If “Holy Matrimony” is a sacrament, “Marriage” is the earthly element…kind of

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Rev'd Dr John Bombaro

The Rev’d Dr. John Bombaro

I was pleased to hear this episode of the Christ & Culture podcast by Rev’d Scott Stiegemeyer, in which he interviews the Rev’d Dr. John Bombaro (HT: the Rev’d Sem. Kyle Richardson). The two discuss the differences between “Marriage” and “Holy Matrimony.” What Dr. Bombaro suggests as a way forward is somewhat similar to what I suggested in my piece yesterday. Very interesting show! Give it a listen.

I don’t mean to say that Dr. Bombaro would agree with everything that I wrote; he may not. He very well may be right, and I may be wrong to desire that Christians still have their marriages solemnized by the state. At this point, though, I really do think that there is value in participating in the civil institution of marriage as well as Holy Matrimony. I believe it’s part of rendering to Caesar, submitting to the governing authorities, etc., even the evil ones (note that St. Paul wrote Romans 13 in reference to Nero!); until and unless the “magistrate” orders us to sin, I think we participate in the custom of civil marriage until the natural-law husk is completely gone. I also think that if Holy Matrimony is a sacrament (and I believe it is— of a sort), it actually relies upon natural marriage, it doesn’t replace it.

The Kingdom of the Left— which, although it is not coextensive with civil government, does include it— is God’s kingdom, as well. “When Gentiles, who do not have the Law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the Law. They show that the work of the Law is written on their hearts” (Romans 2:14-15a). The civil, “Gentile” State still does “by nature do what the Law requires” with respect to marriage. It does. A man and a woman can still go and be married according to the laws of the land, and this is still a civilly-righteous good. On the other hand, it is true that the State now also sanctions an evil, aberrant practice. But is this news? No, it’s not (although it is its own kind of big deal). If the state forbids marriage, if it attempts to force abortion, etc.— then, and only then, that is, at the point where the State is commanding Christians to disobey God’s Law, then we take leave of the State’s commands commands and obey God rather than men.

I especially appreciated how Dr. Bombaro advocates for the reclamation by Lutherans of the historic, Confessional language regarding marriage, namely that it is indeed a sacrament, albeit a second-order one that is not necessary for salvation. Marriage was not first a sacrament: at its inception it was a “creation ordinance”, instituted by God in Paradise before the fall into sin. It remains so today. The Augsburg Confession, Article XVI, “Of Civil Affairs,” clearly identifies it as such:

Of Civil Affairs they teach that lawful civil ordinances are good works of God, and that it is right for Christians to bear civil office, to sit as judges, to judge matters by the Imperial and other existing laws, to award just punishments, to engage in just wars, to serve as soldiers, to make legal contracts, to hold property, to make oath when required by the magistrates, to marry a wife, to be given in marriage. (CA XVI.1-2)

The Apology explicates the nature of marriage in Article XIII (Of the Number and Use of the Sacraments) and at even greater length in Article XXIII (Of the Marriage of Priests):

Matrimony was not first instituted in the New Testament, but in the beginning, immediately on the creation of the human race. It has, moreover, God’s command; it has also promises, not indeed properly pertaining to the New Testament, but pertaining rather to the bodily life. (XIII.14)

[B]ecause this creation or divine ordinance in man is a natural right, jurists have accordingly said wisely and correctly that the union of male and female belongs to natural right. But since natural right is immutable, the right to contract marriage must always remain. For where nature does not change, that ordinance also with which God has endowed nature does not change, and cannot be removed by human laws… Therefore let this remain in the case which both Scripture teaches and the jurist says wisely, namely, that the union of male and female belongs to natural right. Moreover, a natural right is truly a divine right, because it is an ordinance divinely impressed upon nature. But inasmuch as this right cannot be changed without an extraordinary work of God, it is necessary that the right to contract marriage remains, because the natural desire of sex for sex is an ordinance of God in nature, and for this reason is a right; otherwise, why would both sexes have been created? (Apol XXIII.9, 11-12)

Thus at its essence it remains a creation/civil ordinance, though one could say that it is raised to the level of a sacrament (of Holy Matrimony) by the blessing of Christ at the Wedding at Cana and His declaration in Matthew 19:6, “What God hath joined together, let not man put asunder”, as well as the expressly sacramental language of St. Paul in Ephesians 5: “‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound (sacramentum hoc magnum est), and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.”

We should remember, though, that by sanctifying marriage in this way— Himself and through His apostle— Christ did not obliterate or remake its essence. The way of the Incarnation is to assume what is earthly and glorify it, not to consume or obliterate the earthly in some perverse Apollinarist divine apophagy. Grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it. From Apology XXIII, again:

[I]n believers marriage is pure because it has been sanctified by the Word of God, i.e., it is a matter that is permitted and approved by the Word of God, as Scripture abundantly testifies. For Christ calls marriage a divine union, when He says: “What God hath joined together, let not man put asunder” (Matthew 19:6). Here Christ says that married people are joined together by God. Accordingly, it is a pure, holy, noble, praiseworthy work of God. And Paul says of marriage, of meats and similar things: “It is sanctified by the Word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:5), i.e., by the Word, by which consciences become certain that God approves; and by prayer, i.e., by faith, which uses it with thanksgiving as a gift of God. Likewise: “The unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife” (1 Corinthians 7:14), etc., i.e., the use of marriage is permitted and holy on account of faith in Christ, just as it is permitted to use meat, etc.” (Apol XXIII.28b-31)

Nature is not evil per se, even when it is corrupted (cf. FC SD I). This is why the marriages of non-Christians are still valid, real marriages. Thus when marriage is solemnized or blessed in the Church, it is assumed, incorporated, raised up, adorned, and glorified as the icon of Christ and His Bride. It is the receiving of a natural good and blessing it for Christian use. Marriage becomes Holy Matrimony, yes, but it does not cease to retain its essence, cease to truly be marriage. One might make an analogy to the Sacramental Union in the Lord’s Supper: it is true and right to say that the bread in the Sacrament becomes (metabole) the Body of Christ; the wine, His Blood, etc. In becoming His true, real, physical Body, however, the bread does not cease to be bread; in becoming His true, real, physical Blood, the wine does not cease to be wine. The elements are made one with the Body and Blood of Christ in the mystery of the sacramental union, such as in the image from St. John Damascene (frequently cited in the Confessions in the exposition of the Two Natures in Christ) of the iron glowing with fire. I would posit that there is a similar relationship between the creation ordinance of civil marriage— which is only ever between a man and a woman— and the sacrament of Holy Matrimony: the latter incorporates the former; it in no way despises or replaces it.

Marriage is the kernel of good created nature that was left even after the fall; it remains a natural good, per reason and natural law. We should remember that “civil” does not by any means mean “profane”: we are not Anabaptists. It merely means “earthly” or “mundane.” Civil ordinances belong to the Law of God, which animates and governs all of creation. We can ignore it. We can exchange its truth for a lie. But we cannot change one jot or tittle of it. “As little as we or they have been given the power to make a woman out of a man or a man out of a woman,” Blessed Doctor Luther writes in the Smalcald Articles, “or to nullify either sex, so little have they had the power to sunder and separate such creatures of God, or to forbid them from living and cohabiting honestly in marriage with one another” (SA XI.2, Of the Marriage of Priests).

Bless and sanctify the marriages of your members, Pastors, or administer the sacrament of Holy Matrimony; either way, it amounts to the same good thing. At the same time, defend the goodness of God’s law by praising the divine institution of civil marriage for all men, Christian and non-Christian alike, in the hope that all would eventually be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. It may feel like Isaiah’s job, but I’m sure you didn’t receive that other second-order sacrament, Holy Ordination, because you wanted to be popular.



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