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The development of Christian marriage

July 13, 2015

[Second in a series. The first post can be found here. Disclaimer: this post is highly speculative and should not be taken too seriously. Before accepting any of its theological suggestions consult your nearest catechism.]

In my previous post I told a story about the emergence of modern marriage, and how modern marriage has little to do with marriage a millenium ago; and I suggested some reasons to think the change has been, for the most part, good.

The problem with any such theory, for (most) Christians anyway, is that the Church is the bride of Christ, and each human marriage is an image of this union. Doesn’t this mean that marriage at the time of the Gospels must have something in common with marriage today? Otherwise, either we have simply stopped engaging in a practice that the Church suggests provides the best image for what the Church is, or we have only recently begun to engage in that practice, despite the fact that we have been New Testament was written almost two thousand years ago.

Well, this may be moving too fast. The Bible also says Christ is (literally) a king; few think this obliges us to revert to monarchy. (In fact, some say that because Christ is king we have no need for any other.) And it says Christ is (metaphorically) a shepherd; few think this obliges us to leave our cities and return to a pastoral life. (Though we can certainly look at what it meant to be a shepherd in ancient Palestine and ask what about that life we should continue to value.) If the Christ-as-husband image is merely a metaphor, we can treat it as we do Christ-as-shepherd; if it’s meant literally, we can treat it like Christ-as-king. Neither necessitates caring about whether marriage now is “the same thing” as marriage in Christ’s time.

If it’s an analogy, however, neither of these options are available. Analogy means that there exists a real proportion between human marriage and this divine marriage; the divine marriage acts as a guide for what human marriage should look like. Which doesn’t make any sense if human marriage is merely a social practice which we can allow to lapse (as with shepherding) or to be transcended (as with kingship). If it’s an analogy, then it seems we need to know whether marriage now has anything substantially in common with marriage then.


The analysis I gave in my previous post about the emergence of modern marriage took inspiration primarily from social theorists, especially Giambattista Vico and from Max Weber. From Vico, the idea of the family beginning as a space of slavery, and gradually transforming into a space of freedom; from Weber, the idea of transcendental claims (marriage as sacrament) having unintended social effects. But if the above line of reasoning is correct, then from a theological perspective, what we need is not a history of how the social practice we call “marriage” has changed (and our society with it), but an account of how the idea of marriage has developed. Not social theory, but intellectual history.

The terms “development” is borrowed from John Henry Newman’s An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, a book which is about not just Christian doctrine, but also the evolution of ideas in general. He suggests that we look at the history of an idea (whether it be entirely abstract, e.g. “Platonism,” or whether it affect social practice, e.g. “marriage”) and try to see whether it is really the history of a single idea, or whether it is the history of many different ideas, called by the same name, succeeding one another. He proposes seven “notes” of genuine development: 1. preservation of type; 2. continuity of principles; 3. power of assimilation; 4. logical sequence; 5. anticipation of its future; 6. conservative action upon its past; 7. chronic vigor. (If you don’t want to read the whole book, Chapter 5 (available here) explains the seven notes in brief.)

I have yet to see a Newmanian anaysis of the development of marriage. Such an analysis would, I think, be quite useful. More specifically, we need both a philosophical account of the history of marriage, demonstrating that it has developed but not undergone corruption; and, equally importantly, a short story about marriage’s history that would make prima facie plausible that scholarly account.


To do the former would take a book, which I will not attempt to write. The latter might look something like the following.

A key tenet of Christian proponents of “traditional” marriage, at least those who attempt to base their arguments in natural reason, is that there is something called “natural marriage” which has shown up throughout human history, with minor variations, until in the last few decades it has come under attack. I doubt that a Newmanian account of marriage would accept this claim. One line in particular from the Development is often quoted: “to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” Anyone who has read the book knows that this does not mean all change is good; it does mean, however, that if an idea has been changed, and if the change was good, then there is no going back.

An alternative both to the static idea of Christianity building on a permanent foundation of natural marriage, and to the idea sketched last post of Christianity as freeing us from the slavery of natural marriage, would involve Christianity genuinely developing natural marriage into something greater. The idea of marriage, even when it was merely natural, always contained implicitly a transcendental dimension. It has always had the potential to develop from a mere economic arrangement into indissoluble bond of personal, sacrificial love. Christianity merely made this potential obvious and inescapable.

Once this development takes place, there is no undoing it. The natural idea of marriage can either develop into the Christian version, or it can undergo total corruption; it cannot merely remain as it was two thousand years ago. Thus, today, in a society which does not call itself Christian but which has been thoroughly colored by its Christian history, there is no room for natural marriage. There can be only the life of Christian marriages and the undeath of marriages manqué.


Which is not, of course, to say anything about which marriages are which. Newman, though he became Catholic after writing the Development, did not write it in order to become Catholic; he wrote it in order to discover whether Catholics, Anglicans, or Protestants were in the right. The same objectivity would be required of any inquiry into the development of marriage.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. CJ Wolfe permalink
    July 26, 2015 7:38 pm

    I didn’t quite follow your argument about analogy and the “Bride of Christ” metaphor; do you not claim it is an analogy? I think it is and that “divine marriage acts as a guide for what human marriage should look like.” That’s the clear implication of what Paul says in Ephesians 5:25 I think: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her”

  2. July 26, 2015 9:17 pm

    I maybe had too many double and triple negatives. So, basically, I was trying to think about the fact that some Christians accept the idea that marriage is a malleable social construct. What must such people think about the bride-of-Christ image? I concluded that they must believe it’s “only” a metaphor. (A phrase people often use when they want to dismiss something.) In response to such people, I think we should focus on the difference between a metaphor and an analogy, and explain why the bride-of-Christ image has to be the latter, not the former.


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