Milton, Gender, Marriage, and Divorce: A Greystone CourseMarch 07, 2016
by Mark Garcia
The Westminster Assembly famously treated the topic of divorce grounds in the Confession of Faith XXIV:5-6, which read as follows:
“5. Adultery or fornication committed after a contract, being detected before marriage, giveth just occasion to the innocent party to dissolve that contract. In the case of adultery after marriage, it is lawful for the innocent party to sue out a divorce: and, after the divorce, to marry another, as if the offending party were dead.
6. Although the corruption of man be such as is apt to study arguments unduly to put asunder those whom God hath joined together in marriage: yet, nothing but adultery, or such willful desertion as can no way be remedied by the church, or civil magistrate, is cause sufficient of dissolving the bond of marriage: wherein, a public and orderly course of proceeding is to be observed; and the persons concerned in it not left to their own wills, and discretion, in their own case.”
We do not have a lot of information regarding the Assembly’s deliberations regarding this topic, and mapping out divorce theory during this period – in exegetical, theological, moral-theological, and civil forms – is among the most complicated and difficult areas of post-Reformation and especially seventeenth-century research.
However, there is more evidence than many students of the question have assumed. Indeed, alongside the writings of the Divines themselves, the writings of the great moral theologians such as Ames and Perkins, and the twists and turns of evolving canon law, one of the most important contextual features in the Assembly’s statement is the series of publications on divorce written by the great English poet John Milton. Milton produced five different tracts on divorce over a period of eighteen months, all in the early years of the Westminster Assembly: The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce: Restor’d to the Good of Both Sexes, From the Bondage of Canon Law (1643); Judgment of Martin Bucer (1644); Tetrachordon (1645), meaning “four-stringed” because Milton was able to harmonize four principal divorce passages in Scripture; and Colasterion (also in 1645), meaning “rod of punishment,” in response to an anonymous critical response to his work. In at least one place (Doctrine and Discipline) he addresses the Assembly directly.
Alongside infidelity, desertion, and/or abuse, Milton argued for divorce on the grounds of what moderns have since called personal or emotional “incompatibility,” although the thin way this language is used in our day doesn’t do full justice to what Milton envisioned – although it isn’t far off either. The tracts are representative of seventeenth-century controversial polemic, and Milton’s proposals provoked plenty of predictable critical reaction. The Assembly included several members who had thought long and hard about the divorce question, particularly the eminent Hebraist and jurist John Selden, and they did not all see the same way on the matter either. At this point in a long period of studying the question, I’m inclined to propose that the Assembly rejected Milton while not rejecting all of Milton’s controversial ideas, and certainly did not reject those ideas when they were discoverable in Milton’s and the Assembly’s shared sources. This is especially important when Milton’s sources are Continental, for as many scholars are noting these days, the Assembly was driven by a desire to maximize, in a public way, the Reformed catholicity they shared with their Continental brethren.
Milton’s biography is often linked very closely to the publication of these tracts. Newly married, his wife, Mary Powell, deserted him. It is no coincidence, to be sure, that Milton wrote on divorce during this period and stopped doing so when she later returned. However, his biography is not the only factor which accounts for Milton’s tracts. He had shown interest in the question years earlier, and his divorce tracts reveal a lively, restless, though mildly anarchic mind captivated by the diversity of the Christian tradition on the question as well as the power of more recent Reformed works which treated it, especially Martin Bucer’s. Bucer was a focus of Milton’s thinking on divorce, though his treatment of the Strasbourg reformer’s thought is not always on target. But Milton was also strongly indebted to William Ames and Theodore Beza, and showed close knowledge of an impressive range of patristic and medieval sources, Christian and secular. Beyond these, Milton showed strong familiarity with the serious questions that belong to any patient consideration of the biblical divorce texts…
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