Previous article in this series: February 15, 2007, p. 220.
The doctrine of a conditional covenant makes the covenant of grace to be some sort of agreement between two parties—God and man. According to this view of the covenant, God promises to be the God of the covenant people and to bless them with salvation. However, God makes demands upon His covenant people. The people must believe God’s Word and obey His law. This is the condition they must fulfill in the covenant, either to ratify the covenant or to maintain it (that is, cause the covenant to be continued with them).
Such a conditional covenant is established with every child of believers. It is said that God personally seals His promise to each child at baptism. Ordinarily, this view of the covenant maintains that these children receive grace equipping each to face the demands of God and to accept or reject the covenant promises. Election is excluded from any discussion of who receive the gracious covenant promises. Election does not govern a conditional covenant.
From the above it is plain that a conditional covenant is also a breakable covenant. If a man does not keep his part, he is denied (loses?) the covenant blessings. If he does not believe God’s promises to him, or if he rebels against God’s law, he becomes a covenant breaker. Such a view of God’s covenant insists that God made a covenant with the likes of Esau and Judas Iscariot. They had a real covenant with God, a covenant of friendship and love, but because they rejected God and His covenant, God rejected them.
This conditional covenant is sometimes described as an unbreakable covenant, in the sense that God forbids man to break it. Thus it should not be broken. However, the sad reality is that man does break the covenant by refusing to believe and obey.
Recall that our intent in these articles is not to refute the doctrine of a conditional covenant as such. Rather, the purpose is to show that the conditional covenant is bearing evil fruit, which fruit is corrupting the body of truth. For all truth is related. An error in one doctrine will inevitably produce other doctrinal errors, spreading first to those doctrines most closely connected with the error.
With regard to the doctrine of the covenant, one of the closest and most obvious relationships is its connection to marriage. For clarity’s sake, it would be good to define that relationship. Some have described marriage as a symbol of the covenant of grace. Since a symbol in Scripture is an earthly object that points to a heavenly and spiritual reality, this would be an appropriate characterization of marriage.
It is less correct to speak of marriage as a type of the covenant relationship between God and His people. For a typeis an Old Testament person, institution, place, or event that foreshadows a future spiritual reality. The future reality pictured in a type belongs to the age of fulfillment—the new dispensation, leading into the new heaven and earth. Thus the Old Testament types are pictures or shadows that are fulfilled in the coming of Christ.
With the coming of Christ, the church received the reality and the type fell away. After Christ suffered and died on the cross, the believing Israelite no longer brought a lamb or bull for a sin offering— the reality had come, namely, Christ’s atoning death. After Christ ascended into heaven, the church no longer insisted that the temple was the only place where God dwelt and must be worshiped. They had the reality to which the temple pointed—Christ and His body.
Thus it should be plain that the institution of marriage is not a type, in that technical sense of a type. For already in the Old Testament, Israel had the reality to which marriage pointed, namely, God’s covenant of grace. God established His covenant with Abraham and his seed, and with Israel. Besides, marriage did not fall away with the coming of Christ. It remains yet today as a creation ordinance.
Identifying marriage as a type has significant implications because one of the essential truths about types is that a type always fails. David was a type of Christ the conquering King, but he fell deeply into sin. The sacrifices were beautiful pictures of Christ’s atoning death, but they did not pay for so much as one sin. By such failures, God made sure that the people knew—this is only a shadow, not the reality.
On the premise that marriage is a type, it is argued that it must fail. And its failure, it is alleged, is that the bond of marriage is dissolved by divorce. Sin, divorce, remarriage—they are all lamentable, but that is what we should expect, for it is a type, and a type always fails. Though God never breaks His covenant bond with His people, in the type, marriage, the bond often is broken.
This is wrong from many points of view, but especially as it is based on the notion that marriage is a type of God’s gracious covenant.
Marriage is a symbol or picture of the covenant. Herman Hoeksema used the word “reflection” to describe the covenant’s relationship to marriage—”marriage is a reflection of God’s unbreakable covenant.” That captures the relationship best. It reminds us that the reality is God’s covenant, and that marriage is but a reflection of that covenant.
This is so clearly taught in Scripture that a few references will suffice. Ezekiel 16 describes in picture language how God gave life to Israel, established His covenant with Israel, and spoke of being married to her. God reminds Israel that He is her husband (Is. 54:5; Jer. 31:32) and that Israel is betrothed to Him (Hos. 1:19, 20). In the New Testament, Christ is described as the bridegroom, and the church is the bride (Eph. 5:22-33).
The church has long recognized this reality. Swiss Reformer Bullinger wrote a large treatise in which he compared marriage to a covenant. Luther spoke of “the covenant of marriage.” Calvin likewise saw that the union of the husband and wife in marriage pictured the church’s union with Christ. Many books have been written expounding that truth.
Thus, the essence of God’s covenant of grace should be, must be, reflected in what the church teaches and practices with regard to the institution of marriage. When God instituted marriage, He made it plain that the husband and wife were so bound together that “they shall be one flesh” (Gen. 2:22). Jesus made reference to that, and added, “Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder” (Matt. 19:6).
The sad reality is that man has disregarded this creation ordinance and despised God’s binding together. And sadder still is that this is commonly found within the church! Churches that are the heirs of Luther and Calvin are being ravaged by the plague of divorce. Thus one finds marriage, divorce after a couple years, a couple decades, or a couple months—for virtually any reason, and then remarriage, all with the blessing of the church.
But how can divorce and remarriage for virtually any reason possibly be justified in the church?
This certainly was not the teaching of the church historically. One lengthy and scholarly study of the issue demonstrated that the early church did not so teach. The only allowance for divorce was adultery. And the authors concluded:
One thing appears certain from this study: The New Testament and the early church as a whole are not vague or confusing when it comes to the question of remarriage after divorce. It is clear that Jesus said that a man may have one wife or no wife, and if someone puts away their partner for whatever reason they must remain single.¹
The problem is that the reformers did not follow this teaching of the New Testament and the early church. Heth and Wenham demonstrate that the reformers followed the Dutch humanist Erasmus in his exegesis of key New Testament passages. Matthew 19:9 reads, “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.” Erasmus taught that Jesus was giving a ground for divorce and a ground for remarriage, at least for the spouse not guilty of adultery. I Corinthians 7:15 reads, “But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases.” The reformers joined Erasmus in taking this to mean that desertion is a ground for divorce, and for remarriage.
This interpretation of the reformers became creedal for Presbyterians. Chapter 24 of the Westminster Confession of Faith is entitled “Of Marriage and Divorce.” Article 5 teaches that “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.” And Article 6 states that “…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….”
It is not my intent to argue for a radically different interpretation of Matthew 19:9 and I Corinthians 7:15. For that, I refer the reader to the book of Heth and Wenham, David J. Engelsma’s books on marriage, and many past issues of the SB.
The point I raise is this: How did this rather restricted position of the reformers and of the Westminster—allowing for two grounds for divorce and two grounds for remarriage, for the innocent party—how did that evolve into the situation today where divorce is allowed for any reason, and remarriage is not forbidden to any?
The key element is found in the wording of the Westminster: “dissolving the marriage bond.” The marriage bond is dissolvable by men, through the actions and choices of men. God brings together, and men can put apart, can annihilate the bond that God formed in joining these two into one.
This is a strange phenomenon. Reformed theologians from Calvin to the present write that the marriage bond is indissoluble.² Yet these same men turn around and claim that the marriage bond is dissolved by divorce! Some follow Calvin’s literal statements in his commentary on Matthew 19 to argue that adultery itself dissolves the marriage bond, because Jesus gave that as a ground for divorce and remarriage.
This is very strange. Adultery dissolves a marriage bond? The result, if this be true, is that there are people in your neighborhood who think they are married, but are not, because their spouses have secretly committed adultery, dissolving the marriage bond, but the adultery is not yet discovered.
Even if one takes the position that God dissolves the bond, this dissolving is due to the sin of man, and due to his filing for divorce. Man’s acts, man’s choices, result in the dissolving of marriage.
Stranger still—the dissolving of the bond of marriage allows only the innocent party, never the guilty, to remarry. That impossibly contradictory position is what the church tried to maintain for a time. But it failed to hold fast the contradiction. This inevitably led to the situation that is found in all too many churches—Reformed (including Presbyterian) churches—that every divorce dissolves the marriage, regardless of the grounds for divorce. Every divorce accomplishes the mighty work of putting to naught God’s act of joining together. Any and all divorcees may remarry.
Let us allow a man who once held a contrary position to inform us of how this is justified. William A. Heth, who co-authored the book Jesus and Divorce, which demonstrated forcefully the position quoted above, has changed his mind. He now agrees with what he calls the “majority position.”
And as we will learn, his theological justification is the doctrine of a conditional, breakable covenant.
But that must wait until next time.
¹ William A. Heth and Gordon J. Wenham, Jesus and Divorce (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1985), p. 199.
² Calvin wrote: “[Christ] states, that the reason why God declared man and wife to be one flesh, was to prevent any one from violating that indissoluble tie by divorce.” Institutes, 2.12.7. Again, he wrote, “And as he declares that it is not in the power of the husband to dissolve the marriage….” Commentary onMatthew 19:6.