Christian Marriage: Hindrance to Holiness or Means of Grace?

As a follow-up to my last piece on male-female relationships in the Early Church, this is another adapted paper from my time at Wheaton on the formation of a coherent theology of marriage in the Medieval Church.  In reviewing this piece for publication a few key thoughts surfaced which may help you understand why I think the subject is important for us to study and ponder as Christians living in the Twenty-First Century (even in such a long winded format as the remains of a research paper).

First, several of the ideas discussed below reminded me of the crucial theological distinctions made between Christian and non-Christian marriages.  It is my belief that as we engage wider cultural questions regarding marriage and its role in society we cannot loose sight of these vital differences in purpose and function, even if we belong to traditions that reject or downplay the sacramental nature of marriage. 

Second, Aquinas’ contribution to the articulation of spiritual friendship in marriage provides a satisfying follow-up to the conundrum of the Virgins Subintroductae and their celibate male counterparts.  Moreover, the vision of sanctified companionship serves as a reminder for how Christians ought to see their marriages as an ongoing means of spiritual growth. 

Third, while I think the nature of divorce and re-marriage in our fallen state is far more complex than anything touched on here, it is helpful for us all to ponder the deepest purposes for marriage in the Church.  Especially considering how the current church culture of convenience far too easily dismisses past teachings of indissolubility as outdated or irrelevant to modern life. 

Finally, as we ponder the changing views of the Church not only on marriage but also on the potential for women (and men) to seek spiritual fulfillment in all walks of life, I hope that you are blessed by the great gift offered to us in the whole history of the Church and the saints of ages past.  The legacy of Christianity is never about the absolute perfection of the bride in the here and now, for we all stand together imperfectly stained.  But through the grace of our perfect Groom we are guided and corrected in the Spirit, often over the course of several centuries of faithful believers speaking Christ into the void.  One of the best ways to honor the developments for good in the Church’s history is to learn of the past sacrifices and struggles required to bear such fruit and to walk forward in thankfulness; striving with our lives to each do our own part, in our own time and place, to embody the power of the Gospel in a dark and broken world.

Christian Marriage: Hindrance to Holiness or Means of Grace?

Painting a Theology of Marriage with the Teachings of the Medieval Church

A first stoke is often said to be the deciding element of a piece of artwork.  The simple and incomplete nature of the stroke will fail to fill the canvas or reveal the finished picture, but it will determine the direction of every stroke that follows.  Augustine of Hippo’s work, On the Good of Marriage, provided just such a crucial first stroke in the formation of a medieval theology for Christian matrimony. Although still pervaded by patristic notions of marriage as a hindrance to holiness, Augustine’s description brought new reverence to the estate.  As these first lines were augmented by scholastic theologians of the twelfth century (namely, for the purposes of this study, Hugo of St. Victor and Thomas Aquinas), Christians began to affirm the basic sacramentality of matrimony but also came to describe marriage as an ongoing means of ordained grace.  The end result of this nearly millennial effort was a completed portrait of Christian marriage as an institution that actively fostered the virtues of fidelity and unity among the faithful through the unique form of Christian friendship which blossoms in the spousal covenant.

In his treatise on the benefits of marriage, Augustine discussed many elements of matrimony that represent a watershed in Christian thought on the subject.  The first, and most important, element of his thought was the benefit of sacramentum.  It was not new for the Christian tradition to explain marriage as symbol for the union of Christ and the Church, as expressed in the Pauline epistles.  However, Augustine’s treatment of this notion set two crucial precedents: his use of word sacramental and the concept of indissolubility.  Both of these ideas firmly established a distinction between a marriage covenanted by Christians and marriages formed apart from the body of Christ.  In essence, Augustine’s work made an early case that there are unique qualities to a Christian marriage that separate these relationships from those contracted as part of common social practice, both in purpose and function.

The source of Augustine’s chosen terminology comes from the Latin translation of the pertinent Biblical texts.  According to Ephesians 5:32 in the Vulgate, the union between a man and his wife is analogous to the union of Christ to his Church as a sacramentum.  However, the Septuagint translated this unique relationship as a mysterion.  The primary distinction between these two terms relates to the role matrimony plays within the context of the church.  For Augustine, according to scholar Phillip Reynolds, the use of sacramentum in this context indicated that “the word connotes a permanent personal bond”, that there exists an “analogy between the permanence of marriage and the permanence of baptism and ordination”, and that is “a ‘sacred sign’ of Christ’s union with the church”.[1]  It is important to note that while Augustine saw a connection between marriage and other recognized sacraments, he never spoke of it as an equal to the other sanctified rites of the church.  As Reynolds comments, “It is perhaps better to say that he posited a sacrament in marriage than to say that he posited a sacrament of marriage.” [2]

The legacy of sacramentum as a noted benefit of marriage, apart from the open-ended nature of Augustine’s description, is his firm insistence upon the indissolubility of Christian marriages as necessitated by their sacramental nature.  The marriage was indissoluble because it was made by God in the sight of God, and therefore was an unbreakable covenant.  The binding nature of the marital union would last even after a true divorce, which could only be obtained due to infidelity, hence the prohibition of re-marriage while the first spouse was still alive.

In the treatise On the Good Of Marriage, Augustine clarified, “That marital partnership is not destroyed by the intrusion of divorce, so that even when they are separated they are still each other’s husband and wife, and they commit adultery with anyone with whom they have union even after they have been divorced.”[3]  It is from the aspect of indissolubility that Augustine likened marriage to the other sacraments.  Reynolds notes, “Augustine perceived an analogy between the fact that marriage survives the breakdown of the marital fellowship or societas and the fact that the indelible consecration effected in baptism survives apostasy and even excommunication.”[4]   Similarly, the connection between marriage and baptism is found in the unique application of these standards to the Church.  For Augustine as continued, “This is the status of marriage, however, only in the city of our God, on his holy mountain (Ps 48:1).”[5]

The role of sacramentum is to separate the marriages of baptized Christians from their civil counter-parts by emphasizing the sacredness of the sign and it’s unique role for believers alone.  Part of the power of the bond forged between Christian married couples involved creating a hierarchy of purpose in relation to marriage and divorce.  Responding to contemporary pressure to justify divorce on the grounds of fertility, Augustine made clear the preeminence of the marital bond over the good of procreation with the pronouncement, “In the marriages of our women the sanctity of our women is worth more then the fecundity of the womb.” [6]  Infertility was, therefore, not a sufficient justification to merit divorce, for the intended motive would be a re-marriage that was adulterous in nature.  Augustine’s notion of indissolubility altered the Church’s understanding of the Christian union and the significance of its role as a sign of something greater than a mere remedy against sin.

Augustine’s second unique contribution in his description of marriage is the emphasis he put on the spiritual relationship that develops apart from the physical union of sexual intercourse.  Reynolds elaborates, “Augustine tends to regard the spiritual relationship as the very essence of marriage: in other words, that which must exist if there is a marriage, and without which there would not be a marriage.”[7] This is justified firstly, by the practical example of the elderly who are commonly regarded as married despite lack of sexual desire and practice, and secondly, by the example of Mary and Joseph.  According to Augustine’s logic, if Mary was Joseph’s wife despite her virginity, then the essence of marriage must be found in something other than the physical union of sexual intercourse.

The concept of indissolubility also appears to be connected to this emphasis on the spiritual relationship, for, “There is no doubt that Augustine closely associates one thesis with the other.”[8]  However, he did distinguish between “the natural sociability that exists between the different sexes”[9] and the indissoluble nature of the marital bond, for even if the companionship ceases or becomes strained, the bond remains valid.  Yet, as Reynolds contends:

Augustine never coordinated these two aspects of his conception of marriage, or the lines of argument and discourse associated with them, although there is no doubt that he believed them to be closely related.  This failure is one manifestation of the fact that his conception of marriage as a holy condition representing Christ’s union with the Church focused upon indissolubility rather than upon the relationship of being married.[10]

The overall focus of Augustine’s treatment of marriage is therefore predominantly negative in nature.  Although he reaffirmed certain goods of marriage and countered Manichean teachings that degraded the matrimonial estate, he maintained a discouraging view of the potential for married life to bolster the spiritual health of either spouse.

A resulting difficulty with Augustine’s teachings on Christian marriage is his seeming incoherence in naming the chief essence of marriage as spiritual while still declaring the primary purpose of marriage as a last-ditch refuge for those who are physically weak.  Augustine noted in the defense of matrimony, “We do not call it good merely because it is good in comparison with fornication”[11] yet he devoted an entire section shortly thereafter to explain how, “Marriage Is for Those Who Lack Self-Control”[12].  In part, this critical focus can be attributed to the assertion, first made by Elizabeth Clark, that “he did not rate the possibilities for companionship and conversation between man and woman very highly.”[13] Accordingly, Reynolds concludes that he “was content to regard marriage above all as a loss of individual freedom and a form of a sacrifice” and therefore “did not think highly of marriage.”[14] In his hesitancy to embrace the goodness of matrimony, Augustine’s view was tainted by the beliefs of his contemporaries that marriage was a hindrance to holiness.  Nonetheless, his treatise on the subject was to play a vital role in directing the sacramentalization of marriage nearly 800 years after his death.

As is often the case for theoretical issues, many of the ideas expressed herein do not communicate much about the actual practice or common understanding of marriage in the Medieval period.  Additionally, it can be difficult to know when theological teaching impacted the praxis, or when common practice shaped the final conclusions of the theologians.  Throughout the Middle Ages the wedding ceremony was gradually incorporated into the realm of church, connected to both the increased civil influence of ecclesiastical oversight and an eventual desire for marriages to be blessed by a priest after the ceremony was completed.   By the eleventh century marital benedictions were formally introduced into the church liturgy, thus ensuring that the wedding ceremony was a regulated part of the Church life and under the supervision and blessing of Church leadership.

There were, over time, numerous points of disagreement regarding the best application of teachings on Christian marriage, including debates about when a marriage officially began (betrothal, speaking of vows, consummation, etc.) and in what circumstances a marriage could be annulled or appropriately end in divorce.  Such “real life” difficulties prompted Medieval scholars to carefully examine the role and nature of marriage in the hopes of finding acceptable answers to these pressing social problems.   While the exact interplay of theological discourse and political or pastoral needs will have to be left for the subject of another study, it is vital to understand that the theological statements of the thirteenth century were built upon the devotional striving of several centuries worth of Christians meting out the proper nature matrimony in the Church.

The most important Medieval resurgence of the Augustinian notion of marriage is found in Hugo of St Victor’s De Sacramentis.  When listing the sacraments of the Church, Hugo noted marriage among them and predominantly justified it’s inclusion through the writings of Augustine.  One Augustinian notion that surfaces in Hugo’s description of matrimony, found in Chapter 11 of Book 2, is emphasis placed upon the fact that Eve was created out of Adam’s side (or rib), rather than from his feet or head.  This observation, as first articulated by Augustine and expanded upon by Hugo, symbolizes how God ordained companionship between man and wife, an aspect given greater credence in the latter scholastic work.  Following the Augustinian heritage, Hugo also emphasized the indissoluble nature of the marital union, continued to advocate marriage as a remedy for sin and fornication, and upheld the three goods of marriage first articulated by Augustine: procreation, fidelity and sacrament.  Hugo differs from Augustine by offering a sharpened definition for the nature of the marital sacrament, as explained following the pattern for all of the standard sacraments of the Church.

As Hugh of St. Victor elucidated, there are three classic elements to a sacrament: similitude/creation, institution/dispensation, and sanctification/benediction.  “The first was imposed through the Creator, the second was added through the Saviour, and the third was administered through the Dispenser.”[15] Utilizing this pattern, marriage is justified as a foundational sacrament of the church. The marital estate was first created naturally in the beginning of time, thus explaining the presence of marriages before the coming Christ and those now contracted between unbelievers.  Through the ministry of Christ on earth, the institution of Christian marriage, as a sign of Christ’s unity with the Church, was ordained.   Finally, in the blessing of the priest as a vessel of the Holy Spirit, the individual marriage vow and covenant is sanctified.  Through the working out of all three facets of the sacrament, marriage serves as a “visible sign for an invisible truth”[16], although scholars debated throughout the thirteenth century as to the exact nature of the third element of sanctification.  This dispute led many Medieval theologians, most notably Peter Lombard in The Sentences, to conclude that marriage differed from the other six sacraments because marriage – at the time – was not viewed as cause of grace, merely as a sign of the sacred.

The works of Thomas Aquinas added the final touches to the Medieval theology of marriage through the Aristotelian notion of Lebensgemeinschaft,[17] as indicated by Joachim Piegsa in his work “Das Ehesakrament.”  By incorporating Aristotelian concepts of friendship into the Christian understanding of the marital estate, Aquinas connected the dots where Reynolds bemoans the missing connection from Augustine’s otherwise coherent articulation of Christian matrimony.  The redeeming nature of Aquinas’ theology of marriage is grounded in his belief that those who marry are not separated in some way from God’s grace but rather, through the marital estate, participate in said grace.  He concluded in Volume 4 of the Summa Contra Gentiles:

And seeing that the sacraments cause what they signify, we must believe that the sacrament of matrimony confers on those who are joined in wedlock the grace to take part in the union of Christ with His Church: since it is necessary that they should so seek carnal and earthly things, as not to be separated from Christ and His Church.[18]

Effectively, this statement reverses the purely negative view of sexuality held by the church fathers and instead connects the physicality of marriage to the very essence of the spiritual sign and sacramentality of matrimony.  Like those who came before him, Aquinas advocated for the necessity of desiring procreation and utilizing a form of reverent restraint within the marital sexual union.  What he added to this tradition was a belief that the daily physical expression of the unity of the husband and wife (sexually and otherwise) was an active partaking in the grace of God.

Filling out this vision, Aquinas pointed to the spiritual, or communal, nature of the marital relationship to explain the indissolubility of marriage within the Church.  In Volume 3, he stated:

The greater the friendship the more stable and lasting is it.  Now, seemingly between husband and wife there is the greatest friendship: for they are made one not only in the act of carnal intercourse, which even among dumb animals causes an agreeable fellowship, but also as partners in the whole intercourse of daily life: so that, to indicate this, man must leave father and mother for his wife’s sake.  Therefore it is right that matrimony should be altogether indissoluble.[19]

Much of the above understanding is directly attributable the Aristotelian explanation of friendship found in Nicomachean Ethics.  Aristotle notes in his description of marriage that it can produce a good or virtuous friendship, especially between two virtuous people, “for each has its own virtue and they will delight in the fact.”[20]

It is easy to see how Aquinas may have projected the Aristotelian view of marriage onto the church in an application of “virtuous” to mean those baptized in Christ.   He thus concluded that it was precisely within Christian marriages, blessed by the church, that the highest form of friendship would be present.  Also included in this notion of friendship is Aristotle’s understanding that virtuous friendship is attained and nurtured through the act of living together,[21] hence the importance of Lebensgemeinshaft to Aquinas’ theology.  Through the daily activity of marital life, the Christian couple – having been sanctified in an indissoluble union by the marital benediction – may find grace through their mutual expression of fidelity and unity.

For Aquinas, the most important aspect of the matrimonial sacrament remained the indissoluble nature of the union, both in what it signifies and how it is practiced.   Yet, he affirmed the positive role marriage can play in the spiritual life of married couples.  In describing Augustine’s notion of the spiritual relationship between husband and wife, Reynolds declares that “He sketched it out but did not know how to color it in.”[22] Between the affirmation of the sacramental nature of matrimony by Hugo of St. Victor and the completed vision of Aquinas to connect the graces of the Lebensgemeinshaft with the indissoluble power of the sacrament, Augustine’s theology of marriage finally found its color.

N.B. None of these longer posts are to be read as exhaustive surveys of contemporary scholarship for a given topic.  Rather, these pieces are exploratory and introductory in nature; hopefully inspiring further reflection and study at a later date.

Bibliography

Augustine, David G. Hunter, John E. Rotelle, Ray Kearney. Marriage and Virginity:

The Excellence of Marriage ; Holy Virginity ; The Excellence of Widowhood ; Adulterous Marriages ; Continence. Hyde Park, N.Y.: New City Press, 1999.

Aristotle, W. D. Ross, and J. O. Urmson. The Nicomachean Ethics. The World’s classics. Oxford (Oxfordshire): Oxford University Press, 1980.

Aquinas, Thomas. The Summa Contra Gentiles of Saint Thomas Aquinas. London: Burns, Oates & Washbourne, 1924.

Brooke, Christopher Nugent Lawrence. The Medieval Idea of Marriage. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Hugh, and Roy J. Deferrari. Hugh of Saint Victor on the Sacraments of the Christian Faith (De Sacramentis). Cambridge, Mass: The Mediaeval Academy of America, 1951.

Martos, Joseph. Doors to the Sacred: A Historical Introduction to Sacraments in the Catholic Church. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1981.

Piegsa, Joachim. Das Ehesakrament. Freiburg: Herder, 2002.

Reynolds, Philip Lyndon. Marriage in the Western Church: The Christianization of Marriage During the Patristic and Early Medieval Periods. Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae, v. 24. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994.


[1] Reynolds, Philip Lyndon. Marriage in the Western Church: The Christianization of Marriage During the Patristic and Early Medieval Periods. Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae, v. 24. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994, 282.

[2] Reynolds, 280.

[3] Augustine, David G. Hunter, John E. Rotelle, Ray Kearney. Marriage and Virginity: The Excellence of Marriage; Holy Virginity; The Excellence of Widowhood; Adulterous Marriages; Continence. Hyde Park, N.Y.: New City Press, 1999, 39.

[4] Reynolds, 294.

[5] Augustine, 39.

[6] ibid., 49.

[7] Reynolds, 257.

[8] Reynolds, 306.

[9] Augustine, 34.

[10] Reynolds, 308

[11] Augustine, 39.

[12] ibid., 41.

[13] Reynolds, 258

[14] ibid., 299.

[15] Hugh, and Roy J. Deferrari. Hugh of Saint Victor on the Sacraments of the Christian Faith (De Sacramentis). Cambridge, Mass: The Mediaeval Academy of America, 1951, 155.

[16] Hugh, 155.

[17] Piegsa, Joachim. Das Ehesakrament. Freiburg: Herder, 2002, 61.

[18] Aquinas, Thomas. The Summa Contra Gentiles of Saint Thomas Aquinas. London: Burns, Oates & Washbourne, 1924. Volume 4, Chapter LXXVIII.

[19] ibid. Volume 3, Part 2, 115-116.

[20] Aristotle, W. D. Ross, and J. O. Urmson. The Nicomachean Ethics. The World’s classics. Oxford (Oxfordshire): Oxford University Press, 1980. VIII 12.

[21] Aristotle, IX 12.

[22] Reynolds, 258.