Wednesday, October 13, 2010

J. Budziszewski on Marriage: "Covenant," or "Covenant Plus?"

am teaching a unit on the Middle Ages for my "Western Thought and Art" course, and at the same time I have been talking with someone about marriage. Many evangelicals reflexively reject the idea of sacrament, and so (in my opinion) come to class and to relationships with the opposite sex  considerably impaired. In his article for Boundless Magazine (a publication from Focus on the Family!) J. Budziszewski gives a thoughtful explanation of "covenant" and "sacrament," and discussses their significance for marriage:

"...We need to get two things straight right away. The first is that you can't settle the disagreement between sacramentalists and non sacramentalists by checking to see whether your translation of the Bible uses the word "sacrament." Some do, some don't. The important thing isn't whether the word is there but whether the concept is there.

Take what Paul says about marriage in Ephesians 5:32. The Revised Standard Version translates it, "This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church." The Douay-Rheims, which is based on the Latin, translates it "This is a great sacrament; but I speak in Christ and in the church." What's going on? Paul was using the Greek word mysterion, from which we get the everyday English word "mystery." But the Vulgate, an important Latin version of the New Testament, translates mysterion as sacramentum, from which we get the English theological word "sacrament." Which English term you prefer depends on just what kind of dynamite charge you think that potent word mysterion is carrying. Apparently a deep and holy secret is hidden in marriage but hidden in what sense? I'll come back to that question, but for now let's set it aside.

The second thing to get straight is that it's a bit misleading to characterize the issue as "covenant vs. sacrament." Actually, both sides view marriage as covenant. Covenant is easy to explain. A covenant is a solemn and binding commitment among at least two parties, expressed in a promise to do something (or not to do something). Some covenants are unilateral, like the covenant between God and Abraham. Abraham didn't promise anything; he merely had to accept God's promise to make of his descendants a great nation set apart for Himself. Other covenants are mutual, like the covenant of God with the Israelites at Mt. Sinai. He promised to be their God, and they promised to follow Him and be His people. Which kind of covenant is marriage? The answer: A mutual covenant between the man and the woman, in which they give themselves to each other as husband and wife.

So far all Christians agree. However, one side views marriage as covenant only and the other side the sacramentalist side views it as covenant plus. The plus takes longer to explain, and I need to take several steps back. First let's talk about what might be called the sacramental view of the world, then let's talk about the definition of a sacrament. Only after that will I return to the sacrament of marriage.

In the beginning God created each material thing, pronouncing His work good. He took the greatest care with us, breathing the breath of life into mere dust to make a being that had a body like the animals, had a spirit like the angels, and bore His image. In the Incarnation He went still further, taking on our own bodily nature yet also remaining fully God. Sacramentalists reflect that if all these things are true, then God must be perfectly comfortable with matter, and must be able to use it for His own spiritual purposes.

It seems to them that this is exactly how God does use matter. Take baptism, for example. To sacramentalists, passing through the baptismal waters isn't just a symbol of spiritual birth, any more than passing through the birth waters is just a symbol of physical birth; it is the very way in which God makes the event happen, the outward and visible means by which He brings about the inward, invisible, spiritual grace.

The term "sacraments" is a general term that sacramentalists use for created things that God chooses to use like that. They are symbols, but according to sacramentalists (here non sacramentalists disagree) they are more than symbols too. The waters of baptism symbolize second birth, the bread and wine of holy communion symbolize the body and blood of Christ but that is not all that they do. By His grace, sacramentalists believe, they actually bring about the things that they symbolize. Baptism imparts second birth; holy communion makes the body and blood of Christ really present.

So where does marriage come in? Sacramentalists view marriage as another sacrament, another symbol plus. The symbol the outward and visible sign is the covenant itself: the free and mutual consent of the man and the woman to give themselves to each other as husband and wife, expressed through words in the presence of the Church. The plus the inward, invisible, spiritual event that God uses this covenant to bring about is that the two are made really and permanently one, receiving the grace to love each other with the very same love with which Christ has loved His Church.

Sacramentalists say that this is what Paul was talking about in Ephesians 5:29-32 when he spoke of the "mystery" of marriage, for it does hide something secret and mysterious. An amazing but invisible grace is hidden behind the visible act of exchanging vows. If this grace is real, it really matters. Suppose you were chatting with a friend who said, "The ceremony of exchanging vows is just a formality. My girlfriend and I were married in our hearts as soon as we moved in together." If you were a sacramentalist, you'd reply, "No, it's more than a formality. At the moment you exchange your vows, and not before, God pours the grace of matrimony through the gateway that your vows have opened up."

The sacramental view of Christian marriage is very ancient. Disagreement arose chiefly at the time of the Reformation. Catholics have always held strong views of the sacraments, as some Protestants still do too. Other Protestants hold weaker sacramental views, and still others reject sacramentalism completely. Clouding the picture is that a lot of people hold more or less sacramental views without knowing it.

Here is one way to think about the disagreement. There are two opposite mistakes to be avoided about the relation between God and His creation; the great thing is to avoid them both. At one extreme is idolatry, which overrates created things, confusing them with God Himself. At the other is gnosticism, which considers matter evil and only spirit good, denying that the good God made them both. Non-sacramentalists think sacramentalists come perilously close to idolatry, worshipping created things in place of God. Sacramentalists hate idolatry too, but they think non-sacramentalists cross over into gnosticism, despising God's creation and limiting His power to use material things for spiritual purposes. The question is: Which fear is reasonable, and which is misplaced?

These are serious disagreements, and Christians should ponder them long and deeply. However, Roberto Rivera's article in Boundless didn't argue one side against the other. His emphasis wasn't on how covenant-only and covenant-plus Christians differ, but on what they have in common. These views of marriage are closer to each other than either view is to what the secular culture believes. Let us keep talking together. Maybe we can share the work of protecting precious things like the union of husband and wife.


Kent W. said...

This is one of the most understandable explanations of the concept of sacramentalism that I have read. However, I have trouble with it when he describes baptism and how the physical act coincides with the spiritual 'New birth'. It seems he is saying that without the physical act, there can be no new birth, bacause God uses the physical act. I have a problem with that. I also have a problem with the thinking that since they are tied together, as long as you do the physical act, you know you have the new birth. Am I missing something?

Beth B said...

1) You wrote, "It seems he is saying that without the physical act, there can be no new birth, bacause God uses the physical act. I have a problem with that."

Does it seem to you that this is idolotrous, Kent? J.B. acknowledges that for some it will seem so. Could it be that your experiences among the Quakers might affect the way you understand baptism?

I appreciate your hesitation, however. It is important that we warn each other of those twin perils of idolotry and gnosticism.

2) "I also have a problem with the thinking that since they are tied together, as long as you do the physical act, you know you have the new birth."

I would agree that immersing or sprinkling someone is not what saves him. Sacraments are not magic; they are signs: outward and visible SIGNS of inward and spiritual GRACE.

Funny, but it was just this realization that helped me through a crisis of faith in my former days as a Baptist.

During my time at a Southern Baptist college, we had (yet another!) revival. The evangelist kept pressing, "Have you REALLY accepted Christ as your savior?" Well, gee, maybe I hadn't REALLY fully committed myself! I had gone forward for an altar call, and accepted Christ at a VBS when I was 12, and had been baptized, but maybe I wasn't mature enough. maybe I didn't fully understand what it meant. Maybe I didn't know what I was doing. Maybe I really WASN'T saved; maybe I needed to RE-DEDICATE myself, and be baptized again; maybe this time it would be for real...

As these thoughts swirled about me, another thought entered my mind: "this could go on forever; the next time there is a revival, the evangelist will make you feel the same way, and doubt your salvation, and you'll need to be baptized a THIRD time, and a FOURTH time, and on and on...Remember your baptism! If God couldn't save you the first time you asked Him to, then He never can."

But of course that was nonsense: I believed God COULD save me; and so therefore, he HAD. And to dispel my doubts, I could point to my baptism. If God hadn't used THOSE waters to work Christ's forgiveness and cleansing in me, then what assurance did I have that any others would do so?

Suddenly I realized it wasn't just up to me--that it wasn't just about MY decision, but rather it was about what GOD had done in Christ, and what HE had done through baptism for me. So I prayed, "I'm trusting you, Lord, that what you worked in me the first time is still working." And it was at that point that I think I became a sacramentalist, and could no longer remain a Baptist.

Beth B said...

Blogger has a case of the hiccups! The previous two deleted comments were copies of my original reply.

Kent W. said...

No, the question of idolatry didn't occur to me. It just seems impractical and not consistent with the reality I have observed. Yes, I'm sure that my Quaker experiences have shaped me here.

If God uses the physical act of baptism to impart the new birth (which I believe he certainly could), what happens to those who have confessed faith in Christ, but whose baptisms are delayed, or never happen at all?

My own story is this: I was baptized at the age of 11 after responding to an altar call. I certainly knew the gospel story and the meaning of my confession and baptism. However, I am convinced that I never had any true encounter with Christ. I did not know Him and I did not make any real commitment to him; I simply followed the cultural norm of my environment. I do not believe my baptism was accompanied by a "new birth", as evidenced by a lack of any change in my life, and my departure from the faith shortly thereafter. This part of my experience is consistent with that of all of my siblings.

The other half my story is this: As an adult at the age of 22, I committed my life to Christ and confessed him as my savior. At the time I had questions about the necessity of baptism and was confused about what to do, considering my baptism as a child, which I saw to have been ineffective. I decided to commit the question to God and seek his leading; if I felt led to be re-baptized, then, I would do it. For nearly ten years I did not feel led to be baptized and was at peace about it. I did eventually come to the point where I felt God leading me to change my mind and be baptized. It was out of a conviction that I needed to make a public testimony of my identification with Christ and his Church.

I have never believed that I had not experienced new birth at the time of my confession, or that there was anything lacking in my salvation. Even if I had not been baptized as a child, I do not believe there would have been anything lacking in my "new birth".

btw - Quakers do believe in baptism, but as an inward experience, not an outward sign. I'm not sure, but they may even believe in the concept of sacraments. I can see that their rejection of the outward signs tends to lean towards Gnosticism. I know that I had moved away from being committed to that approach by the time I was baptized as an adult.

Ann said...

Beth, thanks for posting this. I think Budziszewski must have drawn on Tillich's view of "symbols" as having depth greater than in our typical usage.

Kent, I recall that same explanation in my own Quaker heritage, and I, too, was later baptized. I think the pacifist Quakers saw the baptism wars as so damaging that they believed, rightly, that such wars over interpretation/ application weren't God's way, and believed, incorrectly in my view, that spiritual baptism was equivalent to the spiritual circumcision (Romans 2). Without the "matter" in the symbol, many Quakers have become gnostic - with interesting & peculiar intensity on education in my family.

(Beth, I had similar feelings to yours in Baptist revivals in one charismatic church! :)

I do appreciate the mystery that "sacrament" has God's power within the understanding, because in the best way, we will surely need to draw on the peace and grace of God in marriage and family life!

Janice Skivington said...

Beth, I just finished a painting using marriage in the church as a subject. It was for a community project of artists in my church to illustrate the sermon series that our paster is giving titled "Imitating God, Becoming like Jesus in Marriage and Celibacy"
I painted a morning glory vine climbing upward with many small tendrils joining and twining together. I am posting about it on my blog.
I see a Christian marriage as a joining and twining of ourselves to the larger community to make us all stronger against the storms of life.