Here is NT Wright on marriage courtesy of First Things publishing a transcript of an interview:
"Now, the word “marriage,” for thousands of years and cross-culturally has meant man and
woman. Sometimes it’s been one man and more than one woman. Occasionally it’s been one woman and more than one man. There is polyandry as well as polygamy in some societies in some parts of history, but it’s always been male plus female. Simply to say that you can have a woman-plus-woman marriage or a man-plus-man marriage is radically to change that because of the givenness of maleness and femaleness. I would say that without any particular Christian presuppositions at all, just cross-culturally, that’s so.
If you say that marriage now means something which would allow other such configurations, what you’re saying is actually that when we marry a man and a woman we’re not actually doing any of that stuff. This is just a convenient social arrangement and sexual arrangement and there it is . . . get on with it. It isn’t that that is the downgrading of marriage, it’s something that clearly has gone on for some time which is now poking it’s head above the parapet. If that’s what you thought marriage meant, then clearly we haven’t done a very good job in society as a whole and in the church in particular in teaching about just what a wonderful mystery marriage is supposed to be. Simply at that level, I think it’s a nonsense. It’s like a government voting that black should be white. Sorry, you can vote that if you like, you can pass it by a total majority, but it isn’t actually going to change the reality."
As a nice postscript, Wright makes an astute observation about history and making changes:
"All the press is on-side, most of Parliament’s on-side, and people are saying—get this—that unless you support this, you’re on the wrong side of history. Excuse me. Did you see University Challenge last night? There was a nice question: Somebody said, who was it who said in 1956, “History is on our side and we will bury you”? One of the contestants got the answer right: It was Nikita Khrushchev. When people claim, “We’re going with the flow of history,” that’s just a rhetorical smokescreen."
Wright's essential point is that maleness and femaleness is an intentional-and-creational binary quality to human existence and marriage is the description of that binary difference being overcome through sexual intercourse making one flesh between man and woman become husband and wife through entering lifelong commitment. A traditional understanding of marriage which, might I remind readers, our church recently affirmed in Motion 30. Wright's consequential point is that parliaments changing this understanding of marriage may attempt to redefine marriage but they may as well define black as white.
On that consequential point I think I disagree with Tom Wright. Definitions of words come and go, chop and change. I am not sure that parliament or, for that matter, Oxford University Press's dictionary department cannot change the meaning of such a word. But whether a new meaning sticks is another matter. The interesting postscript about history and which side 'history' is on alerts as to not second guessing what the meaning of 'marriage' will be in fifty years time.
Nevertheless, where Wright may yet be proven right re definition of marriage is that as a bare word, 'marriage' seems to be understood as 'man-woman-legal bit' so that qualifiers seem to be dragged into association with the word when variations occur. Thus, 'de facto marriage' when the legal bit is missing, 'gay marriage' when sexual complementarity is not present. 'Second marriage' has some implications re 'marriage' being intrinsically understood as 'for life' so that a further marriage being contracted after divorce is commented on via the qualifier
Wright is always very assured about being right. But he is not alone in the Anglican Communion today. Another fellow with strong assurance of being correct is Tobias Haller. Writing in response to Wright on his blog In A Godward Direction he shreds Wright's argument to a thousand pieces. Or does he? What do you think? [I want comments here re "Wright v Haller" - who has the better argument, who wins the debate in your opinion - if you want to argue the details of Haller's argument, please go directly to his site to engage with him on those details].
They cannot both be Wright. One is not like the other!
Questions Haller's response raise for me are these:
- How far can we go in the imposition of a critique of Scripture from a modern perspective before we deny Scripture as a revelatory word from God?
For instance, to claim that almost all talk of marriage in Scripture is irredeemably biased in a patriarchal direction, including the very analogy of Christ and the church to husband and wife, relativises scriptural talk about marriage. Does it go too far, making Scripture an interesting but anachronistic document, an historical curio in the face of a new word from the Lord via modernity?
- (Relating to many things being said these days about sexuality and marriage, not just in Haller's post) Are we authorised by Scripture and tradition to negate all talk of the binary nature of sexuality in favour of the plurality of sexual and gender identities?
Presumed and articulated in Wright's comments is a binary approach to sexuality and gender. Exceptions to the binariness intrinsic to Genesis' creation narratives exist as a matter of experience, but the binary approach treats these as exceptions to the general rule.
Presumed in Haller's response is a non-binary approach - there are a variety of sexualities and genders which the biblical narrative simply does not acknowledge let alone cope with. Far from being exceptions to some predetermined rule, the varieties of human experience beg the question how we might frame our application of the narrative to acknowledge (and ultimately bless) them all.
Thus each scholar is right according to their presuppositions. But are the presuppositions correct?