Friday, September 4th, 2015...6:52 pm

Protestant Reformation, Muddled Protestant Sacramental Theology Created #KimDavis

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You can blame the Kim Davis affair (i.e, the current legal controversy surrounding her professional refusal to do her job granting marriage licenses, not her past personal bidness exploring fornication and adultery) on an event that occurred nearly 500 years ago: the Protestant Reformation.

No sooner had the ink dried on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v Hodges declaring the constitutional right to marriage to same-sex partners thanĀ  conservative Chrustian clergy fell all over themselves to declare that the government would never make them perform a same-sex wedding.

That’s right. The U.S. government or the government of any state would never, and, in fact, could never compel a religious institution to perform a ritual or administer a sacrament. Never has and won’t now. So much for taking a bold stand.

So why the angst over performing a purely legal function (e.g., issuing a license to marry)? Because 500 years ago Martin Luther broke away from legal precedent and theological thought. For a millennium and a half, Western notions of marriage had been shaped by Roman Catholic Canon Law and theology, which among other things, required the consent of both parties, the need for the parties to be of an age of consent, and the requirement that both parties had to be free to marry (e.g., they weren’t already married to others or they hadn’t made prior religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience).

Marriage for Roman Catholicism was (and remains) one of the Church’s seven sacraments, whose minister is an ordained priest (or deacon). For Roman Catholics a marriage is only valid when officiated by its ordained minister. (There are exceptions requiring what is known as a “dispensation from form.”)

Catholic sacramental theology and canon law prescribe the matter and form of sacraments. In the case of the sacrament of marriage, the matter is two people free to marry and freely giving consent to marry. The form is the marriage ritual, including an exchange of vows, witnessed by a priest.

The Lutheran Reformation began to dismantle the Roman Catholic hegemony, including its sacramental system, insisting on sola scriptura, only those sacraments explicitly mandated by Jesus of Nazareth could be considered as sacrament, namely baptism and holy communion.

For Protestant sacramental theology, marriage is not, in the strictest sense, a sacrament of the church.

If for Roman Catholics in the U.S. a marriage is valid only if witnessed by the ordained priest or deacon (who can only do so when a marriage license has been secured from civil authorities), for Protestants any marriage contracted in any way legislated by the state (including in a Las Vegas marriage chapel conducted by a justice of the peace) is valid.

By removing marriage from a sacramental system and by rendering it an extension of civil authority, the Protestant Reformation muddled the relationship between civil authority and law, on the one hand, and religious practice on the other. Kim Davis refuses to issue marriage licenses because, in some confused and ambiguous way, she sees herself as an officiant of marriage.

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