Where the world comes to study the Bible

On the Divorce Teachings of the Early Church

It is not our primary purpose in this book to analyze the history of interpretations of the biblical text, especially with a view to discover the traditional “Christian” view. In one sense, Christians of all times have the same homework to do. The inspired text determines the limits of position; extra-biblical interpretations serve only as suggestions. Although the positions of the early Church are generally given deference, being closer to the actual teachings themselves, they must neither be given undue weight nor be accepted uncritically. For our purposes, I wish simply to make several observations. First, none of the writings of the early Church Fathers, in spite of their strong belief in their own correctness, is directly associated with the teaching of either Jesus or one of his disciples. By this, I mean that none of the principal sources cited by such writers as Heth/Wenham587 personally knew either Jesus or one of the disciples. This means that the writings of these Fathers could not be checked by those authorized by Jesus to “know all the truth” (John 16:13).588 My second observation is that a number of writers have mis- or over-read the teachings of certain early Church Fathers and have drawn certain unwarranted conclusions from such reading. Because of this, I find it necessary to summarize the key teachings of several of the more important Fathers from Hermas to Augustine. I make no claim to have done an exhaustive study, but only to have been fair and informative in my consideration of them. I also believe my analysis of teachings in this early stage of the development of interpretation to be correct.

Hermas (ca. A.D. 125)

The earliest statements on the subject of divorce/remarriage among Christians were uttered by Hermas, a well-meaning, but simple, seer of the second century. “Hermas” was probably the pseudonym of a Jewish Christian who lived in Rome. We know very little about him except what is found in his Shepherd, a work wrongly granted canonical status by some in the early Church. In fact, some scholars believe that this work is really the product of three-hands over a period of some sixty years spanning A.D. 90-150.589 In all likelihood, the material with which we have to do is separated from Jesus and his disciples by over a century. The connections between Jesus and Hermas are anybody’s guess, but they cannot have been direct. In the “Mandate” section of his Shepherd,590 a work that bears striking similarity in language to Gospel material but is claimed by its author to have been given by direct revelation to him by his “heavenly guardian,” Hermas makes the following points:

1. 1. Failure to divorce a recognized, adulterous wife is complicitous adultery (v. 5).

2. 2. Failure of a disciplining husband to remain unmarried is adultery (v. 6).

3. 3. Failure of a disciplining husband to forgive a repentant wife is a sin worse than adultery (v. 8).

4. 4. The reason that remarriage is prohibited of the disciplining spouse is that remarriage blocks repentance (v. 10).

The most natural explanation of this material is that Hermas sees the problem of remarriage as ethical, not ontological. The stated reason for the prohibition of remarriage is that it inhibits full repentance. Judging from the reciprocity of the point, it is clear that Hermas is a man of his culture, a monogamous one, for remarriage of the man would not hinder the restoration of an erring wife in a polygamous culture such as Israel.

Heth/Wenham, however, reject as “an argument from silence” the denial that Hermas knew other (more ontological) reasons for abstinence subsequent to divorce.591 Instead, they attempt to draw from Hermas’ use of the term adultery in verse 6 the idea of permanent bond. By relegating the repentance theme to a distinct section more or less unrelated to verse 6, they eliminate it from crucial consideration. Their analysis is unconvincing. It is they who are guilty of arguing from silence. Insofar as Hermas offers no other reason for remarriage being prohibited, it is they who bear the burden of proof if they think he had another. Their reference to verse 6 simply cannot bear that burden. The reasons are twofold: first, Hermas does not clearly state that the adultery of remarriage offends an indissoluble bond (as Heth/Wenham imply), and second, Hermas speaks of the non-disciplining husband (v. 5) as also guilty of the sin of adultery.592 In the latter case, there is no sexual offense against the initial bond that Heth/Wenham believe to be the case whenever remarriage occurs.

It is clear that the teaching of this influential Father constitutes a “mixed bag” when considered from a biblical perspective. Heth/Wenham gladly accept his prohibition of remarriage, but they reject his insistence on disciplining divorce and single forgiveness as “beyond” the teachings of the New Testament.593 It would seem that their counsel that “a modified form of the early church view … has the best chance of answering” available evidence594 must be taken with caution. They seem set on impressing us with the proximity of the Father’s views to the biblical teachings, but feel free to reject those views when they do not agree with them. One would suggest that they stick to the Biblical text and play down the Fathers, whose views are not completely dependable. But they do not, and Hermas’ views have not only come to their attention, but also to the attention of certain later Fathers in the early Church. Though Hermas’ idea of prohibiting all remarriage later dominated the Roman Catholic Church, we shall see that the idea was not explicitly accepted by the Fathers for quite a number of years. I consider Hermas unique in his view, at the turn of the first century.

Justin Martyr (ca. A.D. 150)

The teachings of Justin Martyr come next. His burden regarding our subject seems to be to inhibit the marrying of divorced women. In First Apology he quotes Matthew 5:28, 29; 32b or Luke 16:18b; and Matthew 19:11-12.595 It is to be noted that all the pertinent verses refer to married women. The Martyr’s explanatory statement of this biblical material is to the effect that “double” marriages are sins against Christ, and that sinful thoughts as well as sinful actions are condemned. In his Second Apology Justin teaches the concept of necessary, disciplining divorce by an offended Christian woman.596 He ignores the subject of her remarriage. Heth/ Wenham (who would reject the Martyr’s teaching on disciplining divorce) consider several possible meanings of Justin’s First Apology. It could forbid (1) bigamy, (2) successive bigamy or the remarriage of widow(er)s, (3) remarriage after divorce, or (4) all remarriage. Heth and Wenham opt for number 3. However, their reason for doing so is weak. They merely cite the fact that the middle passage condemns a kind of remarriage and infer from an aside criticism of “human law” that Justin must be opposed to the Roman practice of permitting remarriage of the divorced. But the reference to “human law” is in the context of the verses quoted, none of which unequivocally prohibits the remarriage of an innocent woman after her divorce, much less that of a disciplining husband. It would seem that Justin is simply reflecting upon Matthew’s presentation of the divorce legislation.597 The connection of the three passages is clearly made by Justin, who refers back to the ‘lust saying” after the citation of the three. It is then, far more reasonable to see Justin as condemning (1) lusting after a married woman and (2) marrying her subsequent to her being freed by divorce. Such a man should rather remain single than fulfill his lustful desires, and such a man should understand that whether he accomplishes his goal or only thinks about it, he is guilty of the same sin of adultery before God. Roman law might not hold a man guilty of offense for lusting after his neighbor’s wife or for marrying her were she to manage to free herself from her husband, but the Bible does. But Justin does not condemn the remarriage of a disciplining spouse (nor does he in the Second Apology), nor does he condemn the remarriage of an innocently divorced spouse. His condemnations are always in the context of a woman’s legitimate marriage; that marriage should not be broken up in thought or by action by the man to whom Justin refers (and condemns). This understanding of Justin does not go beyond his statements (as Heth/Wenham do), and it is entirely in harmony with the position set forth in this book.

Athenagoras (ca. A.D. 177)

Athenagoras is the next significant Father. His teachings on the subject are found in his Plea for the Christian:

A person should either remain as he was born, or be content with one marriage; for a second marriage is only a specious adultery. “For whosoever puts away his wife,” says He, “and marries another, commits adultery”; not permitting a man to send her away whose virginity he has brought to an end, nor to many again. For he who deprives himself of his first wife, even though she be dead, is a cloaked adulterer, resisting the hand of God, because in the beginning God made one man and one woman, and dissolving the strictest union of flesh with flesh, formed for the intercourse of the race.598

Athenagoras places this in a section with obviously ascetic strains. Eunuchs are elevated, and marriage is strictly for procreation. The context also contrasts Christian marriage and behavior with the incestuous licentiousness of the pagans and their gods. The only Christian options are the single life or a single marriage. Remarriage is out of the question. God designed for a man to have no more than one wife in his lifetime. But what exactly does Athenagoras mean by all this? Crouzel, in his classic work on divorce teachings of the Fathers, suggests three possible interpretations: (1) he condemns remarriage after divorce; (2) he discourages any remarriage (even of widowers); and (3) he condemns any remarriage.599 To this Heth/Wenham add a fourth: 4) he condemns remarriage of a divorcing man whose former wife dies.600 Crouzel opts for number 1. Heth/Wenham opt for number 2.

It seems to me that Crouzel is essentially correct, though the fourth option seems a better way to put the point. It is only the man who has deprived himself of his wife who is not free to remarry even if she (subsequently) dies. I would qualify Crouzel by noting that it is a man who “deprives himself who is condemned. Could it be that Athenagoras only has in mind a man who has unjustly divorced his wife? Would it be proper, given the evidence of the previously considered Fathers, to speak of a disciplining divorcer as a “robber” or a “depriving one”? Probably not. Seemingly against this conclusion stands the reference to the creation of one man for one woman. Yet that may just be Athenagoras’ way of speaking out against the desire for more than one wife, the desire that motivates the unjust divorcer. That is, after all, one way to see Christ’s use of the same text from Genesis. The whole teaching is in the context of showing how Christians abhor treachery to the wife of one’s youth.601 The “for” structure of his work does seem to keep the whole teaching in the context of inhibiting remarriage after divorce. But what kind of divorce? I suggest that it is the unjustified kind. In the end, however, we do not have enough evidence from Athenagoras to decide the case, as in the case of Justin (who influenced Athenagoras), the fathers are not clear about whether or not they condemn all remarriage or just that of the guilty.

Theophilus Of Antioch (ca. A.D. 180)

Defending Christian teachings to his friend Autolycus, Theophilus of Antioch presents marriage material in the same order that Justin did before him: Matthew 5:28, then Matthew 5:32.602 He reverses the order of the sayings in Matthew 5:32 and adds the “except clause.” About this, Heth/Wenham quickly conclude that Theophilus rejects “remarriage of anyone divorced for whatever reason,” which would amount to affirming that “marriage is truly indissoluble.”603 But again I must demur. The relevant chapter in Theophilus’ work is entirely in the context of coveting another man’s wife. It begins with a reference to lustful looks at another’s wife, moves through a quote of Proverbs 4:25 (condemning lustful looks), through a quote of Matthew 5:28, to the inverted quote of Matthew 5:32, and ends with a quote from Proverbs (6:27-29) that once more condemns taking another man’s wife. What seems obvious is that Theophilus is condemning remarriage when it is to a woman who has been wrongfully taken from another man. The lustful look takes heart in the fact that the object of desire has been freed by divorce (probably instigated by the woman and the coveting man). Theophilus condemns such “legal adultery.” And he condemns the man who unjustly divorces his wife as well! This is all a fitting application of the point with which Theophilus ends chapter 12: “let none of you imagine evil against his brother in your heart.”604 Again, Heth/Wenham have over-read the material that prohibits remarriage of the guilty party to be a prohibition of all remarriage after divorce.

Irenaeus (ca. 185)

In Against Heresies, Irenaeus, a crucial Eastern Father (also influenced by Justin) depreciates divorce since it was given because of the hard hearts of men. He seems to say that it is incompatible with the original intent of God in Genesis 2:24. Again, Heth/Wenham jump to the conclusion that such a statement affirms the permanence of marriage, which would be compatible with their thesis that divorce is wrong and remarriage is the sin of adultery.605 But again, I must suggest the same caveat I voiced regarding Athenagoras: would Irenaeus speak against the solid tradition of disciplinary divorce mentioned by these earlier Fathers? Unlikely. But then what shall we make of Irenaeus’ depreciation of divorce? I suggest that he too is referring to those improperly divorcing. It is that sort of divorce that is incompatible with god’s original plan. disciplinary divorce is out of sight and mind as is the question of a remarriage after a disciplinary divorce. Such a caveat is not an argument from silence, but from the traditional context.

Clement Of Alexandria (ca. 153-217)

In the writings of Clement of Alexandria, we have the first extant comprehensive treatment of marriage/divorce/remarriage. Clement clearly teaches that Matthew 5:32a and b are aligned as the tradition now holds them. In his Stromata (11.23), he discusses the matter of divorce. The progression of topics is as follows:

1. Affirmation of pure marriage, as a necessity for some. 2. Statement that the Scriptures “allow no release from the union.” 3. A quote giving the gist of the Matthew 19:9 prohibition of divorce, ending with the “except clause.” 4. Statement that Scripture regards the remarriage of those separated during the lifetime of their spouse as “fornication.” 5. Statement of the need for the wife to avoid activities that suggest fornication. 6. A quote giving the gist of Matthew 5:32 (reversing the sayings). 7. The interpretation that the putting away sets the woman up for adultery in remarriage—the second marriage inhibiting a restoration. 8. A comparison of these Gospel ideas to the execution of adulteresses in the Law-harmonizing the two by calling the (divorced?) adulteress “dead to the commandments,” while the repentant one is born again.

Heth/Wenham insist that in this is a prohibition of remarriage for the disciplining divorcer. They follow this interpretation with a citation of Clement’s association of the “eunuch saying” to the matter of the remarriage of the disciplining divorcer.606 Their interpretation of the latter leans toward implying that Clement denied remarriage to all such divorcers.607 But these conclusions may be questioned. Another reading of Clement is that in the earlier passage he is silent about the remarriage of the disciplining divorcer, and in the second passage he holds forth celibacy to some disciples, but not to all. The basis of these more liberal conclusions is as follows: In the earlier passage Clement clearly permits the divorce of an adulterous wife, because by her fornication she is already dead. The crucial point number 4 follows hard on the quote of the “except clause,” not to suggest that the man who disciplines is guilty of setting up his wife for adultery, or that his remarriage is fornication, but to associate the remarriage of a treacherously divorced spouse with fornication, a point repeated in number 7—where the “putting away” is obviously not disciplinary. The disciplining divorcer could not be judged as occasioning his former wife’s adultery by a remarriage, since she is already guilty of that sin and is, in fact, like a dead woman. Nothing is said about his remarriage, only hers. Number 7 only rejects—as inhibiting a restoration—the remarriage of the treacherously divorced woman.608 The remarriage of the divorced is beyond the control of the divorcer, and if Clement means to tar all divorcers with the adulterous remarriage of the divorced, then he should have proscribed disciplinary divorce to save the morals of the offended spouse. But Clement definitely believes in disciplinary divorce—it is the parallel to Old Testament execution. As for the second passage, even Heth/Wenham have to admit that it does not teach the moral necessity of celibacy for the disciplinary divorcer. Such is held up as an ideal—as it is for the widower and the never-married. Those to whom the gracious gift of celibacy has not been granted may apparently marry without moral condemnation. It seems best, therefore, to interpret Clement as believing that adultery in the marriage severs it and “kills” the adulterer. The “dead” may be put away without the fear that their remarriage would bring the charge of complicity in adultery against the disciplining divorcer, and such a divorcer who does not have the gift of celibacy may remarry. Such a position is very near that set forth by the traditional Erasmians, except that the remarriage of disciplining male divorcers is always in view in Clement.

Tertullian (ca. 155-220)

The first great theologian of the West, Tertullian, was an outstanding spokesman for the permanence of marriage. In his famous On Monogamy, written during his Montanist period, he makes soundings, like Athenagoras, that marriage lasts past the grave.609 In that vein, and in the same book, the marriage of widows is prohibited on grounds just slightly more fantastic than the Leviticus 18 arguments of Isaksson,610 that such remarriage is incestuous.611 In all, Tertullian’s Monogamy employs not very precise hermeneutics and is of questionable value to one trying to discover a general view of the early Church.612

Origen (ca. 185-254)

Origen, the second of the great Alexandrian Fathers, and the successor of Clement in its catechetical school, followed Clement in prohibiting a woman’s remarriage during the lifetime of her first spouse.613 Heth/Wenham admit that he does require “separation” of a man from his adulterous wife, and that he does not speak of the right of a disciplining male divorcer to remarry, but that owing to his dependence upon Hermas and Clement he must have made the prohibition reciprocal.614 They therefore place him on their side in denying remarriage to the innocent party in a disciplinary divorce.615 Though it is true that Origen speaks of the man who divorces his wife as causing her to commit adultery, it is stated that this man is not divorcing for the ground of “fornication.”616 Beyond this, these authors appear not to take Origen seriously when he speaks of Christ as divorcing Israel and (re)marrying the Church, a clear case of disciplinary divorce followed by remarriage.617 And, in those passages, Origen insists that Christ, in doing so, did not break the commandment not to sunder the “one-flesh” union, because he had the grounds of “fornication,”618 grounds that Origen identifies as “reasonable” for the “dissolution of marriage.” We have in Origen, then, a Father who did not believe in the indissolubility of marriage, who did believe that one could and should divorce (not merely “separate”) if one had the grounds of fornication, and who believed that one who divorced as a discipline could morally remarry. This sounds strikingly dissimilar to Heth/Wenham’s position. There is also an interesting reference in his Matthew commentary, where Origen says that “certain Church leaders have permitted the remarriage of a divorced woman while her husband was alive.”619 This raises the question as to whether or not the crucial Alexandrian Fathers are truly representative of the Church in their rejection of remarriage for women. And, given the ambiguity of the earlier Fathers, as noted earlier, this caveat is significant. Of course, we do not know the names of those to whom Origen referred, so we are not privy to their arguments; nor do we know their significance in the Church tradition. But we do know one Father who stands against the trend in Alexandria:

Chrysostom, John Of Antioch
(ca. 344/5-407)

This influential Eastern Father, John Chrysostom, in his homilies on Matthew’s Gospel clearly and unmistakably denies the disciplining divorcer the right to remarry during the lifetime of his former spouse.620 Though he bases this conclusion upon the Genesis 2:24 text, he does not present a refined position of ontological union. We have, therefore, with John, one of the first clear proponents of celibacy following all divorce.

Ambrosiaster (ca. 366-383)

The name Ambrosiaster has, since the time of Erasmus, been applied to a fourth-century writer of commentaries on Pauline epistles. We do not know his real identity, but he may have been one Hilary, the prefect of Rome about 375.621 In any case, commenting on 1 Corinthians 7, he goes beyond the disciplinary divorce theme to affirm the right of the innocent husband to remarry. He does not permit this for the innocent wife, however. His rationale centers upon the headship role of the male in marriage. He also allows for a deserted Christian spouse (male or female) to remarry. This is the first clear instance of a Father teaching the so-called Pauline privilege. Heth/Wenham identify three instances in which they see Ambrosiaster as out of step with the Scriptures and with the early Church: (1) he allows remarriage to deserted Christians; (2) he allows remarriage to disciplining male divorcers; and (3) he discriminates against women in the same situation.622 I find their criticism not entirely correct or fair. On the first count, it is true that Ambrosiaster is the first Father whom we know to explicitly teach the Pauline privilege. But that seems no more offensive than to be like Clement of Alexandria, who was the first to clearly teach no remarriage after divorce. The real issue is whether or not Ambrosiaster is correct. I believe he is. Second, though he is the first to clearly and explicitly teach that a disciplining male divorcer may remarry, I have previously argued that, with the exception of the enigmatic Hermas, no previous Father can be said to teach explicitly the reverse. Then, too, we must recall those other “church leaders” who, according to Origen, were permitting divorced women to remarry. Most likely such women were the “innocent parties.” This is not far from Ambrosiaster, though it disagrees with count 3. As for count 3, Heth/ Wenham are technically correct in noting that Ambrosiaster discriminates against innocent women, but most of these early Fathers do the same thing, that is, speak against the remarriage of divorced women and remain silent concerning innocent men. Perhaps Ambrosiaster should be faulted only for being honest and forthright! Further, we are reminded that the Scriptures themselves are often “faulted” for discriminating against women.623 Perhaps Ambrosiaster is closer to the tradition than his critics!

The Apostolic Canons

By the days of the Council of Nicaea (325), or at least the days of the Council of Antioch (341), a series of deliverances, purportedly from the apostles, were being gathered and presented as such. These canons are the very early (prior to 300) canon law of the Church. Pertinent laws include:

Canon V (VI)

Let not a bishop, or deacon, put away his wife under pretense of religion; but if he put her away, let him be excommunicated; and if he persists, let him be deposed.

Canon XVII

He who has been twice married after baptism, or who has had a concubine, cannot become a bishop, presbyter, or deacon, or any other of the sacerdotal list


He who married a widow, or a divorced woman, or an harlot, or a servant-maid, or an actress cannot be a bishop, presbyter, or deacon, or any other of the sacerdotal list.

Canon XIX

He who has married two sisters, or a niece, cannot become a clergyman.624

The main burden of these rules is to preserve the ceremonial purity of the clergy. What obligations laypersons had to follow these rules is not entirely clear. It may be presumed that it is morally wrong for anyone to put away his wife for merely “religious” reasons. But the rest of the rules are more difficult to apply to laypersons. In essence the last three rules (all grouped together in the list) function as disqualifications for church office. They all read alike. But would we be correct in saying that a moral Christian could not marry a servant-maid? It would seem better to treat these rules as the sort of ceremonial defilements we noted in the Old Testament Levitical law. But if this is the case, can it be said that the Church is clearly against the marriage of divorced laypersons by the time of these canons? Apparently not.

The Council Of Aries (314)

The tenth canon of the Council of Aries states:

As regards those who find their wives to be guilty of adultery, and who being Christian are, though young men, forbidden to marry, we decree that, so far as may be, counsel be given them not to take other wives, while their own, though guilty of adultery, are yet living.625

What is said is clear. Why it is said is not. It may well be that this synodal meeting reflects the view of the early Tertullian and Justin that such remarriages inhibit the repentance of the guilty wife—thus not implying ontic status to the former marriage, though taking into account moral issues.

The Canons Of Basil (after 370)

The Canons of Basil, found in several epistles of the great Cappadocian father to one Amphilochius, bishop of Iconium, include among them:626

Epistle I, Canon IX:

Our Lord is equal, to the man and woman forbidding divorce, save in the case of fornication; but custom requires women to retain their husbands, though they be guilty of fornication. The man deserted by his wife may take another, and though he were deserted for adultery, yet St Basil will be positive, that the other woman who afterward takes him is guilty of adultery; but the wife is not allowed this liberty. And the man who deserts an innocent wife is not allowed to marry.

This intriguing law shows that (Church?) custom was discriminatory against women in cases of fornication and that the bishop discriminated against women in the case of desertion. It is not entirely clear that Basil did not agree with Ambrosiaster that deserted men were morally free to remarry. Note that the emphasis is, again, on inhibiting guilty parties from remarrying but not inhibiting innocent male parties.

Epistle II, Canon XXI:

A married man committing lewdness with a single woman, is severely punished as guilty of fornication, but we have no canon to treat such a man as an adulterer, but the wife must co-habit with such a one: But if the wife be lewd, she is divorced, and he that retains her is [thought] impious; such is the custom, but the reason of it does not appear.

This is another interesting statement, and one that is entirely in harmony with the conclusions of this book.

Epistle II, Canon XXXVII

That he, who having another man’s wife or spouse taken away from him, marries another, is guilty of adultery with the first, not with the second.

This canon shows that the Church, at this point, does not recognize a one-flesh bond to establish a marriage that is indissoluble. Heth/Wenham would perhaps say that this is not a legitimate marriage, but that evades the point. Why is a legal and consummated marriage (since all marriages are witnessed by God) not able to establish a permanent bond?

Epistle II, Canon XLVI

She that marries a man who was deserted for a while by his wife, but is afterward dismissed upon the return of the man’s former wife, commits fornication, but ignorantly: she shall not be prohibited marriage, but it is better that she do not marry.

Note that she does not commit adultery, only ignorant fornication, since she is single—a conclusion drawn in this book.

Epistle II, Canon XLVIII

A woman dismissed from her husband, ought to remain unmarried, in my judgment

Note that there is less dogmatism in this canon than we might expect if the tradition against (apparently innocent) divorced women remarrying is as “traditional” as Heth/Wenham suggest.627

Epistle III, Canon LXXXVII

He that divorces his wife, and marries another, is an adulterer, and according to the canons of the Fathers, he shall be a mourner one year, a hearer two years, a prostrator three years, a co-stander one year, if they repent with tears.

Several things are noteworthy about this canon. First, it does not demand that the remarried couple separate. It speaks of “they” as repenting, and there is no mention of a reconciliation with the first wife. Second, though the first part of the canon is obviously a near quote of scriptural material, the canon attributes the rule only to the canons of the Fathers. It is hard to know what to make of this except to say that the canons often are more concerned with tradition than Scripture. Third, it is confusing why, if the man is an adulterer, he should receive such light treatment, when Canon LVIII states that adulterers shall be mourners four years, hearers five years, prostrators four years, and co-standers for two years. Apparently the canons retained different traditions. Perhaps the reference to the Fathers is half in justification for the laxity of Canon LXXXVII. Lastly, does this canon mean to imply the divorcer had no grounds? If Basil is as soft on a divorced woman as he appears in Epistle II, Canon XLVIII, could he be so harsh on a disciplining divorcer who remarries? Such a conclusion would reverse the standard discrimination against women in favor of men. In all likelihood, Epistle III, Canon LXXXVII, means to judge guilty divorcers who remarry.

Epistle III, Canon LXXX

The Fathers say nothing of polygamy as being beastly, and a thing unagreeable to human nature. To us it appears a greater sin than fornication: Let therefore such [as are guilty of it] be liable to the canons, viz. after they have been mourners one year—let them be prostrators three years—and then be received.

This canon is also interesting in several respects. First, though his language is somewhat colorful (“beastly, and a thing unagreeable to human nature”), it is possible to interpret this canon as reporting no dominical condemnation of polygamy “on the books.” Could this immensely important Father have missed the tradition against polygamy that Kaiser, Heth/Wenham, and others insist was there? If the Fathers did not proscribe polygamy, then it is certainly possible that they did not consider divorced and remarried men (and women?) guilty of moral offense (even if such marriages were thought to entail multiple “one-flesh” relationships). Of course, it might be argued that Basil is simply reporting that the Fathers did not find polygamy an abomination, while knowing they did consider it some other sort of sin. But to this it must be noted that Basil does not say that the Fathers considered it fornication, much less, as he did, “a sin greater than fornication.” Having appealed to the Fathers in the first place, Basil would most likely have cited support of his own milder position had that support been available. We know churchmen saw themselves as custodians of the traditions. Where then was the tradition condemning polygamy? Second, it is to be pointed out that the penalty prescribed is less than that Basil usually commands for fornication. Fornication received: mourner two years, hearer two years, prostrator two years, co-stander one year—a total of seven years’ penalty. Polygamy, however, receives only four years! Again, Basil seems to mitigate a growing aversion to multiple marriages with the greater laxity of the past Fathers. The point is moot, but my view is that Basil probably knew of the strong Greek social condemnation of polygamy but was unable to cite ecclesiastical condemnation, because none existed. He therefore took it upon himself as a leader of the Church to set the tradition.628

Augustine (354-430)

Of final importance to our study is the great theologian of North Africa, Augustine. It is probably from this Father that we find the first clear teaching of marriage as a sacramental bond of indissoluble strength and permanent duration. Making his points in discussions of the three “goods” of marriage, he says (only) of Christian marriages that, based upon the analogy of Christ and the Church (Eph. 5:32), we should see marriage as a living union, in which there is “no divorce, no separation for ever.”629 Augustine thought that marriage was a sacrament because the Vulgate translated “mystery” as sacramentum, and it is Augustine himself who is credited with giving this term its present Church meaning, “an outward and temporal sign of an inward and enduring grace.”630 Marriage was a moral obligation and a sacred sign of the union between Christ and the Church. Because of this bonding, the marriage partners were placed under moral obligation to keep their marriage inviolate. Nonetheless, it is not entirely clear that Augustine means to teach an ontic bond, that is, one that cannot be broken, rather than a moral bond, that is, one that should not be broken.631 Though Augustine gives some voice to “indissolubility,” it could be that his is simply an early, unclear statement of the position that marriage (only) ought to be permanent. His language seems amenable to the position presented in this book that whatever oath-bond exists, it has only moral force, and whatever ontic-bond exists, it may be dissolved. On the last point, however, Augustine allows his language to soar (in the service of inhibiting marriage violation) beyond the text of Scripture and set a bad precedent regarding later Church teaching on the duration of violated marriages.632 It is also clear, however, that Augustine is opposed to the remarriage of the innocent spouse in the case of disciplinary divorce. In Adulterous Marriages, he insists that the synoptic writers must agree that all who divorce and remarry are guilty of adultery.633 And, in the same work, we read of his negative response to the more liberal Pollentius, who advocated the remarriage of disciplinary divorcers.634 It is tidy to suppose that such statements may only be harmonized with permanence discussions by supposing an indissoluble, ontic union, but I am, as yet, unconvinced that Augustine’s theology was as refined in such matters as some would suggest.635 But if I am wrong in this, it is to be remembered that even the great Augustine may be wrong on a point of exegesis, and that the biblical text must remain the standard of moral teaching.


It would seem to me that the history of the early Church, up to Augustine, at least, is far more open to the remarriage of disciplining (male) divorcers than Heth/Wenham would suggest. Hermas seems to fire the first shots of a conservative trend away from the permissiveness of the Scriptures, and, though he was an influence on Athenagoras and Irenaeus, it was not until Chrysostom (in the East) and Augustine (in the West) that his position gained much acceptance. There is also evidence of an alternative tradition that was even more lenient, and that tradition may well have been dominant in the Church, as evidenced by the Apostolic Canons and the Canons of Basil. It is likely that the reason for the overturning of the lenient tradition was the growing ascetic practice in the Eastern Church. It may also be the case that the ascetic tendencies of most of the conservative Fathers produced biased exegesis of the Gospel texts. But if so, what of the point that Heth/Wenham make in their treatment of Athenagoras? There they seek to deny that conservative early Church Fathers were too ascetically minded. These scholars argue that asceticism was primarily Eastern till the sixth century, at which time it was monasticism that caused conservative trends. In other words, when asceticism came West, that branch of the Church took a more liberal outlook. The Western church, they point out, was less stringent from the beginning. The church ecclesiastical, they suggest, seems to have “bucked” the monastic liberalization by standing nearly unanimous in condemnation of remarriage after divorce (where adultery was the issue).636

To this I reply that, aside from Hermas—a source of questionable value—the early, stringent position on remarriage of the innocent begins in the East and spreads West with Tertullian’s Montanism. Their point that the Eastern church was more lenient by the sixth century is true, but true in spite of the fact that monasticism was a dominant factor in the East. In fact, there was increasing moral laxity in the sixth century anyway, even in the monastic movements. Finally, it is to be remembered that aside from puritan monastic movements, the East was never as interested in canon law and systematic ethics as the West. This was increasingly so as the centuries progressed. In any case, it cannot be doubted that asceticism was the personal context of the most stringent of the Fathers cited above (i.e., Hermas, Clement, Tertullian, and Origen—even Basil). It is quite reasonable to suggest that their ascetic interests moved them to strict positions on the crucial matter of questionable sexual relations. Their interpretations should therefore be viewed with a critical eye. Moreover, I believe that their proclivities more than offset their proximity to the biblical teachings.

What, then, do we conclude from this abbreviated study of the early Fathers? First, I do not believe that the early traditions of the Church are “nearly unanimous” against all remarriage after divorce. It is more correct to present the evidence as a nearly unanimous prohibition of the remarriage of wives and guilty male spouses. Most of the early Fathers mustered to support the idea of no remarriage are really making a point against the remarriage of treacherously divorced women and treacherous divorcers, not disciplining ones. Second, with the exception of Hermas, no major Church Father explicitly prohibits the remarriage of disciplining (male) divorcers until Chrysostom during the fifth century. Third, there is evidence of a more lenient tradition that may have dominated the scene but left no extant or notable spokesman until Ambrosiaster in the latter part of the fourth century. Finally, there is only a shadowy teaching on the absolute indissolubility of the marriage bond until Augustine, and even he may have been referring to the intended moral duration of the marriage bond.

Again, let me remind my reader that in accord with the teachings of the Reformation, I do not consider tradition the equal of the Scriptures. Scripture should be interpreted with Scripture, rather than by tradition. I have presented this historical material out of interest (since I have been a professor of Church history) and as a response to contentions of such as Heth/Wenham that there is a strong tradition in the early church that stands against the positions taken in this book.

587   Heth and Wenham, Jesus, Chap. 1.

588   It is to be noted that those to whom the Spirit of Truth is promised are not Christians in general (as many Protestants suppose) or the ongoing magisterial Church (as Catholics suppose) but rather those disciples who had been specifically chosen by Christ (John 13:16), those who had been with him from the beginning (15:27), those whom He would shortly leave and to whom he would shortly return (16:16).

589   Cf. NIDCC, s.v., “Hermas.”

590   Hermas, Shepherd, 4.1.4-10.

591   Heth and Wenham, Jesus, p. 26.

592   Though he does not explicitly use that word of the man, what else could “becomes guilty of her sin and a partner in her adultery” mean?

593   Heth and Wenham, Jesus, p. 52.

594   Ibid, p. 216.

595   Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chap. 15.

596   Justin Martyr, Second Apology, 2.1-7.

597   That seems safer than interposing Luke between the clearly Matthean passages, when a Matthean option is available.

598   Athenagoras, Plea for the Christians, Chap. 23, trans. B. P. Pratten, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 11 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, n.d.), pp. 146-47.

599 L eglise primitive face au divorce du premier au conquteme siècle (Paris: Bauchesne), p. 60.

600   Heth and Wenham, Jesus, p. 29.

601   I do not deny that Athenagoras would have disparaged polygamy, but I do not think that is the point of the prohibition to “marry again.”

602   Theophilus of Antioch, To Autolycus, 3.13.

603   Heth and Wenham, Jesus, p. 31.

604   A quote of Zech. 7:10.

605   Heth and Wenham, Jesus, p. 31.

606   Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, 111.6.50.

607   Heth and Wenham, Jesus, pp. 32 f. See also Quesnell, “Eunuchs,” pp. 347-49 (see Chap. 5, n. 21).

608   Clement immediately mentions the Law, and probably has Deut 24:4 in mind when he refers to the inhibition.

609   Tertullian, Monogamy, Chap. 9.

610   See Chap. 1 of this book.

611   Tertullian, Monogamy, chap. 7.

612   It is interesting, however, that in Tertullian’s “orthodox period” he employs an argument against the remarriage of disciplining divorcers akin to that of Hermas, who was also from the West: remarriage inhibits repentance (On Patience, Chap. 12). I do not agree that remarriage inhibits repentance, only marital restoration, and such restoration is not necessary, according to the dictates of the Scriptures. Tertullian seems to have gone from the wrong to the bizarre in his rationalizing of his ascetic position. By the end of his life (in Monogamy, bk. 11), he came to view marriage as but tolerated adultery! (So S. Thelwall, in his “Elucidation” of that section of Tertullian in Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. IV [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, n.d.], p. 73.)

613   Origen, Commentary on Matthew, 14:22, 23, 24.

614   Heth and Wenham, Jesus, p. 35.

615   Ibid., pp. 37 f.

616   Origen, Matthew, 14:24.

617   Ibid., 14:17,19.

618   Ibid., 14:17.

619   Ibid., 14:23.

620   Chrysostom, Homily on Matt 19:1 ff.

621   So Augustine, according to the article “Ambrosiaster” by C. T. D. Angel in NIDCC pp. 32 ff.

622   Heth and Wenham, Jesus, p. 38.

623   Heth and Wenham’s citation (Ibid,) of 1 Cor. 7:3-4 notwithstanding.

624   The translations here are those found in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2d ser. vol. 14, ed. Henry Percival (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, n.d.), pp. 594-95.

625   Quoted in Heth and Wenham, Jesus, p. 43.

626 Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. 14, pp. 604-11.

627   Heth and Wehnam, Jesus, p. 43.

628   Basil was famous for his monastic rule. He, as much as any Eastern prelate, was responsible for spreading monasticism in the Eastern church. This is to be kept in mind regarding comments to be made shortly concerning the influence of asceticism on the teachings of divorce and remarriage in the early Church.

629   Augustine, On Marriage and Concupiscence, 1.2.

630 NIDCC, s.v., “Sacrament”

631   This important distinction has been mentioned often in this book, and is not often clearly made in the earlier literature, especially by those who speak of the “indissolubility” of marriage. Some who do recognize it believe that the two are complementary and mutually implicit (e.g., E. Schillebeeckx, Marriage: Human Reality and Saving Mystery, trans. N. D. Smith, 2 vols, in 1 [New York; Sheed & Ward, 1965], p. 283). I hold that the ideas may be complementary, but that there is no sufficient evidence of an indissoluble, ontic bond in the realm of marriage.

632   For another treatment along the same lines, see Atkinson, To Have & to Hold, pp. 40-43 (see chap. 3, n. 22).

633   Augustine, Adulterous Marriages, 1.11.12.

634   Ibid., 2.1-4.

635   Remember as well, that Augustine adapted the philosophy of the neo-plotinian Plotinus to Christian theology. According to that philosopher, all nature was connected in ontic union in a great chain of being. It also led Augustine to teach the in sense perception, we create it rather than it impinging upon our subjective reality.

636   Heth and Wenham, Jesus, p. 30.

Related Topics: Marriage, History, Divorce