From Sacrament to Contract: Marriage, Religion, and Law in the Western Tradition, by John Witte, Jr. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997. x + 315 pages. $24 (paper). [Reviewed by the editor.]
Scholarly as this book on marriage is and objective as it tries to be, it is obviously occasioned by deep concern for the family in America today. The book is part of the series, “The Family, Religion, and Culture,” which is devoted to a thorough study of the family in all ages and from many points of view.
Concern for the family in America and in Western civilization generally is well-founded. Witte makes every effort to be hopeful, but his conclusion is pessimistic:
It is hard to see the promise of these future benefits (for marriage in the West—DJE), however, in the current phase of the legal revolution of marriage in America. The rudimentary disquisitions on equality, privacy, and freedom offered by courts and commentators today seem altogether too lean to nourish sufficiently the legal revolution of marriage and the family that is now taking place. The elementary deconstructions and dismissals of a millennium-long tradition of marriage and family law and life seem altogether too glib to be taken so seriously. Yet the legal revolution marches on. And the massive social, psychological, and spiritual costs continue to mount up. The wild oats sown in the course of the American sexual revolution have brought forth such a great forest of tangled structural, moral, and intellectual thorns that we seem almost powerless to cut it down. We seem to be living out the grim prophecy that Friedrich Nietzsche offered a century ago: that in the course of the twentieth century, “the family will be slowly ground into a random collection of individuals,” haphazardly bound together “in the common pursuit of selfish ends”—and in the common rejection of the structures and strictures of family, church, state, and civil society (p. 215).
The cause of the dissolution of the family today is the view of marriage as merely a contract. This view took hold in America early in the nineteenth century and became dominant in the late twentieth century. Marriage is now regarded “as a ‘terminal sexual contract’ designed for the gratification of the individual parties” (p. 209). The result of this individualistic, man-centered view of marriage is that married life has become “‘brutish, nasty, and short,’ with women and children bearing the primary costs” (p. 214).
This has not always been the view of marriage in the West. Witte examines, in addition to the contractual model that prevails today, four other distinct models of marriage. They are the sacramental doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church; Lutheranism’s conception of marriage as mainly a social estate; the covenantal view of Calvinism; and Anglicanism’s view of marriage and family as a small commonwealth.
The book is Witte’s thorough, well-researched analysis of each of these five views of marriage in history. The analysis is theological, although Witte points out the civil, social, and legal implications of each of the models.
Of great interest and value are the solid historical research and the apt historical references: Calvin’s “tepid endorsement of divorce and firmer prohibition against separation” (p. 105); Milton’s advocacy of easy divorce and remarriage because, as his biographer put it, he himself “could ill bear the disappointment hee mett with by her (his recalcitrant wife—DJE) obstinate absenting: And therefore thought upon a Divorce, that hee might be free to marry another” (p. 179); the Anglican William Heale’s paean to marriage:
Marriage of al humane actions is the one & only weightiest. It is the present disposall of the whole life of man: it is a Gordian knot that may not bee loosed but by the sworde of death: it is the ring of union whose poesie is Pure and endlesse. In a word it is that state which either imparadizeth a man in the Eden of felicitie, or els exposeth him vnto a world of miserie (pp. 174, 175).
Witte demonstrates that the history of marriage and the family in the West is degeneration: from binding sacrament to fickle contract.
But Witte’s analysis must be challenged at exactly the crucial point of the original view of marriage in the Christian church. Witte’s title begins with the Romanizing church of the twelfth century and its construal of marriage as a sacrament. This was not the original “model” of marriage in the church and in the West that was influenced by the church. There was an earlier view of marriage, a view that prevailed for almost 1000 years after the apostles. This view saw marriage as a lifelong, unbreakable bond symbolizing the relationship between Christ and the church, although marriage was not regarded as a sacrament.
The title, therefore, should have been, From Bond to Contract. Rome’s twelfth century view of marriage as a sacrament would then be a distinct stage in the decline of marriage.
Witte recognizes the historical fact, but does nothing with it. In a very brief section of only four pages, which constitute an introduction to the chapter “Marriage as Sacrament in the Roman Catholic Tradition,” he sets forth the doctrine of the early church culminating in Augustine.
Augustine’s theory of the marital goods of procreation, fidelity, and sacrament was the most integrated Christian theory of marriage offered by the Church Fathers. But this theory was only a foretaste of the robust sacramental model of the High Middle Ages…. Augustine did not use the term “sacrament of marriage” in its later sense as an instrument or cause of grace instituted by Christ for the purpose of sanctification. For Augustine, the term sacrament meant only “symbolic stability.” Later Catholic theologians would call marriage permanent because it was a Christian sacrament. Augustine called marriage a Christian sacrament because it was permanent (p. 22).
Useful as Witte’s five models are, there is a more fundamental analysis of the doctrine of marriage in the history of the church and in the history of Western civilization. Marriage is either a bond established by God that is dissolved only by death or a contract arranged by the man and the woman that is voidable at the pleasure of either.
It is noteworthy that, despite his avowed objectivity, Witte’s last word is a powerful, almost impassioned, appeal to the biblical symbolism of marriage and family that pictures marriage as covenant-bond:
The family has specific “spiritual uses” for believers—ways of sustaining and strengthening them in their faith. The love of wife and
husband can be among the strongest symbols we can experience of Yahweh’s love for His elect, of Christ’s love for His Church. The sacrifices we make for our spouses and children can be among the best reflections we can offer of the perfect sacrifice of Golgotha. The procreation of children can be among the most important Words we have to utter (p. 219).