This post is part of a series walking through the third volume of Abraham Kuyper’s Common Grace
Narrowing from the broader discussion of “the family” to the narrower concept of “the Christian family,” and the even narrower concept of “Christian marriage,” Kuyper notes that here there is also a broad and a narrow approach. In one sense, “Christian marriage” just means “a marriage based on the foundations established for marriage in Christian Europe by law and by custom.” That is, marriage as approved by the state (itself influenced by the Christian tradition). But there is also a narrower definition of “Christian marriage,” where we take it “to mean a marriage as it generally exists among devout Christians or as it should be according to the most stringent demand of the gospel.” (394) In terms of this narrower definition, we must look at how it interacts with the institutional church.
Marriage begins with its “solemnization.” But how does this happen? Custom comes into play here. At first, it was just Adam and Eve “before God”–no church or city hall was involved in their marriage. Can’t we just do that now? Kuyper notes that replying “yes” to that question usually leads to “sinful cohabitation” seeking “an appearance of piety.” (395) We know this is generally just lust expressing itself because God put us in a family/society/church with orderly relationships that He appointed. This obviously wasn’t true of Adam and Eve, or to shipwreck survivors on deserted islands, etc.
Once family and government had evolved, they now have to be accounted for in our view of marriage. Marriage is woven throughout society, and so civil and ecclesiastical rules of marriage must be considered.
So the family relationship must be examined first here. This is a lesser bond than in the past when people fully lived together in families across generations and all working at the same profession, but it remains important nonetheless. For centuries the family was the only way to solemnize a marriage. The influence is still there, albeit diminished–though even these remaining influences are under attack.
Likewise we should consider friendships relevant to marriage–which even then have some legal/formal standing (witnesses and such), though again these too are much weaker than in the past. As family and friend bands have weakened, the government has filled the void. There are good historical reasons for this, and really the government is the only game in town when it comes to authority over marriage even in pagan nations, as marriage is still a civil affair. This makes sense–we certainly let government mandate the care of children, so there’s no reason it shouldn’t have something to say about marriage.
Yet, government does not create marriage [and by extension, we might add that it does not define marriage either]. All it can do is recognize marriage as it exists in the created order. So don’t avoid civil marriage, just keep a proper view of the government’s role in the institution.