Marriage and the Law-Gospel distinction

I wanted to highlight a section from this Peter Berger article I linked to earlier because it’s similar to something I’ve written before, but Berger is a smarty-pants intellectual and I’m just some guy, so it should carry more weight coming from him. This is the notion that the Lutheran view (or maybe “a” Lutheran view) is that marriage is part of the civil order (Law), not the order of redemption (Gospel) . That being the case, it’s amenable to being changed if people determine that human well-being is better served by such change.

Berger writes:

I am a Lutheran, though hardly an orthodox one. People who find out that I am politically conservative, but theologically liberal, get seasick: if they like my politics, they are baffled by my theology, and vice versa. While I would be unable to subscribe to the full text of the Unaltered Augsburg Confession, there are key elements of Lutheranism that continue to appeal to me. One of them is the distinction between Law and Gospel. Everything we call “society” and “politics” falls under the category of Law—to be approached responsibly and prudently, not in the high tones of prophecy. The Law is not part of the redemptive process, the Gospel does not provide inerrant rules for the order of society. Accordingly, the Lutheran Reformation declared marriage not to be a sacrament of the church. It belonged to the realm of Law, not of Gospel. It seems that marriages were not celebrated in church in the early days of the Reformation. A marriage was constituted by the act of the two individuals setting up a common household, not by any act performed by clergy—after the act by the couple had already occurred, it was blessed by a minister outside the walls of the church. Therefore, marriage is not to be understood as a sacred entity, but rather as a socially useful and morally acceptable institution—as such subject to prudential considerations. I find this a very helpful way of thinking about it.

He goes on to make the point that “traditional” marriage is a relatively recent construct that differs in significant ways from marriage as it is portrayed in the Bible (or as it existed in the pre-modern world more generally). When conservatives talk about defending traditional marriage, he says, what they’re usually referring to is bourgeois marriage, which really only dates back to about the 18th century. This is the view of marriage ” in which women were no longer a possession but a partner, in which the married couple set up a household separate from wider kin (the ‘nuclear family’), where the spouses were ideally bound together by romantic love, and where children were regarded as very special beings with distinctive rights.”

Berger comes to a different conclusion than I would–instead of full-fledged marriage equality, he advocates replacing civil marriage with two categories of civil unions, one for households where children are involved and one where they aren’t–but I also find this a helpful way of thinking about the nature of marriage. If marriage is ultimately a matter of the “kingdom of the left,” to use traditional Lutheran terminology, then it’s a matter of ordering our common life together, not a matter of ultimate salvation. In other words, it isn’t a sacred, unchangeable reality, but a flexible institution that can and should be modified to accommodate new insights and changing views on things like gender roles and sexual orientation.

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