Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Who was right, Luther or Westminster?

From Orthodoxy's point of view, protestantism is altogether too individualistic. But there is one area where you can't be individualistic: Marriage. Marriage affects the two people. It affects their parents. It affects their relatives. It affects their children. It affects the community. We can't have personal interpretation in this arena.

Also, from Orthodoxy's point of view, many more things in protestantism are Tradition than protestants would care to admit.

So it's interesting that the Westminster Confession has something to say about marriage:

"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."

But this is just one interpretation. Many have noted that the bible does not condemn polygamy.

Many have felt that Paul's letters are carefully worded not to condemn polygamy. For example 1Cor 7:10 "The wife should not leave her husband (but if she does leave, she must remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife". But it doesn't say the husband must remain unmarried. Perhaps that wouldn't make sense in the case of polygamy?

Or 1Cor. 7:39 "A wife is bound as long as her husband lives; but if her husband is dead, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord". Paul doesn't say a husband is bound.

Some have seen in 1Tim. 3:2 "An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife", an admission that non-overseers may have multiple wives.

Others have seen in Luke 16:18 “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery" permission to marry another provided you don't divorce the first.

Lest one say this is creative interpretation, of course we have the precedent of the the patriarchs. Abraham, Jacob, David, Solomon practiced it. Purely on a sola-scriptura basis we've got an interpretation backed up by the hard evidence of the scriptural practice. And Deuteronomy 21:15-17 has explicit instructions for husbands with more than one wife. The laws of Deuteronomy are the law of God, not just a concession of Moses.

But would any Christian in their right mind come to such a conclusion? Well, actually...

In the 1988 Lambeth Conference of the Anglican Church, held in Canterbury England one of the African delegates proposed that polygamous Africans who converted to Christianity with their families should be allowed to retain their multiple wives. The reasons he gave was: (1) that it was a practice approved by the Old Testament; (2) that it is not specifically forbidden in the New Testament; and (3) that from a humanitarian point of view it would be unfair and cruel for the wives and children of such relationships to suddenly be made widows and fatherless, with no one to take care of them. The conference approved his proposal.

We can grant the humanitarian argument, but the argument from scripture is instructive about how protestants interpret scripture. In parts of Africa, the central missionary question is polygamy. The locals consider the Bible to be quite clear on the subject. Polygamy is fine in the Old Testament; and even in the New, it is only bishops who are required to be 'the husband of one wife.'

But would anyone not in this special situation advocate polygamy? Well, actually...

"I confess that I cannot forbid a person to marry several wives, for it does not contradict the Scripture. If a man wishes to marry more than one wife he should be asked whether he is satisfied in his conscience that he may do so in accordance with the word of God. In such a case the civil authority has nothing to do in the matter." -- Martin Luther, (De Wette II, 459, ibid., pp. 329-330.) and "what is permitted in the Mosaic law, is not forbidden in the Gospel" (De Wette-Seidemann, VI, 239-244; "Corp. Ref.", III, 856-863)

Philip the Magnanimous, took up Luther's advice and took a second wife. Philip lived with both wives, both of whom bore him children, causing a great scandal in the German church.

Also, some of the radical Anabaptists started practicing polygamy for the same reasons.

How is sola scriptura workable as a rule of faith FOR THE CHURCH, when the teaching of the Westminster Confession is that only monogamy is scriptural, but the founder of the reformation says that scripture has nothing to say against polygamy? If you conceed the bible hasn't a clear teaching, you conceed that sola scripture fails for the content of the WC, and you cede the debate. If you side with Luther, you have to explain how sola scriptura can be working if the very confession of your own church has got it wrong, and if you side with the WC you have to show where the bible is so clear in this teaching that all Christians can clearly understand it in opposition to the scriptural teaching that explicitely allows it and you have to explain how come you are contradicted by Luther and others.

I might add that in the area of marriage, romance and relationships, people aren't going to accept any weak arguments to stand in the way of their affections. It's going to have to be rock solid to work this time. No obfuscation on this one.

Neither can you fall back to saying that marriage isn't an important issue. Marriage isn't an obscure theological issue that we can ruminate on in our retirement years. Young hormone filled people with no theological training need clear authoritative teaching, and they need it now.

Which way do you want to jump?

No comments: