Virginity vs Marriage in the Fathers

Today I read Gregory of Nazianzus’ poem 1.2.1, ‘In Praise of Virginity,’ and it brought home to me one of the great difficulties facing us as we read the Fathers,* and this is the fact that a vast number of them were celibate, all but two of them male. All four ‘Doctors’ of the East and all four of the West were celibate.

They have a very strong preference towards celibacy and virginity as being the better path, spelled out very clearly in GregNaz’s poem.

As a married person, I inevitably react against this sort of thing. Why is virginity better than marriage? For GregNaz it seems that the main goal of marriage is child-begetting.

Clearly child-begetting is not a virtue. All it requires is sperm and an egg in one hot night of passion.

I don’t think anyone has ever imagined that simply producing offspring is what makes marriage a great thing, though.

A better perspective is that the raising of children is a great good. Sure, if virgins live together in monastic coenobia, they will learn the virtues of service and love of neighbour and so forth. But those who spend time with very young children learn a very great amount about sacrifice and service. And about the outpouring of love for a fellow human being. And, while you might hope for thanks from your fellow monk, children are frequently being trained to say thank you, sometimes accompanied with a little bow. Infants cannot say thank you, and I don’t think they always even care.

Of course, sometimes they do. This is certain. As I posted elsewhere, the contemplative as well as active virtues and life can be pursued whilst taking care of the very young.

Furthermore, I think marriage can be a great good for those of us who do not have children. Marriage is a school for souls — this is an observation that Charles Williams makes in The Descent of the Dove, where he laments that a high view of marriage was lost early on in the Church and we have never properly recovered a view that sees marriage in spiritual terms.

Outside of celibacy and complete, utter silence, married people can engage in pretty much all of the ascetic labours. We can submit to others as greater than ourselves, pray continuously, serve in meekness and humility, pray the divine hours, fast, regulate our diet when not fasting, engage in holy conversation, and so forth.

Furthermore, if we look at GregNaz’s family background, we should realise that his father (also Gregory) was raised a pagan but converted to Christianity by his wife, Nonna. The marriage of Gregory the Elder and Nonna did not simply produce Gregory and his two siblings, but the spiritual fruit of Gregory the Elder’s salvation and his leadership of the church at Nazianzus. Furthermore, their three children were raised Christianly and virtuously, all of them committing their lives to Christ.

Gregory says that one has no clue whether one’s children will be Judases or Peters. Nonetheless, one can, by God’s grace alone, work towards raising Peters, as Nonna and Gregory the Elder did.

I doubt these concerns would hold much water with a committed celibate like Gregory. However, I think we can spiritualise and Christianise our view of marriage in response to the ascetic downplaying of marriage. Marriage is a good, as many American Evangelicals will tell you. But how is it to be a good? Perhaps we need the monks to help us form a specifically Christian view of marriage, sharpening our positive understanding against their negative one. Perhaps.

*As well as Mediaeval and Byzantine writers.

Creeds and Evangelicals

By “evangelicals” I mean Baptists and suchlike denominations right now, not evangelicals in the midst of traditions like Anglicanism.  The Anglican evangelical, in contrast to the Baptist evangelical, will cling to the creeds in one hand and the Bible in another as their theological life-rafts in the torrent of bizarre theology our little branch of Christendom is pouring forth (if we had three hands, some would hold aloft the Prayer Book as well).  I grew up in a church that was not only evangelical but charismatic.  We would proclaim the creed every Sunday in the middle of the liturgy, just before a strong, biblical sermon.

In high school, I came to the realisation that my experience of Christianity was not the norm (nor was my experience of Anglicanism).  I had one Baptist friend who was not only unimpressed with the creeds but was even wary of people who pray the Lord’s Prayer.

I don’t know about any movements of people who shun the Lord’s Prayer, but it turns out that this friend was not alone in this low regard for the creeds.  All sorts of “evangelicals” avoid the creeds and anything that sounds like one.  In Cyprus, one of the members of the Greek Evangelical Church was perusing the information booklet about a local English-speaking Protestant church.  It included the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds as part of what the church believed.  She informed the pastor that this was not a good thing, and did he know that the Orthodox believe in the creed more than in the Bible?

Since the creeds are a distillation of biblical teaching, I don’t see that as a reasonable option.

If you find yourself in the position of a creed-wary evangelical, I encourage you to read them (they are in the sidebar on the main page).  Do you disagree with these documents?  Are they so bad?  I also encourage you, dear evangelicals who avoid creeds, to check out what the Internet Monk has to say (his post being the inspiration to write this post).

Evangelicals Eating Jesus

The Internet Monk recently wrote an excellent post entitled, “Your Mission: ‘Resacramentalize Evangelicalism.’”  Being raised Anglican, I’m not the primary audience of his post.  In it, he makes good points about what a sacrament is and how Evangelicals need to rediscover not simply “the sacraments” but the concept of God inhabiting the things that go on during public worship.

This reminded me of an essay I read in Ancient & Postmodern Christianity: Paleo-Orthodoxy in the 21st Century* (I posted on a different essay from the book here.)  The essay I thought of was, “Reclaiming Eucharistic Piety: A Postmodern Possibility for American Evangelicals?” by Joel Scandrett (pp. 155-169).

Scandrett begins his essay with the following quotation from John Wesley (one of the great gurus/saints of the Evangelical movement):

If, therefore, we have any regard for the plain command of Christ, if we desire the pardon of our sins, if we wish for strength to believe, to love and obey God, then we should neglect no opportunity of receiving the Lord’s Supper; then we must never turn our backs on the feast for which our Lord has prepared for us.  We must neglect no occasion, which the good providence of God affords us, for this purpose.  This is the true rule: So often are we to receive as God gives us opportunity. (“The Duty of Constant Communion“)

Scandrett notes, “Wesley was devoted to weekly and sometimes (during the Christmas and Easter seasons) daily communion throughout his adult life.  For Wesley the Lord’s Supper was ‘the “grand channel” whereby the grace of the Spirit is conveyed to human souls, and . . . the first step in working out our salvation.'”**

However, the Free Methodist Church in Canada, the only direct successor to English Methodism remaining here since the Methodists joined the United Church, only requires the celebration of Holy Communion once a quarter.  Four times a year is nothing as compared to 52+!  An encouraging sign of rediscovering the original Methodists is the practice in many FM churches of at least monthly Communion.  I believe that such a resurgence is healthy and rooted in the very Articles of Religion of the Free Methodists, which state:

Water baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the sacraments of the church commanded by Christ. They are means of grace through faith, tokens of our profession of Christian faith, and signs of God’s gracious ministry toward us. By them, He works within us to quicken, strengthen, and confirm our faith.

The Lord’s Supper is a sacrament of our redemption by Christ’s death. To those who rightly, worthily, and with faith receive it, the bread which we break is a partaking of the body of Christ; and likewise the cup of blessing is a partaking of the blood of Christ. The supper is also a sign of the love and unity that Christians have among themselves.

Christ, according to His promise, is really present in the sacrament. But His body is given, taken, and eaten only after a heavenly and spiritual manner. No change is effected in the element; the bread and wine are not literally the body and blood of Christ. Nor is the body and blood of Christ literally present with the elements. The elements are never to be considered objects of worship. The body of Christ is received and eaten in faith.

The Free Methodists, of course, are not alone in this practice of infrequent Communion.  Many of the denominations that call themselves “evangelical” and are descended from the same roots as the Free Methodists also partake of the Lord’s Supper rarely.  I had friends in High School who would receive Communion maybe twice a year.  If Wesley is right, they were missing out on the very medicine of immortality!

So come!  Rediscover the sacramental heritage of Wesley’s evangelicalism!  Encourage more frequent Communion at your local church.  Read Wesley’s reasons why.  Read some of the Reformation discussions of Communion.  Read the tales of those who have felt that their spiritual lives have profited from the practice of frequent partaking of Holy Communion.  If Christ is truly present in the sacrament, then take it to your comfort.

*Ed. Kenneth Tanner & Christopher A. Hall.  Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP, 2002.

**Quoting Randy Maddox, Responsible Grace (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994), p. 202.