Martin Luther’s Large Catechism,1 the current text for Reformed Theological Seminary’s Paideia Center reading groups, is a wonderful source of simple, practical, straightforward exposition of the essentials of the Christian faith, covering the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the two sacraments, baptism and communion.
The Catechism consists of brief sermons–more powerful and effective precisely because of their brevity and lack of encumbrance with extraneous material; Luther cuts right to the chase, as it were–on the above-mentioned building-blocks, or elements, of Christian practice.
So, for instance, Luther’s teaching on the Seventh (Sixth) Commandment, “You shall not commit adultery,” contains a lucid unfolding and commendation of the estate of marriage as a high and holy calling in no way inferior to–indeed, far superior to–vowed celibacy (the latter lacking, as it does, divine warrant).
After a brief introduction on the scope of the commandment–it is directed against all forms of unchastity in thought, word, and deed, and requires positive duties as well with respect to one’s neighbors–Luther speaks of the married state in particular under two headings.
The first thing that should be “understood and marked,” Luther says, is “how gloriously God honors and praises this estate. For by His commandment He both approves and guards it.” That is, the Seventh (Sixth) Commandment both shows that marriage is a dispensation from God and sets up a guardrail to protect it from the assaults of ourselves and others. This was already clear from the Fifth (Fourth) Commandment about the honor due to one’s father and mother–and so marriage is already assumed–but here God “hedges it about and protects it.” What does this mean? Marriage, then, is not merely a human construction or arrangement, but is rather “a divine and blessed estate,” and we must honor it as such.
Not only is marriage a divine estate; it is in fact the first of all human institutions, rooted in the very creation of man and woman. As Luther remarks, in the book of Genesis God “has instituted [the estate of marriage] before all others.” It makes its appearance before any other calling. Though woman was created from man, man and woman were nevertheless created “separately” in order that they might be paired together in a way that man and man could not be,2 ordered toward the procreation of children and the raising up of a godly seed: the creation of Adam and Eve as man and woman “was not for lewdness, but so that they might live together in marriage, be fruitful, bear children, and nourish and train them to honor God.”
If that is the case, it follows that the married state receives God’s blessing, and this is the next point that Luther draws out. According to Luther, in fact, “God has…most richly blessed this estate above all others.”3 It is evident from the creation account that man was ordinarily made for the married state and therefore it should be expected as normal, normative, and good.4 Furthermore, care must be taken to see that it thrives, for it contains all of human society, including the society of the church, in seed form.5 God has “wrapped up in it everything in the world.” For that reason, it should not be trifled with; it is “a matter of divine seriousness.” It is a matter of importance not only to us, but to God as well. God is concerned about marriage because from it “people are raised up who may serve the world and promote the knowledge of God, godly living, and all virtues.” Without families, and therefore without marriages, this would be impossible.
In his forthright advocacy of marriage as a great and holy calling, Luther is strenuously resisting the idea that the married state belongs only to second-class Christians who aren’t quite holy enough for vowed celibacy and a “religious” life,6 an idea he believed to be promoted by the church itself in his own day. Instead, “[m]arriage should be regarded as it is in God’s Word, where it is adorned and sanctified.” In other words, marriage itself is, or ought to be, precisely the site of a “religious” life for most people,7 a life just as “religious” as any other–and, for Luther, more noble than any other: “[Marriage] is not only placed on an equality with other estates, but it comes first and surpasses them all–emperor, princes, bishops, or whoever they please.” It is the “noblest estate that runs through all Christendom” and, more than that, “through all the world.”
Having established that marriage is honorable, Luther goes on to argue that it is also necessary, for it is normally the best way of preserving chastity.8 That will be the subject of the next post.
- All quotations below are from pp. 56-7 in the linked edition.
- Likewise, it is perhaps not quite true that, as Wallace Stevens says in “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” “A man and a woman/Are one./A man and a woman and a blackbird/Are one”!
- Emphasis mine.
- There are of course exceptions; see Matthew 19.11-12.
- “For both Church and civil estates must humble themselves and all be found in this estate.”
- This is in keeping with Luther’s emphasis elsewhere that good works are only those commanded by God and not those invented by man, and with his position that washing the dishes or changing a diaper out of a motive of love for one’s neighbor (i.e. one’s family) is as holy and good as any work in the world, and much holier than, say, a pilgrimage.
- It is a worthwhile question whether much of Protestantism has now swung (even inadvertently) too far in the opposite direction, so as to imply that the only way to be “religious” or properly Christian is to be married, a position that is obviously false, as abundant examples and Scripture itself prove. But that is not my topic here, and that certainly wasn’t the case in Luther’s day. And, in any case, the despite in which marriage is frequently held now, even by those who are themselves married, renders Luther’s remarks still timely after 500 years, though the reasons for that despite are often somewhat different from what they were in Luther’s day.
- See 1 Corinthians 7.