What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense

Article by   July 2013
girgismarriage93.jpgSherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George, What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense (New York: Encounter, 2012), 168 pp., $ 15.99

This book is an expansion of a controversial article in the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy in 2011. Given the seemingly inexorable advance of same-sex marriage in the United States in the two years subsequent, and last week's rulings from the Supreme Court to strike down a law refusing federal benefits to homosexual couples while also refusing to rule on Proposition 8, this book is certainly timely. It argues that current public policy debates are really about the nature of marriage itself, not about homosexuality or even same-sex marriage as such.

The authors admit early on that their argument is complex, and it is difficult to do justice to its nuances in a short review. At its heart the book contrasts two distinct views of marriage, the conjugal view and the revisionist view. The conjugal view, which the authors see as the predominant view across a variety of cultures through most of human history, understands marriage as a "comprehensive union" in which two people unite in mind through consent and unite in body through coitus. This union is ordered to procreation specifically and to family life more broadly, and requires the spouses' permanent and exclusive commitment to each other. All other kinds of human relationships--whether sexual or non-sexual, whether same-sex or opposite-sex, whether of two people or of more--simply are not marriages. 

The revisionist view, on the other hand, which the authors claim has undergirded marriage policy reforms in recent years, sees marriage as essentially an emotional union in which two people commit to a romantic relationship and domestic life. The marriage partners engage in whatever sexual activity is mutually agreeable and stay together as long as their emotional attachment endures. According to the conjugal view, therefore, only a specific kind of heterosexual relationship can be a marriage, while the revisionist view is theoretically open to recognizing any number of kinds of relationships (including homosexual) as marriages.

In chapter one, the authors claim that the conjugal view much more adequately explains why the state has an interest in regulating marriage, why sex is an essential, rather than optional, aspect of marriage, and why marriage ought to be monogamous. They note that defending same-sex marriage as a matter of principle also requires defending non-sexual and multi-partner relationships as marriages by the very same principle.

Chapter two explains and defends the conjugal view of marriage as a comprehensive union. This chapter first defends the idea that marriage involves a true bodily union through sex. Two bodies are united as they act in concert (through coitus) toward a common end encompassing them both (conception). I cannot here describe their defense of this idea in detail, but it is probably the most important link in their positive case for conjugal marriage. The chapter also defends the notion that marriage unites two people in a shared domestic life and explains why marriage, as a comprehensive union of mind and body, requires permanence and exclusivity. 

Chapter three argues, against the libertarian Right, that marriage has public value and hence ought to be recognized and regulated by the state. They appeal to social scientific evidence that traditional conjugal marriage has many social benefits. Then, against the Left, the authors argue that marriage is not simply a human creation or convention; because there are constants of human nature, there are objective human goods, and some of these goods can only be attained through conjugal marriage.

By this point the positive case for conjugal marriage is essentially complete, and the final three chapters address various concerns and objections. In chapter four the authors identify five specific ways they believe redefining marriage will cause harm: it will change the meaning of marriage for everyone and hence make it harder for anyone to achieve the true human good of marriage; it will harm the material interests of couples and children; it will abolish the idea that the union of husband and wife is the best environment for raising children; it will threaten moral and religious liberty, by implying that the conjugal view rests on arbitrary distinctions and hence is akin, for example, to racism; and it will undermine friendship. 

Chapter five addresses two objections: that the conjugal view cannot consistently recognize infertile heterosexual marriages as true marriages and that banning same-sex marriage is like banning interracial marriage. Finally, chapter six addresses the objection that though the conjugal view may win gains for the many, it comes at a cruel cost for the few. The authors particularly emphasize that the conjugal view does not deprive homosexual people of equal rights before the law. The book ends with an appendix further defending their idea of bodily union.

Most readers of this review will be comfortable with biblical and theological claims about the nature of marriage, but some may question whether non-biblical and non-theological arguments for a traditional view of marriage, such as this book offers, are worthwhile at all. The answer, I believe, is affirmative. Ultimately, of course, everybody should submit their opinions to the teaching of Scripture and thus affirm biblical teaching on the nature of marriage. But in reality we live in a world in which most people do not. We are obligated, nevertheless, to strive to live in peace with all people as far as possible and to promote justice in our societies. 

When Christians make only biblical arguments for the nature of marriage, however, we give the impression that a traditional view of marriage is some uniquely or parochially Christian thing; to put it another way, we give the impression that people who do not profess belief in the Bible have no reason to support traditional marriage. Yet this is not true. God established procreatively fruitful marriage at creation (Gen 1:28; 2:21-25) and confirmed it in the covenant with Noah (Gen 9:1, 7)--in both contexts, for the human race universally. Traditional marriage is part of the created order that God sustains through his common grace, not a uniquely Christian institution, and society as a whole suffers when it is not honored. Christians are responsible to commend the goodness and benefits of marriage in the public square. And if we seriously believe that God has ordained marriage as part of the created order, then we should also believe that there is evidence in this world for the reality and usefulness of marriage. To call attention to that evidence in the public square is a way of communicating that marriage is not a uniquely Christian thing, but a human thing, and that all people have an interest in getting marriage policy correct. This is one way of understanding what What Is Marriage? is doing (though the authors do not put it this way). And this book is important, and worth Christians' attention, at least for this reason.

But how well do these authors make their case? Their strongest arguments, in my judgment, are the critiques of the revisionist view. They effectively point out how the premises and principles ordinarily used to support same-sex marriage, if applied consistently, demand acceptance of all sorts of close relationships as "marriage," whether sexual or not, whether of two people or of larger groups. Furthermore, they helpfully argue that, if "marriage" thereby loses its objectivity and people in any kind of relationship have a right to be "married," there really is no public purpose for marriage at all. And if marriage has no objective nature, how can anyone have a right to be married anyway?

It is usually easier to find flaws in other people's arguments than to make one's own positive argument, and What Is Marriage? illustrates this rule. The authors' positive case is that "conjugal marriage" exists as an objective reality, and this case hinges crucially on their argument that bodily union occurs between two people through coitus because of their coordination toward a single end, procreation--even when procreation does not or even cannot occur. It is a difficult case to make, and even to understand. Furthermore, the key role procreation plays in their argument leaves them vulnerable to the charge that their own principles imply that infertile heterosexual couples cannot really be married. They attempt to refute this charge, but without a persuasiveness that matches their confidence. They are probably even more vulnerable to a charge of inconsistency on a related matter: fundamental to their argument is the necessity of coitus for a marital union, which seems to rule out entirely the possibility of marriage for couples incapable of intercourse, yet (in an endnote) they defend recognizing marriage in the case of a paraplegic man. The authors insist that proponents of the revisionist view be held accountable for all the implications of their basic principles, but are these authors willing to follow their own basic principles consistently?

This book makes a significant contribution to the literature on this timely subject, and Christians interested in engaging the marriage debates in the public square, and willing to invest the time to read a finely-nuanced book with care, will find this a stimulating study. Yet they may find it more discouraging than encouraging, for its lack of a fully compelling positive argument provides further evidence of just how difficult a time the pro-traditional marriage side is having in making an effective case in contemporary public debates.

David VanDrunen is the Robert B. Strimple Professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics at Westminster Seminary California. 
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