Those of us who think that marriage has always been like what it is now in 21st century America are way off. The idea of marriage being based on convenience and romance is a new phenomenon. We don’t have the market cornered on a right understanding of marriage. So, there is much we can learn from those who have come before us.
The understanding of marriage refined itself throughout the time of the early church all the way through the reformation. As believers struggled to live out the faith, marriage and family was an area where they carried this out.
From the beginnings of the early church, it is evident that believers prized marriage. In fact, the Didache (an early church compendium of practical insights on the Christian life) is clear in its teaching that marriage is normative and abortion is reprehensible. Furthermore, marriage was a regular topic among early church fathers; both in their writings and in their sermons.
Augustine is the greatest among the early church fathers in terms of his theology in general and his theology of marriage in particular. Augustine’s views on marriage stood for nearly a millennium, so understanding his view of marriage shapes a right understanding of this time period.
For Augustine, ‘amor dei’ (the love of God) was the centerpiece of everything. As followers of Christ, we are to love the Giver more than His gifts. Therefore, all things are to be used for the enjoyment of God alone. A major concern for Augustine was, ‘does the gift of marriage distract from the Giver?’ The answer is ‘it can be, but it doesn’t have to be.’
Marriage was God’s idea. He created marriage, and therefore designed it to glorify Him. Marriage should be another way of worshipping God, but sin changes everything. We are fallen lovers, and marriage is tainted as a result. Contrary to Augustine’s concerns, marriage should not be shunned because it has the potential to distract from the Giver. Instead, it should be redeemed to magnify the Giver.
Another major issue of Augustine was his view of marital sex. To him, sex was not primarily for pleasure but for procreation. This may be largely the result of a guilty conscience in Augustine because of his past sexual failures. Augustine pointed to the creation mandate to be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 1:26-28) as the main reason for sexual activity. Therefore, sex in marriage without a view to procreation (sexual activity for pleasure alone) was regarded as a venial sin (for those who aren’t familiar with catholic teaching, a venial sin is basically a ‘minor league’ sin–something that is wrong in the eyes of God but which does not jeopardize your salvation like a mortal sin).
While it is true that everything we do involves some level of sin, the act of marital sex is not sin because of the act itself. Furthermore, Augustine’s views on procreation as the sole motivation for sex are refuted by the Song of Solomon and 1 Corinthians 7 where procreation takes a backseat to an emphasis on sexual satisfaction.
Augustine’s view of marriage is helpful in several ways:
- He draws attention to the danger of sin in all we do, including the marital act
- He emphasizes that use of the gift should overflow in enjoyment of the Giver
- He treats marriage as a central institution with sex as the inherent display of the purposes of marriage
The medieval ages usher in a new season of thought and consequently a new view of marriage. It is a period marked by intellectual closedness. At the center of medieval thought is the idea of the synthesis of faith and reason. There is one unified meaning for all things, and no division between the secular and the sacred. Medieval marriage must be understood in light of this synthesis. The three key institutions that shaped medieval life within the synthesis were the church, the state, and marriage. Since there was no distinction between state and church, both were influential in the direction of medieval marriage.
Medieval times were marked by a struggle for survival. Every morning, people would wake up wondering if this would be their last day. If you didn’t know how long you were going to live, then marriage attained a sense of urgency. For the people of the middle ages, marriage was viewed as a means to salvation and a means to self preservation.
Marriage in the medieval ages came to be viewed as a sacrament. In other words, it was viewed as one of the means of grace through which salvation came. So, since they weren’t sure how long they would live and marriage is a sacrament that must be observed for entry into heaven, then they highly prioritized marriage.
Also, marriage was prioritized because it was a means of self preservation. Since they didn’t know how long they would live, they would want to marry and begin procreating as quickly as possible to ensure the continuation of their blood line. Lower life expectancy increased this urgency.
One last note to make about marriage in the medieval times is the celibacy of the clergy. In this time period, there is marriage within the church but celibacy within the priesthood. The purpose of this celibacy was to allow greater devotion to kingdom work. It is evident that marriage in medieval times was highly pragmatic and not driven by romance. Instead, it was embraced for its spiritual, economic, and social benefits.
As the medieval times gave way to the reformation, Martin Luther became the dominant contributor to a theology of marriage. In refutation of the common view, Luther denied that marriage is a sacrament. If we are justified by faith alone, we are not justified by the sacrament of marriage. Luther also denied that celibacy was necessary for those who are priests. Luther synthesized the New Testament’s teaching on marriage and the concept of the priesthood of all believers to come to this consensus. Luther’s own marriage to Katie is one of the greatest love stories in history.
In the end, Luther’s view of marriage centered on the fact that marriage is a great gift but not a sacrament. It is a means of not only making us happy but making us holy. In response to Luther’s views, the Catholic Church officially declares marriage as a sacrament at the council of Trent. In the end, the reformation leaves us with a theology of marriage very similar to that of the early church where marriage is normative but it is not driven by romance.
Our view of marriage in the American church has been shaped as much (or more) by our modern (and now post-modern) culture as it has by the Bible and historical theology. With the idea of needing marriage as a means of salvation and self preservation now a distant memory of an ancient past, marriage is floundering for lack of direction. The cold, hard historical motives for marriage have been replaced by warm, soft feelings about marriage.
Marriage has not always been viewed the way it is now. Therefore, it is instructive for us to examine the marital perspectives of the past so that we can arrive at a right view of marriage in the present.