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Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce



Prior to the Reformation, divorce in England was governed by the Canon law. Marriage was held to be a sacrament, so there could be no divorce in the sense of a dissolution of marriage with a right to re-marry. "Divorce" was merely a separation from bed and board, and even this limited provision was possible only through the sentence of an ecclesiastical court. Nullification was possible for any cause which could be proven to have existed before the marriage, which in turn interfered with that marriage's validity as defined by Canon law. The Canon law regarded marriage as a lifelong and sacred union that could only be dissolved by the death of one of the spouses. This view of marriage conceived of husband and wife as made "one flesh" by the act of God; thus marriage was changed from a terminable civil contract under the old Roman law to a sacrament, a humanly indivisible union of souls and bodies. Canon law held a marriage to be null and void in cases in which the parties were within prohibited degrees of close blood relationship (consanguinity and affinity).

The Reformation denied that marriage was a sacrament; therefore, divorce with the right to re-marry was reinstated. Most Protestant states allowed re-marriage for the innocent party after divorce for adultery; this position was strongly supported in England, favored by Edward VI, and was often privately sanctioned (for example, in 1548 the re-marriage of the divorced Northampton was approved by a commission under Cranmer, and this action was confirmed by Parliament in 1552). However, divorce with the right to re-marry had no solid foundation in Canon law, and in 1597 Convocation declared that there was no legal basis for re-marriage after divorce. While Elizabeth did not sanction the Canons of 1597, the judgment concerning divorce was repeated in those of 1604, which James approved.

Puritans resisted this position on divorce; many Puritan ministers presided over re-marriages of the innocent parties in divorce for adultery. Milton, however, went much further than that in his demands. In demanding the right of absolute divorce for both parties to any marriage, he extended the grounds to include incompatibility; he also sought to remove divorce from public jurisdiction, and return it to private hands.

Milton's personal history is often thought to have contributed to his writing of the Divorce Tracts. In, or around, June of 1642, Milton married Mary Powell, who was the daughter of a royalist squire of Oxfordshire, a man who owed money to Milton's father. The marriage seems to have been a mismatch from the beginning. Milton was a scholar and poet of 33, while Mary Powell was a relatively uneducated girl of 17. Mary, visiting her family some time later, refused—with the encouragement of the Powells—to return to Milton’s home. In the Divorce Tracts Milton argues that the sole cause allowed for divorce—adultery—is less substantial than incompatibility and that being forced to remain for life in an unhappy marriage was an offense against the dignity of God’s creation. For his pains, he was promptly attacked as a libertine by both royalists and presbyterians. In 1645 friends brought about a reunion between Milton and his wife, and in 1646, when the royalist Powells had been ruined by the war, he took them into his home for a year. Milton and Mary Powell had three daughters, Anne, Mary, and Deborah, who were born in 1646, 1648, and 1652. Mary Powell died a few days after the birth of Deborah in 1652.

Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce was published in two editions. The second edition is much expanded from the first.

First Edition Second Edition
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Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce (A quick overview)

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  1. Even if we could be free from outside harm we would create miseries out of our own hearts -- "for they art evil" -- even out of things God meant for us as a good.
  2. Misinterpretation of scripture (directed against abusers Deuteronomy 24: 1) has changed marriage from a blessing into "a familiar and co-inhabiting mischief," a "drooping and disconsolate household captivity, without refuge or redemption."
  3. Main purpose of marriage -- "the apt and cheerful conversation of man with woman, to comfort and refresh him against the evil of solitary life."
  4. For many ages marriage was thought a work of the flesh by the church fathers. Afterwards, it was made a sacrament.
  5. There are two levels of law -- "a law not only written by Moses, but charactered in us by nature."
  6. Current interpretation of Christ's words at Matthew 5:31, 32 -- "a strong rigor inconsistent both with his doctrine and his office."
  7. "Those words of Christ that his yoke is easy and his burden light, were not spoken in vain."
  8. Incompatibility is the greatest reason for divorce, because it may A) lead to adultery, or B) lead to despairing of God.
  9. Marriage serves as the prevention of loneliness.
  10. In an incompatible marriage loneliness is made worse than it is in a single life.
  11. Feeling of being in a bad marriage -- "a daily trouble and pain of loss, in some degree like that which reprobates feel."
  12. A marriage that is not companionate, is no marriage.
  13. "Wisdom and charity . . . would think . . . a sad spirit wedded to loneliness should deserve to be freed."
  14. Canon law allows annulment for impotence/barrenness and divorce or adultery -- but radical incompatibility must be tolerated -- "What is this but secretly to instruct us that nothing indeed is thought worthy of regard therein but the prescribed satisfaction of an irrational heat?" Canon law implicitly values marriage only as a carnal institution.
  15. Modesty may lead to a greater chance of mistaken choice of a marriage mate than would loose living.
  16. Current divorce laws render the law and gospel liable to contradiction. Milton condemned the idea that God gave a law to the Israelites that was unjust (leading to "sanctioned" adultery) only to give—through Christ—a just law to the Christians.
  17. Milton re-interprets Paul at 1 Corinthians 7:9. "Burning" is "the desire and longing to put off an unkindly solitariness by uniting another body, not without a fit soul to his, in the cheerful society of wedlock."
  18. Fellowship is a "pure and more inbred desire of joining to itself in conjugal fellowship a fit conversing soul."
  19. Milton describes one stuck in a bad marriage: "such a one forbidden to divorce is in effect forbidden to marry, and compelled to greater difficulties than in a single life."
  20. There is a greater honoring of marriage in leaving a bad union than in staying put.
  21. Milton argues a crucial point based on a disputed translation of Malachi 2: 16. The Vulgate translates this verse as "if he hate her, put her way." The King James version translates this verse as "the Lord saith that he hateth putting away."
  22. Unhappiness caused by a bad marriage may interfere with service and worship of God.
  23. Children of a second, happy union are more holy than those of a first, unhappy union.
  24. Forbidding divorce sets marriage above both God and charity.
  25. Milton addresses the question of whether an unbelieving spouse must be divorced by saying that it is up to the conscience of the believer; divorce is allowed—perhaps even recommended—but not required.
  26. The three chief ends of marriage are godly society, civil society, and the marriage bed.
  27. Idolatry is a greater breach of marriage than adultery, because it violates a higher end of marriage.
  28. The prohibition of divorce is against human nature—therefore it is a prohibition not from God. (This will be developed into the primary and secondary laws of nature argument in Tetrachordon.)
  29. Canon law allows for divorce in case of an attempt on a spouse's life—divorce should therefore be allowed for incompatibility, because the resulting grief and strife puts life in peril.
  30. Milton provides another argument for overriding marriage vows based on the ability of husbands—at Numbers 30:6-15—to override the vows of wives.
  31. The marriage of minds is human. The marriage only of bodies is animal.
  32. God authored the covenant of marriage for his own glory and for the benefit of the married parties.
  33. An incompatible marriage is not of God's doing.

The Major Scriptural Argument

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  1. Christ meant his words in Matthew as a check on the over-licentiousness of the Pharisees.
  2. If Christ is to be taken as condemning all divorce (except for cases of adultery) and re-marriage as adultery, then not only has the earlier law been contradicted, but it has been convicted of allowing adultery, and God is inconsistent and unjust.
  3. The gospel is more understanding of human weakness than is the human law. (This is another anticipation of Milton's later arguments based on a division between primary and secondary natural laws.)
  4. Moses wrote the law allowing divorce—some "hard hearted" men abused the law, but it (abuse) was tolerated for the good of the many who did not abuse the law. Christ's response to the Pharisees is to be taken as a rebuke to such as would abuse the freedom of law.
  5. The command to be "one flesh" is not absolute, but is in service of a larger purpose—companionship.
  6. A wife that is not a true "help-meet" is not truly a wife.
  7. Here is another anticipation of the primary and secondary natural laws argument: "to take a law out of Paradise given in a time of original perfection" and to hold a fallen mankind to that law is unjust. Moses adapted the law to "a fallen condition of man."
  8. A marriage that is not compatible was not " yoked together" by God. It may, therefore, be split apart.
  9. God's laws are consistent; therefore, there is no possibility of contradiction between Moses and Christ on divorce.
  10. Christ's words against divorce are no more to be taken literally than are his "take, eat; this is my body."
  11. A bad marriage is like the union of two corpses.
  12. Only those whose marriages are true matches of disposition and mind may be said to be joined by God.
  13. Milton attempts to expand the definition of "fornication" to include rebellious behavior. He uses the example of Judges 19:2 -- the story of the Levite's concubine.
  14. The Greek word translated as "fornication" at Matthew 5:32
    1. porneia-- adultery, fornication, incest
    2. porneuo-- indulgence of lust, practice of idolatry
  1. Divorce was originally at the discretion of the husband. The Roman Catholic Church usurped this authority and it should be returned to private hands.
  2. Divorce should not be forbidden by law; law should ensure only that the conditions of the divorce are not injurious.
  3. "His commandments he hath left all under the feet of charity."

The Atheist Milton

Michael Bryson
(Ashgate  Press, 2012)

Basing his contention on two different lines of argument, Michael Bryson posits that John Milton–possibly the most famous 'Christian' poet in English literary history–was, in fact, an atheist.

First, based on his association with Arian ideas (denial of the doctrine of the Trinity), his argument for the de Deo theory of creation (which puts him in line with the materialism of Spinoza and Hobbes), and his Mortalist argument that the human soul dies with the human body, Bryson argues that Milton was an atheist by the commonly used definitions of the period. And second, as the poet who takes a reader from the presence of an imperious, monarchical God in Paradise Lost, to the internal-almost Gnostic-conception of God in Paradise Regained, to the absence of any God whatsoever in Samson Agonistes, Milton moves from a theist (with God) to something much more recognizable as a modern atheist position (without God) in his poetry.

Among the author's goals in The Atheist Milton is to account for tensions over the idea of God which, in Bryson's view, go all the way back to Milton's earliest poetry. In this study, he argues such tensions are central to Milton's poetry–and to any attempt to understand that poetry on its own terms.


The Tyranny of Heaven
Milton's Rejection of God as King

Michael Bryson
(U. Delaware Press, 2004)

The Tyranny of Heaven argues for a new way of reading the figure of Milton's God, contending that Milton rejects kings on earth and in heaven. Though Milton portrays God as a king in Paradise Lost, he does this neither to endorse kingship nor to recommend a monarchical model of deity. Instead, he recommends the Son, who in Paradise Regained rejects external rule as the model of politics and theology for Milton's "fit audience though few." The portrait of God in Paradise Lost serves as a scathing critique of the English people and its slow but steady backsliding into the political habits of a nation long used to living under the yoke of kingship, a nation that maintained throughout its brief period of liberty the image of God as a heavenly king, and finally welcomed with open arms the return of a human king.

Review of Tyranny of Heaven