit the Song of Songs to explore these sorts of issues then that is good, because he is, frankly, seriously overdue to address those issues at a theological or practical level. In a church that he notes is full of young singles there is surprisingly little discussion of how to avoid sexual immorality other than to tell people to not go there. Talking about how sexual positions and particular sexual techniques are in the Song of Songs and rejecting any possible allegorical aspect of the Song of Songs gives us a book in the Bible which is effectively Christian porn. If Driscoll and Mars Hill church warn that there are sermons the kids and teenagers shouldn't even be hearing that suggests that some of the content is sufficiently racy to merit being withheld from children and adolescents. Okay, so rabbinic tradition held that you had to be in your 30s to hear the book read, but this more or less underscores my concern. To meet Driscoll's reductio ad absurdum tendency with its own form of reply, Driscoll seems to set a up a hermeneutic for Song of Songs in which it's not really all about Jesus but about wifely strip-teases and holy blow jobs. The thing is, God has created a world where that can happen but does that mean it isn't porn the way Driscoll discusses it? And of what benefit will such a sermon series be to those the Lord may have called to celibacy, those who struggle with same-sex attraction, as I note elsewhere in this post?
Particularly the way Driscoll presents the book, he has a history of presenting it as a sensual work that describes sex and sexual love in ways that are both unusually poetic but also graphic. I never would have imagined that Song of Songs in referring to "his fruit was sweet to my taste" would have referred to what Driscoll says the text says. Where the Song of Songs is beautiful and evocative yet also mysterious and ambiguous (perhaps due to translation) Driscoll eliminates the mystery. Maybe not so far as the translation that uses the phrases "your vulva is a rounded crater. May it never lack punch" but that's the tilt of Driscoll's way with the text. And if you want an example of where I got this, fair attribution being the right thing to do ...
If there is a mystery in the way of a man and a woman in Proverbs 30 Driscoll does not speak of it, not as a mystery. If anything his presentation that men are to love Jesus, get jobs, get married, and make babies presents what should be seen as a gracious gift of God to many but not all as veering sometimes into a paradoxical manifestation of law rather than gospel. In his sermons on Ruth in 2007 there was more discussion about what people ought to do and be than about Jesus. For a pastor who says "It's all about Jesus" there was mention of Jesus at the beginning and end of the series but not substantively in the interim. In a book like Song of Songs where no mention of God appears by any of His names, establishing that the Song of Songs is "all about Jesus" within Driscoll's hermeneutic will be, not to put too fine a point on it, spectacularly difficult.
Now notice that it is not that the Song of Songs is actually a pornographic book. It is a song, a remarkably ancient song. But Driscoll's presentation of this song of songs can hermeneutically transform the biblical text into something which can be taken as pornographic. The description of the woman being transformed into "the wifely striptease" may have some textual support on the basis of the navel not being a navel but a vagina, but it stretches the imagination a bit to suppose there is a strip tease happening. Conversely, in favor of Driscoll's rejection of Song of Songs as an allegory, if the bride represents the Church what does the vagina of the Bride represent? Anything?
The thing is that unless Driscoll drastically changes his approach to the Song of Songs I would be hard pressed to imagine what he's recycling material for now. Each time he has revisited a book of the Bible it has been to correct where he felt he failed the people of Mars Hill and God in his handling of a biblical text. I have to assume on the basis of precedent he has come to repent of something. The precedent over the last ten years by his own account leads in this direction. Even though it may be said that sex is one of the gods of this culture, Driscoll's cavalier jokes about the unmarried from the pulpit, though relatively few, are significant. He has presented the Gospel as aspiring that men would love Jesus, get jobs, find wives, and make babies. This is a gospel for young men, not for widows, not for orphans, not for those whom James said that true religion is helping these who are in need. I would agree that it is important for a man to exercise self-control but the homiletic precedent Driscoll has given does not suggest that he is likely to explain the basis for that self-control in a practical way. Since he has said numerous times that he met his wife before he became a Christian there is no certainty that he exercised himself the self-control he would ask of fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.
There is a precedent for vicarious wisdom both of the observational kind ("don't be like that guy") and the imparted kind ("Don't do what I did"). Driscoll provides a lot of observation vicarious wisdom on the subject of sexuality and avoiding sexual sin, but not a whole lot of the imparted kind of vicarious wisdom. If that is because he kept his pants on, great, explain how.
But among my concerns about this greatest hits approach Driscoll seems to be taking now is that, well, I am concerned that his racy way with the text over the last decade may have helped promote any problems he proposes to solve right now. He took a cessationist angle on the spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians the first time, and he attests that he took a cessationist approach in Reformission Rev until God dealt with him. Then he preached through 1 Corinthians again years later with an eye to correcting, among other things, how he botched the exegesis and presentation of the spiritual gifts. By way of precedent, is it possible Driscoll is revisiting Song of Songs to rectify an imbalance in his teaching on the subject from the past? If so, this would be admirable because most men do not need to be advised to marry a woman they find sexually attractive.
And while the attempts to render the man and woman as allegory seems to founder on details that Driscoll revels in, I am nevertheless cautious about embracing his approach, even though it seems patently obvious the poem is about romantic and sexual love. The easiest way for me to be persuaded of Driscoll's approach would be to assume that Jesus did not say that the wisdom literature pointed to Him. Otherwise, if Jesus referred to all of the Scriptures we have now, that path is impossible. It is only if the canon is open and not fixed at the time that Jesus spoke that this path is possible, and Driscoll has not taken that interpretive approach. Driscoll has taken the approach of talking about clear heels, what ever those are for. Seriously, as an unmarried man there's stuff Driscoll has discussed from the pulpit that doesn't mean anything to me (and, no, don't explain it, please).
Now here would be the paradox, what if Driscoll attempted to use Song of Songs in a literal, non-allegorical interpretive way as a way to rail against the abuses of sexuality in our culture? What if Driscoll effectively reads the song as a sort of Christian anti-porn porn? A sensual poem against debauchery? If that is the case then Driscoll is tackling a challenge that may be worthy, but a challenge he may have made all the more difficult because he reaches for the racy, the controversial, the flippant, and the blunt. Frankly, Driscoll is so little a poet I wonder how well he can tackle what may be called the poem of poems and preserve that poetry or convey its sense. But perhaps God may enable him to be up to it?
I guess I would like to be optimistic that perhaps compared to a sermon that even Driscoll himself (though probably with the vote of other elders) decided not to even post on the media library of Mars Hill church years ago that he'll take a different, less racy approach. But this is Driscoll, not Piper, so I don't have much confidence that this will happen. If after years of plugging for the raciest interpretation of the Song of Songs possible Driscoll takes time to chide us for having dirty minds it will be a rather sad irony for some of us, who never imagined the sexual innuendo and techniques Driscoll has seen in the text until he mentioned them from the pulpit.
Over the years Driscoll has joked that young men came to him and said "Pastor I struggle with lust" and he would pause for comic effect and then say "You need a wife. That's why you struggle with lust." But if you don't keep your pants on or in any way lose the struggle with lust then you're not fit to be married because marriage is for men and not boys. Not that this seemed to be played out in the life of Jacob with Rachel but I suppose that's another story. It nevertheless seems troublesome that Driscoll can joke that a struggle with lust is grounds to pursue marriage while setting up a paradigm in which a struggle with lust is not necessarily proof of viability for marriage if it leads to sin. But actual discussion of how to avoid sexual sin has tended to amount (thought not always) to simply saying "flee".
After years of holding up married life as a paragon of godliness if Driscoll says that some are not married because they have made an idol of marriage then how have years of his holding up the desire to see young men love Jesus, get jobs, get married, and make babies PREVENT that sort of idolatry? He may be at risk of upbraiding people for idolizing something he put on the altar himself. Not saying he has, mind you, but saying that it's something that should be taken seriously as a risk.
And yet he has said from the pulpit that when the pastors at Mars Hill encountered a couple that was sexually active their advice was that if they loved each other and love Jesus and were already sexually active the thing to do was to marry if they both wanted to marry each other. These are all things that have been said from the pulpit that are, as it stands, not things anyone could just download to listen to because those sermons aren't there. I don't suggest there is any attempt to cover tracks at all, but to simply note as someone who has heard quite a few sermons preached at Mars Hill that this establishes a long-term confusion in precedent. It is not likely to play out in sermons available through a media library but it may play out in the lives of people. This is why, having heard Driscoll say the sorts of things I have described, I can't help but be concerned that at some level Driscoll may be attempting to solve a problem that he is more responsible for contributing to than he may realize.