[Mojohn: I’m convinced that “contract” is not the most accurate English word to describe the marriage relationship. God himself calls marriage a covenant (Malachi 2:14). As I understand covenants in the ancient Near East, a party was bound to perform his treaty obligations even if the other party defaulted. Only the death of a covenant party could terminate the covenant.
[We see this played out in the Prophetic books where it is recorded that God divorced his faithless wives Israel and Judah for their spiritual adultery (Ezekiel 23; Jeremiah 3:6-10), but, he did not get new wives. Instead, he restored the house of Jacob (Jeremiah 33) following repentance in Babylon. [Based on what history teaches us about covenants, reinforced by Paul’s unambiguous statements in Romans 7 and 1 Corinthians 7, I’m convinced that the marriage relationship continues until one of the parties dies, even if the laws of the land view a marriage as terminated when a judge says so. Thus, I do not believe that a woman deserted by a Christian or pagan husband is permitted to marry with God’s blessing until the faithless husband dies.]
JFG: Evidence? Where is the evidence for this claim regarding the nature of covenants?
Since you are arguing from an Old Testament concept, let’s see what the Old Testament says on the subject. First, you argue that marriage is a “covenant” in the Old Testament sense, based on Old Testament usage of the term. You then argue that therefore marriage can only be ended by death.
But Moses, who surely knew the law of covenants better than anyone, disagrees —
(Deu 24:1-2 ESV) “When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, 2 and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife …”
Moses, inspired by the breath of God, taught that a marriage could be dissolved by divorce. And yet marriage has been a covenant since Adam and Eve.
The real rule is found in “The Covenant of Companionship — (Exodus 20 and 21),” by William F. Luck, Sr. He notes that covenants among nations are in the nature of treaties, except that ancient treaties are always between non-equals — a ruling nation and a tributary nation. The terms are imposed by the more powerful nation.
The Law of Moses is written along these lines, with God as the more powerful state imposing very generous — even gracious — terms on the nation of Israel as a vassal. There was no negotiation, and Israel didn’t get to decide whether to be chosen by God as his elect people. (Doesn’t sound much like a marriage, does it? But they had arranged marriages back then.)
However, covenants between people are always between equals. And he quotes the Wycliffe Bible Dictionary, which states that “all human covenants are bilateral and conditional.”
In fact, I’ve just checked over a half-dozen Bible dictionaries under “covenant.” Not a one says that covenants, by virtue of being covenants, are indissoluble. Rather, the Bible attributes the indissolubility of God’s covenant to the nature of God —
(Mal 3:6-7a ESV) 6 “For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed. 7 From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the LORD of hosts.
(Rom 11:28-29 ESV) 28 As regards the gospel, they are enemies for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. 29 For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.
According to the scriptures, it’s because of God’s unique character that he honors his covenant of grace even though we violate it.
We should further consider that while God’s election of Israel is unconditional — that being the nature of God — his election of individual Jews is not. The vast majority of the Jewish individuals fell out of grace multiple times in history, but God always preserved a remnant because of his covenant and his nature —
(Rom 11:2-5 ESV) 2 God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he appeals to God against Israel? 3 “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.” 4 But what is God’s reply to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” 5 So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace.
One last point: an argument that proves too much proves nothing. If human marriage is indissoluble, then Jesus was mistaken to allow dissolution for fornication. After all, in God’s covenant with Israel, he frequently accused them of fornication, even “whoring after idols,” and yet God did not dissolve the relationship. And so the argument “proves” Jesus himself to be in error, making it a clearly fallacious argument, despite it’s recent popularity in some circles.
So how does one analogize God’s covenant with Israel or the church to human marriage? I’m not sure it fits at all in terms of indissolubility — and so I reject the theory that human marriage is indissoluble because God’s covenant with the church is.
The fact that marriage may be properly called a “covenant” hardly means that it has all the characteristics of God’s covenant with his elect people. The fact that I’m in covenant relationship with God means that I submit to him as Lord in all things. Does this mean my wife, who is in covenant relationship with me, must submit to me as I submit to God?
The fact that I’m in covenant relationship with my wife means that I may, indeed, should be in a sexual relationship with her. This is at the heart of the relationship, per Paul in 1 Cor 7:1-7 based on Moses’ “one flesh” language. Does this make sex a key part of my relationship with God? That would have been true of countless pagan religions. But not Christianity or Judaism.
So common covenant terminology does not make all covenant features common. And so it’s just a stretch too far. The argument just doesn’t hold.
On the other hand, Paul’s analogy of marriage to Christ’s marriage to the church in Ephesians 5 is potent and true — because it’s Paul’s analogy. But all analogies have limitations, and we uninspired people may not press the analogy beyond the points actually made by the inspired writer. Otherwise, my wife would have to have to be baptized to be married to me, would need to eat a symbolic meal each week in my honor, and faithfully attend services held in my honor. As a husband, I may have certain very limited similarities to Christ, but they are very few.
So, no, the fact that God’s covenant with the church (and Israel before) was not and will not be dissolved by God despite the disobedience of the church (and Israel) does not mean that human marriage may not be dissolved. The Bible says no such thing, and the argument presses the analogy beyond the text — which we are not permitted to do.
I think the rule for theological analogies is simple. If the analogy is itself inspired, it’s true. Other analogies may also be true, of course, but when it comes to scripture, they must be shown true by other means. Hence, for mortal interpreters, analogies may only illustrate and buttress a point made on other evidence. After all, no one has yet written a concrete rule for when an analogy is pressed too far, and uninspired humans may not build doctrine on such an uncertain method.