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L'influenza del cristianesimo sulla famiglia e sul matrimonio

1. THE INFLUENCE OF CHRISTIANITY UPON FAMILY AND MARRIAGE
Beginning with Edward Gibbon in The Decline and Pall of the Roman Empire, rationalist historians 
have described the influence of Christianity upon family and marriage as having been for the most 
part   degrading.  Of   the   early  Christians’  sentiments   concerning   chastity   and  marriage  Edward 
Gibbon had this to say:
Since desire was imputed as a crime,  and marriage was tolerated as a defect, it was consistent 
with  the same principle  to consider a state of celibacy as  the nearest approach  to  the divine 
perfection. It was with the utmost difficulty that ancient Rome could support the institution of 
the six vestal virgins; but  the primitive church was  filled with a great number  of  persons of 
either sex who had devoted  themselves to the profession of perpetual chastity. A few of these, 
among whom we may  reckon  the  learned Origen, judged  it the most prudent to disarm  the 
tempter. Some were  insensible and  some were  invincible against   the assaults of   the  flesh. 
Disdaining an  ignominious flight,  the virgins of  the warm climate of Africa encountered  the 
enemy  in  the closest engagement; they permitted priests and deacons  to share  their bed, and 
gloried amidst the flames in their unsullied purity. But insulted Nature sometimes vindicated 
her rights, and  this new species of martyrdom served only to introduce a new scandal into the 
church.
1
The   rationalist   historian   of   European  morals,  William  Lecky,   points   out   in  The  History   of  
Rationalism in Europe:
It is not difficult to conceive the order of ideas that produced that passionate horror of the fair  
sex  which   is   such   a   striking   characteristic   of   the   old  Catholic   theology.  Celibacy  was 
universally   regarded   as   the   highest   form  of   virtue,   and   in   order   to  make   it   acceptable, 
theologians exhausted all  the resources of  their eloquence  in describing  the  iniquity of  those 
whose   charms   rendered  it   so  rare.   .   .   .  There  was  no  subject  on which  the  old writers 
expatiated with more  indignant eloquence, or with more  copious  illustration. . . . Solomon, 
whose means of observation had in this respect been exceedingly extensive, had summed up 
his   experience   in   a   long   series   of   the  most   crushing   apophthegms.   Chrysostom  only 
interpreted   the   general   sentiment   of   the  Fathers,  when   he   pronounced  woman   to   be   “a 
necessary   evil,   a   natural   temptation,   a   desirable   calamity,   a   domestic   peril,   a   deadly 
fascination, and a painted ill.” 
2
What both Gibbon and Lecky have forgotten to tell us is why the early Church, as it moved out into the Roman Empire, reacted so violently in favor of chastity and celibacy. Secular historians with a 
few honorable exceptions  simply  ignore  the  appaling moral depravity of  the  ancient world.  Let  a 
more honest historian tell us  the truth.  In his first class chapter on “Family and Social Life” in The 
Legacy of Rome, Professor Hugh Last writes as follows:
The new  ideals of marriage which had come  in from  the East where home  life was hardly 
known, overlaid on the Roman reluctance to suppress the female sex. ended in  the spread at 
Rome of a moral licence which finally destroyed its victims. The Greek view of woman was 
that   she  should be  the  silent   servant  of  her  husband,   too  far   inferior  because  too  little 
educated  to share his  life with him and under no  responsibility save  for  the most ordinary 
domestic  routine.  When  this   ideal  was brought   to  Rome,  where  such  effacement  of   the 
woman was  impossible, the  result was  that they clung  to the ~are-free life of the house that 
was’ not   a  home   sanctioned by  the  Greek  tradition,  without   surrendering  the   claim  to 
equality with their husbands justified by Rome. So there arose the race of unlovely women 
who bulk  large  in  the history of  the early empire-all unattractive, some repulsive  for  their 
attainments   as   intriguers,  poisoners,   adulteresses,   and   even worse-the  destroyers  of   the 
Roman home,  who  taught everyone with whom they came in contact to live for themselves 
alone.  In  the   sordid   picture  which   the   age   of  Augustus   presents   the   only   feature   of 
encouragement is  the promise of  extinction  - which  their  selfishness  contains. Already by 
the end of the Republic race-suicide had shown itself to be a threat full of danger and social 
legislation  aimed  at   increase of   the birth-rate,  was at  once  the most   important  and  least 
successful  undertakings of  Augustus.  But   limitation of   families went  on  with  increasing 
rigor until by the time of Hadrian there had ceased to exist all except one of the great houses 
which in the age of Cicero had formed the aristocracy of Rome. 
It was against the licence of which  such things were the  result that at length there came the 
long-awaited protest   from  the Christians.   In  the Apostolic Age  the Christian attitude  to 
women was by no means severe but though this generosity continued into later times, by the 
side of it there soon developed a movement in the opposite direction. When Christianity saw 
the effects on civilization of  this unbridled  liberty among women,  it  inevitably and  rightly 
reacted  towards a more stringent view-a view  less  liberal than  the Roman, but still a view 
which   circumstances  made   necessary.  The  Roman   emancipation   of  women   had   to   be 
annulled when  woman was  no  longer   able   to use  her   freedom  aright   and   so  the  new 
tendency was in the direction of the Greek ideal whereby the wife was the humble servant of 
her husband and no more.
3
As  the Church  penetrated  into  the  higher ranks  of Roman  society  it came  to  accept   the  existing economic  and political ordering of  society  and only  attempted  to  regulate  it at ethically doubtful 
points. The  early Christians did not attempt to overthrow  the  social system but to  reform  it from 
within by changing individuals. In his classic work, Tbe Social Teaching of tbe Christian Churches, 
Ernst Troeltsch points out that:
The attitude of the Church towards the inmost heart of the system, the family, was, however, 
entirely different. At this point the moulding of conditions was so closely bound up with the 
contemporary value and conception of  the  life of  the  individual  that here  the realization of 
the  ideal meant  that  the Church  had  to  intervene and  transform hostile circumstances. The 
family with  its  patriarchal  dominion of  man and  its  compulsory matrimonial   right  was, 
indeed, still regarded as a consequence of the Fall, like all law and all compulsion which had 
replaced  the  inner freedom of the Primitive State. Others, however, argued that the manner 
of  Eve’s creation  proves  that   the  subjection  of  women  is  in  the natural  order  of   things; 
however, the overlordship of man was only established when the curse was pronounced and 
Adam and Eve were driven out of Paradise. Here, however, adaptation  to  the  ideals of  the 
world is  strictly limited. From the very beginning the Church set  before  its members a high 
and  strict   ideal;   it   required  them  to observe  the  ideal  of  monogamy, of  chastity before 
marriage   (for   both   husband   and  wife),   of   conjugal   fidelity,  to   exercise   an   ethical   and 
religious  discipline  in  the  care  of  children,  to  reject all regulation  of  the  birth  rate  by  the 
exposure of children or by artificial sterilization; and after the Church was established by the 
State, as far as possible this ideal
was  made   a   general   principle   of  Society,   partly   by   the   influence   of   the  Church   upon 
ecclesiastical law, penitential order and discipline, and partly by  its  influence upon  the  law 
of the State. According to the religious philosophy of the Church, which was based upon that 
of the Bible, the monogamous family is the basis of Society and of the State, which has itself 
been  formed  by  the expansion  of   the  family;  among  pagans  the  idea of   the  family had 
become most confused and perverted by its false  ideas of sex, and  it was radically purified 
by the Christians in order to serve as the foundation of a purer and better order of life.
4
As  a  result of  the moral degradation  of women  and  family  life  the  early Church  had  to  struggle 
against three aspects of the family and marriage customs of its pagan Graeco-Roman environment. 
(1)  The Church  emphasized  the absolute necessity  for  chastity and  fidelity within and  without 
marriage, (2) it condemned abortion and infanticide as contrary to the moral law binding on all men 
and women, and (3) it  made divorce much more difficult to obtain than it had been under imperial 
legislation.  Constantine  the Great forbade married men  to have  extra-marital relations,  and made concubinage difficult by making  invalid all gifts and legacies  from  the man  to his girl friend  and 
their children. His Christian successors of the Eastern Roman Empire tried again and again to make 
it more difficult to dissolve a marriage by limiting the reasons for divorce and by confining women 
more closely to their homes. Under the  Justinian legislation divorce was made even more difficult, 
with the strongest possible emphasis on the only reason for divorce allowed by the Church, namely 
that Of adultery, and thus in principle destroyed the old Roman principle of the freedom of contract 
in marriage. In A.D. 314 the Council of Arles affirmed the general principle of the indissolubility of 
marriage but did not make it mandatory. Finally at the Council of Carthage in A.D. 407  the Church 
took  an  irreversible   stand  against  divorce.
5
  In   the   twelfth  century,  civil   law  was  brought   into 
complete  conformity with  canon  law  and  absolute  divorce  almost disappeared  from Europe. The 
Roman  Catholic  Council   of  Trent   (1543-1563),   in   opposition   to   the   views   of   the  Reformers, 
declared  that marriage is one of the seven sacraments of the Church and must be celebrated in the 
presence of  a priest.  Thus after  more  than  a millennium  of  Christianity, ecclesiastical  marriage 
became established in the Western world. The Roman Catholic Church had not only made marriage 
a religious act; it also made it a public act by institutionalizing it. The officiating priest became the 
arbiter of marriage and was bound to follow the directives of the Canon Law which now controlled 
the whole field of the regulation of sexual relationships.
6
The conception of marriage as a religious sacrament was first seriously presented by Augustine  in 
the fifth century as a result of his misunderstanding of the Pauline use of the Greek word mysterion 
in the fifth chapter of Ephesians, verse 32. The Greek word for mystery had been mistranslated into 
the  Latin  language   in  the  Vulgate Bible,   the   standard  text   for   the  medieval  Latin Church,   as 
Sacramentum. On this basis,  the Council of Trent declared divorce to be impossible, for if marriage 
is a  sacrament, it  can  be voided only by  the death of a partner. It  is  on  this  theological basis  that 
Roman Catholicism still denies the possibility of divorce, and it make no attempt to base its reasons 
against divorce on truly scriptural grounds.
The  medieval  Latin Church  rejected  the  old  imperial  Roman  civil   law  doctrine  of   regulated 
divorce and allowed only  separations   from  bed and board,  which did not  permit   remarriage. 
Annulments were,  however, possible,  and  these  largely  satisfied  the  social demand  for  divorce. 
According  to Rome  such  annulments are  not  divorces  but  declarations  that   the marriage  never 
occurred in  the first place. Children are  legitimized, but when grounds for annulments are present 
dut to various impediments before the marriage took place, the spouses are free to remarry. In the 
Middle Ages such impediments were made available by the Roman doctrine of prohibited degrees 
of relationship and the Catholic teaching that a betrothal in terms of the present tense constituted a 
valid marriage.By zealous searching of family trees for sixth cousins and forgotten god-parents and by trumped-
up testimony to precontracts it was possible to obtain a divorce even during the Middle Ages.
With the advent of  the Reformation and a  return  to Scripture as  the  theological touchstone, the 
decision about the nature of marriage reverted to  the Scriptures.  Luther denied that marriage was 
a  sacrament  and  said  that   two  conditions must  be  present  for  a  sacrament:   it  must  have  been 
specifically instituted by Christ  and must be distinctively Christian. Marriage does not  qualify  in 
either respect. Luther also taught that marriage is part of the natural order, and hence  it cannot be 
included in  the sacramental system of the Church and  that a religious service is not necessary for  
a valid marriage. Of Luther’s and Calvin’s doctrines of marriage, Andrew R. Eickhoff writes in A 
Christian View of Sex and Marriage:
The  Reformation   brought   changes   of   great   consequence   to   the   teachings   about   sex   in 
Christianity.  .   .   .  Perhaps  the most  obvious  change was  the  rejection of  celibacy as  the 
highest ideal,  and  the  consequent reversal of  the position on marriage  and  celibacy  in  the 
practice and  teaching of the reformed churches. Soon after the Reformation began marriage 
rapidly replaced the celibate state as the Christian ideal. . . . Celibacy, on the other hand, was 
generally reduced  to a position of  low repute  in Reformed Christianity, certainly lower than 
had been marriage  in Roman Christianity. This   re-emphasis  on marriage as   the highest 
Christian  ideal   laid  the  foundation  for  a new  estimate of  coitus and  sex  in  general.   .   .   . 
Although little new was said about the nature of sex by the Reformers, the open and forceful 
denunciation of   celibacy  as   the   religious   ideal,.   and  the  marriage   and  establishment  of 
families by  the professional clergy, raised  the  status of coitus and of marriage as much as 
any formal teachings could have done. Luther accepted the theory of Augustus and Aquina(s 
that coitus is the result of original sin and thus is not inherently good, but he differed sharply 
from Augustine and Aquinas, on the other hand, by insisting that marriage is in accordance 
with God’s divine order (celibacy is not) and has been given as a remedy for incontinence. It 
is   as  much   a   part   of  man’s  nature   as   eatlllg   or   any   other   natural   function.  He   fully 
appreciated the values of marriage and held it in high esteem, while deprecating the celibate 
life. . . .
Calvin  had  a  view  about  coitus  less  conservative  than  that  of Luther. He  also  considered 
marriage a high calling and was critical of those who held celibacy higher than marriage. He 
rejected   Luther’s   concept   of   marriage   as   primarily   procreation   and   a   remedy   for 
concupiscence,  stating  that  God  created woman  as  man’s  inseparable companion  just  as 
much as his helper in procreation. “Although he (Calvin) allowed that the propagation of the species  is a  special  and  characteristic end  of  matrimony, he  taught  also  that   its primary 
purpose  is  rather  social than generative”  (Derrick S. Bailey, Sexual Relations  in Christian 
Thought,p.   173).   In   this   context,  Calvin   developed   the   position   that   coitus   is   a   pure 
institution of God and thus inherently good. He also accepted coitus as the result of the Fall, 
but stated that when used with modesty in marriage, it was not sinful but good.
7
It is in fact to John Calvin that all Protestants owe a tremendous debt of gratitude for recovering the 
biblical view  of sex as  inherently good  in  itself.  The  tragedy  is  that  in  this vital sphere of human 
life,  as   in  the  political,   economic,  and  scientific,   later  Reformed  theologians   fell  back   into a 
synthesis with pagan Graeco-Roman ideas.
At the same time the early Church’s teaching about the superiority of celibacy to marriage must be 
understood as a reaction against  the sexual  licence of  the Roman Empire. Under  the  influence of 
asceticism  and monasticism  the  ideal  of  celibacy was  held  up  before  the world.  The  complete 
degradation of the sexual impulse which had taken place in the Roman Empire has been described 
by Lewis Mumford in The Condition of Man as follows:
If   sadism  became   an  engrossing  collective   ritual   in  the  gladiatorial  Games,   eroticism 
remained  an  obsessive  itch.   .   .   .  Despite  severe  censorship  and  drastic  legal  regulations 
(Augustus   Caesar),   adultery   became   fashionable   and   abortions   necessary.   Sexual 
intercourse became ever more easy and ubiquitous. Slaves, whores, pederasts were at hand 
for  the asking. When  the body was sated,  the  imagination whipped  it up again; when  the 
genitals failed to respond, the eye glutted itself on revolting exhibitions of carnality, such 
as that which Petronius describes at one of his  feasts in  the Satyricon. The circus  released 
inhibitions and heightened sexual excitement. . . a new form of theatre was devised for the 
bored Roman citizen. . .  as the pantomime worked itself out, the favorite plots were those 
in  which  disrobing-the   strip   tease-and  (public)   copulation  were   enacted.  The   kind  of 
sentimental   erotic   entertainment   described  by Xenophon   in  The  Banquet,  genteel   but 
debilitating-was now produced on a wholesale plan. Circus, pantomime, spectacle, public 
bath, must have kept  the  sexual organs  in a  state of  swollen expectation. Can one doubt 
that in this state of sexual over-stimulation and fatigue there was a withdrawal of interest 
from sex itself and a weakening of sexual tension?8
In attempting to cope with this appalling state of affairs the early Christians perhaps overreacted 
with a grotesque exaltation of the imperative necessity of sexual restraint if civilization was not  
to  collapse  altogether, and  this  in  turn  led  to  the  ideas  about  the  danger which  seemed  to  the church  fathers  such as Chrysostom  to be  inherent  in  the  female  sex. Given the collapse of  the 
Roman family described -by Hugh Last, which we have quoted, Rome’s shameful women were 
dangerous to very survival of Rome. Something drastic had to be done as it will have to be done 
with modern  post-Christian women  in America  and Britain! Ernst Troeltsch points  out in  The 
Social Teaching of  the Christian Churches: “These ideas certainly arose out of the overstrained 
imagination of monasticism, and not out of the thought  of Christianity.” He then points out that, 
“we must not forget the other  side of  the  question, however, for  the  state  of  virginity and  the 
establishment of convents  for women gave a value and position to  the unmarried woman, which 
gave women an influence and scope in spiritual matters, which again worked to the advantage of 
the position and understanding of women.”9
 While  the ascetics may have  regarded marriage as 
inferior   to  celibacy,  the church  as a whole worked  in  fact   for   the amelioration of   the  lot  of 
women and children and encouraged kindness towards  the very young and very old. In fact the 
children of the world as well as women owe an immeasurable debt to  the Lord Jesus Christ for 
the  ultimate  change  and  improvement in  their status which  took place.  In  Sexual Relations  in 
Christian Thought,
10
 D. S. Bailey has fully documented the reformation Christ brought about in 
the position and status of women and children  in  the ancient world, thus refuting the rationalist 
historians’ charges that Christianity debased marriage and family. It was not the teachings of the  
Bible  that  debased  sex,   love,  and marriage  in  the  ancient  world,  but   the  teachings of  pagan 
oriental  philosophers who  taught   that  matter  is  evil,   including man’s sexual  appetites,  which 
interfere with his rational life. Of this influence of Greek dualism Eickhoff writes:
The rejection of all pleasure as evil by  the Greek philosophers became very  influential in 
Christian  thought during  the period following  the writing of  the New Testament, and  it  is 
particularly obvious  in  the  expressed  attitudes  toward marriage  and  sexual relations. The 
dualism as expressed in  the secular society by  the philosophers was that marriage was evil  
and  celibacy good. It was  a  clear distinction  and  an understandable one,  considering  the 
low moral state of the society in which they lived.  . .  . It should be remembered, too, that 
after  A.D.  70,  when  the  temple  in  Jerusalem  was  destroyed and  the  Jewish  culture  in 
Palestine ceased  to exist,  the only Jewish  influences  in Christianity were  through  the Old 
Testament as part of the Christian Bible. Therefore, the ascendancy of Hellenistic dualism 
over  Hebraic naturalism,   relating  to  sexual   relations  especially, was  much more easily 
accomplished, perhaps, than it would have been had the Hebrew culture continued to exist 
as an independent unit. Whatever the case, the more rapidly Christianity spread outside the 
Hebrew  community   in  Palestine,   the  more   rapidly   the   new  religion   had   to   adapt   its 
message  to new modes of  thought. By  the beginning of  the second century  responsibility 
for   the   ongoing   development   of  Christian   thought  was   in   the   hands   of   non-Jewish Christians,   and   acceptance   of   at   least   some   of   the   contemporary   ideas  was   probably 
inevitable.
Since   the  Church Fathers   could not   fully  accept   the  dualism  of  marriage   as   evil   and 
celibacy as good because of  the statements  in  the Bible  recognizing marriage and sexual 
relations as ordained  by God,   they worked  out  a  formula which  permitted marriage as 
good and  an  acceptable  state, but extolling’ the  celibate  state  as  better. This was  (to us) 
clearly  a  contrived  position  in which marriage was  tolerated  rather  than  recommended., 
They were always careful  to say  that marriage was all right, but second best.  .  .  . During 
this Patristic Age, the principle purpose of marriage  came  to be  considered  as  a  remedy 
against strong sex desire, or simply as a means for the weakminded to control their sexual 
desires.
11
The Church Fathers used  to  love  to dwell upon  the comparison between Eve and Mary. As Eve 
had been the means of man’s fall into sin, so Mary, the mother of the Lord, was used by God to 
become the vehicle through which God in Christ redeemed the human race, including family and 
marriage. Where the one was disobedient, the other was obedient. For the Church Fathers it was 
sin  rather   than  sex  as   such which has  brought  about   such evils  as   fornication,  adultery, and 
wantonness. Of  the  importance of Mary’s influence upon  the  reformation of womanhood  in  the 
Western world Lecky writes:
The world  is  governed  by  its  ideals,  and  seldom  or never has  there  been  one which  has 
exercised a more profound and, on  the whole, a more salutary influence  than  the medieval 
conception of the Virgin. For the first time woman was elevated to her rightful position and 
the  sanctity of weakness was  recognized  as well as  the  sanctity of  sorrow. No  longer  the 
slave or   toy of  man,  no  longer  associated with  ideas  of  degradation and of   sensuality, 
woman rose, in the person of the Virgin Mary,  into a new sphere, and became the object of a 
reverential homage of which antiquity’ had no conception. Love was  idealized. The charm 
and  beauty  of  female  excellence were  fully  felt.  A new  type  of  character was  called  into 
being; a new kind of admiration was fostered. Into a harsh and ignorant and benighted age 
this   ideal   type   fused   a   conception   of   gentleness   and   purity   unknown   to   the   proudest 
civilizations of the past.
12 
Carle Zimmerman sees  in the  rise of Christianity in Family and Civilization a struggle  to reconvert 
the atomistic family of decadent Rome into the domestic family type.
13
 He also stresses  the contest 
between  the Christian Church  and  the  trustee  family  peculiar  to  the Germanic  barbarian  peoples who conquered  the Roman Empire in  the West. It was in fact the fatal influence of these Germanic 
barbarians which degraded, when  it  failed  to sweep away, the noble conception of  the equality of 
women with men  and  the  dignity  and  freedom  of women with men  in marriage.  The Germanic 
marriage system placed the wife, as compared with the wife in the Roman family of the Republican 
era,  in a condition of  life  little better  than a domestic slave. In one form or another, the system of 
wife-purchase  prevailed  among  the Teutonic  tribes and,  although marriage was  indeed  a  private 
transaction, it took the form of a sale of the bride by the’ father to the bridegroom. “Sale-marriage” 
was  the  usual   form  of  marriage,  and  the  ring was  given  as  a  down  payment  on  the  contract  of 
marriage. Marriages were arranged by the family elders in two stages consisting of an engagement 
contract followed by the wedding ceremony. At the time of engagement a token payment, known as 
Handgeld, was paid. At the time of the wedding the remainder of the bride price was turned over to 
the bride’s family, usually the father. In connection with the wedding ceremony, the groom stepped 
upon the bride’s foot as a gesture of symbolic authority.
14
The Reformation was  thus faced with  the  task of disentangling the Western family and marriage 
from  the various pagan  influences which had deformed  it from  its original creational structure. 
The Hebrew, Greek, and Roman  traditions had become merged with  the Christian and barbarian 
tradition to form a cultural synthesis completely contrary to God’s original intention for it.
For   a   start   the  Reformers   reduced   the   number   of   prohibited   degrees   of  marriage   to  more 
reasonable proportions  and  they  regarded all  marriage  contracts  as  equally binding. Throughout 
the  sixteenth century,  indeed,  espousal  and  wedding were  regarded  as   two  essential   stages   in 
contracting a valid marriage, a circumstance which accounts for the double vows  in the Anglican-
Episcopal  marriage service still   in  use  today. But   this did  not  solve  the problem  of  providing 
reasonable means of escape from  intolerable bonds. M. M.. Knappen  in Tudor Puritanism points 
out:
It  was   the   Protestant   refusal   to   recognize  marriage   as   a   sacrament  which   left   the 
Reformers   free   to   doubt   its   indissolubility   and   therefore   to   consider   the   remedy   of 
outright divorce (a vinculo) permitting of remarriage.
15
A great attempt was made by  the Puritans  to continue  the work of  the reformation of family and 
marriage begun  by  Luther  and  Calvin.  Thus  they  tried  to  establish  it  upon  a  civil  rather   than 
religious basis by passing  an Act of Parliament in 1644 which  asserted  that “marriage  to be no 
sacrament, nor  peculiar  to  the Church of God but common  to mankind and of public  interest to 
every  commonwealth.”  The  Act   added,   “notwithstanding,   that   it  was   expedient   that  marriage should be solemnized by a lawful minister of the Word.” A more radical Act in 1653 swept away 
this provision and made marriage purely a civil matter to be performed by the Justice of the Peace,  
the  age  of  consent for man was  established  at sixteen  years, and  for  a woman  at fourteen. The 
Restoration of King Charles II abolished  this puritan  legislation and re-introduced the Canon Law 
traditions. But the Puritan conception of marriage was carried over to America, where  it took root 
and  flourished.  The American  secular marriage procedure  followed  that  set  up  by  the  Puritans 
during the English Commonwealth and the dictum of George Fox was followed. “We marry none, 
but are witnesses  of  it.”  
16
 Unlike Luther, whose  teaching  about marriage was  caught up  in  the 
tensions of the medieval ground-motive of “nature” and “grace,” John Milton, like Calvin, broke 
free from the influence of medieval scholasticism and in his thinking about marriage and sex came 
under  the domination of the scriptural ground-motive of creation, fall into sin and redemption by 
Jesus Christ  in  the power of the Holy Spirit. He  refused to  think of marriage as instituted by God 
only as a “remedy  for fornication” and of sexual pleasure as being tainted in any way by the Fall 
of man. Instead he  returned to a biblical naturalism which sees everything that God has created as 
being good though now perverted by human sinfulness. In his Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, 
published in 1643, when he was thirty-five years of age, Milton argued that marriage is a personal 
matter, and that therefore, it should be freely dissoluble by mutual consent.
According  to Milton,  marriage “is not  a mere carnal  coition,  but  a  human  society;  where  that 
cannot be had there can be no true marriage.” It is “a covenant, the very being whereof consists not 
in a forced cohabitation, and counterfeit performance of duties, but in unfeigned love and peace.” 
Speaking  of  the  role  of  the  state  in marriage  he protests  against the  absurdity  of  “authorizing  a 
judicial   court   to   toss   about   and   divulge   the   unaccountable   and   secret   reason   of   disaffection 
between man and wife.” For Milton marriage was made by God for man and not man for marriage. 
The Sabbath, he declared, was made for God. Yet when the good of man comes into the scales, we 
have  that voice of  infinite goodness and benignity of  Jesus  that “the Sabbath was made  for man 
and not man for Sabbath.” “What thing ever was made more for man alone, and less for God, than 
marriage?” “If man be lord of the Sabbath, can he be less than lord of marriage?” 
17
Milton with his genius had penetrated to the core of the matter. He refused to identify the external 
legal or ecclesiastical framework  of marriage with  its  internal structural principle as a community 
founded upon  the sexual attraction of  two people  towards each other and qualified by moral  love. 
He would have agreed with the teaching of Herman Dooyeweerd upon this subject:
The proper internal stability of marriage must never be founded on its supposed essence as 
a civil, or an ecclesiastical institution. This  internal unity cannot  at all be maintained by any external legal  order,  as it can only be  realized under  the  leading  function of  faithful 
married love.
Christ’s pronouncement in  the question of divorce was  in particular directed  against the 
confusion of  the  inner  institutional structure of marriage,  in  its reference  to  the Kingdom 
of  God,  with  its external   institutional  aspect.  The whole problem  of  divorce had  been 
obscured by rabbinical legal formalism. And it is nothing but a relapse into this legalistic 
view of the matrimonial bond  if one tries  to derive from the New Testament legal princi-
ples for a civil  law regulation of the grounds of divorce. These grounds can only refer  to 
the external legal frame of marriage. They can never replace the personal responsibility of 
the  partners   in  their   internal   relation  to one  another  under   the   structural  norm  of   the 
institution and  the central commandment of love. From the internal moral point of view it  
is not possible  to  indicate general grounds  of divorce. And  the civil legislator  should be 
aware  that   the  legal  determination of   such  grounds’ will  always   remain defective and 
liable  to evasion. The  fact that  Christians have come  to  look upon  the marriage bond as 
essentially a  juridical  institution most be denounced as a fundamental deformation of  the 
Biblical view of this natural community. 
18
By refusing to reform marriage in the light of the scriptural ground-motive, of sin and grace along 
the lines suggested by Milton, the Protestant churches paved the way for the  take over of marriage 
by a godless secular humanism. One of the tragedies of the Reformation was the failure of the great  
Reformers to provide a truly biblical basis for marriage. Instead they sought to explain it in terms of 
Natural Law.  In  this Natural Law  doctrine of marriage  there was  implicit from  the beginning  the 
seeds for the dissolution of marriage as a creational structure ordained by God.
In  terms  of  Natural  Law  marriage  was   conceived of  by  the  medieval   canonists   as   a  natural 
institution founded upon a contract and blessed by  the Church.  Until the secularization of Natural 
Law  took   place   under   the   influence   of   the  Enlightenment   in   the   eighteenth   and   nineteenth 
centuries,   this   contractural   conception of  marriage  had been  accepted not  only by  canonical 
writers,  but by  the  civil courts of  the Anglo-Saxon world  as well. American  thought during  the 
nineteenth  century  is well expressed  in  th,e writings of Mr. Justice Story and Chancellor  James 
Kent.  In  his  famous  Commentaries  on  the Conflict of Laws  the  former  lawyer pointed  out that 
“marriage is the parent, not the child, of society.” This was the conclusion of a syllogism of which 
the  following  are  the premises:  “Marriage  is  treated  by  all  civilized  nations as a peculiar  and 
favored contract. It is in its origin a contract of natural law.” Then Story unveils the relationship in 
its secular and religious settings and portrays  their contributions to its stability and adornment. He says: 
In civil society it becomes a civil contract, regulated and prescribed by law, and endowed 
with civil consequences.  In most civilized countries, acting under a  sense of  the  force of 
sacred obligations,  it has had the sanctions of religion added. It then becomes a religious, 
as well as a natural and civil contract.
19
Kent   in his  Commentaries  on American Laws  claims   that  valid  celebration of   a  marriage   is 
independent of  peculiar  religious ceremonies, consent  of  the parties being  the essential requisite; 
and  he  adds  that  “as marriage  is said  to  be a contract  jure gentium,  that  consent   is all   that   is 
required by national and public law.” 
20
Neither jurist, be it noted, refers to God’s creational ordinance for marriage. By accepting marriage 
as an  institution of nature  rather  than of God’s common grace, both  lawyers perhaps unwittingly 
provided a  foothold  to  the  revolutionary mind of apostasy  in  the  form of a  later  legal  relativism, 
behaviorism,  and  positivism  to wage war upon  the Christian  idea  of  marriage.  The  contractual 
view of marriage was not consistently applied as long as most people in the Western world held to 
the traditional Christian teaching of marriage as a permanent union which cannot be dissolved by 
mutual agreement.
With the rise of individualism during the eighteenth century and the secularization of Natural Law 
which  then  took place, people became less prone to  assume  that marriage and  family are  the  true 
basis of social order. Thinkers such as Locke now  taught  that  the  individual, not  the family, is  the 
true unit of  society. The  individual became  to  such  thinkers under  the domination of  the modern 
nature-freedom ground-motive, a kind of social  atom of which  society is composed,  and social life 
seemed to be only a series of contractural relationships, of which marriage was only one. 
Once marriage was  seen  to  be  only  a  contract  it was  quickly  realized  that  the  contract could  be 
legally  voided  under  stated  legal conditions.  For Kant the marital relationship  becomes  detached 
from  its procreative purpose and  exclusively  related  to  its mutual   subjective  sexual  enjoyment. 
Hence his definition of  the marriage bond as “the union of  two persons of different sexes  for  the 
life-long mutual possession of each other’s sexual qualities.” 
21
A  reaction  took  place during  the nineteenth  century  against   this mechanistic and  individualistic 
view of marriage led by the Romantics. Under  the influence Qf the freedom motive of the modern 
nature-freedom motive  the Romantics  now  found  the  essence  of  the marriage  bond  in  the  love-
relation between the conjugal partners, in direct contrast with the earlier one-sided legalistic view. But now the  institutional character of marriage itself was questioned. For in an irrationalistic way 
married “love” was considered as a free, subjective higher feeling in which “nature’ and “freedom” 
became dialectically united without being bound  to any higher norm. Such a view resulted  in  the 
glorification  of  sex  and  love  as man’s ultimate  end  in  life.  Such  a  view  of marriage  implied  an 
explicit opposition  to  the structural principle of  the conjugal bond,  to  any  idea of marriage as an 
institution.
In F. Schlegel’s novel Lucinde this Romantic  ideal of free love, realizing itself in a mutual sexual 
satisfaction  and  complete  surrender, found  its most  prominent  literary  expression.  The German 
philosopher Fichte also arrived at a view of marriage completely at variance with its institutional 
character. In a  typical functionalistic manner he deduced the entire essence of marriage from  the 
bare notion of love. He wrote:
If  a woman  surrenders  to  a man  out  of   love,   the  necessary  result   in  a moral  sense will  be  a 
marriage. . . . The mere concept of love implies that of a marriage in the sense indicated.
22
This not  only means  ignoring  the external   institutional  aspect  of  marriage,  but  also  its  internal 
aspect  as  a moral   life-long  union.  Given  such  ideas  it   is  not  surprising  that  communism  at  first 
rejected marriage altogether. For Communists the Christian ethic for marriage is a class morality By 
this they mean that the Ten Commandments and the New Testament were created to protect private 
property. They believe  that the commandments, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” and “Thou shalt 
not covet thy neighbor’s wife,” were created to justify the idea that the husband was the master of 
the home and the wife was strictly private property belonging to him. For Communists, marriage is 
the mere product of bourgeois morality.
This view of marriage led to some terrible consequences when put into practice after the Bolshevik 
conquest  of  Russia.   In  their   anxiety  to make  women  equal  with men  and prevent   them  from 
becoming  private property,  they  turned  Russia’s women  into  public property. Some Communist 
leaders advocated complete libertinism and promiscuity to  replace marriage and family. In an edict  
issued in the Soviet of Saraloff on March 1, 1919,  “the right to possess women between the ages of 
17  and 32  is  abolished. . . . By virtue of  this decree no woman  can  any  longer be  considered  as 
private property, and  all women become  the property of  the nation. .  . . Any man who wishes  to 
make use of a nationalized woman must hold a certificate issued by his labor union, or by the Soviet 
of soldiers or peasants.  .  .  . Any pregnant woman will be dispensed of her duties  for  four months 
before  and  three months  after the  birth  of  the  child.   .  .   . One month  after  birth, children will be 
placed  in state nurseries. They will remain  there  to complete  their  instruction and education at  the expense of the national fund until they reach the age of seventeen. All those who refuse to recognize 
the present decree and to cooperate will be declared enemies of the people.” 
23
In Red China marriage and family has been abolished as  the people are herded  into “communes.” 
All  men  and  boys  sleep  in  one  section  of a  commune;  all  women  and  girls  in  another. Married 
couples wishing  to  procreate a child must   first  obtain  the permission  of   the mayor  of   the  local 
commune.
Fellow travellers in the Western world today do their utmost to discredit the family as an institution 
of  society and  to  encourage promiscuity  and  easy divorce whenever  and wherever  they  can. It is 
also their aim to separate children as much as possible from their parents, whose outworn prejudices 
they claim are  impeding  the arrival of  the Communist  revolution  in  the West. In  this campaign  to 
subvert the Christian  ideal of  the sanctity of marriage and  family  life  the Communists have been 
joined by the advocates of the New Morality and the New Legality. These so-called reformers draw 
a contrast between chastity and charity, arguing that their so-called “situational ethic” allows more 
perfect scope  for the  latter. Provided that a couple “love” each other it no longer matters, argue the 
advocates of the New Morality, whether they get married to have intercourse with each other. 
24
Such a new morality  is, of course, only  the old  immorality dressed up  in modern  jargon  to make 
itself look respectable. It works with a conception of man in which sexual satisfaction has become 
an  absolute  value  in  itself,  needing  no  higher  justification.  This  is  the  ultimate  logic  of  the  new 
morality. It heralds the greatest crisis yet known in the history of marriage.
The causes of this crisis are many and varied, internal and external: the destruction of the economic 
unity of  the family by industrial  life and  the  increase  in  the means of communication, the housing 
problem of our great cities, the economic,  social,  legal, political, and  intellectual emancipation of 
women,   the  numerical   surplus   of  women,   the   invention   of   contraceptives;   and   above   all,   the 
profound spiritual changes expressed in modern existentialism, relativism, and even nihilism.
It is  imperative  that Christians  take  the  problem  of marriage more  seriously  than  they  have  ever 
done before.  It  is not sufficient in a spirit of false security and piety  to regard  the questionings that  
are taking place  today as  the mere expression of an apostate libertine spirit.  With Emil Brunner we 
must agree that:
The crisis  in marriage presents  the Christian  ethic with  the most  serious and  the most 
difficult problem with which a Christian ethic has  to deal; indeed, in comparison with this problem even  the questions of economic and political justice are of secondary importance. 
For not only are we here dealing with the foundations of human existence, but here too all 
the ethical problems are condensed into a complex at one point, so that  we are compelled 
to say, what an ethic has  to say on  this question shows whether  it  is any use or not.  .  .  . 
Today we are not concerned with  isolated problems but with  the problem as a whole; we 
are not concerned merely with  the problem of divorce, nor with  that of birth control, but 
with marriage  itself.  We are challenged  to give a  fundamentally new  interpretation of 
marriage, and to give a new meaning to it from the standpoint of faith.
25
Brunner wrote these words before the Second World War.  The situation has deteriorated much more 
since 1932. The alternative to a complete reformation of marriage and family life in modern society 
is   no   longer  mere   stagnation   and   carrying   on  with   the   same   old   synthesis   of  Christian   and 
humanistic  ideas,  but  revolution.  The  old Roman Catholic and  Protestant  Natural  Law  ethic  has 
failed. What shall we put  in  its place? The answer  is a  truly Reformational biblical  philosophy  of 
marriage and family life which maintains a proper balance between freedom and authority under the 
living God. Such a  scripturally oriented philosophy of marriage has been worked out by Herman 
Dooyeweerd in his monumental work, A New Critique of Theoretical Thought.
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