MLA: This is based on a discussion over the weekend with the Brazos Fellows. I’m on the board, so caveat lector: but it’s a terrific organization, and you should send your college senior who wants a year of deep spiritual formation to it. (Also: become a member already!)
In Matthew 19, the Pharisees ask Jesus a question: is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife? The question is a test, Matthew notes, asked in such a manner to try to expose Jesus as lacking the authority that he claimed. Unlike other places in the Gospels, it is a question that Jesus answers: “Have you not read that from the beginning…,” he says, the ‘two will be one flesh,’ which makes divorce illicit. He doubles down on this formulation in response to their query about divorce in the Moses permitted divorce because of the Israelites’ hardness of heart, but “from the beginning it was not so.”
This where John Paul II begins his Theology of the Body: with the words of Christ, which point us back to the beginning. Set aside the content of Jesus’s answer for a moment, and reflect on the manner of moral reasoning at work: Jesus treats the first chapters of Genesis as authoritative and binding for their dispute. It is an answer to their question, and it leaves no ambiguity. “For this reason,” John Paul II writes, “we must draw the normative conclusions from it”.
Not everyone these days agrees, of course. In his (failed) attempt to salvage the case for same-sex marriage from Scripture, James Brownson proposes that while the Bible only speaks of ‘one-flesh unions’ as occurring between male and female, “normally does not inherently, and of itself, indicate that it views such linkages normatively.” How such a stance squares with Matthew 19 remains a mystery to me. I suppose Brownson might say that Christ’s answer might apply to divorce, but not any other feature of marriage—but that invalidates Christ’s manner of moral reasoning as a pattern for us. If Christ can appeal to the beginning for authoritative norms, so also can we.
But why should the beginning be the source of what’s normative—and why does Christ appeal to this beginning? One reason we might turn to the beginning is that it raises the question of what, if anything, is prior to it. That is, to turn to the beginning is to ask whether we are created or not—and whether that has significance for our moral lives. To say that the ‘one-flesh’ union between male and female was established ‘at the beginning’ is to say something about the manner or course that God has laid down for the world. The accretions of time and of sin have distorted that course; they have obscured it, rendering it less transparent than it might have been (if not entirely opaque altogether). But to speak intelligibly about the beginning is to make reference to God’s creative acts, and to locate our current position as beneath His authority.
Moreover, there is something true within Christian theology about the fact that origins or sources have a determinate impact on the whole stream of what follows. On Barth’s anthropology, the fact that humanity comes from God means that we are for God—that we are ordered, intrinsically, toward returning to our lives with him. Beginnings aren’t destiny; they don’t eclipse the possibility that we might go a different way. But what happens within our origin still charts the course for our lives in such a way that even our choices to resist that course are marked by it. In this way, the headwaters of a tradition are authoritative in a way that others are not. Or, at least, such is my hasty and vaguely sketched intuition about the matter.
The question of why this beginning is also crucially important. My friend Paul Gutacker raised it over the weekend as I discussed John Paul’s work with the Brazos Fellows. (NB: It’s a great program. Send students.) Christ is asked about marriage and divorce, yes, and so turns to Genesis. But the New Testament knows of sources or beginnings that go behind even that one: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Ought Christ have grounded teachings about marriage in the Triune life directly? After all, it’s a move that’s popular among theologians of every conviction about gay marriage these days: do some good Trinitarian theology, and then make derivations to marriage and gender roles.
There is something significant about where and how Christ answers, though. If marriage links up to the Triune life, it does so indirectly—as a form or type of the covenant that displays, through time, the nature and significance God’s love for the world and for Himself. John Paul II follows this course in Theology of the Body: the full explanation for the significance of marriage requires invoking, at some point, the Triune God. But it is an indirect link; there is no straight or strict derivation from God’s life to marriage as such. If anything, the manner of reasoning works the other direction: he works out an understanding of the body and of marriage within a robust doctrine of creation, and only then is able to see how marriage might display the love and life of God to the world.