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.

14 thoughts on “A Note on Marriage

  1. I’m going to have to get a copy of the latest MLA, then…

    I don’t know why you have to go hatin’ on Scorcese, especially since that movie is based on one of my favorite novels. Incidentally, Jesus doesn’t actually get married in the novel (it’s been a while since I saw the movie). That’s part of the “Last Temptation” that Satan puts before Jesus as an extended dream-sequence, namely the temptation to leave all that messianic nonsense and to take on a new identity, get married, and embrace a normal life as a Jewish carpenter. That Scorcese had to put on screen the bit that offended the easily offended (even as most people ignored the bit of that vision in which St. Paul figures, which is by far the more offensive–and therefore more interesting–scene) just means that he knows what sells movie tickets.

    But that’s not what your post is about, I realize. I agree that the CtC boys, because they so seldom step back and think about their own commitments (it’s not their show’s schtick, so I don’t blame ’em for it), do rather reflexively bash most of what comes across as “medieval.” I tend to think of marriage in Luther’s rather than Jerome’s terms, not going so far as to say that there’s something wrong with the celibate but also not anywhere near regarding the married as sellouts. I think Luther’s a handy dude to read on this question precisely because he’s living and forging the transition between those ways of thinking about marriage.

  2. I think that’s such a poorly made movie that if the Evangelicals and the conservative Catholics hadn’t protested, it wouldn’t have gotten near the praise it did and it certainly wouldn’t be remembered so fondly today. But make your case. The ideas are interesting–and yes, Jesus only marries Mary Magdalene in a dream, so I hardly think the movie is the hotbed of heresy some have made it out to be–but there is some bad acting and some worse moviemaking. Case one: Harvey Keitel playing Judas with a thick Brooklyn accent. (Worse than Edward G. Robinson in “The Ten Commandments”: NYAAAAH WHERE’S YUH MESSIAH NOW?) Case two: the temptation in the wilderness, starring a bunson burner as Satan. Scorsese ought to know better.

  3. It’s worth noting that in his book “Hollywood vs. America,” Michael Medved tells the following anecdote:


    I was . . . amazed and appalled in the days that followed at the generally respectful–even reverential–tone that so many of my colleagues adapted in their reviews. In particular, I found it impossible to understand the one critic who had snorted the loudest and clucked the most derisively at the afternoon screening we both attended, but whose ultimate report to the public featured glowing praise and only the most minor reservations.

    When I called him to ask about the contrast between his privately expressed contempt and his on-the-record admiration, he proved surprisingly candid in explaining his inconsistency. “Look, I know the picture’s a dog,” he said. “We both know that, and probably Scorsese knows it, too. But with all the Christian crazies shooting at him from every direction, I’m not going to knock him in public. If I slammed the picture too hard, then people would associate me with Falwell–and there’s no way I’m ready for that.”

    Not that that proves it’s a bad movie–that’s always up to opinion–but it does suggest that the praise the movie got is largely false.

  4. Oh, there’s no doubt that the movie stinks. I knew that when I first saw it in the nineties, and it almost kept me from picking up what’s become one of my favorite novels. Scorcese’s flick has none of the joy or the terror of the novel (which has become one of the main influences for the King Saul novel that I started a couple years ago and promise to finish one day). And I hadn’t even remembered the bunson-burner Devil.

    I was just noting a plot point. 🙂

  5. If not Scorsese, then certainly Dan Brown; Baigent, Leigh, & Lincoln (of Holy Blood, Holy Grail); and the LDS Church. Probably many others, too.

    I appreciate your advocacy of the ancient and medieval virtue of celibacy, Michial: it’s one that Protestants routinely dismiss, I think. However, I don’t think we should slight marriage just because it’s only for this phase of the world: all the other sacraments are too, really. There will be no need for baptism in the final state, nor the Eucharist, but they are nonetheless some of the greatest goods in this life, because they are tastes of that goodness which is only shadow now, but reality then. Likewise marriage, I believe, if gone about the right way.

    (Of course, I’ve just assumed marriage IS a sacrament, without defining what a sacrament is. Oh dear.)

  6. I actually tend to hold to a rather Catholic-Orthodox view of the sacraments, David–one of many ways in which I am a bad Calvinist. I tend to believe that because God is “everywhere and fills all things,” every action on earth has the possibility of being sacramental. So marriage is a sacrament, and maybe even a special one–but so is blogging, I suppose, if it’s done the right way and with the right attitude.

    Now, I don’t mean to slight marriage–and certainly it is self-sacrificing and self-emptying in a very special way–but I don’t see any way around what Paul says about it. It’s clearly a second-best option–not just because it lasts only for this life, but because it seems to take one’s eyes off of God.

  7. So I mostly read this because I knew there would be some joke about me in it (Thanks, husband!), but I do actually have something quasi-intelligent to contribute. I’m working on a project right now that is requiring me to pore over a great deal Of Early Modern conduct literature (books written by men for women to tell them how to be proper wives/sex partners/mothers), and I’ve been bowled over by the sheer number of out of context Biblical references. “Better to marry than to burn” comes up a lot, as does the wifely half of that section of Ephesians 5 you mention. I agree that that has its roots in anti-Catholic sentiment, and I’m wondering if the perpetuation that anti-Catholic view can be seen as changing the face of patriarchal norms at all. Women can’t be productive (pun intended) members of society if they’re nuns, but they’re basically reduced to baby containers in marriage (in the EM period). Thoughts?

  8. If anything, I’d say that the Catholic viewpoint is probably LESS patriarchal. (I don’t know much about Early Modern familial relationships, so you, David, and/or Nathan can feel free to correct me.) The nun gets to define her life apart from men, a luxury that married women don’t have. She may be shut off from society, but is she any more shut off than housewives?

  9. I found this post, along with the follow up discussion, very interesting. I would just say any Christian advice on marriage will always be very contextual.

    In I Corinthians Paul makes clear that his advice on marriage is his own and comes does not come from a teaching of Jesus. Part of the problem is that we forget that forget that Paul was an apocalyptic thinker and saw marriage as something that was passing away with the ushering in of a new age. He was also trying to get people (by people I mean men) to stop seeing temple prostitutes.

    As someone who is single, I find that the Church does seem to look down on people who are not married. At least in Protestant circles, people generally think something must be wrong with you. This should change. However, as someone who is going into ministry, I would like marriage to be an option. I think that celibacy and marriage should be seen as equally positive, for all Christians. I would just mention that single women who are pastors have a really hard time dealing with these issues. Many of my female friends at seminary have to explain to people that they aren’t going to “nun school.”

  10. I have tried to follow God’s will, but they keep telling me “it’s not God’s will for us to be together.” And yes that has recently happened to me. Maybe I should mention you guys and one of your ex cathedra statements?

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