13 February 2017

Martin Bucer's Grounds for Divorce

Martin Bucer as an intermediary between Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli, by Josef Ehrismann

Here we finally get to what Martin Bucer wrote about divorce (and remarriage), which helped me along in my journey through divorce. For those wanting the complete story, check out Marriage and Divorce in the Thought of Martin Bucer by Herman J. Selderhuis. What follows has been culled mostly from this book (the page numbers throughout correspond to it).


Irreconcilable Differences:
As a result of a lack of love and good will, a marriage has irreparably broken down. In this instance (which is decidedly not a matter of trifling disagreement), while the divorce is as yet unofficial, the marriage in fact has ceased to exist, in that personal relations are essential to the existence of a marriage.
. . . there is no true marriage between them, who agree not in true consent of mind; so it will be the part of godly magistrates to procure that no matrimony be among their subjects, but what is knit with love and consent.
(Lifted from chap. XIX of John Milton's translation of Bucer's De Regno Christi.)

This entails the obvious—extramarital sex—but also the withholding of sex, according to Bucer. The withholding of sex also includes being guility of driving the other toward sexual immorality, which marriage in part is meant to thwart. "Unilateral abstinence not only leads to but is adultery" (p. 289). (How's that for a response to being caught sleeping with the neighbor's wife? "You drove me to do it with all your conveniently placed headaches!")

Desertion or Banishment:
Included here is geographical separation, either deliberately or as a result of a cause out of their control (e.g., imprisonment, soldiers of wars, commercial travelers who fail to return, etc.). Deserters are "certifiable marriage-wreckers" (p. 293). Such "unchristian conduct is proof of unbelief," Bucer wrote (p. 294).

Sexual Relations:
"Conjugal work" is so important for marriage, said Bucer, that where it is refused or cannot be rendered, a divorced has to be legitimated.

Psychological and Physical Factors:
If sexual intimacy is rendered impossible due to psychological or physical illness, then a divorce is to be legitimated (clearly this is a pre-Viagra world). Bucer's thinking primarily of all forms of "dementia" here. Physical illness refers to anything that renders sexual intimacy permanently impossible. (But note, where Bucer saw a legitimate grounds for divorce, Luther saw an opportunity to serve God by serving the spouse in his or her illness, and thus the opportunity to live up to one's salvation, p. 295.) Both Bucer and Luther in the end agreed that indefinite impotence was grounds.

The Pauline Privilege:
Apparently at the time among Protestants, a divorce was permitted when an unbelieving partner no longer wished to live together with the believing partner (i.e., desertion; 1 Cor. 7:15). But this only applied if the deserting spouse was an unbeliever from the beginning. If he or she becomes an unbeliever after the marriage, then the only recourse is legal separation, with no possibility of remarriage for either parties.

Bucer took umbrage with this common interpretation: if an unbelieving spouse divorces, he argued, then the believing spouse is free to remarry. Unbelief in this instance is seen in the fruit—one who leaves his spouse for unsanctioned reasons and divorces shows him- or herself to be an unbeliever, in violation of God's Word (see Eph. 5:1–33). Also, "the refusal of sexual communion is disobedience to a divine mandate and therefore unbelief" (p. 304).

Insofar as there are no other grounds for divorce, the believer is absolutely not permitted to leave the unbelieving partner. The believing partner must persevere as long as possible. Only when the other categorically refuses intercourse and to show love and fidelity and there's no longer any hope for change, can the believing spouse divorce (p. 306).

Physical and Emotional Abuse:
In instances of physical abuse that is habitual and harsh, the spouse may divorce (these qualifiers of "habitual" and "harsh" will no doubt run against the grain of our modern sensibilities. We would say now—and rightly so—to take every legal measure possible to extricate yourself from an abusive relationship, before it gets physical). Wherein a spouse becomes a tyrant (emotional abuse), a dissolution of the marriage is permitted. The courts are bound to deliver the victim from unjust tyranny (pp. 308–309).
"God instituted marriage so that a [spouse] would receive love and faithfulness form the other and not ugly language, pain, and grief." The divorce is legit if a spouse receives nothing but "ranting, pounding, beating, pain, and agony" (p. 309).

Special Calling:
Divorce is permitted in response to a special call, that is, to a monastery or nunnery. Very few people are called in this manner, noted Bucer.

A legitimate divorce may be procured in response to a serious crimes perpetrated by a spouse—murder, sedition, and abortion are noted as examples by Bucer.

* * *

In all of these instances, it is important to note Bucer's premise: an attempt must be made—at least initially—to bring about reconciliation. Yet the innocent party must not be forced so to do. If there are legitimate grounds for divorce, a Christian must forgive (without continuing to tolerate toxic behavior and habits), but that does not necessarily entail staying. If he or she finds that they are not able, on account of what has happened, to love the other with an open mind and heart and to maintain full communion of life with him or her, then no obligation to stay married remains.

Even the guilty can remarry before God, according to Bucer, provided they repent (pp. 317–18). Perhaps somewhat contradictorily, even if they don't repent, he thought it was probably better that they do remarry, despite his recognition of 1 Corinthians 7:10, which suggests that a spouse who leaves the other for an invalid reason must remain unmarried (p. 318). But Bucer thought that marriage as a divine mandate trumps all the other concerns put forth about remarriage (p. 321). Why? Because, as I wrote in the previous post, in the end he thought it better before God to sin less by remarrying than to "fornicate."

06 February 2017

Divorce—Cowardice or Courage?

It's important to state every so often along the way in the course of this divorce discussion that it wasn't completely one-sided. My ex, depending on your point of view, was either a coward or courageous. But our relationship had died years before, not least due to my own words and actions. 

I was holding on because I had a bottom-line commitment to the ideal of the lifelong marital bond (absent adultery and abuse—but even then I had thought in theory that reconciliation was best). We did not share that fundamental starting point, apparently. But this presses into all sorts of other questions, perhaps most importantly the questions revolving around—from a Christian perspective—what constitutes a viable divorce beyond adultery and abuse (emotional or physical). And this is, again, where Martin Bucer comes in.

The vertigo from being left is felt as a result of the shock of its coming, even if you had seen it coming for a while. Unrequited love may or may not be wrapped up in that shock, and of course that just sucks. There are no more words to add to that kind of pain. Suffice to say, you will read Le Morte d'Arthur, Remains of the Day and The Sun Also Rises in a new way.

Rejection, shame, wounded pride—all of these get mixed in there too. I was truly a mess for a time (fighting off apostasy as much as anything else), but I still don't think I can put a finger on the precise feelings that made up why I was reacting the way I did. I thought perhaps love for my ex had something to do with it, but even now I'm not so sure. Perhaps it was more a love of what was lost: the best that was yet to be, would never be. I do know this much: the event unfolding before me went against a core value—an identity marker—and that goes a long way to at least helping me understand the devastating affect it was having on me at the time.

We must not forget that the leaver has also experienced the pain the leavee is feeling. They've simply walked that path already, and probably more slowly. The one being left is playing catch-up in this instance, and that's also a part of what makes the upheaval so intense. The resolved (or seemingly cold) nature of the leaver jars the leavee, but, again, that's likely because the leaver turned the corner long ago. If grace is every going to be a factor in your handling of divorce, continually humanizing the other is necessary (hypocrisy alert!), which, of course, doesn't entail winking at toxic behavior.

And speaking of human dignity, Bucer's views on divorce and remarriage were meant to uphold exactly that. If you're unfamiliar with the going narrative, the gist is that the majority of Reformers stuck to the Catholic line on divorce, even if they jettisoned the notion that marriage is itself a sacrament—preferring instead to locate it within the context of a civil institution rather than within the church. If the late medieval Catholic teaching on divorce is flattened out to be that the church simply never recognized divorce a vinculo (a total divorce), even in response to adultery (where it would grant a divorce a mensa et a thora, i.e., a legal separation), then that doesn't hold up. Most of the early Reformers did indeed affirm a complete divorce in response to adultery.

So, while it's not a total mistake to consider Bucer's views as more liberal than say, Calvin's or Luther's, it's very easy to overstate the case. Mere freedom wasn't his major concern; caring for abandoned women and children was. In short, the majority of Reformers—Calvin and Luther included—argued that divorce is allowed in certain scriptural cases, in which the "innocent" party is permitted to remarry another person (and I can only think of a very few instances where one party is, indeed, "innocent"). Bucer said the same (and he did interpret those biblical reasons more liberally than others), and he added that remarriage is also allowed across the board, because in the end he thought it better before God to sin less by remarrying than to "fornicate."

It's worth noting that it was in response to the perceived reformational laxity with respect to divorce and remarriage that the Council of Trent upped its ante on the indissolubility of marriage. (The oddity that is seen among—in my experience—the patriarchal Reformed crowd nudges up against this view, which admittedly gets its impetus from WCF 24.) This brief article in the January/February 2017 issue of Christianity Today covers the ground fairly well, even if it necessarily lacks nuance at key points: "Divorce and Remarriage from Augustine to Zwingli." Here's a more in-depth historical overview from the old Winnipeg Theological Seminary's Trinity Journal: "Divorce and Remarriage from the Early Church To John Wesley." (Note the bit about John Milton, who was undoubtedly influenced by Bucer in this regard.)

I find that I've chased a few other rabbits in this post, so allow me to pick up with Bucer immediately in the next one.

31 January 2017

Saving Your Marriage Isn't the Goal

Remember that I warned you about how deeply existential and one-sided my thoughts on divorce would be. I only expect that to continue.

In my last post, I intended to grope toward and commend the viability of letting go. When someone has turned the corner, it's better to realize that finality sooner rather than later. Of course, there are always exceptions to this principle, and you will find the interwebs offering up a great many stories to that end, and many of them come with expansive and detailed—if not manipulative—formulas to help them materialize in your life. They will give you hope. For a time.

But then you should come to realize that many of the suggestions and practical steps only you can take to save your marriage do pay off—whether or not you end up staying married. Because in the final analysis, avoiding apostasy, rather than saving your marriage, is the goal. While it's true that there are fates worse than death (and, at least initially, divorce as I experienced it was one of them), it's also true that there are fates worse than divorce.

When facing the inevitable death of your marriage, after all the disbelief that it's happening, all the negotiating with God and your partner, you will eventually need to get on with acceptance. It starts with truly repenting and owning up to your part in the dissolution. This can be a sensitive and touchy subject for many, not least for those who have suffered from some form of abuse at the hands of their former spouse. I cannot pretend to speak to those particular victims, except to plead that they run from that relationship, and take every legal measure at their disposal to make it so.

I also learned quickly that "emotional abuse" is a very real thing, with very real and negative consequences for all parties involved (even if a notion like "mental cruelty" as a ground for divorce is I suspect more often than not a thinly veiled attempt to justify an unjustifiable no-fault divorce, or worse, to perform character assassination in a child custody case). Facing the grounds with which I was strapped at first, I dove deeply into the subject, not least out of fear in light of my life and actions. Did I actually provide legal (not to mention biblical) grounds for this divorce?

If you have a modicum of humility, when you're world is unraveling, and you're an emotional wreck, you are far more susceptible to believe everything being thrown at you, to take on far more blame than the situation warrants. Guard yourself. Do not walk alone during this time. Find an honest friend who knows you for real and who can respond to certain allegations about you with a more reasonable and objective clarity than you'll be able to muster. It also helps tremendously if he or she doesn't let you drink alone.

The truth is, even though it felt like I was being ripped apart at the (ontological) seams, I had given up on my marriage well before my ex initiated. There was a time after that but before her initiation that I tried to turn it all around, but if I'm being honest I think I had intuited it was too late, and so it was a last-ditch effort with no real hope of success.

So, if you're like me, which is to say an oddball interested in literature, history and theology, and if you find yourself in a similar predicament as me, you may find yourself looking for similar resources to help you walk through and eventually accept what's happening to you (and I don't mean that in a passive sense—for you brought this upon yourself as much as your partner did). Such resources involve digging into the scriptures, reading theologians of the church on issues revolving around marriage and divorce, swallowing tomes of angsty Gothic poetry and spinning multitudinous records of 80s ballad music (and some outlaw country, for good measure).

In order to help me make sense both of my failures (which I came to readily accept and confess—and of course I still have a ways to go in discerning all of them), my former spouse's failures (which I had to impute, never having had the luxury of receiving a mutual confession) and my need, given my oddball interests, to find some guidance within the historic church to my dilemma, I unsurprisingly found myself sitting at the feet of one Martin Bucer.

In my next post, I'll unpack what I learned from him. Maybe it'll help someone else out there.

10 January 2017

I'm Sorry for That

"The Myth of Sisyphus," by Nicci Bedson

I've been itching for a bit to put down in writing a little more after my initial post on divorce. Today I was inspired to do so when I read a post from a young evangelical who has walked a similar path. His stakes are no doubt higher (=greater courage)—not least with respect to keeping up appearances—so I figured I could at least shake some of my journaling out these past three years and see what sticks, without (I hope) succumbing to questionable motivations, as the aforementioned poster warns against when going public in this particular context. Being a feeler first, and a thinker second, I realize how distasteful this may be to whole swaths of what little readership I have. C'est la vie.

I was struck some time ago prior to his death a quote I'd heard Robin Williams say in World's Greatest Dad:
I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up alone. It's not. The worst thing in life is to end up with people that make you feel alone.
It succinctly summarized how I'd been feeling for so long, feelings that I'd previously found in the lyrical sentiment penned by Ben Folds back in the mid-90s:
Now that I've found someone,
I'm feeling more alone,
than I ever have before.
She's a brick and I'm drowning slowly. . . .
For the moment we're alone.
She's alone, and I'm alone.
Now I know it.
I can handle being alone—defined among the single crowd in terms of the absence of a monogamous, marital relationship—in contrast to being lonely. That's a healthy place to be. But handling the feeling of neglect and abandonment—as if you don't exist—from someone you've covenanted to love, that's well-nigh unbearable. I can see how it leads one to consider whether or not to live now, in reality (whether it be suicide or simply checking out), as "the only really serious philosophical question," as Camus suggested.

If you're the praying type, then one perhaps valuable prayer during times like these would be that God empower you to be freed from the need you feel for that other in the face of unrequited love. This isn't to suggest a desire to lose the ability to love deeply, to trust recklessly; you just want to be freed from having that other be the object of that love and trust.

It's okay to let go.

Now, I don't think it's unhealthy to be wrapped-up in another person (i.e., co-dependent in a very specific sense), insofar as one's identity (in Christ, for the Christian) isn't swallowed up in the process. Loving God with all one's heart, soul, mind and strength is a matter of priority, not a matter of exclusivity. I'm reminded in this that there is a place for speaking of God's love and trust as "risky"—risky in the sense that whenever a person opens him- or herself up to love and trust another, he or she runs the risk of it being unrequited. In some small way (given the parts we've all played in our own relational implosions), then, each of us who has had our deep love and affection and reckless trust betrayed, unrequited or used, taste the hurt, sadness and remorse that the covenant God feels in the face of the countless betrayals he has experienced at the hands of those to whom he has given everything.

In line with my penchant for unoriginality, I'll leave these thoughts here by commending a particular way to let go. I understand very well that many times it doesn't go in such a way that allows for this kind of parting (mine did not). At any rate, here's Theodore's last letter to Catherine for your inspiration:
Dear _____,  

I'm sitting here thinking about all the things I wanted to apologize to you for. All the pain we caused each other. Everything I put on you. Everything I needed you to be or needed you to say.  

I'm sorry for that.  

I'll always love you because we grew up together. You helped make me who I am. I just wanted you to know that there will be a piece of you in me always, and I'm grateful for that.  

Whatever someone you become, wherever you are in the world, I'm sending you my love. You're my friend till the end.  


28 June 2016

A Riff on Gaffin's Centrality of the Resurrection

Now almost forty years old, Richard Gaffin’s work on The Centrality of the Resurrection (republished as Resurrection and Redemption in 1987) still stands strong as a contrarian manifesto in late twentieth-century debates among confessional Reformed theologians, not least with respect to those issues deemed most important by the mainstream scholastic strain articulated in (mostly) American Reformed dogmatics. This work in many ways served as a harbinger of the coming hostile separations within those churches insofar as it “revised” (in the words of his opponents) doctrines essential to salvation—faith, redemption, justification, sanctification, and adoption—providing an alternative way to think of how salvation itself is accomplished and applied in this time between the coming of the Messiah and his reappearance.

At the risk of oversimplification, the contours of Gaffin’s theology emphasizes redemptive history (historia salutis) as the essential place in which the order of salvation (ordo salutis) works itself out. This he thinks serves as a corrective to the emphasis on the often abstract and forensic, juridical ordo at the expense of the historia within the Reformed tradition. Moreover, the center of the ordo as he explains it in this and other works, is not justification by faith alone (which entails the doctrine of the imputed righteousness of Christ, which in turn tends to focus only on his death, pp. 11–12 n.2, 15) but rather union with Christ wrought by the resurrection through Spirit-empowered faith. Put another way, the centerpiece of salvation consists in being and continuing to be united with Christ by faith in virtue of his resurrection, faith that, through the power of the Spirit, embraces the risen Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel (pp. 12–13, 135–36). Gaffin has often argued that this ordo is reflected at several points in the Reformed tradition, though not as clearly elaborated as one might wish. It’s at this point that he picks up on the ideas emphasized among the Dutch Reformed redemptive-historical school, most notably Geerhardus Vos in The Pauline Eschatology and Herman Ridderbos in Paul: An Outline of His Theology (as well as the Scot John Murray).

In Part 1, Gaffin lays out his “Methodological Considerations,” which in a nutshell serves as his apologetic to favor approaching scripture according to “biblical theological” methods that are consonant with “systematic theological” ones. They are not to be “arbitrarily and artificially separated" (for Gaffin, Vos embodies the former; Kuyper the latter). I realize in the 1970s it was especially popular to pit the former interpretative methodology against that of the systematic theologians, who over the years, it must be admitted, have contorted much of the canon by forcing it through some kind of procrustean pedagogical grid or, in Gaffin’s words, “encyclopaedic distinctions” (e.g., the covenant of works/grace schema—itself as historically situated and biased as that of the scripture’s original authors, not to mention of biblical-theological exegetes). We have to do better in this regard. This is not to suggest, however, that the turn toward history (or, redemptive-history in this instance) wasn’t necessary in the modern era. With the rise of socio-grammatical exegesis of scripture during the Reformation period came the need to understand the historical horizon in which these texts were written, as well as the mind by which they were produced. This also meant recognizing that an exegete’s understanding of the parts hinges on her understanding of a larger whole, which, again, can only be understood on the basis of the parts—the so-called hermeneutical circle. What does not lend itself to immediate understanding can be interpreted by means of philological work. Thus, the study of history became an indispensable tool in the process of unlocking hermetic meaning and language-use. But all of this Gaffin washes over, even if it’s lurking beneath the surface, and yet the very writers he heavily leans upon produced their works in precisely this light. Of course, Gaffin’s book is far more narrowly focused than to get into such epochal socio-cultural turns that led to the paradigmatic shifts across all theological traditions, not just the Reformed one. Nevertheless, perhaps his argument would have been better served if he made the case that his study embodies best what’s required—in light of the turn toward hermeneutics and history—to do the sort of theological and exegetical work he sets out to do in Centrality.

Parts 2–3 of the book contain Gaffin’s exegetical and theological account for this paradigmatic shift (the turn toward heilsgeschte and the resurrection) within the Reformed tradition, focusing, as the title indicates, on how the resurrection of Christ changes everything forever, and he goes on to traverse how that event plays out in the redemptive story, especially as told in the writings of St. Paul. People are saved, so Gaffin, not through belief in the finished work of Christ alone, and certainly not through belief in some set of doctrines about Christ, but through an “existential” and “experiential” union through which believers achieve “solidarity” with Christ. Believers, in short, participate with Christ in his benefits and thus obtain salvation (via the believer’s past spiritual resurrection—i.e., union through faith—and future bodily resurrection, pp. 33–62). Each soteriological loci—including but not limited to redemption, justification, sanctification, adoption, and glorification—was accomplished by Christ in his person and work, raised to life by the Father (pp. 62–66), and applied already (though not yet fully) to believers when they are unified with him by the power of the Spirit (pp. 66–74).

And what kicks this journey off? According to Gaffin, it’s baptism: “Baptism signifies and seals a transition in the experience of the recipient, a transition from being (existentially) apart from Christ to being (existentially) joined to him. Galatians 3:27 is even more graphic: ‘Those who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ’ (cf. I Cor. 12:13)” (pp. 50–51). This union with Christ thus commences with baptism—“the inception of the individual Christian existence, the moment of being joined existentially to Christ” (p. 58), thereby causing participation in the very accomplishments and subsequent rewards of the risen Christ (p. 129). Since Christ himself was redeemed (delivered from death) via the resurrection (pp. 114–17), those who have been raised with him participate in that same deliverance. Just as the resurrection forensically declared Jesus to be God’s Son, at that time adopted as the second Adam (Rom 1:4), so too are believers now adopted children in God’s family, brothers and sisters of Christ and thus heirs as children of the living God (pp. 117–19). In Christ’s justification (1 Tim. 3:16)—that is, by virtue of his bearing the sins of the people as the ungodly one and subsequently being raised from the dead—those united with him, both now and in the future (pp. 119–24, 133), are also declared not guilty. Distinct but not separated from this justification is the believer’s definitive and progressive sanctification, again, all his through union with Christ, by virtue of his resurrection (definitive sanctification) from the old aeon into the new (pp. 124–26). Finally, Christ’s glorification experienced at his resurrection “involves the final definitive investiture of his person with glory.” This, too, means that what Christ is by virtue of resurrection, through solidarity with him, believers will be as well on that final day when they are resurrected (p. 126).

There is no doubt that Centrality brought to the fore in a more accessible manner strains within the Reformed tradition that until that time had largely been underemphasized. At their worst, oppositional critiques defame Gaffin with undoing the very principles of the Reformation (i.e., justification by faith alone). I would strongly object. Speaking personally, I found very little in Centrality theologically or exegetically with which to disagree. I experienced within my own journey through the American Reformed landscape both strands—scholastic and redemptive-historical—both vibrant, and both, sadly, at each others’ necks (though admittedly it was the former that set itself up as the keepers of the orthodox gate—and not without warrant, as that crowd had been for well-nigh three hundred years). However, the gospel proper (which is neither justification by faith nor union with Christ but the fact that Jesus, the crucified and risen Messiah, sent to rescue the world, is Lord) was never at stake in the course of these particular debates; and yet it isn’t mere semantics either. The battle was and is over the center from which the gospel is heralded and applied to the life of God’s people. Be that as it may, the appropriate critique of the Reformers contra late medieval Roman Catholic merit theology is only partially appropriate today. The alternative ways to tell this gospel story, perhaps itself ensconced in the very divisions felt between biblical theology on the one hand and systematic theology on the other, are just as desperately needed in our late modern context as sola fide was (and no doubt still is) in the early modern situation.

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