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Augustine on Marriage and the Subordinating Work of Totus Christus

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Abstract

This thesis examines the importance of the sacrament of marriage for Augustine’s ascetical vision. First, he believes the sacrament of marriage (the union of husband and wife as head and body) reveals totus Christus as the pattern upon which all creation has been ordered: corporeal things subject to spiritual things, and all things subject to God, just as the church is subject to Christ her head. Second, Augustine’s understanding of creaturely well-being as participation in this nuptial universal order explains how and why Augustine uses marital language—paradoxically— to describe the Christian ideal of spiritual continence as bodies subject to minds, and minds subject to God. This vision of spiritual continence as participation provides the foundation for bodily continence for both the celibate individual and for continent married couples. Part One establishes the sacrament of marriage as integral to Augustine’s Christology. In support of this Chapter One provides a survey of both classical and Christian thought on marriage prior to Augustine and then proceeds to demonstrate, in the face of much scholarly confusion over the last thirty years or so, that the magnum sacramentum of marriage refers unambiguously and only to the union of Christ with the church, head and body. The chapter concludes with a close reading of On the Good of Marriage and On Continence, noting how his ingenious application of nuptial language to a spiritual understanding of continence allowed him to reach a moderate position on marriage in the ascetic debates of the late Fourth Century. Building on this foundation Chapter Two locates, for the first time, the sacrament of marriage within Augustine’s Christology and its derivative sacramental theory. There we observe that just as all sacraments are built upon the model of Christ, that is, corporeal things guiding the attention to incorporeal as ordered by providence, marriage reveals and directs our attention to the whole Christ (totus Christus), indivisibly united with and governing his body the church as its head. Chapter Three examines the extensive ramifications of marriage’s signification of Christ united to the church in the light of Augustine’s conviction that totus Christus comprises the divinely-established design and governance (ratio) of the universe. This is illustrated through a close reading of the much-neglected Literal Interpretation of Genesis where, by applying the interpretive criteria Augustine himself provides within this work, one can discern the interpretive principle of totus Christus structuring his figurative understanding of creation. The chapter concludes with a discussion of how Augustine presents the operation of providence according to the interpretive principle of totus Christus and the way in which he presents creaturely well-being as willing participation in it. Part Two examines Augustine’s paradoxical use of nuptial language to illustrate his vision of spiritual continence. Chapter Four examines the ‘nuptial’ character of human participation in providence through the subordination of our bodies to our minds, and our minds to Christ. Chapter Five returns from focusing on theory to look again at actual married couples and Augustine’s vision of how his nuptial/ascetic scheme guides his understanding of the Christian ideal of continent marriage. Jeremy W. Bergstrom University of Durham, Department of Theology and Religion, and Nashotah House Theological Seminary

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