In our search for a Biblical understanding of divorce and remarriage we continued our investigation of the position taken in past generations.
Calvin was prolific with the pen. It is not our intent to give a thorough historical presentation of what he had to say on this subject. Rather, we should give a representative quote.
Calvin, over and again, emphasized the sanctity of marriage. This he spells out in connection with the wickedness of divorce. In his commentaries on the gospels, Matt. 19:1-12, he states:
Now Christ assumes as an admitted principle that at the beginning God joined the male to the female, so that the two made an entire man; and therefore he who divorces his wife tears from him, as it were the half of himself. But nature does not allow any man to tear in pieces his own body . . . .
And if the institution of marriage is to be reckoned an inviolable law, it follows that whatever swerves from it does not arise from its pure nature, but from the depravity of man . . . .
For it is not in the power of a man to dissolve the engagement of marriage which the Lord wishes to remain inviolate; and so the woman who occupies the bed of a lawful wife is a concubine.
Then Calvin deals with the important “exception” text,Matt. 19:9, “And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife except it be for fornication and shall marry another committeth adultery, and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.”
On this 9th verse, Calvin has the following to say:
But an exception is added: for the woman, by fornication, cuts herself off, as a rotten member from her husband, and sets him at liberty. Those who search for other reasons ought justly to be set at nought, because they choose to be wise above the heavenly teacher.
But the exception which Christ states appears to be superfluous. For, if the adulteress deserves to be punished with death, what purpose does it serve to talk of divorces? But as it was the duty of the husband to prosecute his wife for adultery, in order to purge his house from infamy, whatever might be the result, the husband who convicts his wife of uncleanness is here freed by Christ from the bond. It is even possible that, among a corrupt and degenerate people, this crime remained to a great extent unpunished; as, in our own day, the wicked forbearance of magistrates makes it necessary for husbands to put away unchaste wives, because adulterers are not punished. It must also be observed that the right belongs equally and mutually to both sides, as there is a mutual and equal obligation to fidelity. For, though in other matters the husband holds the superiority, as to the marriage bed, the wife has an equal right; for he is not the lord of his body; and therefore when by committing adultery, he has dissolved the marriage, the wife is set at liberty.
John Calvin also takes the position that adultery broke the marriage and that upon divorce, the innocent spouse was free to remarry. The “except for fornication” of Matt. 19:9 excluded a remarriage resulting from a divorce on the grounds of adultery. He says:
This clause has been very ill explained by many commentators; for they have thought that generally and without exception celibacy is enjoined in all cases when a divorce has taken place; and therefore if a husband should put away an adulteress, both would be laid under the necessity of remaining unmarried. As if this liberty of divorce meant only not to lie with his wife; as if Christ did not evidently grant permission in this case to do what the Jews were wont indiscriminately to do at their pleasure . . . . Christ condemns as an adulterer the man who shall marry a wife that has been divorced, this is undoubtedly restricted to unlawful and frivolous divorces. In like manner Paul enjoins those who have been so dismissed to remain unmarried or to be reconciled to their husbands,
that is because quarrels and differences do not dissolve a marriage . . . . Mark intended to show that our Lord condemned the corruption which was at that time universal, that, after voluntary divorces, they entered on both sides into new marriages and therefore he makes no mention of adultery.
That this is the position of Calvin, is borne out by a set of marriage ordinances issued by the Council of Geneva about 1547 under the influence of Calvin. These are included in the Register of the Company of Pastors of Geneva in the time of Calvin, a book edited by Philip Hughes.
For what reasons a marriage can be rescinded. If a husband accuses his wife of adultery and he proves it by sufficient witnesses or evidences and demands to be separated by divorce, it shall be granted and thereafter he shall be able to many again, if he so wishes. Moreover, while he should be exhorted to pardon his wife, yet one has no right to compel him to do so against his will.
Although in ancient times the right of the wife was not equal with that of the husband where divorce was concerned, yet since, as the Apostle says, the obligation is mutual and reciprocal regarding the intercourse of the bed, and since in this the wife is not more subject to the husband than the husband is to the wife, if a man is convicted of adultery and his wife demands to be separated from him, this shall be granted to her also, provided it proves impossible by good counsel to reconcile them to each other. If, however, the wife should fall into adultery through the evident fault of the husband, or the husband through the fault of the wife, in such a way that they are both to blame, or if there should be proof of some fraud perpetrated with a view to obtaining a divorce, then they shall not be permitted to demand it.
That last sentence is most interesting. The church has debated the so called “innocent party” in a divorce and their right of remarriage over and over again. Is there such a thing as an innocent party? It would seem that the untenable position of one guilty and the other innocent, and idea basic to the adultery-dissolution divorce-remarriage idea, is evident here. Does not adultery or any disruption in marriage involve the sins of both marriage partners and therefore require the need of mutual repentance and forgiveness, but not adissolution of the marriage. More on this later.
One looks in vain for a statement in the Reformed confessions on the place of divorce in the life of the church and whether divorced persons may remarry. Even Lord’s Day 41 of the Heidelberg Catechism, in dealing with the 7th commandment, gives no direction. The Church Order gives no specifics on this either.
The Westminster Confession of Faith, 1647 gives counsel on this subject. We read in Chapter 24 ofMarriage and Divorce.
III. It is lawful for all sorts of people to marry who are able with judgment to give their consent. Yet, it is the duty of Christians to marry only in the Lord. And therefore, such as profess the true reformed religion should not marry with infidels, Papists, or other idolaters: neither should such as are godly, be unequally yoked, by marrying with such as are notoriously wicked in their life, or maintain damnable heresies.
V. Adultery or fornication, committed after a contract, being detected before marriage, giveth just occasion to the innocent party to dissolve that contract. In the case of adultery after marriage, it is lawful for the innocent party to sue out a divorce, and after the divorce to marry another, as if the offending party were dead.
VI. Although the corruption of man be such as is apt to study arguments, unduly to put asunder those whom God hath joined together in marriage; yet nothing but adultery, or such willful desertion as can no way be remedied by the Church or civil magistrate, is cause sufficient of dissolving the bond of marriage, wherein a public and orderly course of proceeding is to be observed; and the persons concerned in it, not left to their own wills, and discretion in their own case.
The Christian Reformed Churches agree that there is a place for divorce and remarriage within the church. In the past many years they took the position that the innocent party might remarry, if the spouse committed adultery. As recently as 1956, however, they went far beyond that and said that the remarried guilty party might remain married if they confess their sins even if their ground for divorce was not adultery, or their own adultery.
1. No substantial and conclusive Scriptural evidence has been produced to establish the thesis that parties remarried after being divorced on the ground of their own adultery, or divorced on nonbiblical grounds are living in continual adultery.
2. No substantial and conclusive Scriptural evidence has been produced to warrant the demand that a person remarried after being divorced on the ground of his own adultery or divorced on non-biblical grounds, must in order to prove the sincerity of his repentance, cease living in the ordinary marriage relationship with his present spouse.
Three more resolutions were added, giving warning to consistories that they guard the sanctity of marriage and secure genuine repentance in such cases.
In contrast to much of what we have quoted, we now refer to a decision taken by Classis West of our churches in 1963. This quotation is only part of the decision, but it is sufficient.
Also in this verse
Jesus does not make fornication a legitimate ground for remarriage after divorce. This is evident from many texts which clearly state that any violation of the marriage bond must be endured and that only death can break it, e.g.
Jesus’ argument here is that the marriage bond can never be dissolved except by death; that fornication is the only ground on the basis of which a man may put away his wife, but that this putting away of his wife is only separation, not a dissolution of the marriage bond. Thus remarriage is always adultery when the former spouse is still living.
In order to see the correctness of this position, we must show the error of the opposing view and consider the Scriptural soundness of this one.
This will have to wait until our next article, D.V.