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Marriage is a Thin Place

November 10th, 2023 | 8 min read

By Zephram Foster

In the aftermath of the much discussed controversy surrounding Josh Butler’s book Beautiful Union, Rod Dreher summarized some of the issues with the uproar around the article. Specifically, Dreher highlighted the lack of historical and theological perspective brought to it by evangelicals at large. When evangelicals have an instinctive gut reaction against sacralizing language of the sort used by Butler, it’s usually because we’ve been brought up in an age in which the spiritual is neatly divided from the physical. The things we believe about the afterlife aren’t necessarily important to the way we treat the body, the Earth, and the physical realm—or so we think. We’ve been taught (more by behavior and implication than by explicit words) that salvation is an individual issue, and it pertains to the far off spiritual future alone. Many evangelicals would be shocked to learn that the kind of thing Butler is doing in his excerpt isn’t a new, progressive, sexualizing effort imposed upon theology - but is in fact, the overwhelming testament of the historical theology of the Christian church. Some authors have referred to “thin places,” by which they mean places where the division between the seen and unseen seems to diminish or blur. We might say that marriage is just such a place.

Dreher brings a few church fathers into the conversation, and his handling of the controversy is worth looking over to see how much we’re missing. One especially potent example is a quote from a John Chrysostom homily - that’s right, this isn’t even something that appears in an obscure blog post, he said this in church - in which he says:

Shall I tell how marriage is also a mystery of the Church? As Christ came into the Church, and she was made of him, and he united with her in a spiritual intercourse, for, says one, I have espoused you to one husband, a pure virgin…

I think we should be wary of dismissing the insights of one of the greatest Church Fathers, simply because we bristle at his phrasing. Our sensibilities as moderns are not synonymous with objective truth, and we should be careful to condemn based on those sensibilities alone. Consider a more recent example, from the patron saint of evangelicalism, C.S. Lewis:

We must recognize that we have here to do with what I called "the Pagan sacrament" in sex. In Friendship, as we noticed, each participant stands for precisely himself--the contingent individual he is. But in the act of love we are not merely ourselves. We are also representatives. It is here no impoverishment but an enrichment to be aware that forces older and less personal than we work through us. In us all the masculinity and femininity of the world, all that is assailant and responsive, are momentarily focused. The man does play the Sky-Father and the woman the Earth-Mother; he does play Form, and she Matter. But we must give full value to the word play.

It would seem that Lewis is onto something deeper and more poetic about the nature of sex than many are comfortable with. Our instinct is to sterilize, sanitize, and simplify sex into something purely physical and material. Lewis, on the other hand, wants to magnify, emphasize, and insist upon the spiritual and metaphysical nature of sex - in large part, surely, due to his thoroughly pre-modern worldview.

We have to recognize that even if we want to take issue with aspects of Butler’s article, we can’t take issue with the endeavor itself without losing some central and integral portions of Christian theology. Marriage truly is sacramental in nature - and I’m saying this as a convinced Protestant, who doesn’t believe it to be a sacrament proper. Things can be sacramental without being sacraments, just as they can be typological without being literally Christ Himself. Sex does in some sense reflect back on Christ, and it should be celebrated as representing far more than what we tend to think.

Historically, the Christian faith has had much more to say on the subjects of sex and marriage than most of us would be comfortable with today. Much of it sounds awfully close to what Butler is echoing in his book, and is far more cosmological in scope than the language of most Christian weddings in the 21st century. The theology regarding sex and marriage of the Church Fathers and the majority of Christians throughout church history is almost foreign to us now.

Another specific example - and one with far reaching effects - is Augustine’s development of the doctrine of original sin. Augustine is arguably the most influential figure in church history, and his view of original sin was one that was thoroughly physical and sexual in nature. The doctrine of original sin itself is thoroughly biblical, and is in some way or another affirmed by every branch of Nicene Christianity. However, it is Protestants today who (rightly, in my view) most closely affirm Augustine’s view of the mechanics of original sin, though we moderns might not frame it in exactly the same way. For Augustine, the natural sinfulness of man, inherited through Adam, was a truth that had to be reconciled with the perfect sinlessness of Christ - who, after all, was fully human. Augustine took great care to work through the implications of what the biblical texts demonstrate about the nature of sin, and realized the answer to the tension was clear: sin was passed via the very nature of the sexual act.

Our purpose, therefore, in this book, so far as the Lord vouchsafes us in His help, is to distinguish between the evil of carnal concupiscence from which man who is born therefrom contracts original sin, and the good of marriage.

And again:

If the goodness of marriage were only the good use of a good, we might well wonder how evil can be derived from it. But since the goodness of marriage is the good use of an evil, it does not surprise us that the evil that is original sin is derived from the evil of concupiscence, which the goodness of marriage uses well…

We might all affirm the basic meaning - at least certain aspects of it - of what Augustine says, if not the presentation. We affirm that sin is passed in some sense through the sexual union of our earthly father and our earthly mother, though we may not want to use those words, and we may differ on the nature of concupiscence as the literal mechanism. This is why the virgin birth is so necessary and monumental - it allows for full humanity without sin. This is also why each of us is born into Adam, and must be born again into Christ. But most of us won’t take the extra step that Augustine does and connect this abstract familial truth to the physical, anatomical reality by which it is made fact: that human conception is not an abstract concept, but a result of a physical sexual act with a woman. This view integrates the spiritual and the physical in a way that demonstrates the reality of how the world really works. The physical and spiritual are connected indeed.

Methodius of Olympus paints a picture of Christ and the Church being of the same relationship as the first marriage - Adam and Eve. There can be no mistake here: Methodius viewed marriage as something more divine and cosmically representative than we do.

For thus will it be most certainly agreed that the Church is formed out of His bones and flesh; and it was for this cause that the Word, leaving His Father in heaven, came down to be ‘joined to His wife;’ and slept in the trance of His passion, and willingly suffered death for her, that He might present the Church to Himself glorious and blameless, having cleansed her by the laver, for the receiving of the spiritual and blessed seed, which is sown by Him who with whispers implants it in the depths of the mind; and is conceived and formed by the Church, as by a woman.

All aspects of marriage should point to the ultimate bridegroom and His redeemed bride. If we join with the historic church in recognizing the supernatural character of marriage, in refusing to shy away from what we see as too icky, explicit, or personal, we’re joining with the testimony of scripture itself. Over and over, we see God use marital fidelity to paint a picture of what it means to be united to Him. We see prophets use explicitly sexual imagery to condemn Israel and Pagan nations alike for turning from God or working against His purposes. Israel is called a harlot, a whore, and worse. Revelation refers to Jerusalem as the great harlot who rejected her Messiah and united with her adulterous partner Rome to hang Him on a cross.

We also see strong language in the medieval church from Thomas Aquinas - connecting marriage to salvation even more explicitly. For Aquinas, and for the Medieval church generally, marriage was connected to salvation not only as a picture, but in a more tangible way. Aquinas connects baptism and matrimony clearly in the Summa:

Just as the baptismal water by virtue of its contact with Christ's body is able to ‘touch the body and cleanse the heart,’ so is matrimony able to do so through Christ having represented it by His Passion, and not principally through any blessing of the priest.

Finally, Calvin in his commentary on Ephesians 5, demonstrates that his view on marriage typifying the redemption of the Church by Christ is one that is unabashedly patriarchal in its structure - the husband is to love the wife in a way that typifies Christ’s saving love. There can be no hand-wringing about how this might paint women as “lesser” or gives men too much power, because the scripture is clear. The text of Ephesians does nothing to demean the woman or to give excessive power to the man - on the contrary, it places high levels of responsibility on the man, magnifies the glory of the woman, and paints a beautiful picture of redemption. Calvin summarizes:

As Christ rules over his church for her salvation, so nothing yields more advantage or comfort to the wife than to be subject to her husband. To refuse that subjection, by means of which they might be saved, is to choose destruction.

When we embrace such an understanding of the cosmic story and of marriage as being embedded in the created order as a picture of it, we understand how important our own marriages are. We see that women and men are remarkably different, with remarkably different roles and natural tendencies. We understand that husbands are to love our wives as Christ loves the church. We are to understand that wives are to submit to their husbands as the church does to Christ. We are to understand that husbands are to be brave, to lead, to be strong, to be sacrificial. We are to understand that wives are to pursue beauty - true, godly, biblical beauty we see in Titus 2 - which includes magnifying the work of her husband as his helper, submitting to him (Ephesians 5) and exhibiting “respectful and pure conduct” (1 Peter 3). We see the unavoidably cosmological nature of gender relations, and the hopelessness of believing that truth to be “sexist.” If we find it sexist to suggest that a husband can sanctify his own wife by washing her in the Word, we have an issue with the words of scripture, not a social construct. But we also see in the words of scripture that a true, God honoring headship is one that is sacrificial, gentle, loving, meek, and kind, never domineering, never abusive.

All creation points to the Creator, and many aspects of marriage point to a soteriological truth about Christ and His Church. We are told this explicitly in the New Testament, we shouldn't downplay it for the sake of sanitization. When we embrace that marriage and sex are indeed sacramental and typological, we’re opened to a world of beauty and symbolism that strengthens our faith and our love for our God. We embrace the supernaturality of the created cosmos, and see that the physical and spiritual are inseparably bound, not two distinct realms.

In marriage, a man and woman draw nearer to one another and become one, and in redemption, the heavens and the earth are being drawn toward one another as the earth is entirely redeemed and perfected by her creator. All the history of creation, from the first spoken Word of God to the final consummation at the resurrection, is a romance, a dance between the divine and the fallen, a love story of a hero rescuing His bride from sure demise. It’s the oldest story there is, and we get to play the leading lady.

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.

Zephram Foster

Zephram Foster writes from Tahlequah, Oklahoma. He works in higher education, and in youth ministry in a Reformed Baptist Church. He creates in various formats such as songwriting, blogging, and hosting a film podcast called Not Qualified.