April 1, 2013

Augustine on the Good of Marriage (Part 2)

The Impossibility of Same-sex Marriage

The redefinition of marriage along subjective criteria of modern relationship theory, rather than the external standard of God's word, is in fact a denial of marriage itself.

An Augustinian Response to Contemporary Culture

According to Douglas Farrow, the traditional Western view of marriage has been defined by Augustine’s three goods (children, fidelity, and sacrament): “even in its civil dimensions, marriage was viewed as a threefold cord, the strength of which lay in the intertwining of these goods.”[i] This threefold cord has been severed in Canadian society. The cord was cut in 2005 when the Canadian parliament passed Bill C-38, which redefined marriage as “a lawful union of two persons to the exclusion of all others;” however, the cord had already been wearing thin for some time. I suspect few Canadians, whether they attend church regularly or not, would define marriage according to Augustine’s threefold cord of goods. What likely resonates with most Canadians is what sociologists call “pure relationship theory” or “close relationship theory.”[ii]

Inward-facing Relationship Theories

According to these theories, relationships are not defined by external criteria (such as Augustine’s three goods or traditional wedding vows), but by a subjective criteria determined by the couple. J. H. Harvey defines a close relationship as “a relationship that has extended over some period of time and involves a mutual understanding of closeness and mutual behavior that is seen by the couple as indicative of closeness.”[iii] In other words, a pure or close relationship is a relationship “that has been denuded of any goal or end beyond the intrinsic emotional, psychological, or sexual satisfaction that the relationship brings to the adults involved.”[iv] The relationship depends upon the mutual satisfaction of subjective needs. When the relationship fails to meet those needs, it ends. There can be little wonder why divorce is so common.

A Redefinition Lacking Definition

If marriage is viewed as nothing more than a legally and publicly recognized pure/close relationship, then children, fidelity, and the sacramental bond are no longer definitive of marriage. For example, a married couples’ mutual understanding of closeness may or may not include marital chastity. Also, once Augustine’s threefold cord is severed and marriage is viewed in terms of pure/close relationship theory, who’s to say same-sex unions should not be legally recognized? If two men are committed to a mutual understanding that defines their relationship, why not recognize their relationship as marriage? When the Ontario Superior Court determined in 2003 that Canadian law was discriminatory because it did not recognize same-sex unions, it assumed that marriage was a pure/close relationship:

Through the institution of marriage, individuals can publicly express their love and commitment to each other. Through this institution, society publicly recognizes expressions of love and commitment between individuals, granting them respect and legitimacy as a couple. This public recognition and sanction of marital relationships reflect society’s approbation of the personal hopes, desires and aspirations that underlie loving, committed conjugal relationships.[v]

Marriage, as the court sees it, is an institution that allows the public recognition of a couples’ expression of love and commitment. The relationship itself is defined from within, dependent upon the couple’s mutual understanding of love and commitment. Marriage is now founded upon “personal hopes, desires, and aspirations.” No external criteria are imposed on the relationship, although monogamy is implied (“a couple”).

An Augustinian Response

How would Augustine respond to this redefinition of marriage? To begin, he would remind Canadians that marriage cannot be redefined because it has been instituted by God. He suggests Jesus attended the wedding at Cana “to assure us that marriage was His own institution.”[vi] As such, marriage is defined by external criteria. It’s not simply a public or legal recognition of a couple’s expression of love and commitment, whatever that may be. Without the threefold cord of goods, marriage ceases to be marriage.

A Denial of Marriage

The goods of children and fidelity are made either optional or denied outright in the current view of marriage. Although marriage is a fruitful union, the good of children has become optional in our society. This good is impossible in same-sex unions. Likewise, the good of fidelity is also optional. A couple may or may not vow to forsake all others. Augustine recognized that not all marriages are fruitful. Not all couples are able to conceive, so children are not a necessary good. The denial of the second good of fidelity, however, is a denial of marriage itself. Open marriages are not marriages and marital infidelity breaks the marriage covenant.

The Sacramental Significance of Marriage

Augustine saw the sacramental significance of marriage as the most important good of marriage. Marriage is a deep mystery, which signifies the relationship between Christ and his bride, the church. Thus, Paul can write, “as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5.24-25). The deep mystery of marriage is that the woman is a sacramental sign of the church and the man is a sacrament sign of Christ. The intimate, indissoluble union of husband and wife is a sacramental sign to the world of the intimate, indissoluble union of Christ and the church. Christians cannot recognize same-sex marriage because it has no sacramental significance. The union of two men or two women has no sacramental correspondence to Christ and the church. Marriage, by definition, is a sacramental union of one man and one woman. Any union void of this deep mystery is, by definition, not marriage.


I would not recommend reading Augustine for reliable counsel on sexuality. While his view on human sexuality is closer to the biblical perspective than some of his contemporaries, he still falls short of what Scripture teaches. Nevertheless, Augustine defended marriage at a time when many Christians were placing undue emphasis on celibacy. He defended marriage on exegetical and theological grounds, and so must we. The theological mooring of marriage has been severed in our culture. As we seek to mend marriage, we must recover Augustine’s threefold cord of goods: children, fidelity, and sacrament.

(Part 1)

For a more complete treatment of this subject, see the article “Augustine on the Good of Marriage,” in the Spring 2013 issue of Jubilee.


[i]. Douglas Farrow, “Rights and Recognition,” in Divorcing Marriage: Unveiling the Dangers in Canada’s New Social Experiment, ed. Daniel Cere and Douglas Farrow (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004), 110–11.

[ii]. Daniel Cere, “War of the Ring,” in Divorcing Marriage: Unveiling the Dangers in Canada’s New Social Experiment, ed. Daniel Cere and Douglas Farrow (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004), 9–28.

[iii]. J. H. Harvey, Odyssey of the Heart: The Search for Closeness, Intimacy, and Love (New York: Freeman, 1995), 7.

[iv]. Cere, “War of the Ring,” 12.

[v]. Halpern v. Canada (6 June 2003), Court of Appeal for Ontario, Docket C39172 and C39174, paragraph 5 (cf. Cere, “War of the Ring,” 12–14).

[vi]. Tractates on the Gospel of John 9.2 (NPNF1 vol. 7, 63 [http://www.ccel.org/print/schaff/npnf107/iii.x]).

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