Sunday, June 28, 2015

On Marriage

Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. (Gen. 2:24)

Marriage nowadays is seen as a romantic pairing of two persons who love each other. It is seen as a step of self-actualization, where the feelings of loving and being loved are enjoyed within the relationship. Of course, this notion of marriage is quite modern. Marriages in history tend to be less about romance and more about expediency, although certainly romance is not always absent.

In the history of the Christian Church, marriage has not always been highly extolled. The onset of asceticism in the middle part of the early church era, due to Neo-Platonic influences, led to a denigration of marriage and an elevation of the contemplative life. No less than the Church Father Augustine of Hippo left his mistresses after his conversion and lived the rest of his life in celibacy. As theology developed in the Middle Ages, matrimony was seen as a sacrament, which was however mutually exclusive to the sacrament of holy orders. Matrimony was "good," but Grace was seen as superior to Nature, perfecting it. Those who are called to service in the Church should not be "contaminated" with natural things like marriage, and therefore priests and bishops cannot marry, at least officially.

It was the Reformation that restored the goodness of marriage. Luther, Calvin and the other Reformers all were married, and it was not because they couldn't keep their pants up! The marriage of the Reformers was just as much a theological statement as it was about love. As opposed to the Medieval Church's (and that of its daughter Roman Catholicism) doctrine of Grace perfecting Nature, the Reformation altered the relationship to one of Grace renewing Nature. Grace allows Nature to be what it was meant to be. Also, over and against Anabaptism, which held to Grace against Nature, God's grace does not change what is natural in this world. Applied to the marriage relationship, marriage as a creation ordinance is good. The whole idea therefore that devotion to God entails forgoing marriage is unbiblical. It stands to reason therefore that, unless one has the gift of celibacy like the Apostle Paul, one should not willingly deny marriage, for to do so is to go against Nature.

Marriage is a natural pairing of one man and one woman. It is part of Nature, which is not Special Revelation and thus not exclusively Christian. Being part of Nature, it is not done for one's self-fulfillment or self-actualization. It is therefore contrary to the idea of marriage being an optional extra, or the greatest good, for it is neither. It is not to be treated as something one can "try" if the opportunity presents itself, neither is it to be seen as the goal to be gained such that one can experience the pleasure of sex. It is what everyone without the gift of celibacy should desire, but desire not as the ultimate epiphany of goodness, but as an earthly and natural good.

In practical terms, this means that everyone who does not have the gift of celibacy should desire marriage. Unless one has that gift, to intentionally denigrate marriage and thus to put it off for no good reason is sin, for that is to deny God's good creation. That is the problem in the Medieval Church and in Roman Catholicism, which, because of its Grace perfecting Nature paradigm, denies the goodness of what God has ordained for mankind. It is also the problem for the Anabaptist Grace against Nature paradigm, for it destroys the validity of marriage since it is a creational institution. This is not to say that singleness is wrong, for it is God who provides in time, but intentional singleness without the gift of celibacy is wrong.

Christians above all should stop letting the culture dictate our values. We should avoid the twin errors of seeing marriage either as an optional extra (neglecting it), or as the greatest good on earth (idolizing it). Marriage is natural, and since Nature, though fallen, is still God's creation, we should esteem it in its proper place.

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