Books

Cover Image: Marriage

Marriage:
Sex in the Service of God

Christopher Ash (IVP, 2003)

Blurb Review by Revd Dr Simon Vibert

Review by Revd Dr Simon Vibert

What a great title! Is the title justified or merely a publisher's ploy to get attention?!

In part one, the existence of marriage is described, according to the Genesis creation narratives, as God's initiative for the blessing of all generations until the consummation and marriage between Christ and his church at the end of the age.

In part two the why, teleological purpose of marriage is explored. Marriage is not for an introspective "coupledom", but is rather a calling beyond the confines of the marriage relationship itself to a mutual stewardship of the creation. As partners together the couple tend the garden and fill the earth. The purpose of God, namely the service of God, is expressed in the joint function the man and woman are to fulfil according to Genesis 2.

In part three the marriage relationship is described as being a voluntary, public and social union of one man and one woman for life. It is a covenant relationship inaugurated by God and presided over by him.

Ash argues that the kernel of the study is focused around an understanding of God's purpose for marriage. He is particularly concerned that a Barthian emphasis on intimacy as the major moral goal of marriage has missed out on the principle motif of Genesis 2 and its outworking in the rest of Scripture. For example, the popular notion that sex is for relationship results in a belief that: Marriage is no longer regarded as the right place to begin a steady sexual relationship, but as a relational process with no public expression, or as a subsequent stage (often linked to reaching some agreed level of stability, shared expectations of maturity in the relationship), as a relational ideal. (p.54).

Barth emphasised the interior "goods" of marriage in opposition to the Roman Catholic more judicial emphasis on marriage, particularly with respects to the need for procreation. There are at least two negative consequences of this view, Ash argues

First, "Although we may mock, the idea that marriage is fundamentally a relational process rather than a public status has taken deep hold on our thinking.... This expresses itself in a culture that marginalizes marriage and ceases to mind whether or not a couple are married or cohabiting..." (p.54).

Secondly, "one of the results of speaking in terms of process rather than event or status is that marriage ceases to be viewed as an objective benchmark against which all sexual relationships are to be viewed" (p.55).

His points are well taken, especially in a culture which has lost sight of the need for a public ceremony to begin the relationship which is then bonded through a sexual relationship with children seen as the outcome of a publicly identifiable act of marriage. The reduction of marriage to that of a purely one-on-one relationship has surely detrimentally affected the fabric of society.

A more healthy and biblical approach to marriage is worked out by seeing the purpose of marriage as not being principally the sole answer to human loneliness (Genesis 2:18), but rather to view marriage as the provision of a suitable helper for the task of tending God's world in joint stewardship (hence Genesis 2:20bf.).

Such a corrective is necessary and important. Yes, then, I guess, sex is in the service of God!

However, in his desire to emphasise the danger of an inward focus for marriage, at times I felt that he unnecessarily castigates God's provision of marriage as an answer to loneliness (Genesis 2:18). The corrective is warranted, God provides for man by making a suitable helper and partner.

However, the purpose of marriage is explained by Paul in Ephesians 5:31-32. The man-woman marriage is an enacted parable of Christ's relationship with his people, his bride, the Church. More accurately, I guess, the period of betrothal is yet to be consummated in the marvellous marriage feast of the lamb (Revelation 21) in which God's bride, the Church will finally unite with her groom, Christ. In the intervening time, the heart of Christian marriage is a manifestation of covenant faithfulness (illustrating God's covenant commitment to his people), described as the heart of marriage in Chapter 15. My minor quibble with the book would be that, once that eschatological marriage has taken place, the ultimate marriage will not have a functional role, it will be one of unending praise, joy and, yes, intimacy between Christ and his bride. For the sake of corrective, Ash emphasises the danger of intimacy in creating ungodly self-centred marriages. However, to say that the purpose of marriage is anything less than an anticipation of the joyful intimacy and union of Christ and his people is to say too little

of marriage. Having articulated my minor quibble, I want to conclude by saying that this is an excellent book. It is far more than a study on Marriage, for it gives the reader a thorough grounding in a biblical theology of human sexuality and has implications for modern debates about homosexuality, cohabiting, marriage and familial structure in contemporary society. It is essential and winsome reading for every Christian pastor and to that end Christopher Ash has done us a huge service.

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