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, refusedwith the encouragement of the
Powellsto return to Miltons home. In the Divorce Tracts Milton argues that the
sole cause allowed for divorceadulteryis less substantial than incompatibility
and that being forced to remain for life in an unhappy marriage was an offense against the
dignity of Gods 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.
Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce (A quick
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- 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.
- 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."
- Main purpose of marriage -- "the apt and cheerful
conversation of man with woman, to comfort and refresh him against the evil of solitary
- For many ages marriage was thought a work of the flesh by the
church fathers. Afterwards, it was made a sacrament.
- There are two levels of law -- "a law not only written by
Moses, but charactered in us by nature."
- Current interpretation of Christ's words at Matthew 5:31, 32 --
"a strong rigor inconsistent both with his doctrine and his office."
- "Those words of Christ that his yoke is easy and his burden
light, were not spoken in vain."
- Incompatibility is the greatest reason for divorce, because it may
A) lead to adultery, or B) lead to despairing of God.
- Marriage serves as the prevention of loneliness.
- In an incompatible marriage loneliness is made worse than it is in
a single life.
- Feeling of being in a bad marriage -- "a daily trouble and
pain of loss, in some degree like that which reprobates feel."
- A marriage that is not companionate, is no marriage.
- "Wisdom and charity . . . would think . . . a sad spirit
wedded to loneliness should deserve to be freed."
- 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.
- Modesty may lead to a greater chance of mistaken choice of a
marriage mate than would loose living.
- 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 givethrough
Christa just law to the Christians.
- 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
- Fellowship is a "pure and more inbred desire of joining to
itself in conjugal fellowship a fit conversing soul."
- 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."
- There is a greater honoring of marriage in leaving a bad union
than in staying put.
- 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."
- Unhappiness caused by a bad marriage may interfere with service
and worship of God.
- Children of a second, happy union are more holy than those of a
first, unhappy union.
- Forbidding divorce sets marriage above both God and charity.
- 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
allowedperhaps even recommendedbut not required.
- The three chief ends of marriage are godly society, civil society,
and the marriage bed.
- Idolatry is a greater breach of marriage than adultery, because it
violates a higher end of marriage.
- The prohibition of divorce is against human naturetherefore
it is a prohibition not from God. (This will be developed into the primary and secondary
laws of nature argument in Tetrachordon.)
- Canon law allows for divorce in case of an attempt on a spouse's
lifedivorce should therefore be allowed for incompatibility, because the resulting
grief and strife puts life in peril.
- Milton provides another argument for overriding marriage vows
based on the ability of husbandsat Numbers 30:6-15to override the vows of
- The marriage of minds is human. The marriage only of bodies is
- God authored the covenant of marriage for his own glory and for
the benefit of the married parties.
- An incompatible marriage is not of God's doing.
The Major Scriptural Argument
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- Christ meant his words in Matthew as a check on the
over-licentiousness of the Pharisees.
- 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
- 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.)
- Moses wrote the law allowing divorcesome "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.
- The command to be "one flesh" is not absolute, but is in
service of a larger purposecompanionship.
- A wife that is not a true "help-meet" is not truly a
- 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."
- A marriage that is not compatible was not " yoked
together" by God. It may, therefore, be split apart.
- God's laws are consistent; therefore, there is no possibility of
contradiction between Moses and Christ on divorce.
- Christ's words against divorce are no more to be taken literally
than are his "take, eat; this is my body."
- A bad marriage is like the union of two corpses.
- Only those whose marriages are true matches of disposition and
mind may be said to be joined by God.
- 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.
- The Greek word translated as "fornication" at Matthew
- porneia-- adultery, fornication, incest
- porneuo-- indulgence of lust, practice of idolatry
- Divorce was originally at the discretion of the husband. The Roman
Catholic Church usurped this authority and it should be returned to private hands.
- Divorce should not be forbidden by law; law should ensure only
that the conditions of the divorce are not injurious.
- "His commandments he hath left all under the feet of
The Atheist Milton
(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
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
(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