I preached a sermon on 1 Corinthians 7 today, calling it “Marriage Matters.” The double entendre was intended. Paul addressed matters of marriage that Christians need to embrace; and the text reminds us that marriage is wonderfully important. The chapter also illuminates the weak status of marriages both in and outside the church throughout human history. Paul wrote about marriages because they point us to God’s ultimate gift: himself.
What I’ll offer here in light of Paul’s lessons to the Corinthians is not the standard fare found among Christians today. Why not? Because the Christian community has been divided since the early centuries into at least three parallel and somewhat overlapped, but fundamentally opposed traditions. The main groups are the rationalists, the mystics, and the lovers. Let me introduce each very briefly before I embrace and say more about the third, the strand of lovers. Each portrayal can only be suggestive in a miniscule way, yet I hope to note their separate trajectories so that readers may recognize and trace them at their leisure.
The rationalists look mainly to the Greek tradition dominated by Aristotle, with Plato treated as a useful but less reliable teacher. They see life as a complex web of cause-and-effect relations that can be analyzed, labeled, and placed in categories. Call it the “billiard ball” theory of life as we are seen to be something like individual billiard cues called on to apply logic in striking as many of the billiard balls on the table of life as possible. Acute logic offers foresight in seeing how varied categories and events of life are explained and controlled—in effect, how to strike our targets effectively. Every encounter offers a chance to pocket a ball or two in order to run the table of our unique circumstances. Those who know the angles, who have the best touch, and who can anticipate secondary impacts, are dominant.
Rationalists gravitate to places where the most balls are bunched—mainly in the academy and the business world—and they are very successful in the tangible aspects of life. As one of their prophets, Boethius (d. 526), explained, a person is “the individual substance of a rational nature.” We are, then, objective, thinking instruments seeking to control our space in life. There are many of us and our mutual encounters are complex and can be mutually disruptive, even a bit threatening. God offers us principles of wisdom for deciding how best to navigate life with as much success as possible—to strike others while not being struck ourselves (that is, to be causes rather than effects).
The mystics, on the other hand, rely on the Greek tradition of Plato as later expressed by Plotinus (d. 270), and then baptized into Christianity by Dionysius, the pseudo-Areopagite (6th c.). In this view of life everything centers on God as the indivisible “One” in whom all true forms or ideas reside. Everything outside God consists in mere shadows of the ultimate, absolute and overwhelming ideas in the One. Yet the One offers a dual cycle of emanation and return—with his mind and soul extending sequentially outward into the shadowlands of dependent reality before returning back into the One. As I read of this version of God I picture a two-tongued solar flare leaping out of the Sun before both fall back again to the great globe of light. When Dionysius adapted this version of God to Christianity we find the Father as the One; and the Son and Spirit are his twin emanations who process forth and then return into the indivisible unity of the One. And the notion of oneness is critical—in “One” there is no “other” present to offer any basis for dialogue or conversation. The One, instead, offers pure, unadulterated experience—with no discourse.
The mystics are those who, in seeking God, long to enter into union with the One. What kind of union? Who knows! And that’s the point: no one can ever speak of the Unspeakable One. Any true union will, by the nature of the One who is encountered, be ineffable. Distinctions are swallowed up by indistinguishable “apophatic” unity. This sets out the basis for attaining spirituality to be non-materialistic, and non-content-based passivity—or a “quietism”. The main stages of this are an ascent that begins with denial: purgation. Next, as the senses and mind are purged of disruptive thoughts or movements, comes the prospect of inward illuminations—I picture a surfer catching the wave of the Spirit as it flows back into the One; and then (hopefully) union with the One.
Have I lost you by now? Hang with me, please! I know that most of us never encounter these historical distinctions conceptually, but I promise you that they underlie and shape our experience of Christianity today, depending on which strand we embrace. Let me review each at a reduced level: we can distinguish the rationalists as dealing with complexity and the mystics with simplicity. One trajectory is overtly anthropocentric—with the focus on our thinking and choosing—and the other is covertly anthropocentric—with a focus on achieving a personal experience of the One. One trail takes us into the classrooms of the scholastics in the academy and calls us to memorize God’s attributes; the other into the cells and mazes of the monastery and the quietist disciplines and mind-stilling repetitions of liturgy.
The lovers are the biblical strand who met at the Council of Nicaea in 325 and clarified the Triune relationality of God in the face of challenges being brought to the faith by Arius who insisted on God’s absolute oneness. This group was heavily influenced by the Platonic strand at first but began to break free from it as they examined the relationship of the Father and the Son. They realized that, biblically, God has always existed as the Father-Son-and-Spirit God “from before the world was created”, and that the union of God is rooted in his eternal communion—“my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.” The notion Arius held was that the Father is the source of deity, with the Son coming later in order to create the world. God, in effect, created the world through the Son as his sub-creator. This was treated as nonsense from the devil whose ambition is to portray a self-absorbed version of God—namely what Satan wanted to be himself. The different expressions of oneness offered by both Aristotle and Plato were of this ilk, even if they differed over complexity and simplicity.
The core reality of the Father-Son-and-Spirit God is that he is eternally bonded by a shared mutual delight and glory. This is what John meant when he wrote, “God is love.” And this is where marriage came on the scene and why marriage matters. Marriage is the human expression of God’s triune oneness. So when God spoke, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” he was using the paradigm of his own Triune reality—the dyad of an indivisible “I-and-other” bonded by the eternal presence of the communicating Spirit whose business it is to search the inmost being of both the Father and the Son and to exchange or “pour out” the love of each to the other in an eternal reciprocity of creative delight. Marriage, then, is the human version of the divine relationship in a human union: of the two who are one, by the bonding presence of the Spirit in each.
This, too, explains Paul’s call to the Corinthians to recognize that, by the Spirit, we are also united to the Son whose Spirit it is that comes to our spirit in a marital union:
Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! … For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.” But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. 1 Corinthians 6:15-17
And, elsewhere, we see that it was rooted in the greater purpose of marriage: to bind us who are united to Christ together as the collective “bride of Christ.”
For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery: I am saying that this verse refers ultimately to Christ and the church. Ephesians 5:29-32
The reality was understood by Martin Luther. It was held by John Calvin. Yet most Lutherans today have joined the Rationalists. And so have most of the Calvinists. Yet we can be sure that the lovers are those whom God really loves. Why? Because it is his love poured out into our hearts by his Spirit. [Romans 5:5]
So marriage matters. And the greatest matter of marriage is not in this life—the point I preached in today’s sermon—and a devoted follower of Christ is free to remain single. The point of life is to live as a holy and blameless member of the body of Christ, united to him by his Spirit as his eternal bride, bonded to him by his love which we freely reciprocate. As God’s lovers we have the proper path and the better portion!
There is a growing request at our church to bring “The Truth Project” to our church. I have been unfavorable towards it for the reasons you gave regarding the rationalists. I am sure there is good information in it, but a confident faith will not rest on arguments (of which the opponents of Christianity have a plethora), but on a living relationship with the Living God.
The rationalists are easy enough to discern these days… but who are the mystics? Would you include folks like John Piper and the late Richard Foster? If your average “A Spreading Goodness” reader wanted to read more on this, to what would you direct them?
I won’t try to answer for, Ron . . . but in re. to your classifying of Piper; I would say that he fits smack dab in the rationalist camp (I’m not sure on Foster). I think Ron would say the same thing here (in fact he has); but I’m sure with more nuance and background for you.
I think I understand your sentiment on a “confident faith” and arguments; but could you expand and clarify? You’re just referring to rationalism, right?
Sure, Bobby. I have been in numerous discussions, as I am sure most believers have, that centered on arguments for or against a belief in God. I think I can hold my own with folks in the world of Cartesian, syllogistic proofs. It doesn’t amount to much, though, since the evidence for God does not rest in argument (for which the rationalists will reject most of my evidence anyway). It is by His revelation that He is known (which stirs in us a desire to hear from Him; His Word). When we come to know and love and trust Him, there is no argument to be made. There is only introduction.
I was in China recently and a young student came up to me loaded for bear to argue against the existence of God. After she laid out her initial case, I said, “I know the source of your argument. I can discuss with you the premise on which that argument is made and if we are intellectually honest, within that field of evidence, we will come to a truce.” Then I asked, “…but if there is a God in Heaven who loves you, and if he sent someone 8,000 miles to tell you about Him, would you listen?” That opened both her ears and her eyes and that young intellectual is still following Christ, having met Him in His Word.
BTW, the reason I asked about Piper in the mystic camp is what I will call his emphasis on a kind of “Christian hedonism,” expressed as an emotional, joy-only relationship that is, in my view, self-centered.
Yes, I agree; classic proofs for God certainly start from a rather negative footing, and end up turning God into a ‘monad’ who is ‘unmoved’. The Christian knows no such God!
I am aware of Piper’s Hedonism, and unfortunately it appears that he is only appealing to those ‘negative’ categories of god that rationalists appeal to (the inward curved god) — that’s why I would place Piper in the rationalist camp, he is just a good classical theist.
Your story from China resonates with me, I’ve had similar experiences (but in the States 😉 ).
Thanks for the response, and clarification, Mark!
as a member of ‘celebrate recovery’ (Christ centered group dedicated to help with addictions)and knowledge of several women in a group ‘betrayed hearts’ (dedicated to helping women in abusive relationships) i can emphatically say the state of the family, and marriage are suffering terribly throughout oregon (world/nation wide)i have not used my churches involvement as the only barometer, celebrate recovery groups throughout oregon have swelling numbers of men and women seeking help with marriages gone awry with untold (key word…UNTOLD) hardships, obviously years of enduring painful marriages…we have been taught to look the other way, not to rock the boat, to run around like white washed sepulchers…
a ‘living relationship with the Living God’ has been sadly neglected.
having done just a bit of research on “the Truth project’ it sounds good..i do respect dr. dobson and i appreciate the participants use of scripture, dialog and the work involved in just that…developing a living relationship with God. i particularly appreciate the fact many newly married people can meet each other and form friendships that will be a living example of ‘a living relationship with The Living GOD)
‘here is a growing request at our church to bring “The Truth Project” to our church. I have been unfavorable towards it for the reasons you gave regarding the rationalists. I am sure there is good information in it, but a confident faith will not rest on arguments (of which the opponents of Christianity have a plethora), but on a living relationship with the Living God.’
would you please expand on your comment …’but a confident faith will not rest on arguments…’
please respond in a way i won’t wear out pages in my unabridged…thanks! (smiley face here)
oh…i spent an hour or less reading john pipers blog. i dont get it. i also am not aware of ‘the rationalists’..sorry..just an unschooled gurl! (smiley)
Sure, Morgan. To put it simply, people don’t become Christians because of a good argument for a belief in God (from which we would then argue the case for Jesus). They become Christians because they meet Him and begin to walk with Him and hear His voice – the attraction to Christian life is Jesus. I hope you don’t mind wearing down a few of the pages of that unabridged Bible and spending a bit of time in 1Corinthians 1 and 2, which says it better than I can anyway.
hey mark…i speak to you every once in a while at church!!!
Blessings my friend!