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The bride, not the wife

It is interesting that the church is described by Paul, not as the wife of Christ, but as the bride (2 Cor 11:2; Eph 5:27). Clearly there is something important about this distinction. A spouse stands in a settled and determined relationship. The vows have been made, the union has been actualized, the relationship has been consummated. The relationship between two betrothed however is quite different, at least in biblical understanding.

The relationship between a groom and a bride is one of promise. They are bound to one another by vow, but their relationship is not yet consummated, though it is a binding and real relationship. Inherent in the notion of betrothal is the element of anticipation, of deferred longing, of unactualized union. The betrothed live from promise towards a future in which they will be given to one another in a full and decisive way.

This image of the church as bride seems to me to be a necessary qualification towards how we interpret the metaphor of the body of Christ. Or rather, this is the question I am interested in seeing discussed. Should the image of the bride have priority in our understanding of the image of the body or vice versa? To my mind the image of the bride is preferable as a controlling metaphor because, 1) it is much clearer in meaning, 2) it is rooted substantially in the Old Testament’s language, 3) it is clearly the controlling metaphor for the union of God and his people in Revelation, and 4) it is clearly attuned to the whole framework of eschatological anticipation that the New Testament as whole presupposes.


  1. Brad A. wrote:

    Halden, I’m not convinced that this is a necessary choice. The only point at which we should have to choose between them is when they come into conflict, and I haven’t seen you present a clear situation in which these metaphors are directly in conflict, as opposed to secondary interpretations thereof (in which we find interpretations opposed to each other in each case, not so much between them).

    I think you’ll have a hard time convincing a number of people that the relationship between the church and Christ is not yet consummated. The Kingdom is not yet consummated, but many would argue that in baptism and/or Eucharist, the relationship of the church to Christ is. If the church ceases to exist at the eschaton, then how, according to your reading, is the relationship ever consummated?

    As to your reasoning:

    1. How is bride much clearer in meaning than body? I don’t see that at all, particularly with Paul’s discussion of one body and many parts. Seems pretty clear to me.

    2. “Bride” is probably rooted much more substantially in OT language than “body,” but in the OT, “son” is much more prevalent than “bride.” I’m not sure your case is made with this point.

    3. No argument here, but I don’t know that this is paramount.

    4. “Bride” may be clearly attuned, but you’ve not explained how that attunement somehow precludes the relevance and normativity of “Body” in this dichotomy you’ve constructed.

    I think this argument is just a little arbitrary, Halden. You’re picking a fight that simply doesn’t need to happen.

    Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 8:19 am | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    I’m not saying either/or. I think its rather obvious that we, whether we admit it or not, allow certain biblical motifs to shed light on others, and some, inevitably acquire a certain sort of interpretive priority. I’m just thinking out loud about whether or not the image of the bride (especially given its larger canonical background and presence outside the Pauline corpus) might be of help in interpreting the image of the body, especially since Paul himself basically uses it in this exact way in Ephesians 5.

    Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 8:26 am | Permalink
  3. Brad A. wrote:

    On #3, a cursory glance at Revelation reveals “bride” mentioned only what, three times? That may constituted a “controlling metaphor” within that particular text, but it doesn’t suggest normativeness over other metaphors in other texts.

    And what do you do with Rev. 21:9 – “One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb” (speaking of the New Jerusalem). Here, “bride” and “wife” are synonymous. I’m just not convinced that you’ve defined the terms well here, or at least well enough to make your case.

    Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 8:31 am | Permalink
  4. Brad A. wrote:

    But you’re doing rather more than that, Halden, since in the past couple of posts, you’ve made clear your problems with the “body” metaphor. In this post, you suggest pretty clearly that they are, in your mind, in conflict, a conflict which needs to be resolved in favor of bride.

    Btw, if “bride” and “wife” aren’t as distinguishable as you claim (see Rev. 21:9), then we’re dealing with man and wife as one flesh, and we’re back to “body.”

    Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 8:35 am | Permalink
  5. Halden wrote:

    I do not now, nor have I ever had a problem with “the ‘body’ metaphor.” I just want to understand said metaphor well. Nor have I suggested any sort of “conflict” between the images. Just the opposite, namely that they illumine each other. In this case I’m thinking about how the bride image illumines that of the body, which you don’t seem to like for some reason that appears to me to be totally reactionary and unreflective.

    Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 8:38 am | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    The word may only show up three times, but it clearly frames the whole narrative culminating with the marriage supper of the Lamb. The slavish word-counting approach is hardly a serious look at the theme.

    And, yeah the movement from “bride” to “wife” comes . . . at the end of the drama, at the consummation of the eschaton. Which kind of fundamentally supports my point.

    Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 8:39 am | Permalink
  7. Brad A. wrote:

    I’ve been neither reactionary nor unreflective, Halden. You posit a prioritization without making the case that one is needed. On the back of previous posts, this suggests a conflict between the two. Even the title of this one suggests you are arguing for a corrective. I’m not convinced one is needed (nor, as I’ve mentioned twice now, that one is possible).

    I’m obviously in favor of seeing how these metaphors interrelate, but in my mind, that calls for an examination of reciprocal conditioning.

    Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 8:42 am | Permalink
  8. Brad A. wrote:

    Is it a movement, or simply a synonym?

    Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 8:44 am | Permalink
  9. Halden wrote:

    I have never suggested a conflict between the images whatsoever. I defy you to show me where I ever said the biblical images themselves are in conflict. Come on, you’re better than this.

    And all I’m saying is that whether we admit it or not, we use certain biblical images to interpret others and inevitably some play a more decisive role. That’s just a fact. And, given that Paul uses the metaphor of the bride to shed light on the body in Eph 5 (esp. vv .31-32), I think that’s maybe something that’s helpful.

    Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 8:48 am | Permalink
  10. Brad A. wrote:

    And I’m not being “slavish”; stop being so pejorative. I was simply saying that while it may act as a controlling metaphor in Revelation, that is not to say it takes priority over Body elsewhere.

    Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 8:48 am | Permalink
  11. Halden wrote:

    The bride is now the wife because the wedding feast has happened. Is this really that hard? You’re grasping at straws here.

    Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 8:49 am | Permalink
  12. Halden wrote:

    Then there was no need for the whole “the “bride” [is] mentioned only what, three times?” if that was really your only point. You were clearly using the word count thing as a way to gain rhetorical purchase.

    Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 8:56 am | Permalink
  13. Brad A. wrote:

    No, I wasn’t. Frequency/prevalence matters to me to some degree; I don’t think that’s “slavish,” nor was I just maneuvering to try to defeat your argument.

    Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 9:10 am | Permalink
  14. Brad A. wrote:

    My point was that “bride” does not merely mean “betrothed,” i.e., pre-married; it can also mean recently consummated. I’m not a sacramentalist, so I won’t venture very far here, but I wonder if consummation is seen as occurring in the regularly occurring Eucharist (where the one in Revelation might be the final occurrence), whether the church would even now be in a constant state of “brideness.” I may be wandering afield from your argument with this, but I don’t think that’s grasping.

    Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 9:13 am | Permalink
  15. Brad A. wrote:

    You haven’t said they’re directly in conflict; I said earlier you needed to make that case to argue here for the “necessary qualification” of “Bride” over “Body.” My point, and forgive me if I was unclear, was that your post seems to presuppose conflict that doesn’t necessarily exist.

    Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 9:17 am | Permalink
  16. Halden wrote:

    You’re right, bride does not merely mean betrothed. That’s a good point. And likewise though, bride does not merely mean wife. Now we’re getting somewhere. This is actually the kind of discussion I wanted the post to engender.

    Perhaps (and this was the intent of my original post), we should understand the image of the bride precisely as the movement from betrothal to consummation. It is an ek-static event if you will, of being drawn actively by and towards Christ. This gets at the apocalyptic nature of the image as well as its connection to theosis. The church is the bride in that, standing under and believing Christ’s promise she is being drawn by the exigence of the Spirit ever towards Christ as she stretches towards the promised consummation.

    Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 9:22 am | Permalink
  17. Halden wrote:

    I think that point is clear. But from my perspective I don’t think you’ve shown how I presuppose conflict between the images. All I’m thinking through here is whether or not the image of the bride helps us to understand the image of the body, or gives us material for interpreting it in ways we otherwise would not without the bridal imagery.

    Obviously the images are somewhat contrastive since clearly a the image of a bride and a bridegroom is different than the image of a head and a body. But contrast need not imply conflict, nor have I implied anything of that nature.

    The image of the bride may certainly conflict with some interpretations of the body of Christ image, but that’s a different matter than saying that the images themselves are in conflict.

    Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 9:26 am | Permalink
  18. Brad A. wrote:

    Then I’ve misread you, for which I apologize. It seemed to me that you’ve recently argued against the notion of oneness between the church and Christ, an argument that has revolved in part around the notion of Body as propagated by certain strands of the tradition. Then you post here and say the notion of Bride (indicating for you a distinctness and separation between the church and Christ) must qualify the notion of Body. I naturally took that to mean that you see the metaphor of Bride as superior to that of Body, correcting Body in some way. If there’s no conflict, there’s no need of qualification or correction. My apologies if I misunderstood.

    Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 9:39 am | Permalink
  19. Halden wrote:

    I definitely would never oppose the notion of the oneness between Christ and the church. But there are different ways of interpreting and articulating the nature of this unity, some of which I think are unhelpful.

    By saying that the image of the bride ought to “qualify” the image of the body (which may not have been the best way to put it) I meant that perhaps the image of the bride can help shed light on the nature of the unity between Christ and the church in ways that prevent us from interpreting the image of the body wrongly.

    That at least was what I was trying to get at.

    Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 10:03 am | Permalink
  20. Austin Eisele wrote:

    It strikes me that the use of “bride” is not merely an anticipatory use. E.g., sometimes I’ll call my wife “my bride” to others, and I suppose that’s a way to communicate that there is a certain newness to our marriage, even though we’ve been married for a while. I highly doubt this was somehow Paul’s “original intention”, but to me, that’s an interesting thought. I think of this in terms of Yoder’s idea of “looping back,” of the church remaining faithful by returning over and over to the event itself. In other words, it is both a proleptic metaphor and an historic metaphor.

    I also find an interesting metaphor for the church in Eph 2.22, “in him you are also being built together into a dwelling place for God in the Spirit.” In addition to the body and bride metaphors, this is something of a temple metaphor, having the cultic vision of the Holy place where Yahweh dwells. Of course Paul uses this idea in terms of the body being a “temple of the holy spirit” (1 Cor 6.19), so there seems to be a “micro” version and a “macro” version of this metaphor. I like it though, because is describes something active about communion, not merely passive. In other words, whereas both the body metaphor and the bride metaphor seem to speak of us as “patients” (in Aristotelean language), in the temple metaphor we are “agents”, so that what we do either does, or does not, create a space for God (and of course, Eph 3 goes on to talk of the ministry of reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles, so this “doing” seems to be intimately connected with such reconciliation).

    Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 10:17 am | Permalink
  21. TProff wrote:

    I see your point but I wouldn’t be so quick to elevate one metaphor over the other. There is much to be said about the metaphor of the bride, but consider too that these are not the only metaphors for the Church. The symbolism surrounding Mary in some traditions presents the Church as Mother to us all.
    Understanding the Eucharistic consumption of the blood of Christ activates the metaphor of the Church as the body and informs our understanding of our relationship to each other in Christ. I’m afraid that subverting the metaphor of the Church as body may also subvert our understanding of Eucharist.
    I’d be interested at looking into these metaphors as speaking to different ‘modes’ of the Church; the body being understood internally and relationally, while the bride is understood externally and eschatologically; In anticipation of the bridegroom we also renounce all other suitors.
    All that being said about subverting metaphors and such, I think the bride metaphor is terribly underutilized and you do well to bring it up. Great post!

    Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 10:25 am | Permalink
  22. Hill wrote:

    I think it would be helpful to have some historical information as to the meaning of bride, especially in the relevant historical context. I know quite a few older gentlemen who refer to their wife as bride frequently. Are there two different words used in the Greek?

    Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 10:42 am | Permalink
  23. TProff wrote:

    If I may read into the metaphor a bit more, there seems to be parallels that can be drawn on the imagery of a bride given by her father. The Church is given to Christ by the Father while at the same time Christ is given to us, manifesting the mutual submission of the persons of the Trinity.

    Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 10:51 am | Permalink
  24. Halden wrote:

    Looks like there’s actually several different words used (I’ve got little Greek skill). The most clear text, though (according to Minear, Images of the Church in the New Testament) is 2 Cor 11:1ff in which case the clear reference is to a virgin being given to a husband. For whatever that’s worth.

    I think also that the correspondence between bride and bridegroom is important (this imagery is also present in the gospels of course). Even if, in some modern colloquialisms we continue to refer to wives as “our bride” the language of “bridegroom” seems to have the context of the wedding itself in view rather than an already married state. At least as far as I can tell.

    Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 11:00 am | Permalink
  25. roger flyer wrote:

    Possibly a very good point, Hill.

    Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 11:02 am | Permalink
  26. roger flyer wrote:

    Halden’s going Rambo on you Brad.

    Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 11:03 am | Permalink
  27. roger flyer wrote:

    Tod ya.

    Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 11:03 am | Permalink
  28. roger flyer wrote:

    er…told ya.

    Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 11:04 am | Permalink
  29. TProff wrote:

    Yes, and as you pointed out, the ‘wedding’ can be understood as an eschatological union. But do not mistake and confine the eschaton only to the future, for when Christ poured himself out on the cross, he defeated death by assuming death. The mutual submission of Christ to His Church, and of His Church to Christ is a perfect picture of marriage that should not be overlooked when examining the bride metaphor.

    Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 1:20 pm | Permalink
  30. Halden wrote:

    Yes, there is a dialectic here, but we can’t have an overrealized eschatology either, especially in view of Matt 9:15 which speaks of the bridegroom being truly absent in the interim between cross and consummation.

    Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 1:34 pm | Permalink
  31. kim fabricius wrote:

    Yes, Halden, you could call in the the resurrection, and especially the ascension, of Jesus to do some heavy lifting here. Cf. John Webster: “The church is risen with Christ; but it is not risen as Christ.”

    The conversation could also be reframed eucharistically, i.e. in terms of the nature of the Real Presence.

    Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 1:54 pm | Permalink
  32. Halden wrote:

    Indeed. The ascension is an important point, especially regarding the Eucharist. Real presence, yes. Just as real absence, yes also.

    Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

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