ACR Journal

Marriage has always been…?

A Short History of Christian Marriage [1]

The following was first published as part of the Diocese of Sydney submission to the recent Appellate Tribunal. The purpose of this paper is to provide a short account of the development of marriage within the Christian faith. It is sometimes argued that the presence of incidental changes to the practice of marriage throughout the history of the Christian church legitimises any kind of further change. It will be demonstrated that while aspects of Christian marriage have changed throughout history, the substance of the doctrine of marriage as a union between one man and one woman does not change. The reasons for the persistence of the core doctrine of marriage fundamentally relate to the Church’s continual effort to remain faithful to Holy Scripture.

1. Roman and Christian Marriage in “primitive times”.

The Church did not institute marriage in “primitive times”. Rather, the Christian Church recognised God’s institution of marriage between man and woman from creation and implemented the marital commands of the Lord Jesus and the Apostle Paul. The result of this Christian marriage was a divergence from the norms of marriage in the Roman world (e.g., Paul’s approach to conjugal rights of husband and wife in 1 Cor 7:1-5). Those who were married and then converted to Christianity were not required to remarry, but were recognised as married members of Christ who commit- ted themselves to the particular teaching of Scripture concerning Christian marriage. Those who were Christians and then married became married through the same processes as their Roman neighbours. The pro- cesses to become married in the Roman world largely revolved around the intention to live together as husband and wife, and consummation was not necessary for the commencement of marriage. Thus, we could say that the church in “primitive times” adopted the processes required to be married under Roman law but adapted their marriages to comply with the commands of the Christian Scriptures. What would in time become the Service of Holy Matrimony began as prayers for a couple who had recently been married (i.e. prayers for God’s blessing after the event).

2. The development of Christian marriage from “primitive times”.

Classical Roman jurists, such as Ulpian (c. 170-223) and Modestinus (fl. 250), generally believed that marriage was the union between a man and a woman, for the purposes of procreation and companionship for the duration of life.[2] The regulations of the early Church found in the Didache (c. 100-150?), The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus of Rome (c. 215), and the Didascalia Apostolorum (c. 230), not only take a similar position on the general nature of marriage, but prohibit various activities such as adultery, paedophilia, fornication, pederasty, etc. Likewise, the canons of Elvira (c. 305-6), and to lesser extent the canons of Nicaea (325), present marriage as between a man and a woman, and outline a raft of sanctions for sexual activity outside of this relational setting (especially adultery in the case of Elvira). The theologians of the early Church held similar positions. Justin Martyr (c. 100-165) argued against adultery and fornication, and commented on the procreative purposes of marriage, as did Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215), and the great African theologian Tertullian (c. 155-220). St. John Chrysostom (c. 345-407) articulated a natural perspective on marriage as a remedy against fornication, a spiritual perspective on marriage as a vehicle for sanctification, a contractual perspective on marriage which raised it beyond material concerns, and a social perspective on marriage which embraced its benefits to the wider family and state.[3] Thus, while the early Christian approach to marriage reflected Roman marriage law there was significant development which accompanied the rise of Christendom. Though on occasion the early Christian approach to marriage rejected some aspects of Roman marriage law (e.g., that there could not be any marriage between slave and freemen), the early Church grounded their doctrine upon the Holy Scriptures, and as Christianity expanded so too did the Christianisation of the social structure of marriage.

3. The contribution of St. Augustine to Christian marriage.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of the contribution of St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) for the development of the Christian doctrine of marriage. Augustine, who was previously committed to Manichean asceticism, wrote in the context of ascetic debates over the relative merit of virginity as compared to marriage. The former monk Jovinian (d. 405) argued that virginity and marriage were equal in status, and the theologian and ascetic defender Jerome (c. 347-420) countered that virginity was better than the married state. Thus, Augustine’s writings on marriage, and especially his De bono coniugali and De sancta virginitate, attempt a middle way between Jovinian and the asceticism of Jerome and the Manichees. Augustine described the goodness of marriage as consisting in the benefits of off- spring (proles), fidelity (fides), and its sacramental quality (connubi sacramen- tum). We must beware of anachronistically reading modern sacramental meaning back into Augustine’s usage here. Augustine did not perceive marriage to be a sacrament in the same sense as Baptism or Holy Communion. Rather, Augustine described marriage as a sacrament due to his understanding of its indissolubility and its representation of the union between Christ and the Church (cf., ‘sacramen- tum’ in the Vulgate’s rendering of Eph 5:32). Therefore, the sacramental description of marriage in Augustine’s theology reflects his understanding of the permanent quality of marriage between husband and wife. The significance of Augustine’s teaching on marriage lies not only in his appreciation of the goodness of marriage, but in the terminology of ‘sacrament’ which was modified in the medieval doctrine of marriage.

4. The codification of Christian marriage in medieval times.

From Augustine’s time onwards, leaders of the church introduced ecclesiastical marriage law. Shortly thereafter, two general realms of legal jurisdiction obtained in the Church: judges handled secular matters through civil law, and bishops handled spiritual matters through ecclesiastical law.[4] Nevertheless, there was no formalised body of canon law until Gratian’s Decretum in the twelfth century, which became part of the Corpus iuris canonici. During this period of the middle ages – the ‘Papal Revolution of Pope Gregory VII’ – the Church took over matrimonial cases. Simultaneously, scholastic theologians of the time helpfully produced finely detailed expositions of Christian marriage, such as Hugh of St. Victor’s On the Sacraments of the Christian Faith (c. 1143), Peter Lombard’s Book of Sentences (1150), and Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica (c. 1265-1273). These contributions clarified the meaning of betrothal and marriage. They provided careful analysis of matters such as the role of consent and consummation for the commencement of marriage, and a pastorally driven discussion of annulling impediments to marriage, all of which greatly enabled the application of canon law to everyday life. Additionally significant, was the transformation of Augustine’s “sacramental” approach to marriage. Witte Jr. writes:

Augustine called marriage a sacrament in order to demonstrate its symbolic stability. Thirteenth-century writers called marriage a sacrament to demonstrate its spiritual efficacy. Augustine said that marriage as a symbol of Christ’s bond to the church should not be dissolved. Thirteenth- century writers said that marriage as a permanent channel of sacramental grace could not be dissolved. Augustine simply scattered throughout his writings reflections on the natural, contractual, and spiritual dimensions of the marriage without fully integrating them. Thirteenth-century writers wove these three dimensions of marriage into an integrated sacramental framework.[5]

5. The parallel development of Christian prohibitions against homosexual practices.

The development of Christian marriage loosely paralleled the development of the prohibition of homosexual sexual practices. While Roman law viewed homosexual intercourse as a criminal act (stuprum) and some in the Roman world mocked it as a “Greek disease”, the practice was tolerated in several instances (e.g., with non-citizens, and also between older men and younger boys).[6] However, the early Christian Church diverged from these principles and condemned all forms of homosexual practice on the basis of Scripture (e.g., 1 Cor 6:9-11) and because it went against nature (as described in Rom 1:24-32). Not only the Apostle Paul, but also the early Church Fathers, such as Tertullian and Clement, opposed homosexual practices as unnatural.[7] The rise of Christendom expanded the influence of Christian morality, and around the time of Justinian I (c. 482-565) homosexual practice was widely prohibited and severely punished.[8] By the medieval period the prohibition of homosexual practice was carefully codified. Scholastic theologians such as Anselm of Laon, Peter Lombard, and Thomas Aquinas, all disapprovingly discussed homosexuality, and Gratian’s Decretum addressed the vice of sodomy with reference to four pas- sages (i.e., Ambrose’s Liber de patriachis, Augustine’s Confessions, pseudo-Augustinian Contra Jovinian, and second century jurist Paulus).[9]

6. Marriage in the European Reformations.

At the time of the Reformation the Roman Catholic Church considered marriage one of the seven sacraments. Due to its sacramental status, marriage was regulated through church courts rather than civil courts. Martin Luther (1483-1546) repudiated the sacramental status of marriage in his Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520). In this treatise Luther also railed against certain annulling impediments set forth in canon law which he considered without basis in Scripture. By the publication of The Estate of Marriage (1522), Luther’s position had evolved, and not only did he provide sharper analysis of the canonical impediments to marriage, but he specified various grounds for divorce which he believed to be based upon Scripture. Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560), Johannes Bugenhagen (1485-1558), and the various jurists within the University of Wittenberg held reasonably similar views to Luther, and their teaching on marriage filtered down into the civil courts dispersed throughout the northern Germanic and Scandinavian regions. In their implementation of marriage law, virtually none of these civil courts adopted a Scripture only approach, but rather held to the supremacy of Scripture while implementing scripturally compatible aspects of marriage and divorce law from the received body of civil and canon law. Similarly to Luther, the reformers of Zürich rejected the sacramental status of marriage and understood it to be a divine institution involving a social contract. Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531) wrote the Marriage Ordinance which was promulgated by the city magistrates in 1525. This document outlined the constitution and legislative principles of the matrimonial council for Zürich. The traditional impediments to marriage were discussed, with similar scriptural chastening as Luther applied. John Calvin (1509-1564), just as with Swiss reformers Zwingli and Heinrich Bullinger (1504-1575), viewed marriage as more than a social contract. It was a divinely instituted covenant between man and woman. However, in Calvin’s Geneva, a far more conservative approach was taken to marriage law than in Zürich. In 1545, Calvin and four members from the Small Council of the city drew up the Marriage Ordinance which regulated marriage formation and dissolution. The consistory court could provide annulments where a small range of impediments for marriage were proven, and it could provide divorces where properly contracted marriages could be dissolved. The conservative Genevan approach to marriage found its way into Scotland via John Knox, and it also influenced the Dutch civil authorities and the ideas of prominent English Puritans.

7. Marriage in Reformation England.[10]

In contrast to the reformations on the European continent, reformation England continued to regulate marriage law within the framework of the ecclesiastical rather than civil courts. Thus, King Henry attempted to revise the traditional canon law with his own native canon law in 1535 (largely a scissors and paste job from the Corpus iuris canonici). The work of the committee which drew up the Henrician canons was interrupted for unknown reasons, and the project went little further. However, during the reign of Edward VI, the revision of canon law received another lease of life through an act of parliament in 1549. On 6 October 1551, the Privy Council commissioned thirty-two men to attend to the reformation of canon law. However, when the newly reformed canon law was finally presented to parliament in April the following year, the work of the English reformers came to nothing, for the Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum was vetoed by Lord President Northumberland himself. Notwithstanding its eventual failure within the Church of England, the Reformatio provides a unique insight into the collective thought of senior English reformers concerning marriage and divorce. Just as with the marriage courts on the continent, the Reformatio plundered the traditional body of canon law according to its compatibility with Scripture. Marriage was defined in the following way:

Matrimony is a legal contract, which by the command of God creates and effects a mutual and perpetual union of a man with a woman, in which each of them surrenders power over his or her body to the other, in order to beget children, to avoid prostitution and to govern life by serving one another. Nor is it our will for matrimony any longer to take place by promises or contracts, however many words they may have or whatever accompaniments there may be, unless it is celebrated according to the form which we have appended here.[11]

8. Rejection of Martin Bucer’s doctrine of marriage in Reformation England.

It is sometimes argued that the matrimonial canons in the Reformatio are indebted to the great Alsatian reformer, Martin Bucer (1491-1551). However, while Bucer was highly influential upon various theological matters from his position of Regius Professor of Divinity in Cambridge, this was not the case for the canons concerning marriage and divorce. He had died before the Reformatio was drafted, and his views set forth in De Regno Christi (1551) not only envisaged civil jurisdiction over matrimonial disputes but contained other views out of step with the Reformation. Bucer held that marriage required cohabitation, deep love and affection, the leadership of the husband and helpfulness of a wife, and conjugal benevolence. If anyone, through stubbornness or inability, could or would not perform these duties, then there was no true marriage and they ought not to be counted man and wife. To Bucer’s mind, divorce could even be granted by sheer mutual consent of marriage partners. His liberal views on marriage and divorce were well known, with one evangelical writing to Heinrich Bullinger that “Bucer is more than licentious on the subject of marriage. I heard him once disputing at table upon this question, when he asserted that a divorce should be allowed for any reason, however trifling”.[12] Given the controversial nature of Bucer’s views, it is not surprising that Archbishop Thomas Cranmer rejected his suggestion to revise the Book of Common Prayer by raising mutual help to the foremost purpose of marriage (before both procreation and sex) in the wedding service.

9. The history of marriage in English canon law.

By the end of King Edward VI’s reign the Reformatio was a dead letter. It had not passed through Parliament nor Convocation. It was floated again during the reign of Queen Elizabeth but debates over ecclesiastical polity took precedence over ecclesiastical law. Indeed, only in 1604 would the Church of England produce its own body of canon law. The irony of this achievement of a reformation goal was that the 1604 canons set forth parameters for marriage and divorce more restrictive than the pre-reformation situation: impediments were small in number, separation was permitted, but divorce itself was not. The sacramental status of marriage had been rejected but the functional indissolubility of marriage had not. The first move away from the Church of England canon law came with the Clandestine Marriage Act 1753, and civil marriages were permitted with the Marriage Act 1836. The jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts only ceased with the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 which introduced the possibility of divorce, which possibilities were expanded with the Divorce Reform Act 1969. Therefore, right up until the end of the twentieth century, writes Diarmaid MacCulloch, the Church of England “kept the strictest laws on marriage in all western Christendom, scarcely mitigated by the numerous ingenious reasons for annulment with which the Roman Catholic Church lawyers relieve Catholic canon law on marriage.”[13]

10. Conclusion: the persistence of Christian marriage from “primitive times”.

Aspects of Christian marriage have been changing since “primitive times.” The Christian adoption and adaptation of Roman marriage law and the expanding body of canon laws concerning marriage demonstrate this principle. However, the core doctrine of marriage – between one man and one woman for life – has remained remarkably and entirely consistent throughout the last two millennia. Similarly, the Christian condemnation of homosexual practice has likewise been substantially stable throughout the same period. The affirmation of marriage and the prohibition against homosexual sexual relations are the main reasons why there has been no period in the first two thousand years of Christianity in which the Christian Church has affirmed and blessed marriages consisting of two persons of the same sex. This, in turn, attests to the strength and clarity of the biblical witness concerning Christian marriage between husband and wife, and the fidelity of the church to the commands of Christ and the teaching of the Apostle Paul in the Bible.

[1] Or, marriage from “primitive times” (excluding the doctrine of marriage in Scripture, the “formularies” of the Church of England, and the principles of the C of E inherited in 1962).

[2] Philip Lyndon Reynolds, Marriage in the Western Church: The Christianization of Marriage During the Patristic & Early Medieval Periods (Leiden: Brill, 1994), 7-43.

[3] John Witte Jr., From Sacrament to Contract: Marriage, Religion, and Law in the Western Tradition (Westminster John Knox: Louisville Kentucky, 1997), 19-20.

[4] Reynolds, Marriage in the Western Church, 147.

[5] Witte Jr., From Sacrament to Contract, 29-30. Italics retained.

[6] William Loader, Making Sense of Sex: Attitudes towards Sexuality in Early Jewish and Christian

Literature (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013), 136.

[7] Bernadette J. Brooten, Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 322, 355.

[8] Eva Cantarella, Bisexuality in the Ancient World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 208-10.

[9] Michael Goodrich, “Sodomy in Ecclesiastical Law”, Journal of Homosexuality 4/1 (1976): 432.

[10] Because they were treated elsewhere in the Diocese of Sydney submission to the Appellate Tribunal, the traditional “formularies” of the Church of England (Book of Common Prayer, Thirty- nine Articles of Religion, and the Ordinal) have been largely excluded from the present discussion.

[11] Gerald Bray, Tudor Church Reform: The Henrician Canons of 1535 and the Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum (Woodbridge, Su olk: Boydell Press, 2000), 247.

[12] John Burcher to Heinrich Bullinger, 8 June 1550, in Hastings Robinson (ed.), Original Letters Relative to the English Reformation, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1846), 2:665-666.

[13] Diarmaid MacCulloch, Reformation: Europe’s House Divided (London: Penguin Books, 2004), 660-661.