The Penultimate Character of Marriage

Posted by on Feb 27, 2012

I’m enjoying Tim and Kathy Keller’s book on marriage, The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God. If ever there was an engaging example of “thoughtful faith and faithful thinking,” this book certainly is it. And, unlike many books on marriage, both married and single people can benefit greatly from reading it.

The Kellers reflect on how a gospel-framework informs our view of marriage. I might say they show us that marriage is far loftier than we think but significantly different than our culture thinks. Among many helpful insights, they show the “penultimate character of marriage.”

Consider this quote:

 “…Ephesians 5 tells us that marriage is not ultimately about sex or social stability or personal fulfillment. Marriage was created to be a reflection on the human level of our ultimate love relationship and union with the Lord. It is a sign and foretaste of the future kingdom of God.

But this high view of marriage tells us that marriage, therefore, is penultimate. It points us to the Real Marriage that our souls need and the Real Family our hearts were made for. Married couples will do a bad job of conducting their marriage if they don’t see this penultimate status. Even the best marriage cannot by itself fill the void in our souls left by God. Without a deeply fulfilling love relationship with Christ now, and hope in a perfect love relationship with him in the future, married Christians will put too much pressure on their marriage to fulfill them, and that will always create pathology in their lives.

But singles, too, must see the penultimate status of marriage. If single Christians don’t develop a deeply fulfilling love relationship with Jesus, they will put too much pressure on their dream of marriage, and that will create pathology in their lives as well.” (p. 198)

This flows from their earlier reflection about the very purpose of marriage: “What, then, is marriage for? It is for helping each other to become our future glory-selves, the new creations that God will eventually make us.” (p.120)

This kind of deep reflection can help singles discern when or if and with whom God may be calling them to marry. It can help married people navigate the challenges of life together with their “fellow heir.” And it can help all of us articulate God’s perspective on an institution that is being battered terribly by our anti-marriage culture.


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