When Christians think of the Reformation—and we hope that the great work of God in the Reformation is indeed recalled from time to time—they naturally think of it as a time when the way of salvation by justification by faith alone was rediscovered as well as a time when worship was reformed. But it was also a time in which a fresh appreciation of the divine institution of marriage was recovered. For close to a millennium, the model of Christian discipleship had been centred upon the institution of the monastery/nunnery in which men and women lived celibate lives of simplicity and austerity. But the normal context of Christian discipleship in the era of the New Testament and the Ancient Church was in the realm of married life. Not surprisingly, this rediscovery among the Reformers brought them into conflict with the Roman Catholic church that essentially regarded those who lived celibate lives as living on a higher plane of human existence.
Thus, much of this chapter on marriage comes out of the furnace of theological controversy. There are four paragraphs in this chapter. The first is drawn directly from the Westminster Confession and is a clear affirmation of marriage being a monogamous union between ‘one man and one woman’. It is noteworthy that this particular affirmation would not have been disputed by Roman Catholics. In support of this position, the authors of the Second London Confession referred to not only Genesis 2 but also Matthew 19, where the Lord Jesus used the Genesis 2 passage to affirm marriage as monogamous and between a man and a woman. Although the idea in this particular paragraph was not controversial in the days of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it is so today. But those who love the Lord cannot but affirm what their Lord affirmed: gender distinctions between men and women as a basis for marriage is the work of God.
One of the architects of the medieval view of marriage was Augustine, whom we rightly honour as one of the great theologians of the church universal. With regard to marriage, however, not all of his views about it were beneficial. Augustine had argued that God instituted marriage for basically three reasons: (1) for the sake of fidelity, that is, the avoidance of illicit sex; (2) for the purpose of procreation; and (3) as a symbol of the unity of those who would inherit the heavenly Jerusalem. The second paragraph of our Baptist confession agrees in part with Augustine. God did indeed ordain marriage for procreation and so as to enable husband and wife to avoid sexual immorality. But in one key area, the Baptist confession differed from the great Latin divine. Marriage was first and foremost created for the ‘mutual help of husband and wife’. Augustine had actually said at one point that if Eve had not been able to bear children for Adam, she would have been of no value to him. The Baptists and their Puritan contemporaries profoundly disagreed. For instance, William Gouge, a leader among London Puritans and a key participant at the Westminster Assembly, emphasized that God intended marriage for the mutual aid of husband and wife. ‘No such help’, wrote Gouge, ‘can man have from any other creature as from a wife; or a woman, as from an husband’. It is thus not fortuitous that in this Baptist list of the reasons for marriage, the one stressing companionship comes in the first place. More than the other two, it displays the heart of marriage. As a close friend of mine, Peter Pikkert, has expressed it, marriage is a ‘covenant of companionship’.
The third paragraph deals with whom a person may or may not marry. A Christian is instructed by the Word of God to marry ‘only in the Lord’ (see 1 Corinthians 7:39); that is, a Christian should not marry an unbeliever or heretic (‘infidels or idolaters’ or those who ‘maintain damnable heresies’, in the words of the confession). Some Baptists interpreted the affirmation of Paul in 1 Corinthians quite narrowly. The General Baptists of Fenstanton, Huntingdonshire, in the 1650s, decided, ‘after much debate’, that members of the church should not be allowed to marry outside the church. They were convinced that it was Satan’s attempt to destroy the church of God by encouraging believers to marry ‘those that are without the church’, even if they were believers. This sort of endogamy is not what Paul envisioned in 1 Corinthians 7. It is interesting that both the Westminster Confession and the Savoy Declaration also specify that a Christian should not marry a ‘Papist’ (Westminster Confession 24.3; Savoy Declaration 25.3). The Baptists make no mention of Roman Catholics. They may well subsume the religion of Rome under the phrase ‘damnable heresies’.
The final paragraph deals with incestuous marriages between various family members that are forbidden by the Old Testament. What is striking is the affirmation that no ‘law of man or consent of parties’ can ever make such unions ‘lawful’. In light of the legislation being passed in various Western countries regarding the re-definition of marriage—for many today, the idea that marriage it is only ‘between one man and one woman’ (Second London Confession 25.1) is passé, even outré—this affirmation is certainly germane for our current context.
One surprising omission in this chapter has to do with divorce and remarriage. The Westminster Confession has two extra paragraphs on this subject (24.5–6). Strangely, the Savoy Declaration omitted them, and the Baptists followed suit. Why is this strange? In the Reformation battle for a biblical understanding of marriage, the issue of divorce and remarriage was a central aspect of the debate between Protestant and Roman Catholics. It is hard to believe that the issue had ceased to be an important one by the second half of the seventeenth century. It is certainly a relevant issue today that might warrant the re-insertion of something in this chapter about divorce and remarriage. Such would only make an excellent text better!
Saturday 23rd October 2021