"We bless thee for our creation": why natural theology matters in the marriage debate

In my view, this is not biblical but natural theology. It is a vision of the Christian life based on the rhythm of creaturely procreation and mortality. 

The recent exchange on ABC Religion & Ethics between Christopher Craig Brittain and Ephraim Radner on the contemporary Anglican marriage debate is interesting for a perhaps unexpected reason.  Laudable Practice has previously avoided commenting on this debate for a number of reasons.  Chiefly, however, I am unconvinced that either perspective is seriously considering how the church's solemnization of matrimony contributes to the flourishing and well-being of the civitas as community and as an embodiment of the created order.

The quote from Brittain above, critiquing Radner's theology of marriage, is a significant example of this.  Placing 'biblical' theology over and against natural theology is, of course, an ancient predilection of some theologies which have undermined the Church's life and witness.  It is challenged by the opening affirmation of the Apostles' Creed: 'Maker of heaven and earth'.  And it sits very uneasily beside the declaration in the 1662 rite for the Solemnization of Matrimony, that marriage was "instituted by God in the time of man's innocency", "who at the beginning did create our first parents, Adam and Eve, and sanctify and join them together in marriage".  To speak of marriage is, then, to practice natural theology.

In his second contribution to the exchange, Brittain stated:

I did not intend to imply that natural theology is inappropriate as such.

Of course, the very fact that such clarification has to be offered is in itself significant.  Such clarification is certainly required after reading phrases such "the mere biological 'flesh' that I inherit". The meaning of this clarification, however, is obscured when - contrary to classical Anglican teaching - Brittain ends his second essay (and here he echoes Radner) by placing marriage within the sacramental order:

This is where I would make a link between marriage and the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist, established on an eschatological horizon. 

Marriage, however, in the words of Article XXV, is one those rites "not to be counted for Sacraments of the Gospel".  While Matrimony does have an iconic significance recognised in the 1662 rite - "in it is signified and represented the spiritual marriage and unity betwixt Christ and his Church" - this is not its foundation, what the Homily of the State of Matrimony terms "the original beginning of matrimony".  Our discourse concerning marriage, and the Church's practice of marriage, finds its centre not in the sacramental order, but in natural theology.

The Homily goes on to state:

it is also ordained, that the church of God and his kingdom might by this kind of life be conserved and enlarged, not only in that God giveth children by his blessing, but also in that they be brought up by the parents godly, in the knowledge of God's word, that thus the knowledge of God and true religion might be delivered by succession from one to another.

Or, to quote Brittain's criticism of Radner:

It is a vision of the Christian life based on the rhythm of creaturely procreation and mortality. 

Rather than being dismissed as an inferior concern, a regretful focus on mere "biological temporality", creaturely procreation has been embraced within the Church's life, witness, and mission.  Hence the household codes in the Pauline epistles, reflecting what sociologist Rodney Stark highlighted in his The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History, in which "creaturely procreation" is identified as a key cause of the growth of the early Church.

Radner's rejoinder, then, should be heeded:

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.

The coherence of the order of salvation with the order of creation has been a characteristic concern of the Anglican tradition.  In Hooker's words:

All other thinges that are of God have God in them and he them in him selfe likewise ... All thinges are therefore pertakers of God, they are his ofspringe (LEP V.56.5)

To attempt, therefore, to articulate an understanding of marriage apart from our creaturerly nature, or to exclude from its significance the desire for procreation, is to stand apart from the Anglican tradition's rich vision of the created order, of natural theology cohering with - rather than rent asunder from - redemptive grace.

Which is why the parson solemnizes matrimony in the parish church, and why parents bring their children to the Font, for grace does not destroy nature.  The loves, affections, and desires of marriage and children are not dismissed by the Church as "creaturely" but are joyfully received as "pertakers of God", which, by grace bestowed in the blessing of Matrimony and the Sacrament of Baptism, share in the mystery of our redemption.


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