The Calvinist tradition, established in mid-sixteenth century Geneva, set out a covenantal model of marriage. This model confirmed many of the Lutheran theological and legal reforms, but cast them in a new ensemble. Marriage, John Calvin and his followers taught, was not a sacramental institution of the church, but a covenantal association of the entire community. A variety of parties participated in the formation of this covenant. The marital parties themselves swore their betrothals and espousals before each other and God—rendering all marriages triparty agreements, with God as third party witness, participant, and judge. The couple's parents, as God's lieutenants for children, gave their consent to the union. Two witnesses, as God's priests to their peers, served as witnesses to the marriage. The minister, holding God's spiritual power of the Word, blessed the couple and admonished them in their spiritual duties. The magistrate, holding God's temporal power of the sword, registered the couple and protected them in their person and property. Each of these parties was considered essential to the legitimacy of the marriage, for they each represented a different dimension of God's involvement in the covenant. To omit any such party was, in effect, to omit God from the marriage covenant.
The covenant of marriage was grounded in the order of creation and governed by the law of God. At creation, God ordained the structure of marriage to be a lifelong union between a fit man and a fit woman of the age of consent. God assigned to this marriage the interlocking purposes of mutual love and support of husband and wife, mutual procreation and nurture of children, and mutual protection of both parties from sexual sin. Thereafter, God set forth, in reason, conscience, and the Bible, a whole series of commandments and counsels for proper adherence to this ideal created structure and purpose of marriage.
God's moral law for the covenant of marriage set out two tracks of marital norms—civil norms, which are common to all persons, and spiritual norms, which are distinctly Christian. This moral law, in turn, gave rise to two tracks of marital morality—a simple morality of duty demanded of all persons regardless of their faith, and a higher morality of aspiration demanded of believers in order to reflect their faith. It was the church's responsibility to teach aspirational spiritual norms for marriage and family life. It was the state's responsibility to enforce mandatory civil norms. This division of responsibility was reflected in sixteenth-century Geneva in the procedural divisions between the church consistory and the city council. In marriage cases, the consistory was the court of first instance, and would call parties to their higher spiritual duties, backing their recommendations with threats of spiritual discipline. If such spiritual counsel and discipline failed, the parties were referred to the city council to compel them, using civil and criminal sanctions, to honor at least their basic civil duties for marriage.
This Calvinist covenantal model mediated both sacramental and contractual understandings of marriage. On the one hand, this covenant model confirmed the sacred and sanctifying qualities of marriage—without ascribing to it sacramental functions. Marriage was regarded as a holy and loving fellowship, a compelling image of the bond between Yahweh and His elect, Christ and His church. But marriage was no sacrament, for it confirmed no divine promise. On the other hand, this covenant model confirmed the contractual and consensual qualities of marriage—without subjecting it to the personal preferences of the parties. Marriage depended for its validity and utility on the voluntary consent of the parties. But marriage was more than a mere contract, for God was a third party to every marriage covenant, and He set its basic terms in the order and law of creation. Freedom of contract in marriage was thus effectively limited to choosing maturely which party to marry—with no real choice about the form, forum, or function of marriage once a fit spouse was chosen.