September 19, 2016

Off Center

It continues to surprise and bemuse me to see Christian authors (particularly Anglicans and Roman Catholics) these days writing about marriage as somehow the central doctrine of the Christian faith. For example, one author defends a notion that "The biblical narrative, ...locates marriage at the centre of the history of a good creation, a creation gone awry, and God’s redeeming action; to this narrative, further, sexual difference is essential."

Of course, Scripture does no such thing. The author in question has fallen into the fallacy of averages — that is, while Genesis clearly places sex (and as traditionally understood, marriage) at the beginning of creation, and Revelation reveals the marriage of the Lamb and the New Jerusalem at the other end of time, there is precious little about marriage in the center. Nor does the beginning stress sexual difference, as I have written before (Genesis 1 is about the first human couple and their likeness to God; and Genesis 2 is about the likeness of the couple to each other, not their difference.)

Moreover, it is obviously completely wrong to suggest that marriage is at the heart of redemption, given the Christian witness of the New Testament. Consider these facts:

  • The Redeemer himself comes into the world not through an ordinary marriage involving sexual difference, but a miraculous birth without any sexual intercourse at all, and a putative marriage that under Jewish Law would have been considered adulterous had the source of the Virgin's pregnancy been heterosexual sex. (Matthew 1:18f)
  • When pressed on the issue, Jesus declares that marriage is wholly a matter of this world, and that those worthy of attaining to the resurrection do not marry. (Luke 20:34f)
  • Paul holds marriage to be inferior to celibacy, but allows it for those incapable of containing themselves. (1 Corinthians 7:8-9)
  • He also affirms that sexual difference (the "male and female" of Genesis 1) has been transcended in Christ, in whom all difference is dissolved. (Galatian 3:28)

If we look at the Christian tradition, it is obvious that the main stream of thinking on marriage is that it was good and useful, but hardly essential to the Christian life and faith. From the traditional Roman Catholic view that marriage was inferior to celibacy, through the views of the Reformers that it was "allowed" (Anglican) or "a matter for the town hall" (Lutheran) marriage was peripheral to dogmatic thinking until about the middle of the 20th century, when some Roman and Reformed theologians began to try to elevate it to a more central place — largely in reaction to societal pressure involving increasing divorce rates and contraception use. Some, such as Pannenberg, went quite off the deep end (in addition to jettisoning central Christian dogma such as the Virgin Birth) in an effort to drag marriage into the spotlight. It is helpful to observe that if marriage and sexual difference is part of the creation — a creature — then it is good to recall that putting the creature in place of the creator is exactly what Romans 1 said was the problem, not the solution.

It is, of course, good to continue the discussion of marriage and sexuality and their place in the church, but let us have no more nonsense about their being central to the Christian faith, or Christian theology. The center of the Christian faith is Christ, and him crucified.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


June Butler said...

If marriage is the central doctrine of the Christian faith, I wonder why Jesus, who so often led by example, did not marry.

Allen said...

But June, he did. Don't you remember his secret marriage to Mary Magdalene?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Yes, Allen, let's not forget the secret marriage to Mary M., and the blood of the Grail!

June, another of the ironies in all of this is that folks who want to centralize marriage point to the bridegroom imagery (scant as it is) in the Gospels and Revelation) or the metaphor in Ephesians -- completely missing the fact that they are trying to literalize what is clearly symbolic or analogic, thereby "overthrowing the nature of an analogy." Again a case of centralizing what is not meant to be in the center. I'm always reminded of the old joke heading from The New Yorker, "Block That Metaphor" -- when a simile or metaphor got out of hand.