From Sacrament to Contract: Marriage, Religion, and Law in the Western Tradition

By Turner, Philip | Anglican Theological Review, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

From Sacrament to Contract: Marriage, Religion, and Law in the Western Tradition


Turner, Philip, Anglican Theological Review


From Sacrament to Contract: Marriage, Religion, and Law in the Western Tradition. By John Witte, Jr. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997. xii + 315 pp. $24.95 (paper).

With the publication of From Sacrament to Contract, John Witte has provided an account of the theological and legal development of the institution of marriage in Europe and North America that will remain standard for some years to come. From Sacrament to Contract is one of those rare works that combines ease of comprehension with extraordinary scholarly breadth. It is clearly the result of years of meticulous and original scholarship combined with careful and clear writing. It is a book that should be found in the libraries of all practicing clerp,. It will help them in innumerable ways to convey the nature of the institution they are so frequently called upon to witness and bless and it will help them grasp the deep reasons for what is now so frequently called a crisis in the institution of marriage.

Witte manages to do what few undertake, namely, to show the way in which the development of marriage law in Europe and North America has been tied to the way in which the institution has been understood in the major theological traditions of the West. Witte identifies five primary strands of tradition. In the Roman Catholic tradition, marriage has been understood first as a "sacrament." In the Lutheran tradition it has been conceived as a "social estate." In Calvinist circles it has been presented as a form of "covenant." Among Anglicans marriage came to be seen as a "little commonwealth." And finally, out of certain strands of Anglican and Enlightenment thought, marriage evolved into a form of "contract."

It is this latter notion that now dominates Anglo-American marriage law and it is this notion also that more and more serves to weaken the various theological construals of marriage that have characterized the teaching and practice of the Western churches. In brief, the history Witte traces is one in which the notion that marriage is a divinely founded institution whose terms exist prior to human choice changes to one according to which the terms of marriage in fact follow upon the choices of free and equal moral agents.

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