Is Marriage Christian?

Essay, 2018

11 Pages, Grade: 1,7




Part I: Gregory of Nyssa

Part II: St. Augustine of Hippo
Procreation (and Social Bond)
Mutual fidelity
Sacramental bond

Part III: Developing from the Classic Theologies
Embodiedness and Sexuality
Trinity and Community

Part IV: Marriage as a Sacrament of Love
Commitment and indissolubility
Incarnational expression
Shared transcendence
Charity and virtues



This essay argues that marriage ¡ร Christian because there ¡ร a specifically Christian theology of marriage that understands its nature as sacramental. For a great part of the Christian tradition, marriage has been dismissed or regarded as inferior ¡ท favour of celibacy. It ¡ร possible, however, to have a thoroughly positive understanding of marriage alongside celibacy.

I will examine this question by looking at two key examples ¡ท the Christian tradition, Gregory of Nyssa’s On Virginity and St. Augustine of Hippo’s The excellence of Marriage. For Nyssa, celibacy seems to be the ideal. I will show that his treatment ¡ร more complex than this; it ¡ร clear, however, that he does not regard marriage as ¡ท the sense of having a positive theology of it. Augustine, on the opposite, advocates for an understanding of marriage as a good way of Christian life, but still insists on its inferiority to celibacy. I will show, however, he opens a way that allows a development of theological interpretation of marriage as a sacrament of love. I will argue that as a sacrament of love, marriage does not have to be sacrificed ¡ท favour of celibacy but neither should it be regarded as an inferior good compared to celibacy.

The predominantly negative view of marriage ¡ท both authors ¡ร influenced by their (partly unconscious) engagement ¡ท the Mystic and/or Gnostic traditions. I will argue that both authors neglect the crucial aspect of love ¡ท marriage which stems from the reluctance to regard the spiritual and bodily dimensions of love as inseparable. This ¡ร caused by the negative view of the embodied world and sexuality, which leads to an impoverished notion and a diminished role of love that ¡ร not appropriate with regard to man’s embodied nature and destroys the possibility of understanding marriage as an active, positive participation ¡ท God’s love.

Part I: Gregory of Nyssa

Gregory of Nyssa was heavily influenced by Neo-Platonism and, as a contemplative theologian, advocates for the virginity of the soul, which ¡ร not identical with celibacy and therefore not contrary to marriage as an institution. I will show, however, that his understanding of marriage ¡ร not positive but functional.

Life on earth ¡ร a journey which should not be enjoyed. He who ¡ร “studying the divine ways [...] (a)s long as he ¡ร ‘¡ท the tabernacle’, exhibiting mortality, weighed down with his existence, he laments the lengthening of his sojourn ¡ท it”1, because it keeps the soul struggling with giving itself to God. The human being ¡ร called to become entirely spiritual instead of embodying Divine nature within the worldly dimension. Love and imitation of God are only achievable through pure, spiritual contemplation. The aim of the soul consists of the contemplation of Him and the self-purification ¡ท His image. The way to the Divine lies ¡ท detachment from the embodied world, as the wings of purity (grace) can only draw the soul towards God when it ¡ร not held back by passions. Nyssa likens the soul to a stream that cannot reach God when it ¡ร poured into many worldly channels as the stream necessarily has to split ¡ท order to engage ¡ท both marriage and divine contemplation: “the human mind [...], as long as its current spreads itself ¡ท all directions over the pleasures of the sense, has no power that ¡ร worth the naming of making its way towards the Real Good.”2 The second and third persons of the Trinity are interpreted as purely and passionlessly generated. Nyssa concludes from this that only purity from passion can be an indication of Divine presence:

“This [... ] was the reason why our Master, Jesus Christ Himself, the Fountain of all innocence, did not come into the world by wedlock. It was, to divulge by the manner of His incarnation this great secret; that purity ¡ร the only complete indication of the presence of God and of his coming, and that no one can ¡ท reality secure this for himself, unless he has altogether estranged himself from the passions of the flesh.”3

Nyssa does not primarily argue against sexuality, but the soul’s attachment to the sensual world. “Virginity of the body ¡ร devised to further such a disposition of the soul; it aims at creating ¡ท it a complete forgetfulness of natural emotions; it would prevent the necessity of ever descending to the call of fleshly needs.”4 The engagement ¡ท sexual activities bears a great risk of trapping the soul ¡ท worldly passions. Marriage ¡ท all its aspects traps the soul within the physical world by making it susceptible to all kinds of passions. Moreover, it ¡ร the source of evil by providing opportunities to feel pride, envy and hate.5

It ¡ร emphasized, however, that marriage ¡ร not ¡ท itself bad and he ¡ร “well aware that it ¡ร no stranger to God’s blessing”6. He compares being wedded to a human to being wedded to Christ. The good of marriage lies ¡ท procreation. “(พ)hile the pursuit of heavenly things should be a man’s first care, yet if he can use the advantages of marriage with sobriety and moderation, he need not despise this way of serving the state.”7 As long as the soul remains unattached, a combination of both ¡ร ¡ท fact the ideal, as Nyssa’s example of Isaac suggests. However, there ¡ร a clear prioritization of the soul’s virginity, as Nyssa maintains that one should rather try to avoid the temptations altogether if the risk of becoming enslaved by the passions ¡ร likely due to weak character: “pass through life without a trial of these temptations, lest under cover of the excuse of lawful indulgence passion should gain an entrance into [...] the soul.”8

Nyssa’s treatment of marriage seems very divided ¡ท itself. The problem lies ¡ท his separation of the good of procreation and the good of imitation of God ¡ท opening up an alternative distinction between the spiritual and the embodied, as well as between contemplative love towards God and any embodied passions that are necessarily negative. By refusing to acknowledge any possibility of movement towards Him through the worldly dimension, he rejects the wholeness of the human person, as the soul ¡ร to be free from bodily sensuality. The creatureliness and embodiedness of the human being as created by God ¡ร not done justice.

Nyssa’s emphasis on individual contemplation leaves the impression of egocentrism since salvation ¡ร attained by solitary efforts and the hardships of marriage are categorically dismissed as obstacles to personal happiness. There ¡ร no notion of the realization of Divine love within the worldly, inter-human dimension. He explicitly maintains that God’s Spirit does not dwell ¡ท flesh and blood9 which completely contradicts the Incarnation and does not allow any room for the concept of sacramentality.

Marriage cannot be Christian for Nyssa ¡ท anything beyond a thin reproductive functionalism, as he understands the human relationship to God only through spiritual contemplation and renunciation of everything worldly. His concept of Trinity without love and Incarnation and without embodiedness makes it impossible to conceive of the human being sharing ¡ท God through embodied love.

Part II: St. Augustine of Hippo

Augustine’s treatise on marriage ¡ร a response to a raging theological controversy on the relative merits of celibacy and marriage.10 On one side, the monk Jovinian insisted on the equality of the married life to celibacy, on the opposite side, marriage was ¡ท response completely denigrated by Jerome by arguing that marriage and sex are evil. The debate rests upon a fundamental problem of repudiating Manicheism, whose influence Jovinian saw ¡ท the denigration of marriage. Augustine, who was himself involved with the Manicheans earlier ¡ท his life, tries to balance his view of marriage between the extremes and to reject it together with a critique of Jerome.

เท order to establish marriage as Christian, Augustine posits three goods of marriage: offspring, mutual fidelity and sacramental bond.

Procreation (and Social Bond)

Procreation ¡ร the original and primary good of marriage. Augustine recognizes the nature of the human being as social and relational ¡ท identity (“God did not create them as separate individuals”11 ). This nature ¡ร realized ¡ท marriage, as the “first natural bond of human society, therefore, ¡ร that of husband and wife“12. The union of man and woman has intrinsic value and finds its social aspect ¡ท the production of children (“the bonding of society ¡ท its children [...] ¡ร the one honorable fruit, not of the union of husband and wife, but of their sexual conjunction“13 14 ) „but also because of the natural sociability that exists between the different tt14 sexes.

Mutual fidelity

Fidelity, for Augustine, does not only consist of the abstaining from adultery, but the responsibility towards the partner to help him by engaging ¡ท sexual activities. Sex ¡ท order to avoid adultery ¡ร therefore a mutual service, and ¡ร not sinful for the part of the dutiful spouse, even if the act does not aim at procreation.15 The partner who seeks to have sex out of desire does, however, commit a sin but it ¡ร a forgivable sin within the context of marriage.16


1 Gregory of Nyssa (1893): On Virginity, ¡ท: Schaff, Philip; Wace, Henry: Gregory of Nyssa. Select Works. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Series 2, Vol. V, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, p. 349.

2 Loc. cit., p. 352.

3 Loc. cit., ¡ว. 344.

4 Loc. cit. p. 351.

5 Cf. loc. cit. p. 349.

[6] Loc. cit. p. 352.

[7] Loc. cit. ¡ว. 353.

8 Loc. cit.

9 Loc. cit.

10 The following refers to: Augustine (1999): The Excellence of Marriage, ¡ท: Hunter, David; Rotelle, John E.: Marriage and Virginity. The Works of St. Augustine 1/9, Brooklyn, New York: New City Press.

11 Loc. cit. 1,1.

12 Loc. cit.

13 Loc. cit.

14 Loc. cit. 3.

15 Cf. loc. cit. 5,5.

16 Cf. loc, cit. 11,12.

Excerpt out of 11 pages


Is Marriage Christian?
University of Cambridge  (Faculty of Divinity)
Doctrine of God: Love and Desire
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Dogmatik, Gott, Trinität, Liebe, Ehe, Sakrament, Zölibat, Augustinus, Gregor von Nyssa
Quote paper
Céline Sun (Author), 2018, Is Marriage Christian?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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