Marriage at the heart of salvation history: A story very old and ever new

Because Anna Silvas shows so clearly the theological and anthropological foundations of marriage, she is able to also show what is at stake and how tenuous is our grasp on this truth that is constitutive for us should we stray from Christ.

(Photo: Josh Applegate | Unsplash.com)

During my years employed as a lecturer at the now defunct John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Melbourne, Australia, I was blessed to be part of a faithful and prolific academic community of scholars, all of whom I’m also privileged to call friends.

One of these friends is Australian academic Anna Silvas. She is author of a recently published book on marriage: The Mystery of Christian Marriage Through the Ages: The Scriptures and the First Thousand Years (Cascade, 2020). Yet another book on marriage, you say? Well, acknowledging my conflict of interest, let me tell you honestly that, yes, it’s a book on marriage, but one well-worth your while.

Silvas’ main area of expertise is Patristic theology; fitting, as she is very much an “ancient soul.” Her specialty is the Greek Fathers (she refers to St. Basil with affection as “my Basil”). Concerning the Western theological tradition, her preference is for what she calls the “old monastic theology”—she likes to say St. Bernard is its last true representative. She is proficient in Hebrew, Syriac, Latin, and Greek. The above pedigree is supplemented by keen appreciation of the best of ressourcement theology, including the groundbreaking nuptial theology of John Paul II. All of this has produced the present book, which had its first run as a course on marriage that she taught at the Institute for many years.

The thing to know about Anna, however, is her love for the Lord and her knowledge of the Scriptures, which together lend profound depth and a certain “hymnic” quality to her writing. It’s this (her appreciation of Girard helps, too) which accounts for what I would call her “holy instinct” for diagnosing all kinds of idolatries and abstractions (for instance, she has no time for ongoing Jesuitical idolatry, and little time for the otherwise somewhat more orthodox proclivity for abstractions, one of which she calls “degraded Dominican naturalism”) that are, one way or another, part of the experience of the age and certainly not without precedent in the history of the Church. And, as she deftly shows, idolatries and abstractions have long been and continue to be mainstays in the history of marriage.

A story about salvation history and us

The methodology of The Mystery of Christian Marriage Through the Ages is best described as synthetic or organic. The book is not a systematic or doctrinal account of marriage. It’s not a strictly historical account. In Silvas’ own words, it’s aimed at the “thoughtful non-specialist,” but it’s not just another popular, thinly theistic treatment of marriage.

Rather, it’s best to think of her book as a story, at once very old and ever new. It’s a story that reaches back into the depth of our “theological pre-history,” as John Paul II once put it. It extends up into the “eternal mystery hidden in God from all eternity,” again in the words of the Polish pope. It finds its essential coordinates in the archetypal marriage of Christ and his Church. And it penetrates into an ancient and ongoing drama continually playing out within each human heart and body.

The book is indeed historical in that it takes the reader on a journey from “the beginning” through the heart of the Scriptural narrative and up as far as the split between East and West (two more projected volumes take us up to present day). But as told by Silvas, it’s a history that is simultaneously a searching and integrated theological, Scriptural, moral, and even psychological study of the human person in its fundamental essence. That is, she well understands that the mystery of man’s capacity for love, union, and fruitfulness is no mere anthropological superadditum but part of who we are down to our core. As such, the story of marriage is the story of salvation history; and vice versa.

A deeply Scriptural account

But what makes this study stand out is how she brings this assumption to life. Most notable is how in seven chapters, spanning a mere seventy-nine pages of eminently readable prose, she draws the reader into the oft neglected or extrinsically treated Scriptural elements of marriage, grounding the “nuptial mystery” deeply in the riches of the Scriptures in a way I have not seen anywhere else.

Take her treatment of the Old Covenant. Apart from the Prophets, perhaps, we might otherwise read everything between Genesis and the Gospels as having little of significance to say about marriage, save to recount a history of moral failure. But Silvas reminds us that in Jewish notions of covenant, family, law, and morality are to be found—intertwined with various levels of overlay, to be sure—a deeply structural nuptial logic, of which the Prophets eventually effect a remarkable development and purification. If the Prophets parse covenant fidelity or infidelity to God in nuptial terms, it’s not because they see it as a useful extrinsic analogy. Rather, it’s because they came to recognize that marriage and sexuality already mediate our relationship to God.

One of the connected merits of Silvas’ analysis here is how she is then able to show just how inextricably covenant fidelity to God is tied to covenantal marriage and sexuality, so that wherever the Scriptures recount sexual sin there is idolatry that goes along with it. Indeed, as she makes clear, it just so happens that all the earliest and enduring besetting sins of humanity cataloged in spades throughout the Old Covenant stem in some way from a privation and perversion of the original anthropological icon of life and love.

Marriage between truth and lie

A particular strength of Silvas’ book is that none of the chequered drama of the experience of marriage in the Old Covenant is bled from the story even as we move into the perspective of the redemption of the body in the New. To be sure, herein lies the sacramental and eschatological summit of marriage, exemplified in the Holy Family, in the new wine at Cana, in the marriage of Christ and the Church, in the marriage of the Lamb. Here, the sign of marriage in the beginning finds its ultimate fulfillment. And Silvas’ account of the transition from Old to New—to take one example, how in the New Testament the language of family and household from the Old is brought to its ecclesial realization in relation to the communion of believers in Christ—is rich and life-giving. So too is her account the success of the Christian ethic as the apostolic Fathers, Apologists, early theologians, Cappadocian Fathers, and Augustine and Chrysostom took on the “daunting moral landscape” of Greco-Roman culture.

Yet through it all she remains existentially attuned to the proverbial “mystery of evil,” that enduring stench and pollution that originally issued from the Serpent in the Garden of Eden that hardens hearts, deadens memory, and blinds us to the nuptial truth of our being. This, of course, belongs to our age as much as if not more than any other.

In this light, it’s worth zeroing in on a particular thread of Silvas’ story, one that relates to a pressing moral and pastoral issue in the Church. This issue is best thought of as a placeholder and cipher for the far deeper anthropological unrest that presently characterizes the situation of marriage in the Church. And it just so happens that a particular interpretation of this issue became the wedge by which the JPII Institute was destroyed.

I refer, of course, to the topic of divorce and remarriage and the full suite of issues, both doctrinal and pastoral, that surrounds it. No one needs to be reminded of a certain footnote in a certain document (which, we are told, apparently has the power to summarily rewrite the entire tradition). And we all know about words like “pastoral,” “mercy,” and various other neologisms which, by some kind of alchemy, have purportedly come to carry magisterial weight no matter what the context.

What the masters and apprentices of this approach have not supplied us with, of course, is a coherent and consistent anthropological rationale that might reconcile it with any properly Christian standard. Once you clear away all the verbal diarrhea, the current “revised” approach to these questions amounts to little more than a mentality that Joseph Ratzinger, following Josef Pieper, called “bourgeois liberal Pelagianism.” He described it in this way:

If God really does exist and if he does in fact bother about people he cannot be so fearfully demanding as is described by the faith of the Church. Moreover I’m no worse than the others: I do my duty, and the minor human weaknesses cannot really be as dangerous as all that.

This view of the person, then, sees us as only very thinly dusted with grace, you might say; only very nominally and extrinsically attached to God. It sees the mystery of divine adoption and the sacramental and ecclesial dimension of the person as only an aesthetic veneer that, when put under pressure, can be dispensed with. The actual anthropology being held to here, then, is one more akin to a secular “expressive individualist” conception of the person in which freedom retains a sovereign priority over nature. In this case, we are talking about a priority of freedom over or from the new and definitive sacramental nature of the person in Christ, a nature that in its essence is ecclesial, Christological, trinitarian.

There are of course other outwardly more orthodox ways of keeping grace at bay, of denying the properly sacramental, redemptive, and personal depth of marriage. Here, marriage might be thought of more as a realm of natural laws, duties, and ends; it’s just something humans do as part of their God-given telos, and while there is necessarily a godly way of doing it, in its core it is more a natural than a supernatural reality. In this case, we would be downplaying the mystery of marriage as the sacramental vision of the mystery hidden in God from all eternity, as a human reality to be sure, but simultaneously an anthropological blueprint that mediates and attaches us to the supernatural fullness of life and love in God himself.

Ironically, I would say that it is such “orthodox” moralistic reductions, with all their attendant practical pathologies, that have helped to spark the current progressive reactions which share the same bedrock tendency to think of marriage in reductively “human” terms, only in this case more in line with Hume’s reduction of nature to facticity.

Anyway, all of this relates to Silvas’ book in the sense that she understands throughout—and documents how the best of the early dominical and apostolic tradition understood—that grace is decidedly not just a mere dusting over the person, and that the redemptive radicality of the Christian ethic of marriage and sexuality stems from its profoundly Christological and sacramental character.

Treatment of the specific question of divorce and remarriage in the tradition, of course, begins with Christ (cf. Matt 19:3-8). But Silvas also shows how the revolution Christ began is amply prepared for by the prophets Hosea and Isaiah, both of whom “ignored the Mosaic law when speaking of the Lord’s remarriage of Israel though she had prostituted herself with many lovers and been divorced. The redemptive love of the Lord would prevail even over divorce.” From there she takes us through the theme in early luminaries such as the Shepherd of Hermas, Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, Gregory, and Chrysostom, all of whom vigorously affirm the absolute principles of indissolubility and fidelity ingredient to marriage in Christ.

For example, after recounting the Shepherd of Hermas’ (2nd century) resolute affirmation that yes, a husband divorced from his wife may not remarry, Silvas asks: “And why? Because the model of spouses is Christ; their marriage is enfolded in him. If the worst happens between husband and wife, the Image, the Pivot, the Source still holds steady.” To this she adds a wry comment: “The Shepherd actually thinks Christ is going to mean that much to a Christian.”

The theme reaches a tragic dénouement in Silvas’ final chapter. For here she recounts the first serious departure from the dominical and apostolic tradition above. Her account zeros in on the caesaropapism adopted by the Constantinopolitan Church in which civil legislation flowing from Justinian’s code was allowed to creep into Church law. By the eleventh century we have arrived to “a sordid tale of divorces, “oikonomias,” multiple remarriages, murders, bigamies, and incest that swirled about the Christian imperial throne in this century, all too often with the collusion of a compliant and/or corrupt clergy, right up to and including the patriarch.” More problematically, what began as an elision of the distinction between civil and ecclesial law was then supported theologically by “manipulating the semantics of patristic texts.”

This is the dubious origin of the current Eastern Orthodox “theology of oikonomia.” And it is, as Silvas observes pointedly, “what latter-day theologians and prelates in the Western church propose as imitable ‘pastoral’ precedent.”

Knowing Anna, none of this betrays any half-baked triumphalist animus against our Eastern brothers and sisters; she knows and loves her Greek Fathers too much than this—and after all, she of that aforementioned “holy instinct” knows better than most the “very formidable, subtle, and corrosive pressures” under which Roman Catholicism currently groans, so much of its pain self-inflicted. It is rather one deeply topical cautionary tale about the enduring hardness of the human heart, of our boundless creativity when it comes to evading the truth etched as an icon upon our nature.

Christ the only answer

Silvas makes clear, then, amidst her admirable historical narrative, that there is a drama of epic proportions going on in the mystery of marriage. We are, as we journey through this earthly pilgrimage, dealing with nothing less here than the clash of the icon and the idol. Because she shows so clearly the theological and anthropological foundations of marriage, she is able to also show what is at stake and how tenuous is our grasp on this truth that is constitutive for us should we stray from Christ. The greatest evils emerge from our own Christian failings.

This is then to accent her acute awareness that when it comes to marriage, as much as anywhere else, it is cleaving to the centre that is Christ, and him Crucified, that is—and always has been—our only hope. A representative example of this commitment to Christ that bears so much fruit in this book is evident in her opening pages where she articulates the fundamental lineaments of her approach:

We situate ourselves not outside and above, but within the dimension of revelation, not abstracted or emancipated from, but participating in the paradosis (traditio, “handing-on”) of the Mystery of Christ from all eternity in the Creation through the incarnation to the eschaton, the consummation of the age. We own ourselves very much as participants in the story, for the same Spirit of Holiness who breathed upon the human authors is ever at work in the mystery of the Bride, as in our own inmost soul.

More than just a text, this book is a witness.

The Mystery of Christian Marriage through the Ages: The Scriptures and the First Thousand Years
By Anna M. Silvas
Cascade Books, 2020
210 pages


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About Conor Sweeney 3 Articles
Dr. Conor Sweeney is associate professor of theology at Christendom College. He has a licentiate and doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Roman session of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family. He is the author of Sacramental Presence after Heidegger (2015), Abiding the Long Defeat (2018), and The Politics of Conjugal Love (2019).

4 Comments

  1. An interesting review of what seems to be an intriguing presentation of the sacramental theology of marriage. It also augurs an important work work in the sense that so much of the theology of the Sacraments of Marriage and the Eucharist are intertwined. When we get the theology of marriage wrong, we are also likely to get the theology of the Eucharist wrong. And, herein, lies the dilemma the Church finds itself when it concerns the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and whether those who advocate for and formally support abortion ought to enter into the Sacrament of the Eucharist. I’m afraid so many of our current prelates are very much in error when it comes to the theology of both these Sacraments. Perhaps our bishops ought to do an intense read of this book on marriage and then they might have a clearer understanding of the Eucharist.

  2. The Chalcedonian Orthodox aren’t the only Apostolic Christians to have ecclesial divorce; the other separated Churches have it as well, and this is data that needs to be acknowledged in any ecumenical endeavor. Simply using Latin ecclesiology to back up a claim re: divorce will not suffice.

  3. A read and listened to a couple of books/tapes by Christopher West, some items by Scott/Kim Hahn (who explained the objection to contraception clearly and convincingly), Kipley, Popcak, and a few other Catholics along the way. Good books, I suppose.
    .
    The book that reasonated the most with me, however, was Friends, Partners, and Lovers by Kevin Thompson, a Baptist minister, from Georgia I believe. Yes, he accepts divorce, but it’s pretty clear from his book he is trying to prevent members of his flock (and anyone else who cares to listen) from doing so. It is a practical guide, very little theology.

  4. Looks like an excellent and challenging book. Perhaps much needed. One of my oft repeated diatribes about divorce, remarriage and declarations of nullity I suggest appropriate here (though I certainly need to read the book). It is all well and good to re-assert and further ground the truth about marriage, including St. John Paul’s impact. For me, the first, if not corresponding challenge is the preparation for marriage. If we want to reduce the number of divorces (many of which are premature), we have to create a formation for the sacrament that is commensurate with his mission and organic value to the Church. We would not knowingly ordain men to Orders who have the “faith” of many of our engaged couples. Recently the bishops voted to approve a National Pastoral Framework for Marriage and Family Life Ministry in the United States: Called to the Joy of Love, that was proposed by the Committee for Laity, Marriage, Family Life, and Youth. I hope its not just another impotent bureaucratic smokescreen for inaction. I served a 3 year term on the Committee in the early 90s. It was frustrating. We don’t need more teaching documents. We don’t need more vaguely well-meaning encouragement of action statements. We need a strategy for an evangelizing, catechetical formation of engaged couples. Most come to their parish wanting a wedding. We have to help them re-frame their desire – do you want the mission of Christian marriage? Most come believing they’ve found their “soulmate.” We have to help them understand and work through the delusion so as to grow into soulmates with Jesus as their center. All this takes time, effort, and formation. Simply restating Catholic teaching is not enough, and largely ineffective.

    The wave of clergy sexual abuse scandals in the early 2000s led to a revised approach to seminary formation (which is still grossly lacking in marriage & family ministry). But the decline of Christian marriage in our communion since the 1970s and the increase in Declarations has also been a scandal. In calling the first Synod on the Family in 1980, St. John Paul thought so (see Familiaris consortio, 1981., nos. 65, 70-71). Thirty-five years later, Francis called another one, with similar, unresolved divisive issues fermenting still, but no prescribed mandate for action. Does not the OTHER Sacrament at the Service of Communion deserve its own renewal? Perhaps Silva’s work will shape pastoral ministers, lay and clergy, to help awaken couples to their mission and dignity. But not without a plan for more effective formation.

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