A Case for the Permanency and Indissolubility of Marriage

The teaching of natural law, Scripture, and the church have been consistent on the permanency of marriage. The issue is not an overly complex one. The problem is that we live in a culture where marriage and family are arbitrary creations of convenience for the purpose of promoting self-fulfillment. Long before our culture began popularizing and mainstreaming perversions, the church began rejecting ontology and in its place substituting a shallow biblicism. The church swallowed the governing assumptions of the culture in regard to marriage, only putting up a few gates in the form of proof texts against more perverse behaviors. The result was a situation in which the church largely forgot the natural and theological principles upon which their practices were based. 

There may be no greater issue plaguing the church and impeding its witness today than its inconsistent and unclear teaching on the issue of divorce and remarriage. At first glance this might seem like an overstatement. However, if one considers the theological roots of this issue and how they branch out and underlie many other questions our culture is raising regarding human sexuality, one should begin to appreciate the seriousness of the claim. What is man? What is woman? What is marriage? The answers to these questions have implications for issues such as homosexuality and transgenderism for all such issues are rooted in deeper questions about anthropology and Christology. On the surface, the details giving rise to any individual’s desire for a divorce or to be remarried can be endlessly complex. Wading through the particulars as to how a couple fell in and out of love and who may have wronged whom first to establish valid grounds for divorce or remarriage is in many cases, at best, a shot in the dark. In the fractured modern church, rarely will you find two churches who would agree in any given case as to who was ultimately at fault or whether a divorce or remarriage is justified. Furthermore, evangelical polity, which operates as a kind of de facto congregationalism, makes church discipline almost impossible as many congregations do not feel compelled to enforce the decisions of other independent churches. This problem is not solved by writing a book that claims to apply biblical law as if this will eliminate the inherent subjectivity.[1] For even here the Torah provides only broad principles that are subjectively applied to a case, the details of which remain just as complex and multifaceted. Therefore, the answer for dealing with the question of divorce and remarriage does not lie so much in legal casuistry, but rather in understanding the ontological reality of human beings, male and female, and the marriage union, which is ascertained from natural law rooted in the created order, and from Scripture as articulated and taught by the church catholic, which reveals the greater reality toward which marriage points.

Any attempt to take up a highly controversial and often emotional topic like divorce and remarriage must begin with the ontological question as to what marriage is. This discussion is in turn rooted in the anthropological question about what human beings are. Biblically, this requires that any examination of the issue return to the creation account in Genesis. Understanding God’s design for humanity in creation will do much to properly frame the discussion of marriage and constrain the available options regarding divorce and remarriage.

What is Marriage? The Ontological Reality in Creation

Genesis 1:27 says that “God created man in his own image; in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (ESV). The singular and the plural objective pronouns in this sentence reflect the singularity and plurality of God’s nature. Though God is not a sexual being and is “without body, parts, or passions,”[2] some aspect of God’s nature is mirrored in the sexual differences between male and female. God’s image is imprinted on every individual as an individual; however, God chose to reflect his image in two different ways: the male and the female.[3] In the Garden of Eden, Adam is in a sense both complete and incomplete. Everything that God made in the Genesis 1 was deemed good or very good, and yet God’s judgment of Adam’s isolation prior to the creation of Eve was “not good” (2:18). Creation remained incomplete without the woman. Thus, God tasked Adam with naming each of the creatures that Adam might through experience come to the same conclusion about his own need for a helpmate. As God is a relational being, existing from all eternity as three persons enjoying perfect love and harmony with one another, so does man, created in God’s image, reflect this reality in his relational nature. Though a pagan, the Greek philosopher Aristotle likewise recognized that man is by nature a social animal. However, for Aristotle, it was the rational soul in man and man’s capacity for speech that set him apart from the other species.[4] The biblical anthropology in contrast presents man as a social being due first to his desire to be loved and his capacity to love. Because God is love, man desires to love and to be loved by another. To paraphrase Augustine, God created human beings for himself, and they remain restless until they rest in the love their creator.[5]

God recognized that Adam not only needed a companion in the garden with whom he could communicate, but someone who complemented him and who would help him perpetuate his own existence. God did not create another Adam. Adam did not need a friend or a replica of himself, but someone who, while sharing his likeness as a human being, was wholly other to him. Author Mike Mason refers to this difference between man and woman as a “mysterious, compelling combination of identity and otherness.”[6] Man and woman are attracted to their opposite, though in their opposite they are made physically one. Adam’s counterpart would be formed from a part of his body and yet be not merely distinct, but different from him. It is of great significance to note that Eve was not created as just another individual who came from the dust of the earth. It was Adam who came from the dust and Eve who came from Adam. Therefore, Eve’s existence was ontologically tied to Adam’s.[7] Moreover, Eve was made not only from Adam, but for Adam. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 11:9 that the woman was made for man. The woman then was created with a nature and a purpose. While she, like the man, was created to honor God, “she is also made for a second purpose: to honor man.”[8] The witness of Scripture from the creation account is that both man and woman were created with a nature and a purpose, and these roles are not interchangeable.

Adam was a mere creature and not God and thus did not have the capacity within himself to generate life on his own. Neither sex can exist without the other for the distinction between male and female is “an integral and inescapable part of human reality. It denotes the broader relation of the sexes in which no male can exist without the female and no female without the male.”[9] The interdependency of the sexes to create new life that would succeed them points to the fact that God created man and woman for union with one another. For this reason, Thomas Aquinas taught that marriage is of natural law. Human beings naturally desire, as sub-creators, to produce children in their image, and this would cause them to seek mates. Furthermore, human beings desire to care for and to educate their children that they might learn to pursue virtue, and this is accomplished by parents. Likewise, man’s social nature would give rise to a natural desire to live in society where all members could work together to promote the temporal good.[10] Marriage creates the most basic society between man and wife that contributes to the creation of the political society.

Marriage then is a creational ordinance toward which human beings incline for their good. It is not a legal fiction nor a dictate of will but is an ontological reality that is brought into existence with the creation and union of male and female. Marriage must be understood as part of God’s creative work and not distinct from it. This means that marriage has an objective nature that cannot be toyed with. In the words of Joseph Atkinson, “Inasmuch as marriage is part of God’s creative order, it cannot be arbitrarily or subjectively defined, but rather it receives, in the very act of its creation, a constitutive nature which needs to be respected if man and society are to flourish.”[11] Eve was made specifically to be Adam’s helpmate, not to be an option that Adam could choose if he felt like making a covenant with her. Adam’s poetic statement upon seeing Eve for the first time, “This is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh”, is a statement about the nature of reality, of what is, not merely a subjective statement of Adam’s commitment to Eve. God did not present Eve to Adam to see if he approved. Of course Adam would approve! Eve was tailor-made for him as she was designed by God from his own rib. Eve was one flesh with Adam by virtue of God’s act in creation, not simply by virtue of Adam and Eve’s commitment to one another. Thus, the essence of the marriage relationship preceded its existence. They were made of one flesh. Thus, they became one flesh.

While we must go further and add that Adam and Eve’s relationship was more than a mystical union created by God and was in fact a covenant, it was certainly not less. Aquinas says that the consent of the man and woman to be married is the efficient cause of a marriage union.[12] While a covenantal oath from both parties is the means necessary to bring the marriage into effect, God is the one who acts to bind the man and woman together and make them one. It is God who creates the marriage. Because Adam and Eve did not create their marriage, they had no ability to dissolve it. Because their marriage was part of the created order and the created order was not abrogated because of sin, their marriage was not dissolved because of the Fall.[13] Adam and Eve’s disobedience to God did not change the nature of reality. The fact that Adam and Eve sinned and ruined their relationship with God did not mean their relationship with each other was dissolved, though it was certainly marred by sin. Eve was still flesh and bone of Adam. Rebellion against God does not change the status of a marriage any more than does it change one’s gender. One can rebel against the truth, but that has no effect on the truth itself. Since marriage is a natural institution, it persists regardless of the spiritual state of the spouses involved. The covenant of marriage ratifies and binds two parties to the new reality that God has created, but is not the basis of that new reality. “Covenant is not contract…It is personal union pledged by symbol and/or oath. The relationship comes first.”[14] Since the relationship comes first, the covenant should be understood in light of the nature of the underlying relationship rather than reading an interpretation of a biblical covenant gained from similarities to stipulations of ancient near east suzerainty treaties and reading them back into the relationship God created. While marriage indeed points to a greater spiritual reality, it remains a natural institution. It is not merely for Christians as Christians, but for man as man.

God’s Covenant Relationship with His People

Having established that marriage is an ontological reality and part of the natural order of creation that is neither destroyed nor recreated on account of the Fall, we can begin to deal with its covenantal nature. Marriage is employed as a metaphor for God’s covenant relationship with his people. Since God never acts on the basis of an arbitrary will, but always acts in accordance with his reason and nature, we should never interpret God’s covenantal relationship to be at odds with his created order. Indeed, this is what we see in Scripture. God’s actions in his covenant relationship with his people are consistent with his character and serve as the model that his creatures are called to follow. In the book of Hosea, God uses Hosea’s marriage to a prostitute to serve as an illustration of His covenantal relationship to His people. Though Gomer, Hosea’s wife, is unfaithful to him, God does not dissolve Hosea’s marriage. Hosea’s faithfulness to his adulterous wife parallels God’s faithfulness to his adulterous wife, Israel, who has prostituted herself before other gods. Hosea is called to redeem his wife though she has been unfaithful (Ch. 3). In Hosea 2:912, God calls for the punishment of his people. He promises to take away all those things she has enjoyed, but for them has credited other lovers.

Therefore I will take back my grain in its time, and my wine in its season, and I will take away my wool and my flax, which were to cover her nakedness. Now I will uncover her lewdness in the sight of her lovers, and no one shall rescue her out of my hand. And I will put an end to all her mirth, her feasts, her new moons, her Sabbaths, and all her appointed feasts. And I will lay waste her vines and her fig trees, of which she said, “These are my wages, which my lovers have given me.” (ESV)

Then beginning in verse 14 we see God’s purpose for imposing such harsh punishment: “I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her. And there I will give her her vineyards and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope” (vv.1415a). Israel must learn that it was her true husband that was the source of good things, not the false gods with whom she was acting as a harlot. Once those good things are stripped away, Israel would return to her true husband and “answer as in the days of her youth” (v.15b). In verse 16, Yahweh says, “And in that day, declares the Lord, you will call Me ‘My Husband,’ and no longer will you call me ‘My Baal’” (ESV).

Similarly, in Jeremiah 3:89, Yahweh brings charges in his covenant lawsuit against Judah: “[S]he too went and played the whore. Because she took her whoredom lightly, she polluted the land, committing adultery with stone and tree” (ESV). For Judah’s spiritual adultery Yahweh had every right to seek divorce. Yet He always leaves the door open for the repentance and return of the unfaithful spouse. Yahweh never seeks to find another spouse. Instead, he is the one who promises to heal the broken marriage covenant. “‘Return, O backsliding children,’ says the LORD; ‘for I am married to you’” (Jer. 3:14, NKJV). In his commentary on Jeremiah 3, Philip Ryken writes, “God never went through with his divorce. When you are an unfaithful wife, God is still a faithful husband.”[15] Even the Babylonian exile is brought about for the purposes of restoration of the covenantal relationship. “I am with you and will save you,’ declares the Lord. ‘Though I completely destroy all the nations among which I scatter you, I will not completely destroy you. I will discipline you but only in due measure;” (Jer. 30:11, NKJV). In the New Testament, though Jesus brings a covenant lawsuit against the Jews of his day, God does not divorce Israel for a new bride.[16] God always had just one covenant people: one bride, not two. Thus, rather than a divorce and remarriage, we see in the New Testament a fuller picture of what Israel was always meant to be, the Israel of God that is drawn from all nations, tribes, and tongues. The church is the fulfillment toward which the Old Testament always pointed. Writes Atkinson, “Marriage in the original state of man had hidden within it the deeper reality to which man is ultimately called. The primordial relationship of man to woman was always pointing toward the even greater relationship with God, which was to be fulfilled in his Son, Jesus Christ.”[17] The Apostle Paul speaks of a new branch being grafted into a pre-existing tree (Romans 11). The tree is not replaced by another. However one analyzes the covenantal nature of marriage, this truth must not be lost: God is always faithful to his covenant even when his people are not. It is He that walks between the burning pieces of animal flesh in Genesis 15, taking the maledictory oath upon himself for any violation of his covenant with Abraham. God’s faithfulness to his people is what each spouse is called to emulate. Each spouse is called to be faithful because of who God is and what He has done in binding them together in marriage.

More than a Mere Metaphor

To press the point further, marriage is more than just a metaphor to aid human understanding of the relationship between God and his people. Rather, the institution of marriage actually participates in the greater divine reality to which it points. Though it is a natural institution, as discussed above, it is an instrument by which God brings about the redemption of the world. It was through the seed produced from Adam and Eve’s marriage that the serpent’s head would finally be crushed (Gen. 3:15). Abraham’s family did not merely serve as a symbol of God’s covenant with his people, but rather were the means of conveying that covenant from generation to generation. Thus, Joseph Atkinson concludes:

The relationship of marriage and family to the divine covenant was not an artificial construction. It was precisely because of their created natures and their prior ordination towards communion that marriage and family were able to receive the mission to image forth the reality of the covenant within the created order. Precisely because of their constitutive natures, they are vibrant images of the covenant, reflecting and participating in the divine, salvific reality (italics mine).[18]

This close relationship between the symbol and the thing signified provides us with an even stronger argument for the permanency of marriage. Malachi’s condemnation of the post-exilic Jews and the breaking of their marriage covenants is grounded, Hugenberger says, “specifically in the paradigmatic marriage of Adam and Eve…the character of Adam and Eve’s marriage lent itself to being identified by Malachi as a covenant (2:14) and, as such, provided a plausible justification for Malachi’s understanding of marriage.”[19] If marriage is merely a metaphor with no intrinsic connection to the salvific reality it represents, it is reasonable to conclude that the metaphor might break down at some point and fail to accurately characterize some aspect of the deeper reality. However, if marriage and family are essential institutions that not only illustrate, but embody God’s relationship with his people, if they are in essence a participation in God’s plan of redemption for the world, one should question how they can be so easily dissolved and reconstituted by a violation of the marriage covenant.

Read More

Previous ArticleNext Article