A Note on Marriage

Last week’s Christ the Center podcast (a show I almost always enjoy but always find something to get angry about) featured an extended interview with Michael Haykin, who has apparently compiled a book full of excerpts from the love letters of famous theologians, an idea that never would have occurred to me but that I am now very interested in. (Frequent listeners to the podcast may find themselves wondering if any of N.T. Wright’s letters will make their way into a later volume, but alas, he’s apparently not in this one.)

It was an interesting interview regarding what sounds like an interesting book, but true to form, I have to take issue with something said in it. I’ll quote the offending passage verbatim and in total:

Nick Batzig: You make the point in here that the Reformation really revived our understanding of marriage. Could you talk a little bit about that? I think you say that in the little short summary of Luther.

Michael Haykin: Mmhmm. Yeah, I think it’s critical to see in the history of Christian marriage that there’s a real low point during that long period called the Middle Ages. And that’s for a variety of reasons. Critical to that was certainly the theological notion that celibacy was a higher plane of Christian discipleship than marriage. And that certainly was pushed by men like Jerome at the end of the Roman Empire. And Jerome, when he’s asked about, “Should young women get married?” advises them not to but that they should retreat into a nunnery. And Jerome’s a very influential figure. He’s the translator of the Bible into Latin, becomes known as a very significant theological figure, and thus has enormous influence. Even in Augustine, who is nowhere near as acidic regarding marriage, also fails to understand appropriately the biblical reasons for marriage. For example, in his commentaries on Genesis, he asks the question, “If Eve could not have had children for Adam, would she have been of any value to him?” And the answer is “No.” And so marriage becomes primarily, for Augustine, a context for procreation, a reflection, yes, of Christ’s love for His Church, but the whole area of spiritual companionship is not there.

I do not want to defend Jerome and Augustine’s views on women here, partly because I haven’t read enough of either of them to do so, and partly because I don’t think there’s a sufficient defense to be made. But I think Haykin displays in this interview a rather typical disdain you find in Reformed Christians as regards their Medieval Catholic forebears. (David Grubbs, our resident Medievalist, and Nathan Gilmour, our resident theologian, are more than welcome to fill in my own theological gaps here.)

There’s a knee-jerk attitude you sometimes find among the heavily Reformed (even, alas, in Calvin himself) that would suggest that if the Medieval Catholics did it, it isn’t for us. Thus there aren’t very many Presbyterian “nunneries,” as Haykin and Jerome put it. Thus, marriage becomes a much higher ideal than a life of celibacy, to the point where most Evangelical circles secretly or not-so-secretly believe there’s something wrong with a person in his or her thirties who is unmarried. Our culture’s simultaneous elevation and devaluing of sex to the point where it’s everything and nothing at the same time (how else could it be used to sell Doritos, body wash, and the latest version of the MLA handbook?) only makes things worse. If you attended an Evangelical youth group, I suspect you, like me, got far more lectures about how to date in a godly manner than sustained discussions on whether everyone should date. You date, you get married, you have kids, and then you die–this is the life cycle of the American Evangelical.

The problem is that the biblical backing for it is sketchy at best. Christ Himself, if we’re to believe the traditionalist scholars and not Martin Scorsese, never married, but we can sidestep that, since “WWJD?” bracelets aside, most of us aren’t really all that interested in doing exactly what Jesus did or would do. But He’s also rather clear that the institution of marriage exists on this plane only, and that neither in heaven nor in the new heavens and new earth will it hold water: “For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:30, NAS). Both Jesus and Paul use marriage as a metaphor for the relationship of Christ to the Church, and if Paul gives some rather specific guidelines for marriage in his epistle to the Ephesians, he seems to see marriage mostly as a second-best–the same thing Hawkin condemns Jerome and Augustine for: “But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I. But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn” (1 Corinthians 7:8-9). Notice the hierarchy Paul implicitly sets up: It’s better to marry than to be in a constant state of lust, but it’s better to live alone and in self-control than to marry. This is clearly a biblical attitude, and to the extent that Protestants condemn abbeys and monasteries merely out of fear of something different, we’re wrong for it.

None of this is to say that we should abolish marriage. It’s been traditionally viewed as a sacrament (notably, in the Catholic Church but not most Reformed congregations), and there is such a thing as Christian marriage, and Haykin is very interesting and helpful when he talks about it in that interview. I am myself married, and I’m glad, because I’m useless in social situations without my wife. (Oh, and I love her and all that.) But it’s clear that St. Jerome was right–marriage is a secondary blessing for those of who weren’t blessed by being built for celibacy.

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