Despite the recent explosions over the relationship of parenthood and baptism in the Diocese of Central Florida, I originally “conceived” the idea for this post in order to build on a previous one I wrote on infant baptism. There may or may not be practical conclusions to be drawn from what I have to say, but the purpose of my thoughts today is to make a few comments on the providential purpose of the sacraments and to show how they fit together in the history of salvation.
What I want to claim today is that each sacrament implies the other. In particular, this is true of the sacraments of marriage and baptism. In my previous post I made the case that we see a similar point from how Saints Peter and Paul use Old Testament paradigms to describe baptism. For Peter, baptism is like being saved on Noah’s Ark through the Flood (1 Pet. 3), while for Paul it is like being miraculously saved with the Israelites as they crossed the Red Sea (1 Cor. 10). I observed that on these occasions parents would have taken their children along with them through the waters of baptism. Thus the Biblical grounds for infant baptism — something Anglicans practice — seems to have figural support from the Old Testament and seems to have a connection to parenthood. One might cautiously say that parenthood was baptized in the Red Sea.
Before moving on to show how the same implications can be found by considering how the sacrament of marriage points toward baptism, a word should be said about what a sacrament is.
If you’re Anglican, you’ve probably heard the traditional formula that sacraments are outward signs of an inner grace. But what does this really mean? Are sacraments just symbols? Is the inner grace a hidden meaning, a spiritual principle, or life lesson? They are, of course, more than that. If sacraments were just symbols, then we could just learn the inner meaning and discard the outward sign. Rather, the inner meaning of a sacrament is inseparable from the outward sign, since it tells you how God, in his providence, is using that outward pattern for his own goals.
The description of how humans use sacraments is different. For, the divine use of sacraments goes beyond any human use. I mean that a merely sociological explanation of, say, baptism won’t cut it. The sociologist or anthropologist can tell us that baptism is a cultural form of initiation into a Christian community. Biblically speaking, that community was meant to be an alternative to the world. Yet when Church and society were coterminous during the age of Christendom, baptism hardly separated one off into an alternative community in the way it did in the early Church. So from a sociological perspective the human function of baptism changed along with the Christian community, a fact to which Anabaptists were rightly sensitive.
Still, one might ask whether the shifting practices, even corrupt uses, of human beings somehow constrain God and inhibit his purpose for baptism? A good sacramental theologian would say, “No”.
The true inward meaning of baptism — God’s use of it — cannot be changed despite all of our corrupt usage of the outward signs. Peter and Paul’s Old Testament paradigms, again, illuminate the way God has chosen to use baptism throughout Church history. For Peter, baptism is an entry into the Ark of the Church where true salvation, if it is to be found, will be found. I say, “If it is to be found,” because the common objection to a sacramental understanding of Baptism is that history shows that it has not in fact saved everyone. Scads of Christians seem to have shipwrecked their faith after baptism. Yet this is why St Paul’s example of the Exodus is so illuminating, for the entire generation of Israelites who passed through the Red Sea died in the wilderness without reaching the Promised Land. It wasn’t enough to simply have escaped Pharaoh. They had to persevere in Moses’s teaching and to receive the manna and the water from the rock, which Paul identifies as their version of the bread and wine of Holy Communion. (Again, note how the sacraments of baptism and Communion are inseparable here.)
So the meaning of baptism as given by the Old Testament shows that God uses it both to bring people into the realm of his grace where they must learn perseverance, but it also describes the judgment that results from their failure to persevere. Having been wondrously baptised at the Red Sea, the people were without excuse when they later lost faith. In short, God uses baptism to effect an objective salvation whether we prove faithful or faithless to our Saviour in the end. The inner meaning of baptism as given by Scripture simply describes the “outer” historical pattern that we all experience (salvation, faithfulness and unfaithfulness), but at the same time it tells us how God uses baptism irrespective of our use of it.
We turn now to the sacrament of marriage to understand its providential use, and we come to the paradigmatic text of Ephesians 5 that says, “‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, and I am speaking about Christ and the Church.” Insofar as St Paul is talking about both the mundane reality of human marriage and the union of Christ and the Church, he is telling us about both the means and end God has in mind for his people in history. The end, to be sure, is that all believers might come to that goal spoken of by the prophet in Revelation 21, when the “bride” of the Church finally is fully united with Christ her “husband” at the end of time. The means to that end, however, are threefold. Firstly, all of those believers have to be born. Secondly, they have to be born again through the waters of baptism. Thirdly, they have to “leave their father and mother” and be joined in marriage so that the next generation of believers can be born. In this way history moves forward until the citizenship of heaven is full.
In my previous post, I noticed how race and grace are joined in the Church: the most common link in our “outward” historical experience between childbirth on the one hand and new birth on the other is parenthood. Christian parents who share their faith in Jesus with their children end up doing the bulk of the Church’s evangelism. And parenthood is traditionally one of the defining marks of marriage. I say parenthood and not just procreation because, in accordance with Christian tradition, The Book of Common Prayer states that matrimony is “for the procreation of children to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord….” Or, as St Augustine says, married believers:
entertain the firm purpose of generating offspring to be regenerated — that the children who are born of them as “children of the world” may be born again and become “sons of God.” (On Marriage and Concupiscence 5).
That is to say, the divine plan for parenthood is that it form new Christians. He continues:
Wherefore all parents who do not beget children with this intention, this will, this purpose, of transferring them from being members of the first man into being members of Christ, but boast as unbelieving parents over unbelieving children — however circumspect they be in their cohabitation, studiously limiting it to the begetting of children — really have no conjugal chastity in themselves.
Far from promoting some sort of cult of fertility, the Church’s understanding that parenthood is constitutive of the sacrament of marriage hinges on the fact that, due to biological realities, parenthood and the family is the place where evangelism, Christian pedagogy, and baptism happen. This is an empirical fact, not the conclusion of a deductive argument. Furthermore, if marriage was solely about procreation, then, as Augustine says, a faithful and fruitful pagan marriage would be just as useful as a Christian one. But as a matter of fact we do not see pagan children spontaneously popping into Christians without evangelism, pedagogy, and baptism. Christian family life is where this happens. Ephesian 5’s figure of Christ and the Church simply gives us the “inner” providential meaning of this history, which we all experience.
As an aside, it needs to be said that the current progressive attempt to redefine marriage without reference to the empirical role biological parenthood plays in bridging childbirth and new birth breaks apart the “outward” pattern of the sacrament from the “inner” providential meaning of the historical facts. Same-Sex marriage, as is evident to the senses, is not a bridge. The problem it raises is more than just a matter of Christian ethics. This redefinition fails to show how the bridging experience of billions of Christian parents has a divine use and a providential purpose. The redefined sacrament, therefore, has significantly less power to interpret human experience.
But as I said above in relation to baptism, a social shift in the human use of the sacrament (thankfully) fails to disrupt the divine use. For if we fail to believe that the One who liberated us from Egypt can also bring us into the Promised Land, the mighty act of God at the Red Sea is damning evidence that all disbelief is unjustified. In the same way, if the birthing and bridging use of marriage is repressed by the Church, the biblical figure of marriage nonetheless explains the inevitable institutional decline as being in itself the due penalty for sidelining life, generation, and pedagogy. Misused sacraments are negative witnesses to God’s purposes; they are subordinate to those purposes.
Returning to my main point, though, it should now be apparent that marriage, insofar as parenthood renders it sacramental, finds its ultimate end in the end-times marriage of Christ and the Church, and its penultimate end in “nurturing” children in the faith, which includes baptism. The sacraments are inseparable.
By way of an epilogue, a final common objection needs to be considered. If the sacrament of marriage is inseparable from parenthood, what about infertile couples? Does this discredit the sacrament? One might analogously ask whether infant baptism is discredited when the instruction of Christian parents fails to “stick,” that is, when their baptized kids reject the faith. Anabaptists certainly think this discredits the practice.
But the thrust of the Old Testament figure of the wilderness wandering shows that entrance into the Promised Land is dependent upon a persevering faith that the same God who brought us through the Red Sea can take us through the Jordan. The transition from infant baptism to saving faith is a mighty act of God, it is not primarily a human act. In the same way, the conception and safe delivery of a child is a divine act. If this is the case, the withholding of life is also God’s doing. But God does not thereby choose to render that marriage unsacramental. For, the inner meaning of each sacrament, including marriage, is the Cross: parenthood is a cross, pre-marital celibacy is a cross, miscarriages and infertility are a cross (just think of Hannah’s infertility in 1 Samuel 1). Any such cross has its meaning in relation to the struggle for new life. So the inner meaning of marriage explains this situation as well.
The featured image was uploaded to Flickr by firemedic58. It is licensed under Creative Commons.
 For a good discussion of the “agonistic” aspect of the sacrament see “The Nuptial Figure” chapter in Ephraim Radner. Hope among the Fragments: The Broken Church and Its Engagement of Scripture. (Grand Rapids, Mich: Brazos Press, 2004).