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.
Another factor, and in my view the most important one for reading Milton and Westminster, is Milton’s role in pushing forward the emerging early modern mythology — often as bewildering as it has proven influential — of gender and sexuality. His divorce tracts simply must be read alongside the story of Adam and Eve in his Paradise Lost, at least. His account of Eve’s folly is particularly noteworthy. Milton seems to bear the larger burden of guilt in popularizing the fiction that the Fall occurred because Eve wandered from her man in the Garden and thus became vulnerable prey to the serpent. Interestingly, many early modern English translations of the Bible reflect the same wildly wrongheaded reading of Genesis 3 by omitting (!) in their translations what in the Hebrew is quite explicit: Adam was “with her” (Gen. 3:6). Much more on that another time.
Was Milton right about divorce? In many places, no, he was quite wrong. On incompatibility especially, he is often dangerously unhelpful. Yet incompatibility-as-ground is not the whole picture of his argument, and scholars of the question have ignored him to their detriment. He is a great deal more nuanced than he is given credit for, and one simply cannot understand WCF XXIV fully without taking a lot of time with Milton and other contemporary texts. Importantly, that Milton found in the sources of the Christian and particularly Reformed tradition is truly there, too, and not without careful biblical and theological reflection. What is often regarded in our day as “the traditional” Reformed position on these questions is, after little more than a moment’s investigation, one point in a constellation, and nothing like the entire cosmos. In light of the hefty and truly rich body of scholarly literature on the biblical divorce texts in the last few decades, Milton’s reading of Scripture in some ways bears the marks of fairly standard mistakes, yet in other ways is well ahead of its time.
The foregoing is one long way to introduce this summer’s Greystone Milton course. It is a one-week modular course on Milton as poet-theologian. The course title and description are as follows:
“Milton in Literary and Theological Perspective” – David R. Head and Mark A. Garcia, July 25-29, 2016
After a survey of Milton’s biography, the political and historical contexts of his work, and key ideas in Paradise Lost, Samson Agonistes, and select sonnets, this course will turn to a focused analysis of Milton’s controversial and influential theology of gender, marriage, and divorce, with a view to its impact on the Westminster Assembly and the Christian tradition generally.
Consider auditing the course, at least, so you can listen to the audio files and try to make sense of it yourself.
Contact firstname.lastname@example.org to register or for more information.