Milton, Gender, Marriage, and Divorce: A Greystone Course

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.

John-Milton-portrait-008However, 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 to register or for more information.



Book Note: When Children Became People

O. M. Bakke, When Children Became People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity, trans. by Brian McNeil (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005).

Bakke book imageWhat is a child, and what is a child for? What qualities identify a child as such? Are they desirable or undesirable? Is a child an image of folly or of innocence, of weakness or of strength? An old Greek adage said, “Old men are like children once more.” In our day we might think that endearing, and an image of innocent simplicity may come to mind. In the ancient world, however, the adage reflected the connection of children with ignorance.
In eight chapters, O. M. Bakke explores the development from this ancient, negative model of childhood to the more familiar positive one, and he identifies the emergence of Christianity as the difference maker. He correctly identifies his topic as a largely neglected theme in theological disciplines: the nature and value of childhood. New Testament studies — especially studies of children as models of the Kingdom in the Gospels — is the exception in the literature (3). Bakke investigates each of the main topics in his field, all of which are familiar to those who read in this area: the nature and qualities of a child according to Greco-Roman philosophical traditions; children in pagan antiquity; patristic teaching; and abortion, infanticide, expositio, and sexual relations between adults and children. Bakke then adds a few interesting studies of the upbringing and education of children, children in worship, and the challenge posed to ancient models of religious perfection by the need to care well for children.
There is much in Bakke’s book that is easily found elsewhere, yet his investigation of Christian commitments over against prevailing Greco-Roman sentiment is frequently insightful. Every page contains interesting information and merits patient pondering, especially for those reading Bakke as an introduction to the question. Still, several reviewers have raised legitimate concerns about Bakke’s handling of his material. Passages from the church fathers (and the range is impressive) are quoted frequently but they are disrobed of context, both the contexts of the writings themselves and of the larger development of doctrine. This is a notable weakness. Invariably, when an author fails to note contextual features of a quoted passage, the reader happily supplies his own. In this case the weakness could potentially rob the author’s argument and the patristic writer of due force. Further, scholarly literature is ably summarized and the standard terrain of the topic is well covered, but Bakke does not account for the scholarly conversations to which his secondary sources belong nor the conversations which were generated by those publications.
But these oversights are fairly banal compared to another, namely Bakke’s understanding of what qualifies as the principal context for the New Testament and early Christian writers. Bakke appropriately details the Greco-Roman intellectual, legal, and family environments which were subverted by the characteristically high Christian views of childhood. However, while Bakke aims to offer a partly theological justification for Christian perspectives on children, this amounts to little more than appeal to statements by early Christians, and the conceptual critiques at work between Christian and pagan sources are investigated too thinly. Most importantly, the principal resource for very early Christian conviction regarding children – the Scriptures of the Old Testament – does not figure meaningfully in Bakke’s account.  This is a deeply regrettable lacuna in an otherwise stimulating and frequently compelling portrait of early Christian thinking.
What might have strengthened Bakke’s thesis is a consideration of the way biblical language regarding children and parents functions to interpret and delimit the other reciprocally. Each serves to inform the nature and significance of the other, circumscribing otherwise abstract and amorphous ideas such as headship, submission, obedience, nurture, education, authority, etc. Biblical language and expectations of children regularly entail features of Scripture’s distinctive model of motherhood and a Christian mother’s authority in the home. As scholars have noted, not only the Apostle Paul’s famous language for the mother as house-ruler in 1 Tim. 5:14, but its deep roots in the explicit mention of the mother in the Decalogue and her roles in Israel’s Torah, wisdom tradition, and narratives (educator, household manager, nurturer, negotiator) inform the theological significance of a child in biblical thought. The child is what a child is in relation to what a mother is and what a father is, and as Bakke’s and other scholars’ work has shown, early Christians demonstrated an appreciation of the effect of the Gospel upon those designations in relationship to one another. (This is a topic explored somewhat in a recent excellent monograph by Margaret Y. MacDonald, The Power of Children: The Construction of Christian Families in the Greco-Roman World [Baylor, 2014], among many other places. MacDonald explores children in the Haustafeln or household codes of the New Testament.) This mutuality of value and importance within the Christian household, alongside rather than in competition with notions of difference and variety in roles and responsibilities, is a fruitful phenomenon only possible on Christian commitments regarding creation, the human person, and the theological significance of the distinction of the sexes — all of which are deep Old Testament motifs intimately known by New Testament and early Christian writers.
These vulnerabilities noted, they do not disturb the value of Bakke’s central thesis, which is simply that early Christianity was a major contributing factor, and arguably the chief one, for the development in western culture of a positive notion of childhood. In this respect, Bakke’s thesis accomplishes what quality scholarship often does: it alerts us to the fact that what we take for granted as true in our own day regularly has its own, often bewildering history. Children were not always prized, protected, or held up as models of innocence or purity. The cultural idea of a child as a human person with personal integrity, demanding protection and preservation, is new with the emergence of Christianity. The idea itself isn’t new with the Church, but a culture informed by the idea is. To be sure, it remains important to distinguish the Christian interpretation of childhood from modern western sentimentalized, idolized fictions of youth (and Bakke is silent on this important difference), yet the reminder in this study of the uniquely positive place of the child in Christian thought is a welcome one. His book serves well to introduce clergy and students to a topic of wide and pressing importance.

Welcome to the Lydia Center for Women and Families

Greystone Theological Institute’s Lydia Center for Women and Families has been formed to advance research and provide resources in the areas of women, marriage and family, and children. The Lydia Center encourages collaboration among scholars in biblical, theological, historical, linguistic, and sociological disciplines for research output that is serviceable to clergy, academic and religious institutions, and families. The mission of Lydia is to develop and foster theologically coherent and Scripturally determined guidance to major questions and concerns in the Christian community, and to do so from within the wide, deep, and rich context of the Christian tradition and with a special interest in confessional Reformed catholicity. While the scope of academic interest is inevitably vast, Lydia organizes research and educational endeavors in the following key areas:

(1) Biblical, historical, theological, ethical, sociological, and linguistic analyses of the nature and telos of man and woman;

(2) Man and woman created as both purposefully distinct and fully complementary;

(3) Marriage roles and responsibilities in history, literature, and Christian communities; models of headship and submission; divorce theory; and the dynamics of destructive uses of authority, particularly the complex dangers of patriarchy in Scripture, history, and society;

(4) The critical importance of biblical hermeneutics of gender and family which distinguish descriptive from normative texts, and which investigate in a theologically fruitful way the Torah-function of biblical narratives regarding gender and household; and

(5) Children as persons with integrity, voice, and status within Scripture, the life of the Church, and the Christian tradition.

Lydia has been formed in a time of great anxiety and uncertainty about the Church’s teaching and practice in the areas of women, family, and children. On many fronts, and in ironic resemblance to a wider cultural unraveling in the areas of sexuality and gender, Church thinking and practice currently admits of great unevenness and instability.

However, while these are days of great uncertainty, they are also days of great opportunity. Biblical and theological research in the last several decades has provided Christian thinkers and clergy with the resources needed in order to reconfigure destructive modes of teaching and practice within classrooms, congregations, and ecclesiastical bodies.

For example, social and cultural analyses of certain distinctively American notions of female subordination, male headship, and family ethics have demonstrated that many notions deeply embedded in especially evangelical Christian culture are indebted not to Scriptural norms but to nineteenth and twentieth century American mythologies of Victorian and other cultural models. Research in biblical and theological disciplines have alerted attentive readers to issues easily overlooked in the polarizing and, for many, unsatisfying discourse over complementarianism and egalitarianism. The work of biblical scholars across denominational lines has prompted a closer, invigorating look at the canonical significance of the most familiar gender and family texts in the Bible. Work on the eschatology of gender in relation to the biblical ethical world is opening up new understandings of how Scripture’s gender and family ethic is coherent and foundational for human welfare. Pastorally, increasing recognition of a common weakness in evangelical and Reformed communions has fueled interest in better resources than a previous generation enjoyed. In particular, the abundance of Christians seeking counsel and clerical support in circumstances of spousal or other family abuse, or who have withdrawn from church life or involvement because of perceived failures on this front by church leaders, prompts the need for an organized body dedicated to providing and encouraging research and teaching. Reports indicate clergy and church leaders desire guidance in these matters as well, feeling significantly underprepared in the face of complex pastoral situations.

With a view to these developments and the opportunities they present to academic and ecclesiastical institutions, Lydia is developing research programs and organizing events to stimulate top-tier work in these areas of increasingly visible importance for the Church.

A further brief word is in order, though, regarding Lydia’s orientation to its labors.


Biblical study at Lydia proceeds from a Christian commitment to the Bible as Holy Scripture. This is to say that while Lydia research benefits extensively from scholarship produced from all directions and diverse faith commitments (or none), Lydia’s focus is on the Bible as Holy Scripture, not in the Bible as a window into Israelite or Greco-Roman society or record of social-cultural and religious developments in gender and family. Rather, Lydia proceeds from the Christian recognition of the Bible as the Word of God norming and forming the Church’s faith and life.


Theologically, Lydia is committed to exploring gender and family as theologically rooted in God’s good creative and eschatological purposes, purposes revealed supremely in Jesus Christ. As a Center of the Greystone Theological Institute, Lydia works from the vantage point of confessional Reformed catholicity, and with a programmatic vision to advance that tradition. While Lydia will review and commend quality scholarship from any source, Lydia will not adopt a position in contradiction to the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms. This commitment is not an effort in self-protection. Rather, it reflects the conviction of Greystone that while they do not say all that must be said, the Westminster documents — in relation to their nature as consensus, catholic, and ecclesiastical documents, and in relation the vibrant tradition to which they belong — represent a high point in the consideration of our research questions.

Thus Lydia reads, consults, and interacts fruitfully and openly with scholars across denominational and disciplinary lines, and yet deliberately explores strands of traditional and constructive Reformed thinking. Lydia explores the meaning and scope of theological and ecclesial commitments from within this most basic commitment. Negatively stated, Lydia does not investigate gender and family as mere social or cultural constructs, but positively, as divinely given and ordered for theological ends. Lydia’s mission is to explore those ends with a view to their ethical consequences for, and shape in, the present.


In exploring the significance of biblical and theological insights for life in the contemporary Church and world, Lydia employs various scholarly and heuristic tools. Among these, the tools of linguistic analysis and of the social sciences are not only theologically grounded but also touch on a critical biblical-ethical concern for loving, faithful, and truthful communication which builds up rather than destroys. With regard to (1), (2) and (5) of Lydia’s key activity areas listed above, linguistic analysis can help us understand, for example, what types of actions are attributed to men and women and what characteristics are ascribed to each (favorably or not), as well as in what contexts each are mentioned or excluded. Examination of ways in which other social actors in Christian texts (the Church, for example) are gendered linguistically and/or marked by age offers additional insight into these areas of inquiry. Further, with a view to (3), linguistic analysis (particularly corpus-assisted discourse analysis) and, where appropriate, ethnographic inquiry assist us in understanding how various social actors in Christian communities are given or denied agency within marriage or in social or ecclesiastical environments. In sum, these tools enable us to understand the ethical significance of how church leaders and laity speak and write about men and women within the contexts of such issues as headship, divorce, and spousal abuse.

The foregoing can serve only as a sketch, at best, of the work which must be done and which Lydia is formed to encourage and to resource. Of course, readers will have many questions about issues not noted explicitly above, and this is not only understandable but appropriate. In light of this, we invite your participation at the metaphorical table as the work begins. Predictably, the Lydia vision will be explored more fully in coming posts and events.

To keep in touch with Lydia, we invite you to sign up for the Newsletter (details forthcoming) and “like” the Facebook page. If you believe in the work of the Lydia Center and would like to support its development, please consider donating at the Greystone site: