Editor’s Note: The following is an adapted excerpt from Schafer’s book, “Marriage, Sex and Procreation: Contemporary Revisions to Augustine’s Theology of Marriage,” (Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2019). It is used with permission. The book is available to purchase via the publisher’s website or Amazon.
Stanley Hauerwas has summarized the state of the contemporary debate by asserting there is no longer a normative understanding of sex, marriage and family among Christians.
The church does not know what these entities are or for what purpose they exist.
This assessment hints at something that has been lost or forgotten. In this case, I am referring to a robust theology of marriage.
One of the main proposals of this book is that a conversation on same-sex relationships cannot take place apart from a wider discussion on sex, marriage and family as understood through the lens of the church’s theological tradition.
For this reason, I have chosen to dedicate the first half of this work to an analysis of the origins of the church’s theology of marriage.
Before engaging the work of contemporary revisionists in the second half of this book, it is necessary to have a firm understanding of what they are revising. This methodological choice requires me to wrestle with Augustine.
The reasons for engaging the work of Augustine are two-fold.
The first is practical. Augustine’s theological vision and vocabulary shaped the Western church’s thinking on sex and marriage more profoundly than any other non-biblical writer; he set the terms of the discussion on marriage and Christian sexual ethics.
His three goods of marriage (procreation, fidelity and sacrament) have held sway from the fifth century to the present day.
As chapter three will demonstrate, contemporary revisionists are still arguing with Augustine either explicitly or implicitly.
The second reason for choosing Augustine as my primary interlocutor is the breadth of his account of marriage.
Before articulating his view of marriage, he studied the various systems of thought available to him, listening to voices from within and without the Christian tradition.
He also wrestled with his own sexual experiences, allowing Scripture to be a lens through which he interpreted those experiences. In these ways, Augustine is similar to many contemporary authors.
However, as we will see in chapter two, the range of considerations which Augustine addresses in his theology of marriage is wider than that of many contemporary accounts.
Though it was formulated in the fifth century, his theology of marriage addresses a plethora of issues central to the contemporary discussion: sexual desire, bodies, gender and power, to name a few.
These are familiar points in the contemporary debate, but Augustine also infuses unfamiliar elements into the discussion.
In summary, Augustine provided a systematic theological account, ensuring his position on marriage and sex made sense of the entire biblical witness and the preceding doctrinal tradition.
This study of Augustine will prepare us for the various ways that contemporary authors are criticizing, appropriating and rejecting the church’s theology of marriage.
My engagement with Augustine is not an attempt to discover/recover what he was really trying to say about sex and marriage, as if such a feat were possible.
Furthermore, the overarching aim of this work is not to ensure the church remains true to Augustine’s theology of marriage.
Throughout this inquiry, we may well discover we affirm some of Augustine’s responses to issues of sexuality and are forced to leave others behind. Such an outcome should not surprise the reader.
The questions of Augustine’s day, as well as the cacophony of voices wishing to weigh in on the church’s fourth-century discussion of sexuality, differ from our own in some respects.
This variance in setting may require a contemporary pastoral response that would be unimaginable to the great Bishop of Hippo.
However, his methodology will aid us as we seek theologically sound replies to the contemporary debate.
My choice to engage Augustine is intended to push us beyond the terms of the current debate toward the underlying doctrinal concerns so often glossed over by that debate.
To that end, in the second half of this work I will place Augustine in conversation with contemporary authors who are criticizing, appropriating and rejecting the church’s theology of marriage as they wrestle with what it means for a Christian to embody sexual ethics today.
Through this dialogue, I will identify areas of relative consistency between the revisionists and the theological tradition, key doctrines that are being challenged, and newer theological arguments being employed to create space for same-sex relationships.
This methodology runs contrary to revisionists and traditionalists whose arguments often assume that these doctrinal questions are already settled. Reopening these questions allows us to ask new and interesting questions.
For example, rather than inquiring whether same-sex attracted individuals and their relationships should be affirmed or condemned, we can query what the church has to learn from the difference exhibited by gay and lesbian Christians and their relationships.
By exploring areas of broad agreement between the revisionist authors, as well as the many competing crosscurrents that exist in their work, my aim is to provide language and theological avenues to reframe the contemporary discussion on marriage and same-sex relationships.
Steven Schafer holds a PhD and MTh in Theological Ethics from the University of Aberdeen and an MDiv from George W. Truett Theological Seminary.