Over the last few years, and culminating (to this point, anyway), with last Friday’s Supreme Court decision there has been a lot of lamenting the fact that we’ve taken it upon ourselves to re-define marriage.
It is right to lament. This new innovation is, to date, the furthest we’ve yet deviated from the the true definition of marriage. For all the prior differences between religions and cultures of what marriage is, what its purpose is, how it should be consummated, and so on there was always at least one constant: men married women, and at least at some level there was a focus on the propagation of the human species with children raised by those who helped bring them into this world.
All of that is true, and the very idea of the concept that marriage would not even include that most basic of requirements should be fought.
But while this is the latest marital innovation, it is not the first innovation. In fact, numerous progressive elements have been at work over the the last few centuries to get us to the point we are today. This does not occur in a vacuum. And each successive innovation had to happen, grow in acceptance, and become part of the culture – both civic and religious – in order for us to ever contemplate as a society that the current legal definition is in any way acceptable.
I should be clear: there has never been a global universal agreement on what marriage is. Yes, there has been universal agreement on the need for a male and female partner. But polygamy is part of the historic past, and is still practices today in some cultures (whether officially or unofficially). In many cultures, marriages have been and continue to be arranged. This essentially removes the idea that love for the other is a necessary requirement of marriage.
The issue here isn’t that differences across the world and various cultures are just fine and dandy. But there is a difference between people having a flawed view of something who never had the right view to begin with, and people completely abandoning the correct view for something severely flawed. In the first case, the correct view has not been rejected. Out of tradition, culture, and ignorance it is either not known or fully understood to begin with. And just as we’ve done for 2,000 years we try to bring the light of truth to more people who, likely through no fault of their own, don’t know any better.
The tragedy that lies before us now is that the progress that was made in bringing a proper understanding of marriage to the people of the world has not only stagnated, but actually reverted. This reversion was very subtle over a period of a few hundred years. In some respects, it was slow, but in other respects it wasn’t. It’s just that it was not nearly as evident as the more recent changes. The more recent innovations to the marriage arrangement are more dramatic to the senses, but the groundwork to enable them has been at work for some time.
The first major change in the view of marriage that set this whole reversion from the appropriate Christian viewpoint of it is was put in motion by Martin Luther. Until this time, Christian thought was universal in that marriage is a Sacrament. Martin Luther held that it was not a Sacrament.
From Martin Luther’s Theology of the Sacraments, we get this:
It is not enough for the symbol or sign merely to be analogous to a divine truth. There must be a divine promise connected, and the rite must be instituted by God as such.8 Thus, although such things as prayer are connected with promises, they are not sacraments because there is no visible sign. Likewise, marriage is not a sacrament because there is neither a sign nor a word of promise.9 Luther says, “To be sure, whatever takes place in a visible manner can be understood as a figure or allegory of something invisible. But figures or allegories are not sacraments.”10
The footnotes: (8) Althaus,The Theology of Martin Luther,p. 345. “The symbolic act must be instituted by God and combined with a promise.” (9) See “Babylonian Captivity of the Church,”Three Treatises,p. 220. “Nowhere do we read that the man who marries a wife receives any grace of God. There is not even a divinely instituted sign in marriage.” (10) Ibid.
I have great respect for my non-Catholic Christian friends, but if you have decided to go the way of Martin Luther in your theological thought, then you need to understand the implications to this Theological position. This position essentially makes marriage a human institution, not a divinely instituted one. Martin Luther essentially declared marriage to be a contract. Yes, it is a holy contract rooted in spiritual values. We promise to love one another and we promise to be faithful and all that. But the promise is between those two people. It is a vow before God, and that is supposed to then be the weight of the seriousness of the vow. All this is well and good, but it still makes the very idea of what the marriage institution actually is significantly different from the Catholic (and pre-Reformation era) one.
Here is a nice summary quote from Luther:
“Know that Marriage is an outward material thing like any other secular business. The body has nothing to do with God. In this respect one can never sin against God, but only against one’s neighbour” [Weimar, Vol. 12, Pg. 131].
So, if we want to talk about the “re-definition” of marriage, we need to take a tour of how we got to how we are thinking about marriage in today’s world – especially in today’s Christian world. Every journey starts with a single step.
Martin Luther made that first step. And over the next couple centuries, countless souls followed the teachings of Luther, broke from the Catholic Church and adopted the view of matrimony as something less than what it was (and still is) in the Roman Catholic Tradition.