Is Marriage a Covenant? Part I

Paul Rhodes Eddy is Professor of Biblical & Theological Studies at Bethel University (St. Paul). He holds a B.A. in Biblical & Theological Studies (Bethel University), a M.A. in Theological Studies (Bethel Theological Seminary), and a PhD in Theology (Marquette University).

Paul also serves as Teaching Pastor at Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, MN. He resides in White Bear Township, MN with his wife, Kelly, and their two sons.

His primary research interests include methodological issues in historical Jesus studies, John Hick and religious pluralism, and Christology and the Atonement. He has coedited several successful multi-view volumes and is the author or editor of a number of other books, including The Jesus Legend.

Among other projects, Paul is currently working on a book entitled Kingdom Sex: Toward a Covenant-Centered Theology of Human Sexuality. The book will be a further development of an extended working paper that is currently available online at Central Plains Mennonite Conference.

After reading Paul’s current manuscript, I asked if he would be willing to share with you some of his biblical and historical research on marriage as a sacred covenant between one man and one woman for life, as set forth in Genesis 2:18-24; Matthew 19:1-11; and Ephesians 5:25-31.

I’m thankful that Paul was willing to take time out of his busy schedule to present us with some of the material from his upcoming book, Kingdom Sex.     I believe his insights are already helping to bring some much-needed clarity to God’s divine intentions for conjugal marriage.

Notice that I’ve divided Paul’s article into two parts.

The first part proves that marriage has been understood as a one-flesh covenant throughout all of church history. The second part will address common arguments that the Bible isn’t clear on marriage being a covenant relationship. On the contrary, Paul argues that marriage is portrayed as a sacred covenant throughout the entire biblical corpus.

Your feedback is welcome. Feel free to address Paul in your comments. He would be happy to respond to any thoughts or questions you might have.

Is Marriage a Covenant? Part I

Is marriage a covenant? For many people today, especially evangelical Christians in the U.S., the answer to this question will seem absurdly obvious. Of course marriage is (or at least is suppose to be) a covenant.

If it’s not – then what in the world is?

But things aren’t quite that simple. More than a few voices have questioned whether marriage – at least in certain historical contexts, including biblical times – is, in fact, properly to be construed as a covenant.1

These voices force the question upon us today: Should we understand the divine intention for marriage as covenantal? Are there good biblical and church historical grounds for seeing covenant relationship as the norm by which Kingdom people should shape their theology and practice of marriage?

I propose that the answer to these questions is an unequivocal ‘Yes.’ Let’s look at the some of the challenges to the claim that marriage is best understood as a covenant relationship and see how they stand up to analysis.

Some suggest that the idea of marriage as a covenant is a late-comer within church history. In fact, some claim that this idea was unknown within the Christian tradition until John Calvin originated it in the 16th century.2

This claim is simply historically incorrect.

It is certainly true that in Calvin’s mature thought, his theology of marriage is anchored in the concept of covenant (prior to which he had based it upon Luther’s ‘two kingdoms’ notion), and that he is the first Christian theologian to flesh out marriage as covenant in anything like a thorough fashion. However, he is hardly the first in church history to equate marriage and covenant.

For example, the fourth-century Arnobius writes of “conjugal covenants” (Latin = coniugalia foedera; see his Adversus Gentes, 4.20). Interestingly, in the ninth century, Pope Nicholas I uses the term covenant (foedus) of both marriages and betrothals (Responda ad Consulta Bulgarorum, III). And both the Gelasian and Gregorian Sacramentaries allude to marriage as a covenant.

In fact, Augustine himself unambiguously refers to marriage as a “covenant” (foedus) and a “bond of covenant” (viniculum foederis).3 It is important to remember the context here. The Roman concept of marriage (with its conviction of the necessity of not merely initial but continuous consent) allowed for relatively easy divorce.4

Taking their cue from Jesus and the NT authors, the early Christians on the other hand viewed marriage as a solemn and permanent relational bond. They sought to find language (Greek, Latin, etc.) that captured this counter-cultural reality. Latin terms such as pactio, pactum, confoederatio, societas – and yes, foedus (covenant) – were among those chosen to describe the marriage bond.

So why then did the church refrain from developing a robust theology of marriage as covenant until Calvin? The reason seems fairly clear.

While the Bible does provide solid evidence that marriage was designed by God to function as a covenant relationship (on which see below), the New Testament does not explicitly link the Greek terms for covenant (diatheke, syntheke) with marriage, but rather uses other images and terms to express this relationship.

One predominant instance is Paul’s description of marriage as a “mysterion” (mystery) in Ephesians 5:32. A key moment came when Tertullian translated the Greek term mysterion into the Latin term sacramentum. Jerome followed Tertullian’s move in his Latin Vulgate translation of the New Testament, and the rest is history.

From the fifth century onward, increasingly marriage was known primarily as a “sacrament” (sacramentum) in the Latin-speaking Western church, a tradition which continues to this day within Roman Catholicism.

In other words, it was originally due to the historical contingencies of textual translation that “sacrament” became the favored term in marital theology for much of the church’s history. Once Calvin made the decision to frame his “Protestant” theology of marriage in terms of covenant, the counter-Reformational Catholic Church had virtually no choice but to reject it.

Now, on both sides, it was not simply about a theology of marriage – it was about ecclesiastical boundary-marking and theological polemics. It took several hundred years, a growing spirit of ecumenism, and the Second Vatican Council for the Catholic Church to officially (re-)embrace the language of covenant within the theology of marriage in the 1960s (e.g., Gaudium et Spes, 48).

Suffice to say that the idea of marriage as a covenant was not missing in the early church, and that today both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism are quite comfortable with this ancient equation.

But we must return to Tertullian for a moment – the original fount of “sacrament” language. Once again, Tertullian was simply translating the NT’s Greek mysterion with Latin’s sacramentum. An important question arises: What was involved in the idea of sacramentum in Tertullian’s world?

Within the Roman context, the concept of sacramentum had a double connotation: (1) the taking of an oath, and (2) a monetary guarantee.

What they had in common was that both attached to the notion of self-obligation, and both were quite likely to involve the divine (i.e., oaths/promises frequently appealed to the gods). And with this, we are in the same conceptual/semantic realm as covenant relationship.

Thus, we see that the sacramental – when understood in its original context – is a close cousin of the covenantal.

So if church history is quite favorable to the concept of marriage as a covenant, what about the Bible? Some have questioned whether we can legitimately ground the notion of marriage as a covenant in the Bible. Next, we will consider several of the most common arguments that have led to this conclusion.

Paul Rhodes Eddy

Stay tuned for Is Marriage a Covenant? Part II.

D.D. Flowers, 2014.

____________________
1 See e.g., Abel Isaksson, Marriage and Ministry in the New Temple, trans. Neil TomKinson (Lund: Gleerup, 1965), 27-34; Moshe Greenberg, Ezekiel 1-20 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1983), 278; Michael G. Lawler, “Marriage as Covenant in the Catholic Tradition,” in Covenant Marriage in Comparative Perspective, eds. John Witte and Eliza Ellison (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 70-91; Jacob Milgrom, Cult and Conscience: The Asham and the Priestly Doctrine of Repentance (Leiden: Brill, 1976), 129-37; Tyler M. Tully, “Stutzman, Sex, and Secular Marriage” (February 17, 2014), http://thejesusevent.com/2014/02/17/stutzman-sex-and-secular-marriage/.
2 E.g., Tully, “Stutzman, Sex, and Secular Marriage.”
3 Augustine, On Marriage and Concupiscence, 1.11; idem, On the Good of Marriage, 6, 7, 15, 17, 32; idem, On Adulterous Marriages, 1.12; 2.9-11.
4 On which, see Philip Lyndon Reynolds, Marriage in the Western Church: The Christianization of Marriage During the Patristic and Early Medieval Periods (Boston: Brill, 2001), 22-38.

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About David D. Flowers

David received a B.A. in Religion from East Texas Baptist University and a M.T.S. in Biblical Studies from Houston Graduate School of Theology. David has over 15 years experience as a pastor and teacher in and outside the church. He currently pastors an Anabaptist congregation in Virginia. View all posts by David D. Flowers

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