The determinant of any doctrine is neither its newness nor antiquity. Scripture is the final rule on all matters of faith and practice. Nevertheless, a historical understanding may help one think through the issues.
In the first centuries after Christ, Greek and Latin were used extensively by early Christian writers. Though not infallible, these men had a built-in understanding of Greek grammar and Roman culture that may have given them insights into the New Testament which we may not possess. They lived in the social context in which the divorce and remarriage teachings of the New Testament were expounded. We can learn something from their cultural and linguistic understanding of Scripture. In all, twenty-five out of twenty-six early church writers and two early church councils prohibited remarriage after divorce for any reason. Though their writings are not authoritative, one must take their conclusions into consideration. In an age of debate over some of the most basic doctrines, their virtual unanimity on divorce and remarriage is amazing. The early Christian writers who taught that remarriage after divorce for any reason was adultery include Hermas, Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, Athanasius, Theophilus of Antioch, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, Basil of Ancyra, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory Nazianzus, Apollinaris of Laodicea, Theodore of Mopsuestia, John Chrysostom, Theodoret, Epiphanius, Ambrose, Innocent I, Pelagius, Jerome, Leo the Great, Gregory the Great, and Augustine. The Council of Elvira (A.D. 306) and the Council of Arles (A.D. 314) declare the same.
The lone patristic dissenter was a Latin bishop named Ambrosiaster. He wrote commentaries on Pauline epistles between A.D. 366 and 383. Little else is known about him. He is the only writer we have that allowed remarriage after divorce in limited circumstances. He allowed both partners to remarry if deserted by a pagan spouse. He did not allow remarriage if a spouse was deserted by a person who claimed to be a Christian. He allowed only the man to remarry in cases of adultery.
Some attempt to dismiss the consensus of the early church by claiming that these writers came to their conclusions by using only the gospels of Mark and Luke which teach only a prohibition of divorce and remarriage and do not include the ‘exception clause’. This is not true. The gospel of Matthew was probably the most widely used book of the New Testament in the early church. Many of the early Christian writers specifically mention the Matthean ‘exception clause’ when coming to their conclusions. Certain writers, such as Origen, Chrysostom, and Augustine specifically mention this subject in the context of commentaries on Matthew or the Sermon on the Mount.
Another attempt at dismissal is made by claiming that Jesus would have spoken to the Pharisees in Hebrew and since the early Christians writers did not know Hebrew they were confused as to the correct interpretation of the ‘exception clause’. It is uncertain whether Jesus would have spoken to the Pharisees in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek. Hebrew was the scholarly language of the Jews but many Jews by this time used the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament. Aramaic was the native language of Palestine but we do not know when Jesus spoke Aramaic outside of the instances recorded in the gospels. The New Testament is written in Greek and although it has been theorized that the Gospel of Matthew was first composed in Hebrew or Aramaic this is only a theory and the only manuscripts we possess are in Greek. The point being that it is uncertain what language Jesus used to speak to the Pharisees. If He did speak to them in Hebrew or Aramaic, Matthew was inspired by the Holy Spirit to record the conversation in Greek.
Although most of the early Christian writers were Gentiles they were not ignorant of Jewish divorce practices. Some of the early Christian authors also knew Hebrew. Origen compiled the Hexapla in which eight Hebrew and Greek versions of the Old Testament were arranged in parallel columns. Jerome was a Hebrew teacher and translated the Latin Vulgate directly from the Hebrew by-passing the Greek Septuagint. Theodoret also knew Hebrew.
Space does not permit going into detail of the writings of every early church writer. Some of the early writings are given as evidence of patristic interpretation concerning divorce and remarriage.
Probably the earliest writing we possess is from Hermas. He wrote The Shepherd of Hermas circa A.D. 160. The writings of the Shepherd are important as they were held in the highest regard by early Christians. These writings were seen as quasi-canonical and were often bound together with other portions of Scripture, specifically whatever gospels the congregation had. In his second book, Commandments, Hermas speaks about putting away one’s wife for adultery. He writes:
If any one has a wife who trusts in the Lord, and if he detects her in adultery, does the man sin if he continues to live with her?” And he said to me, “As long as he remains ignorant of her sin, the husband commits no transgression in living with her. But if the husband knows that his wife has gone astray, and if the woman does not repent, but persists in her fornication, and yet the husband continues to live with her, he is also guilty of her crime, and a sharer in her adultery.” And I said to him, “What then, sir, is the husband to do, if his wife continues in her vicious practices? And he said, the husband should put her away, and remain by himself. But if he puts his wife away and marries another, he also commits adultery.” And I said to him, “What if the woman put away should repent, and wish to return to her husband: Shall she not be taken back by her husband?” And he said to me, “Assuredly. If the husband does not take her back, he sins, and brings a great sin upon himself; for he ought to take back the sinner who has repented. But not frequently.
Hermas believed that the man who continued to live with an adulteress wife, in a sense, shared in her adultery. This was compulsory under Roman as well as Jewish law. The Lex Iulia de adulteriis (Roman Law of Adultery) required that a husband must send away his wife within sixty days if she was guilty of adultery. If the husband failed to do so he was guilty of lenocinium, a procurer or promoter of her adultery. It also was a logical application of 1 Cor. 6:15-17 which teaches that Christians should never have sexual relations with a prostitute (pornes).
Though allowing for divorce, Hermas saw the marriage as still intact. Because the one flesh bond still existed, Hermas did not allow a person to remarry after their spouse was divorced. This was his interpretation of the ‘exception clause’ in Matthew’s Gospel. He required the husband to cease living with an adulterous wife. If the husband did not leave room for repentance and acceptance of his wife, after repentance, it was also a sin. He adds the term “but not frequently” to show that true repentance will change the actions of one’s life.
Justin Martyr (A.D. 110-165) wrote his First Apology circa A.D. 150. Chapters 15-17 are a Christian catechism based on the Sermon on the Mount and other Gospel portions. Chapter 15 is subtitled, “What Christ Himself Taught.” Justin Martyr quotes Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:12. He gives no exceptions for remarriage. He lists lust and remarriage as sinning against Christ:
Whosoever shall marry her that is divorced from another husband, commits adultery. And, there are some who have been born eunuchs of men, and some who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake; but all cannot receive this saying. So that all who, by human law, are twice married, are in the eyes of our Master sinners, and those who look upon a woman to lust after her.
One should notice how Justin equates the eunuch saying of Matthew 19:12 with the subject of abstaining from a second remarriage after divorce.
Justin also shows that he believed Christians should separate from an adulterous spouse but that does not give them the right to remarry.
Second Apology, chapter 2 reads:
But when her husband had gone into Alexandria, and was reported to be conducting himself worse than ever, she – that she might not, by continuing in matrimonial connection with him, and by sharing his table and his bed, become a partaker also in wickedness and impieties – gave him what you call a bill of divorce, and was separated from him.
Athenagoras wrote his Plea for Christians around A.D. 177:
For we bestow our attention, not on the study of words, but on the exhibition and teaching of actions, that 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 marry 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.
Athenagoras was writing this letter to the Emperors Marcus Aurelius Anoninus and Lucius Aurelius Commodus. The purpose of it was to defend the rationality of the Christian faith and the superiority of its morals. Athenagoras uses marriage as one example of Christianity’s higher standards. Pagans divorce their wives and marry again, Christians do not. Athenagoras’ interpretation of Matthew 19 is that a second marriage equals adultery. He appears to be influenced by Phrygian Montanism for not allowing remarriage after either spouse’s death. This does not nullify the fact that he saw divorce and remarriage to be a form of adultery.
Clement of Alexandria (ca. A.D. 153-217) was the headmaster of the Christian school in Alexandria, Egypt from A.D. 190-202. Book II of the Stromata or Miscellanies was written to show that Christian morality was superior to paganism. Book III is an exposition on Christian marriage.
Clement has this to say regarding the biblical understanding of marriage:
Now that the Scripture counsels marriage, and allows no release from the union, is expressly contained in the law, “Thou shall not put away thy wife, except for the cause of fornication;” and it regards as fornication, the marriage of those separated while the other is alive...“He that takes a woman that has been put away,” it is said, “commits adultery; and if one puts away his wife, he makes her an adulteress,” that is compels her to commit adultery. And not only is he who puts her away guilty of this, but he who takes her, by giving to the woman the opportunity of sinning; for did he not take her, she would return to her husband.
Clement appears to quote Matthew 5:32 and 19:9. He sees the exception clause as allowing only separation or divorce. It does not allow for remarriage. A complete reading of Clement’s works tells us the purpose for the divorce is to allow the believer to separate from that which is unclean, namely a fornicating spouse. If the spouse repents of their sin, they become clean and are to be received back unto conjugal relations. The reason for divorce is not to permit remarriage. He claims remarriage after divorce is adultery in every instance while the other spouse lives.
Theophilus (A.D. 115-181 or 188). Little is known about Theophilus. It appears that he was born into a pagan household but came to Christ through reading the Scriptures. Eusebius writes that he was sixth in succession of elders following Barnabas in Antioch in Syria. These were Eros, Cornelius, Hero, Ignatius, and Euodius. Theophilus became an elder in Antioch the eighth year of the reign of Marcus Aurelius, A.D. 168. The works of Theophilus were written as an apologetic to his friend Autolycus an idolater and scorner of Christians.
In book 3, chapter 13 Theophilus writes:
And the voice of the Gospel teaches still more concerning chastity, saying: “Whosoever looks on a woman who is not his own wife, to lust after her has committed adultery already with her in his heart.” “And he that marries,” say the Gospel, “her that is divorced from her husband, commits adultery; and whosoever puts away his wife, except for the cause of fornication, causes her to commit adultery”.
Theophilus uses these verses from Matthew 5 in relation to Proverbs 6:27-29. It appears that he believed that remarriage after divorce was to be equated with being burned with fire and the man that remarries, “goes into a married woman shall not be innocent”.
Irenaeus (A.D. 120-202) was born in Asia Minor and raised in Smyrna. He claims to have known Polycarp who was taught by the apostle John. In Against Heresies Irenaeus quotes Genesis 2:24 and Matthew 19:7-8 to show God’s original intent for the permanence of marriage. He shows that the Mosaic Law was enacted only because of the hardness of men’s hearts:
And not only so, but the Lord also showed that certain precepts were enacted for them by Moses, on account of their hardness of heart, and because of their unwillingness to be obedient, when, on their saying to Him, “Why then did Moses command to give a writing of divorcement, and to send away a wife?” He said to them, “Because of the hardness of their hearts he permitted these things to you; but from the beginning it was not so;” thus exculpating Moses as a faithful servant, but acknowledging one God, who from the beginning made male and female, and reproving them as hard hearted and disobedient.
Tertullain (A.D. 145-220) was an elder in Carthage. He wrote in Latin and was a voluminous theologian. He was born into a pagan household and seems to have been educated in Rome. Tertullian transitions from an orthodox Christian period to semi-Montantist and Montanist periods. His Montanist beliefs led him astray in certain areas. Nevertheless, his writings concerning the permanence of marriage reflect the general consensus of the early church. In Against Marcion book 4 chapter 24 Tertullian’s writings are quite lengthy. The reader is encouraged to obtain a copy and read it in context. Chapter 24 includes these statements:
But Christ prohibits divorce, saying, “whosoever puts away his wife and marries another, commits adultery; and whosoever marries her that is put away from her husband also commits adultery”. In order to forbid divorce, he makes it unlawful to marry a woman that has been put away… For in the Gospel of Matthew he says, “whosoever shall put away his wife, except for the cause of fornication, causes her to commit adultery”. He also is deemed equally guilty of adultery, who marries a woman put away by her husband.
Origen (A.D. 185-254) wrote extensive commentaries on the Scriptures. He writes this in his Commentary on Matthew:
But as a woman is an adulteress, even though she seems to be married to a man, while the former husband is still living, so also the man who seems to marry her who has been put away, does not so much marry her as commit adultery with her according to her declaration of our Savior.
The Council of Arles (A.D. 314) Canon 10 states:
As regards those who find their wives to be guilty of adultery, and who being Christians 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.
Basil of Caesarea (A.D. 329-379) is also known as Basil “The Great”. His brother was Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory Nazianzus was his good friend. He was born into a wealthy Christian family in Cappadocia. He was trained in rhetoric at Constantinople and Athens. He left this to devote himself to a simple life of scholarship. With his friend Gregory Nazianzus he compiled the works of Origen. In one of his numerous letters Basil writes:
The woman who has been abandoned by her husband, ought, in my judgment, to remain as she is. The Lord said “If anyone leaves his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, he causes her to commit adultery;” thus by calling her an adulteress, He excludes her from intercourse with another man. For how can the man being guilty, having caused adultery, and the woman, go without blame, when she is called an adulteress by the Lord for having intercourse with another man?
Gregory Nazianzus (ca. A.D. 325-391) is also known as “The Theologian”. He was a friend of Basil the Great and a defender of the doctrine of the Trinity. Contrary to modern interpreters who claim that the early Christian writers were deficient in their knowledge of Jewish Law Gregory writes:
Now the Law grants divorce for every cause; but Christ not for every cause; but He allows only separation from the whore; and in all other things commands patience. He allows to put away the fornicatress, because she corrupts the offspring; but in all other matters let us be patient, as many as have receive the yoke of matrimony.
Jerome (ca. A.D. 347-407) was a native of Venetia and was baptized in A.D. 360. For several years after that he was a wandering student in Rome and Gaul. In A.D. 386 Jerome went to Palestine, and there through the financial assistance of Paula, a wealthy Roman lady whom he had taught Hebrew, he lived in a monastic retreat at Bethlehem. He led this retreat for thirty five years. Jerome is most famous for his Latin translation of the Bible, Biblia Sacra Vulgata. Being an accomplished teacher of Hebrew he went beyond the use of the Greek Septuagint in translating the Old Testament. This is important to note as modern defenders of the Erasmian interpretation often claim that since some of the early Christian writers did not know Hebrew they were led astray in their interpretation of the Lord’s teaching on divorce and remarriage.
In A.D. 394 Jerome wrote a letter to Amandus in which he included a reply to a question posed to him by a sister regarding whether a woman who is divorced because of sexual sins by her husband can fellowship with the saints without first repenting. Jerome writes:
I find joined to your letter of inquiries a short paper containing the following words: “ask him, whether a woman who has left her husband on the grounds that he is an adulterer and sodomite and has found herself compelled to take another may in the lifetime of him whom she first left be in communion with the church without repenting for her fault”. As I read the case put I recall the verse “they make excuses for their sins”. We are all human and all indulgent to our own faults; and what our own will leads us to do we attribute to the necessity of nature. It is as though a young man were to say, “I am overcome by my body, the glow of nature kindles my passions, the structure of my frame and its reproductive organs call for sexual intercourse”. Or again a murderer might say, “I was in want, I stood in need of food, I had nothing to cover me. If I shed the blood of another, it was to save myself from dying of cold and hunger”.
Tell the sister, therefore, who thus enquires of me concerning her condition, not my sentence but that of the apostle. “Know ye not, brethren (for I speak to them that know the law,) how that the law has dominion over a man as long as he lives? For the woman who has a husband is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives; but if her husband is dead; she is loosed from the law of her husband. So then if while her husband lives, she is married to another, she will be called an adulterer”…The apostle has thus cut away every plea and has clearly declared that, if a woman marries again while her husband is living, she is an adulteress…A husband may be an adulterer or a sodomite, he may be stained with every crime and may have been left by his wife because of his sins; yet he is still her husband and, so long as he lives, she may not marry another.
The apostle does not promulgate this decree on his own authority but on that of Christ who speaks in him. For he has followed the words of Christ in the gospel: “whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causes her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorce commits adultery”. Mark what he says: “whosoever shall marry her that is divorced commits adultery”. Whether she has put away her husband or her husband her, the man who marries her is still an adulterer.
Therefore if your sister, who, as she says, has been forced into a second union, wishes to receive the body of Christ and not be counted an adulteress, let her repent; so far at least from the time she begins to repent to have no further intercourse with that second husband who ought to be called not a husband but an adulterer.
John Chrysostom (ca. A.D. 347-407) lived a pure and simple life. He was called “Chrysostom” (golden mouthed) shortly after his death for his skill as an expositor and orator. In his Homilies on the Gospel of Matthew he has this to say regarding the passages which include the ‘exception clause’:
And observe Him everywhere addressing His discourse to the man. Thus, “He that puts away his wife,” says He, “causes her to commit adultery, and he that marries a woman put away, commits adultery.” That is, the former, though he take not another wife, by that act alone hath made himself liable to blame, having made the first an adulteress; the later again is become an adulterer by taking her who is another’s. For tell me not this, “the other hath cast her out;” nay, for when cast out she continued to be the wife of him that expelled her...And not thus only, but in another way also He hath lightened the enactment: forasmuch as even for him He leaves one manner of dismissal, when He says, “Except for the cause of fornication;” since the matter had else come round again to the same issue. For if He had commanded to keep her in the house, though defiling herself with many, He would have made the matter end again in adultery.
But mark Him arguing strongly not from the creation only, but also from His command. For He said not, that He made one man and one woman only, but that He also gave this command that the one man should be joined to the one woman. But if it had been His will that he should put this one away, and bring in another, when He had made one man, He would have formed many women. But now both by the manner of the creation, and by the manner of law giving, He showed that one man must dwell with one woman continually, and never break off from her.
Chrysostom saw the marriage as remaining intact even if a wife is divorced or expelled from the home. He allows the man to separate from a fornicating wife so that he is not defiled by his wife’s adultery. He does not allow either the man or the woman to remarry in such instances.
Augustine (A.D. 354-430) was one of the most prolific writers in the history of the church. Augustine taught marriage was a divine mystery and an analogy of the unity of the church. He wrote nine Moral Treatises. On the Good of Marriage reads:
“For whosoever puts away his wife, except for the case of fornication, makes her to commit adultery.” To such a degree is that marriage compact entered upon a matter of a certain sacrament, that it is not void even by separation itself, since, so long as her husband lives, even by whom she hath been left, she commits adultery, in case she be married to another: and he who hath left her, is the cause of this evil. But I marvel, if, as it is allowed to put away a wife who is an adulteress, so it be allowed, having put her away, to marry another. For holy Scripture causes a hard knot in this matter, in that the Apostle says, that, by commandment of the Lord, the wife ought not to depart from her husband, but, in case she shall have departed, to remain unmarried, or to be reconciled to her husband; whereas surely she ought not to depart and remain unmarried, save from an husband that is an adulterer, lest by withdrawing from him, who is not an adulterer, she cause him to commit adultery. But I see not how the man can have permission to marry another, in case he have left an adulteress, when a woman has not to be married to another, in case she have left an adulterer. And, this being the case, so strong is that bond of fellowship in married persons, that, although it is tied for the sake of begetting children, not even for the sake of begetting children is it loosed. For it is in a man’s power to put away a wife that is barren, and marry one of whom to have children. And yet it is not allowed; and now indeed, in our times, and after the usage of Rome, neither to marry in addition, so as to have more than one wife living: and surely, in case of an adulteress or adulterer being left, it would be possible that more men should be born, if either the woman were married to another, or the man should marry another. And yet, if to prescribe, who is there but it must make him attentive to learn what is the meaning of this so great strength of the marriage bond?...Seeing that the compact of marriage is not done away by divorce intervening; so that they continue wedded persons one to another, even after separation; and commit adultery with those, with whom they shall be joined, even after their own divorce, either the woman with a man, or the man with a woman.
On Marriage and Concupiscence states:
So enduring, indeed, are the rights of marriage between those who have contracted them, as long as they both live, that even they are looked on as man and wife still, who have separated from one another, rather than they between a new connection has been formed. For by this new connection they would not be guilty of adultery, if the previous matrimonial relation did not still continue. If the husband dies, with whom a true marriage was made, a true marriage is now possible by a connection which would before have been adultery. Thus between the conjugal pair, as long as they live, the nuptial bond has a permanent obligation, and can be canceled neither by separation nor by union with another.
Augustine begins his argument by citing Matthew 5:32. This passage contains the ‘exception clause’ which allows divorce when fornication has been committed. He calls marriage a sacrament but uses the word in a different sense than later Roman Catholicism. Marriage is such a “compact” that separation does not allow the woman to remarry if her husband deserts her. If the woman remarries she commits adultery. The deserting husband is said to be the cause of this evil. Augustine marvels that society allows a man to remarry after putting away an adulterous wife. He recognizes this “causes a hard knot” but realizes that Paul’s command in I Corinthians 7:10-11 says the woman is not to depart. If she does depart she is to remain unmarried. Augustine synthesizes these passages by allowing the woman to depart only in the case of an adulterous husband. He does not allow the woman to remarry. Since Scripture forbids the woman to remarry after departing from an adulterous husband Augustine does not see how a man could have permission to remarry after leaving an adulterous wife. Men and women are married for the purpose of procreation, this purpose cannot loose them. Scripture forbids remarriage after divorce even in cases of adultery. If they remarry after divorce they commit adultery with whom they are joined.
Leo the Great (ca. A.D. 390-461) was born in Tuscany. He became the bishop of Rome in A.D. 440. He wrote a letter to Nicaetas, bishop of Aquileia, regarding women who had remarried when their soldier husbands had been taken prisoner. He believed that the original marriage bond still existed and the women who remarried should return to their original husbands. Those who refused to return to their first husband were not permitted fellowship. Leo writes:
But because we know it is written that “a woman is joined to a man by God,” and again, we are aware of the precept that “what God hath joined, man may not put asunder,” we are bound to hold that the compact of the lawful marriage must be renewed…And if any women are so possessed by love of their later husbands as to prefer to remain with them than to return to their lawful partners, they are deservedly to be branded: so that they be even deprived of the church’s communion.
Gregory I is also known as Gregory “The Great”. He became the bishop of Rome in A.D. 590. His rule finalized the division between the Eastern and Western institutional church. His ascension to power also marks the unofficial demarcation between early and medieval church history. In a letter to Adrian Gregory writes:
For although mundane law declares that marriage may be dissolved for the sake of conversion against the will of either party, yet divine law does not permit this to be done. For, save for the cause of fornication, a man is on no account allowed to put away his wife, seeing that after the husband and wife have been made one body by the copulation of wedlock, it cannot be in part converted, and in part remain in the world.
Although the final determinant of any doctrine is Scripture, one must take these writings into consideration. If Jesus did allow remarriage after divorce, why do we have no record of it being taught or practiced? Where did the no remarriage doctrine come from?
Modern detractors claim that the early Christians did not understand Hebrew or use the Gospel of Matthew to come to their interpretive conclusions. The fact is that some of them did know Hebrew and most of them directly quote the Matthean Gospel text. Some of them interact with Jewish laws and traditions and show how the teachings of Christ regarding divorce and remarriage are superior. It cannot be that they simply did not understand the Old Testament. Most of them read Greek copies of the Old Testament and some of them read the Hebrew. Some of them mention Jewish divorce and remarriage practices.
The early Christian writers had a first hand linguistic and cultural understanding of the teachings of Jesus and Paul in the New Testament. Many of them spoke and wrote Greek as a primary or secondary language. Although separated by centuries and various geographic and cultural boundaries they had a virtual consensus in their understanding of the permanence of marriage. This consensus does not appear to come from reading one another’s writings but from reading the New Testament. Their view was the majority view of the church in the East until the 6th century and of the church in the West until the 16th century.
In the 13th century Aquinas taught that marriage was a ‘sacrament’ that conveys divine grace to the recipients. The Roman Catholic Church adopted this view and further erred by allowing divorce and remarriage in the form of ecclesiastical annulments. These views were canonized by the Council of Trent in the 16th century.
In 1519 the Catholic-humanist Erasmus stated that the innocent spouse in matters of adultery and desertion had the right to remarry. Though the idea did not originate with him it can be shown that under his influence this view gained broad acceptance. In Erasmus’ day salvation was said to come only through the institutional Roman Catholic Church. Erasmus saw injurious and unhappy marriages. He believed that church courts could be established to grant people divorces for serious reasons. The innocent party would then be granted permission to remarry by ecclesiastical authorities. Erasmus was aware of the scriptural teaching of no remarriage after divorce. He was a Greek scholar, yet his views were more influenced by social concerns than careful exegesis of relevant texts.
Since Erasmus allowed people to see their spouse as figuratively dead it is admitted that many today do not strictly follow his exegesis but only his conclusions. Most Christians today do not know this interpretation follows the tradition of Erasmus. The term “Erasmian” will be used to refer to those who allow remarriage after divorce because of adultery or desertion. It is not a derogatory term but one of convenience.
Martin Luther (1483-1546) sought reform of indulgences in the Roman Catholic Church. When Luther broke from the Church, Erasmus opposed this move. Nevertheless, Erasmus’ ideas were latched onto by the Reformers. Luther believed that the innocent party of an adulterous situation could divorce and remarry. He taught that since the Old Testament legislated the death penalty for adultery, the adulterous spouse should be looked upon as figuratively dead. This type of legal fiction now allowed the ‘innocent’ spouse the right to remarry. Luther also allowed divorce and remarriage for impotence, refusal of conjugal rights, desertion, and ignorance of a previously contracted marriage. Perhaps his true views can be seen in how he actually applied the doctrine. Philip of Hesse was a supporter of Martin Luther. In 1540 Philip married Margaret Von Der Saale. Philip of Hesse was already married and had not even legally divorced his first wife. Luther did not confront this situation but simply urged the matter be kept secret.
John Calvin (1509-64) took a more conservative approach to divorce and remarriage while still retaining some liberal conclusions. He rightly understood Deuteronomy 24:1-4 to only be a restraint upon a second remarriage. He did not see this passage as teaching approval of divorce and remarriage by God. Calvin did resort to legal fiction in allowing the innocent partner in the case of adultery to consider his or her spouse figuratively dead. He allowed the deserted partner to remarry by way of assumption that the deserter would enter into another conjugal relationship.
In 1643 John Milton taught that Christ did not condemn divorce and remarriage, but only the injury they caused. He believed a couple could divorce for almost any reason, including mutual consent. He was thought of as radical and heretical for this view. His view comes closest to what is practiced by some Evangelicals today.
In 1648 the views of the Reformers were canonized into Protestant law in the Westminster Confession. One man who influenced the acceptance of divorce and remarriage in the Westminster Confession was most likely John Lightfoot, author of A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica. He mistakenly believed that ‘some indecency’ in Deuteronomy 24:1 referred to adultery. This led him to the erroneous conclusion that porneia in the Matthean exception clause was a reference to adultery as justification for divorce and remarriage.
The Westminster Confession in Chapter 24 states:
Section V - Adultery or fornication committed after a contract, being detected before marriage, giveth just occasion to the innocent party to dissolve that contract [Matt. 1:18-20]. In the case of adultery after marriage, it is lawful for the innocent party to sue out a divorce [Matt. 5:32], and after the divorce to marry another, as if the offending party were dead [Matt. 19:9; Rom. 7:2-3. italics mine].
Section VI - Although the corruption of man be such as is apt to study arguments, unduly to put asunder those whom God hath joined together in marriage; yet nothing but adultery, or such willful desertion as can no way be remedied by the Church or civil magistrate, is cause sufficient of dissolving the bond of marriage [Matt. 19:8-9; 1 Cor. 7:15; Matt. 19:6]; where in a public and orderly course of proceeding is to be observed, and the persons concerned in it not left to their own wills and discretion in their own case [Deut. 24:1-4].
Although the leaders of the Reformation sought to allow divorce and remarriage for cases of adultery and desertion the acceptance of such teaching was limited. Even among Lutherans and Presbyterians divorce and remarriage was not widely practiced. The Anglican Church and some eastern Christian groups held firm and refused to accept the practice of divorce and remarriage. Many Anabaptist groups rejected the Erasmian interpretation altogether. In practice it was not until the 1960’s that western evangelical Christians began accepting divorce and remarriage in a broad measure. In the 1960’s and 1970’s numerous evangelical doctrinal statements began to change to allow for remarriage after divorce. In the last fifty years the evangelical church has become greatly influenced by secular culture and accepted the widespread practice of divorce and remarriage for almost any reason. In many Eastern churches the practice of allowing divorce and remarriage comes mainly from the influence of missionaries from the West. In the western Evangelical church the current majority position is that a person may divorce and remarry once but any subsequent divorces are considered suspect. This shows the weakness of the position. If divorce and remarriage is allowed (sometimes encouraged) it should not matter how many marriages a person contracts. The Scriptures teach that a person may abstain from marriage or have one marriage during the life of their spouse. Anything beyond this is considered adultery.
The early Christian writers had a virtual consensus in saying that remarriage after divorce, for any reason, was adultery. The western Church held to a no remarriage view until the 16th century. At this point Erasmus taught a divorced person may remarry, not by exegesis of the ‘exception clause’ but by interpretive legal fiction based on Old Testament law. The Reformers latched onto this view and canonized it in the Westminster Confession. It has held sway over much of the Protestant Church ever since.
The Reformation was an attempt to return the church to first century beliefs and practices. The Reformers held the early Christian writers in high esteem. Calvin in his opening address to Francis, the King of France, stated:
So far are we from despising them, that if this were the proper place, it would give us no trouble to support the greater part of the doctrines which we now hold are their suffrages.1
In some ways the Reformers returned to the faith and practices of the first century church. Concerning the issue of divorce and remarriage the evidence shows the Reformers failed. Tony Lane, a lecturer at London Bible College, shows how a historical understanding may help one to think through the issues:
If Jesus did allow remarriage, presumably it happened. How did it cease to happen, despite the fact that this teaching was known, leaving no trace either of a period when it happened or any controversy. Such a theory is no more plausible than a theory that the “Lord’s day” was originally on a Friday and that it changed to Sunday without leaving any trace of the change and without any controversy over the change.2
Those who allow for remarriage after divorce should remember two things. First, the Reformers allowed for remarriage based upon interpretive legal fiction. Few seem to be willing to do this today. Second, the arguments presented today concerning the ‘exception clause’ are recent and were not used by early Christian writers or the Reformers.
Modern day Erasmian interpreters believe that the early church was out of touch with the teachings of Jesus regarding divorce and remarriage. They claim that the early Christians were unduly influenced by asceticism which led them to incorrect conclusions regarding the permanence of marriage. It is more probable that both those who practice and those who justify divorce and remarriage in the modern evangelical church have come to incorrect conclusions regarding the permanence of marriage because they are unduly influenced by modern culture.
1 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, p. 10.
2 Tony Lane, May a Divorced Person Remarry, p. 4.
Copyright 2008 by Joe Fogle. All rights reserved.