Fr. Richard Price on Divorce & Re-Marriage in the New Testament and Early Christianity in light of St. Augustine

Rev. Dr. Richard Price (Heythrop College)

Rev. Dr. Richard Price, who is Professor Emeritus of the History of Christianity at Heythrop College and a specialist in Patristic theology, is an extremely gifted scholar and functions as a walking encyclopedia of Church History. I’ve had the pleasure of sitting in on live interviews with him, and my experience with him has been splendid. Here below, Price gives a short review of the early Church’s understanding of the Lord Jesus’s prohibition of divorce and remarriage, particularly honing in on what he thinks is the novelty of St. Augustine’s argumentation of absolute marital indissolubility while a spouse remains alive. I thought it would be interesting to review this in light of recent interest in the subject by Orthodox interlocutors who are trying to find roots for their beliefs on marriage and the discipline of oikonomia in cases of divorce.

The italic text is the commentary of Price, and the bold comments are mine. However, there are a couple preliminary remarks to heed as sort of a precaution for misinterpretation. First, I do not attempt to try and hold Fr. Price (who is a Catholic priest) responsible for adhering to official Catholic dogma on divorce, remarriage, nor the sacrament of marriage, and I am strictly making observations on a different spectrum of thought. My interests are entirely academic and not personal. My position is that which is taught very clearly in the Catechism of the Catholic Church on marriage. Secondly, this text is from a publication from 25 years ago and Fr. Price’s understanding may have changed since then.

He states:

Although, as we have seen, Jesus’ teaching on single-mindedness had implications for sexuality, his teaching directly relating to marriage lies elsewhere, in his prohibition of divorce and remarriage: ‘Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another is an adulterer; and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery’ (Luke 16:18, probably the original form of the saying recorded slightly differently in Matthew 5:32 and Mark 10:11-12). The disciples, we are told, reacted with shock, not to say disbelief: ‘If that is the problem between a man and his wife, it is surely better not to marry’ (Matthew 19:10). But, as is shown by the history of the interpretation of this saying of Jesus’, the problem is less its apparent severity than its evident obscurity. The saying clearly states that divorce is a deplorable thing; no one who believes in marriage is likely to disagree. But the precise meaning of the saying was far from obvious to the Christians of the early centuries: it was not obvious that the prohibition was absolute and unconditional, it was unclear in what sense Jesus called remarriage ‘adultery’, and it was open to question whether the same rules should apply to both men and woman.

A variety of answers to these questions is already implied in the New Testament passages that record or reflect this saying, and they tend to interpret it in a way that reduces its severity. The Gospel of Matthew allows a husband to divorce an adulterous spouse and marry again (5:32; 19:9), as also, by implication, does St. Paul (1 Corinthians 7:11). But these texts do not allow a wife to do likewise; lifelong fidelity to a single spouse was seen as a virtue incumbent on women rather than men. The so-called ‘double standard’ – a strict rule for women and a lenient one for men – was enshrined, in different ways, in both Jewish and in Roman law, and most early Christians took it for granted.

[Here, Price understands that the moral teachings of the New Testament itself imply a “double standard” which allows remarriage for the male victim of divorce, but not the female. Thus, according to Price, so far as the Bible is concerned for the New Covenant people, the text of Scripture is allowing one thing for men that it does not allow for women, and this is how “most early Christians” understood the situation. In effect, Price would be saying that New Testament marital ethics are different than the contemporary doctrine of either Catholicism or the Eastern Churches severed from Roman communion. As we’ll see, Price believes both East and West developed from the primitive tradition.]

Although this double standard appears to have been the most common form of marriage discipline in the early Christian communities, there was, as we might expect, considerable variation. We find evidence of a stricter rule, excluding all divorce and remarriage, and evidence too of a more lenient one, allowing women to remarry as well as men. Civil law in both Jewish and Graeco-Roman society allowed easy divorce and had no problems over remarriage; the churches appear to have concentrated on discouraging divorce on inadequate grounds, rather than attempting to prevent remarriage, particularly for men.

[Price recognizes that the double standard which forbids remarriage for the wife who is victim of divorce (including adultery as cause) and permits a man, in this situation, to both divorce and remarry, was “the most common form of marriage discipline” in early Christianity. However, he recognizes evidence of variation, including that of a rigorist rule which forbids remarriage to both the husband and wife who “divorce” as well as allowing both to remarry in such a circumstance. In terms of evidence, both a rigorist and a laxist tradition can be found in the early historical data.]

From the fourth century, there was a gradual parting of ways between eastern and western Christendom in their rules over marriage. In the east the churches increased the possibility of divorce and remarriage by extending the grounds for divorce, and allowing wives as well as husbands to divorce their spouses. But in the west, development was in the opposite direction: Augustine and a number of his contemporaries started a new campaign to prohibit remarriage even after divorce on good grounds and to impose on men the same restrictions that applied to women. So both east and west came to reject the double standard, but while the east did so in the interests of leniency the west did so in the interests of rigorism.

[For the eastern Christian communities, according to Price, divorce became justified on more grounds than simply divorce (as the Matthean exceptive clause would restrict it to be), and remarriage began to be open for both wives and husbands. However, the western churches in the 4th century moved towards more strict rigorism, as exemplified in St. Augustine and his contemporaries. Price admits, at least, that Saints of the Western Church were in support of forbidding either husband and wife from remarrying, and that no double standards were to be had regarding the matter. This vaguely aligns with my position expressed in a different article, but I couldn’t agree with the broad descriptions given here.]

Such rigorism was not entirely new, but the argumentation was. Earlier rigorists had simply stated, in the main, that remarriage had been forbidden by Christ. Augustine and his allies argued that so-called second marriages are not merely forbidden but impossible: a first marriage cannot be dissolved, even by separation and legal divorce; as long as both spouses in the fist marriage remain alive, a ‘second marriage’ is a case of ‘bigamy’ (an attempt to have two spouses) and therefore invalid. The claim widely accepted by Christians since the time of the Gospel of Matthew, that adultery justifies divorce and remarriage, was ruled out of court: remarriage, so far from being justified by adultery, is itself a form of adultery. The marriage bond not only should not but cannot be dissolved, by any cause other than the death of one of the spouses.

[Price admits the rigorist position, i.e. disallowing remarriage on any grounds, predates Augustine but that with him comes a more sophisticated reasoning which forbids all remarriage. Here, too, Price thinks it was “widely” understood by early Christians that St. Matthew allowed for adultery to give the green light to divorce and find another woman to marry. Notice that it is “adultery” alone that Price believes was the exceptional condition for the early Christians, at least as held widely among them. This, too, is not the belief or practice of Catholicism or the Eastern Churches (Byzantine Orthodox or Oriental Orthodox). In other words, even with this seemingly mild distinction, Price would have it that the early Church, and its widely held position on divorce practice, is not continued by the Apostolic Churches today.]

The doctrine of the indissolubility of marriage was Augustine’s own creation. Since the teaching was new it was naturally controversial, and debate continued for centuries. As late as AD 826 a Roman pope and council gave permission for the husband of an adulterous wife to divorce and remarry. But from the eleventh century the western church was unanimous in upholding Augustine’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, and this remains the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church even today. The churches of the Protestant Reform have generally returned to the Gospel of Matthew in allowing divorce and remarriage after adultery by one’s spouse, while excluding the double standard of the early centuries that had restricted this concession to men

[Interestingly, Price thinks Augustine himself created his doctrine of marriage, and had no teachers pre-dating him by which to influence him. Also, western Christendom followed Augustine’s novelty, and it was the Protestants who returned to the view of Christ (which permits remarriage after divorce in cases of adultery) in the Gospels, but held it for both husbands and wives. Interestingly enough, even Protestant practice is just as out of step with the “wide” Christian belief in the primitive centuries as are the Apostolic Churches. That is, according to Price.]

Augustine’s interpretation of Christ’s teaching on divorce remains open to question. In calling remarriage ‘adultery’ Christ is more likely to have been giving a broad interpretation to the Sixth Commandment (‘You shall not commit adultery’) than pronouncing on validity. His resonant saying, ‘What God has yoked together let no man divide’ (Matthew 19:6), ought strictly to mean that a marriage can but should not be dissolved, since there is no point in forbidding the impossible. But this is to interpret Christ’s words too strictly. Only one point is clear: he forbade divorce and remarriage. Augustine’s interpretation has at least the merit of making sense of the prohibition.

[Fr. Price’s interpretation here is rather strange. In the context of Jesus’s teaching, we read that Jesus was making a striking contrast with the Law of Moses which permitted people to divorce versus the intention of God from the beginning which made a permanent lifetime bond between husband and wife. Secondly, even if we take the exceptive clause “save for the case of porneia (fornication)” as truly an exception which allows divorce, that still leaves every other attempted excuse for divorce and remarriage as a commission of adultery. But why adultery if the bond of marriage is broken already by the will of the spouses?]

It is also easy to criticize him for losing touch with reality. In Roman law common life and mutual affection constituted marriage; once a couple had separated, the marriage was at an end. His insistence that even after separation the marriage still continues may remind us of the Cheshire Cat in Lew Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, which was able to vanish while leaving its grin behind. The doctrine of indissolubility implies that the essence of marriage is not common life or mutual affection; instead, it is some invisible bond, independent of observable reality.”

[Price, curiously, uses Roman law as a guide by which to judge the “unrealistic” teaching of Augustine. That is an eyebrow-raiser, for sure. It is almost as if Price is toying with the idea that marriage exists and is destroyed when affection and mutual desire for each other begins and ends. With that kind of mentality, what reason is there to even restrict remarriage in the first place? A new marriage can be had with a new affectionate relationship other than the current spouse, and so on. If the bond of marriage can be destroyed with mere separation, then “what God has joined let no man put assunder” would just apply to the new marriage (and every new marriage after that), and thus God’s will for marriage only exists when marriage exists, but when it doesn’t, a new marriage can come about in an potentially never ending loop of God joining new partners in marriage. Surely, Price is not intending to go this extreme].

Richard Price, Augustine (London: Harper Collines Religious, 1996), 69-72

10 thoughts on “Fr. Richard Price on Divorce & Re-Marriage in the New Testament and Early Christianity in light of St. Augustine

  1. His whole argument is based on the premise that porneia in the Matthaean passages (5:32 and 19:9-10) means “adultery,” no more and no less – a premise that needs to be proven rather than simply assumed..

    • Tomorrow, the Ubi Petrus team (Orthodox apologist group) is releasing a video which tries to prove that divorce (while devastating) and remarriage (while seen as a dispensation to weakness) is perfectly within the confines of biblical and patristic tradition. I don’t know when I’ll get the chance to review it.

      • I would love to hear your response to their response. Good on you for being willing to share it on your site.

      • The cited canon allows putting away one’s wife for the “causa
        fornicationis” (Matthew 19), and the person who does so is eligible
        for remarriage. So the question reduces to how was the Matthaean
        “causa fornicationis” interpreted and juridically applied in the 9th
        century.

        First, this putting away one’s wife is not the same as divorce, as
        seen by the next sentence in the same canon, which permits divorce
        (but not remarriage) solely for the sake of taking religious vows.

        Second, this canon of the Synod of Rome (assuming its authenticity,
        which has been questioned) is not novel, but like many other canons of
        that Synod, draws on precedents from Carolingian synods of the 8th
        century. Admittedly, those synods had lax views on the indissolubility
        of marriage, allowing more exceptions (such as the spouse contracting
        a contagious disease), but this is only in comparison to Catholic rigor.

        From the late 8th century, the indissolubility principle was actually
        applied more strictly, not less so. Even when separation was
        permitted, remarriage was not allowed until the spouse’s death, and
        when the separation was due to the guilt of one party, that party was
        not permitted to remarry ever. So the permission to remarry in the
        Synod of 826 could easily refer to remarriage after the death of the
        other spouse.

        Keeping in mind that the exact laws of marriage were still in
        development and only lately transferred exclusively to ecclesiastical
        jurisdiction, we do know some concrete cases that express the thought
        of that period.

        In 858, Lothar II accused his wife Theutberga of sodomitical incest
        before marriage, which would make her unworthy of marriage,
        invalidating it and making Lothar free to remarry. This is likely the
        more common application of the “immorality” exception of Matthew 19.
        Theutberga was proved innocent by ordeal, however, and Lothar was
        forced to take her back. He then imprisoned her until she asked to be
        removed from the marriage by joining a convent. This would have been
        unnecessary if infidelity were grounds for divorce, as Lothar had
        taken a mistress. After several other strategems were reversed, he was
        forced to take back Theutberga and was told by Pope Nicholas that he
        could not remarry even if she joined a convent.

        In another more complicated case (c. 860), Stephen, son of Count Hugh,
        committed fornication with another woman prior to consummating his own
        marriage. He later learned that this woman had kinship with his wife,
        so that consummation with his own wife would now constitute incest by
        the law of the Church at that time. Hincmar of Reims (who had
        supported Theutberga against Lothar), found that the danger of incest
        made the marriage inconsummable, and that this was a rare case of a
        dissoluble marriage that was initially valid, though in the same
        letter he upholds the general principle of indissolubility. Both
        parties were free to remarry, though Stephen was required to do
        penance for his fornication and for the scandal of giving the
        appearance of adultery. The text of Hincmar’s letter evinces a strong
        understanding of the distinction between a putative marriage that was
        never valid and a valid marriage that is indissoluble once consummated.

        In light of the legal lengths needed to permit even an aristocrat to
        remarry, it is hardly likely that the Matthaean exception was
        understood by a ninth-century ecclesiastical synod to make adultery or
        other post-marital sexual offenses a grounds for divorce or annulment.
        If that were so, divorce and annulment would have been much more
        common and easier to obtain. At any rate, I am unaware of any such
        case in the 9th century, though there were many more marital cases in
        that century than previously due to the greater involvement of the
        Church and the greater rigor in applying the canons.

        During the Middle Ages, marriage was not considered a
        right, but required approval by the Church. This approval could be
        withheld from a person whose immorality ruined an earlier marriage.

        The commission of certain grave sexual sins, especially incest, was
        considered to make a person (especially women) unfit for marriage.
        This was still at a time when there were various interpretations of
        Matthew 19 as applied to marriage in practice.

  2. Pingback: Divorce and Remarriage in the Church Fathers and Patristic Era Writers – Ubi Petrus Ibi Ecclesia

  3. Hi Eric, what council and pope are being referred to by Fr. Price above regarding an allowance of remarriage after divorce? Thanks

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