Diana L. Villegas, Acton, MA

January 2, 2022

The strength of this volume lies in the variety of perspectives presented regarding Christian marriage. Essays from the perspectives of biblical scholars, historians, literary experts, and theologians make clear that views about Christian marriage have been influenced by a complex interplay between theoretical perspectives and culturally driven practices. Essays show both the diversity of views regarding major philosophical/theological questions such as what constitutes marriage and how extensively attitudes and practices have varied depending on factors such as social class and geographical location, as well as period in history.

The discussion of marriage in the books of the Old Testament shows the plurality of juridical, cultural, and theological perspectives on marriage covered. Francis Martin, biblical scholar, also authored the chapter on the New Testament, which offers an interpretation of texts from a traditional Roman Catholic theological perspective. The author highlights the concept of Messianic family, namely the community of believers in the Kingdom of God. This concept of family is seen as one of Jesus’ unique innovations and the context for interpretation of texts on marriage and family. While offering information based on sound biblical scholarship, the material in this chapter could have been communicated in a tighter, more organized manner.

Historian and editor of the volume, Glenn Olsen, offers well-written, balanced presentations of the range of scholarly opinions regarding marriage in Patristic times. He delineates the influence of Roman practices regarding marriage, both those of the elite and those of the ordinary members of society. He shows the cultural roots of celibacy as ideal and the effect of this view on the understanding of marriage. Olsen weaves an excellent account of the complex origins of the controversies regarding consummation and consent, themes that became central to theological and canonical debates about marriage. The author presents the subtle historical discussion of the development of Augustine’s thought on marriage, a discussion that also serves as a critical introduction to the vast literature on Augustine’s thought on these matters.

Olsen summarizes the themes of the period between the 5th and 12th centuries as “virginity and marriage, perfection and imperfection, purity and impurity” (146). He shows how the monastic ideal of virginity, with its connection to purity and perfection, influenced both theoretical discussions and practices regarding Christian marriage. Marriage was understood in terms of the monastic ideal, and came up as second best. Olsen offers a subtle summary of the many facets of the debates regarding what constituted marriage. There were those arguing that marriage was constituted by consent, although debate continued regarding whose consent was necessary, whether the consent of parents, the couple, or both. Others argued that consummation was the key element for marriage to exist, and yet others argued that both consent and consummation were necessary. Further, Olsen elucidates how divorce, indissolubility, and annulment were viewed during this period, and he helps the reader imagine the different understanding of these realities from that of the contemporary Roman Catholic tradition.

The 12th century witnessed the first canonical and theological systematizations of the Church teaching regarding the nature of marriage. These important developments are analyzed from its theological perspective by Teresa Pierre, a scholar of the work of Hugh of St. Victor. She discusses Hugh’s important contribution to the eventual definition of marriage as one of the seven sacraments and his theological reflections on the affective dimensions of marriage. In this same century, monks explored the bonds of affection and friendship between persons. The image of sexual love and desire became an important image for union between God and persons. Pierre highlights these developments, arguing that monastic interest in marital themes constituted ‘elements of a self-conscious spirituality of marriage’ (231). Her arguments are provocative, but not completely convincing, since the use of marital imagery focused more on highlighting union with God in the context of a celibate life style, rather than on development of a marital spirituality. She correctly points out the important retrieval during this period of a positive view of the bodily dimension of love. An interesting part of Pierre’s chapter is a description of 12th century literature incorporating the notion of affection and romantic love with ideals of Christian love developed in monastic circles.

The chapter on the Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries examines the Reformers’ view of marriage through a literary analysis of texts. Robert V. Young, professor of English, shows the more subjective and non-sacramental approach of Luther and Calvin, as well as the views on marriage communicated by literary figures in Britain. The analyses of Donne’s and Milton’s works are illuminating and show roots in 17th and 18th century Britain of some of our own cultures attitudes towards marriage. Young, however, does not limit himself to a literary analysis but offers a theological critique. His polemic against the non Catholic, non-sacramental perspective is not argued or developed, rather stated as a given in his textual analyses. This approach detracts from the interesting textual critique and does not accomplish a balanced, well argued theological presentation.

The 18th and 19th centuries saw the emergence of key contemporary characteristics of marriage and family life. James Hitchcock’s account is an engaging story told from the perspective of the cultural historian. He reviews primarily Northern European and North American history showing how economic and cultural developments changed attitudes and practices regarding sexuality, women, children, and, therefore, marriage and family. He relates how personal choice of a spouse became more common and how the ideal of a companionate marriage became popularized. He describes attitudes towards birth control and the shift to new ways of valuing and understanding the needs of children.

The final chapter by a moral theologian decries the deterioration of stable, lasting marriages in contemporary first world cultures and argues for it conservative Roman Catholic interpretation of magisterial teaching regarding marriage and contraception. John M. Haas argues that post Vatican II magisterial teaching retains the long held metaphysical distinction of primary and secondary ends in marriage, where procreation is the primary end. He argues against those who have interpreted the teachings of Vatican II as stating that procreation and the union between the spouses are of equal value.

This book is intended for the educated reader rather than other scholars. However, the chapters on cultural history could also be informative to those studying marriage from the perspective of other disciplines, and documentation is extensive throughout the volume. The hook succeeds in offering a valuable historical perspective on cultural as well as on theological developments and could serve as a text for a course on marriage. The most balanced presentations offering a variety of perspectives in a scholarly manner are those by Olsen, Pierre, and Hitchcock. The last chapter is a dissonant contribution, since it offers one limited view of contemporary marriage, and the arguments advanced are technical, and, therefore, meaningful primarily to other experts.

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