“Love, Marriage, and Family in the New Testament”

The following post is part of a series of responses to the Sophia Institute conference on Love, Marriage, and Family in the Orthodox Tradition, December 7, 2012.

First Keynote: James Pettis, “Out of Dreams of Angels: Love, Marriage, and Family in the New Testament”

Pettis presented a paper in biblical theology which attempted to show that marriage is to be a means of transcendence. Applying what I believe in this situation one would call a “literary” hermeneutic to the New Testament witness, Pettis’ traced the increasingly transcendent meaning of the word “family” from Matthew to the Pastoral Epistles.

Matthew begins with “flesh and blood” in the genealogy of Jesus. Family is a matter of bloodline, but bloodline immediately opens to the transcendent in the dream of Joseph (which, Pettis noted, parallels the dreams of the other Joseph in Genesis). In receiving the command to include one who is not his own, Joseph makes room in his “lineage” for the divine.

Family is further transcended in the writings of Paul. The coming eschaton pierces traditional family structures to redefine it in more inclusive (less flesh-and-blood) ways. One’s sisters and brothers include the church. The traditional social structures of “marriage and family are being shed as part of a transformative process.”

The church begins to make a return to the ancient Roman “Household Code” in the pseudo-Pauline pastoral epistles. Here we witness the second generation of Christians facing a parousia (return of Christ) that was a long time coming. The “Household Code” helped them survive in an increasingly hostile culture, but this apparent return from kairos to chronos was counter-balanced by a growing asceticism, offering committed virgins a way to interrupt the obligations of lineage and the secular commitments family life required.

This is more or less where Pettis’ paper ended. It is difficult to draw implications from his sweeping presentations, but if I were to venture a guess, I would say that he seems to say the biblical witness to the early church’s reception of the life of Christ forever altered the Christian understanding of family. We live with our kin, but we also live toward the eschaton, whose light pierces our bloodlines. Family is not about genetics or lineage but faith.

For me, this raises one other consideration: We are obsessed with the modern family. I think that when most of us think of the “traditional” family, we picture something out of a Norman Rockwell painting. This is a fantasy. Family has taken multiple forms throughout history, from polygamous property transactions, to monogamous family alliances, to our modern marriages for love in pursuit of personal fulfillment. But traditions of various societies are not the “Tradition” of the Orthodox Church. In a manner of speaking, our “Tradition” comes from our future. If we are going to have conversations about family values, we need to recognize that family, for the church, is a transcendent category. Our families are taken up into the family of God. Thus when we are talking about “family values,” we are really talking about the values of the kingdom. When it comes to phenomena like the culture wars, this recognition would seem to change the terms of the debate, entirely.

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