As I noted last time, Samuel Willard’s next order of business in his exposition of Westminster Shorter Catechism Q/A 64 is to discuss the mutual duties of husbands and wives–those to which they are equally obliged–before discussing their peculiar or proper duties–those to which they are unequally obliged.
The first of these duties is what Willard calls “conjugal love.” For the more excitable out there: no, it doesn’t mean that. That is what he refers to as “conjugal union.” The phrase “conjugal love” is far more expansive than a reference to a particular act of marital consummation. Rather, it refers to the supreme care and affection one has for one’s spouse: what Willard calls the “preference” each party has for the other “in their hearts, above all the World.” He says:
(1.) The Mutual Duties are such as belong to each equally, by vertue of the Covenant Relation they equally stand under: And are more especially such as these,
1. CONJUGAL Love. We formerly considered, that Love being said to be the fulfilling of the Law, it is in that respect common to every Relation that is placed between Men. Nevertheless this Love is specify’d, according to the Nature of the Order Persons are in; that therefore which belongs to Married Persons is Conjugal Love; which is therein distinguished from that which is due to any other Relation whatsoever. There is also a special Love, which comprehends the whole Duty of the Husband to his Wife, in all the parts of it; and is put in contradistinction to the Submission, which expresseth the whole Duty of the Wife, Col. 3.18, 19. But this Conjugal Love is Mutual, and is the proper Cement of this Relation: And it is enforced from that Conjugal Union, by which they become One Flesh: And tho’ this Oneness be not Natural, but Voluntary, yet it is the nearest relative Conjunction in the World, and on that account it requires the intimatest Affection; and if it be rightly made, it follows from a Preference that these have, each of other in their hearts, above all the World, on account of this Relation: For which reason it is compared to Love between Christ & his Church, Eph. 5.25, &c. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the Church, and gave himself for it–. And the true Comfort which is to be hoped for from this Relation, must derive from this Love, without which it will prove to be, of all the most unhappy. 1
Notice the several happy distinctions Willard makes in this passage as a reflex of a kind of scholastic method of division, definition, distinction, and so on: there is a general or a common love (which is the fulfilling of the law) that obtains in all human relations; on might refer here to the love of friendship. That is not what is in view when discussing marriage, because the relation or “conjunction” in marriage is much closer than in ordinary human relations. Marital or “conjugal” love is a much closer and more intimate bond, then, than the love of friendship.
But Willard also distinguishes “conjugal love” from what he calls “special love,” which is his term for the peculiar duty of husbands–indeed, a term that for him encompasses the entire duty of husbands–and is thus not a mutual duty. Instead, “special love” obtains with reference to Paul’s distinction in Colossians 3.18-19 and corresponds to “submission”: “Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them.”
“Conjugal love,” on the other hand, is distinguished from both common love and special love by being shared between persons (like common love and unlike special love), but only between two persons, because it is relevant to the marital relation in contrast to all other relations (like special love but unlike common love). Though the marital relation is voluntary (see previous posts), it nevertheless forms a bond or union unbreakable in principle, and conjugal love is the “cement” of that bond of oneness that is founded on two becoming one flesh in conjugal union. Without that bond and that abiding context of love and concern, men and women can only use each other as instruments of pleasure, in defiance of the created order of which conjugal love forms a part.