Ethics through Covenant: A Primer on Progressive Covenantalism and Moral Theology (Part 2)

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(2) Applied Theology Excursus: Marriage and Progressive Covenantalism

Part one of this essay looked to explain the ethical hermeneutics of Progressive Covenantalism. In this second section, I want to take an issue of moral significance—marriage—and explain how a Progressive Covenantalist would understand the institution of marriage in light of challenges made to it by revisionist accounts of marriage, particularly so-called same-sex marriage.

Marriage in Creation and the OT Covenants

Scripture puts marriage at the forefront of its narrative “from the beginning,” as Jesus notes in Matthew 19:4. A moral reality that stems from the covenant of creation, God orders marriage to be complementary (relating to the male-female binary), procreative, permanent, and sexually monogamous (Gen. 1:26–28; Gen. 2:18–24). Marriage is a dynamic institution given for the purpose of exercising dominion over creation. Though Adam and Eve’s marriage is marred by sin, Scripture promises that it is through successive generations, born from the fruit of future marriages, that one will come who will be born of a woman and who will crush the head of the Serpent. Even as a creational ordinance post-fall, marriage is viewed as a conduit of expected redemption (Gen. 3:14–19).

As we approach the Noahic Covenant, marriage’s ongoing validity is affirmed. It is a creational platform that God uses to advance creation order tied to the overall creation mandate (Gen. 9:1). Indeed, it is essential to a newly re-constituted creation order, now in a post-fall world, for marriage to continue as the normative outlet for sexual expression as it was first created to be. It is through a reliable creation order that the storyline of redemption unfolds.

Moving ahead to the Abrahamic Covenant, we see Abram and Sarai as a married couple. Indeed, their struggle with infertility within the covenant of marriage must be set against the larger canonical horizon that sees the lineage of Israel develop through God opening the womb of Sarai, even though she is past typical child-bearing years. It is through the lineage of this first family, rooted in the promise of Genesis 3:15, that God works through Israel as the chosen nation to eventually unveil the Christ and to make known the “mystery of his will” (Eph. 1:9–10).

Approaching the Mosaic Covenant, the institution of marriage and the need to honor one’s vows is upheld in the seventh commandment’s call for fidelity (Ex. 20:14). The seventh commandment must be viewed as a commandment to regulate the institution that God established in Genesis. Furthermore, even though Israel has unique marriage practices that are not required of other nations (Deut. 7:3; Josh. 23:12; 1 Kings 11:2), marriage is still understood, ontologically, as a conjugal and complementary union of one man and one woman.

The Law of Moses, combined with Proverbs and other wisdom literature that is built upon the Mosaic Law is perhaps the best place to find the most explicit instructions for marriage. Passages like Leviticus 18 come to mind, where Moses lists out all the violations of God’s sexual union in marriage (these prohibitions are for the most part the unpacking of the one flesh relationship of Genesis 2). But we also find an exposition of the seventh commandment in Deuteronomy 22:13–23:18. In Moses’s development of the seventh commandment, there is an explanation for how God created marriage and what he expects from marriage. Clearly, the Mosaic Law did not initiate marriage, but it does provide some of the clearest reflections on the institution, which harkens back to creation and develops through the biblical covenants.

Finally, in the Davidic Covenant, marriage continues as the normative ideal. Despite his infidelities and multiple wives, David first marries Michal (1 Sam. 18:20–27). Though polygamous marriages exist in the Old Testament, polygamy is never depicted as a moral ideal or morally normative. Its existence, perhaps like divorce, is a sinful concession that humanity only arrives at by having already previously disobeyed God. Moreover, polygamy often results in strife, jealousy, and sibling rivalry—sometimes leading to death. In this way, God’s Word actually argues against polygamy and for God’s original design.

Thus, throughout the entire Old Testament, from the very beginning, marriage is a creational institution. Yet, it is also eschatologically inflected and points to the New Covenant.

Marriage Under the New Covenant

What do we say about marriage as we approach the New Covenant? Aside from the reality that Jesus’s own upbringing occurs within the Genesis-prescribed family unit of Joseph and Mary, we must begin with Jesus’s re-affirmation of creation order in Matthew 19:4–6. In these verses, Jesus ratifies the creational pattern for marriage originally given in Genesis 1–2.

While Paul offers an ennobling vision for vocational celibacy and wishes for others to mimic his freedom, Paul’s ethic does not nullify marriage as a creation order institution (1 Corinthians 7). Paul merely situates marriage beneath a larger eschatological horizon that is most fully articulated in the famous passage from Ephesians 5:22–33. As we learn in those verses, the institution of creaturely marriage is ultimately designed to reveal and point forward to a greater covenantal reality, namely, the Christ-church union. For this reason, as important as created marriage is, in the end, it gives way to the new creation reality of God’s people forever in covenant union and fellowship with the triune God in and through the glorified Son.

Crucially, however, nowhere in the New Covenant does either Paul or Jesus suspend or negate the fundamental structure of marriage’s creational intelligibility in this present time until Christ returns. Covenantal progression confirms and ratifies the existence and intelligibility of marriage. Marriage vows are to be upheld and the rest of the New Testament offers much instruction for the proper ordering of marriage relations within the household (1 Cor. 6:12–20; Col. 3:18; 1 Pet. 3:7; Heb. 13:4). The Holy Spirit empowers Christians to order their marriage in accordance with creaturely blessing and in view of marriage as a heavenly archetype. Christians today, then, understand the social significance of their marriage to the common good even as we insist on our marriages serving as an icon of the gospel.

What are the practical moral implications of marriage within a progressive covenantalist framework? The most obvious truth is that marriage retains ontological existence as established in Genesis until the consummation. What occurs in the New Covenant is not a repudiation of marriage as a creational norm, but an eschatological illumination and heightening of marriage’s ultimate telos. Marriage, we learn, has a Christological gloss. And thus, every true marriage would do well to conform itself not only to the pattern of creation, but also the new creation which is found in Christ and his church.

Marriage Today

Following the progress of the covenants raises the question for how we, as Christians, understand marriage today. This is where the order of creation and the order of redemption come into focus and where Progressive Covenantalism yields a greater conceptual framework to understand how ethical normativity is retained. From the perspective of Progressive Covenantalism, marriage keeps its creational normativity even while Christians have a heightened and illumined understanding of what marriage ultimately represents.

Even if marriage ultimately reflects the Christ-church union, that does not override or veto the ongoing creational need for marriage in the present-age. While there will be no marriages in the final state (Matt. 22:30), because that final state has not yet been consummated, Christians find themselves needing to affirm the creational normativity of marriage. This we do even while we understand, from an internal perspective gained anew by our regeneration, that our own marriages reflect an even more profound reality than just creation order, but the order of redemption.

Thus, looking from the perspective of a New Covenant Christian, the order of redemption confirms the ontological nature of marriage established in Genesis and is sequentially affirmed in each proceeding covenant. We can thus say that marriage has abiding validity within the order of creation and heightened significance from the perspective of the order of redemption. Marriage’s creation order significance and marriage’s redemptive order ratification thus overlap in the present, already-not-yet-age that awaits final consummation.

The practical moral implications are as follows:

  • Even in this present age, by virtue of where marriage was given in creation order and re-affirmed throughout Scripture, human beings are male and female, and their complementary design entails the possibility of procreation.
  • Because the act that unites them as one flesh is also the same act that can bring forth new life, marriage must be seen as the institution befitting the needs of children to be cared for and the broader society to have a supply of citizens who can meaningfully cooperate as productive citizens.
  • Because marriage enters the creational stage “from the beginning” and nowhere is the creational normativity of marriage suspended but only ratified in the New Covenant, Christians understand that our marriages are of the same ontological nature as the marriages of non-Christians, even though non-Christians may not understand the intent, full purpose, and glory of God’s creation of marriage.
  • Insofar as complementarity is present (i.e. the marriage is between a man and a woman), marriage’s essential criteria are satisfied. A Hindu man and an atheist woman are truly, ontologically, married in the same way that a Christian man and a Christian woman are married because complementarity is present.
  • True marriage—even in this age—is not contingent on those entering a marriage to have a correct theological view of marriage to be truly married. Yet only the Christian marriage understands the fullest stakes of their marriage. Their marriage is not merely for their own creaturely satisfaction. It is a conduit of divine blessing as the Christian couple loves, serves, and sacrifices for each other as a reflection of what Paul says is true in Ephesians 5:22–33.

As we think about the social ramifications for a Christian ethic of marriage, we can speak in at least two categories: The structural reality of marriage and the practical implications of marriage for society. Structurally, government has an obligation to have the truth of marriage reflected in its laws since marriage is a creation order institution that has not been suspended. Government is likewise a creation ordinance meant to execute justice, so it is obligatory that government have true marriage laws in which to communicate social expectations for sexual activity and social needs of society to have well-reared citizens.

This has two ramifications for thinking about same-sex marriage. First, same-sex marriage does not exist in reality, because its existence countermands what Scripture depicts as a creational reality brought into being by the conjugality of man and woman. Second, the fiction of so-called “same-sex” marriage harms true marriage by obscuring what marriage is. Marriage is not simply the emotional and erotic union of two persons, regardless of sex. Rather, marriage is the complementary union of husband and wife whose union is oriented to reproduction.

How we understand marriage as New Covenant Christians is ultimately revealed in the witness of Jesus Christ and the rest of the New Testament’s teaching. By this full and final revelation, all previous dealings with marriages are taken, on the whole, as canonical Scripture. Importantly, starting in creation and working through the progress of the covenants and the development of marriage along the lines of the covenants amplifies our understanding of marriage. Nevertheless, as New Covenant Christians, we root our understanding of marriage in the covenant to which all the others pointed.[1] But again, the New Covenant does not suspend, abrogate, or loosen us from creation order set forth in Genesis. Rather, the New Covenant testifies to the ongoing durability of creation order as an intelligible and morally-normative set of conditions.

1. Incidentally, marriage is actually a powerful metaphor for God’s covenant with Israel, thus providing a further reason for understanding marriage along the lines of progressive Covenantalism.

One last word is necessary for why Progressive Covenantalism is a helpful heuristic to combat hermeneutical error in matters of moral theology. I have heard biblically faithful Christians frame marriage as an ecclesial ordinance only. So, the thinking goes: Christians can exempt themselves from disputes about culture’s marriage debates because insofar as we can practice marriage for ourselves, then all is well. But as I have been at pains to argue in this essay, that view of marriage would be incorrect since marriage retains its creational normativity into the present age. Of course, marriage vows should be held accountable in the local church. But the creational pillar that marriage is in Scripture requires that governments uphold the truth of marriage as well.

In the third and final essay installment, I will look at how Progressive Covenantalism better grounds one of the most important doctrines in all of Christian ethics—the natural law. While the natural law tradition has well-deserved prominence in the history of Christian ethics, it has often been treated as a vague or abstract “force” or “order.” Progressive Covenantalism, while not offering a conceptual distinction in what the natural law is, offers a better biblical justification for how to ground the natural law’s continuing authority.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Author

  • Andrew T. Walker

    Andrew T. Walker is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he also serves as an Associate Dean in the School of Theology. He is a Fellow with The Ethics and Public Policy Center and Managing Editor of WORLD Opinions. He and his family are members of Highview Baptist Church where he leads a Sunday community group and men’s Bible study.

Andrew T. Walker

Andrew T. Walker

Andrew T. Walker is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he also serves as an Associate Dean in the School of Theology. He is a Fellow with The Ethics and Public Policy Center and Managing Editor of WORLD Opinions. He and his family are members of Highview Baptist Church where he leads a Sunday community group and men’s Bible study.