A Contract or a Covenant? (If Covenant, what type?)

Today is Parson and Parson’s Wife’s anniversary. With three kids our celebration is Chinese Takeout. But the occasion gives me the occasion to reflect on just what marriage is anyway.

First some background grist. The first marriage: Genesis 2:18-24. Jesus on Marriage and Divorce: Mark 10:1-12. Paul reflecting on the same passage: Ephesians 5:1-33 (small subset Ephesians 5:22-33). G.E.M. Anscombe on Chastity. If you have the time or interest all those are worth reading and pondering. The Anscombe article is at the same time short and profound. She is a philosopher, which usually means prose so thick and obtuse it can’t be read. That is not the case with Anscombe. The prose is dense, by which I mean each sentence and paragraph make a point and are like the proverbial iceberg where what is said is resting on a much larger body unseen, but the prose is also clear.

One quote from the Anscombe piece.

Humanly speaking, the good and the point of a sexual act is: marriage. Sexual acts that are not true marriage acts either are mere lasciviousness, or an Ersatz, an attempt to achieve that special unitedness which only a real commitment, marriage, can promise. For we don’t invent marriage, as we may invent the terms of an association or club, any more than we invent human language. It is part of the creation of humanity and if we’re lucky we find it available to us and can enter into it. If we are very unlucky we may live in a society that has wrecked or deformed this human thing.

That quote contains the basis of the title question and the theological confusion of the present day. American culture (and western culture in general) is currently rolling through the logical necessities of changes in its presuppositions. The most recent one is what has been called gay marriage.

Part of the American genius is in the creation and regulation of temporary partnerships – think corporations and contract law. But I call it part of the American genius because Americans have been thrown together and have been making contracts well before even the revolution. The Ur document of this sort is the Mayflower Compact. Written in Nov of 1620 before the Pilgrims disembarked at Plymouth. Quoting – “…these presents, solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God, and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic; for our better ordering, and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal laws…” In that document you find both the idea of covenant and the idea of combining ourselves. America is not without the idea of covenant, but its genius is in the contract. It is at its best when both are present and remembered, but in our day we are more like a people with only a hammer. American’s hit everything like a nail with the hammer of the contract.

Back to Anscombe, “For we don’t invent marriage, as we may invent the terms of an association or club.” That statement rests primarily on the Genesis passage, but also on Paul’s expression in Ephesians as marriage being the symbol of Christ and the church. The verbs that apply to a covenant are to cut or to seal. To cut a covenant is a very literal translation of the Hebrew reflecting Genesis 15:7-21. God promised Abram offspring and land and sealed the promise, the covenant, by walking between animals cut in half. The meaning is that if I break this covenant, may what happened to these animals happen to me. When you cut a covenant you are saying what should never happen, the unity created to be cut in half. And we did not create the marriage covenant. God ordained it in the Garden before sin.

Somewhere around 1964 the understanding of marriage in America shifted from that covenantal understanding to a contractual one. Contracts are temporary partnerships. Contracts are entered into for the mutual increase of both parties. They do not create one party. When the contract becomes more onerous than beneficial to one party, it gets renegotiated or revoked. In 1970 Ronald Reagan signed a bill that created no-fault divorce in the state of California. Prior to that to receive a divorce you would have to show cause. The real purpose of showing cause was to show that the animals had already been sundered. It might have been getting hazy in memory, but a covenental understanding before no-fault was still operating. A divorce was granted only when the unity had been destroyed already. The one flesh had already been torn apart. With the advent of no-fault, marriage was now a contract. If I created it, I could also ended it as long as “affairs were settled”, i.e. the contract came to a negotiated close.

When marriage is just another contract it makes no sense to bar anyone from creating that contract. Gay marriage as a contract makes perfect sense. For that matter so do all kinds of other arrangements. Anyone who can find the marriage contract beneficial in whatever form would find no bar from it. But as Anscombe said in that first quote, “If we are very unlucky we may live in a society that has wrecked or deformed this human thing.” Marriage as a contract has in a very significant way ceased to be marriage.

The portion of Genesis that Jesus quotes is “the two shall become one flesh”. And he adds the statement, “what God has joined together, let not man separate.” God has put two together. And the purpose is the creation of one flesh. The marriage act itself is a creation of one flesh, but closer to the truth is that the children who come from that act are in fact one flesh.

Marriage is the covenant for the creation and rearing of children. That is its primary intention. There are other things that might come out of it, but they are secondary goods to the creation of one flesh. If you undermine the primary intention of marriage, you have undermined marriage itself. That has been the American project for about 50 years give or take to the point that it is questionable if it is possible to truly enter a marriage in the United States. Instead we contract to use each other for mutual benefit, until that contract becomes disadvantageous to one of the contracting entities.

Now all of this is written as a reflection on what marriage is in its perfection. The good or model marriage is Christ and the church. Do we all live up to that? No way. It is one thing to confess our failures (i.e. sin), it is another thing to deny that sin all together. If we say we have no sin, the truth is not in us. We can manipulate our understanding of marriage all we want, but if the truth is not in us, it only leads to meaningless suffering, as opposed to the sufferings of Christ.

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