Previous article in this series: March 1, 2007, p. 244.
In the previous editorial, we took note of the obvious trend of increasing instances of divorce and remarriage in the Reformed and Presbyterian church world. The issue is ultimately an exegetical matter, and readers are encouraged to read works that discuss the pertinent passages of Scripture. Yet there is also a significant theological issue, which has to do with the bond of marriage, and which is related to the question, is the bond of marriage breakable? While all agree that it ought not be broken, few insist that only God through death dissolves the bond of marriage. Since marriage is a picture of the covenant of grace, a theological justification for a breakable marriage bond is found in a conditional, breakable covenant. In this final article on divorce and remarriage, it is our purpose to demonstrate that connection and draw some conclusions.
In 1985 a significant defense of the unbreakable bond of marriage appeared in the book Jesus and Divorce: The Problem with the Evangelical Consensus.¹ Two capable theologians, William A. Heth and Gordon J. Wenham, took the bold stand that Jesus taught no remarriage after divorce. They demonstrated that this was the virtually unanimous position of the early church. They provided solid exegesis to support the early church’s conviction about what Jesus taught. It was a courageous, if unpopular, stand for truth in the face of a swelling tide of approval for no-fault divorce for any reason and a wide-open remarriage policy.
Sad to say, Heth and Wenham are now divided on this issue. In the Spring 2002 issue of The Southern Baptist Journal, Wenham wrote a fine, exegetically-based article entitled “Does the New Testament Approve Divorce after Remarriage?” His answer is, No, the New Testament does not. In the same issue, Heth wrote “Jesus and Divorce, How My Mind Has Changed.”² He no longer believes that Jesus forbids remarriage after divorce.
What made Heth change his mind? He points out a number of influences. The first is, to put it baldly, peer pressure. When Heth and Wenham co-authored Jesus and Divorce, they took note of the obvious fact that they were opposing the majority of the evangelical world on this issue. Apparently Heth had the notion that their book would change the views of many evangelicals. But, alas, he discovered that more evangelicals approve of remarriage today than in the 1980s.
The second factor that influenced Heth was that scholarship was against them. He noticed that nearly all the “weighty” American commentaries on the gospels written since 1984, and the significant reference works rejected their exegesis. It troubled him that “the best of the evangelical scholarship had read our material and found it wanting” (p. 5).
Parenthetically we note that if Luther had changed his convictions to fit the majority views of the theologians, and to agree with the reigning scholars of his day, there would never have been a reformation of the church connected with him.
A third influence on Heth, and this is another disappointment, is that Heth listened to the siren song of higher critics. Higher critics set themselves above the Bible with their stance that the Bible is subject to the ordinary literary criticism to which any book may be subject.
Accordingly, Heth informs us that the majority view allows at least two grounds for divorce—adultery and desertion—and subsequent remarriage for at least the innocent party. However, when the gospel accounts record Jesus forbidding all divorce except for fornication and prohibiting any remarriage, then we are to understand that Jesus’ statements are either “rhetorical overstatement” (read: exaggeration) or “generalizations.” Heth, being more conservative than many in the majority camp, favors the latter. But generalizations are subject to exceptions. For example, it generally snows in Michigan in January. However, there are exceptions. Thus Jesus forbids divorce and remarriage, but there are exceptions to this general rule.
In the midst of this wholesale capitulation to the “majority position,” Heth presents the theological justification for his change of mind. That theological basis, he maintains, is that the covenants of the Bible may be both violated and dissolved. Although Heth does not in this article expressly apply this to God’s covenant of grace, everything in the article indicates that all biblical covenants can be dissolved. In any case, Heth insists that this allows the marriage bond to be dissolved.
But how did Heth come to this conclusion about biblical covenants? In a word, with new understanding of Near Eastern covenants and the Jewish practice of divorce. Heth frequently expresses his indebtedness to the book Marriage as Covenant: Biblical Law and Ethics as Developed from Malachi, by G. Hugenberger. According to Heth, this work “draws upon all the pertinent ancient Near Eastern and related biblical legal and narrative material touching on betrothal, marriage, divorce, and sexual offences” (p. 17).
From the same book, Heth became convinced “that a study of the covenantal nature of marriage could help resolve some of the remaining difficulties in comprehending the biblical ethics and practice of marriage; and one such difficulty is the dissolubility of marriage, i.e., what constitutes covenant breaking” (p. 18).
Over against the position taken in the book Jesus and Divorce that biblical covenants are inviolable and unbreakable, Heth became convinced from Hugenberger’s work that “in terms of Hebrew usage covenants may be both violated and dissolved.” He adds that with this new understanding, “I knew immediately that my no remarriage view had been placed in jeopardy” (p. 18).
It may be noted that biblical covenants surely can be broken— as for example Abraham’s covenant with Abimelech, or with his servant Eleazar. However, it is quite another matter to conclude that a covenant bond formed by God Himself—be it the covenant of grace or the bond of marriage— can be broken by man or as a result of man’s activities. But we return to Heth. After pointing out that the consummation of marriage is an important element in confirming the covenant of marriage, he writes: “It should be obvious now that sexual infidelity is a particularly grave violation of the marriage covenant, a sin against both the covenant partner and against God, and if covenants can be violated and dissolved, this sin strikes at the marriage covenant in a unique way” (p. 19).
No one can dispute the seriousness of adultery, in light of Jesus’ allowing that as the only ground for divorce. However, that leads Heth to conclude that “the Genesis 2:24 ‘one flesh’ relationship that results from the covenant of marriage ratified by sexual consummation is not an indissoluble union, just one that should preeminently not be dissolved, and a sexual sin like adultery is the preeminent violation of the marriage covenant” (p. 19).
Next Heth argues that desertion is also a ground for divorce, and for remarriage. Not surprisingly, since the marriage bond can be dissolved, Heth concludes that there may well be other grounds for divorce than adultery and desertion.
Heth’s line of argumentation is logically correct. His premise is that biblical covenants, and that would include the covenant of grace, are broken by man’s sin. That is to say, a real relationship of love and friendship between God and man is dissolved if a man violates the covenant and rejects God. Then we may piously repeat the Scripture’s teaching that the covenant of God is unbreakable (Ps. 89:34; Lev. 26:44; Jer. 33:20, 21). Perhaps we could consider that a “rhetorical overstatement” intended to convey the idea that the covenant should not be broken. But it is sometimes broken. Or, perhaps it is a “generalization.” Man is commanded not to break it. But there are exceptions. Man can and does so violate God’s covenant that it is broken, and it is dissolved— just like the covenants of the ancient Near East nations.
And so it must follow that marriage, a picture of God’s covenant of grace, is likewise breakable, violated by sin, and dissolved by divorce.
Be reminded that every conditional covenant is a breakable covenant. God establishes His covenant with every baptized child. The child can break that covenant relationship so that it is no more.
However, that theological error bears the fruit of a complete overturning of Scripture’s teaching on divorce and remarriage. Let us assume for the moment that one holds that adultery is the only ground for divorce, and in such a case, divorce dissolves the marriage bond. If the bond is dissolved, there is no legitimate reason to forbid remarriage for either party.
The next step is that, although it is a sin to divorce for a non-biblical reason, yet, if a man does divorce his wife for a wrong reason, and then marries another, he is guilty of adultery at that point, and the wife may remarry.
If one adds desertion as a legitimate ground, there is no limit to divorce and remarriage, for anyone who divorces his spouse, obviously has deserted her. So she may remarry. And since the bond is dissolved by the divorce, so may the husband remarry.
The question is, is the bond of marriage dissolved either by sin or by divorce? The Protestant Reformed Churches stand almost alone in maintaining that the bond of marriage is not dissolved by either. Only God, through death, can dissolve what He has “put together.”
It was not always so. According to the official web site of the Christian Reformed Church, “the long-standing position of the CRC from 1908 on was that people who remarry after an unbiblical divorce are living in continual adultery.” That position, maintained until 1956, was based on the idea that the bond is not dissolved by divorce, except in the case of a divorce on biblical grounds.
But that position is impossible to maintain. If divorce dissolves the bond in some instances, why not in all. Then there is no continual adultery in any remarriage. Thus the Christian Reformed Church now teaches:
Permanent unity in marriage is possible in Christ and is demanded of Christ’s disciples who are married. Marriages should not be dissolved; divorce is contrary to God’s will. However, by persistent and unrepented sin, people can put asunder what God has joined together.³ [Emphasis mine, RJD.]
This position is in complete harmony with the conditional covenant that is maintained by the Christian Reformed Church.
I end this article with a special plea for Reformed and Presbyterian believers to examine this relationship closely. Do see that holding to a conditional (and thus, breakable) covenant of grace leads to a breakable marriage bond, which in turn opens the door to unrestrained divorce and remarriage. On the other hand, do understand that an unconditional (and thus unbreakable) covenant is the theological foundation for an unbreakable marriage bond.
My plea is directed to Reformed believers to turn their churches back from the wholesale perversion of marriage, and to honor marriage as a picture of the unbreakable covenant of grace.
My plea is especially for Presbyterian friends. We recognize that the Westminster Confession has made your position creedal—divorce on biblical grounds dissolves the marriage bond for the innocent party. Historically, the arguments for the WCF’s position were not those of Heth, of course. We acknowledge that the teaching of the WCF was that of Calvin and the Reformation generally.
In spite of that, we respectfully urge you to examine the issue afresh, and reconsider your position. Your own confession allows you to do so. For the WCF rightly insists that only Scripture is the rule of faith and life (Chap. 1, Art. 2). It points out that synods and councils may err and have erred (Chap. 31, Art. 4). All Reformed and Presbyterian believers are to be continually proving their confessions in the light of Scripture. If you agree that the Scriptures teach an unbreakable, unconditional covenant of grace, is it not necessary to reevaluate the WCF’s position on divorce and remarriage?
Additionally, even though the WCF teaching on divorce and remarriage is that of the Reformers generally, yet theology has been set forth more clearly since the days of the Reformation and the WCF. It is right to speak of a development of doctrine in that sense. The doctrine of the covenant has received significant attention and development among the Presbyterians and the Reformed since the time of the Reformation. What we ask is, at least be willing to examine the issue in light of the development of the doctrine of the covenant.
To all who come to the conclusion that God’s covenant of grace is an unbreakable, unconditional covenant of grace, may God also give the grace to stand with us against the “consensus,” the “majority position” on the covenant and on divorce and remarriage.
The unconditional covenant will never disappoint. It is a glorious, firm, sure covenant that God establishes with the elect in Christ—who is the Head of the covenant, as the WCF maintains. Such a covenant affords unspeakable comfort to believers because it is unbreakable—as God Himself promises.
And all who allow the clearer passages of Scripture to speak (WCF, Chap. 1, Art. 9), and square the teaching on marriage with this glorious unconditional, unbreakable covenant, will never be disappointed. For God, and His Word, will be honored. Marriage will be maintained for life. Marriage will be honored, strengthened, and thus be a great blessing in the church.
¹ The book was first published by Hodder and Stoughton in London in 1984, and in 1985 in Nashville, Tennessee by Thomas Nelson. An enlarged edition was printed in 1997, and a third edition in 2002.
² The issue is still available online athttp://www.sbts.edu/Resources/ Publications/Journal/Spring_2002.aspx