By Ephraim Radner

Christopher Brittain thinks that “evangelicals” are “confused” about marriage and the theology of marriage.[1] I seem to be in the front rank of the confused: “baffling,” “backwards” in my logic, and so on. He invites us to sit down with him so he can help sort us out. But what does he have to offer those trying to navigate the realities of birth, the struggle for a faithful mortal existence, profound yearnings based on ephemeral lifespans, and finally death? Only vague gestures to an abstracted Trinity, untethered to the Scriptures, and a historically neutered Christ. To this alternative I would imagine that many, including me, would say “no thanks.”

Thus, Brittain’s characterization of “evangelical” thinking on sexuality strikes me as off the mark. The Reformation’s focus on the divine “order” of creation has always meant that, beginning with Luther, Protestants would uphold Old Testament articulations of human existence as both revelatory and normative (just as Catholics always did as well!). The consistent use of the Ten Commandments as central to Protestant (and Catholic) teaching is an example of this. Later evangelicals followed suit with this tradition, and they have continued to do so.

To be sure, as our larger civil societies have changed, the application of these scriptural norms has sometimes been difficult. And in an era and context like 21st century North America, the complete civil confusion over sexual identity and relationships has made scriptural application particularly challenging. That evangelicals, like everyone else, have sought to find a variety of ways both to express and engage their commitments in societies that no longer morally support or even have room for them is hardly surprising. But adaptability is commendable in such circumstances, especially as the underlying commitments have in fact remained fairly consistent.


That consistency seems to grate on Brittain. Even granting that my own writing may not always be clear, I suspect that in this case Brittain’s “puzzlement” is mostly rhetorical. It is not so much that he doesn’t understand our arguments; he just doesn’t like them. And what he doesn’t like especially is the claim that human marriage, in a Christian perspective, is properly located in the midst of creaturely existence, in which humans are created in order to be born to a mother and father, to grow and learn in the midst of families (if not always happily), and to offer themselves to the formation of new generations as parents and grandparents (if not always successfully). The fact that “genealogy” is the scriptural context of marriage is particularly troubling to Brittain. Finally, that the genealogical character of marriage should be viewed as the divinely given form of redemption in Christ strikes him as nonsensical: he thinks it a confusion of “nature” with a true biblical faith.

It is this last worry that is perhaps the most revealing of Brittain’s attitudes: natural theology, he asserts, is of some category quite different from scriptural reasoning. Natural theology aims (he seems to think) at some kind of ad hoc gathering of the contingent elements of physics or biology; interesting perhaps, but not intrinsically related to the religious character of faith that the Bible is most genuinely about. The natural world’s order is at best a shifting human conceptual construction, he implies, while scriptural theology refers to eternal truths.

Contrary to Brittain’s assertion, however, the Christian tradition has generally dismissed this separation of creation from the scriptural Word, even in the heyday of the scientific “revolution.” Instead, the traditional Christian belief has been that, since God creates through his Word, the “Word written” and creation together represent a divine “fit” to be studied, delved into, finally embraced. So it is that the genealogies of Scripture properly trace the shape of human creation itself and are thus not only rightly respected, but are revelatory of the great purposes of God in creating humanity in the first place.

Scripture is replete with genealogies. Indeed, the Bible as a whole could be called one great genealogical narrative. The genealogies of Adam derive, after all, from the “generations” of the heavens and the earth themselves as Genesis lays them out (Gen. 2:4). They are crystallized in the genealogies of Israel and of her tribes, which stretch across the history of the Bible, and of the human race itself as it is grafted into this genealogy through the Church. They move all the way to the closing chapters of Revelation, where Israel and the apostolic generations form the shape of the New Jerusalem, inscribed upon her gates (Rev. 21:12-14). These genealogies culminate in the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth, who forms the redemptive vehicle that draws “Adam” into the resurrecting gift of the Second Adam, who is the Christ himself and in whom the “whole body” of both Jew and now Gentile are drawn together. (Adoption serves the purposes of genealogy within the struggles of human life; it does not undercut them.) The genealogies of Jesus, astonishing in their exhaustive reach, are carefully laid out in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (Mat. 1; Lk. 3), and reveal that the Messiah’s flesh — his life given to the creatures he has himself made — is itself the gift that human marriage both offers the world, and in which it rejoices and finds its purpose and fulfilment.

Brittain’s notion that the “begats” of the Bible are mere nods to the copulatory acts of human reproductive biology, religiously irrelevant in themselves, is not so much confused as simply odd. Genealogy necessarily involves copulation between women and men, of course, and its generative potential. But it is far more than this, as Scripture itself so richly describes human life:  genealogy is a struggle to bring life into the world, to protect it, to tend and to form it, to direct its character, and to offer it to God in the form of obedience, love, and self-giving to those who follow as “children of Adam.” Genealogy is sacrifice, and hence goes to the heart of God.

This struggle moves far beyond mere contingency: it forms the very substance of biblical time, and stands at the center of human creation’s divine purpose. From the first couple, through their sibling offspring and down through the generative struggle that somehow overcomes flood and fire, the promise to the Nations works its way through Abraham’s circumcised sons and married daughters, ordered and suffered through the children of Jacob. The “Book of the Generations of Jesus” (Mat. 1:1) unveils how the married life embodied in this history has been the vehicle of God’s own self-offering.

St. Paul, taking up the teaching of Jesus, will call this married coupling the sign and “mystery” (“sacrament” in Latin) of the saving cross of Christ:  “For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh” (Gen. 2:24; Mk. 10:7-8; Eph. 5:31). To say that human marriage between a man and a woman is a sacrament (Eph. 5:32), is simply to affirm the actual shape of Scripture, no more no less.

Brittain’s alternative affirmation is, to be sure, a common one today. As Scripture’s genealogical character is marginalized, so too are peoples and their histories, Israel most of all. We know where that has led. What is left are individuals, each seeking some escape from the divine limits of creaturely generation, each imagining and seeking to construct a society that could render such an escape possible. It is interesting to see how Jesus is construed in the course of such a search: he becomes the embodiment of escape itself. Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit after all, therefore (goes the argument) fathers and mothers are clearly irrelevant to his being. The contemporary focus on his virginal conception by the Holy Spirit follows the pattern of ignoring his generated human flesh, joined to Israel, and through Israel to Adam. The mystery of Jesus’ incarnate existence is now lifted up as an example to be followed theologically: human parentage is superfluous, genealogy is a historical contingency, existence is abstracted into a set of principled hopes and desires.

It is no surprise that Brittain wants to set evangelicals right with a set of trinitarian models for human existence (à la Tanner): such models are, after all, a wonderfully (though only recently) adapted tool for leaving created existence behind. Taken in their abstracted forms, the uncreated persons of God can never ground the hopes bound up with birth, bodies, maturation, enfeeblement, violence, and death. That may be their attraction in some circles today, but it is hardly a theologically virtuous one. Let us praise and adore the Holy Trinity; but copy it? It is hard to fathom what that might even mean. The relations of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit do not offer a model for how created human beings live within the limitations of their mortal life-spans. The “image of God,” according to which human beings are created, is not, in Scriptural terms, the Trinity; rather, that Image is first described in terms of “male and female,” and hence the genealogical pattern of mortal human existence.

By contrast, one of the blatant scriptural facts surrounding the birth of the Messiah is that his thoroughly divine nature and its consequent “unnatural” conception does nothing to disturb the genealogical dynamic, not only of Jesus’s own historical location within the “generations” of Adam and Abraham, but of his followers’. What was, in Jesus’ words, “from the beginning” decidedly continues for the Church: women and men are married, women are in travail and blessed by prayer, children are born, their lives are “sanctified” by parental faith, divorce is rejected, virtues are described in common life, and even the patriarchs and matriarchs remain the exemplary shape of human life (Rom. 9:9; Heb. 11:11; 1 Pet. 3; etc.). Likewise, the struggles of this life — parents’ sorrow, children’s suffering, spousal demands and obstacles — all remain in place, not simply as the debris of the Fall, but as the material with which divine grace does its work. There is nothing confused in both noting and underlining this fact; rather, it is matter of scriptural honesty.

If anything new emerges from the story of the Messiah — begotten from within the generational stream of human marriage yet given away without offspring — it is not so much a transformation of marriage itself, as it is the recognition of singleness as a profoundly faithful service to the Lord. The Church discovered in “virginity” a previously unelaborated avenue of obedience that, as we know, gave rise finally to a monastic form of life that transfigured human culture in many ways. It also led, here and there, to cultural and religious deformities that lie behind long-standing debates and conflicts among Christians. In our own era and place, however, the culture of celibacy as a calling and gift is surely now seen as one of the great evangelical possibilities that demands rediscovery and reconsideration, in a way that can be seen (as it originally was) not as an enemy of human marriage, but as a partner in its purposes. There are rich theological avenues to be explored here. Perhaps this is something we can and should sit down and talk about.

But however we take account of same-sex relationships, whether long-lived or not, I do not see how they can properly be called marriage. With whatever goods are embodied in them — and I will be the last to deny some of these — I do not see how same-sex relationships can amount to marriage anymore than the joys of a meal of bread, wine, and cheese with friends can amount to a Eucharist. Neither marriage nor the Eucharist are clusters of feelings, habits, or principles that can be transferred to analogous actions. Each is just what it is as, as given by God, designating a unique reality and message. Marriage embodies the generational act that gives rise to the flesh of the Messiah Jesus, and through it the redemptive genealogy of his life and being as given in the Scriptures and offered for the human race. In this regard, marriage is as sacramental as is baptism and the Eucharist, if in a unique way. This too is worth talking about.

But such a discussion would benefit from avoiding simplistic categorizations (“evangelicals think in such and such a way”), assumptions about the relationship (or the lack of such relationship) between divine creation and divine Word, and presumptions about the putative misguidedness of those with whom one disagrees. Yes, we are not of the same mind. And our different minds on these matters lead in radically divergent directions of action and politics. Still, they are minds informed by a responsible care for God’s Word and work, and a respectful acknowledgement of this fact will go far to framing a useful conversation.

[1] A slightly different version of this essay has also been published by ABC Religion and Ethics.

Ephraim Radner is a priest in the Episcopal Church (Diocese of Colorado) and professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College, an Anglican seminary affiliated with the University of Toronto. His doctorate from Yale University is in theology.

About The Author

Ephraim Radner is a priest in the Episcopal Church (Diocese of Colorado) and professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College, an Anglican seminary affiliated with the University of Toronto. His doctorate from Yale University is in theology.

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6 Responses

  1. Paul Zahl

    Ephraim “wins” this one, hands down. His argument is entirely accurate to the Christian tradition and to Scripture. The other man’s piece is “but a form of words”. It is chaff which the wind will blow away.
    I foresee no “win” for Dr. Radner’s truth (Truth) in the human church at this point. But in “The Long Run” (Eagles, 1979), that Truth will stand, be exonerated, and be embraced again.

  2. Chris Dowdeswell

    Despite the secondary issues Radner rightly pushes back in Brittain’s critique, Radner fails to adequately address the fatal flaw Brittain identifies in his argument. “Without marriage of man and woman, no Messiah”? This is, as Brittain maintains, a position in search of a theological rationale. The point of the genealogies in both Matthew and Luke must of course be interpreted within the greater narrative of the Virgin birth, that which turns the natural order on its head. Orthodox Christology is that Christ is both human AND divine, and that this is only possible outside of the natural procreative order of a human father and a human mother. As Luke tells us, “(Jesus) was the son, so it was thought…”

    • The Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner

      Dowdeswell is right: Jesus is born as the God-Man (in Origen’s phrase), “human and divine”. And as a human, he finds his place within all the genealogies of human history, in which Mary herself was found; and was taken into a very specific one, somehow, via Joseph and as carefully delineated by the Scriptures. Nor was his status as “Joseph’s son” one of “adoption”; it’s a rather mysterious reality, though one which the Church never had any scruples asserting. Joseph and Mary were a married couple, and that is simply “how” the Messiah came into our midst (leaving pneumatic mysteries of conception aside, which never demanded that we “go and do likewise”, even if we could). I am not sure how any of this “turns the natural order on its head”. Rather, I am grateful that God saw fit to use this as the framework of his condescended love. The Incarnation of the Son of God is a wonderful thing. It is not, nor did the New Testament let alone the Church ever think it was, something that undermines fundamental order of human procreative marriage of “male and female”.

      • cal

        I’m a little confused with this reply: are you saying that Christ’s Humanity requires that Joseph be the biological father of Jesus, or that Christ was born from Joseph’s procreative act with Mary?

        The quotation marks around “adoption” and “how” leave this comment very cryptic.

      • The Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner

        It is confusing. The miraculous incarnation of the Son of God is divinely determined to be by biological birth from a human mother who is somehow impregnated by the Holy Spirit, yet in every respect gives birth like any other woman (hence the purification rites that follow in the Temple). Yet the child Jesus is placed within the geneaological line of Joseph. We are not told how. Joseph is viewed as Jesus’ father. Polemical tradition called him a “bastard”; but that presumes he had a human father other than his legal father JOseph. He did not. He was not in any modern sense “adopted” by Joseph either. Rather, Joseph married Mary, who had been impregnated by God, and thus became Jesus human father, genealogically. My larger point is simply that the incarnation did not subvert the genealogical ordering of Israel and its promised Messiah.

      • cal

        Thank you for that clarification, this makes a lot more sense. The distinction between biological conception and genealogy is something to chew on (normally identical, but in the incarnation, unusually distinct, though without contradiction or breakdown).

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