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Archive for January, 2012

Two Cities, Two Loves

“We see then that the two cities were created by two kinds of love: the earthly city was created by self-love reaching the point of contempt for God, the heavenly city by the love of God carried as far as contempt of self.  In fact, the earthly city glories in itself, the heavenly city glories in the Lord.  The former looks for glory from men, the latter finds its highest glory in God, the witness of a good conscience.  The earthly lifts up its head in its own glory, the heavenly city says to its God: ‘You are my glory, the lifter of my head.’  In the former, the lust for domination lords it over its princes as over the nations it subjugates; in the other both those put in authority and those subject to them serve one another in love, the rulers by their counsel, the subjects by obedience.  The one city loves its own strength shown in its powerful leaders; the other says to its God, ‘I will love you, my Lord, my strength.’

Consequently, in the earthly city its wise men who live by men’s standards have pursued the goods of the body or of their own mind, or of both.  Or those of them who were able to know God ‘did not honor him as God, nor give thanks to him, but their thinking became futile, and their senseless hearts were darkened; claiming to be wise’—that is, exalting themselves in their wisdom, under the domination of pride—‘they became foolish, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God into an image representing a mortal man, or birds or beasts or reptiles’—for in the adoration of idols of this kind they were either leaders or followers of the general public—‘and they worshipped and served created things instead of the Creator, who is blessed forever.’  In the heavenly city, on the other hand, man’s only wisdom is the devotion which rightly worships the true God, and looks for its rewards in the fellowship of the saints…so that God may be all in all [everything to everyone].” (Augustine, City of God, 14.28)

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Polly and Digory stared at one another in dismay.

“Well, I do think someone might have arranged about our meals,” said Digory.

“I’m sure Aslan would have, if you’d asked him,” said Fledge.

“Wouldn’t he know without being asked?” said Polly.

“I’ve no doubt he would,” said the Horse (still with his mouth full).  “But I’ve a sort of idea he likes to be asked.”

(C. S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew, ch. 12)

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Lord Over All

“Of course, as contemporary history proves, Christians can live and bear witness under any regime, whatever its ideology.  But Christians can never seek refuge in a ghetto where their faith is not proclaimed as public truth for all.  They can never agree that there is one law for themselves and another for the world.  They can never admit that there are areas of human life where the writ of Christ does not run.  They can never accept that there are orders of creation or powers or dominions that exist otherwise than to serve Christ.  Whatever the institutional relationship between the church and the state—and there are many possible relationships, no one of which is necessarily the right one for all times and places—the church can never cease to remind governments that they are under the rule of Christ and that he alone is the judge of all they do.  The church can never accept the thesis that the central shrine of public life is empty, in other words, that there has been no public revelation before the eyes of all the world of the purpose for which all things and all peoples have been created and which governments must serve.  It can never accept an ultimate pluralism as a creed even if it must—as of course it must—acknowledge plurality as a fact.  In fact, it cannot accept the idea, so popular twenty years ago, of a secular society in which, on principle, there are no commonly acknowledged norms.  We know now, I think, that the only possible product of that ideal is a pagan society.  Human nature abhors a vacuum.  The shrine does not remain empty.  If the one true image, Jesus Christ, is not there, an idol will take its place.” (Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks, p. 115)

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Jeremiah 4:1-2 says this: “‘If you, Israel, will return, then return to me,’ declares the Lord.  ‘If you put your detestable idols out of my sight and no longer go astray, and if in a truthful, just and righteous way you swear ‘As surely as the Lord lives,’ then the nations will invoke blessings by him, and in him they will boast.'”

In his magisterial work, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative, Christopher Wright comments on Jeremiah’s theological vision:

“The logic of the whole sentence is remarkable.  God’s mission to the nations is being hindered because of Israel’s continuing spiritual and ethical failure.  Let Israel return to their mission (to be the people of YHWH, worshipping him exclusively and living according to his moral demands), and God can return to his mission—blessing the nations.” (p. 241)

The structure of the new covenant and the vocation of the church among the nations has not changed.  As Stanley Hauerwas loves to remind us, in any given time and place “the primary social task of the church is to be itself.” (A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic, p. 10)

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Here are the profound comments of Old Testament scholar Gerhard von Rad on the frequent biblical exhortation that ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge’:

“The thesis that all human knowledge comes back to the question about commitment to God is a statement of penetrating perspicacity…It contains in a nutshell the whole Israelite theory of knowledge…There lies behind the statement an awareness of the fact that the search for knowledge can go wrong, not as a resultof individual, erroneous judgments or of mistakes creeping in at different points, but because of one single mistake at the beginning.  One becomes competent and expert as far as the orders in life are concerned only if one begins from knowledge about God.  To this extent, Israel attributes to the fear of the Lord, to belief in God, a highly important function in respect of human knowledge.  She was, in all seriousness, of the opinion that effective knowledge about God is the only thing that puts a man into a right relationship with the objects of his perception, that is enables him to ask questions more pertinently, to take stock of relationships more effectively and generally to havea better awareness of circumstances.  Thus it could, for example, be said that evil men do not know what is right but that those who seek Yahweh understand all things (Prov. 28:5).  The opinion is evidently that turning to Yahweh facilitates the difficult distinction between right and wrong.  But this was surely not true only of the narrower sphere of moral behavior.  Faith does not–as is popularly  believed today–hinder knowledge; on the contrary, it is what liberates knowledge, enables it really to come to the point and indicates to it its proper place in the sphere of varied, human activity.  In Israel, the intellect never freed itself from or became independent of the foundation of its whole existence, that is its committment to Yahweh…The statement that the fear of the Lord was the beginning of wisdom was Israel’s most special possession.” (Gerhard Von Rad, Wisdom in Israel, pp. 67-68)

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In Galatians 5:5-6 the apostle Paul proclaims that Christians, who have been rescued from this present evil age yet nonetheless find themselves still inhabiting it with their decaying mortal bodies, are “eagerly waiting for the hope of righteousness” by faith and through the Spirit.  Another way of saying this is that “should” and “want” still frequently exist in conflict for Christians in this world, and one aspect of our hope is to long for the day when “ought” and “desire” will once more kiss and exist in harmony.  Indeed, we tremble in longing for the (re)marriage of heaven and earth themselves, which have been torn asunder by human sin.  This recognition has enormous implications for the well-lived Christian life, caught in the middle of the thrilling “already” but the heart shattering “not yet”.  As Richard Neuhaus wisely wrote, “In the Christian tradition being true to yourself means being true to the self that you are called to be.”  Notice the universe of difference the phrase “you are called to be” (future tense) makes in this proposition.   Over the next few days, I’ll highlight a few Christian thinkers who have helped me to approach this tension in a coherent, life-giving way.  Here’s the fourth, another insightful reflection from Gilbert Meilaender:

“This tension between what Henry Sidgwick called the ‘attractive’ and the ‘imperative’ ways of depicting the center of the moral life has been present for centuries in our tradition—perhaps always, but at least since Christian thought, knowing God as giver of the moral law set the ideal of the ‘imperative’ over against the classical emphasis upon the ‘attractive’…The obvious way to come to terms with this tension between the attractive and the imperative is to remember that only the pure in heart will see God—not because they have deserved it, but because only such a heart would want to rest in God…Acknowledgment and fulfillment of our duties is not a condition for resting in God; it is a description of the only sort of person who would really want to be with God…The imperative then fills the gap that separates the description from the image.  ‘The precepts which enjoin the various virtues and prohibit the vices which are their counterparts instruct us how to move from potentiality to act, how to realize our true nature and to reach our true end.’  That is to say, our duties are intelligible.  They describe the transformation that takes place when one who has been turning away from the good begins to turn toward it…

[Yet] our experience of duty as (at least sometimes) unrewarding…compels us to realize that—in any place and in any historical moment—duty might take on an unconditional character with no apparent connection to fulfillment of our desire for happiness.  The seeming unintelligibility of our moral obligations is a permanent possibility…The gap between desire and duty remains open.  Acting as duty requires will not [always] seem to be the ‘way’ of happiness; on the contrary, it is a way that seems to arrive at a dead end—and yet is required.  Hence, the ‘imperative’ does not chart out a path that necessarily leads from our current condition to a fulfillment we desire.  The path from where we are to where we long to be can only be traversed and believed, but not always seen…That haunting refrain [of Augustine]—‘give what you command, and command what you will’—gives voice to a way of life for which the duties God commands may not always make sense or seem to lead to that land of peace in the distance.  The gap that sometimes separates desire and duty in our lives cannot be solved by moral theory.  That gap is, finally, the tension between the God who calls us to himself and the God who commands us to obey.  Only the God who gives what he commands, in whom we are to hope, can overcome it.” (Gilbert Meilaender, The Way That Leads There: Augustinian Reflections on the Christian Life, pp. 71-76)

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In Galatians 5:5-6 the apostle Paul proclaims that Christians, who have been rescued from this present evil age yet nonetheless find themselves still inhabiting it with their decaying mortal bodies, are “eagerly waiting for the hope of righteousness” by faith and through the Spirit.  Another way of saying this is that “should” and “want” still frequently exist in conflict for Christians in this world, and one aspect of our hope is to long for the day when “ought” and “desire” will once more kiss and exist in harmony.  Indeed, we tremble in longing for the (re)marriage of heaven and earth themselves, which have been torn asunder by human sin.  This recognition has enormous implications for the well-lived Christian life, caught in the middle of the thrilling “already” but the heart shattering “not yet”.  As Richard Neuhaus wisely wrote, “In the Christian tradition being true to yourself means being true to the self that you are called to be.”  Notice the universe of difference the phrase “you are called to be” (future tense) makes in this proposition.   Over the next few days, I’ll highlight a few Christian thinkers who have helped me to approach this tension in a coherent, life-giving way.  Here’s the third, from Gilbert Meilaender:

“Here and now, in this life, placing our happiness in God will require that we relinquish the desire for happiness on our own terms and cultivate instead the patience to wait for God.  The way to fulfillment of self may therefore seem more like sacrifice of self…Because our desires remain disordered even after the fundamental division within the self has been overcome [in conversion], the God who is our happiness may not make us happy here and now…We can look for happiness to the good things that draw us here and now, even though they will not finally satisfy the heart’s longing.  Or we can redirect that longing to the God who can satisfy it but in whom we cannot rest here and now.  That is, we can have a sham happiness that will not really satisfy—or we can relinquish the desire to grasp the happy life here and now, leaving open in our being a gaping wound that God must fill in his own good time.  We should be reluctant to adopt strategies that invite us to underplay the importance of self-sacrifice in the Christian life.” (Gilbert Meilaender, The Way That Leads There: Augustinian Reflections on the Christian Life, pp. 18-19)

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In Galatians 5:5-6 the apostle Paul proclaims that Christians, who have been rescued from this present evil age yet nonetheless find themselves still inhabiting it with their decaying mortal bodies, are “eagerly waiting for the hope of righteousness” by faith and through the Spirit.  Another way of saying this is that “should” and “want” still frequently exist in conflict for Christians in this world, and one aspect of our hope is to long for the day when “ought” and “desire” will once more kiss and exist in harmony.  Indeed, we tremble in longing for the (re)marriage of heaven and earth themselves, which have been torn asunder by human sin.  This recognition has enormous implications for the well-lived Christian life, caught in the middle of the thrilling “already” but the heart shattering “not yet”.  As Richard Neuhaus wisely wrote, “In the Christian tradition being true to yourself means being true to the self that you are called to be.”  Notice the universe of difference the phrase “you are called to be” (future tense) makes in this proposition.   Over the next few days, I’ll highlight a few Christian thinkers who have helped me to approach this tension in a coherent, life-giving way.  Here’s the second, from Richard Bauckham:

“Our response to grace is not the coerced submission of the slave, but the free obedience of love.  Its paradigm is: ‘I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart’ (Ps. 40:8).  This is neither the autonomy that is contradicted by any authority nor the heteronomy that experiences authority as alien subjection to the will of another.  It is the obedience to God of those who already glimpse the eschatological [i.e. future] identity of their best desires with God’s, who recognize God’s will as the desire of their own hearts, whose experience of God’s love makes love the freely chosen goal of their lives…The eschatological goal beyond autonomy and heteronomy [is] the final identity of our freedom with God’s authority.” (Richard Bauckham, God and the Crisis of Freedom, pp. 68-69)

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In Galatians 5:5-6 the apostle Paul proclaims that Christians, who have been rescued from this present evil age yet nonetheless find themselves still inhabiting it with their decaying mortal bodies, are “eagerly waiting for the hope of righteousness” by faith and through the Spirit.  Another way of saying this is that “should” and “want” still frequently exist in conflict for Christians in this world, and one aspect of our hope is to long for the day when “ought” and “desire” will once more kiss and exist in harmony.  Indeed, we tremble in longing for the (re)marriage of heaven and earth themselves, which have been torn asunder by human sin.  This recognition has enormous implications for the well-lived Christian life, caught in the middle of the thrilling “already” but the heart shattering “not yet”.  As Richard Neuhaus wisely wrote, “In the Christian tradition being true to yourself means being true to the self that you are called to be.”  Notice the universe of difference the phrase “you are called to be” (future tense) makes in this proposition.   Over the next few days, I’ll highlight a few Christian thinkers who have helped me to approach this tension in a coherent, life-giving way.  Here’s the first, from Oliver O’Donovan’s wonderfully lucid Resurrection and Moral Order, in which he speaks to the (apparent) contradiction between voluntarism and rationalism, and the deontic and teleological ethics that flow from these approaches to morality:

“The value of the voluntarist emphasis lay in its perception that the dialectic between reason and revelation rests not on an accidental deficiency of human reason but on the aboriginal metaphysical fact that human reason is not transcendent.  Thus human judgments are always, and as such, susceptible to divine criticism.  Human reason itself, by its own critical self-understanding, tells us this, and points to its own supersession.  In the divine-human encounter trusting obedience is the only appropriate reaction, and the only properly self-critical reaction on man’s part.  The risk of Abraham cannot be avoided.  But once its dangerous tendencies have been thus corrected, rationalism too can instruct us.  If obedience is to be ‘trusting’, it must be hopeful.  The disciple who obeys the divine word in defiance of his own limited perceptions of right is genuinely trustful only if he believes that the paradox is not an ultimate contradiction in reality.  He must hope to see the moment of critical confrontation finally resolved by the elevation of his reason to grasp God’s action as a coherent whole.  Otherwise he is acting not in faith but in cynical despair.  ‘Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen’ (Heb. 11:1).  Rationalism was not wrong to promise an ultimate scrutability in the divine purpose; it was wrong only as it attempted to empty that promise of its eschatological character and hurry forward to a premature fulfillment by the route of a reductive immanentism…

By way of postscript to our digression we may comment on a question that has troubled thinkers of recent generations perhaps more than it should have done, that is, the relation between ‘deontic’ and ‘teleological’ forms of moral language…The polarity certainly has its source in the antithesis of voluntarist and rationalist understandings of morality.  Deontic ethics has its source in the voluntarist conception that morality is a matter of command and obedience.  (The word ‘deontic’, coined from the Greek deon, points to the prominence of ‘ought’ and its equivalents.)  It suggests that morality is a kind of burden laid upon us, which cuts across our natural aspirations and purposes…The point [is] that the moral claim is encountered apart from any perceptions about the subject’s fulfillment or welfare which might compromise the absolute obedience which it elicits for its own sake. ‘Teleological’ ethics, on the other hand, derives from the ontological conception of God as the summum bonum, in which it was the task of moral reasoning to recognize and respond to the ordered structures of being and good.  ‘Teleological’ is not meant to be understood narrowly, as speaking only of a calculative, consequentialist morality, but in the way that we have ourselves used it, pointing to any kind of propriety or order within the world.  There are, of course, consequentialist interpretations of teleological ethics.  Utilitarianism is an offspring from this rationalist root, and shows its ancestry by its confidence in a self-evident and unarguable idea of happiness which does in fact, and should self-consciously, govern all human conduct as an end.

It is sometimes suggested that faced with this dichotomy we have only two possibilities open to us.  We can claim, on the one hand, a strict interchangeability between these two forms of moral language; on the other, we may suppose that they point objectively to two different kinds of morality.  The latter course, which has proved the most popular in recent discussions, can itself lead in two ways.  It can suggest a grading of the two kinds as higher and lower, a measure which will probably indicate a Kantian kind of preference for the ‘ought’; or it can result in a simple pluralism…However, it would appear that the alternative is wrongly posed in the first place.  We are not compelled to think the two languages interchangeable (if that means without loss of sense) in order to say that they point to the same objective moral reality.  There is evidently a difference in sense between saying that one ‘ought to’ do something and saying that it is ‘good’.  Yet any actual moral claim can be expressed either in terms of obligation or in terms of the good; and it would be merely doctrinaire to insist that in choosing the second form of expression one must fail to appreciate its true moral force.  What the two languages do is to draw our attention to different and complementary aspects of moral claims as we encounter them.  The deontic language emphasizes the critical relation of moral authority to natural authority and of divine authority to all created authority.  We say ‘ought’ when we need to stress the contradiction between this overriding claim and what we should otherwise have thought or felt…On the other hand, the teleological language draws attention to the rationality of moral and divine authority.  It drives us to express, as best we can, the meaning of that authority within the ordered universe, even when that expression is the expression of a hope for a resolution that we cannot yet comprehend.

Kant, for all his commitment to deontic ethics and his dependence on the notion of law, understood that the distinctive character of the ‘ought’, its expression of the ‘imperative’, arose from the relation of constraint between the objective law of reason and a will not subjectively determined to it.  A holy will, like the divine will, would not encounter the law as imperative or as ‘ought’.  The strong antithesis between the concepts of happiness and duty is the constant theme of the ‘Analytic’ section of the Critique of Practical Reason, where classical ethics is subjected to criticism for its approach to moral law by way of the controlling concept of the summum bonum, which inevitably, Kant argues, left their moral thought heteronomous and at the mercy of the principles of happiness and pleasure.  However, in the ‘Dialectic’ section the notion of the ‘highest good’ is reinstated in Kant’s ethics as the object, though not the motive, of the pure practical reason, and we learn that the Christian eschatological hope of the kingdom of God, complete with the idea of happiness, is, together with the immortality of the soul, a necessary ‘postulate’ of practical reason.

We may say, then, that the tension between the two moral languages reflects a necessary dialectic in the perceptions of moral agents for whom moral insight is still a task and not yet an achieved fact.  In moments of grace we may be given the perception that our duty and our fulfillment are one and the same, and we may speak of that unity in hope and faith; but we cannot ask that we should never be challenged  to further thought and conscientious struggle by an awareness of the divergence of inclination and duty.” (Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order, pp. 136-39)

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In the movie The Tree of Life, director Terrence Malick employs a strangely jarring narrative device to illuminate the true significance of certain events that happen to the O’Brien family over the course of the unfolding story.  After introducing the various members of the family in 1950’s Texas and hinting at the tragic death of a beloved son a few years later, the story briefly abandons these characters and their particular historical setting.  Rewinding back to the creation of the universe and the development of life on our planet (even dinosaurs make a brief appearance!), Malick constructs a cosmic backdrop against which the audience might now re-imagine the significance they have previously ascribed to the O’Brien’s mix of joy and tragedy.  As Roger Ebert noted, “The Tree of Life is a film of vast ambition and deep humility, attempting no less than to encompass all of existence and view it through the prism of a few infinitesimal lives.”  Though arguably, that interpretation gets matters exactly backwards with regard to the ultimate focus of the story—it is not the physical universe but humanity within it that is the real theme of the movie.

Of course, it is finally left up to the audience to decide how to interpret this ambitious setting of a breathtakingly cosmic stage which is found to lay behind the immediate experiences of the story’s main characters. Does it relativize and minimize the tragedy they experience—after all, what is one more death and brief moment of suffering in the grand scale of things?  Or does it function more like Psalm 8 and the epic conclusion of the book of Job—in fact, several characters in the movie regularly have internal monologues addressed to God filled with language drawn from Job, and the opening epigraph of the film is from Job 38:4, 7?  These classic biblical passages employ the sheer massiveness of creation to instead draw attention to the astonishing dignity and surprising importance that human beings actually have in the world that God has made, in contradiction to what the surface appearance of the universe would seem to suggest.  Either way, the point is inescapable: by juxtaposing a seemingly miniscule, temporary, fraction-of-all-reality moment against the infinite complexity and vastness of the physical cosmos, Malick implicitly contends that we cannot hope to rightly understand the actual meaning of the O’Brien family’s tragedy in isolation from the meaning we choose to ascribe to the whole.

Malick’s brilliant narrative device is not original to him.  But even the most careful reader can easily miss the tantalizing fact that the Bible both begins (Genesis 2:18-25) and ends (Revelation 19:6-9, 21:1-9, 22:17) with weddings that turn out to occupy surprisingly central positions amidst vastly larger cosmic backdrops.  In Genesis and Revelation, both the initial creation and the concluding re-creation of the entire universe by God serve the literary function of magnifying the awesome meaning that is ascribed to these two particular marriage scenes—marriages that turn out to be the climactic “finales” to everything else God does at both the inception and the end of human history.  This canonical inclusio which bookends the Bible is no mere coincidence, but holds a divinely-intended significance for how we read and interpret all the material that lay in between these two dramatic moments.  Marriage, from first to last, occupies a central aspect in the storyline of the Scriptures.  In spite of what our first impressions may be as we survey our vast universe, marriage turns out to be the point of everything else.  As Ray Ortlund writes about the subtle contrast in Genesis 1-2:

“The attention of the text shifts from the heavens and the earth coming together in cosmic order (Gn. 1) to a man and a woman coming together in earthly marriage (Gn. 2).  Even allowing that marriage is the most profound of human relationships (‘one flesh’), one is still struck by the apparently incongruous movement from the universal to the particular, from impenetrable mysteries to familiar commonplaces.  But there it is, this peculiar thing we call marriage, tenderly portrayed in its humble reality and delicate innocence against the enormous backdrop of the creation.  Why?  What does Scripture accomplish by this remarkable juxtaposition?  The answer is not yet provided, but the question lingers as the story proceeds.”[1]

Old Testament scholar Richard Davidson makes a similar observation:

“The first two chapters of the Bible deal directly and extensively with human sexuality.  Not only is human sexuality presented as a basic fact of creation; an elucidation of the nature and theology of sexuality receives central, climactic placement in the Genesis creation accounts.  Within the cosmic scope of the creation narratives, the disproportionate amount of space devoted to the subject of sexuality also underscores its special significance.” (Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament, p. 15)

And so the Bible begins and ends with implicit announcements that marriage is the point of everything else God is up to. But maybe not in the way we initially think.  Christians must ultimately say even more than this about God’s purposes–and, indeed, less.  Human sexuality and human marriage are, in fact, only penultimate realities in God’s redemptive scheme.  They point, finally, beyond themselves to something deeper, more original and of profoundly greater significance—to the mutual relationship of covenant love between God and His redeemed people, which itself turns out to take the shape of a marriage.  As Geoffrey Bromiley remarks, “As God made man in His own image, so He made earthly marriage in the image of His own eternal marriage with His people.”[2]  Human marriage, though saturated with beauty and meaning, is nonetheless temporary and symbolic in light of the whole.  But God’s covenant love for His people is permanent—eternally so—and the goal of all else that exists.   This is especially true of human marriage, which from the beginning is loaded with a symbolic weight that points away from itself to God’s fiercely loving pursuit of us.  Therefore, Christians do not take marriage lightly or tamper with its designs, for in it they are dealing with a dramatic mystery which is at the very heart of reality itself.[3]


[1] Raymond C. Ortlund, Jr., God’s Faithless Wife: A Biblical Theology of Spiritual Adultery, p. 171

[2] Geoffrey Bromiley, God and Marriage, p. 43

[3] “One of the ends for which sex was created was to symbolize to us the hidden things of God.  One of the functions of human marriage is to express the nature of the union between Christ and the Church.  We have no authority to take the living and semitive figures which God has painted on the canvas of our nature and shift them about as if they were mere geometrical figures.” (C. S. Lewis, “Priestesses in the Church”)

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