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Background and Summary

In so many respects the Reformation was a return to Augustine. Sadly, in one important respect it was not. The one respect in which the Reformers generally did not return to Augustine, but deviated from him, was with regard to the doctrine of marriage. With firm resolve Augustine maintained the Bible’s teaching on marriage, divorce, and remarriage. He resisted the pressure of those who wanted to make allowances for divorce on grounds other than adultery and who permitted remarriage after divorce. In line with Scripture, Augustine permitted divorce only on the ground of adultery. But he insisted that even then, those lawfully divorced might not remarry. As long as one’s spouse remains living, the marriage bond remains intact and no remarriage is permitted. Nothing but death, which is to say that only God, dissolves the marriage bond, thus freeing those previously married to be married again.

Among Reformed Christians Augustine is probably best known for his defense of sovereign grace. Repudiating the Pelagian error of the innate goodness of man and the meritorious value of good works, Augustine defended the truth of salvation by grace alone. He taught the will of God in predestination as the source of salvation, a salvation of totally depraved sinners sinful with original sin, who can neither save themselves nor desire to be saved. Perhaps less well known among Reformed Christians is Augustine’s teaching concerning marriage.

Augustine’s treatise entitled Adulterous Marriages, written in two books, was the only treatise written in the first five centuries of the New Testament that was devoted exclusively to the subject of divorce and remarriage. In Adulterous Marriages (Book 1) Augustine responds to various questions put to him by a certain Pollentius, whose identity is unknown. After Pollentius read Book 1 of Augustine’s Adulterous Marriages, as well as his exposition of The Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, he was troubled by Augustine’s strict interpretation of Jesus’ teaching concerning divorce and remarriage in his exposition of Matthew 5:31, 32 and Matthew 19:9.

In Book 1 of Adulterous Marriages, Augustine is primarily concerned to expound the pertinent biblical texts, particularly I Corinthians 7; Matthew 5:31, 32; and Matthew 19:9, with its parallels in Mark 10:11, 12 and Luke 16:18. Reading Paul’s teaching in the light of Jesus’ teaching in the gospel narratives, Pollentius argued that a distinction must be made between divorce that takes place because of fornication and divorce that occurs on other grounds. While Pollentius argued that in both cases divorce is allowed, only in the case of divorce on the ground of fornication is remarriage also permitted. In defense of his view, Pollentius appealed, as might be expected, to Matthew’s exception clause—Matthew 19:9, “except it be for fornication.” He argued that the prohibition of remarriage applies only to those who were divorced on grounds other than fornication. But if the divorce has been on the ground of fornication, “except it be for fornication,” remarriage is allowable.

Augustine rejected Pollentius’ interpretation. He demonstrates that Jesus in Matthew 19:9 teaches that the only lawful reason for divorce is fornication. In Matthew 19:9 Jesus is giving the only valid ground for divorce, not a ground for remarriage after divorce. He contends that neither Jesus nor Paul allow for divorce on any other ground. And even in cases of divorce on the ground of fornication, Augustine maintains that the marriage bond remains intact (“till death do us part”) and, because the marriage bond remains intact, remarriage is prohibited. In response to Pollentius’ appeal to the exception clause in Matthew 19:9 to justify both divorce and remarriage, Augustine calls for the interpretation of the exception clause in Matthew 19:9 in light of the parallels in Mark 10:11, 12 and Luke 16:18. In these passages the prohibition of remarriage is absolute and unqualified: “whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery.”

In Book 2 Augustine begins with Paul’s word in I Corinthians 7:39, “The wife is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth; but if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will; only in the Lord.” He argues that even when a spouse has been legitimately divorced because of adultery, the bond of marriage remains intact until the death of one of the spouses. Even when divorce has occurred on the ground of adultery, and therefore is a valid divorce, the marriage bond remains intact in the eyes of the Lord. And because the marriage bond remains intact, no remarriage may be permitted. Additionally, Augustine argues against the remarriage of those lawfully divorced on the basis of the apostle’s teaching in I Corinthians 7:11, “But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband.” Augustine points out that to allow remarriage after divorce effectively precludes the possibility of reconciliation: “or be reconciled to her husband.” With a view to the reconciliation of husband and wife—something the husband or wife sinned against by an unfaithful spouse ought to be praying for daily—even those divorced on the one ground permitted by Scripture must remain unmarried.

Augustine’s Teaching Concerning Marriage Generally

Before considering the specifics of Augustine’s teaching on divorce and remarriage, it will be profitable to take note of his views on marriage generally. Augustine set forth his views in a treatise entitled “The Good of Marriage,” in his Commentary on the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, in his two books on Adulterous Marriages, as well as in various tracts and sermons.1

Foundational to Augustine’s teaching on marriage was his conviction that marriage is a divine institution. “God did not create [Adam and Eve] separately and join them as if strangers, but He made the one from the other, indicating also the power of union in the side from where she was drawn and formed.”2 “They who have been well instructed in the Catholic faith know,” among other things, “that God created marriage, and as the union is from God, so divorce is from the devil.”3

Because marriage is a divine institution, marriage is good. Over against the sect known as the Manichees, a sect to which Augustine belonged for a time, as well as contrary to most of the leaders of the church of his own day who spoke disparagingly of marriage, Augustine affirmed the inherent goodness of marriage. In fact, he entitled one of his treatises on marriage, “The Good of Marriage.” In that treatise he wrote that “according to the present condition of birth and death, which we know and in which we were created, the marriage of male and female is something good.”4 He insists that the marriage of believers “is a good and can be defended by right reason against all charges.”5

In his Tractates On the Gospel of John 1-10, Augustine appeals to Jesus’ attendance at the marriage feast in Cana of Galilee as proof of the goodness of marriage. If Jesus had not approved of marriage, he would not have attended the wedding in Cana or participated in the celebration of the union. Our Reformed fathers followed Au gustine’s lead in this respect by including in our Reformed Form for the Confirmation of Marriage Before the Church appeal to “Jesus’ presence, gifts and miracles, in Cana of Galilee,” by which he “highly honor[ed]” marriage.6

Although marriage is good, the goodness of marriage is a relative goodness, according to Augustine. In comparison to the goodness of marriage, celibacy and virginity were a superior good. Augustine believed that “marriage and continence are two goods, the second of which is better.”7 And although “[m]arriage and virginity are, it is true, two goods, the second of them is the greater.”8

It belongs to the good of marriage that it is God’s provision for the companionship of those who are married. That is an exceedingly great good in a world of sin and sorrow, sickness and death, pain and persecution. That we who are married have someone with whom we can fellowship, to whom we can turn for companionship, from whom we can receive encouragement—a greater good can hardly be imagined. By virtue of God’s creation, “human nature is something social and possesses the capacity for friendship as a great and natural good…. And so it is that the first natural tie of human society is man and wife.”9 Marriage is not to be considered “good solely because of the procreation of children, but also because of the natural companionship between the two sexes.”10

Although marriage is God’s provision of companionship for those who are married, the friendship of marriage was not the main purpose of marriage, in Augustine’s view. The main purpose of marriage was not even the fellowship of husband and wife in marriage as a picture of the love relationship between Christ and his church. Rather, the main purpose of marriage was the begetting of children. Thus “[m]arriage has also this good, that carnal or youthful incontinence, even if it is bad, is turned to the honorable task of begetting children, so that marital intercourse makes something good out of the evil of lust.”11 According to Augustine the “crown of marriage…is the chastity of procreation and faithfulness in rendering the carnal debt.”12 Augustine went so far as to teach that sexual relations in marriage motivated by any other purpose than procreation were sinful: “In marriage, intercourse for the purpose of generation has no fault attached to it….”13 But, “there is a defilement if anything is done in marriage through the union of the flesh that exceeds the need for generation, though this is pardonable.”14

Augustine was mistaken. Not the bringing forth of children—procreation—is the main purpose of the marriage of husband and wife. Rather, the first and main purpose of marriage is the friendship and fellowship of husband and wife in the covenant of marriage. Although Augustine went too far in one direction, many go to the extreme in the opposite direction today. They separate the conception and birth of children from marriage. They marry with the deliberate intention of postponing the conception of children, some indefinitely, until they suppose that they are financially secure enough to have children. Or, for wrong and selfish reasons they prevent the birth of children or destroy children who have been conceived. Or, what is still more perverse, those who defy the will of God for marriage and contract same-sex “marriages” bring children into these relationships. This is contrary to the clearly revealed will of God, which will of God is that children are brought forth and nurtured by a husband and wife who are living faithfully in the bond of marriage.

As far as the relationship of husband and wife in marriage is concerned, Augustine taught that the husband is the head of his wife and the wife is called to be in subjection to her husband. This was contrary to the spirit of the age in which Augustine lived, as it is contrary to the spirit of our age—the age of feminism and individual rights. Augustine warned that the husband’s headship may not become an excuse for tyranny on the part of the husband. Since the husband’s headship is to be modeled after Christ’s headship of the church, his calling as head is that of godly, patient, loving leadership. For that reason, the husband as head must take special care to walk faithfully before God in his marriage. In a sermon that he preached “To Married Couples,” Augustine exhorted the husbands in his congregation: “If you are the head, take the lead; let her follow her head. But notice where you’re going; don’t go where you don’t want her to follow. Don’t go where you’re afraid of having her hard on your heels, of your both tumbling together into the pit of adultery, of your teaching her to do what you do.”15

In that same sermon, Augustine points Christian wives to their calling towards their husbands. That calling is:

In all other respects be the servants of your husbands, obedient and compliant. Don’t let any impertinence be found in you, any pride, any shrewish answering back, any disobedience; be in all respects at their service, at their beck and call.16

Those who live according to the will of God in marriage, husband and wife each fulfilling their calling, will inevitably enjoy peace and unity in their marriage.

The Permanence of Marriage

Of all that Augustine taught regarding marriage, one of the most notable features of his teaching was his insistence on the permanence of the marriage relationship. The marriage bond is indissoluble, except by death. Nothing—not permanent disability, not incapacitating injury, not faithless desertion, not adultery, not divorce—dissolves the marriage bond. Only death, the death of one of the spouses, dissolves the marriage. Augustine recognized that this view and practice were completely contrary to the practices of the non-Christian society of his day. The culture of his day was as much a culture of divorce as is our culture today. It was widely practiced and commonly accepted. Men and women freely walked away from their marriages and just as freely contracted new marriages. And all this was sanctioned by the state.

Augustine rejected this view and practice. He was convinced that the Scriptures teach that marriage is indissoluble. In marriage “an association of fidelity that cannot be dissolved” is entered into.17 When marriage is entered upon in the City of God [that is, the church], “marriage bears a kind of sacred bond, [which] can be dissolved in no way except by the death of one of the parties.”18 “Because of this sanctity it is wrong for a woman, leaving with a divorce, to marry another man while her husband still lives, even if she does this for the sake of having children. Although that is the sole reason why marriage takes place, even if this for which marriage takes place does not follow, the marriage bond is not loosed except by the death of a spouse”19 (italics added for emphasis).

In Augustine’s view, the marriage bond is indissoluble. It cannot be broken. Augustine scholar Eugene Portalie says concerning Augustine’s position that “[t]he indissolubility of marriage found a staunch defender in Augustine.”

Because the marriage bond cannot be broken, they who are married are married for life. So long as both spouses are living, even if they have separated or divorced, they remain married—married in the eyes of the Lord and married in the eyes of the church. It is exactly because marriage is an unbreakable, lifelong relationship, that all remarriage, even remarriage after a lawful divorce, is forbidden. This was Augustine’s position. It is the biblical position. It is the position of the Protestant Reformed Churches. To this aspect of Augustine’s teaching concerning marriage, we will return next time, D.V.


1 I will be quoting from these works of Augustine as they are included in The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation. Thomas P. Halton, Ed. (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of American Press, repr. 1981-2011), volumes 11, 27, 38, 70, and 78.

2 “Good of Marriage,” 9.

3 “Tractates on the Gospel of John 1-10,“ 195

4 “Good of Marriage,” 12.

5 “Good of Marriage,” 39. 6 The Psalter. PRC Rev. Ed.(Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2012), 77

7 “Good of Marriage,” 20.

8 “Good of Marriage,” 45.

9 “Good of Marriage,” 9.

10 “Good of Marriage,” 12.

11 “Good of Marriage,” 13.

12 “Good of Marriage,” 25.

13 “Good of Marriage,” 17.

14 “Good of Marriage,” 47.

15 “To Married Couples,” 423

16 “To Married Couples,” 423

17 “Good of Marriage,” 46.

18 “Good of Marriage,” 31.

19 “Good of Marriage,” 47.