A Review of What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense

The following are notes from a presentation delivered in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the course ME 8000 Contemporary Sexualities: Theological and Missiological Perspectives taught by Dr. Robert Priest and Dr. Stephen Roy at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, October 2015.



  • Authored by Sherif Girgis, Ryan Anderson, and Robert George.
  • Published in December 2012, about two and a half years before the Obergefell decision (June 2015).
  • Based on an article published in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy.[1]
  • Considered by many to be the most formidable defense of the conjugal view of marriage and has been highly read and engaged.[2]
  • Seeks to defend the conjugal view of marriage and demonstrate its rational and therefore constitutional basis.[3] The authors argue that “redefining civil marriage is unnecessary, unreasonable, and contrary to the common good.”[4]
  • They seek to do so without appeal to religious authority[5] or historical precedent (i.e., “It’s always been this way”),[6] and only secondarily by the support from the social sciences.[7] Their argument is mainly philosophical in nature.[8]


The underlying assumption that drives the entire project is the following: To argue that gay and lesbian couples ought to have equal access to marriage assumes a priori that same-sex couples can actually constitute a marriage. But this begs the question—the question that serves as the title to this book—what is marriage? A couple is not restricted from access to marriage if that couple cannot—by definition—constitute a marriage. We cannot simply argue that everyone ought to have equal access to marriage. We first need to make a case for what that marriage is to which we think everyone, i.e., everyone who can actually constitute it, ought to have equal access. As they state very succinctly, the issue at stake here is “not about whom to let marry, but about what marriage is” (emphasis added).[9]

The authors insists on making clear that what is currently thought of as a debate over gay marriage is not actually about homosexuality, nor even primarily homosexual marriage, but, rather, marriage itself. A gay marriage is only conceivable within the framework of a revisionist view of marriage where marriage is a loving emotional bond distinguished from other emotional bonds only by its degree of intensity.[10] But within a conjugal understanding of marriage—one in which marriage is understood as a comprehensive union of will, emotion, and body inherently ordered to procreation and the sharing of family life and calling for exclusive and permanent commitment[11]—‘gay marriage’ is an oxymoron. Thus, institutionalizing gay marriage is not a mere expansion marriage, but an actual redefining of marriage. Thus, to argue for gay marriage is actually more fundamentally to argue for a conception of marriage that is revisionist. But there is nothing necessarily homosexual about this revisionist view. Therefore, to circle back around, the argument of these authors is not about homosexuality, not even primarily homosexual marriage, but the definition of marriage itself.[12]


The conjugal view best explains what are agreed upon as integral features of marriage.[13] And, therefore, because marriage is conjugal, there can be no marriage right for what are by that definition non-marital relationships.[14]

Critique of the Revisionist View

They critique the revisionist view. The revisionist view is unable to define marriage in any restricted sense. It is unable to provide satisfactory reason to restrict marriage to those traits commonly accepted as belonging to marriage. If marriage is merely a loving emotional bond distinguished by intensity…

  • Why exclude non-sexual relationships? Why is companionship or deep friendship excluded from this definition of marriage, especially when they too can provide domestic support and care? What makes a sexual relationship unique?
  • Or, further, what in this definition restricts marriage to monogamous unions? Is monogamy not an arbitrary addition when such emotional bonds can be plural?
  • And, finally, why is permanence required? Within the revisionist framework, would not commitment rather just depend upon whether the loving emotional-bond endures?[15]

A Case for the Conjugal View

Only a conjugal view, which understands marriage as more than merely an emotion bond but a comprehensive union of mind and body (sexual complementarity), aimed toward procreation and shared family life, can explain what makes the sexual relationship, monogamous exclusivity, and permanence features of marriage. In short, the conjugal view best explains what are agreed upon as integral features of marriage.[16]

The State’s Interest in Maintaining the Conjugal View

But even if the conjugal view is correct, it is still an open question whether the state should legislate it. A libertarian ideology wants the state to get out of the business of marriage, while a liberal ideology argues that marriage is a social artifact that can be re-shaped without significant consequences. But these authors argue that the state has a stake in marriage, and a stake that requires defining it a certain way.

“Because marriage uniquely meets essential needs [e.g., domestic care, the stable rearing of children, spousal health, etc.] … it should be regulated for the common good….”[17] Furthermore, the state’s definition of marriage matters. People inevitable internalize the institutionalized vision of marriage. And, therefore, if the state swerves from a conjugal view, marriage’s norms (e.g., permanence, exclusivity, etc.) upon which such social goods depend will become un-normalized.


[Note: As you read my critique of these authors’ work, please do not assume I necessarily disagree with their conclusion just because I critique and question some of their means of getting there.]

With that selective overview of the book in place, I’d like to move to some personal engagement with the work.

Girgis, Geore, and Anderson

Girgis, Geore, and Anderson

These authors refuse to ground their argument in religious authority (e.g., “God said…”), the social sciences (e.g., “This is what’s best for society”), or even historical precedent (i.e., “marriage has always been understood as conjugal; thus, revisionists have a burden to prove otherwise”). (They do appeal to the social sciences. But they do not appeal to them in order to prove for their view of marriage, but only to argue that, once their view has been established on other grounds, the government ought to enforce it.)

Rather than appeal to these sources, they try to argue for their view of marriage with what they call a “philosophical argument,” which, in fact, is not so much an argument at all, but more so them just presenting a theory of marriage—marriage as a comprehensive union. These authors argue that the conjugal view of marriage is the proper definition of marriage because it best explains the integral features of marriage. But, the question emerges, why are these features integral? And, without appealing to some of source of authority for that answer, you must simply assume that these features constitute marriage. But, if we assume an understanding of marriage in order to prove it, we have committed ourselves to a circular form of argument.

In short, they assume a particular theory of marriage in order to prove their view of marriage. But the pressing question is, why assume that theory?

These authors want to avoid constructivism, where marriage is seen as merely a societal construct that then can be defined however society wants. And, in order to do that, they need a normative theory of marriage. But without appeal to some sort of authoritative source, they can only assume one, not prove one.

So, although this book is very valuable and has much going in its favor, at this particular point where it tries to advance it’s conjugal view on purely “philosophical grounds,” I find it’s argument incredibly awkward.

It felt like listening to an American and European debate the definition of football. “Football is the game when we kick a ball into a goal.” “No, football is when we run around with an egg-shaped object and pull each other to the ground.” It’s hard to say that either one of these people is wrong. They are simply referring to two different things. Similarly, in the marriage debate, who get’s to decide what we are actually referring to when we say, “marriage.”

It felt something like listening to someone try to explain what green looks like to someone who has been blind since birth. There’s no sort of common ground—the capacity to visualize color—by which to have that conversation. In a similar way, it felt like these authors were groping after something but lacked a shared set handlebars by which to get their bearings.

None of this is to say that I think the revisionist view is somehow better off. Both views, without an appeal to authority, merely have to make an assumption about what marriage is. But at least the conjugal view’s assumption leads to consistency. As these authors show, the revisionist view cannot restrict itself to it’s own definition of marriage by its own standards (e.g., why is marriage two and not three people?).

So, maybe it’s because I’ve drank too deeply of the presuppositional apologetic Kool-Aid, but I wonder if this futility of trying to argue for a specific view of marriage without appealing to a source of authority, serves as an ad absurdum argument for the need for authority. The dissenting opinions of the Obergefell decision will argue that that authority ought to be democratic opinion or the historical reason why marriage has always been conceived of this way—to provide a stable family structure. And I guess I’m inclined to see this as a better way to engage in public discourse.

Nonetheless, I’ll throw out one more illustration, one that seeks to see these authors in a more positive light at this point. Could their argument be something like trying to prove that 2+2=4? You can’t prove this. You can demonstrate it. But you have to assume its reality even to do that. It just is. In other words, could the awkwardness of their argument be due to the fact that they are trying to prove something that’s not, technically speaking, provable; it just is? Their argument may be circular; but are all circles vicious; or are some virtuous? Could the circularity of their argument be, not an indication of the falsehood of their conclusion, but of its self-evidential nature?


  • What is the role of appealing to sources of authority (e.g., scripture, natural law, etc.) in the Christian community’s witness to marriage in the public square?
  • From a purely legal standpoint, is their argument convincing? I agree, we must actually define marriage before we assume that certain folks have the right to it. But is their case for defining marriage as conjugal convincing? But, even if we don’t find their argument convincing, do we find the revisionist account any more convincing?
  • As those who hold to the historic Christian sexual ethic, how do we approach the reality of legalized gay marriage? Was Obergefell the proper decision within our American legal context? And, if we assume that it was (and that’s a big “if”), it still raises the question of whether the neutral (or even celebratory) response of some Christians to the decision is appropriate. Should we ever be neutral (or celebrate) the institutionalization of sin, even if it is permissible or proper within our legal framework?
  • What is the role of a book like this post-Obergefell? Is it useless now that gay marriage has been legalized across the nation (“Nice try; oh, well”)? Or could it serve to provide an apologetic for those who continue to hold to a conjugal understanding of marriage? Furthermore, should we assume that the political decision on gay marriage is immutably finalized? For example, if we look at the issue of abortion, we see that Roe v. Wade has not been the last word.


[1] http://whatismarriagebook.com/about/ [website apparently is no longer available].

[2] Ibid.

[3] Kindle Locations 145-146.

[4] http://whatismarriagebook.com/about/ [see above].

[5] Kindle Location 208.

[6] Kindle Locations 222-224.

[7] Kindle Locations 215-222.

[8] Kindle Location 218.

[9] Kindle Location 73, 1238-1248

[10] Kindle Location 79.

[11] Kindle Locations 149-151.

[12] Kindle Locations 72-119, 203-207.

[13] Kindle Locations 233-234.

[14] Kindle Location 156.

[15] Chapter 1.

[16] Chapter 2. I must admit, I found this chapter rather awkward and difficult to follow. See my critique below for explanation.

[17] Kindle Locations 1416-1417.

One thought on “A Review of What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense

  1. So, maybe it’s because I’ve drank too deeply of the presuppositional apologetic Kool-Aid, but I wonder if this futility of trying to argue for a specific view of marriage without appealing to a source of authority, serves as an ad absurdum argument for the need for authority. The dissenting opinions of the Obergefell decision will argue that that authority ought to be democratic opinion or the historical reason why marriage has always been conceived of this way—to provide a stable family structure.

    I’m completely with you. It’s a matter of which authority you’ll accept. Beneath that, it’s a matter of whom you love and worship—God or some element of his creation.

    And yet just like I am sometimes grudgingly—but usually genuinely—glad that the evidentialism of the evidentialists pushes them to dig into details about archaeology and history and science that my presuppositionalism perhaps makes me too lazy to sniff out; I’m also glad that the natural law theory of the natural lawyers (such as George and Anderson) makes them dig into what I take to be creational norms governing societal structures. They also tend to do some good work in the area of finding wise ways to present (ultimately biblical) truths to non-believers. I think their entire approach is wrong, as you do, but I’m still thankful they did their work. Many times watching Ryan Anderson debate people in the public square I’ve been struck at the wisdom and utility of his replies.


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