Tertullian VI: Marriage, Re-Marriage, and Military Service

12 Jan

This is a post which is a bit out of place, at least in order, as its purpose is to discuss how Tertullian’s thoughts changed over time and also how he viewed participation in aspects of life and society; in this case showing the difference in how he viewed mixed marriages and military service where these institutions are entered into by a Christian compared with someone who converts while already in a mixed marriage or the military. Tertullian doesn’t have much long-term impact on these issues but I think they reveal quite a bit about him.

I have additional areas to post on where Tertullian seems to have substantially impacted doctrine. However the next issue of this type I’m planning to address is complex and isn’t close to being ready. The other problem with this post is it addresses two aspects of Tertullian which overlap somewhat. Topically I consider it a bit sloppy but I can’t figure out how to separate them. It’s also quite long.

Marriage and Remarriage

This section is included more because I think this makes a nice example of how Tertullian’s thoughts changed over time than something which had a lasting impact. In his earlier writings Tertullian is on the ascetic side of the continuum but not so far as to be out of the mainstream arguing that while chastity is ideal, marriage is good:

“For we[Montanists] do not reject marriage, but simply refrain from it. Nor do we prescribe sanctity as the rule, but only recommend it, observing it as a good, yea, even the better state, if each man uses it carefully according to his ability; but at the same time earnestly vindicating marriage, whenever hostile attacks are made against it is a polluted thing, to the disparagement of the Creator. For He bestowed His blessing on matrimony also, as on an honourable estate, for the increase of the human race; as He did indeed on the whole of His creation, for wholesome and good uses.” Against Marcion (adverus Marcionem, I.XXIX

Note that in the above section he discusses Montanists as avoiding, but not condemning, marriage. Very suggestive of a monastic order. As I was reading this I thought Tertullian was the wrong person to choose to make an argument condemning Marcionites for prohibiting marriage.

A bit “cleaner” is:

“Concupiscence, however, is not ascribed to marriage even among the Gentiles, but to extravagant, unnatural, and enormous sins. The law of nature is opposed to luxury as well as to grossness and uncleanness; it does not forbid connubial intercourse, but concupiscence; and it takes care of our vessel by the honourable estate of matrimony. This passage (of the apostle) I would treat in such a way as to maintain the superiority of the other and higher sanctity, preferring continence and virginity to marriage, but by no means prohibiting the latter. For my hostility is directed against those who are for destroying the God of marriage, not those who follow after chastity.” Against Marcion V.XV

Contrast these with a passage written after the Montanist-Church conflict had reached its height:

“Finally, when he (Paul) says, ‘Better it is to marry than to burn,’ what sort of good must that be understood to be which is better than a penalty … If, on the other hand, comparison with evil is the mean which obliges it to be called good; it is not so much ‘good’ as a species of inferior evil which, when obscured by a higher evil, is driven to the name of good. Take away, in Short, the condition, so as not to say, ‘Better it is to marry than to burn;’ and I question whether you will have the hardihood to say, ‘Better (it is) to marry,’ not adding than what it is better. This done, then, it becomes not ‘better;’ and while not ‘better,’ not ‘good’ either, the condition being taken away which, while making it ‘better’ than another thing, in that sense obliges it to be considered ‘good.’ Better it is to lose one eye than two. If, however, you withdraw from the comparison of either evil, it will not be better to have one eye, because it is not even good.On Monogamy (de monogamia), III

Tertullian doesn’t quite come out and say marriage should be condemned, but this is pretty darn close.

A similar evolution exists regarding remarriage. Traditionally, a single remarriage was considered OK following a legal divorce. I believe adultery is the only reason which was usually considered valid at the time and in some cases this is available only to men whose wives strayed, not to women. A single remarriage is also acceptable following the death of a spouse though again, some authors only allow this if the widow is young. If not prohibited, it is at least often strongly discouraged that a woman over remarry; better that she become a member of the Order of Widows.

This is actually more a defense of the practice of divorce but it also allows for remarriage, however tepidly:

“I maintain, then, that there was a condition in the prohibition which He [Christ] now made of divorce; the case supposed being, that a man put away his wife for the express purpose of marrying another. His words are: ‘Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery; and whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband, also committeth adultery,’ — ‘put away,’ that is, for the reason wherefore a woman ought not to be dismissed, that another wife may be obtained. For he who marries a woman who is unlawfully put away is as much of an adulterer as the man who marries one who is un-divorced. Permanent is the marriage which is not rightly dissolved; to marry, therefore, whilst matrimony is undissolved, is to commit adultery. …” Against Marcion IV.XXXIV

Similarly to marriage, remarriage suffers when Tertullian writes during this period of conflict:

“Therefore if those whom God has conjoined man shall not separate by divorce, it is equally congruous that those whom God has separated by death man is not to conjoin by marriage; the joining of the separation will be just as contrary to God’s will as would have been the separation of the conjunction. … A divorced woman cannot even marry legitimately; and if she commit any such act without the name of marriage, does it not fall under the category of adultery, in that adultery is crime in the way of marriage?” On Monogamy, IX

and for widows:

“Accordingly, it will be without cause that you will say that God wills not a divorced woman to be joined to another man “while her husband liveth,” as if He do will it ‘when he is dead;’ whereas if she is not bound to him when dead, no more is she when living. ‘Alike when divorce dissevers marriage as when death does, she will not be bound to him by whom the binding medium has been broken off.’ To whom, then, will she be bound? In the eye of God, it matters nought whether she marry during her life or after his death. For it is not against him that she sins, but against herself.” On Monogamy, IX

The Christian Entering Into a Mixed Marriage vs a Married Person Who Converts

One additional aspect of marriage is something which at first can appear contradictory (or at least I initially read it this way) which is what he thinks of marriage between a Christian woman and a non-Christian man.

Tertullian works through First Corinthians VII.12-16 discussing this issue. Here Paul advocates that if the two partners are willing, this type of mixed marriage is OK and, “Wife, for all you know you might save your husband. Husband, for all you know, you might save your wife.”

I am unaware of any earlier authors addressing this issue. If they did, I missed it. 1 Tertullian argues that this clause applies only to existing marriages, one in place when one partner converts. A woman finding herself married to a Pagan man should remain married to him, if possible. However it is strictly forbidden that a Christian woman enter into a marriage with a Pagan man. His logic in this is pretty solid. The Bible commands that a woman submit to her husband as the head of the family. Yet the Bible also commands that the Christian serve God. How can someone who marries an unbeliever serve both?

“Any and every believing woman must of necessity obey God. And how can she serve two lords – the Lord, and her husband – a Gentile to boot? For in obeying a Gentile she will carry out Gentile practices, – personal attractiveness, dressing of the head, worldly elegancies, baser blandishments, the very secrets even of matrimony tainted: not, as among the saints, where the duties of the sex are discharged with honour (shown) to the very necessity (which makes them incumbent), with modesty and temperance, as beneath the eyes of God.” To His Wife (ad uxorem), II.III

Anyone who takes such action is to be cast out from the Church:

“If these things are so, it is certain that believers contracting marriages with Gentiles are guilty of fornication, and are to be excluded from all communication with the brotherhood, in accordance with the letter of the apostle, who says that ‘with persons of that kind there is to be no taking of food even.’” To His Wife), II.III

He carefully makes a distinction between this and someone who converts after marriage. These unions are valid and, if both parties agree, may continue and may even be beneficial by, possibly, persuading the husband to convert:

“If these things may happen to those women also who, having attained the faith while in (the state of) Gentile matrimony, continue in that state, still they are excused, as having been ‘apprehended by God’ in these very circumstances; and they are bidden to persevere in their married state, and are sanctified, and have hope of ‘making a gain’ held out to them. If, then, a marriage of this kind (contracted before conversion) stands ratified before God, why should not (one contracted after conversion) too go prosperously forward, so as not to be thus harassed by pressures, and straits, and hindrances, and defilements, having already (as it has) the partial sanction of divine grace? ‘Because, on the one hand, the wife in the former case, called from among the Gentiles to the exercise of some eminent heavenly virtue, is, by the visible proofs of some marked (divine) regard, a terror to her Gentile husband, so as to make him less ready to annoy her, less active in laying snares for her, less diligent in playing the spy over her. He has felt “mighty works;” he has seen experimental evidences; he knows her changed for the better: thus even he himself is, by his fear, a candidate for God. Thus men of this kind, with regard to whom the grace of God has established a familiar intimacy, are more easily ‘gained.’” To His Wife), II.VII

It is interesting throughout his discussion of this issue, which involves all of Book II of To His Wife, that some portions of it seem to apply equally to men and women but many to women only. While he doesn’t come right out and say it, I suspect he thinks that a Christian man could command his wife to convert, or at least to refrain from traditional Roman religious practices.

Military Service

Tertullian’s views on military service by Christians are contradictory but in the end he comes to the same conclusion as with marriage; the Christian should not join the military, but the military man who converts may continue to serve. His Apology was the first thing I read and in it he discusses the army as being an aspect of Roman life which Christians participated in alongside non-Christians, “We sail with you, and fight with you, and till the ground with you; and in like manner we unite with you in your traffickings — even in the various arts we make public property of our works for your benefit.” Apology, XLII.

Later he becomes stricter:

“In that last section, decision may seem to have been given likewise concerning military service, which is between dignity and power. But now inquiry is made about this point, whether a believer may turn himself unto military service, and whether the military may be admitted unto the faith, even the rank and file, or each inferior grade, to whom there is no necessity for taking part in sacrifices or capital punishments. There is no agreement between the divine and the human sacrament, the standard of Christ and the standard of the devil, the camp of light and the camp of darkness. One soul cannot be due to two masters — God and Caesar. And yet Moses carried a rod, and Aaron wore a buckle, and John (Baptist) is girt with leather and Joshua the son of Nun leads a line of march; and the People warred: if it pleases you to sport with the subject. But how will a Christian man war, nay, how will he serve even in peace, without a sword, which the Lord has taken away?” On Idolatry (de idolatria), XIX.

To me the two above passages are contradictory. In the first the fact that Christians serve militarily is a reason to consider them to be Roman and not to be persecuted. In the second, to me he forbids military service outright. However he spends substantial time in The Chaplet on military service and finally settles on a middle ground, sort of.

In The Chaplet he articulates a viewpoint similar to his opinion on marriage; that a Christian should not enter military service, but a military man who converts may continue in it. Tertullian clearly has difficulties with this. Similar to a woman in a mixed marriage having to serve two masters, here a man is forced to serve both God and Caesar. The New Testament specifically states that he who lives by the sword shall perish by the sword so Christians are strictly forbidden from taking life. Christians are forbidden from swearing oaths, yet entrance into the army requires this. Various Pagan rites accompany the military and warfare; even if the Christian does not actively participate, his passive acquiescence indicates acceptance of and even support for these heathen activities. Yet with all that, Tertullian finally says that, despite all of his misgivings and wafflings, a soldier who converts may continue in military service, recognizing that his soul will constantly be in peril and he must tread very carefully:

“Of course, if faith comes later, and finds any preoccupied with military service, their case is different, as in the instance of those whom John used to receive for baptism, and of those most faithful centurions, I mean the centurion whom Christ approves, and the centurion whom Peter instructs; yet, at the same time, when a man has become a believer, and faith has been sealed, there must be either an immediate abandonment of it, which has been the course with many; or all sorts of quibbling will have to be resorted to in order to avoid offending God, and that is not allowed even outside of military service; or, last of all, for God the fate must be endured which a citizen-faith has been no less ready to accept. … Suppose, then, that the military service is lawful, as far as the plea for the crown is concerned.” The Chaplet (de Corona), XI

This endorsement of military service by Christians isn’t lukewarm and it isn’t tepid. It’s frigid. But it is an endorsement, barely, and indicates a point in his life where Tertullian was able to make some allowances, however small, for the needs of the state, the realities of life, and public perception. Without this concession, military conversions would be minimal, almost eliminated – at least among those who had nearly completed their term and could look forward to retiring with a nice grant of land from the state. It is an indication that there was a time where Tertullian displays some flexibility, however slight.

1 While I don’t recall earlier Christian authors addressing this, later ones certainly did. A notable case is the marriage of Clovis and Clotild. While Gregory of Tours doesn’t give her full credit for Clovis’ conversion around the start of the 6th century, he clearly believes she has an impact. History of the Franks, II.30

Osborn, Eric, Tertullian, First Theologian of the West. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1997). ISBN: 978-0-521-52495-7.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 1: The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004), ISBN: 1-56563-083-1.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 2: Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (entire), Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004). ISBN: 1-56563-084-X.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 3: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian: I. Apologetic; II. Anti-Marcion; III. Ethical. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004), ISBN: 1-56563-086-6.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 4: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, Part Fourth: Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004), ISBN: 1-56563-086-6.

Schaff, Philip and Wace, Henry, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Second Series Volume 3: Theodoret, Jerome, Gennadius, Rufinus: Historical Writings, etc. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2012), ISBN(for series): 978-1-56563-116-8.

Schaff, Philip and Wace, Henry, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Second Series Volume 6: The Principal Works of St. Jerome. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2012), ISBN(for series): 978-1-56563-116-8.

Thorpe, Lewis, trans., Gregory of Tours: The History of the Franks. London: Penguin Books (1974). ISBN: 9-780140-442953.

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Posted by on January 12, 2014 in Religion, Society and Social Structure


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