by Dr Meg Warner, Old Testament Theologian, Member of General Synod and author of Abraham
Last week’s edition of the Church Times (1/2/2019) ‘balanced’ a report of Dr Christina Beardsley’s decision to leave the Church of England’s sexuality project (‘Living in Love and Faith’) with a report on a new book by Dr Martin Davie, theological consultant to the Church of England Evangelical Council, Glorify God in your Body. Dr Davie is a senior and respected evangelical commentator, having been theological consultant to the House of Bishops and co-author of A Companion to Some issues in human sexuality.
“As something created by God, marriage is not subject to change until his eternal kingdom comes. This means that, in spite of prevailing contemporary feeling, a relationship between two people of the same sex, intrinsically closed to procreation, cannot be a marriage any more than a triangle can have a fourth corner, a truth can be a lie, or an elephant can be a penguin.” (Italics added, p. 154)
As an Australian, Davie’s use of ‘intrinsically’ inevitably, and depressingly, reminds me of the infamous comment of a Sydney priest that one could “no more consecrate a woman than a meat pie”.
A Facebook comment about the article described these views as ‘tragically misguided but pernicious’ and suggested that they ‘should be taken seriously in the same way that a gardener would take an outbreak of Japanese knotweed seriously’.
Davie impliedly asserts that procreation is an essential element of marriage, thereby apparently excluding not only same-sex couples, but also the medically infertile and those over a certain age (like my husband and me) from marriage. (Elsewhere in his book [Page 74] he does distinguish between these categories, describing age and infertility as ‘accidental factors’ that do not invalidate marriage and contrasting them with sex, that does. He unfortunately does not offer any justification for making this distinction.)
Although in the quote above Davie appeals to natural law, elsewhere he cites the Bible extensively. What does the Bible, then, have to say about marriage and procreation? And to what extent does it mandate that marriage is ‘for’ the begetting of children?
The short, and surprising, answer is that the Bible doesn’t link the two explicitly at all. Nowhere does the Bible say that procreation is an integral element of marriage.
The link between marriage and procreation is often traced back to the beginning of Genesis. Procreation is a theme of Genesis 1 and marriage of Genesis 2. However, as has often been observed, Genesis 1 doesn’t mention marriage and Genesis 2 doesn’t mention procreation. True, Jesus alluded to both Genesis 1 and 2 in his discussion of marriage and divorce (Matt 19:4-6; Mk 10:7-9), but he didn’t link marriage and procreation either.
Procreation is foregrounded strongly in Genesis 1. In verse 28 God blesses the first humans and says, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth…’. This is God’s first instruction and first blessing. It is tempting to interpret it as a special, central, divine imperative for humans. It is, however, made also to animals and birds (verse 22) and there is no requirement for humans to marry first, any more that there is a requirement for animals or birds to marry.
A quite different divine imperative, or ‘vocation’, is introduced in Genesis 2. We tend to think of Genesis 2 as a story about the creation of women and men, but human beings are not its primary focus. The primary focus of Genesis 2 is the earth, and the problem that drives the narrative in Genesis 2 concerns it; on the day when God began to create, there was nothing growing in the earth (ha-adamah in Hebrew). This problem had two causes. The first was that God hadn’t yet made it rain, and the second was that there was nobody to ‘till’ or ‘serve’ the earth. So God made a garden, with a stream to irrigate it, and a human being or ‘earth creature’ (ha-adam) to be its gardener.
Then God, surprisingly, noticed that something in the garden was ‘not good’. I say ‘surprisingly’, because in Genesis 1 God had pronounced everything in creation to be ‘good’ or ‘very good’. The ‘not good’ thing in Genesis 2 was that the human being was alone (Gen 2:18). So, after some initial false starts, God made another human being, a woman (ishshah), to be a ‘helper’ with the adam. Note that she was not created primarily to bring the adam (who only now is identified as a male human [ish], signifying the beginnings of gender) companionship or to have his children, but to ‘help’ him in his vocation of serving the earth. (Note, too, that the Hebrew word ezer [‘helper’] doesn’t imply subordination – it is often used to describe God as our helper, eg. Psalms 10:14, 30:10, 54:4.)[See Footnote]
Even if Genesis 2 tells us something about marriage, it does not tell us that marriage is for having children. The first responsibility of men and women, says Genesis 2, is to care for God’s creation. We (anthropocentric creatures that we are) think the story is all about us. It is not. It is about the earth first.
Dr Davie’s assertion that procreative capacity is an essential element of marriage is not only misguided – it is against the ‘plain meaning of Scripture’. It does not ‘rightly explain the word of truth’ (2 Tim 2:15), but is pernicious in that it, like knotweed, restricts and stifles growth of the other. By insisting that Genesis 2 means what it does not say – that marriage can only be between a man and a woman for the procreation of children (pp. 52-56) – Davie ignores precisely the thing that the Scriptures do say – that it is not good for humans to be alone – and so proceeds, determined to make ‘aloneness’ – the very thing that God says is not good – the lot of same-sex couples.
Japanese knotweed does terrible things to gardens and needs rooting out. We are all called to be gardeners.
[FOOTNOTE] In Davie’s argument he makes much of English translations of Gen 2:18, such as the NIV, that have God say that he will make a ‘fit’ partner for the first human being. This is not a good translation of the Hebrew, which doesn’t include any kind of qualitative qualifier. The Hebrew phrase that I have translated ‘helper’ is structured on two Hebrew roots, ezer (help) and neged (in front of, or opposite). This second root, neged, has become central to tensions between interpretations of Gen 2:18 by readers from different traditions. Evangelical commentators are more likely to assert that the word has a sense of complementarity about it (therefore mandating opposite-sex marriage), while others are likely to argue that neged more often has a simple spacial meaning (in other words, that it means ‘opposite’ in the sense that two people standing face-to-face are opposite, or in front of, one another but does not imply anything necessarily complementary about the people themselves).