Unpacking the Covenant Conundrum

As a Fulbright Scholar, PhD candidate Charles Guth will examine the ways in which covenants enrich — and complicate — the institution of marriage
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Covenants permeate Christian life: we have a covenant with God, we enter into covenants with one another, and Princeton Theological Seminary even defines itself in part as a covenant community. “A covenant is a very rich concept that requires obligations and promises, as well as public accountability,” says PhD candidate Charles Guth, MDiv ‘17. “It’s a positive idea meant to enrich our lives; at the same time, it’s still a largely abstract concept that needs unpacking.”

When Guth first started researching covenants and their impact, he found that scholars, practically across the board, viewed them as exclusively positive. And while Guth certainly thinks that covenants can be socially valuable, he found this discovery to be suspicious. “If I am interested in my broader academic work on covenants and why they’re useful, I also want to know the ways in which they might not work out as planned,” he says. Thanks to a Fulbright Scholarship that has taken him to the University of Geneva in Switzerland, Guth is turning his attention to how Calvin reformed marriage using the idea of the covenant — and how it was met with mixed results.

First, some historical context: Before the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church treated marriage as a sacrament. Calvin reformed marriage in the 16th century by defining it as a covenant and, in doing so, redefined marriage as a relationship that is just and accountable, with promises made and upheld by both parties. This shift has been influential, profoundly impacting not just how Christians consider marriage but also western marriage law and customs.

In practice, however, Calvin’s contemporaries didn’t always hold husbands and wives to the standards of a covenant, especially when it came to domestic abuse. In fact, Guth says, evidence suggests that Protestant consistories did little to hold male abusers accountable for their violence. Guth will examine this paradox in the first half of his research.

The second half of his research will examine the ethical implications of defining marriage as a covenant today. Despite incredible strides made in gender roles, norms, and the law, the link between marriage and abuse that existed in Calvin’s time persists today. And it’s Guth’s belief that we must examine the ways marriage covenants may play a role, especially since Christian women are more likely to remain in or return to unsafe relationships in part because they use the language of religion to explain abuse and support their choice to keep their family together. “It seems dangerous to me to spend a lot of time talking about the marriage covenant without taking this really deep social problem into account,” Guth says. “If people like me want to use covenant talk today, we better learn what has gone wrong historically, and the problems that still exist today.”

As a Fulbright Scholar, Guth joins an elite group of academics chosen to conduct research for the 2021-2022 academic year through the Fulbright U.S. Student Program. The Fulbright Program is the flagship international educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government and is designed to build lasting connections between the people of the United States and the people of other countries. Recipients of Fulbright awards are selected on the basis of academic and professional achievement as well as their record of service and leadership potential in their respective fields.

Educating faithful Christian leaders.

Pastor at Grace Presbyterian Church, Crystal City, Missouri

Joshua Noah, Class of 2015

“Through my field education placement at Trinity Presbyterian Church in East Brunswick, New Jersey, I discovered my gift to minister to all age groups.”