Tuesday 8 July 2008

Against marriage: or, why churches should stop performing weddings

In an interesting post, Jason argues for a religious understanding of marriage, and he cites P. T. Forsyth’s view that marriage is much more than a social contract: “the more one ponders the solemn implicates and slow effects of marriage, moral and spiritual, the more one feels that it has something sacramental in its nature.”

I think this is exactly the wrong thing to say about marriage. In fact, I’d like to see the church stop its custom of benignly validating the institution of marriage. The investment of marriage with a pseudo-religious quality has long diminished the witness of the church: the state authorises a legal union, and then calls upon the church to bless this union with a thin veneer of religiosity. Here, as elsewhere, the church proves itself to be the state’s faithful servant: yes, we will validate state authority with a harmless blessing; yes, we are only too pleased to sanctify the wedding ceremony, and to clothe the social functions of romantic love and family life with a saintly aura.

Notice that the church is not invited here to proclaim its own proper message of judgment and grace. The church is not invited to bear witness. Instead, we are simply asked to add God’s blessing to the social order and to the state’s authority. Here the situation is just the same as in those churches where all infants born into the nation-state are provided with baptism: the church’s witness is undermined completely by its willingness to serve as the state’s lapdog. We are like the comically odious Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice – that sycophantic clergyman who waits upon the pleasure of his exalted benefactress, Lady Catherine De Bourgh, and is only too pleased to do her bidding whenever the opportunity arises.

If there is anything distinctively Christian to say about marriage, then the first step should be the church’s flat refusal to co-operate in the grim and desperate business of wedding ceremonies, and a flat refusal to provide the state with any so-called “marriage altar.” As Karl Barth has put it, marriage “must be completely divested of the character of a religious doublet to the civil ceremony” (CD III/4, p. 228).

Indeed, far from merely authorising weddings with pious talk about the “spiritual and moral” depths of marital love, the church’s witness demands a critique of romantic love – yes, a critique of marriage itself! As Dietrich Bonhoeffer has incisively argued in Life Together, the sexual relationship is by no means “sacramental in nature.” Instead, in our own societies romantic love functions as an idol which demands absolute subservience.

Halden explores this theme in a brilliant engagement with Bonhoeffer: “The longing to be completed through immediate contact with another is the reigning mythos of romance in our age. It is the object of voracious, often violent pursuit at all costs…. The fact is that in our romantic imaginations we seem to remain disturbingly trapped in the Zeitgeist of our age, hoping that by journeying deeper into the abyss of our selfishness we will somehow find the community that we long for with the other.” In Bonhoeffer’s analysis, the marriage relationship is not “sacramental by nature,” but it is selfish and parasitic by nature. In its hidden depths one finds not the comforting glow of religious sanctity, but an abyss of violence and self-will, a voracious need to find my own image reflected in the face of another.

But such a bleak analysis is not the last word. If the church refuses to sanctify the social order and the state’s authority as “naturally” blessed, it is also true that the church is a community with its own proper practices, its own virtues, its own proclamation of the good as that which has interrupted and reconfigured the natural order through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

If we begin to refuse church participation in wedding ceremonies, perhaps the way will be opened for a renewed sacramental understanding of marriage. The church refuses to recognise the marital relationship – or, for that matter, “the family” – as the fundamental social unit. Instead, the Christian community recognises the body of Christ as the fundamental social order of the new creation. And within this new society, within this economy of friendship and hospitality and self-giving, the church also bears witness to particular instantiations of Christian friendship, to specially gifted loci of generosity and hospitality and self-giving love.

Here, Christian marriage is sacramental precisely because it bears witness to the incursion of the new creation. It interrupts the existing order with the glad tidings of God’s new world. It interrupts marriage itself – and all the parasitic violence of romantic love – with the joyful and generous reality of the peace of the body of Christ.

In short: let’s say No to church-sanctioned weddings, No to the culture of romance-at-any-cost, but Yes to the sacrament of marriage, Yes to the body of Christ. To paraphrase St Paul: For in Christ Jesus, neither marriage nor singleness is anything; what counts is a new creation.


Halden said...

This is great, Ben. I'm glad someone took my reflections on Bonhoeffer and romance and brought them into conversation with marriage. I didn't quite feel qualified!

But this is exactly the direction I would have taken. Superb stuff.

DJW said...

It is not the practice in the Catholic Church to perform a civil ceremony before the liturgical marriage ceremony

Do you mean your observations to hold for all Christian churches or only certain ones?

Mykel G. Larson said...

It would seem that modern culture (tenative word there - I would posit that our culture is very much disconnected from itself)
will be for a long time engaged in a mythic duel with the virtue of any particular spiritual theological position regarding the nature of love, marriage, and communion.

Ever since Hollywood arose from one of Dante's rings of The Inferno, there has been this myth of romantic love that revolves around self-fulfillment and indulgence, the net result being a competition between the participants of relationship to perpetually live in an artifical state of bliss.

The promise of "love", especially in the context of marriage, is communion, not union. In union, either element can be separated from the other. In communion, each lives in the other, a feedback loop that is truly unbreakable. That's the hope, and faith, in the institution of marriage.

And beyond that, the promise of marriage is not so much the fulfillment of two people in communion with not only one another, through, with and IN God, but the whole "ritual" and "theatre" of marriage is a rite of initiation into the community at large. It's the proclamation that two people have chosen of their own free will to bear the sufferings and joys of life, together, living in harmony and peace (an impossible dream, perhaps!) with the whole of not only society, but existence.

So these calls to abolish the whole ritual of marriage is pretty much silly in my estimation. What would be of benefit (ha ha) is a reformulation (maybe one of an antediluvian nature) of the whole concept of marriage itself. The ritual does not need to be cut out. The intent and promise of marriage needs to be healed from the inside out.

QED: Pray.

Murray said...

If God joins a married couple (Mt 19:6), why shouldn't his Church be the vehicle of pronouncing, blessing, and sharing some of the joy of this union?

(In the Church of England, it is the church that performs the actual wedding and doesn't just bless the civil union unless it is a case of remarriage of divorce.)

Chris E W Green said...


I'm afraid I don't understand. Are you arguing against marriage, wedding ceremonies, or only those ceremonies which are simply consenting to the state's declaration? The title of your post suggests it is all of the above, but you conclude by calling for a "Yes to the sacrament of marriage."

I want to respond at length, but I need to be sure I understand your position first!

Evan said...

I'm likewise confused about what this post is trying to say. You seem to feel the need to reject marriage before refashioning it, and this seems to be the result of an (in my mind unnecessary) assumption that marriage as a religious institution presupposes marriage as a civil instition. I don't think it does, and I think that this is what allows for Jason's critique of certain civil constructions of marriage through a proper religious understanding of it, without first needing to deconstruct the institution of marriage as you have done.

I also think that a proper understanding of marriage on a theological level must not stop at simply smashing the idol of romantic love, or state-sanctioned unions, or civil marriage contracts. It should offer something constructive to social life; as Jason says, "While it is a lot more, marriage is no less than a social act. The social form, therefore, is not indifferent." I think your take on this is too flat- you provide a blanket recognition of an ecclesial sociality, but your seem to set it in a competitive relationship with the sociality of the family or society, which seems to get in the way of the very renewal of creation that you seek.

Brandon Jones said...

I have to agree with a few others. This could have used some consulting and editing before being posted. I'm not sure what you're really trying to say either.

Not to give a totally unhelpful comment, I will say that I've enjoyed Timothy Gorringe's arguments about revelation in human sexuality, and his understanding of how marriage can be a sacrament in his book "Discerning Spirit."

Anonymous said...

Tour de force Ben. I've elaborated on your ideas a little further in this post, unpacking a little of the dangers involved in pastoralia when confronted with the idol of romantic love.

Thanks for what you wrote.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

A very provocative post, and I agree with Ben and Halden on the idolatrous way in which so much of contemporary culture views love and marriage.

But since you bring Bonhoeffer into the discussion... I wonder how the church should address the civil phenomenon of marriage. As Bonhoeffer shows in "Ethics," we need to think carefully about the relation between the ultimate and the penultimate. You are right to distinguish the Christian view of marriage from the civil, like the ultimate from the penultimate; but surely Christians should also be concerned about the health of marriage among those outside of the church. I understand that was not the point of your post, but the question I would like to pose now concerns how the church should address non-Christian marriage.

As you suggest, it would be wise to stop blurring the distinction so that the church can clear up the distortions Ben and Halden so effectively described. If the church stopped buying into the pop conception of marriage, it could have a stronger witness to the ultimate. In that way, the church could practice marriage as a sort of arcane discipline.

But beyond this, how else might church struggle to preserve marriage as a penultimate good in society as well? I expect it can do so as a witness to the ultimate, as well as through critique akin to what we've seen in Ben's and Halden's posts. Any thoughts?

Anonymous said...

I'm with Chris, Evan, and Brandon. I'm not sure what you're suggesting, Ben.

Virtual Methodist said...

I can't speak for anyone else but within the Methodist Church in Ireland our theology of marriage is a mishmash of undigested Anglican liturgy combined with the secular rule of law... There is no clearly articulated Biblical position. However, my argument would not be for an abandonment of the provision of marriage, but an abandonment of the civil element of such, and a clear articulation of what we mean by a Biblical understanding of marriage (in the face of post-renaissance romantic love and post-1960s unromantic lust) within a new, distinctly Christian liturgy.

Anonymous said...

So is this a problem of society or the church? If the church would just recognize the sanctity of marriage - and hold to it - I doubt we would be seeing this problem.
Why not have a God-honoring, Christ-Centered marriage in a (bible-believing)church?
I put the blame on any pastor that performs a wedding ceremony in which the couple has not sought his counsel. My dear Pastor who I served under, required that every couple come through his marriage counseling. Amazingly - by God's grace- he has never had one of those couples dissolve their marriage. - so yes, I would agree with Brian "the church could practice marriage as a sort of arcane discipline."

Ben Myers said...

Thanks for these comments, especially for the expressions of confusion! I'm sorry the post wasn't clearer, and I take Brandon's point that "this could have used some consulting and editing before being posted": it was, of course, an unresearched and half-baked rant — but that's what blogs are for, right?

Anyway, to try to clarify: My point is that the sacrament of marriage is itself "against marriage". The church should not be announcing that marriage-as-such is naturally a "holy estate", "ordained by God", etc. There is nothing inherently sacred about the institution of marriage; and so the sacrament of marriage should be separated completely from the civil business of marrying. Marriage is not "naturally" sacramental; rather, the sacramental action is an interruption, an incursion into the normal order of things. To revise the old Thomistic maxim: gratia non perficit naturam, sed irrupi — grace does not perfect nature, but interrupts it.

My point is not that wedding ceremonies should be dissolved, but that the these ceremonies should simply be handed over to the state; they are the state's concern, not the church's. The church has no special interest in marriage-as-such, nor does the church have any special interest in the stability of the social order, etc. Instead, the church's concern is with the body of Christ, and with the sacrament of marriage as liturgical action.

I'm not sure what this would look like in practical terms. Karl Barth's proposal is that Christian marriage, completely separated from the civil proceedings, should take the form of a simple pronouncement within the church's normal gathered worship. And I've heard that a Quaker wedding can seem almost indistinguishable from the normal worship meeting. However it's done, though, I think the crucial thing is a sharp distinction of the church's liturgical action from the civil ceremony; and the refusal to sanctify the institution of marriage-as-such.

I hope this goes some way towards clarifying the post!

Anonymous said...

A few years back Michael Kinsley argued that the government should get out of the marriage business:


And now you're arguing that the Church should too, or at least the Church should get out of the wedding business.

I guess that in the weird intersection of Radical Orthodoxy and Secular Left-leaning Libertarianism, the ideal would be, as Kinsley writes, that marriages would be outsourced to gambling casinos, and department stores. How handy! You could browse for gifts in the china section while keeping one eye on the ceremony.

Weddings are a pain for ministers. Lots of high maintenance people in a high stress situation. But as far as the marriages that I officiate are concerned, they aren't about romantic love. They're about the covenant that a bride and groom enter into with Jesus Christ. That, and Handel's Trumpet Voluntary, which is not a bad piece of music at all, and I don't mind hearing it three to four times per year. And I don't mind getting a shot at preaching to the unwashed pagan masses who won't come on Sunday, but who do show up at weddings. It's a great opportunity to proclaim the gospel of covanented love to a litigious, selfish society.

There's something of a pattern developing here. No flags, no weddings, no God-knows-what-else in the liturgy, and then all will be right. I do take the liturgy seriously, and there are no American or any other flags in my sanctuary, but I don't think that liturgy will save us.

Anonymous said...

Hi. I’m normally just an observer here, but I can’t help jumping in on this discussion. One thing I might venture to suggest for those who are having a difficult time grasping the point here is to sit down and really talk with the single people in your churches. Not necessarily with the college students or even the twentysomethings, but those who are 30 or 40 or 50 and still unmarried. Ask them how they perceive their singleness to impact their inclusion in the church body. Are they treated in accordance with Ben’s paraphrase, “For in Christ Jesus, neither marriage nor singleness is anything; what counts is a new creation”? Or are they marginalized and made to feel less than human? I believe that they are often marginalized, and this is because (I think) the church has indeed bought into society’s idolatry of romance (and marriage and “family values” for that matter) and doesn’t quite know what to do with those who are “alone” in this sense, except pity them or perhaps play matchmaker for them. I love reading Bonhoeffer on this point – he actually seems to take Christ’s redefinition of the family seriously: “Who are my mother and my brothers?…Whoever does God's will is my brother and sister and mother." Ben is absolutely correct—the body of Christ is fundamental social order of the new creation, and so it ought to be of the church here and now in anticipation of the new creation. All other relationships must be understood in appropriate relation to this supreme reality. Thanks for this, Ben. Great post.

Anonymous said...

What was I thinking? Jeremiah Clarke composed Trumpet Voluntary.

Mykel G. Larson said...

"To revise the old Thomistic maxim: gratia non perficit naturam, sed irrupi — grace does not perfect nature, but interrupts it."

That's very interesting. So, question for you:

If grace does not perfect nature, then what was all that business about Jesus rising from the Tomb, Ascending to Heaven, being Glorified, and Divinized all about?

Did grace somehow interrupt Jesus' true nature? I don't think so.

Also, there's that sticky wiquet about what it means to "interrupt." That can mean a whole host of different things. You can interrupt me while going to the store, but I am going to get to the store. Or, you can interrupt me while going to the store, and I end up going elsewhere...

That's the challenge with these sorts of context dependent truisms that get thrown around in the soup of theology.

Besides, we know very little about nature, and even less about God. However, I think the best that can be said, is that we hope we align our beings in a manner that is in harmony with God and His will.

Other points that stuck out, at least for me:

"The church has no special interest in marriage-as-such, nor does the church have any special interest in the stability of the social order, etc. Instead, the church's concern is with the body of Christ, and with the sacrament of marriage as liturgical action."

Ahhhhhhhh, so much to say about this one, but I'll try to compress it into a few points.

1. What did Christ do in terms of the social order at the time of his "incarnation?"
2. What's the central message of Augustine in City of God?

People have a choice about how they wish to conduct themselves. Simply throwing in the towel to the desires of society, taking the ball away and hiding it, I personally think is a course of action that can severely separate ANY church from reality, regardless of the cultural epoch.

It's an interesting claim that churches exist as some sort of nexus of annexes to society to fulfill particular rituals, rites of passage, what have you, and these somehow have to possess a societal congruence. I think the issue needs to be looked at from an entirely different angle.

David W. Congdon said...


Thanks for the clarification. I have to admit that while I enjoyed the post, it left me very confused. So I have some thoughts.

First, it seems that your critique is primarily concerned with the Constantinian conception of the church. Marriage is just one aspect of this legacy, but you could easily critique other common practices as well. The most famous one being, of course, infant baptism. Insofar as marriage ceremonies are conceived along the lines of infant baptisms -- acts which are simply religious blessings of the state -- then your critique adds to the already well-established group of voices who have spoken out against the Constantinian captivity of the church.

Second, I think your post would be improved with some attention to the mission of the church and to missional theology in general. Central to missional theology is an emphasis on a post-Constantinian ecclesiology, one which refuses to identify the gospel with a particular cultural-political structure. Lamin Sanneh's works are important here. In any case, what might it look like to see marriage as part of the mission of the church? I think this is the direction in which this conversation needs to go.

Just as it is not enough to simply be "against Constantinian Christianity," so too it is not enough to be "against marriage." One has to construct an alternative ecclesiology, and this is where I think missional theology has much to offer. But it's also where I think this post is lacking. There is plenty of negative interruption, but very little positive reconstruction (i.e., resurrection). The clarifying comment helps, but you still concede: "I'm not sure what this would look like in practical terms." When it comes to a topic that is essentially practical in nature, it's not enough to get rid of a practice without having something positive to replace it. Without a constructive alternative, nobody will act any differently, and Christian blessings of civil ceremonies will continue. It will be business as usual.

Third, what does it mean to speak of "the sacrament of marriage as liturgical action" in the absence of and outright rejection of wedding ceremonies? To echo an earlier comment, don't Catholic Churches already have this? And why even retain the language of sacrament in relation to marriage? Isn't the language of sacrament itself part of the problem, as Barth notes in relation to baptism? I'm confused about why you even retain the term. I'm also confused about what a liturgical act of marriage would even look like in your model, and what the point would be.

Fourth, my experience of Christian weddings within American evangelicalism is interesting. While evangelicals are guilty of many things and your critique is certainly worth hearing, I would be willing to bet that few if any of them (speaking very generally here) would see their marriage ceremony as a civil ceremony. In fact, I would bet that virtually all of them would see it as an event in the life of the ecclesial community, which only incidentally has anything connected with the state at all. Most of the sermons I've heard at wedding ceremonies also locate the marriage within the body of Christ, as a special instance of Christ's covenant fellowship with the church made concrete in the self-giving fellowship of two children of God. There is nothing about these ceremonies which self-evidently makes them incapable of bearing witness to the body of Christ. The question is then: Are you criticizing certain forms of marriage? Or are you indeed criticizing and advocating the abolition of all marriage ceremonies in the church? If so, then I offer my final comment...

Fifth, is it not possible that the rejection of wedding ceremonies from the church is itself a way of baptizing the state? It seems to me that this is analogous to those churches which leave politics to the state and confine the church to so-called "spiritual matters." But this is only to give up the church's prophetic voice and baptize the politics of the state. Instead of rejecting marriage altogether, wouldn't it be healthier to redeem it? It's not clear to me that marriage is inherently incapable of bearing witness to the new creation. It might need to die before it is reborn, but I am not convinced that relegating marriage to the civil sphere is necessarily the direction the church must take. In the same way that the church ought to embody its own politics, so too the church should embody its own way of conducting marriage. And both should be forms of the church's missional witness to the reign of Jesus Christ.

In the end, the position of being "against marriage" seems to me to be a clear dead end. It is a wholly negative position which has no positive counterpart. Maybe there is one, but it's not clear to me that there is. I too am "against marriage" in the Constantinian form which you rightly censure, but it's by no means self-evident to me that this is the last word to be said about marriage. Saying "Yes to the sacrament of marriage, Yes to the body of Christ" is intriguing but extremely vague. What does it mean? What does it look like? Or are we both talking about the same thing? To put it another way, are you suggesting that marriage ceremonies are intrinsically bound to the culture of "romance-at-any-cost"?

To sum up, it seems appropriate to remember the axiom: abuse does not bar proper use.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for saying much of what I was thinking and probably better than I could have; well said, D.W.


Mykel G. Larson said...

D.W. Cogdon mentioned something about offering up an alternative.

So, to get the ball rolling, I will offer one up:

Ignore the paradigms of Hollywood - if nothing else, they are great fun for indulging in hedonistic fantasy (minus the porn industry which was mentioned in a previous topic), assuming one has a well-formed membrane that is inviolate to what such lurid imagery promotes.

The irony of Hollywood is that it's buried deep within "The City Of Angels."

Question is - which ones? ;)

However, I will admit, Hollywood once in a great while releases some flicks that offer glimmers of hope regarding the heroic virtue of the human being - heart, mind, soul and all.

Ben Myers said...

Thanks Marston, I hadn't heard of Will Campbell's practice, but I like the sound of it!

D.W., many thanks for your extensive questions, which have given me plenty to think about. (And I'm not particularly entrenched in my views about all this — I'm just thinking aloud.) Anyway, here's a couple of quick responses:

"The clarifying comment helps, but you still concede: 'I'm not sure what this would look like in practical terms.' When it comes to a topic that is essentially practical in nature, it's not enough to get rid of a practice without having something positive to replace it. I see what you mean, but I think the inability to imagine an alternative practice really illustrates the problem: Christian marriage has become hopelessly compromised through its confusion with the operation of the state — the confusion is so great that we really can't imagine doing it any other way. Barth highlights this problem when he speaks of the "absolutely incontestable" need for a reform of church practice regarding marriage: "But the right form in which to do this has still to be found" (III/4, p. 228). The fact that it's hard to imagine an alternative practice doesn't invalidate the call for reform — it just shows that we've got a long way to go!

"Instead of rejecting marriage altogether, wouldn't it be healthier to redeem it? It's not clear to me that marriage is inherently incapable of bearing witness to the new creation." Yes, I agree with you completely. I'm certainly not trying to "reject marriage altogether". (I myself am married, and I like it a great deal!) My point is just that the institution of marriage has no special religious significance. It is not naturally "graced", it's not "a holy estate". The practice of Christian marriage shouldn't take the form of a recognition of God's generic blessing upon certain kinds of sexual relationships; instead, it should be a real conferral of grace, an incursion into the marriage relationship and its transformation into something new — in other words, a sacrament.

Anthony Douglas said...

"There is nothing inherently sacred about the institution of marriage"??!!

Am I bonkers, or does Matthew 19:4-5 suggest that marriage was God's idea in the first place? Just how else would it be possible to construe this?

If that's not God instituting marriage, I'll eat my wedding certificate (the one my church handed us, not the dull replica that the government gave us later).

Ben, don't you really want a critique of romance, or at least marriage-as-instantiated-romance, or something like that? Otherwise, this is just bizarre. You seem to be saying that seeing as the state thinks marriage is under its purview, it must be right! By the same logic that would ban ceremonies, we'd have to ban all corporate prayer for the health of marriages, etc.

Bruce Yabsley said...

Ben speaking as someone who falls into the category kristie b mentioned --- pushing 40, and single --- I can certainly agree that the 'the church has indeed bought into society’s idolatry of romance (and marriage and “family values” for that matter) and doesn’t quite know what to do with' those of us who don't fit into that system. (There are honourable individual exceptions, of course.) And some fundamental rethinking, including a long hard look in the mirror, would be very welcome.

But the practical course of action, in which you propose to embody this rethinking, is both wild and wildly impractical. From your response to criticisms it seems you meant the post as a trial balloon to be floated: in that case let me echo d.w.congdon's remarks, which said most of what I wanted to say on that score. Two observations to add to it: (1) In common with my reaction to certain other posts here, I Just Do Not Get this business of sweeping, apparently practical pronouncements (or Propositions!) that, when pressed, turn out to be thoughts that one is toying with. I guess this is a Two Cultures thing --- with me as the literal-minded and pedestrian scientist --- but just as a matter of tone, I find it hard to know what to take seriously. (2) Perhaps the same point, but less personally expressed: It seems to me that this post/thread is one movement of a dialectic, in which the other half is currently missing. I think this is unpromising for action.

Now, a straight criticism: the statement that 'the institution of marriage has no special religious significance. It is not naturally "graced", it's not "a holy estate"' is false on its face, since the Dominical reading of Genesis 2 stands against it, and has (to my limited knowledge, and with occasional radical experiments excepted) been understood that way throughout Christian tradition. I think this elephant in the room should be at least acknowledged.

Bruce Yabsley said...

... and it seems anthony douglas beat me to the "publish your comment" button on that last point.

Anonymous said...

Bruce writes: "I Just Do Not Get this business of sweeping, apparently practical pronouncements (or Propositions!) that, when pressed, turn out to be thoughts that one is toying with."

To be fair, Ben's running a theology blog, not the local Management Committee. Theologians are meant to think critically about ecclesial practices, but that doesn't mean they have to come up with a set of bullet-point recommendations.

Mykel G. Larson said...

"Theologians are meant to think critically about ecclesial practices, but that doesn't mean they have to come up with a set of bullet-point recommendations."

Ah, that speaks to a very interesting question in my estimation. What is the purpose of theology hmmm?

If it's meant just to be an intellectual activity, an infinite set of reflections, thoughts, etc., then you have a practice which Kierkegaard himself (though I admit the deck was stacked against him from the beginning - he tried earnestly to be a Christian and an Existentialist at the same time - difficult proposition, to say the least to make a separation of such a degree and then integrate them back togther)reams with unveiled lamentation and rage:

Rough Quote:

"They build a great castle but live in an adjoining shack. They do not live in their great structure."

This is not meant so much as an attack on theology itself, but the way it is practiced in today's culture. I ashamedly admit, I align myself with Kierkegaard, in that a lot of theological discourse ends up being a lot of nonsense and fascination with one's paradigms for what God is and should be. Are we to be called to a practice that exalts the intellect on its own foundations that it eventually crumbles upon further investigation, when the other real dimensions of our being are thrown into the mix, especially God, hmmm?

If theology has been reduced to just thinking and pointing out logical flaws, aberrations of belief, faith, hope and love, then what good is it, hmm? What good is it to commune together in such a manner, in localized spheres of like-minded people, in isolated, fragmented blogs (as much as I do enjoy this one!) to engage in endless philosophizing and explanations upon explanations that eventually generate discussions such as these, hmmm?

This, for what it is worth, is the the danger of modern theology. For if we are to be content with just our views, our thoughts, our beliefs, our narrow dialogues, and not actively live what we believe, whatever it may be, then I feel we are inevitably doomed to share a fate where God is not only unaccessible to us, but we are unaccessible to God.

And we become unaccessible to the whole of humanity, too. That would be a profoundly sad condition, methinks.

Bruce Yabsley said...

Look, I am not asking for bullet points. My preferred medium is prose --- I claim to be reasonably good at it --- and when I do use bullet points, which one can't really avoid in presentation slides, I try to be scrupulous. And did I mention that I have a theology degree? (For what it's worth: and that is of course a matter of debate.)

But statements like 'the first step should be the church’s flat refusal to co-operate in the grim and desperate business of wedding ceremonies, and a flat refusal to provide the state with any so-called “marriage altar.”' and 'let’s say No to church-sanctioned weddings' present themselves as proposed courses of action: as elements in a manifesto. And yet, after engagement with criticism, they turn out not to be. I think this goes beyond thinking critically as such, and embodies a very particular style of talk.

Maybe I am just slow about this sort of thing, and should by habit and acquaintance know that this is how people speak here, and take it on board. But I think my point stands: if it is meant as provocative, well, it succeeds; but to those of us who are not to the manner born, it is also tiring. It's not as though people like me are all hostile to critical thought ... and if we want to follow theology-properly-so-called in this country, it's not as if there are that many other places to go. In other words, the complaint is meant as a friendly one.

Oh, and BTW: that elephant is still sitting there.

Ben Myers said...

Hi Bruce: thanks for pursuing these tough questions. Yes, I certainly meant the post to be a "proposed course of action". When I said that my views on this aren't deeply entrenched, I just mean I'm willing to listen to criticisms and to change my mind if necessary. But the post is obviously a proposal for action: I really do want pastors to get out of the wedding business, and instead to start cultivating distinctive practices of Christian marriage.

As for the "elephant in the room": I really don't see how Genesis 2 proves that the institution of marriage is naturally "graced" and "holy". Genesis 1—2 isn't concerned with any natural theology — the whole passage is "liturgical narrative" (Brueggemann). The people who wrote and used these stories had no interest in the question of nature-as-such; they were interested in divine action, in God's faithfulness to his people. In this liturgy, marriage is blessed not because of any inherent "holiness", but because of the way God relates to Israel. (In the same way, would you argue that Saturdays are naturally "graced" and "a holy estate", since God "blesses and sanctifies" the Sabbath?)

Certainly marriage is blessed by God — but this takes place within the community, through liturgical action, and it has nothing to do with the "nature" of marriage-as-such. In other words, I think Genesis 2 supports a sacramental view of marriage, but it has nothing to do with the notion that marriage is inherently/naturally holy.

Pieter Pronk said...

I would personally approve. Even the act of giving a blessing of two people who just got married has it's theological problems, I think. I always found it weird when two people got blessed while the rest of the congregation has to wait for their blessing at the end. In my point of view Gods blessing is received by the whole congregation.

A question: Would the same line of thinking also apply to funerals? It's not like anything really happens at a funeral.

Bruce Yabsley said...

Ben, thank you for the reply.

First, to the elephant: As far as Genesis 2 and 1 are concerned, I am with you for the most part, but I thought I was clear that my point was based on Jesus' appropriation of the Gen 2 passage in particular. That might be characterised as a new teaching, although what makes something "new" (and what hangs on its newness) is an interesting question of its own. Anyway. I am not sure I wish to affirm all of the things you are seeking to deny, but the idea that God has a strong interest in marriage qua marriage, and that marriage has some kind of natural structure and intent and set of obligations, is there in the Dominical pronouncement and I think it has always been understood that way. This was my point. At this level, the "community" (an unfortunate and slippery word) is at best in the background of the Biblical material and I think talk of liturgy is a distraction.

Second, as to courses of action: d.w.c. made most of my points for me already, as I said, in particular from his third point onwards. I'm happy to let those stand.

Third: I smell anachronism, or perhaps particular local practice, in the statement that pastors should "get out of the wedding business". In the current Australian context the idea that the church in conducting weddings is being "the state's faithful servant", seems unreal both regarding the church, and regarding the state. In my own experience (and yes, I know, Sydney is peculiar) I would have said that truncated and vulgar attempts to express Christian distinctives were much more the problem than capitulation to "the state".

Fourth, as to tone, I stand by my remark about the missing half of a dialectic (d.w.c. also said something along these lines, although not in these words). The "absolute refusal" rhetoric --- let alone a stance based on it --- would be utterly incomprehensible to a lot of plain-minded people outside and indeed within the church, and to my mind this counts for something.

Is the thinking of plain persons about marriage inadequate to the matter? Sure. But I am put in mind of a comment of the protagonist Ged in Le Guin's The Farthest Shore (3rd book in the Earthsea series), about the innocence of a certain group of people: "there is no strength in it against evil, but there is power in it for good".

Last, as I said in response to kristie b's post, I think the single experience adds weight to the claim that the church needs to rethink its position on the human condition, and new creation. We (the single) get ignored, patronised, misunderstood, and treated with a general lack of intellectual curiosity; as to "idolatry of romantic love" and the generally broken and illusory nature of contemporary understandings: yes, fine, with you on this. But crapping on contemporary marriage --- whatever its flaws --- won't advance that cause, I think.

Anthony Douglas said...

1) Thanks Bruce for fighting for me!

2) Ben, you're ducking our issue, I think. You want me to come back to you on the Sabbath being 'holy' and 'graced'? I'm fairly sure that its fulfilment, the rest so obviously referred to in Hebrews, would count. Unless you have a very pessimistic view of eschatology!

3) Frankly, though, I couldn't care less whether you want to call a wedding ceremony a sacrament. I don't. But I would call it extremely significant, in that two people are binding themselves to each other in the relationship that God chooses as the clearest illustration of his relationship with his people. If the marriage goes pear-shaped, then that's gotta mess with the rest of your theology, at least a bit; conversely, if it goes right, then it proves to be helpful in getting the metaphor. Thus, it makes sense for the church to want to pray for those getting married, that things work out the latter way.

4) I still want to know why you concede so much ground to the state, and why you vacate a Christian wedding ceremony of the Christian theology/goals/intent that is there? Yes, there's all sorts of meringue theology in many of the weddings you go to, but aside from the unexamined customs, isn't it still a worthwhile thing?

Shane said...

"the grim and desperate business of wedding ceremonies,"

Come on, you're step-mother can't be that bad.

"gratia non perficit naturam, sed irrupi" ("Grace doesn't perfect nature, but interrupts it.")

You seem to have confused Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth, on this score. [Unless you were being facetious.] That actual statement from Thomas is the exact inverse of what you've said:

Gratia non tollit sed perficit naturam.

"Grace doesn't do away with nature, but perfects it."

David W. Congdon said...

Thanks, Ben, for the helpful response. I think I have a better sense of what you are actually proposing. From what I gather, you're saying that the church should not be involved in the actual joining of two people together. Their concern is with those who are part of the body of Christ, whether married or single. Once they are in that community, then the church seeks to shape disciples who follow Christ, regardless of their marital status. While I agree with your focus on the liturgical dimension of the corporate body of Christ, I don't see why this necessitates abandoning the wedding ceremony as a liturgical act in the life of the church. More on that later. I also still think that leaving weddings to the state is a backhanded way of baptizing the practices of the state, and I want to flesh that out a little further.

It seems to me that how a marriage will play itself out has a lot to do with how that marriage began. A marriage which was an act of youthful rebellion, for example, is substantially different from a marriage which was nurtured within the corporate life of the ecclesial family. They might both turn out just fine (or not), but I want to say the latter has something distinctly positive to offer, not only to the couple and to the church community, but also in witness to the world.

Having said that, by confining wedding ceremonies to the sphere of the state, the church would be relinquishing its ability to guide and mentor the relationship between the two people. A pastor who provides pre-marital counseling, for example, is able to discern whether this relationship is a wise union at all. The pastor and community are able to be living witnesses to the couple, offering wisdom and guidance. The point is, by abandoning their involvement in the union itself, the church would give up the ability to speak prophetically to those who are perhaps struggling with marriage and our culture of romance.

By leaving the process of wedding ceremonies to the state, it seems to me that your position would preclude the ability of the church to forge a positive vision for how two people should understand their love relationship. A church which only stands in a disruptive stance towards the institution of marriage loses out on the possibility of setting forth a positive theology of eros. And that is a project that I find deeply necessary. It seems entirely too cowardly to allow the state/world to define eros and confine the church to agape, thus leaving weddings to the state and confining the church to corporate love. A theology of eros has biblical resources in the "Song of Songs" -- liberated from the traditional attempt to read it as an analogy of Christ and the church, something Bonhoeffer himself speaks about in Letters and Papers -- and it has theological resources in, e.g., the magnificent account of love provided by Eberhard Jüngel in God as the Mystery of the World, who provides a radical critique of the dichotomy between eros and agape.

All of this takes me back to the original issue of whether churches should bless marriage unions. If by bless, we mean simply offer a religious Yes to inherently selfish romantic relationships which are primarily a civic issue anyway, then of course I agree with you -- Nein! I agree with you also about marriages not being naturally holy; your interpretation of Gen. 1-2 is the same as mine. And I also agree that pastors conducting ceremonies ought to drop the language of pronouncing this marriage "by the power invested in me from the state." But I do not see how this logically leads to the refusal of conducting wedding ceremonies altogether. The conclusion does not follow.

It seems to me that wedding ceremonies are still fully able to serve as an act of corporate discipleship, in which the ecclesial community journeys together in the pursuit of loving self-donation, actualized in particular instances between two people. Wedding sermons need not be the mere religious blessing of romantic love; they could be radically disruptive proclamations of the gospel of taking up the cross of Christ in faithful obedience. The services could be a word of interruption, an event that seeks, even in that moment, to be, as you say, the "transformation into something new."

There are ways of ensuring that this occurs. For example, pastors should only marry those who are already part of their ecclesial community. They cannot hire their services out to anyone who pays. (I don't see an issue with allowing the building to be rented out, because there is nothing intrinsically holy about the architectural space.) Moreover, pastors should only marry people after at least three months of premarital counseling, and by "premarital counseling" I mean catechetical instruction and discipleship, a specific form of what takes place prior to baptism. This is where the pastor would instruct those to be married in a Christian theology of love (both eros and agape, or rather, eros as agape). Moreover, if possible, the process of discipleship should include family and friends as well, so that the two being joined see their relationship as intrinsically united with others. One should apply Barth's statement that "I am as Thou art" to entire families and communities within the local ecclesial body. Other things, such as the liturgical aspect of the ceremony, are also important and need to be attended to.

My point is that the church has an opportunity to have a prophetic voice in the context of romantic love. The church needs to be able to speak to the issue of eros and romance, and not simply relegate such issues to the "world," much like some churches relegate politics and economics to the "world."

Also, you state in your response to me that Christian marriage "should be a real conferral of grace, an incursion into the marriage relationship and its transformation into something new — in other words, a sacrament." I'm still confused about why you use such sacramental language. You rely so heavily on Barth, and yet the notion of "conferring grace" is one of the central ideas that he rejects. And it seems detrimental to your own proposal to retain this kind of talk. In fact, it makes it downright confusing. I would be much more comfortable with your position if sacramental talk was just done away with altogether. There is only one sacrament, and that is Jesus Christ. Everything else is witness and mission.

Finally, there is a different "elephant in the room" that hasn't been brought up: viz. homosexuality. It seems to me that your position is partially beneficial to their cause, in that heterosexual and homosexual unions would be both equally relativized. This is one aspect of your position that I really like. At the same time your position refrains from embracing gay marriage, just as it refrains from embracing straight marriage. I think this critical posture can still be maintained, even while performing ceremonies. The difference is that instead of emphasizing the No, I would rather stress the Yes, in the light of one's faithful obedience to Christ in the context of the body of Christ.


David W. Congdon said...


Ben was trying to "confuse" Thomas and Barth on purpose as a way of criticizing Thomas' famous line. The context of Ben's statement makes that clear. And on that point, I agree with Ben. The notion that grace simply perfects nature is not nearly radical enough, and doesn't accord with the apocalyptic testimony of Scripture.

Evan said...

Shane, Ben did actually say, "to revise the old Thomistic maxim..."

Mykel G. Larson said...

For D.W.C:

"The notion that grace simply perfects nature is not nearly radical enough, and doesn't accord with the apocalyptic testimony of Scripture."

What exactly do you mean by apocalyptic testimony of Scripture?

And the other question: Why isn't enough that grace simply just elevates nature? (According to Aquinas, if you buy into his theology, Grace doesn't JUST elevate nature - it sanctifies (perfects?) and renews nature.)

I am interested in this position that a radical reformulation of the undertanding of nature will somehow - I don't know to word it, so forgive me - reveal something about nature that we did not know or understand before, especially in the context of Jesus Christ.

Of course this also brings to mind (ha ha) this notion of where grace is focused. Is it focused only on specific beings and elements of nature, or is it ubiquitous? Aquinas has all the answers regarding this question.

Anyway, curious to see what you have to say about this.

Very Best,


Shane said...

Ah, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

David W. Congdon said...


This is one of those areas where I think Henri de Lubac is a more helpful guide than Aquinas. As de Lubac rightly understands, there is no such thing as "pure nature." He makes his case in contrast to the received Scholastic tradition. As he says, it is grace from the beginning. Thomas's position is based on a false separation between nature and grace. Grace presupposes nature for Thomas, whereas nature presupposes grace for de Lubac. The earlier Barth, by the way, presupposes the Thomistic account, even up through Church Dogmatics II/1.

But de Lubac doesn't go far enough, and this is where the later Barth, Jüngel, and apocalyptic interpreters of the NT (e.g., J. L. Martyn) help immensely. Grace is not only already present in the so-called "natural world," but grace is primarily located in the apocalyptic act of Jesus Christ, in the event of the new creation. And this is the aspect which Ben is highlighting. Jüngel and Ebeling would speak of this grace as the grace of justification, the disruptive word of God which places us outside ourselves. Martyn and Harink would speak of the apocalyptic act of divine rectification in which the powers of Sin and Death are defeated in the cosmic reality of Jesus Christ. The point remains the same: grace does not simply sanctify nature; grace radically transforms it, destroying the old and establishing the new (2 Cor. 5:17). Grace, therefore, is death and resurrection.

Anonymous said...


But doesn't apocalyptic grace (i.e., the Resurrection) affirm the inherent goodness of the (old) nature that came into being through grace "in the beginning"? (I'm thinking of Oliver O'Donovan's Resurrection and Moral Order .) Or, to put it another way, doesn't the No serve the Yes? Doesn't grace "interrupt" nature - for nature's sake, of which it was said, "This is very good"?

Unknown said...

It's probably wise for the church to be suspicious of the whole wedding business. I think I can glean from Ben's post at least this important reminder: Marriage is not about the self; it's about God.

Halden said...

Chris, while some continuity between creation and new creation cannot be lost, I think the discontinuity must be where our emphasis falls. Otherwise I don't think we can do justice to the apocalyptic nature of the NT writings.

As to O'Donovan, the problem with his book is that it contains far too much moral order and very little resurrection.

Anonymous said...

This is a great point! I think that the church should refuse to marry anyone that doe not conform to the Biblical mandate of marriage that would ensure that the two people are not in sin, in their coming together or in sin as non-believers. They will as the scriptures state very clearly that if their partner is still alive they will be an adulterer Rom 7. And that they should not remarry unless the other is dead. And on top of it all "Marriage" is a theological institution not fit for the government to define. Genesis 1-2 defines marriage along with Ephesians 5-6. they should be believers as well, as 2 Cor 6 states that believers have no business being yoked to unbelievers. And that as stated in the last verses of Hebrews that wicked unbelief is disobedience and therefore sin.

No church should marry two people that do not fit these bear minimums. One Man One Woman, modeling Christ and the Church, where Christ as in context seeks and loves and secures a faithful relationship with His bride because He chooses to and thus loves His bride, this should be clear. As He takes on the responsibilities of his wife and family, bearing the weight and punishment of His bride's sin's; this is Biblical love and headship. The wife submits as to the Lord, and is the helper as the Holy Spirit is The Helper.

When a pastor endorses the marriage of two people he either affirms these things or denies them. If they matter then you hold the would be married to be's feet to the fire and tell them the Gospel that they might have a marriage that corresponds with the Gospel in Grace and obedience to God and His church. To do otherwise is to let the government define marriage and loose witness with the world and hand them a powerless man-centered gospel!

Anonymous said...

(I meant to put Hebrews 3)

Anonymous said...

On nature and grace, Halden, Ben, and DW are certainly right that the NT has an obvious apocalyptic witness regarding new creation and the perfection of nature.

But, are there other witnesses in the NT that we must consider as well? While the gospels have apocalyptic characteristics at places, I don't think we can simply name them such tout court.

Furthermore, while I'm sympathetic with radicalizing Aquinas, I alway wonder if the other side, which usually turns out to be Protestant, does not give an adequately robust theology of creation.

While no one obviously says or affirms that creation is bad, it is often ignored or not treated as itself a gift of God. Again, I'm sure all here would agree that creation is a gift, but I think some of us want to hear an account of it, which is, I think, revealed within the economy of salvation. Here Barth is right to say that redemption is the ground of creation. But, how this gets worked out is what is most important, at least I think. Put in the form of a question, how can the gift of salvation be so radically different, as often argued here, without accounting for the fact that we claim that creation is also a gift. What is the status between these two terms? Are they univocal, equivocal, dialectical, analogical/metaxological, etc, etc?

Mykel G. Larson said...


Heh, ok, that clarified the systematic lens of articulating this particular way of approaching interpretation and meaning.

So, following from that another question:

Is Grace, therefore, a function of Love, or is Love a function of Grace? How does Love "fit" in with Grace, if it indeed is to be understood as Death and Resurrection? In what context does Grace not make so much theological "sense" but Divine Sense?(If we concede God has sense - and yes, treading on thin ice here, anthropormorphizing God.)

This ultimately goes to the question of why there is Grace, and the purpose of it.

Very Best,


Ben Myers said...

I'm glad this conversation has turned to the topic of apocalyptic and discontinuity!

To respond briefly to Chris's and Tim's questions about preserving a proper continuity: in the case of marriage, there is clear continuity, since it is the same relationship which is sacramentally invaded and reconfigured. The same two bodies are now shaped not by the drama of romantic narcissism, nor by the state's narrative of social stability and family life — instead (as William Cavanaugh would put it), these two bodies are "scripted" into the church's own performance, so that they are re-shaped and re-configured by the church's gifts and disciplines. While I disagree completely with Anon's ethical perspective above (male headship, no remarrying, etc), I think he's at least right in this: the church has its own unique disciplines (very different from the state's), its own unique performance into which the married couple is scripted.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your response, Ben. I can fully agree with your description of being re-scripted, as long as the same two bodies and the same relationship being grafted into the church (as Paul would put it ;-) ) have an openness/desire properly their own to redemption, and that this openness is a gift of creation (which is itself grounded in salvation).

To play this out in the marriage discussion, all marriages, even those done by the state, have sacramental potentiality, and even some incomplete form of sacramental grace. However, this can only be completed by being grafted into the church. This way a new ceremony would not be required for couples who convert. Basically, what I am doing here is similar to the Catholic practice of not requiring couples to go through another marriage ceremony when they become Catholic, and their recognition that even my Protestant marriage is sacramental, albeit not in the fullest sense, since I am not in communion with the Catholic church.

Is this consonant with your (and the others') position(s)?

Anonymous said...


I agree O'Donovan was long on moral order and short on resurrection (provided I understood anything he said in that book, which is open for debate!) but wouldn't you agree that we can't side either with continuity or discontinuity, but must insist on holding them together, as difficult as that may be?

As Bonhoeffer says, if we focus on the Incarnation of Christ, we fall into one error; if we focus on the Resurrection, we fall into another. The truth is, it was the incarnate Christ who died. And it was to be crucified that he was incarnated. And it was as the crucified incarnate one that he was resurrected.

I would say we have to say the No and the Yes in the same breath. Barth and Aquinas are both wrong on their own terms.

Anonymous said...


Your claim above that there is no grace present in the putative natural seems quite extreme, and quite frankly I don't know how to make sense of it; hence, my hesitation in responding specifically to it.

I'm sure you affirm that there was no logos asarkos, which I think is also correct. However, if EVERYTHING has been made through this Word (John 1) and is held together by it (Hebrews 1) then how can it be completely bankrupt of grace? This seems to imply a pure nature, which I can't imagine any Barthian wanting to affirm. It also implies that God's activity is always and only extrinsic to the world. God will always operate ON the world, in other words, and not IN it. These don't seem like claims you would want to own, nor do they strike me as biblical. Help me understand what you're saying, here, please.

On a side note, and I guess a shameless self plug, despite their disagreement on logos asarkos, Barth and Aquinas remain closer than most think on the relationship between nature and grace, at least in my reading, which is indebted to Eugene Rogers. If you want, I can send you my reading of their understandings of analogy which is scheduled to appear January 2010 in the Scottish Journal of Theology.

Mykel G. Larson said...

I would say we have to say the No and the Yes in the same breath. Barth and Aquinas are both wrong on their own terms.

Ah, who is right then, hmmm?

Doesn't that imply in an oblique sort of way that human perception and understanding inevitably integrates into a reductionist point of view, hmm? Who is really right, who is wrong? What word is the right word, hmm? Who has a "bead" on the intent of God?

Should the OT, Gospels and the Epistles serve as Divine Compasses or, points on a map, lines drawn in an intellectual plane to abstract out the nature of God's Will? (And, God's Desire, hmm?)

Ben Myers said...

Hi Tim, thanks for your comments. Although I'm a Protestant, it's true that my view here is much closer to Catholic practice. But I'm afraid I can't follow you when you say that "all marriages, even those done by the state, have sacramental potentiality, and even some incomplete form of sacramental grace". It's precisely this "potentiality" that I'm trying to deny. In my view, nature has no potentiality for grace; grace does not complete nature. Grace is death and resurrection; it is annihilation and new creation. In my view, then, nature has no more "potentiality" for grace than the dead body of Jesus had a potentiality for resurrection — grace is precisely that which is impossible for nature.

Benjamin Camp said...

Halden, you need to give Hauerwas credit for your comment on O'Donovan. That is straight from him.

Mykel G. Larson said...

Hey Ben,

Grace is death and resurrection; it is annihilation and new creation. In my view, then, nature has no more "potentiality" for grace than the dead body of Jesus had a potentiality for resurrection — grace is precisely that which is impossible for nature.

Grace is impossible for nature? Are you saying nature cannot generate Grace? As I remember this whole discourse started with a discussion about how grace, if at all, affects nature, or more precisely, how it shapes nature.

I don't remember anything in these discourses about having nature having its own personality, intellect or consciousness that somehow acts independently and outside of God, or even as a sentient individualized being stretched out across the fabric of existence that requires or needs grace, but rather, nature - dare I say it, is used by Grace, and QED, by God.

Couldn't it be phrased or seen a different way? That perhaps "nature", however you wish to classify it, is the foundation that God Himself laid down, a channel, if you will, for His expression of creation? Did he not create the world, existence, and everything that exists in and of nature, hmmm?

Additionally, I don't quite understand the position of comparing "potential conditions" of one system to a specific event.

I mentioned it earlier, but a certain attempt was made to understand the "nature" (ha ha) of Grace itself - especially in this "apocalyptic" context of Death and Resurrection, and how, if at all does Love fit into this paradigm of Grace, God and Nature?

If Grace is Death and Resurrection, then a potential next "logical" (tenative word there) step would be to question (prayer is better, most likely) why there is even Grace at all? Why have Death and Resurrection?

Can this really be adequately explained? My intuition tells me no, but we sure can make an attempt at it.

I suppose rather than delving into our own minds, I am proposing we delve into the mystery of God Himself, rather than abstract and arbitrary (even if there are "rules" for scriptural interpretation!) container theories for and about God.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Hi Ben--

Thanks for your response. It looks like we simply disagree on this point, but I will clarify my position a bit to see if it helps our conversation.

I do not think nature can ON ITS OWN obtain salvation. It must be confronted by grace, which does not simply leave it "as is." The potentiality I speak of is simply the recognition that many come to that in and of ourselves, as humans, we are imcomplete, and realize we can't do anything about this. (William Desmond does a superb job of showing how this is a philosophically coherent and attractive idea). There is something more and gratuitous that we cannot fulfill on our own. I consider this very small claim "the natural desire for God," which I would like to think is from Romans as interpreted by Augustine.

Furthermore, this ability to recognize the "more than ourselves" is actually an inchoate grace present in creation. Thus, I deny a pure nature. I would love to hear you respond to my post to DW as I have similar concerns with your position.

Also, I'm not sure how you can hold your position and not require people to get "truly married" in a church if they convert. I'd like to hear you talk about that, if possible.

BTW, I know you like Jenson, and I was wondering what you think the relationship is between your position and his, because I think I have been saying similar things as him, but perhaps in a bit more Catholic lingo

Bruce Yabsley said...

One of the advantages of belonging to a paedobaptist tradition, especially for those of us who are single, is the privilege of being a godparent. My godson was looking over this thread with me recently ...

GS: Bruce, there's an elephant in the room! And it's wearing a big big big BIG football jersey with "Matthew 19" on the back!
BY: Yeah, I know mate, I can see it.
GS: But no-one else knows that it's there!
BY: Actually they've been talking about it for a while, it's just not obvious.
GS: But they keep arguing about grace and nature.
BY: Well, did you notice they're talking about creation and new creation too?
GS: Yes, but ... but Bruce ...
BY: What, mate?
GS: They were really mean about Professor O'Donovan!
BY: Now come on, mate, the nice man wasn't trying to be mean to Professor O'Donovan: he just disagrees with him. Although I have to say: I don't see how a book on ethics can be said to have too much moral order.
GS: And there was lots about resurrection in that book! And redemption and vindicaton and judgement and all sorts of related concepts!
BY: Look, this is pretty advanced for a four-year-old ...
GS: I'm almost five!
BY: OK then, for someone who's almost five. If you reckon you understand the relationships between concepts, how does the current argument on grace and nature line up with Jesus' teaching on marriage in Matthew?
GS: Ummm ... well ... Bruce, that's really hard!
BY: Yes, I think so too. It's actually quite an important discussion in its own right, and it's the sort of thing that this blog is for. But to me, it's a real stretch to get from this to the kind of sweeping statements about marriage and society that are being made. And the "Christian marriage" line is a distraction, I think.
GS: A hope which envisages the transformation of existing natural structures [meaning, among other things, marriage] cannot consistently attack those structures. Yet the `conservatism' [about practical counsel, in First Peter] includes a sense of distance, which springs from a sharp awareness of how much the institutions need redemption and how transitory is their present form.
BY: Mate, I'm impressed: you really were paying attention when we read that book! I'd thought you were just soaking up all of the new words. But yes, I think that's right; and did you notice that apocalyptic concerns are not absent here, but they're well-enough integrated that when he gets to Matt 19 some while later, he can treat it without missing a beat?
GS: Hee hee! The elephant just squirted water from his trunk, all over Mr Myers and Mr Congdon!
BY: Come on, mate, it's not nice to laugh at people like that. And remember, Mr Congdon mostly agrees with me that Mr Myers was being too wholesale about churches and marriage. And Mr Myers is a nice man (although he does look a little wet). Anyway, I think it's a bit more clear to everyone that the elephant is sitting there now.
GS: (long pause) Bruce, where do elephants come from?
BY: (longer pause) Well, sometimes, when a daddy elephant and a mummy elephant love each other very much, ...

Anonymous said...

If "grace" means annihilation, then what sense does Christ's Resurrection make? Doesn't grace mean the renewal of nature, not the destruction of it? Doesn't Christ mean the vindication and reconciliation of all things (Col 1.15-20)?

David W. Congdon said...


I myself reject the notion of "pure nature." As I said before, I endorse de Lubac's rethinking of the Scholastic heritage, which often succumbed to notions like "pure nature."

But I also said that de Lubac did not go far enough, which is where I brought the apocalyptic element into the conversation. De Lubac offers a substantial rethinking of creation as an act of grace, but that's not enough. It it tempting here to say that Catholics emphasize the doctrine of creation while Protestants emphasize the doctrine of reconciliation. But that is far too simple.

The fact of the matter is that creation exists for the sake of redemption. This is the axiom which forms the basis for the theology of Schleiermacher, Barth, Jüngel, Moltmann, etc. It is also the way to reconcile de Lubac's emphasis on "graced nature" and the apocalyptic emphasis on grace as death and resurrection. The grace of creation -- the grace which creates nature -- is a grace which exists for the sake of death and resurrection. Nature exists for the sake of its apocalyptic annihilation and redemption. Creation anticipates reconciliation and redemption. Put in these terms, one can hold together your emphasis on creation with my emphasis on death and resurrection, which (I will argue) has to be our theological starting-point.

Tim, where you and I (and Ben) disagree is in your willingness to countenance natural theology. I do not accept your (or Augustine's) interpretation of Romans. I think you are probably right about Barth and Thomas, but only with respect to the Barth between (though not including) the Romans Commentary and Church Dogmatics II/2. Finally, what makes Robert Jenson radically different from your position is that his is a theology of resurrection from beginning to end.

Halden said...

Benjamin, yes you are right. I think I had heard Hauwerwas mention that, or something almost like it. Though, in my defense if I gave Hauerwas credit for everything that I said which I got from him, I'd just have to insert his name into about everything I say!

Anonymous said...


Thanks for your response and clarification.

A few things:

1. I wasn't trying to put an emphasis on creation in opposition to salvation but only trying to make a particular point in this discussion that I thought was not being given adequate attention. So, I don't think your comments regarding Jenson and I stick, because of the focused nature of my posts meant to elicit responses to fill in what I considered missing pieces. More on this below.

2. I agree that creation is for salvation, ie death and resurrection. However, I simply don't agree that we should go completely to annihilation, which, to my knowledge, is not a biblical way of describing it. I find "new creation" or "grafting in" an adequate description which holds the newness and the old creation together. An emphasis, as you note, must remain together.

3. If you say that creation anticipates reconciliation and redemption, then, what does "anticipate" means in your view? Were OT theologies "natural theologies"?

4. As per my countenancing of natural theology, I'm not sure this is exactly true. If it is, it is a very very chastened one; one that does not and cannot get to the Jesus of the gospels. So, I wonder if it is even a "theology" at all. I consider it a coming to the limits of reason, which is a grace of creation, leaving one yearning for more; reason cannot deliver this more, however. In fact, in light of Jesus, reason even looks different for those who convert and the Light of the World, but it remains recognizable as reason!--just as the resurrected Jesus was touchable and ate fish. Indeed, Jesus had a new and strange body, but still a recognizable body.

Again, what can be learned "naturally" is simply our inadequacy, our "not enoughness." I'm not sure if Barth would really hate what I have to say in this regard, even the late Barth in volume 4, which is the focus on my essay. Ultimately, and my essay begins to get at this as well, I think the denial of the logos asarkos and a thinking through this in trinitarian terms leads to the conclusions I'm drawing. But, alas, this is already too long.

Anonymous said...

BTW, I am very much enjoying the discussion as I just completed a 3 day psychological evaluation for my diaconal candidacy, which wasn't the most theologically stimulating event. Apparently, I'm not a loon. But, since there is no Jesus in psychology, I guess I might be and that they were completely wrong... :-) Or, is Jesus there???

In good fun,


Anonymous said...

Regarding our nature-grace discussion:

George Hunsinger, in his Disruptive Grace explains Barth's understanding of the discontinuity of grace and nature, new creation and old creation, this way:

"Grace perfects human nature as created only as grace destroys human nature as fallen."

To say grace destroys human nature as such, would be tantamount to Gnosticism, wouldn't it? To say grace does not destroy fallen human nature would be Pelagianism.

That's why I said we should hold the No and Yes together. We simply cannot allow ourselves to emphasize continuity rather than discontinuity, or vice versa. In Christ, grace and (unfallen) nature are one.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Chris,

Thanks for raising an important point that has remained in the background. I am in full agreement with you and Hunsinger, here. You are right to imply this is a very traditional claim, as well.


David W. Congdon said...

I am in full agreement with Hunsinger’s statement, as long we remember that we have no access to the knowledge of the world/nature as created apart from the knowledge of the world/nature as destroyed and resurrected -- i.e., apart from our knowledge of Jesus Christ as apocalyptic event.

Evan said...

Chris Green's comment expresses exactly my concerns of the discussion that's been going on. I also don't know whether the back-and-forth has any resolution in sight, though. Tim and D.W. Congdon's disagreements about creation/resurrection, and their mutual agreement with Hunsinger, suggests to me that the two "sides" of this debate (allow me to oversimplify for the sake of the comment) are really not disagreeing about what needs to be said theologically, but rather about how this is expressed in ethical life.

A question for Congdon, I'm wondering how you understand De Lubac as not going "far enough" as opposed to the assertion that "creation exists for the sake of redemption." How does this go farther than natural desire for the supernatural as understood by De Lubac? This would seem to be a strong enough assertion that creation exists for the sake of redemption, without going too far in saying that creation can make any move towards it. But I'm no De Lubac scholar, so I welcome clarification.

Anonymous said...


I agree with you: only in Christ do we know the goodness of our creatureliness. We only hear the Yes after we've accepted the No.

But I was hearing you and Halden and Ben say there was only the No. Or at least that the No was ultimate and the Yes at best only penultimate. Obviously, that isn't what any of you meant, though.


Your last post was brilliantly funny! Thanks for that.


I suspect you're right: the discussion is covertly about ethics, not theology proper.

Evan said...

Well, not that it's not about theology proper (or that theology proper doesn't speak to ethics), but rather that the points of disagreement are about ethics, and that where people are speaking differently about theology proper they are at least claiming to say the same thing in the end, whether or not they think that the other is doing so successfully.

Halden said...

Chris, if I may clarify my own statements a bit, I did not mean to say that there is only God's No. I'm not even sure how that would make sense. Evan makes a very good point about how all of this is related to ethics. The problem with wanting to rush to God's Yes to creation for many of us, especially Barth and Bonhoeffer lies in the fact that it almost inevitably leads to bringing in "nature" as a reality that we can know, that is somehow broader than the particularistic claims about Jesus, which can serve as a reliable guide to ethics. O'Donovan does exactly this, albeit in a very sophisticated manner.

The problem with talk about nature is that we don't have the slightest idea what nature is until we have plumbed the depths of what God has done in Christ. If nature refers to God's creation existing accoring to God's intention and purpose, then we have to say that nature as such does not exist now. What exists now is a bastardization of creation bound over to the principalities and powers. That is the reality of nature as we experience it. Thus, our only way to talk about that reality, in light of Christ, is to talk about its interruption, defeat, and recreation as a new reality.

If I were to try to state my views on nature and grace, creation and redemption, I would probably try to say it as something like this:

"Grace does not supplement a lack in nature, or complete an already pregnant potentiality within nature; rather grace interrupts, overturns and supercedes the natural, only thus fulfilling God's intention for all created being which is revealed in Christ. Moreover this fulfillment is not a restoration of a primal order, but rather its transcendence in an unprecedented superabundance of redemption that can only be known through Christ and his act of apocalyptic redemption."

Anonymous said...


A few things:

1. I can agree with your descriptions on N/G until the "moreover" in your final paragraph.

I think we must see salvation as restoration. You are right to see it as transcendent and superabundant, but it's superabundance can only make sense in light of nature properly understood. In other words, salvation is restoration and then some and the "and then some" does not irradicate the primal good nature.

2. It seems you are granting sin and evil an ontological status on par with the goodness of the primal nature in your description of how we experience nature now. Is this true?

3. "Particularistic claims" what does that mean? Is that not a general description in some sense? (I.e. it's in english making it parasitic on many more general claims and rules, it's an abstract statement, etc, etc.) As one of my friends likes to say, "Utter particularity is simply a surd."



Anonymous said...


I think you are largely correct to cite Bonhoeffer as an ally in your argument, but I think his "Ethics" presents a more nuanced account of the natural than you do when you claim "that we don't have the slightest idea what nature is until we have plumbed the depths of what God has done in Christ."

Bonhoeffer came to see the need for a Protestant retrieval of "the natural," which would allow Christians to recognize relative differences of Menschsein (being human) and Gütsein (being good) within the fallen creation. He agrees that we cannot access the structures of unfallen creation, and therefore distinguishes the "natural" from "created" in order to take the fall seriously. But he also distinguishes the "natural" from the "sinful" in order to take creation seriously (Ethics, 173).

Bonhoeffer is resolutely Christocentric in his discussion of these penultimate things, since they only have reality in reference to Christ. But it seems to me that he is correct to argue that ethical reflection unnecessarily hobbles itself when it denies the penultimate and the "natural" for the sake of Christian radicalism (Ethics, 153-56).

P.S. Regarding your blog conference, it is because of this retrieval of the penultimate (among other things) that I think Bonhoeffer still has much to offer contemporary theology!

Halden said...


You get into trouble when you say "it's [redemption's] superabundance can only make sense in light of nature properly understood." That's precisely what I think we have to deny, namely that "nature" is a source of revelation alongside of Christ's act for our redemption.

I don't think anything in my description requires one to grant sin and evil ontological status. My vision of redemption isn't informed by how "big" sin seems to be, but rather by the absolutely unprecedented and indeed, impossible reality of the new creation as described in the New Testament and which the first believers experienced in Jesus' resurrection and the coming of the Spirit.

Honestly, I just can't see any indication whatsoever in the Bible that redemption is "restoration and then some" as though the new creation was just the Garden of Eden all over again with a city thrown in as a bonus. The idea makes sense, but it is not something we can get from revelation. The picture there is of total inversion, radical disruption, and climactic new creation in which the old creation dies and is resurrected as a new reality.

Consider for example Jesus' claim that there will be no marriage in the age to come (getting us back to the original point of the thread). Marriage is, if anything, part of "nature". However in redemption it will cease to exist. I don't see a way around stuff like that, nor do I want a way around it. Lets let the new creation be new! That's something to celebrate, not wring our hands over.

In regard to your last question, particularistic claims are things that are, well particular. Like Jesus' teachings on the sermon on the mount. They happen at a point in history in a concrete place with certain people. Concepts like "nature" on the other had are allegedly "universal" they are true everywhere in general, not just someplace in particular. That's what I meant by that. Sorry if it was unclear.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the response. When I say things like "nature properly understood" this is simply an epistemological claim, and "properly understood" means in light of Jesus. There's more on this in the final paragraph.

I also don't simply mean "and then some" in the facile way you seem to imply. I think my previous posts make clear that this is not how I intend it to be understood.

Also, have you read the Orthodox church's reading of the marriage passage you mention, which claims that marriage does carry over? It's quite interesting.

Most importantly, if I can get you to see the impossibility of particularity in the way you're using it, then we will make some progress. I'm actually pointing at something more fundamental in my question. Here's what I'm trying to show: When you deny a broader more general place for knowledge of God this is philosophically incoherent. It's a performative contradiction, because you keep using more general categories or words like: historical, concrete, particular. Show me one of these, "in particular." Things only have particular meaning and sense in reference to "more general" or larger systems. (Wittgenstein, Hauerwas's favorite philosopher, is exemplary for making this point in his work). For example, your claims are in English, a more general or abstract thing, than the claim itself. However, if I don't know English, the broader thing in question, I have no way of hearing or understanding your more particular claims. You can't just have the sole particularity of Jesus; it doesn't make sense. How could I read the Bible, revelation, or hear a sermon about Jesus, if I don't have a more general knowledge of English? I can't! Let me be clear here, this is an epistemological issue, not an ontological one. I think you (and others) keep confusing my epistemological claims for ontological ones.

Of course, ontology comes first! This is simply the difference between the order of being and the order of knowing--again an ancient and traditional sort of thing. But, epistemology still matters. So, back to my example, my reading of Scripture will in fact change and transform my knowing as I learn it within the Church, but I have to come with something more general to get there. Again, the radicality of Jesus remains untouched here, because I'm not talking about that, I'm simply talking about how people (actually) come to know him. How would Christianity have begun if Jesus spoke English to his Jewish disciples in the first century?

Does this make sense? You don't have to agree, (though of course, I think you should :) ), but do you understand?



Halden said...

I of course understand what you mean about particularity, but I don't think that mitigates my point. Just because we must interpret things on the basis of more general conventions like language does not mean that the distinction between particularity and universality as philosophical concepts is incoherent. To say that Jesus is particular in a way that "nature" is not is not falsified simply because we interpret things through language and common modes of thought.

To put it another way, I'm using particularity methodologically in regard to theology and ethics based on a doctrine of revelation, not epistemologically as a general philsophical category as you seem to be thinking I am.

I don't think its incoherent at all to deny a broader concept of God simply because we encounter Christ through the same "broader" mediums. The fact that they can be commandeered by Christ to become revelatory does not mean that they are revelatory in and of themselves.

And of course, this whole discussion broaches bigger cosmological issues related to whether or not we understand Christ through broader systems of thought or vice versa, or perhaps some combination of the two. Here, I think Balthasar's A Theology of History is right one the money. If all creation is created "in Christ" then might it be that the allegedly broader or more general criteria of "nature" and the like are not to be faulted for being to wide, but rather too narrow.

And whatever reading the Orthodox might have of that gospel passage, it sounds like a major stretch. I don't buy it.

Halden said...

Excuse me, that should read above "I don't think its incoherent at all to deny a broader concept of the knowledge of God..."

Christopher.Hugh.Greene said...

When I read all these nuanced responses to this issue, the word "supersessionism" keeps coming to my mind. Instead of Israel and the Church it's Nature and the Apocalypse. Christians hold to the claim "so all Israel shall be saved" while wrestling with the mystery of it. Can we not hold the mysteries of nature and it's redemption/destrution and the eschatalogical feast of the church in tension?

Anonymous said...

Okay, let me try to clarify further.

First, as for the Orthodox, I'm sorry to hear you can evaluate their arguments without even reading them. I thought you were a bit more "actualistic" than that. Sorry, I had to say that, because it really bugged me.

Now, moving on in more constructive directions, hopefully.

Next, you say, "To say that Jesus is particular in a way that "nature" is not is not falsified simply because we interpret things through language and common modes of thought." This is correct, but my point is simply that prior "non-revelatory" (notice the quotes) categories are used to get there. Again, you keep reading me as doing ontology, hence you say "Jesus is particular; I agree with that ontological claim. I'm trying to emphasize that we know Jesus through particulars that we don't usually put into the category of "revleation" and yet we still truly find him in his uniqueness. I think we agree on this. Afterall, you admit the distinction between universal and particular is philosophical, not theological. These categories happens to be true, because of the theological claims, though, which I think we both agree on. Thus, you have admitted to a "natural" or human component in learning about God. That is all I was trying to get to, because you seemed to deny this basic epistemological claim in a previous post by denying that nature can be, as you called it "a source" of revelation and that sounds epistemological to me.

I completely agree with you and von Balthasar on everything being created "in Christ" which is surely that most biblical claim ever. But, I think this should lead us to the conclusion that "natural" theology, or science, or philosophy, are not things to fear or keep away or wring our hands over worrying, because there is no pure "natural" since all is related to Christ. Simply stated, there is no "in themselves" as you seem to think. This is the radicality of de Lubac and von Balthasar. Of course, these disciplines are not identical to theology and revelation proper, but they have a place at the theological table, despite their problems, which I take you to be denying.

Are we really disagreeing or just having trouble understanding each other?



Anonymous said...


Once again, you offer a penetrating insight. I do fear that supercessionism is a consequence of an overly destructive/apocalyptic grace that acts upon nature.

Thanks again,


Anonymous said...

I don't think so Tim, otherwise we could confuse messianic apocalypticism, in say Isaiah, which clearly isn't supercessionist. And thats the point of apocalypticism anyways, the return of the anointed one who came from the line of Judah.

I'm pretty sure supercessionism comes from us thinking the church, mostly gentiles now, isn't really connected to Israel past, even though Jesus was Jewish. When we ignore the universalism in Paul (a shout out to Agamben here) seems more likely to lead into the path of supercessionism.

Anonymous said...

crap, I mean badiou, not agamben.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for your comments. Perhaps I was hasty in my equation of Israel with "nature." But, I do think there is something more here. If Christ is the fulfillment of the Law in such a way that it no longer counts for anything (it's completely invalidated after Jesus), then Jews are at best living under an outdated covenant or at worst they are completely wrong now.

How we understand Christ as the fulfillment of the OT Law most likely reveals how we end up answering the nature/grace question. At least, it hopefully goes in that order, from Scripture to theology proper.

In support of my comments above, I point to the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5: "I have not come to abolish (would annihilate be a faithful translation here??) but to fulfill...You have heard it said..." Then comes an upping of the ante, which will surpass the righteousness of the Pharisees, but does not invalidate the OT. In not being angry with our brother or sister, we are simultaneously not murdering them (vv. 21-24). They are not two completely different commands nor are they identical. The former fulfills the later in Christ.

Again, my emphais is on "completely different." I'm not denying the obvious apocalyptic nature of the incarnation.

Mykel G. Larson said...

*rolls eyes* Let's just give up Christianity then, throw Grace out the window, along with nature, and Jesus, and Divine Love (of which salvation is a serendipity of Divine Love, not the other way around as some would propose) and become Hindus and lavish praise upon Shiva, the destroyer of worlds (The practice and worship of grace through nature's annihilation, destruction, only to be reconstituted again in a mystical, unknown way - she's got six arms with six swords, too!), and Ganesha, the remover of obstacles. (Elephants never forget.)

And, I'll invoke an old prayer from our friend Augustine and modify it a bit: "Lord, give me patience - but not yet."

Anonymous said...

Hey Ben, loved the interchange between you and DW, Tim and Chris. That question I asked at your lecture about the relationship between old and new creation was precisely what was being clarified. DW's response to the Hunsinger statement reminded me of yours to me. It seems to me that the fact that knowledge of the old creation is dependent on the new creation is true but does not really answer the core issue that folk are battling about here - which is the ontological (if that is the right word) relationship between the old and new creation. Anihilation suggests no relationship but replacement (new creation is a different creation rather than a renewed one)
By the way I wonder if there is another elephant in the room which is the Christian responsibility to be stewards of creation (ecology etc). Any comments anyone?

Evan said...

Going back up a little ways, re: Halden's comment:

"Consider for example Jesus' claim that there will be no marriage in the age to come (getting us back to the original point of the thread). Marriage is, if anything, part of "nature". However in redemption it will cease to exist. I don't see a way around stuff like that, nor do I want a way around it. Lets let the new creation be new! That's something to celebrate, not wring our hands over."

This is all well-taken, but I have to wonder whether it answers the question of marriage as an ecclesial practice in this age- certainly whether it answers the question in the way that you and Ben seem to. Marriage may cease to exist in redemption, but that doesn't describe the existence and role of marriage in its penultimate state as an anticipation of ultimate redemption. Yes, by all means, let the new creation be new. But let the creation in which marriage now anticipates the final wedding feast also enjoy its full celebration, so that the wedding feast of Christ and His bride is not left without a witness. I feel like I can accept all of the points you are making on the level of eschatology, but you seem too afraid of the possibility of natural theology to accept signs of redemption that are present in nature, such as marriage. An institution like this need not introduce natural theology just because it is a natural sign/sacrament of God's grace. We should adjust our theory of signs to avoid this error, rather than the sign itself.

Anonymous said...


A few points:

1. You said your "vision of redemption" is informed by the "absolutely unprecedented and, indeed, impossible reality of the new creation as described in the New Testament." I do think Jesus' resurrection was both unprecedented and impossible, but I don't think it follows that Jesus' resurrection was the destruction of creation or nature. Again, I think it meant the vindication of creation and nature (following Bonhoeffer's usage of this distinction), and the destruction of sin and death, which decidedly do not belong to the created order. It is this that the apostles marveled in. As someone has said already, Jesus was resurrected into his body - transformed, obviously, but nonetheless recognizable as a body, even if he himself was too much for them to take in.

2. I think Tim is right to point out the mistake of thinking of nature as "in itself" apart from Christ. All things were made by him and for him (perhaps we could say BY the logos asarkos and FOR the logos en sarkos?). And as Christopher. Hugh. Green pointed out, if you make too hard and fast a distinction between nature and grace, that is, if you fail to realize that nature is graced into being for the sake of the "how-much-more" that is to come, then you can't take seriously the goodness of creation or nature. It is this that Bonhoeffer realized and addressed in his Ethics

3. You say you "can't see any indication whatsoever in the Bible that redemption is 'restoration and then some'" and that "the picture there is of total inversion, radical disruption, and climactic new creation in which the old creation dies and is resurrected as a new reality." I think N.T. Wright has convincingly demonstrated that the NT does witness to the "restoration of all things" (e.g., Acts 3.21; Col 1.15-20) as the hope toward which we live in faith and love.

Richard Hays, as well as Wright, has argued that the apostles imagined themselves inhabiting a narrative that had begun with creation, the call of Abraham, and the Exodus. They did NOT think that that story had ended in Jesus' death, but that it had reached it's fulfillment in Jesus' resurrection, as impossible and incredible as that was.

Also, when the resurrected Jesus talks with his disciples (Lk 24), he rebukes them for their foolishness. "Don't you know that this is what all the Law and Prophets were talking about?" If the new creation is as discontinuous as you make out, then what sense does it make for Jesus to say that all the Scriptures speak of him?

Your reading of salvation history makes it seem as if God's way of dealing with sin and death was to destroy that which God had in the beginning called "very good." As if God has "written" two stories. One that began with creation and ended with Jesus' death. Another that began with resurrection and continues until the parousia. That doesn't seem to fit what I read in the NT.

Brian Lugioyo said...


I love the discussion you've got going here. When I tell my wife these types of things she thinks I'm crazy. (And I almost always agree that I am)

Has your wife read this post ... what does she think?


Ben Myers said...

Hi Brian! No, my wife hasn't read this post (she would never stoop to reading my blog). But if she did read this, I can easily imagine the response: "Oh, you theologians could invent an argument for anything..."

David W. Congdon said...


I think you raise a good question, and I'd like to nuance the discussion of "annihilation" here.

First, the annihilation I speak of is the event of the cross. The old creation was destroyed there and then, at Golgotha. I'm not speaking about some future destruction of the cosmos, but of a christological event. Similarly, the new creation was actualized in Christ's resurrection. Obviously, this doesn't mean the replacement of the world in which we live; it rather means that the new creation transcends the old creation as a qualitatively different reality -- a divine reality, a reality constituted in Jesus Christ. As Colossians, all things hold together in him.

Second, the point of speaking about annihilation is only to deny that there is some historical continuity and progression between the empirically visible world around us and the new creation. In other words, there is no way from "here" to "there," so to speak. If so, the new creation would be a matter of works, not of grace. It would be our new creation, rather than God's new creation.

Third, all of this means that apocalypticism does not threaten environmentalism in the least. (Apocalypticism is not premillennialism!) We simply have to remember that in tending to the environment, we are tending to the old creation. Not that this world is going to be destroyed in some cosmic atom bomb, but simply that the new creation will come as death and resurrection, as pure grace. The ontic bond between old and new creation is the ontic bond between Jesus before death and Jesus after resurrection. It's still Jesus, but qualitatively different.

Environmentalism is like feeding and tending to Jesus before his death, like the woman who broke the alabaster jar and poured the perfume on his head. That perfume is not going to contribute in any way to his resurrection. Similarly, our environmental efforts are not going to contribute to the consummation of creation. But both acts are sacred in an important sense. They are both acts of profligate love, gratuitous and self-giving. They are also acts which have aesthetic value, and that's not something we should ever ignore. Beauty is as much an attribute of God as love and justice.

David W. Congdon said...

One more thing, I have a (long) post coming tomorrow on Umberto Eco and Eberhard Jüngel which deals indirectly with some of these issues. You can read more of my thoughts there.

Weekend Fisher said...

Mm, I'm late to the conversation. But if Bonhoeffer was so anti-marriage and thought it was so unredeemed, why was he engaged to be married? Why did he refer to it in terms that suggested he thought it was a life-affirming, hope-filled step into the future that God blesses?

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Anonymous said...

Hi, David,

I don't want to retread old ground here, but I don't have a deep aversion to anything in your recent post here.

I would want to flesh out "qualitatively differet" in the following sense: it is utterly transcendent in that the old cannot get to the new on its own (it's not our new creation as you say), BUT this transcendence is not strict opposition or dialectic. So, it is simultaneously transcendent and immanent--the ultimate transcendence in that it is capable of crossing all boundaries while maintianing its own integrity. Hence, humans do contribute or co-operate, if you will, in the renewing of creation, because our wills and God's are not in competition--nod to the monothelite controversy and a denial of the univocity of being.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much David, your responses are, as always, models of clarity. I guess it highlights for me the difficulty of talking about a relationship of continuity in which the new is irreducible to the old and is born from above. The language of emergence does this, however, we need to eliminate any thought of the potentiality for the new within the old. The old does not create the new, however the new is a reconstitution of the old, not of something else.
Thanks also for picking up the environmental issue. That was very helpful.

David W. Congdon said...


I'm glad I was able to clear some things up for you.


While I think there is much about which we agree, I cannot subscribe to the notion that "humans do contribute or co-operate, if you will, in the renewing of creation, because our wills and God's are not in competition." I am a firm believer in the notion that grace is pure grace, it is solus Deus and solus Christus. We contribute nothing to our salvation and reconciliation with God. In this sense, I reject both Pelagius and Thomas. I would accept the non-competition between God and creatures, but I would use that to affirm a kind of human freedom while still affirming that our freedom contributes nothing to our reconciliation with God.

In short, I'm a Barthian who loves the Romans commentary. :-)

Anonymous said...

Fair enough. Even as a Lutheran, I find Trent's discussion on salvation quite persuasive. Thus, in the end, I think we just disagree.



Danny said...

Making a stiff bifurication between marriage as a state arranged institution and marriage as a sacramental act distinct to the church can be lumped together with all the trendy theological attempts at identity politics. Note that ultimately the problem lies with the state in this line of reasoning. In particular the church has culminated its understanding of marriage by its association with the state. The church emerges victorious in every possible way (marriage, violence, war, sex, etc,) to a lesser or greater degree by suggesting that some capitualation to the state is involved that must be jettisoned.

Anonymous said...

Mt 19:6 "...what God has joined together, no human being must separate."

Beneath a lot of the argumentation is the historical difficulty that marriage (as a state institution) existed long before Christianity. Hence the endless nature-grace debate.

May I strongly recommend Michael Waldstein's recent translation of Pope John Paul's "Theology of the Body" (http://www.amazon.com/Man-Woman-He-Created-Them/dp/0819874213) which well expresses the divine origin of marriage and its fundamental meaning. There such topics as romanticism (which contains both necessary and harmful elements) are discussed. Don't forget Eph 5:23 in which Paul speaks directly of the sacramental nature of marriage: it makes present the mystery of the union between Christ and the Church.

For this reason a Catholic would almost certainly never receive a dispensation for a state wedding.

The book also explains how the revelation that man is "in the image of God" is only truly complete with an understanding of the one-flesh union of marriage, in which we come to experience God as relational: a Trinity. Ultimately, the importance of giving and receiving the "gift" of another is all revealed in the Genesis narratives and confirmed by Christ... Far too much to do it justice here...

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