“Listening to the Past, Reflecting on the Present”
I’m writing this series of essays as a way of processing Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church, the book edited by Preston Sprinkle, published by Zondervan, and used in my Critical Issues in Theology class (THE-423). (*for more on the why of this series of posts, please see the introduction*)
Stephen Holmes is one of the four theologians to contribute a position to the book, and he holds a non-affirming view of gay marriage in the church. Dr. Holmes has “published widely across the disciplines of systematic and historical theology, and into practical theology, philosophical theology, and patristics as well” (ivpress.com). He is the head of the school of divinity at the University of St. Andrews. His writing here relies on a strong appeal to tradition enforced by scripture and focuses on the ethical argument for a traditional view of marriage.
Augustinian Theology of Marriage
Holmes begins his chapter by acknowledging the pressing nature of the debate around homosexuality in contemporary culture. In spite of the pressure, he sees no reason for the church to deviate from its long-held positions on marriage. He writes,
“I accept without question that the churches of the West have discriminated in demanding a far higher standard of sexual ethics from LGBT people than straight people…I argue that the right response to this is not (primarily) to become more lax in our pastoral dealings with LGBT people, but to become more rigorous in our pastoral dealings with straight people. We need…to recover a Christian understanding of human sexuality as primarily ordered towards procreation, not towards pleasure, and to restate an ethic that takes this orientation seriously.”Holmes, (168)
Augustine developed his theology of marriage in the 4th and 5th centuries, and it has remained a strong foundation for the Christian understanding in the West.
The linchpin of Holmes’s position is an Augustinian view of marriage in which there are three goods: procreation, faithfulness, and sacrament. Procreation means children are a result of the marriage. Faithfulness “refers to the exclusivity of the marriage union.” Sacrament “refers…to the permanence of marriage.” While it may be argued gay marriage could fulfill the goods of faithfulness and sacrament, it is not possible for procreation to happen. Holmes makes a strong case and urges the church to hold fast (or return) to the Augustinian view.
Throughout his chapter, Holmes clearly points out his view that all desires of fallen beings are warped. However, he writes, marriage can serve as a vehicle, a journey, through which twisted desires are transformed and redeemed. “Marriage is a school in which our desires are reordered…a place where desires are contained and reordered, where we grow in holiness and continence” (172). He agrees fully with Augustine that the goods of marriage involve procreation. As such, no homosexual union could provide a legitimate space where transformation would be possible and God-honoring.
Many churches, he argues, have erred in their endorsement of all sexual acts within marriage. Marriage must be oriented towards having children, and more to the point, “A relationship not ordered towards procreation may be good and right and holy, but it is not marriage” (189). He urges the church to understand marriage as it has the last 1500 or so years; if procreation is not the primary goal of marriage, we have broken from tradition.
Holmes also has much to say about the brokenness of our desires.
“At the heart of a Christian sexual ethic, and a Christian theology of marriage, is a confession that the erotic desires of every fallen human person are misdirected, warped, and broken. This is true indifferently of straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual – and indeed asexual – desires.”Holmes (170-171)
Holmes sums up his this portion of his argument nicely by saying, “The traditional Christian position…is emphatically not that any and all forms of sexual activity within marriage are permissible and even praiseworthy . . . Marriage is a place where our wayward sexual desires are reordered, not a place where we are permitted to indulge such wayward desires” (175).
A Hypothetical Situation
The hypothetical situation conceived by the author was the most surprising part of his chapter. Holmes imagines a scenario in which science has developed beyond its current understandings to allow a lesbian couple to conceive and bear their own child. He speculates that the DNA from the one woman could be used to fertilize the eggs of the other, thus actually creating a child. Holmes says this would be a case for gay marriage which would have to be legitimately considered since the relationship could fulfill the goal of procreation. I found this argument both consistent and baffling.
Appeal from Tradition
In the end, Holmes spends little words dealing with the prohibition passages in scripture which mention homosexuality. He takes it as a given that the biblical witness is clear as it has been understood and upheld for over a thousand years by the church. Therefore, he writes to urge the contemporary church to realize and return to an Augustinian theology of marriage, where procreation, faithfulness, and sacrament are in full view and understood as the primary goods of marriage. Holmes also points out pastoral accommodations have been made – contraception and even remarriage after divorce in many denominations – he sees these as minor modifications, not rejections, of the Augustinian understanding.
At the end of they day, Holmes is self-aware of his reliance on tradition and is very honest about it. He writes as part of his conclusion, “What if an Augustinian theology of marriage is just wrong? If it is, all my arguments here are irrelevant” (pg. 193). This is not to say the non-affirming position is irrelevant, but Holmes realizes his position is anchored in an Augustinian understanding where the telos of marriage is procreation, faithfulness, and sacrament. However, he feels comfortable resting the weight here because the church (western at least) has done so for a very very long time.
Strengths and Weaknesses
When we look at the history of the church, the are perhaps few teachings we could point to which are as grounded and longstanding as the Augustinian theology of marriage. I like how concise this theology is in its summation of the purposes of marriage. This traditional view of marriage has been the position of churches in many different climates and ages as it faced a multitude of oppositions. Holmes does a good job of setting current cultural pressures in the context of history. This teaching is not one the church has developed as a reaction or out of desperation; it has long been tried and long been held. Holmes also does a good job pointing at ways in which the contemporary church has strayed from its moorings, and his call to return to a traditional sexual ethic is clear.
While Holmes finds comfort in the longevity of an Augustinian theology of marriage, one could also point to other views the church has held and only recently come to renounce. We ought to be quite thankful the church has not held to Augustine’s rather low view of women, essentially as lesser forms of men. Likewise, we are glad the church doesn’t use the Bible as a tool to promote slavery as it did a few hundred years ago. If Augustine’s world and its practices look almost nothing at all like the 21st century the church now finds itself in, are his views of marriage still valid? It seems many within the church no longer act as if they hold an Augustinian theology of marriage. If companionship has been elevated to a position equal to or above procreation, it would seem the church is already laying the Augustinian understanding of marital goods to rest.
Prior to reading, I had no idea the church had so long held to an Augustinian theology of marriage almost across the board (maybe not in eastern traditions), and I have much to learn in this regard. It’s hard for me to reckon with Holmes’s statement that a relationship not ordered towards procreation may be good and right and holy, but it is not a marriage. I appreciate Holmes’ articulation of the fallenness of all desires, gay, straight, or otherwise, and the idea that marriage is the place those desires are transformed, not merely fulfilled. I find his hypothetical situation interesting but not compelling. Perhaps this speaks to my own view of marriage which elevates the “good” of companionship and space to become through sacrifice to nearly equal, at least, with procreation. I get the sense the two becoming one flesh is as important as the two making more flesh.