November 9: Westminster’s Chapter on Marriage

Already at this early date, two proposed overtures have been presented and will to come before the PCA’s General Assembly when it meets in June of 2017. One overture seeks to add two proof-texts to Chapter 24, paragraph 4 of the Westminster Confession of Faith. The other overture seeks to confer constitutional authority on chapter 59 of the PCA’s Book of Church Order. In light of these overtures, it seems appropriate to provide the following bit of historical background on the deliberations within the Westminster Assembly and how we came to have the text of chapter 24 of the Westminster Confession. The following comes from the 1992 PCA study on marriage and divorce:— 

III. The Original Intent of the Confession

It is a sound principle that constitutional documents should be interpreted according to their original intent. For creeds and confessions to function as subordinate norms, they must be read according to the grammatico-historical method of interpretation. Confessional subscription is not to anything the words can be taken to mean, but rather to the discourse meaning of the text.

The Westminster divines took up the question of marriage and divorce in 1646, the year the Confession was completed (apart from the proof texts requested by Parliament). The minutes record the following actions. The committee assignment was made February 23. The report on marriage was presented June 17 and debated August 3-4. The report on divorce was presented August 10 and debated September 10-11.

The proposed chapter “Of Marriage and Divorce” as a whole was debated November 9, and the section on willful desertion was recommitted. The committee reported back the next day, and, following further debate on willful desertion, the Assembly on November 11 adopted the chapter “Of Marriage and Divorce” as we now know it.

It is of interest that none of the antecedent Reformed confessions in the British Isles — neither the Scots Confession (1560) nor the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England (1563) nor the Irish Articles of Religion (1615) – include a statement on divorce, and the articles on marriage in the latter two documents focus narrowly on the question of a celibate clergy. According to the Thirty-Nine Articles:

Bishops, priests, and deacons are not commanded by God’s law either to vow the estate of single life or to abstain from marriage. Therefore it is lawful also for them, as for all other Christian men, to marry at their own discretion as they shall judge the same to serve better to godliness. (32)

The parallel affirmation in the Irish Articles of Religion is only slightly broader.

For the preservation of the chastity of men’s persons, wedlock is commanded unto all men that stand in need thereof. Neither is there any prohibition by the Word of God but that the ministers of the Church may enter into the state of matrimony: they being nowhere commanded by God’s law …[remainder repeats the Thirty-Nine Articles verbatim]. (64)

Taking into account also the Reformed confessions on the continent, the only Reformed creed to contain any reference to divorce prior to the Westminster Confession is the First Helvetic Confession (1536), which in its teaching on marriage includes a word for the civil government:

We contend that marriage has been instituted and prescribed by God for all men who are qualified and fit for it and who have not otherwise been called by God to live a chaste life outside marriage. No order or state is so holy and honorable that marriage would be opposed to it and should be forbidden. Since such marriages should be confirmed in the presence of the Church by a public exhortation and vow in keeping with its dignity, the government should also respect it and see to it that a marriage is legally and decently entered into and given legal and honorable recognition, and is not lightly dissolved without serious and legitimate grounds (27); emphasis added.

Although the Westminster articles on divorce are without confessional precedent in the Reformed churches, they are understandable given the historical circumstances of the Westminster Assembly. By the Solemn League and Covenant (1643) both Assembly and Parliament were sworn to preserve and extend “the reformed religion and to “endeavor to bring the Churches of God in the three kingdoms [Scotland, England, and Ireland] to the nearest conjunction and uniformity in [that] religion” (1st vow). As its dual title indicates, the Solemn League and Covenant was a political instrument as well as a religious commitment. At its heart lay “the conviction that the unity of a society inheres in its religion and church.”

Given the conception of a religiously unified society and the intimate connection between church and state that obtains under such circumstances, it is not surprising to find the social institution of marriage among the articles of religion addressed by the Westminster Confession. The Assembly no doubt judged that the unity of both church and society would be well-served by a confessional exposition of the doctrine of marriage, including the biblical grounds for its dissolution, a controversial issue in 17th century Britain. The Scottish Parliament, already in 1573 had enacted legislation which allowed divorce for desertion. With Anglo-catholic on the one hand, still arguing that marriage was indissoluble, and Milton, on the other, lobbying for divorce on grounds of incompatibility, the question could hardly be ignored as it was bound to have an effect on the civil law.

As it turned out, Parliament did not take the “humble advice” of its assembled divines on this issue but omitted the paragraphs on divorce in its authorized edition of the Confession published in 1648. The Savoy Declaration (1658) also chose to do without them, so it has fallen to the Presbyterian churches to wrestle with their confessional status.

Between the rigorous Anglican view and the relaxed view of Milton the Westminster position on divorce might seem to be a golden mean, but it was not adopted for any reason other than that it was believed to be biblical.

The Text of The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 24, Of Marriage and Divorce:—

I. Marriage is to be between one man and one woman: neither is it lawful for any man to have more than one wife, nor for any woman to have more than one husband at the same time.

II. Marriage was ordained for the mutual help of husband and wife; for the increase of mankind with a legitimate issue, and of the Church with an holy seed; and for preventing of uncleanness.

III. It is lawful for all sorts of people to marry who are able with judgment to give their consent. Yet it is the duty of Christians to marry only in the Lord. And, therefore, such as profess the true reformed religion should not marry with infidels, Papists, or other idolaters: neither should such as are godly be unequally yoked, by marrying with such as are notoriously wicked in their life, or maintain damnable heresies.

IV. Marriage ought not to be within the degrees of consanguinity or affinity forbidden in the Word; nor can such incestuous marriages ever be made lawful by any law of man, or consent of parties, so as those persons may live together, as man and wife. The man may not marry any of his wife’s kindred nearer in blood than he may of his own, nor the woman of her husband’s kindred nearer in blood than of her own.
[Note: this is the original text of the Confession; most American Presbyterian denominations have made changes to this paragraph, softening the statement so as to allow for marriage to a deceased wife’s sister.]

V. Adultery or fornication, committed after a contract, being detected before marriage, giveth just occasion to the innocent party to dissolve that contract. In the case of adultery after marriage, it is lawful for the innocent party to sue out a divorce, and after the divorce to marry another, as if the offending party were dead.

VI. Although the corruption of man be such as is apt to study arguments, unduly to put asunder those whom God hath joined together in marriage; yet nothing but adultery, or such willful desertion as can no way be remedied by the Church or civil magistrate, is cause sufficient of dissolving the bond of marriage; wherein a public and orderly course of proceeding is to be observed; and the persons concerned in it, not left to their own wills and discretion in their own case.



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