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Evaluating ‘This Holy Estate’: Ignoring the Old Testament

The Anglican Church of Canada’s Commission on the Marriage Canon created ‘This Holy Estate’ to do two things. First, the document was to suggest wording for the proposed resolution to alter the marriage canon at the General Synod in 2016. Second, the document was to demonstrate how such a change to the church’s traditional teaching on Christian marriage might be “scripturally and theologically coherent.” Like the other posts published this week on Covenant, my piece considers whether the report has fulfilled this second objective. I focus simply on section, which deals with the Old Testament.

As Dane Neufeld noted on Monday, THE 5.1.1 claims to offer a rationale for changing the marriage canon by pursuing a moderate approach, which uses Scripture neither as some fundamentalists do (by treating it as an assortment of proof texts), nor as some liberals do (by disregarding the authoritative voice of the text). Instead, the report endorses the more sensible practice of “locating ourselves in the biblical narrative of God’s unfolding purpose to redeem the good creation that has fallen through sin.”

I commend the report’s attempted method, but I will show that the report’s engagement with the Old Testament (like the report as a whole) fails to follow through on its plans. It falls back upon both the fundamentalist and liberal approaches it claims to disavow. I will then argue that the report is unable to present a reading of the Old Testament that includes contemporary Christians in the narrative because it fails to appreciate what it means to say that heterosexual marriage is sacramental.

The report’s dismissal of Genesis 1 and 2

The report, surprisingly, engages only two Old Testament texts: Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. (Catherine Sider-Hamilton offered some initial comments on these texts yesterday.)

The report hastily concludes that Genesis 1 is not relevant to the current discussion concerning the definition of marriage, for two reasons. First, Genesis 1 must be located, as historical critics tell us, in its original context. And within this context, the report claims that its purpose was not to define marriage but to criticize “ancient near eastern royal ideologies that understood the king as image or representative of the divine” (

Second, Genesis 1 is deemed irrelevant because of the report’s interpretation of the imago dei (the idea that humans are created in the image of God). According to the report, to say that humans have been created in God’s image is to say that they have been commissioned as God’s representatives in creation. While fulfilling this role implies procreation, the report says that God does not explicitly designate marriage as a “necessary agent of procreation.” The meaning of the imago dei, the report concludes, is therefore irrelevant.

The report’s discussion of Genesis 2 comprises two similar arguments. It initially states that the text is “more relevant” than Genesis 1 but seems to go back on this claim; it ultimately concludes that Genesis 2’s declarations on marriage are not prescriptive, but descriptive. This conclusion is justified on two accounts. Again the report argues that the historicity of the text makes it irrelevant: the marriage between Adam and Eve is found to be dissimilar from ancient Israelite marriage practices, and therefore does not bear on our understanding of the Israelite institution of marriage (nor presumably on contemporary marriage). The second reason for the text’s irrelevance is that, like God’s creation of humans in his image, God’s act of giving Eve and Adam to each other in marriage apparently makes no “explicit reference to procreation as part of the intent for marriage” (ibid., emphasis added).

In sum, the report calls into question the applicability of Genesis 1 to the current debate by means of two claims, and then largely repeats these claims with respect to Genesis 2.

The report’s first argument

The first argument, the appeal to historical criticism in order to dismiss the Genesis narratives, betrays the assumption that texts, as reflections of specific historical contexts, cannot speak to all times.

In tomorrow’s post, Cole Hartin will look at this assumption in greater detail. For now, let me say that using historical criticism in this manner has become a favorite, albeit blunt, tool for disregarding the authoritative voice of Scripture. I note, for instance, its repeated use in the proposals concerning same-sex marriage that are coming before the Scottish Episcopal Church’s General Synod, as Oliver O’Donovan has highlighted at Fulcrum in “The Wreck of Catholic Identity.”

The nature of a particular text seems not to matter, so long as some background particularity may allow its dismissal. Jesus, after all, was speaking to first-century Jews. Or: We know that Paul had a primitive cosmology. Or, as ‘This Holy Estate’ would have it: the purpose of Genesis is to subvert “ancient near eastern royal ideologies that understood the king as image or representative of the divine” (THE

Along these lines, interpreters who hope to salvage anything from the Bible must ultimately treat some biblical texts as if they are historically embedded and others as if they are not. This approach conveniently allows them to hold on to their favorite parts. However, to use a phrase from Bonhoeffer, if we are going to swallow this earthly cup, we must do so “to its very dregs.”

Every single word of Scripture is a product of history. Pointing this out is not the same as interpreting a text. And when a text’s historicity calls into question its relevance, one thing is clear. The text no longer speaks authoritatively, and the opinions of the interpreter are given free reign.

The report’s second argument

The report argues that procreation is not explicitly declared to be fundamental to marriage in Genesis 1 or 2. This amounts to saying that a person who speaks about feathers and wings and robins and eagles is not talking about birds because the word birds has not been used.[1] It is true that the words procreative marriage are found in neither Genesis 1 nor Genesis 2, but procreative marriage is clearly central to both.

The authors of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 speak of sexual difference and a one-flesh union rather than procreative marriage because they take for granted that marriage is laden with generative potential. In Genesis 1 the first thing God does when he creates male and female in his image is to bless them and say to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number” (Gen. 1:28). This blessing is the basis of the man and the woman’s commission to “fill the earth and subdue it.” It is, therefore, far more closely tied to the imago dei than the report claims.

To make a connection between procreative marriage and the divine mandate of humanity is not to treat Genesis 1 as a proof text. Indeed, the importance of procreation in Genesis 1 is only filled out when it is interpreted within a larger narrative of Scripture. Thus, Genesis 2 beautifully describes the first marriage: God’s giving of Adam and Eve to one another. To claim that the words of this text, and the particular sexed bodies they refer to, are important is not to succumb to fundamentalism. Rather, it is to take the words of Scripture seriously, as the building blocks of a larger story (again, see Catherine Sider-Hamilton’s recent piece).

In the same way that Genesis 2 builds upon Genesis 1, the remainder of Genesis, the rest of the Old Testament, and Scripture as a whole add historical and theological definition to this story. We learn early on that the story of men and women being “fruitful and increasing in number” is a story often dominated by their sin. It is a story that pits brother against brother, and father against mother. It is a story of controversy, animosity, and murder.

But it isn’t merely a human story. Already in Genesis 1, human fruitfulness and increase is, at the same time, God’s story — the story of his relationship with his creatures. And from Genesis 3 onwards, procreative marriage is central to God’s work of redemption. For there we encounter the protoevangelion (Gen. 3:15), declaring that Eve’s offspring is God’s appointed means of crushing the serpent’s head. Since the dawn of Christianity, we have recognized this appointed offspring to be none other than Jesus Christ.

“When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law” (Gal. 4:4). Paul, and the early Church with him, believed that it was crucial that Jesus was “born of woman” and not merely to establish the doctrine of his humanity. The manner of Jesus’ birth established his relationship with the larger narrative of God’s redemption of his people through Eve’s offspring.

By being “born of woman” Jesus confirms what we see throughout the scriptural narrative: 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. Human history is divine history because it is the story of the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. Here, we see why we must attend to the whole of the Old Testament, not least for how the Word speaks in and through it.

When Jesus, quoting Psalm 22:1, cries out from the Cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?,” we see that he has entered into and taken upon himself all that the psalmist suffered. The experience of being brought “out of the womb” and of being “cast” on God from birth, of being surrounded by “strong bulls of Bashan,” of being “poured out like water” and having all his bones “out of joint,” of having a heart “turned to wax,” of having his mouth “dried up like a potsherd” and his tongue stuck “to the roof of [his] mouth,” of having his hands and feet pierced, of having all his bones on display and having people “stare and gloat” over him, and of watching them “divide [his] clothes among them and cast lots for [his] garments” — these are all his experiences (Ps. 22:9-18).

What is more, like the psalmist, Jesus undergoes all these experiences with a specific purpose in mind: so that “Posterity will serve [God]” and so that “future generations will be told about the Lord” (Ps. 22:30). Thus, the psalm that began with a cry of dereliction ends with the confident assertion that future generations will “proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn” (Ps. 22:31).

We have here a tableau on the way the divine Word speaks in and through the whole of the Old Testament; he has taken up this whole history in all its particularity. We see how marriage, generation, and childrearing is integral to God’s redemptive purposes.  And so we can come to appreciate what the Church has traditionally taught: that heterosexual marriage is sacramental.

Most of our language for describing marriage in this manner stems originally from Ephesians 5, which refers back to Genesis 2:24: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” “This is great mystery,” for it speaks not only of the particular unions of men and women but also of the particular union of Christ and his Church.

Therefore, the way husbands love their wives is not only similar to how Christ loves his Church. The association runs deeper still. God’s own story, the story of the Son giving himself over to death for the sake of the Church’s life, is irrevocably tied to the story of a man leaving his father and mother and being united with his wife. Human life and death, down the ages, is the story of God’s enduring promise, his Word to his people. In other words, underlying Paul’s claim is an understanding about the co-inherence of divine and human history in the institution of marriage.

Thus, a church affirming the traditional understanding of marriage holds up not merely a cultural ideal, nor does it make simple claims about birth and the raising of children. Such a church bears witness to Christ, insisting that procreative marriage is not just something that interested parties agree to, or even something that ensures the survival of the species. Such a church affirms that children are important because the gospel is important. For it is the children of the Church who, by following the path that Jesus walked, ensure future generations will “proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn” (Ps. 22:31).


‘This Holy Estate’ promises to avoid the extremes of fundamentalism and liberalism in its engagement with Scripture; it hoped to avoid proof texting and the dismissal of troublesome texts. In its actual engagement with the Old Testament, however, I have shown that the report falls back on both extremes. It fails to deliver on its promise to interpret the Old Testament narrative in a way that includes us in the story. The report addresses only the first two chapters of this narrative, and it does so only in order to dismiss them. It is thus unable to reckon with the central place of marriage in salvation history, and therefore fails to understand how marriage is sacramental.

The Old Testament shows people of all times, not least the Church of today, that God’s plan has always been to work in and through procreative marriage, and therefore in and through history. Human beings, the fruit of procreative marriage, have hope for the future because the Church endures. And the Church has a future because God has appointed that human life will endure through procreative marriage. Because of this I worry that the church that fails to protect the unique sacramentality of procreative marriage may just find that it has cut its own umbilical chord.

The Rev. Dr. David Ney is an associate priest at St. Peter’s Anglican Church in Calgary, Alberta. His other Covenant posts are here

The introduction and links to other essays in “Evaluating ‘This Holy Estate’” may be found here

The featured image is from the Sistine Chapel. It is in the public domain. 


[1] The point is not just that this is dubious. The point is that it uses what the authors dismissively call a “fundamentalist” biblical hermeneutic. It is “fundamentalist” because it embraces the facile assumption that only the words of Scripture that are used in current debates are admissible to them. In other words, it takes contemporary language to be the “fundamental” building blocks of theology.


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