A "Thoroughly Theological Claim" About Christian Marriage

two gold rings on a dictionary page defining the word marriage

By Ephraim Radner

Jun 06, 2019

Life is hard for most people. Not just for a moment, or in moments—an illness, a lost job, a death of someone we love. Rather, life is hard in a continuous way, as a kind of passage over time. To get from birth to death is difficult. 

There are joys at the centre of this passage. But to see these joys and grasp them is, for most people, a struggle, often of tremendous proportions. What makes this struggle both worthwhile and ultimately successful for the Christian is the fact that God himself has freely chosen to make this human struggle his own, to live a life, not just here and there, but in its full breadth. God does this, of course, in what we call his incarnation in Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, the Messiah of Israel. But, to emphasize again, the human struggle to live that finally unveils joy and allows joy to grasp and be grasped, is not founded simply in the incarnation’s momentary happening—the fact that God appears in the world on such and such a date. Rather, the incarnation of God is given in the fullness of the struggle itself that marks, just like ours, his own flesh’s coming-to-be: the incarnation happens, that is, through the long generations from Adam to Jesus, that pass through parents, through families, through generations and their difficult comings, goings, flourishings and failures. 

That’s what it means for God to become a human being—to come that way, just like us. Marriage, at least as Christians understand it, is the vehicle, the sign, and finally the gift of the divine flesh coming into the world so that we might have our hope revealed. 

Two sexes, defined

There are two sexes in the human race, female and male; and these two sexes are defined by one thing: not by their chromosomes or their genitalia or their erotic feelings or self-awareness, but—to paraphrase MIT philosopher Alex Byrne—the two sexes are defined by the gametes they produce and carry. Females have large gametes, known as eggs; males have small gametes known as sperm. Human generation is the consequence of these two gametes coming together; not necessarily, because it doesn’t always “work”, but exclusively, because it’s the only way it works. It is this simple fact—biological and historical—that has informed marriage universally. And it is crucial.  

But the female-male generative reality does not in fact define Christian marriage essentially. It only serves that definition. Christian marriage, more specifically, turns on a Scriptural promise about the Christ, and on that promise’s fulfilment. Here, two texts among any number, will do:

First, the psalmist in Psalm 132 cries for God’s salvation, in the form of the coming Messiah: “For the sake of your servant David, do not reject your anointed one. The LORD swore an oath to David, a sure oath he will not revoke: “One of your own descendants I will place on your throne” (Psalm 132:10-11, NIV).

In a second text, the opening of Romans, Paul explains how this messianic salvation is given, how it grasps us, becomes our own vocation to the world, in the way that the Messiah comes to be in the history of Israel’s generations: “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel … which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and designated Son of God in power… through whom we have received grace and apostleship … among all the nations, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.” (Romans 1:1-6, RSV).

What marriage is and isn’t about

The descendant of David come in the flesh: Marriage is about the flesh of the Messiah of Israel, first and foremost; it is about how the Messiah comes into his flesh; and thus how Israel, and how we, and the nations, and the Church come into the flesh of the Messiah. Marriage is not about that whole range of behaviors and attitudes, that today we associate with what is called “sexuality”: erotic desires, physiology, affective relations, forms of life. These elements may all be implied in marriage, though in different ways in terms of time and culture; and they are important, and have been the subject of the Church’s and society’s moral prescriptions. But none of them constitute the essence of marriage. Marriage, rather, is the historical vehicle and thus human sign and gift of the flesh of the Messiah of Israel that brings us to God. Without marriage of man and woman, no Messiah; and with the Messiah, the great sign and gift that is marriage. Pull these two apart, and the salvation given in the Christian Gospel is at best obscured, at worst rendered incoherent.

I want to emphasize that this is a thoroughly theological claim, with some practical implications; it is not a practical claim, with some theological points of interest. One of the problems with our present church debate is that the practical has been given priority: what do I feel? What are the consequences? Who am I attracted to? How should we organize things as a result? That’s the sexuality debate. And it’s true that the Church has often seemed more concerned with “morals”, with the practical. But that doesn’t mean there has been no theology of marriage in play over the centuries. There has, and it appears in the Church’s marriage liturgies, and in the Scriptures read and prayed over in these services, and more fully in daily life. For Christians, marriage has always been viewed as Scripturally embedded—hence, the rich references to the patriarchs, matriarchs, and Israel in the Anglican Church’s Book of Common Prayer services—part of a human history that God has ordered to Christ, as Paul writes at the beginning of Romans; it’s not just a practical arrangement between human beings.  

We could call marriage, in this scripturally enacted context, the human sign and gift of God’s redemptive genealogy: the way Adam (the first Adam) moves to Adam (the second Adam, Christ, in Paul’s language [1 Corinthians 15:47]) and back again, so as to embrace the whole of our human existence in the divine flesh of the Christ. Theologically—Jesus being both the Alpha and the Omega (Revelation 21), the divine Image in whose image we are made (Hebrews 1)—we exist in the first place because of the flesh of the Messiah: that is why we are born, because Jesus comes in the flesh; and we are taken to our glorious (“redeemed”) end, within that flesh, the incarnate and resurrected Body of Christ. But the flesh itself, the flesh of Jesus, comes to be through the history—Adam, Israel, the Church—that we call human marriage.

Marriage is central to the Gospel

When I hear people say “marriage may be important, but it’s not central to the Gospel”, I believe they are quite wrong. That is why, in part, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke begin their presentation of Jesus’ life each with a long genealogy of Jesus himself. I will come back to these genealogies in a moment. But note how Jesus (Mark 10:6-9) and Paul both call marriage between husband and wife something that derives directly from the creation of Adam and Eve and their coupling. Note, too, that Paul calls just this a “mystery” or “sacrament” of the way that Jesus takes the Church to himself. This comprehensive claim about redemption is summarized in the fact that Adam and Eve give rise, through the generations, to the redeeming flesh of the Messiah by means of the marital genealogies that the Gospels carefully narrate, picking up as they do, all the many genealogies of Israel that hold the Bible together as whole.

I am deliberately saying nothing here about the common practical elements that are a part of our contemporary debates: desire, affection, cohabitation, fidelity. None of these are essential to marriage, and in fact never have been, even in Christian terms. To be sure, such things were always viewed as goods—goods that furthered the genealogical premise and dynamic of marriage, such that the Incarnation happens at all. Nonetheless, there were only two requirements for marriage in this genealogical dynamic of Scripture, and they do not include these goods: rather, all they include are that a man and a woman together struggle for offspring. Not even accomplished procreation has ever been viewed as the essence of marriage, because actually having children, or children who survive, everyone agreed, is purely a gift of God. Rather the story of marriage—and that is, in part, the story of the Scriptures and so our story—is the story of the struggle for the flesh of the Messiah, in which the struggle for our own lives of joy and hope is contained. It is a struggle that, as one parses the long genealogies of Jesus, takes in desire and its denial, affection and its loss, cohabitation and its impossibility, fidelity and its rejection, procreation and its uneven fulfilment. That’s the Scriptural story of all the folk who people Jesus’ genealogy; and ours.  

Hence, Scriptural marriage is about being born and struggling for survival in families; it is about the joys and sorrows of motherhood and of fatherly pride and sin; it is about cries of thanks and prayers of lament, children and their death, hope and its difficult grasp. The openings of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, as well as the many stories of Jesus’ own ministry, lay all this out in a way that summarizes the complete outline of the Scriptures of Israel. The Messiah came through this, and for this. Hence, the virtues we might associate with marriage, like affection and devotion, are not goods simply transferable to other relationships. Like Israel and the Messiah to which it is bound, Christian marriage is sui generis.

Conceived by the Holy Spirit

To be sure, Jesus himself, is born without a human father! And dead without a wife or children! This is sometimes taken to be a denial of redemptive genealogy. But in fact, it is the opposite: the virgin birth is jumping right into the middle of redemptive genealogy, not in terms of sexual activity, but in terms of the divine grace of procreative existence itself. Jesus’ birth is a struggle—one in which Joseph is intimately and painfully involved; and its outcome in a miraculous birth is, as in all marriages, one of pure blessing by the grace of God alone. Far from subverting the genealogical power of marriage, Jesus’ birth uncovers its divine profundity.

As does Jesus’ singleness. Jesus dies alone, with his mother watching as her son expires horrifically. Does the Cross mark the end of marriage? Hardly! For as Ephesians 5 explicitly points out, Jesus’ life and death is a revelation of what marriage is, a sign, vehicle and gift of the cross itself: as bound to the flesh of the Messiah, marriage is a Mystery and sacrament.  

To be guarded by the Church

Jesus’ singleness and childlessness, then, reflects the fact that being married, or having children, our parents and our descendants, do not in themselves redeem us; only God does that. But just as Scripture does not redeem, marriage is nonetheless a revelation of redemption, of what God does and is doing, to be guarded and lifted up by the Church for the sake of our hope. It is no surprise, then, that the New Testament, in the wake of Jesus’ incarnation offered for the world, does not eliminate or redefine marriage, as the Gnostics did, but (in at least 5 of the other Epistles) rearticulates it now as something that finds its fullest meaning in that which the Messiah most fully engages, that is the Cross itself (cf. 1 Peter). The entire Bible ends with a reassertion of this redemptive genealogy that gives rise to the grace of the Messiah’s life: “‘I Jesus have sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the offspring of David, the bright morning star’” (Revelation 22:16). 

To summarize and conclude: Marriage, between a man and woman, is itself a struggle, and given over to the struggle for the generations of life over time, it marks the saving passage of Adam to Adam, embodies it, testifies to it, engages it in fact in a peculiar and unique way. Genealogy is God’s redemptive gift to us, and marriage is its form. To say this is not to demean those who are not married; it is not to denigrate same-sex attracted persons and their mutual affections. The dignity of human persons is granted by God, not by marriage, let alone by our erotic desires and self-identities. And equality before the law is founded on civil protections and rights, and not on this or that religion’s doctrinal claims. The idea of “civil unions” for same-sex couples is a perfectly plausible political-social proposal, and it’s been enacted in the UK in a way that, at least in theory, acknowledges the distinction between social respect and the theological convictions that define the Christian Gospel. 

But the distinction is important to uphold. For to claim that Christian marriage is not about the coming of the Messiah’s flesh in its genealogical framework, that it is not something that reveals the character of God’s life given in the midst of generation, but to claim instead that marriage is about affection and cohabitation, laws, rights, protections, inclusions, feelings, to which civil societies apply legal prescriptions—this is a category mistake. The world itself may be included in Jesus’ flesh; but his flesh is given and shown forth in marriage. 

The implications of the Church saying anything different are hardly minor, for they touch on the very nature of our hope. Life is hard; but God in Christ took flesh.  

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Ephraim Radner is Professor of Historical Theology at Wycliffe College. He will be teaching a course on Human Sexuality at Wycliffe, in the Winter 2020 term. 

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