Christian Marriage: a historical study

Edited by Glenn Olsen, 2001

This book appears to be a collection of essays based on a conference held in 1994.  All essays deal with the evolution of Christianity’s understanding of marriage, with each essay covering a specific time period.  There’s a noticable Catholic slant; the last essay, on the twentieth century, focuses entirely on Catholic infighting.  Nevertheless, all Christians will find a great deal of interest here.  One of the biggest things readers will find is that the issues that exercised past generations of theologians were not the same as today’s issues.  For example, a major issue for the was whether it is the expression of consent or physical consummation that makes a marriage.  Sacramental thinking leans towards the latter, but this was thought unacceptable, because then Mary and Joseph, and couples undertaking “spiritual marriages”, wouldn’t really be married.  Some particular highlights:

  1. From Francis Martin, I learn that the Stoics of the Imperial age produced a significant body of work on marriage and family life, with a “natural relationships” focus a bit reminiscent of Confucianism.  I may have to read some of this when I get the chance.
  2. Glenn Olsen has a nice discussion of Saint Augustine’s writings on the ends (that is, the goods) of marriage.
  3. Teresa Pierre shows that Hugh of St. Victor was a crucial figure in settling Christian marriage theology.  Hugh taught that marriage is a sacrament in the rigorous sense:  a sign of spiritual realities that confers grace.  Both consent and consummation symbolize the union of Christ with the Church, but in different ways.  Consent symbolizes the spiritual union of the soul with God.  Consummation symbolizes the Incarnation, in which human and divine were corporeally joined.
  4. In R.V. Young’s essay on the Reformation, I came to appreciate what a potent force for evil John Milton (Mr. Divorce) has been.  Milton claimed that Jesus’ condemnations of divorce don’t apply to the elect.  For them, an unhappy marriage is no marriage at all.
  5. John Haas defends the traditional understanding of marriage in terms of its ends from modern critics, who demand something more personally meaningful.  As Haas points out, for essentialists like the scholastics, a thing’s end is its meaning.

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