Critical Evaluation: The Good of Marriage by Augustine of Hippo
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Biographical Sketch of the Author
The Manichaean religion was Persian in origin and dualistic in its beliefs. He later became a Neoplatonist. In contrast to the dualism of Manichaenism, Neoplatonism saw all of reality coming from one principle. This helped answer Augustine’s questions about the origin of evil. Then Ambrose helped to show Augustine that the Bible was the infallible Word of God with God being the source of all things. Ambrose interpreted several of the passages that Augustine had trouble excepting allegorically. This solved Augustine’s intellectual difficulties with the Scriptures. However, if he were to convert to Christianity he could not do so half-heartedly.
During Augustine’s time monasticism was seen as the highest level of Christianity. Augustine wrote that he prayed to God: “Give me chastity and continence; but not too soon.” He lived with a concubine by whom he had a son and with whom he enjoyed carnal pleasure. While in a garden he heard a child sing, “Take up and read. Take up and read.” He took up the Epistle to the Romans and read “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts.” (Rom.13:14, NASB) After reading this, he left both his concubine and his profession of rhetoric. He requested baptism by Ambrose and set out to live in celibacy as a monk. He was later made Bishop of Hippo in 395 A.D.1
It was during his pastoral duties as Bishop of Hippo that Augustine did his writing. Having converted many of his friends to Manichaeism he dedicated much of his writings in refutation of the Manichaeans.2 The Manichaeans held a dualistic view of matter and spirit. To them, matter was intrinsically evil; therefore, they were severely ascetic, believing that marriage is intrinsically evil. Their aim was to become completely unworldly so that they may be set free from matter.3
Augustine wrote The Good of Marriage in 401 A.D. in refutation of the Manichaeans. He refuted the Manichaeans by calling marriage a good. However, the main reason that Augustine wrote this book was to refute Jovinian who considered marriage equal to that of celibacy. During the third century, Origen taught that celibacy was essential to the process of sanctification. Then, during the fourth century Athanasius wrote The Life of Antony which promoted an ascetic monastic life style. At the end of the fourth century a monk by the name of Jovinian challenged this growing thought. In contrast to the growing celibacy movement he said that marriage and celibacy were equal in God’s sight.4
It is in this context that Augustine writes The Good of Marriage. This Biblical sketch of the author has been lengthy, but I believe it to be necessary in order to properly understand the book. The book must be understood from the perspective of a man living at the beginning of the fifth century. After which the book should be evaluated in light of the timeless principles taught on marriage in the Scriptures.
Summary of the Contents
With regard to the good of marriage Augustine says that the good of marriage is three-fold: 1) Offspring. 2) Faithfulness. 3) Sacred Symbolism or Sacramentum. The first and primary reason for marriage is to have children to people the kingdom of God. This not only speaks of procreation, but in raising children up in fear of the Lord. However, Augustine believes that this is a result of the fall, because before the fall God could have peopled the earth the same way that he created Adam and Eve. Augustine believed that procreation through the marriage bed was necessary because of the fall. He believed that sex, even within a marriage for any other reason than procreation is sin. It was not a sin on the level of Adultery or fornication which he called mortal sin, but he called sex in marriage for the sake of pleasure a venial sin.
To this regard he speaks of the good of faithfulness. The marriage partners are to be faithful to one another. Violation of the marriage fidelity is called adultery. Here he addresses some of the things that Paul said in 1 Corinthians 7, particularly regarding the husband and wife fulfilling duties to one another. Augustine believed to extract the conjugal right for any reason other than procreation is a venial sin. So, to demand intercourse for passion he believed to be a sin, but to render to a spouse to keep them from adultery and fornication is not sin. He thus says, “The crown of marriage, then, is the chastity of procreation and faithfulness in rendering the carnal debt.”
Marriage being a sacred symbol of Christ and the church which he calls Sacramentum cannot be broken except in the death of a spouse. Even if a man puts away a wife in divorce for reason of adultery, he is not to marry as long as the wife still lives, but after death he is then free to remarry a believing wife.
After calling marriage a good he calls celibacy a greater good. To this regard he says, “so we praise the good of Susanna in married chastity, yet we place above it the good of the widow Anna and much more so that if the Virgin Mary.” He says it is good for a woman to marry to beget children, but it is better not to marry because it is better for human society itself to not have need of marriage. He then answers a question that may arise saying, “Much more quickly would the City of God be filled and the end of time be hastened.”
Those who questioned the belief of the time that celibacy was a greater good than marriage said that those who believe this make themselves out to be greater than the patriarchs. Augustine says this is untrue because it is a different time or dispensation. The patriarchs possessed their wives solely for the work of procreation and not in passion like the gentiles. Augustine said, “I am indeed not better than Abraham, but the chastity of the unmarried is better than the chastity of marriage.”
In the end he says, “Marriage and virginity are, it is true, two goods, the second of them is the greater.” However, he goes on to say that virginity does not cancel out other debts. If a virgin is a drunkard and a married woman lives in sobriety the virgin is not greater than the married woman. He says that it is better to have everything good in a lessor since than to have a greater good coupled with an evil.
Therefore, it is imperative that we read historical books like these with historical knowledge. In contrast to Augustine’s book, the timeless principles that the Bible teaches regarding marriage are sevenfold: First, procreation; (Gn.1:28&9:1,7) second, companionship; (Gn.2:18) third, unity; (Gn.2:24-25) fourth, pleasure; (cf. Song of Solomon) fifth, education of children; (cf. Eph.6:4) sixth, chastity; (1Cor.7:1-24) and seventh, a symbol of Christ and the Church. (Ep.5:22-32)
It seems that Augustine and the other monastics of his time did not understand the value of having a believing wife as a companion and because of his previous experiences with sex being lust and fornication, he could not understand the unity of a husband and wife being naked and not ashamed, enjoying one another in the pleasure given to them by God. Is procreation, faithfulness, and Sacramentum goods in marriage? Yes, but marriage and the marriage bed are much more than these. Sex in marriage is a good, because it was created by God prior to the fall to populate the earth with His image bearers, to create a permanent bond between husband and wife in order to raise children, and to give them pleasure in their unity while keeping them from all forms of immorality that exist in the world.
There are two things that this book shows me: First, our past sin skews our understanding and ability to see truth. God can use whomever he wants, however He wants to honor his name and exalt Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. However, our previous sins do taint our ability to rightly interpret the Word of God. Second, the views of the people in our society, especially that of believers who have our ears can also taint our understanding of things. We must remember when listening to others; like us, their interpretation of Scripture is tainted by their presuppositions and past sins; therefore, listen with a discerning ear and a prayerful heart. May we all be kept from the temptation of the world, our flesh and Satan. May we all be transformed in mind and heart by the truth of the Word of God guided by the Holy Spirit of truth.
_____________________________1 Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity Volume I The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation, (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), 241-247.
3 “Manichaeism and True Christianity,” accessed April 29, 2018, http://www.rtecmalta.org/tft323.htm.
4 “Marriage, Celibacy, and the Hierarchy of Merit in the Jovinian Controversy,” Family Ministry, May 01, 2013, accessed April 29, 2018, http://www.sbts.edu/family/2-13/05/01/marriage-celibacy-and-the-hiearchy-of-merit-in-the-jovinian-controversy/.