Families: No Room in the Church-Inn

Families: No Room in the Church-Inn December 7, 2016

I just finished reading a book that I’ve been commissioned to review for Touchstone Magazine.

The book is entitled, Biblical and Theological Foundations for the Family. It is by Joseph C. Atkinson. (Atkinson is associate professor of sacred scripture at the Pontifical John Paull II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America.)

I was first made aware of the book through Mars Hill Audio Journal. (Host Ken Myers interviewed Atkinson about the book on issue 13o.) During the course of that interview the curious oversight of a Christian theology of the family came up. Atkinson gave his take on the reason, and I’ll get to that in a minute. But for the moment, just pause and think about it. Considering the significance of the family as a social institution doesn’t it seem just a little odd that so little attention is given to understanding it, theologically speaking?

I’m not thinking about sexual ethics, or even marriage here, whether understood as a sacrament or otherwise. I’m referring to the family itself and its role in the Christian religion. It has seemed to me that for the longest time our debates about sex and marriage take the family for granted and this is precisely why they never seem to be resolved satisfactorily. We haven’t situated sex or marriage in the context of a theology of the family.

In case you doubt this, just pick up a book of systematic theology–or even biblical theology. Can you find a chapter dedicated to the family? If so, is it toward the front, or is it an afterthought? In my experience, when it comes to a theological anthropology, the lens is directed toward an abstraction known as “man” or it is focused on the salvation of isolated individuals. And when the lens does pull back to take in man’s location in a community the focus shifts to the church (ecclesiology) or to the Kingdom (eschatology).

Even Covenant Theology loses the family amid the inside baseball of the Trinity or debates about the relationship the New Covenant to the Old. Curiously, even though Abraham is told to circumcise the males of his household as a sign of the covenant, the focus is on his obedience to what to modern eyes appears to be a nonsensical and even unreasonable demand, and whether or not this is a precedent for infant baptism. (More on that another time.)

Atkinson had to go back to the Bible and to the Church Fathers for his material, the modern, and even the medieval, data being so scanty. Having done that, this is what he concludes in the last paragraph of the book:

…grounded in the Person of the Word of God, the family has been given a constitutive nature by the Creator such that it is assumed into the salvific plan of God for all humanity. In the Old Testament it functioned as the carrier of the covenant; in the New Covenant, it becomes the sphere of eschatological activity, i.e., the place where the Holy Spirit is active and bringing us into the fuller reality of salvation. In becoming a part of his body, our bodies become a part of Him. When in love, we give ourselves bodily to one another   within a covenantal structure, our two bodies become one flesh in Christ, the fruit of which is the procreation of other bodily realities made in the image of God. (p.325)

That seems pretty important, central and essential even, wouldn’t you agree? So why the neglect?

In Atkinson’s interview at Mars Hill Audio he addresses this and tactfully quotes a Rabbi on the subject who said concerning a similar neglect in Judaism, and I’m paraphrasing here, “Well, it is like air. You take the family for granted. They didn’t need to justify it since it was all around you.”

That may have been so once, but it is certainly not the case today. (And considering the ambivalence toward the family in many places in antiquity, I’m not sure we should be satisfied with this explanation.)

Allow me to proffer another explanation: the jealousy of clerics.

As Plato noted in The Republic, households have a way of checking the ambitions of States. He didn’t put it quite that way, but he wouldn’t since he was trying to strengthen the State and weaken families.

Working with and through heads of houses is far more difficult than working with isolated individuals. Atomize and relativize the family and you’ve got pliant material with which to build a political body. Add to this the fact (as Leon Podles does in The Church Impotent) that many of the clergy are effeminate and incapable of securing the respect of most masculine men and you’re left with little or no apparent reason to reinforce family life with a theology of the family.

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