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This article is a continuation of his article on Augustine held over from the October 15, 2014 Special Issue on Augustine.

Only Death Dissolves the Marriage Bond

Although in his teaching he stressed the permanence of marriage, Augustine recognized that the Scriptures permit divorce. The Scriptures permit divorce on one ground: adultery. “We must understand,” says Augustine, “that a wife is not allowed to put away her husband except for the same reason for which a husband is allowed to put away his wife, that is, fornication.”1 The Lord “obliges a husband to keep his wife if there is no case of fornication.”2 Adultery is a ground for divorce because the nature of this sin is that it violates the unique and exclusive intimacy of marriage. “One is allowed to divorce a wife in case of fornication for the precise reason that she first did not wish to be a wife who has not preserved conjugal fidelity to her husband.”3

Although Augustine recognized the permissibility of divorce on the ground of adultery, even then the marriage bond remained intact. Divorce in Augustine’s view did not sever the bond of marriage, but constituted legal separation, separation from bed and board. “This union divine Scripture so commands that it is not permitted a woman who has been dismissed by her husband to marry again, as long as her husband lives, nor is it permitted a man who has been dismissed by his wife to marry again, unless she who left has died.”4 In his work entitled “Adulterous Marriages” Augustine insists on the permanence of the marriage bond.

The husband also is bound as long as his wife lives, whether she be adulterous or chaste, and he, too, commits adultery if he marries another. This bond is never dis solved at any time, even if a spouse is separated by divorce from a chaste partner. Much less is the bond dissolved if she commits adultery before the separation. From this we may know that she is freed only by the death of her husband, whose death is reckoned, not from his lapse into adultery, but from his departure from the body. As a result, if the wife leaves her adulterous husband and does not wish to be reconciled to him, let her remain unmarried. (118).

In “Sermon #260” in his collection of “Sermons On the Liturgical Seasons,” Augustine counsels: “You who do not have wives may marry women whose husbands are not living. Women whose husbands are not living are permitted to marry only men whose wives are not living” (378).

Augustine scholar Eugene Portalie summarizes the bishop’s position: “The indissolubility of marriage found a staunch defender in Augustine…. Neither adultery nor actual separation nor sterility nor even apostasy can dissolve this bond. Only the death of one of the spouses will sunder it.”5

Forbidding the Remarriage of the “Innocent Party”

Consistent with his view of the permanence of marriage and his teaching that only death dissolves the marriage bond, Augustine disapproved even the remarriage of those who have come to be referred to as the “innocent party,” that is, the spouse not responsible for the breakup of the marriage. It is precisely the issue of the remarriage of the innocent party that is Augustine’s main concern in his treatise entitled “Adulterous Marriages.” In his introduction to this work, the translator Charles Huegelmeyer summarizes Augustine’s position.

The two books, Adulterous Marriages, are basically exegetical in character. Augustine’s conclusions are based on a carefully considered and finely drawn comparison of the passages in holy Scripture which relate to the question at hand. They are written in argumentative style and are a model of dialectic development of a main premise, which is, in this case, the statement of Mark and Luke that a Christian who divorces his spouse and remarries contracts an adulterous union, even if the divorce has as its ground adultery on the part of one of the spouses. (55).

Already several years prior to the publication of “Adulterous Marriages,” Augustine had taken the stand that the remarriage of the innocent party is forbidden by Scripture. This had been his contention in his “Commentary on the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount,” composed in A.D. 393-394. Treating Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:31 and 32 Augustine wrote that “if a husband puts away his wife (and this is permitted on account of fornication), he is to remain without a wife or be reconciled with the wife that he put away” (37). A bit later in this same work he wrote: “Furthermore, because a man commits adultery by marrying a woman who has been divorced from her husband— even though she has not put away her husband, but has herself been put away—she makes him commit adultery, for the Lord forbids this marriage no less strongly [than marriage to a woman who has put away her husband]. Hence, the conclusion is that—whether she has put away her husband or has herself been put away—she is obliged to remain unmarried or to be reconciled with her husband” (38).

From this position forbidding the right of remarriage to the innocent party, Augustine never wavered. In a sermon preached in A.D. 420 entitled “To Married Couples,” he addressed these words to the members of his congregation:

The Exception Clause of Matthew 19:9

As in our day, so in Augustine’s day, appeal was made to the exception clause in Matthew 19:9 as justification for the remarriage of the innocent party: “And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.” Augustine rejected the view that the exception clause provides not only the ground for divorce, but extends also to the right of remarriage. Besides the fact that grammatically the exception clause modifies “Whosoever shall put away his wife,” and not “and shall marry another,” he insisted that the Lord’s statement in Matthew 19:9 must be interpreted in light of the parallels in Mark 10:11, 12 and Luke 16:18. In these parallel passages the Lord forbids remarriage absolutely—all remarriage. It is in light of these passages that Matthew 19:9 with its exception clause must be interpreted. In light of the parallel passages, Matthew 19:9 is not giving a ground for remarriage, but the ground for divorce. Augustine contended that this is the only possible understanding of Matthew 19:9 when Scripture is compared with Scripture.

“Therefore,” says Augustine, “we have this same precept of the Lord: ‘Let not a husband put away his wife,’ because ‘Everyone who puts away his wife, save on account of immorality, causes her to commit adultery.’ But if he puts her away for this reason, even so: let him remain unmarried. For, ‘Everyone who puts away his wife and marries another, commits adultery’ [Mark 10:11; Luke 16:18].”6 A bit later in the same work he insists that “it is not lawful for a wife to marry after a husband has been put away, nor is it lawful for the husband to remarry after his wife has been put away, because the Lord has left no place for exception, in saying [in Mark 10:11 and Luke 16:18]: ‘If the wife puts away her husband and marries another, she commits adultery,’ and ‘Everyone who puts away his wife and marries another commits adultery.’”7

Besides interpreting Matthew 19:9 in light of the parallel passages in the other gospel narratives, Jesus’ teaching must also be interpreted in light of the rest of Scripture, according to Augustine. Especially must Jesus’ teaching be interpreted in comparison to the apostle Paul’s teaching on the permanence of marriage in Romans 7:1-3 and I Corinthians 7:39. In these passages the apostle teaches that marriage is for life and that only death dissolves the marriage bond. “For the woman which hath an husband is bound by the law to her husband so long as he liveth; but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband” (Rom. 7:3). “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.” By these words the apostle forbids all remarriage of those who are divorced so long as the spouse from whom they are divorced is living. “Do not you realize,” says Augustine,

how contrary this is to the Apostle’s words: “A woman is bound as long as her husband is alive”? Or are you perhaps, going to say: As a matter of fact, he is alive, but he is no longer her husband, because he ceased being her husband at the time when she dissolved the marriage bond by her adultery? How, then, these words, “While her husband is alive, she will be called an adulteress, if she be with another man,” since he is not now her husband after the marriage bond has already been dissolved through the adultery of the woman? For, during what husband’s life, if not her own husband’s, will she be called an adulteress, if she be found with another man? But, if he has now ceased to be her husband, she will not be called an adulteress, even if her husband is alive, and she be with another man. However, not having a husband, she will obtain one through her second marriage. Do you not perceive how contrary to the Apostle is the opinion of the one who thinks this way?8

Two Further Considerations

There were two further compelling considerations that in the mind of Augustine confirmed his conviction that all remarriage after divorce, even the remarriage of the innocent party, is forbidden.

First, if the innocent party is permitted to remarry, what this means is that either the act of adultery or the subsequent divorce severed the marriage bond. The permission to remarry rests on the assumption that the previous marriage no longer exists. If this is so, if the previous marriage is no longer intact, there is nothing to prevent even the guilty party from remarrying. The marriage, after all, has been dissolved. The marriage bond does not any longer exist. If either the act of adultery or divorce dissolve the marriage bond, then in the end the responsibility for the divorce is immaterial. Since the bond is severed, those who are divorced ought to be permitted to remarry. This Augustine viewed as the necessary consequence of the permission of remarriage to the innocent party. In the view of Augustine the right of remarriage could not consistently be limited only to the innocent party.

This is exactly what has happened in the churches that in previous decades opened the door to the remarriage of the innocent party. Invariably that opening of the door of remarriage after divorce, that small crack, has led to flinging the door wide open to all remarriage after divorce. Maybe, in some cases, an apology or confession of sin has been required, but notwithstanding the remarriage is approved—a remarriage that involves in reality continued living in sin.

A second reason on account of which Augustine took a strong stand against all remarriage after divorce was his insistence on the biblical injunction that those who were divorced must be reconciled to each other and must work at reconciliation. This is Paul’s exhortation in I Corinthians 7:11, “But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband.” The permission to remarry effectively precludes the possibility of reconciliation. How can they be reconciled to each other when one or both of them has remarried? But reconciliation is exactly what ought to take place: “If a husband puts away his wife (and this is permitted on account of fornication),” says Augustine, “he is to remain without a wife or be reconciled with the wife that he put away.”11 “Hence the conclusion” of the Lord’s teaching, according to Augustine, “is that—whether she has put away her husband or has herself been put away—she is obliged to remain unmarried or to be reconciled with her husband.”12 In another place he writes concerning the apostle’s injunction in I Corinthians 7:11 that “[h]ere it is likewise understood that if the wife has left the husband for the one reason which alone permits separation from the spouse, she ought to abide strictly in the unmarried state. But if she does not remain continent, [she ought] to be reconciled to her husband….” 13

Augustine was not insensitive to the burden which his (Scripture’s) teaching about marriage and remarriage placed upon the members of the church who had been divorced. He knew by his own experience the power of the sexual aspect of man’s nature, as well as the need for companionship. But with characteristic pastoral wisdom, Augustine pointed the members of the church living in this distressing circumstance both to their fellow Christians and to the grace of God which is always sufficient.

The burden of self-restraint [on those divorced and forbidden to remarry] must not terrify them. It will be lighter if it is Christ’s and it will be Christ’s if that faith is present which obtains from the Lawgiver the grace to do what He has ordained. Let them not be crushed by the fact that their self-restraint seems to be forced and not to come from the will, because even those who have freely chosen it have made it a matter of necessity, since they cannot deviate from its practice without condemnation, and those who have been forced into its practice make it a matter of free choice, providing they do not rely upon themselves but upon Him from whom is every good.14

Conclusion

There is an urgent necessity for the church of our day to reexamine and reassess Augustine’s teaching on marriage. The problem of divorce and remarriage is widespread and worsening. It comes to it that the rate of divorce and remarriage among those who profess to be Christians is not significantly below the rate among non-Christians. Every pastor deals with strained marriages, divorce and remarriage, and the painful consequences of the breakup of the family, especially the scarring of the children. For the well-being of married couples, in the interests of the significance of marriage as a picture of the relationship between Christ and His church, as well as a reflection of the unbreakableness of God’s covenant, and motivated by faithfulness to the teaching of the Word of God, the church today is in urgent need of honoring the will of God regarding marriage. That will of God, as Augustine taught already in the fourth century, is that the bond of marriage is a lifelong, indissoluble bond.


1 Augustine, “Commentary on the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount with Seventeen Related Sermons,” 65. 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 “Sermon on the Mount,” 64.

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

4 “Good of Marriage,” 12.

5 Eugene Portalie, A Guide to the Thought of Saint Augustine, H. Regnery, 1960, 268.

6 “Adulterous Marriages,” 93.

7 “Adulterous Marriages,” 97.

8 “Adulterous Marriages,” 104.

9 “Adulterous Marriages,” 103.

10 “Adulterous Marriages,” 104.

11 “Sermon on the Mount,” 64.

12 “Sermon on the Mount,” 70.

13 “Eighty-Three Different Questions,” 219.

14 “Adulterous Marriages,” 129.