Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. VI:Early Church Fathers Index Previous Next
Our Lords Sermon on the Mount.: Chapter XVI
43. Here there arises a second question, when the Lord allows a wife to be put away for the cause of fornication, in what latitude of meaning fornication is to be understood in this passage,—whether in the sense understood by all, viz. that we are to understand that fornication to be meant which is committed in acts of uncleanness; or whether, in accordance p. 19 with the usage of Scripture in speaking of fornication (as has been mentioned above), as meaning all unlawful corruption, such as idolatry or covetousness, and therefore, of course, every transgression of the law on account of the unlawful lust [involved in it]. 142 But let us consult the apostle, that we may not say rashly. “And unto the married I command,” says he, “yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband: but and if she depart, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband.” For it may happen that she departs for that cause for which the Lord gives permission to do so. Or, if a woman is at liberty to put away her husband for other causes besides that of fornication, and the husband is not at liberty, what answer shall we give respecting this statement which he has made afterwards, “And let not the husband put away his wife”? Wherefore did he not add, saving for the cause of fornication, which the Lord permits, unless because he wishes a similar rule to be understood, that if he shall put away his wife (which he is permitted to do for the cause of fornication), he is to remain without a wife, or be reconciled to his wife? For it would not be a bad thing for a husband to be reconciled to such a woman as that to whom, when nobody had dared to stone her, the Lord said, “Go, and sin no more.” 143 And for this reason also, because He who says, It is not lawful to put away ones wife saving for the cause of fornication, forces him to retain his wife, if there should be no cause of fornication: but if there should be, He does not force him to put her away, but permits him, just as when it is said, Let it not be lawful for a woman to marry another, unless her husband be dead; if she shall marry before the death of her husband, she is guilty; if she shall not marry after the death of her husband, she is not guilty, for she is not commanded to marry, but merely permitted. If, therefore, there is a like rule in the said law of marriage between man and woman, to such an extent that not merely of the woman has the same apostle said, “The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband;” but he has not been silent respecting him, saying, “And likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife;”—if, then, the rule is similar, there is no necessity for understanding that it is lawful for a woman to put away her husband, saving for the cause of fornication, as is the case also with the husband.
44. It is therefore to be considered in what latitude of meaning we ought to understand the word fornication, and the apostle is to be consulted, as we were beginning to do. For he goes on to say, “But to the rest speak I, not the Lord.” Here, first, we must see who are “the rest,” for he was speaking before on the part of the Lord to those who are married, but now, as from himself, he speaks to “the rest:” hence perhaps to the unmarried, but this does not follow. For thus he continues: “If any brother hath a wife that believeth not, and she be pleased to dwell with him, let him not put her away.” Hence, even now he is speaking to those who are married. What, then, is his object in saying “to the rest,” unless that he was speaking before to those who were so united, that they were alike as to their faith in Christ; but that now he is speaking to “the rest,” i.e. to those who are so united, that they are not both believers? But what does he say to them? “If any brother hath a wife that believeth not, and she be pleased to dwell with him, let him not put her away. And the woman which hath an husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not put him away.” If, therefore, he does not give a command as from the Lord, but advises as from himself, then this good result springs from it, that if any one act otherwise, he is not a transgressor of a command, just as he says a little after respecting virgins, that he has no command of the Lord, but that he gives his advice; and he so praises virginity, that whoever will may avail himself of it; yet if he shall not do so, he may not be judged to have acted contrary to a command. For there is one thing which is commanded, another respecting which advice is given, another still which is allowed. 144 A wife is commanded not to depart from her husband; and if she depart, to remain unmarried, or to be reconciled to her husband: therefore it is not allowable for her to act otherwise. But a believing husband is advised, if he has an unbelieving wife who is pleased to dwell with him, not to put her away: therefore it is allowable also to put her away, because it is no command of the Lord that he should not put her away, but an advice of the apostle: just as a virgin is advised not to marry; but if she shall marry, she will not indeed adhere to the advice, but she will not act in opposition to a command. Allowance is given 145 when it is said, “But I speak this by permission, and not of commandment.” And therep. 20 fore, if it is allowable that an unbelieving wife should be put away, although it is better not to put her away, and yet not allowable, according to the commandment of the Lord, that a wife should be put away, saving for the cause of fornication, [then] unbelief itself also is fornication.
45. For what sayest thou, O apostle? Surely, that a believing husband who has an unbelieving wife pleased to dwell with him is not to put her away? Just so, says he. When, therefore, the Lord also gives this command, that a man should not put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, why dost thou say here, “I speak, not the Lord”? For this reason, viz. that the idolatry which unbelievers follow, and every other noxious superstition, is fornication. Now, the Lord permitted a wife to be put away for the cause of fornication; but in permitting, He did not command it: He gave opportunity to the apostle for advising that whoever wished should not put away an unbelieving wife, in order that, perchance, in this way she might become a believer. “For,” says he, “the unbelieving husband is sanctified in the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified in the brother.” 146 I suppose it had already occurred that some wives were embracing the faith by means of their believing husbands, and husbands by means of their believing wives; and although not mentioning names, he yet urged his case by examples, in order to strengthen his counsel. Then he goes on to say, “Else were your children unclean; but now are they holy.” For now the children were Christians, who were sanctified at the instance of one of the parents, or with the consent of both; which would not take place unless the marriage were broken up by one of the parties becoming a believer, and unless the unbelief of the spouse were borne with so far as to give an opportunity of believing. This, therefore, is the counsel of Him whom I regard as having spoken the words, “Whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.” 147
46. Moreover, if unbelief is fornication, and idolatry unbelief, and covetousness idolatry, it is not to be doubted that covetousness also is fornication. Who, then, in that case can rightly separate any unlawful lust whatever from the category of fornication, if covetousness is fornication? And from this we perceive, that because of unlawful lusts, not only those of which one is guilty in acts of uncleanness with anothers husband or wife, but any unlawful lusts whatever, which cause the soul making a bad use of the body to wander from the law of God, and to be ruinously and basely corrupted, a man may, without crime, put away his wife, and a wife her husband, because the Lord makes the cause of fornication an exception; which fornication, in accordance with the above considerations, we are compelled to understand as being general and universal.
47. But when He says, “saving for the cause of fornication,” He has not said of which of them, whether the man or the woman. 148 For not only is it allowed to put away a wife who commits fornication; but whoever puts away that wife even by whom he is himself compelled to commit fornication, puts her away undoubtedly for the cause of fornication. As, for instance, if a wife should compel one to sacrifice to idols, the man who puts away such an one puts her away for the cause of fornication, not only on her part, but on his own also: on her part, because she commits fornication; on his own, that he may not commit fornication. Nothing, however, is more unjust than for a man to put away his wife because of fornication, if he himself also is convicted of committing fornication. For that passage occurs to one: “For wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest doest the same things.” 149 And for this reason, whosoever wishes to put away his wife because of fornication, ought first to be cleared of fornication; and a like remark I would make respecting the woman also.
48. But in reference to what He says, “Whosoever shall marry her that is divorced 150 committeth adultery,” it may be asked whether she also who is married commits adultery in the same way as he does who marries her. For she also is commanded to remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband; but this in the case of her departing from her husband. There is, however, a great difference whether she put away or be put away. For if she put away her husband, and marry another, she seems to have left her former husband from a desire of changing her marriage connection, which is, without doubt, an adulterous thought. But if she be put away by the husband, with whom she desired to be, he indeed who marries her commits adultery, according to the Lords declaration; but whether she also be involved in a like crime is uncertain,—although it is much less easy to discover how, when a man and woman have inp. 21 tercourse one with another with equal consent, one of them should be an adulterer, and the other not. To this is to be added the consideration, that if he commits adultery by marrying her who is divorced from her husband (although she does not put away, but is put away), she causes him to commit adultery, which nevertheless the Lord forbids. And hence we infer that, whether she has been put away, or has put away her husband, it is necessary for her to remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband. 151
49. Again, it is asked whether, if, with a wifes permission, either a barren one, or one who does not wish to submit to intercourse, a man shall take to himself another woman, not another mans wife, nor one separated from her husband, he can do so without being chargeable with fornication? And an example is found in the Old Testament history; 152 but now there are greater precepts which the human race has reached after having passed that stage; and those matters are to be investigated for the purpose of distinguishing the ages of the dispensation of that divine providence which assists the human race in the most orderly way; but not for the purpose of making use of the rules of living. But yet it may be asked whether what the apostle says, “The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband; and likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife,” can be carried so far, that, with the permission of a wife, who possesses the power over her husbands body, a man can have intercourse with another woman, who is neither another mans wife nor divorced from her husband; but such an opinion is not to be entertained, lest it should seem that a woman also, with her husbands permission, could do such a thing, which the instinctive feeling of every one prevents.
50. And yet some occasions may arise, where a wife also, with the consent of her husband, may seem under obligation to do this for the sake of that husband himself; as, for instance, is said to have happened at Antioch about fifty years ago, 153 in the times of Constantius. For Acyndinus, at that time prefect and at one time also consul, when he demanded of a certain public debtor the payment of a poundweight of gold, impelled by I know not what motive, did a thing which is often dangerous in the case of those magistrates to whom anything whatever is lawful, or rather is thought to be lawful, viz. threatened with an oath and with a vehement affirmation, that if he did not pay the foresaid gold on a certain day which he had fixed, he would be put to death. Accordingly, while he was being kept in cruel confinement, and was unable to rid himself of that debt, the dread day began to impend and to draw near. He happened, however, to have a very beautiful wife, but one who had no money wherewith to come to the relief of her husband; and when a certain rich man had had his desires inflamed by the beauty of this woman, and had learned that her husband was placed in that critical situation, he sent to her, promising in return for a single night, if she would consent to hold intercourse with him, that he would give her the pound of gold. Then she, knowing that she herself had not power over her body, but her husband, conveyed the intelligence to him, telling him that she was prepared to do it for the sake of her husband, but only if he himself, the lord by marriage of her body, to whom all that chastity was due, should wish it to be done, as if disposing of his own property for the sake of his life. He thanked her, and commanded that it should be done, in no wise judging that it was an adulterous embrace, because it was no lust, but great love for her husband, that demanded it, at his own bidding and will. The woman came to the villa of that rich man, did what the lewd man wished; but she gave her body only to her husband, who desired not, as was usual, his marriage rights, but life. She received the gold; but he who gave it took away stealthily what he had given, and substituted a similar bag with earth in it. When the woman, however, on reaching her home, discovered it, she rushed forth in public in order to proclaim the deed she had done, animated by the same tender affection for her husband by which she had been forced to do it; she goes to the prefect, confesses everything, shows the fraud that had been practised upon her. Then indeed the prefect first pronounces himself guilty, because the matter had come to this by means of his threats, and, as if pronouncing sentence upon another, decided that a pound of gold should be brought into the treasury from the property of Acyndinus; but that she (the woman) be installed as mistress of that piece of land whence she had received the earth instead of the gold. I offer no opinion either way from this story: let each one form a judgment as he pleases, for the history is not drawn from divinely authoritative sources; but yet, when the story is related, mans instinctive sense does not so revolt against what was done in the case of this woman, at her husbands bidding, as we formerly shuddered when the thing itself was set forth without any example. But in this section of the Gospel nothing is to be more steadily kept in view, than that so great is the evil of fornication, that, while married people are bound to one another by so strong a p. 22 bond, this one cause of divorce is excepted; but as to what fornication is, that we have already discussed. 154
Augustin expresses himself (Retract. I. xix. 6) as having misgivings about his own explanation of this matter here. He advises readers to go to his other writings on the subject of marriage and divorce, or to the works of other writers. He says all sin is not fornication (omne peccatum fornicatio non est); and to determine which sins are fornication, and when a wife may be dismissed, is a most broad (latebrosissima) question. He calls the question a most difficult (difficillimam) one, and says, “But verily I feel that I have not come to the perfect conclusion of this matter (imo non me pervenisse ad hujus rei perfectionem sentio.” Retract. ii. 57). Some of his treatises on the marriage relation: De Bono Conjugali; De Conjugiis Adulterinis; De Nuptiis et Concupiscientia.19:143
John viii. 11. Vide deinceps ne pecces; Vulgate, jam amplius noli peccare.19:144
Ignoscitur, lit. “is pardoned.”19:145
Lit. “it is pardoned.”20:146
1 Cor. vii. 14. Augustin conforms to the approved reading in the Greek text: in uxore…in fratre. Vulgate, per mulierem,…per virum. (See Revised Version.)20:147
Luke x. 35.20:148
Modern commentators do not spring this question, agreeing that the fornication referred to is of the wife. Paulus, Döllinger (in Christ. u. Kirche, to which Professor Conington replied in Cont. Rev., May, 1869) think the fornication of the woman was committed before her marriage. Plumptre also prefers the reference to ante-nuptial sin.20:149
Rom. ii. 1.20:150
‡ἀολελυμένην; that is, one divorced unlawfully who has not been guilty of fornication (so Meyer very positively, Stier et. al., Alford hesitatingly). This explanation might seem to limit re-marriage to such an one, inasmuch as the essence of the marriage bond has not been touched (So Alford et. al.).21:151
That is, innocent or guilty, she cannot marry without committing adultery. The Roman-Catholic Church forbids divorces, but permits an indefinite separation a mensa et toro (“from table and bed”).21:152
Abraham taking Hagar with Sarahs consent.21:153
About the year 343; for Augustin wrote this treatise about the year 393.22:154
The law permitted divorce for “some uncleanness” (Deut. xxiv. 1). In the time of Christ divorce was allowed on trivial grounds. While Schammai interpreted the Deuteronomic prescription of moral uncleanness or adultery, Hillel interpreted it to include physical uncleanness or unattractiveness. A wifes cooking her husbands food unpalatably he declared to be a legitimate cause for dissolution of the marriage bond. Opposing the loose views current, Christ declared that it was on account of the “hardness of their hearts” that Moses had suffered them to put away their wives, and asserted adultery to be the only allowable reason for divorce. The question whether the innocent party may marry, is beset with great difficulties in view of this passage and Matt. xix. 9. The answer turns somewhat upon the construction of the passage. Augustin here, the Council of Trent (and so the Roman-Catholic Church), Weiss, Mansel, and others hold that all marriage of a divorced person is declared illegal. In another place (De Conj. Adult. i. 9) Augustin says, “Why, I say, did the Lord interject the cause of fornication, and not say rather, in a general way, Whosoever shall put away his wife and marry another commits adultery?…I think, because the Lord wishes to mention that which is greater. For who will deny that it is a greater adultery to marry another when the divorced wife has not committed fornication than when any one divorces his wife and then marries another? Not because this is not adultery, but because it is a lesser sort.” The Apost. Constitutions (vii. 2) say, “Thou shalt not commit adultery, for thou dividest one flesh into two,” etc. Weiss: “Jesus everywhere takes it for granted that in the sight of God there is no such thing as a dissolution of the marriage bond” (Leben Jesu, i. 529). President Woolsey, on the other hand, unhesitatingly declares, that, by Christs precepts, marriage is dissolved by adultery, so that the innocent party may marry again. According to this passage, the woman divorced on other grounds than adultery seems to be declared adulterous if she marry. According to Matt. xix. 9 the man who puts away his wife for adultery, seems to be permitted to marry without becoming adulterous himself. According to Mark x. 12 the woman had the privilege in that day of putting away her husband, but “there is no evidence in the Hebrew Scriptures that the woman could get herself divorced from her husband.” To the able treatment of Augustin, which might seem either exceedingly fearless or mawkish at the present day, according to the stand-point of the critic, the reader would do well to read Alford and Lange on this passage; Stanley on 1 Cor. vii. 11; and Woolsey, art. “Divorce” in Schaff-Herzog Encycl. Whatever may be the exact meaning of our Lord concerning the marriage of the innocent party, it is evident that He regards the marriage bond as profoundly sacred, and warrants the celebrant in binding the parties to marriage to be faithful one to the other “till death do you part.” He Himself said, “What, therefore, God hath joined together, let not man put asunder” (Mark x. 9).
Next: Chapter XVII
Like & share St-Takla.org
© Saint Takla Haymanout Website: Coptic Orthodox Church - Alexandria, Egypt / URL: https://st-takla.org / Contact us at