In the run up to the Anglican Church of Canada’s 2019 General Synod, Covenant published a series of articles dealing with the proposed changes to the marriage canon from a conservative perspective. These articles generated considerable response, most notably at the blog, Empire Remixed. Though the General Synod’s vote on marriage canon amendment has already occurred, the Anglican Church of Canada’s and the Anglican Communion’s discussion of these issues is far from over, and so two of our authors have penned responses to their critics, which are posted together here in the hope of fostering ongoing dialogue on these matters of crucial importance.

—Eugene R. Schlesinger, Editor of Covenant.

Are Parenting and Procreation Worthy of Theological Reflection? A Response to Brian Walsh.

By Jeff Boldt

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When I wrote my post about the relation between parental pedagogies and the ongoing debate about marriage in the Anglican Church of Canada, I expected it would only be read by a few conservatives. Little did I expect the firestorm it brought on, a firestorm perhaps exemplified by Brian Walsh’s response to it. His article at Empire Remixed reinforces my observation that conservatives and liberals differ on whether procreation is essential to the understanding of marriage.

Contrary to Walsh’s reading, I was not making a theological argument for traditional marriage, but stating a fact. I was not trying to persuade anyone to adopt my view of marriage. For now, that ship has sailed. I do not find the Acts 15 analogy from Gentile inclusion persuasive, and Walsh gives no indication that he has understood why people find traditional marriage intelligible. As much as I would like to be understood, it’s perhaps telling that our opponents cannot articulate why so many people believe in traditional marriage (of the 2.4 billion Christians in the world, the liberal segment is certainly a minority; how do liberals account for the overwhelming attraction of the traditional view without recourse to conspiracy theory or ad hominem judgments?).

Instead, my question was “given our plural pedagogies, what’s next?” Though I addressed it to conservatives, it’s an ecumenical question with promise for liberals as well. Given that neither of us like it when the other undermines our pedagogical labors, is there an institutional way to come to a détente?

The success of a theological paradigm lies in its ability to account for more facts than its competitors. For the sake of their own survival, liberal theologians should try to take account of as many facts as traditionalists. Yet liberals still tend to downplay procreation as if it’s a terrible topic for theological consideration. As Bengston has shown in his 35-year study of family faith transmission, the warmth of a parent –– specifically a father –– is the single biggest determining factor in the formation of a child’s faith. For some reason the mainline failed to do this: between 1970 and 2005 they dropped from a 59% to a 24% chance of transmitting their beliefs. This is much worse than the irreligious, who are able to transmit their values with a 64% success rate. Evangelicals, Jews, and Mormons have likewise been astonishingly successful (63%, 93%, and 85%). Each of these religious groups also has a strong theological rationale for family transmission.

It is one thing for Walsh to poo-poo Jewish ethno-religion; it is another thing to realize that they have an enviable 93% success rate at forming their child’s Jewish identity. Obviously, pious liberals want their children to share their faith. Commenting on Deuteronomy 6:6-9, Keesmaat writes: “There, every moment of every day is supposed to be filled with Torah, with the story of who God is and what God has done. This story fills your very being, so that you cannot help talking about it to your children at home and to everyone you meet, no matter where you are. When you are awake, you tell the story; when you are asleep, you even dream in its symbols and metaphors” (32). Having gone this far, why not give this desire a theological rationale? Instead, liberals consistently downplay the importance of procreation. Without a theology of parenting, though, how do they understand their own pedagogical efforts, and how will they turn around the declining transmission rate in the mainline?

Traditionalists have no such problem, since they provide a theological rationale for the nexus of genealogy-procreation-pedagogy (a.k.a. “marriage”), and they link it organically to the distinctive doctrines of Christianity: the cross and resurrection of Jesus. I believe this is what accounts for the persistence of the traditional view. And this is the data set that liberals must also find a way to take into account if their paradigm is to be viable.

The whole arc of the biblical narrative can be understood in terms of genealogy.  After the flood, and due to divine intervention at Babel, the family of Noah is split into 70 family groups that can no longer communicate with one another (Genesis 10).  In the near east, the traditional Jewish-Christian-Muslim outlook is that Abraham carried on the Adamic language and pedagogy (which is to say, the true religion).  Unlike Jews and Muslims, Christians do not claim biological descent from Abraham through Isaac and Ishmael.  Rather, due to the reversal of Babel at Pentecost, the 70 languages and tribes are re-grafted into the stock of Abraham by virtue of Christ. Christ’s pedagogy is conceived “through the ear” as St. Ephrem and Martin Luther would say. The priority for Christians is conversion through hearing. However, while gentile Christians receive the Word in this external way, the Jews already had gospel pedagogy under the figures of the Old Testament. Once gentiles have received the aural gospel of Adam-Noah-Abraham-Christ, they can pass it on to their kids just like the Jews.

Hence the traditional reason that procreation has been a part of the doctrine of marriage was not for procreation’s sake, as Augustine said, but for the sake of training up one’s children in the Lord. What I’m pointing at is that the most mundane and overlooked way the faith is transmitted is from parents to child, which doesn’t negate the fact that people are converted by other kinds of evangelism –– evangelism is the way gentiles are brought into the covenant in the first place!

One could also tell this story in terms of adoption. In Acts 15, Israel adopts the nations. Indeed, it’s significant that Christ’s Virgin Birth meant that he was adopted by Joseph while being the natural child of Mary. Adoption does not abolish genealogy but fulfills it. It remains a fact that everyone who lives after the time of Christ is a child of someone, a fact which is indeed worthy of theological reflection.

With adoption we come to the problem that gives Christianity its distinct approach to marriage (genealogy-procreation-pedagogy), for the need for adoption points to a rupture in the genealogical process. Parents die, abandon their kids, or lack the capacity to raise them.

I have written about this before under the category of “barrenness.” Barrenness is the kind of death that infects families. Eve’s firstborn son murders her second born. Naomi outlives her husband and two sons. Hannah can’t conceive. We might think these are exceptions. But every single child that’s born –– every one of us no matter how long we live –– ultimately dies. “A generation comes, and a generation goes…” Death renders all of us barren without exception.

That is, except for Christ. Jesus turned the tomb into a womb by becoming barren like us –– dead like us. This is the meaning of his celibacy. Early Jewish commentators subtly mocked Jesus for being celibate — something alien to Judaism, which rightly recognizes the command to increase and multiply as the first commandment. Yet Isaiah’s prophecy was that the Messiah would die childless: “And who can speak of his descendents? For he was cut off from the land of the living” (Isa. 53:8). But then speaking of the resurrection, it continues, “and though the Lord makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days” (v. 10). And who are those offspring? Jews and Gentiles: “Here I am, and the children God has given me,” says Isaiah’s Messiah (Isa. 8:18; Hebrews 2:13).

So, the fact that Jesus was unmarried was in fulfillment of Scripture, but his resurrection made him the “eternal father” of many children (Isaiah 9:6). Because Jesus was raised from the dead, we also are raised from the dead. At Christ’s return, souls and bodies are reunited, families are reunited, and Christ reunites with his bride, the Church. Think as literally about this as you can. Scripture tells us that when a husband and wife marry, the two become one flesh. This is literally true when their two sets of genes come together to make a baby. It is no less literal with Jesus’ marriage to the Church. In a natural marriage, children are born and live temporarily. In Christ’s marriage all the children who have died will be born again from the grave to live eternally. Natural marriage and the wedding of the Lamb are continuous. Jesus came to bring babies back to life. The resurrection thereby fulfills procreation by turning the tomb into a womb.

On the one hand, the procreative aims of marriage would be utterly undermined by death if it wasn’t for Christ’s resurrection. On the other hand, enduring our present state of barrenness would be utterly unbearable if it weren’t for Christ’s cross. Here we get to the theodical core – the effort to explain evil – of the traditional doctrine. The resurrection sheds light back onto Jesus’ celibacy and barrenness to make his sacrifice fruitful during his suffering. As a consequence, we are guaranteed both a resurrection salvation for our lost loved ones and the presence of the crucified Jesus in our present suffering of barrenness. It is not clear to me that the liberal view of marriage has any organic connection to cross and resurrection; theodicy and salvation. Same-sex marriage certainly has theodical aims: to relieve loneliness through companionship; to dismantle authoritarian obstacles along the way, and so on. But this is a far shot from the universal abolition of death and the comfort of Christ in the unavoidable suffering of the world.

My argument here is that by subtracting genealogy-procreation-pedagogy from the definition of marriage, Christians will no longer know how or whether the cross and resurrection touch the joys and failures of their married and unmarried lives. The liberal alternative lacks a comparable point of contact with the lives of ordinary people for whom orthodoxy makes a lot of sense.

I have tried to describe how the traditional Christian doctrine of marriage accounts for the facts of genealogy, procreation, and family pedagogy as points of contact for ordinary believers. Am I just engaged in evangelical identity politics? Please take my question seriously: Is there anything in your telling of the gospel that connects with the universal fact of parenthood through procreation? Don’t be surprised, then, that you’ve lost the attention of those peoples for whom the biblical genealogies are their entry into the biblical story of the first and second Adams.

Jeff Boldt has a Th.D. from Wycliffe College and serves as a priest at Trinity Church Streetsville in Mississauga, Ontario


A Response to Sylvia Keesmaat

By David Ney

I wrote a post on July 4th which reiterated some of the points that had already been articulated three years ago in a series entitled Evaluating This Holy Estate. Dr. Sylvia Keesmaat did me the great service of engaging some of the ideas I briefly outlined in this post. I have taken the time to respond to some of her key arguments. Because such dialogues can wander far afield as they progress, I will try to keep my comments as narrow as possible by addressing specific claims Dr. Keesmaat makes in her text.

  1. Biblical Authority

Keesmaat begins by saying that my claim that the authors of THE fail to properly submit to biblical authority is dubious, since the bulk of the document deals with biblical texts. I do not wish to claim anything with respect to the intentions of the authors, only the final form of their text. My point is simply that dealing with biblical texts and submitting to them are two different things.

Keesmaat insists that proponents of canon change strongly affirm that biblical texts are relevant to issues that concern us today. I also want to affirm this. Yet the question is not whether we can find the Bible saying the kinds of things we want the Bible to say about the kinds of things we want to talk about. The question is, “What do we do when the Bible stands against us in what we want to say?” THE appeals, sometimes explicitly and sometimes implicitly, to the shellfish argument – the fact that many Christians now eat shellfish despite the biblical prohibition. This uses the modern conundrum of historical distance to slip all of the texts it finds uncomfortable under the rug.

  1. Romans 1

Keesmaat remarks that the text of Romans 1, rightly interpreted, speaks more directly to the issues of pornography and sexual violence than same-sex marriage. I affirm that Christians should be dealing with these issues. I also affirm that as we search the Scriptures we will find them speaking to this shared concern. We may even be able to enlist Romans 1 towards this end. Yet we must be clear that doing so moves us away from the literal words of the text.

The words we want the text to address, pornography and rape, are not found there. The only way to assert that the text is primarily about these realities is to recreate a world behind the text, interpret this world selectively using favored contemporary concepts, and then apply these concepts to today. In this case it is the recreated world behind the text that carries the freight, not the words themselves. The words are expendable. They lack authority.

In Romans 1, Paul’s argument attempts to draw the Romans into an awareness that Jew and Gentile are all alike under sin. His aim is to compel his readers to find themselves in the First Adam in the hope that they will find themselves in Jesus, the Second Adam. He thus employs a scattershot approach as he lists offenses, in order to draw his listeners into salvation history. This argument works when we find ourselves and the people we know and love within his narrative.

I applaud the widespread pastoral desire to make sure that the LGBTQ community are not singled out among the people Paul references. Yet this pastoral approach risks being fatal in its application. Removing those we know and love from participation in the First Adam is the only sure way of hindering their participation in the Second.

  1. Marriage and Sacrament

Keesmaat finds that it puzzling that I claim that Paul understands marriage as a sacrament and that his belief in the participation of divine and human history in the institution of marriage underlies this belief.

Keesmaat insists that Paul does not believe that marriage is a sacrament, yet she reminds us that he uses the word mysterion in Ephesians 5 to refer to marriage. She has failed to note that this word is Greek equivalent of the Latin term sacrament.

The next question of course is what this means. For nominalists, the mystery of marriage and the mystery of the Church are two entirely different things. And because they are two different things, they are related merely by way of ornamental metaphor.

The ornamental view of metaphor is a relative newcomer to the Church, and it fits awkwardly within the Great Tradition, which insists that what makes mystery mystery (and sacrament sacrament) is participation. Things can be themselves and yet more than just themselves. They can participate in greater realities without obliterating their distinctiveness.  Paul does not say that marriage is a mystery and then turn to apply this fact to a distinct entity, the Church. The words of Ephesians 5 clearly convey that Paul presupposes the traditional participatory view.

In Ephesians 5, Paul turns to reflect practically upon procreative marriage in light of his previous discussion of orderly conduct. Paul muses about what this means for women and for men, and then, without missing a beat or changing the topic, he declares that while he has been talking about procreative marriage he has also been, at the same time, talking about the mystery or sacrament of the Church.

  1. Procreation and Blood Relation

Keesmaat attributes to me the curious view that salvation is dependent upon procreation, and thus dependent upon blood relation. This is troubling given that I spell out the distinction between these two things in my post. Ironically, Keesmaat’s own elision of procreation and blood relation becomes the basis of her counter-argument: Salvation is not dependent upon blood relation, i.e., it is not restricted to national Israel, and therefore neither is it dependent upon procreation. She thus concludes that, “Paul does not believe that procreative marriage is at all important for the spreading of the good news of God in Jesus Christ.”

To say that the gospel is dependent upon procreation is to say absolutely nothing about whether God prefers Jews or Christians, Canadians or Americans. It simply reiterates what should be so obvious that it need not be mentioned: One must first be born in order to be born again (John 3:7).

  1. Marriage and Celibacy

With all of the talk today about marriage, people often rightly wonder about the place of celibacy in the Christian Church. Curiously, the contemporary reality of singleness has suddenly become an argument against the traditional view. Along these lines, Keesmaat enlists Paul’s wish for all people to be single like him as support for her revisionist position (1 Cor 7.7, 8). Her argument here depends upon the attribution of a most peculiar opinion to me and the cloud of witnesses who have held my position. Namely, she insists that belief in procreative marriage entails belief in mandatory marriage.

This surprising attribution betrays a lack of awareness about the tradition of Christian celibacy, which has been integral to Christian tradition for two millennia. The testimony of this tradition about the apposite nature of celibacy and procreative marriage is extensive and profound. In short, celibate Christians historically believe that Christian marriage is procreative. This comes as no surprise since the celibate Paul and the celibate Jesus agree.

  1. Culturally Specific Appropriations of Marriage

Keesmaat seems to take for granted that procreative marriage must be what recent (evangelical?) proponents say it is, and because she regards this perspective as problematic, the very concept of procreative marriage is rejected as theologically and existentially vapid. “People are getting on all right without procreative marriage,” she says.

I don’t claim for a moment that what the mid-twentieth century called the nuclear family is identical to procreative marriage. The nuclear family is a culturally specific ordering of the divine ideal of procreative marriage, one that I believe is plagued by many of the same ills that have beset other late modern institutions.

Cultures have better and worse ways of ordering procreative marriage. But if we conclude that our society’s ordering is less than ideal, it does not follow that procreative marriage can be done away with. Societies do not “get along all right” without procreative marriage. They cannot. Because the extent to which they “get along” without procreative marriage is the extent in which they disappear.

Since the beginning of human history men and women have reached out to one another in friendship and love only to find that they have been given the surprising gift of the new life. They have recognized this gift carries powerful bonds of affection and responsibility: father and mother to child and to one another. This is what is meant by the term “Procreative marriage.” It is the divinely ordered basis of human history, culture, and society, for it is God that gives the man and the woman to one another and buries within this gift another, more mysterious wonder: fruitfulness.

  1. Scriptural Aberrations of Procreative Marriage

Keesmaat concludes her reflections by mentioning Old Testament aberrations of procreative marriage. She concludes these aberrations refute the idea that procreative marriage is integral to the gospel. Aberrations, though, do not problematize norms, they confirm them. We can see what procreative marriage ought to be even when all we see is aberrant human manifestations of it.

Keesmaat maintains that I fail to “mention that the procreative marriages that do carry the story forward bear no resemblance to marriage today.” I am fully aware of God’s willingness to work with less than perfect human appropriations of his ideal, which is why I insist that, “the story of marital strife, female barrenness, sibling rivalry, family discord, and national crisis is never simply the story of fathers and mothers and their offspring. It is always, at the same time, the story of God working through and within fallen procreative history to accomplish the purification and salvation of his people through his Son.”

It is simply not the case that procreative marriages in biblical times bear no resemblance to procreative marriages today. Their resemblance is obscured when we only notice the details, which vary from place to place. What procreative marriages across cultures have in common is that they are procreative marriages, as scripturally defined. The aberrant sexual relationships we come across in Scripture are not merely violations of some generic and invariably imprecisely defined notion of human love. They are violations of the divinely ordered form of marriage.

The same can be said of sexual arrangements that Scripture does not explicitly condemn, but nonetheless problematizes, such as polygamy. It is easy to see from afar that while polygamy is a particular cultural example of procreative marriage, it is also one that easily destabilizes the exclusive bonds of affection and responsibility that fruitfulness creates.

  1. Making Disciples

Keesmaat concludes by saying that Jesus did not say, “Get married, procreate and make disciples of your children,” but rather, “Go and make disciples of all peoples.” In what he says about marriage, on previous occasions, Jesus affirms the Old Testament vision of procreative marriage. Jesus’ mandate to go and make disciples does not stand in contradiction to the creation mandate to be fruitful and multiply, but rather builds upon it. The Great Commission is thus yet another example of how Jesus fulfills the Old Testament. In this case he shows us that what God always had in mind was not simply the continuation of biological existence on earth, but a holy people who declare his righteousness to a people yet unborn (Ps 22:31). Jesus fulfills the creation mandate with the Great Commission, and the Church that raises its offspring as disciples of Christ participates in this fulfillment.

The Rev. Dr. David Ney is a native of Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, and a priest in the Anglican Church of Canada. He currently serves as assistant professor of church history at Trinity School for Ministry, in Ambridge, Pennsylvania.

About The Author

In continuous publication since 1878, The Living Church remains focused on the whole state of Christ’s Church, amid major shifts in the landscape and culture of global Christianity. We are champions of a covenanted Anglican Communion as a means of healing the wounds of division in the body of Christ.

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