Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology

A History of the Church's
Doctrine of Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage

by Prof. David J. Engelsma

Reprint from November, 1993 Protestant Reformed Theological Journal

1 The Development of Herman Hoeksema

In the November, 1991, April, 1992, and November, 1992 issues of this Journal, I presented a doctrine of marriage, divorce, and remarriage based on the teaching of I Corinthians 6 and 7.1

In this series, I contended for a doctrine of marriage that views marriage as a lifelong bond established by God Himself. Only God may and only God can dissolve the bond that He has created. This implies that divorce in the sense of the breaking of the bond is not only impermissible but also impossible for man. The divorce that Scripture allows in Matthew 5:31, 32 and in Matthew 19:9 is a legal separation "of bed and board," not a dissolving of the bond. Such a separation is permitted only in the case of fornication, that is, the sexual infidelity of one’s wife or husband. Even in the case of divorce on the ground of fornication, the bond made by God at the marriage of the two is not broken. The "innocent party" in the divorce, therefore, is not permitted by God to marry another. If the "innocent party" does remarry, his new relationship is an adulterous marriage.

According to the institution of marriage in Genesis 2:18-25, God’s act of marriage makes one flesh of the two and binds the two for life. The very nature of marriage, therefore, forbids all remarriage after divorce. Liberty to marry again comes only by the death of one’s marriage companion. The apostle wrote in I Corinthians 7:39:

The wife is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth; but if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will; only in the Lord.

The third article in the series that set forth this doctrine of marriage concluded with an "afterword":

Regrettably, the forbidding of remarriage to the "innocent party" is not the Reformed tradition. To some extent, this is also true of the prohibition of remarriage to the one deserted by an unbelieving husband or wife. This is something that a Reformed church and a Reformed man will reckon with in their thinking on marriage, but it is not conclusive. For it is the confession of the Reformed faith that Scripture is the "infallible rule" by which all doctrine must be tested.... The "problem" of the Reformed tradition regarding remarriage raises the question of the history of the church’s thinking on remarriage after divorce. Since this history sheds important light on the issue of remarriage and since it refutes the notion that the forbidding of remarriage by the Protestant Reformed Churches is a novelty on the ecclesiastical scene, I intend to look at the history of the church’s doctrine concerning remarriage in (a subsequent) issue of this Journal.2

This promise of a history of the church’s marriage doctrine, I now begin to fulfill.

The doctrine of marriage that was set forth in three previous issues of this Journal and that has been briefly sketched above is not merely the personal conviction of the writer. It is the teaching of a denomination of Reformed churches. For the past forty years, the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC) in America have taught and practiced this doctrine of marriage with its implications for divorce and remarriage. This doctrine of marriage is church doctrine.

The PRC were led to this understanding of the biblical doctrine of marriage by Reformed theologian Herman Hoeksema. In a series of editorials entitled, "Unbiblical Divorce and Remarriage," in the periodical, the Standard Bearer, in 1956 and 1957, Hoeksema "showed from the Word of God that the marriage tie can never be broken except by death."3

In a pamphlet published about the same time as the articles in the Standard Bearer, Hoeksema forcefully asserted his "stand" on marriage, divorce, and remarriage:

My stand is that the marriage bond is absolutely unbreakable for life. My stand is that a man may certainly put away his wife if that becomes absolutely necessary, but she is still his wife, even after she is divorced. And my stand is that therefore when anyone marries that woman that is divorced, divorced even on Biblical grounds, say, that man also commits the sin of adultery.... Why? Because the marriage relation before God is absolutely unbreakable until death.4

In this pamphlet, as in the series of editorials in the Standard Bearer, Hoeksema grounded this stand, first, in the unbreakable covenant of grace between God and His people in Christ. An unbreakable bond of marriage follows from the unbreakable covenant because marriage is the earthly picture of the covenant: "Principally the marriage relation is unbreakable, because it rests in the reflection of God’s unbreakable covenant."5

Second, the basis was the teaching of the New Testament on marriage, divorce, and remarriage. Hoeksema pointed to Matthew 19:9; Mark 10:11, 12; Luke 16:18; and I Corinthians 7:9. The second part of Matthew 19:9 was decisive for Hoeksema on the question, whether the "innocent party" may remarry. Christ’s word is, "and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery." By this word, the Lord forbids the woman whose husband has unjustly divorced her and has then sinfully married another woman to remarry.

This settles the matter conclusively. Notice that there are three parties here, or really four parties; but that second wife is not taken into consideration. There is the first husband, that puts away his wife. She didn’t commit adultery. She was entirely innocent. She never violated the marriage bond by committing adultery. Nevertheless, he put away his wife. Secondly, he remarries, marries another woman. Now the second party enters in — another man. Notice: the man put away his wife and married another woman. May that first woman now enter into a marriage relationship with another man? On the contrary, for the Lord says: "And whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery." That second party, therefore, may not marry the innocent woman. To marry her is also adultery. And why is that so? Why is this marrying with the innocent woman called adultery? Simply because she is still married to the first man, although he had already married another woman. This, therefore, is the plain truth of Scripture.6

Hoeksema himself freely acknowledged that this stand represented a change in his thinking. Earlier in his ministry he had uncritically accepted and advocated the view that once generally prevailed in the Reformed tradition. This was the view that the adultery of one’s marriage companion not only allowed one to divorce the sinning wife or husband but also to remarry. This view was popularly known as the right of the remarriage of the "innocent party."

I must confess that without considering the matter very thoroughly I used to agree with the old stand of the Christian Reformed Church, namely, that when a man committed adultery, the woman may not only divorce him, but may also remarry. At that time I did not confront the question very definitely, and did not consider it very deeply. . . . After considering the whole matter in the light of Scripture, however, I must now radically oppose this position. And against this stand I now take the position that marriage is forever unbreakable, is always for life, no matter what happens.7

In 1933 Hoeksema had publicly voiced the view that he would later renounce. He did this in two articles in the Standard Bearer in response to a question concerning the meaning of Matthew 19:9.8 In these articles, Hoeksema maintained:

1. that I Corinthians 7:39 does not teach that only death dissolves a marriage;

2. that the exception clause in Matthew 19:9 means that

if someone divorces his wife on account of fornication and marries another, he does not commit adultery. The innocent party, therefore, in such a case has the right to divorce and also to proceed with a new marriage;

3. that the exception clause in Matthew 19:9 cannot be explained as applying only to the prohibition against divorce. It applies also to the phrase regarding remarriage;

4. and that "Scripture indeed views fornication as the dissolving (Dutch: vernietiging) of the bond of marriage."

Significantly, even then Hoeksema was convinced that the second part of Matthew 19:9 prohibits the remarriage of the innocent wife whose husband has unjustly divorced her and married another woman. In 1933 Hoeksema took the position that the sexual unfaithfulness of one’s wife or husband within marriage, that is, fornication, dissolved the marriage and gave to the "innocent party" the right to remarry. But he denied that an unjust divorce and the subsequent remarriage on the part of the divorcing husband or wife, that is, adultery, gave the "innocent party" the right to remarry. He denied this on the basis of the second part of Matthew 19:9.

Not adultery but fornication is named in the text as a possible ground for divorce. We come, therefore, to this conclusion, that, if there is no fornication, husband and wife are bound to each other and commit adultery if the one divorces the other, that is, the one who divorces commits adultery and the one who is divorced also always commits adultery if she (or he) remarries. Even though a divorced woman, who has been divorced by her husband without any basis of fornication, is innocent, she can never again marry. If she does marry, she commits adultery. The Scripture views her as bound to the first husband. His adultery does not free her.

Careful study of Holy Scripture compelled Hoeksema to reject the position that he first adopted, namely, that the marriage bond is breakable in one instance; that fornication breaks the bond; and that the innocent party whose marriage companion has committed fornication may remarry.

Reconsideration of the traditional Reformed doctrine of marriage, divorce, and remarriage did not take place overnight. Although Hoeksema publicly renounced this tradition and recanted his earlier espousal of it in the middle 1950s, he had been rethinking his position for some time. This is evident from the editorial that he wrote in 1943 in answer to the question, whether a confessing "member of a sound Reformed church may remarry, if he or she is divorced on biblical grounds." Whereas in 1933 Hoeksema had answered this question in the affirmative, now his mind has changed:

I must confess that I myself have gradually undergone a change of conviction on this point in the course of the years by investigation of Holy Scripture. Earlier, without making much personal study of the question, I shared the most common opinion, that the innocent party in a divorce may also marry again. I mean that this is the standpoint that is taken by most. It rests on the presupposition that divorce completely breaks the bond of marriage, so that the married parties are free from each other and, therefore, have also the right to proceed with another marriage. . . . But I no longer share that opinion. I am increasingly confirmed in the conviction that fornication does indeed give to the innocent party in the marriage the right to divorce the guilty party (although this does not have to take place and forgiveness and reconciliation are indeed the requirement first of all), but that by this the bond of marriage is not broken as long as both parties live. And if this is the case, then it lies in the nature of the case that neither of the divorced parties may remarry another.

Already in 1943 Hoeksema’s grounds for this position were those that he would put forward in his more decisive break with the tradition in 1956/1957.

In the first place, I think that in general Scripture represents marriage as a reflection of God’s covenant with His people, that He never breaks. That people can sin in that covenant and thus commit spiritual fornication, but the covenant lies absolutely firm in God, and He never gives His people a certificate of divorce.

The second ground for his rejection in 1943 of the notion that fornication dissolves the bond of marriage so that the "innocent party" is permitted to remarry was the testimony of the New Testament passages that address this issue. Hoeksema mentioned Matthew 5:32; 19:9; Mark 10:11, 12; and Luke 16:18. Taken together, these passages are emphatic condemnation of all remarriage after divorce. With regard to the exception clause in Matthew 19:9, Hoeksema explained that it gives a ground only for divorce. It does not provide a ground for remarriage. Conclusive for the correct interpretation of the exception clause is the second part of Matthew 19:9. Even though the divorced woman is the "innocent party" in the divorce and even though her husband has contracted an adulterous marriage with another woman, this "innocent party" is forbidden by Christ to remarry.

If anyone ever can have the right to remarry, then it is certainly this woman. Her husband has, as much as lies in his power, totally broken the bond of marriage with his first wife, by living in adultery. And still this woman does not have the right to remarry. On the contrary, whoever marries her, even after her husband has entered another marriage, is said to commit adultery. Why? There can only be one answer to this question: despite the sin of the husband and despite her having been divorced, this woman is yet always bound before God to the living husband.

Already in 1943 Hoeksema was firmly convinced that all remarriage is forbidden during the life of two married persons. The reason is that marriage is a bond that is broken only by death:

Therefore my answer is that there are indeed biblical grounds for divorce before the law so that husband and wife live in separation from each other. But this can never be viewed as such a breaking of the bond of marriage that either of the parties, guilty or innocent, can have the right to remarry until death separates them.9

It is worthy of note that Hoeksema, ever his own man when he was convinced that Scripture constrained him, came to this stand in spite of the opposition not only of the Reformed tradition but also of his own consistory. In the article in the May 15, 1943 issue of the Standard Bearer in which he expressed his conviction that the "innocent party" is not permitted to remarry after divorce, Hoeksema himself mentioned the disagreement of his consistory. Having referred to the point of view that the "innocent party" may remarry as the "most common opinion," Hoeksema continued:

This is also the point of view that is adopted again and again by the majority of my own consistory and, therefore, by my consistory as often as a concrete case comes up in our congregation today.

He then added, "But I no longer share that opinion."10

It is also worthy of note that Hoeksema resolutely maintained his position publicly in the face of opposition from a prominent member of his own congregation. Hoeksema’s editorial on the impermissibility of the remarriage of the "innocent party" drew a response from a member of his own congregation objecting to this position. This response resulted in a series of exchanges between the member and Hoeksema on the issue. The debate centered on the interpretation of Matthew 19:9, particularly the exception clause, "except it be for fornication." Jesus’ prohibition against the remarriage of the divorced woman in the second part of the text was decisive for Hoeksema. The fundamental importance of this second part of the one text that might be understood as allowing the remarriage of the "innocent party" for the correct interpretation, Hoeksema indicated by the headings that he gave to the exchange: "And (What about) that Divorced (Woman) Then?"; "Once More: And (What about) that Divorced (Woman) Then?"; "Yet One More Time: (What about) that Divorced (Woman)?"11

Hoeksema set forth his doctrine of marriage, divorce, and remarriage in its fully developed form in his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism. Explaining the Catechism’s exposition of the seventh commandment of God’s law in Lord’s Day 41, Hoeksema treated specifically of the truth of marriage in two chapters, "The Covenant of Marriage" and "Divorce and Remarriage."

He defined marriage as

the union between one man and one woman for life, a union that is based on a communion of nature, on a communion of life, and a communion of love, which is a reflection of the covenant relation between God and His people and of the relation between Christ and His church; a union, moreover, that has its chief purpose in bringing forth the seed of the covenant.

He asserted in the strongest language that every marriage is indissoluble:

The marriage bond is absolutely indissoluble. It cannot be broken. No more than the union between Christ and His church can be dissolved, no more can the marriage tie ever be severed. It is a most intimate union of life and for life, which only death can dissolve.

Hoeksema denied that the divorce permitted by Scripture in Matthew 5:32 and in Matthew 19:9 is the actual dissolution of the bond before the face of God so that the divorced persons are permitted to remarry. He defined biblical divorce thus:

Biblical divorce I would define as a separation for life of married people, that is, a legal separation for life, on the basis of adultery or fornication.

He called attention to the fact that this definition of divorce is fundamentally different from the definition that permits one or the other or both of the divorced persons to remarry:

I put it this way intentionally, in distinction from others, who claim that a divorce is the dissolution of the marriage tie, so that after the dissolution the bond does no longer exist and the married people are and are permitted to act as if they were never married.... It is my conviction that according to the Word of God, divorce can never mean dissolution of the marriage tie. Even if people are legally divorced, they are in my opinion according to the Word of God still married. Only, they are separate married people.

Hoeksema did not hesitate explicitly to draw the conclusion concerning remarriage:

The Bible teaches without any doubt that the marriage bond is indissoluble, that it can only be dissolved in death, and that therefore remarriage while both parties are still living is condemned by the Word of God.12

Hoeksema published this doctrine of marriage in his commentary on the Catechism, knowing full well that it would circulate widely in the Reformed world, at the exact time — 1955 — when Reformed churches were beginning to relax their marriage doctrine under the pressures of the adulterous world in which the churches were living. What Hoeksema observed concerning the "laws of the land" at that time was beginning to be true also of the laws of the churches:

The laws of our land have fast retreated before the wild rush of the carnal lust of the nation, until they are no longer a protection of the sacred bond of matrimony.13

Convinced by this great theologian that the Word of God does indeed teach marriage as a lifelong, unbreakable bond in reflection of the everlasting covenant of grace, the Protestant Reformed Churches have steadfastly confessed and practiced this doctrine of marriage with its implications for divorce and remarriage to the present day. In doing so, they have broken with a significant aspect of the Reformed tradition. This tradition goes back to the 16th century Reformation itself, having its source in Calvin and Luther. It is a doctrine of marriage that views marriage as a breakable bond. Sinful human actions can dissolve what God has joined together. The sins that can break the bond are fornication and desertion.

(to be continued)

Prof. David J. Engelsma is an ordained minister of the gospel in the Protestant Reformed Churches in America for nearly 50 years. He is editor of the Standard Bearer and professor of Dogmatics in the Protestant Reformed Theological School. This article is being included in the about-to-be reprinted book "Marriage, the Mystery of Christ and His Church, by Prof. David J. Engelsma. The book will become available this fall from the RFPA, 4949 Ivanrest Ave., Grandville, MI 49418. The price of this book is not yet available.

1 David J. Engelsma, "Sex for the Saints without and within Marriage," Protestant Reformed Theological Journal 25, no. 1 (Nov., 1991): pp. 10-26; "Honorable Single Life and Holy Marriage," PRTJ 25, no. 2 (April, 1992): pp. 42-54; "Desertion, Divorce, and Remarriage," PRTJ 26, no. 1 (Nov., 1992): pp. 26-45.

2 Engelsma, "Desertion," p. 45.

3 Herman Hoeksema, "Unbiblical Divorce and Remarriage," Standard Bearer 33, no. 8 (Jan. 15, 1957): p. 172. This was the concluding installment of the series. The articles that preceded appeared in the issues of Sept. 15, 1956 (pp. 485-487); Oct. 1, 1956 (pp. 5, 6); Oct. 15, 1956 (pp. 29, 30); Nov. 1, 1956 (pp. 52, 53); Nov. 15, 1956 (p. 76); Dec. 1, 1956 (p. 100); Dec. 15, 1956 (p. 125); and Jan. 1, 1957 (pp. 148, 149). These articles were published as a booklet, "Unbiblical Divorce and Remarriage" (Grand Rapids: Reformed Free Publishing Association, n.d.).

4 Herman Hoeksema, "The Unbreakable Bond of Marriage" (Grand Rapids: Sunday School of the First Protestant Reformed Church, n.d.; repr. 1969), p. 17.

5 Hoeksema, "Unbreakable Bond," p. 10.

6 Hoeksema, "Unbreakable Bond," p. 16.

7 Hoeksema, "Unbreakable Bond," pp. 12, 13; cf. Hoeksema’s "Unbiblical Divorce," pp. 20, 21.

8 The question and the first installment of Hoeksema’s answer appear under the title, "Vragen," in the Standard Bearer 9, no. 16 (June 1, 1933): pp. 374-377. The second installment of Hoeksema’s answer, "Antwoord Op de Vraag van Hudsonville," appears in the Standard Bearer 9, no. 18 (July 1, 1933): pp. 424-426. The quotations from these articles are my translation of the Dutch.

9 Herman Hoeksema, "Hertrouwen Van Gescheidenen," Standard Bearer 19, no. 16 (May 15, 1943): pp. 364-366. The quotations from this article are my translation of the Dutch.

10 Hoeksema, "Hertrouwen," p. 364.

11 Herman Hoeksema, "En Die Verlatene Dan?," Standard Bearer 20, no. 3 (Nov. 1, 1943): pp. 50, 51; "Nog Eens: En De Verlatene Dan?," Standard Bearer 20, no. 4 (Nov. 15, 1943): pp. 74, 75; "Nog Eenmaal: DIE Verlatene?," Standard Bearer 20, no. 5 (Dec. 1, 1943): pp. 96-98.

12 Herman Hoeksema, The Heidelberg Catechism (An Exposition): Love Thy Neighbor for God’s Sake (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1955), pp. 81-107. This work has been incorporated in the reprint edition of the original 10 volumes of Hoeksema’s commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism. It appears in vol. 3 of The Triple Knowledge: An Exposition of the Heidelberg Catechism (Grand Rapids: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1972), pp. 342-367.

13 Hoeksema, Love Thy Neighbor, p. 97.

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