"...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.
Wednesday, October 13, 2010
J. Budziszewski on Marriage: "Covenant," or "Covenant Plus?"
I 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: