I don’t usually review materials the same day they come out. I’ve been more likely in the past to wait until the book is out of print. I once reviewed one of Luther’s books – 475 years after it was printed. And this isn’t even technically a book. It’s a pamphlet from LCMS Life Ministries. But the topic was discussed at length at our recently concluded district convention. There was a resolution on this topic. It eventually passed – though not without opposition. I’ve pondered this for a while, and so was a bit disappointed to see that the imperfect analogy of a district resolution has been given continued life.
The pamphlet is titled “Marriage, Life and Family: Reflecting the Holy Trinity.”
There are some good things in it. But overall it is, to use the parlance of today’s woke celebrity culture, problematic.
The first notable thing is that, instead of using the things of this world to explain the things of God, (The kingdom of heaven is like…) it uses the things of God to explain the things of this world (The kingdom of the earth is like…). I don’t remember scripture ever working that direction – and for good reason. The things of God can only be understood as a gift by the Holy Spirit. Outside of the Spirit’s work, we can not hear, understand, or believe the word of God. The analogies used in scripture are used to teach. Jesus does use parables to hide meaning, but elsewhere (The Flood, The Exodus, Hosea, Saint Paul) God uses analogy to teach – and always analogies based on worldly things to teach the things of God. This is because the things of God are too high for us to understand. Indeed, it is a point of our confession that the Trinity is “incomprehensible.” This pamphlet then uses something incomprehensible (The Trinity), to help explain something that is quite common (The Family).
Paul does do this, to a limited extent. His discourse on Christ and his bride the Holy Church in Ephesians 5 can also be used to explain how man and wife are to live together. Paul uses the Gospel as analogy to explain the (third use of the) Law. But the point he is making is that the relationship of wife and husband, in Christ, is made new. Everything is made new in Christ – even the relationships we have on earth. Paul uses an earthly analogy to explain heavenly things to explain earthly things made new in Christ. So, it moves from earth to heaven, and then back to earth, but only in the new life of Baptism. He does not use it to teach what marriage is in and of itself.
One can argue this is what the unnamed author of the pamphlet is doing. Perhaps. But the correspondence doesn’t carry through from one analogy to the other. Saint Paul’s point is that as Groom and Bride come together and the two become one, so also Christ has redeemed his bride the church. This is very graphically portrayed in Hosea. There is change that occurs at the redemption, that corresponds to the change at marriage.
The nature of the Holy Trinity is eternal and unchangeable. The pamphlet is not teaching that by faith through Baptism the family is renewed. It is attempting to teach about the inherent nature of the family. But Scripture does not do this. Not only does it not speak from the things of heaven to the things of earth, it does not speak of the family in this way.
The scriptural analogy, if one wants to use theology to speak of family, is Christ as husband-redeemer, the Church as cleansed bride. Later generations would also speak of the church as mother, giving birth to her children through Holy Baptism. (Cf. Cyprian, ” He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the church for his mother.”) And yet even this analogy is imperfect because although Christ is the Groom, he is not referred to as our Father. That is the role filled by The Father.
We have familial language in the very names of the person of the Holy Trinity. And yet the church over the centuries has shied away from saying that the family reflects the Holy Trinity. Why is that? There are a number of very good reasons.
As noted above the purpose of analogy in the church is to teach the things of God, not the things of this world. Even then though, the things of the world are inadequate to teach who God really is. Pr. Hans Fiene has conclusively demonstrated in his exhaustive and scholarly treatise that any attempt to analogize into God will quickly turn heretical. The Trinity is a mystery which can not be understood apart from faith.
If analogy is to teach, it must teach properly. Analogizing from God into the family is not so much teaching as speculating. It can only instruct those who are already instructed. No one outside the faith will come to a deeper understanding of God because of this. Nor will someone who rejects the doctrine of the Trinity be more likely to accept our views on Marriage.
Using the analogy of the Trinity – as Pr Fiene shows – is not without its own risk. Yes, there is a loving interrelationship in the Trinity. But if we are analogizing into family, then who is playing the role of Mother? The Spirit proceeds from Father and Son, so is the Spirit the child in this scenario? That is wrong by definition. The Spirit nurtures, so perhaps the Spirit is mother. This also can not be. The Spirit proceeds from Father and Son, but mother does not proceed from child. There is much room for mischief in this analogy. The Son is eternally begotten of the Father, while earthly families have a time before father is father. Such is not the case for the Holy Trinity. It was just this error – analogizing too far into earthly familial structure – that got Arius into trouble. The Trinity acts according to the united will of the Godhead, but families have three independent persons with three independent wills. Yes, the Son submits himself to the Father’s will. But the Son does so because the will of the Father is also the Son’s will according to the godhead. All the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily in the Son (Col 2) .This does not transfer to the family. (The technical theological terms behind this example are “opera ad intra” and “opera ad extra”).
Such speculative theology is especially dangerous for those of us on the edges of “Mormon Country”. They teach an explicit goddess being joined to the Father to produce the Son, and then move from this demonic “godhead” to prove the sacredness of family – including the eternality of marriage. Why are we trying to use an analogy that so easily leads to misunderstanding, false teaching, and even anti-Christian heresy?
The end of the document says, “The perfect revelation of God is a revelation of Three.” This is not correct. “Revelation of Three” is not fully given in the Old Testament. Jacob has not even the name of God. Moses gets a name, but not the persons. Does that mean that the revelation was imperfect in the Old Testament? Or that it was merely incomplete? Perhaps one can say that “The complete revelation of God in Scripture is a revelation of Three”, although an argument can be made that “Three” is an incomplete revelation of God. (And I can’t think of a persuasive argument that it is complete).
And even as the pamphlet explains the analogy of Three, there is no specific three for the family. “The marriage of husband and wife unites not only two people into a new relationship, but a whole host of relationships.” Even on the pamphlet’s own terms, the analogy does not work.
To speak of the family as a reflection of the Holy Trinity according to its very nature is to say that the family is a Holy Unity of persons. But first article gifts are not holy by definition. Everything is made holy by the word of God and Prayer. The service in the hymnal is the service of Holy Matrimony. But there is also a common (not holy) matrimony that is practiced by the heathen. This matrimony is no less a gift of God; it has not been sanctified by the word of God and Prayer. To say that marriage is a holy thing by definition is to come dangerously close to the Roman position that marriage is a Holy Sacrament, and therefore only valid when performed in and officially sanctioned by the church.
I understand the need to speak highly of, and exalt marriage and the family, especially as they come under such constant attack from the world. These attacks have been very effective even in the church: The LCMS will allow divorced men to become or remain on the clergy roster in violation of Saint Paul’s directive in 1 Timothy 3. But the way to encourage God’s gifts is to speak in the language which God has already given, and which the church has used for so long. That the church has not ventured down this road – and it seems a rather obvious one – should be a warning against this type of speculative innovation.
Perhaps this would be a necessary analogy for instruction if scripture did not also give so much direction, (Genesis 1 & 2, Exodus 20, Hosea, Song of Solomon, Matthew 19, John 2, Ephesians 5, Revelation 21) and the church had not spent so much time explaining those directions (Large Catechism commandments 4 & 6, Luther’s Sermon for Epiphany 2, etc.)
All of those verses, and many more teach the blessedness and importance of marriage and the family. Luther, and many other theologians, constantly explain how marriage and the family is a great gift and blessing, given as common gift to the world. That gift is still blessed of God even when imperfect or sinfully corrupted in our fallen state. It is blessed and commended in the New Testament by our Lord – who teaches it, and even assists as shadow host of a wedding celebration. And in none of this does scripture teach from family as a whole to the Trinity, or – as the pamphlet attempts – from the Trinity to Family as a whole. There are certainly aspects. God IS Father. Jesus IS Son. We have received the adoption of sons. But I am not persuaded it is necessary to go beyond that clear and scriptural teaching into more metaphysical speculation in order to somehow increase the holiness of something God has already blessed. And the dangers inherent in attempting it means that I may borrow snippets of language from it here and there, but I won’t be using it to teach my parish in a significant way. I will stick with the well established analogies scripture uses, because they are sufficient.