« Prev The Christian Family Next »

§ 99. The Christian Family.

Such was the condition of the domestic life of the ancient world, when Christianity, with its doctrine of the sanctity of marriage, with its injunction of chastity, and with its elevation of woman from her half-slavish condition to moral dignity and equality with man, began the work of a silent transformation, which secured incalculable blessings to generations yet unborn. It laid the foundation for a well-ordered family life. It turned the eye from the outward world to the inward sphere of affection, from the all-absorbing business of politics and state-life into the sanctuary of home; and encouraged the nurture of those virtues of private life, without which no true public virtue can exist. But, as the evil here to be abated, particularly the degradation of the female sex and the want of chastity, was so deeply rooted and thoroughly interwoven in the whole life of the old world, this ennobling of the family, like the abolition of slavery, was necessarily a very slow process. We cannot wonder, therefore, at the high estimate of celibacy, which in the eyes of many seemed to be the only radical escape from the impurity and misery of married life as it generally stood among the heathen. But, although the fathers are much more frequent and enthusiastic in the praise of virginity than in that of marriage, yet their views on this subject show an immense advance upon the moral standard of the greatest sages and legislators of Greece and Rome.

Chastity before marriage, in wedlock, and in celibacy, in man as well as in woman, so rare in paganism, was raised to the dignity of a cardinal virtue and made the corner-stone of the family. Many a female martyr preferred cruel torture and death to the loss of honor. When St. Perpetua fell half dead from the horns of a wild bull in the arena, she instinctively drew together her dress, which had been torn in the assault. The acts of martyrs and saints tell marvellous stories, exaggerated no doubt, yet expressive of the ruling Christian sentiment, about heroic resistance to carnal temptation, the sudden punishment of unjust charges of impurity by demoniacal possession or instant death, the rescue of courtesans from a life of shame and their radical conversion and elevation even to canonical sanctity.640640    Among the converted courtesans of the ancient church in the Roman calendar are St. Mary Magdalene, St. Mary of Egypt, St. Afra, St. Pelagia, St. Thais, and St. Theodota. See Charles de Bussy Les Courtisanes saintes. St. Vitalius, it is said, visited dens of vice every night, gave money to the inmates to keep them from sin, and offered up prayers for their conversion. A curious story is told of St. Serapion, who went to such a place by appointment, and prayed and prayed and prayed till the unfortunate courtesan was converted and fell half dead at his feet. See Lecky, II. 338.40 The ancient councils deal much with carnal sins so fearfully prevalent, and unanimously condemn them in every shape and form. It is true, chastity in the early church and by the unanimous consent of the fathers was almost identified with celibacy, as we shall see hereafter; but this excess should not blind us to the immense advance of patristic over heathen morals.

Woman was emancipated, in the best sense of the term, from the bondage of social oppression, and made the life and light of a Christian home. Such pure and heroic virgins as the martyred Blandina, and Perpetua, and such devoted mothers as Nonna, Anthusa, and Monica, we seek in vain among the ancient Greek and Roman maidens and matrons, and we need not wonder that the heathen Libanius, judging from such examples as the mother of his pupil Chrysostom, reluctantly exclaimed: "What women have these Christians!" The schoolmen of the middle ages derived from the formation of woman an ingenious argument for her proper position: Eve was not taken from the feet of Adam to be his slave, nor from his head to be his ruler, but from his side to be his beloved partner.641641    This beautiful idea (often attributed to Matthew Henry, the commentator) was first suggested by Augustin. De Genesi ad Literam, l. IX. c. 13 (in Migne’s ed. of Opera, III.col. 402), and fully stated by Peter the Lombard, Sentent. l. II. Dist. XVIII. (de formatione mulieris): "Mulier de viro, non de qualibet parte corporis viri, sed de latere eius formata est, ut ostenderetur quia in consortium creabatur dilectionis, ne forte, si fuisset de capite facta, viro ad dominationem videretur preferenda, aut si de pedibus, ad servitutem subjicienda. Quia igitur viro nec domina, nec ancilla parabatur, sed socia, nec capite, nec de pedibus, sed de latere fuerat producenda, ut juxta se ponendam cognosceret quam de suo latere sumptam didicisset." And again by Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theol. Pars. I. Quaest. XCII. Art. III. (in Migne’s ed. l.col. 1231).41

At the same time here also we must admit that the ancient church was yet far behind the ideal set up in the New Testament, and counterbalanced the elevation of woman by an extravagant over-estimate of celibacy. It was the virgin far more than the faithful wife and mother of children that was praised and glorified by the fathers; and among the canonized saints of the Catholic calendar there is little or no room for husbands and wives, although the patriarchs, Moses, and some of the greatest prophets (Isaiah, Ezekiel), and apostles (Peter taking the lead) lived in honorable wedlock.

Marriage was regarded in the church from the beginning as a sacred union of body and soul for the propagation of civil society, and the kingdom of God, for the exercise of virtue and the promotion of happiness. It was clothed with a sacramental or semi-sacramental character on the basis of Paul’s comparison of the marriage union with the relation of Christ to his church.642642    Eph. 5:28–32. The Vulgate translates τὸ μυστήριον in ver. 32 by sacramentum, and thus furnished a quasi-exegetical foundation to the Catholic doctrine of the sacrament of marriage. The passage is so used by the Council of Trent and in the Roman Catechism. Ellicott (in loc.) judges that "the words cannot possibly be urged in favor of the sacramental nature of marriage, but that the very fact of the comparison does place marriage on a far holier and higher basis than modern theories are disposed to admit." Bengel refers "the mystery " not to marriage, but to the union of Christ with the church ("non matrimonium humanum sed ipsa conjunctio Christi et ecclesiae "). Meyer refers it to the preceding quotation from Genesis; Estius and Ellicott to the intimate conjugal relationship.42 It was in its nature indissoluble except in case of adultery, and this crime was charged not only to the woman, but to the man as even the more guilty party, and to every extra-connubial carnal connection. Thus the wife was equally protected against the wrongs of the husband, and chastity was made the general law of the family life.

We have a few descriptions of Christian homes from the ante-Nicene age, one from an eminent Greek father, another from a married presbyter of the Latin church.

Clement of Alexandria enjoins upon Christian married persons united prayer and reading of the Scriptures,643643    Εὐχὴ καὶ ἀνάγνωσις.43 as a daily morning exercise, and very beautifully says: "The mother is the glory of her children, the wife is the glory of her husband, both are the glory of the wife, God is the glory of all together."644644    Paedag. III. 25044

Tertullian, at the close of the book which he wrote to his wife, draws the following graphic picture, which, though somewhat idealized, could be produced only from the moral spirit of the gospel and actual experience:645645    Ad Uxorem, l II.c. 8.45 "How can I paint the happiness of a marriage which the church ratifies, the oblation (the celebration of the communion) confirms, the benediction seals, angels announce, the Father declares valid. Even upon earth, indeed, sons do not legitimately marry without the consent of their fathers. What a union of two believers—one hope, one vow, one discipline, and one worship! They are brother and sister, two fellow-servants, one spirit and one flesh. Where there is one flesh, there is also one spirit. They pray together, fast together, instruct, exhort, and support each other. They go together to the church of God, and to the table of the Lord. They share each other’s tribulation, persecution, and revival. Neither conceals anything from the other; neither avoids, neither annoys the other. They delight to visit the sick, supply the needy, give alms without constraint, and in daily zeal lay their offerings before the altar without scruple or hindrance. They do not need to keep the sign of the cross hidden, nor to express slyly their Christian joy, nor to suppress the blessing. Psalms and hymns they sing together, and they vie with each other in singing to God. Christ rejoices when he sees and hears this. He gives them his peace. Where two are together in his name, there is he; and where he is, there the evil one cannot come."

A large sarcophagus represents a scene of family worship: on the right, four men, with rolls in their hands, reading or singing; on the left, three women and a girl playing a lyre.

For the conclusion of a marriage, Ignatius646646    Ad Polyc. c. 5. In the Syr. version, c. 2.46 required "the consent of the bishop, that it might be a marriage for God, and not for pleasure. All should be done to the glory of God." In Tertullian’s time,647647    Tert. Ad Uxor. II. 8; Comp. De Monog. c. 11; De Pudic. c. 4.47 as may be inferred from the passage just quoted, the solemnization of marriage was already at least a religious act, though not a proper sacrament, and was sealed by the celebration of the holy communion in presence of the congregation. The Montanists were disposed even to make this benediction of the church necessary to the validity of marriage among Christians. All noisy and wanton Jewish and heathen nuptial ceremonies, and at first also the crowning of the bride, were discarded; but the nuptial ring, as a symbol of union, was retained.

In the catacombs the marriage ceremony is frequently represented by the man and the woman standing side by side and joining hands in token of close union, as also on heathen documents. On a gilded glass of the fourth century, the couple join hands over a small nuptial altar, and around the figures are inscribed the words (of the priest): "May ye live in God."648648    Vivatis in Deo. See the picture in Northcote and Brownlow, II. 303. In other and later pictures the ceremony is presided over by Christ, who either crowns the married couple, or is represented by his monogram. Ibid. p. 302.48

Mixed marriages with heathens and also with heretics, were unanimously condemned by the voice of the church in agreement with the Mosaic legislation, unless formed before conversion, in which case they were considered valid.649649    According to 1 Cor. 7:12, 16.49 Tertullian even classes such marriages with adultery. What heathen, asks he, will let his wife attend the nightly meetings of the church, and the slandered supper of the Lord, take care of the sick even in the poorest hovels, kiss the chains of the martyrs in prison rise in the night for prayer, and show hospitality to strange brethren? Cyprian calls marriage with an unbeliever a prostitution of the members of Christ. The Council of Elvira in Spain (306) forbade such mixed marriages on pain of excommunication, but did not dissolve those already existing. We shall understand this strictness, if, to say nothing of the heathen marriage rites, and the wretchedly loose notions on chastity and conjugal fidelity, we consider the condition of those times, and the offences and temptations which met the Christian in the constant sight of images of the household gods, mythological pictures on the walls, the floor, and the furniture; in the libations at table; in short, at every step and turn in a pagan house.

Second marriage.—From the high view of marriage, and also from an ascetic over-estimate of celibacy, arose a very, prevalent aversion to re-marriage, particularly of widows. The Shepherd of Hermas allows this reunion indeed, but with the reservation, that continuance in single life earns great honor with the Lord. Athenagoras goes so far as to call the second marriage a "decent adultery."650650    Legat. 33: Ὁ δεύτερος γάμος εὐπρεπής ἐστι μοισεία. According to Origen, bigamists may be saved, but will not be crowned by Christ (Hom. XVII. in Luc.). Theophilus Ad Autol. III. 15, says that with the Christians ἐγκράτεια ἀσκεῖται, μονογαμία τηρεῖται. Perhaps even Irenaeus held a similar view, to judge from the manner in which he speaks of the woman of Samaria (John 4:7), "quae in uno viro non mansit, sed fornicata est in multis nuptiis." Adv. Haer. III. 17, § 250

The Montanists and Novatians condemned re-marriage, and made it a subject of discipline.

Tertullian came forward with the greatest decision, as advocate of monogamy against both successive and simultaneous polygamy.651651    Comp. Hauber: Tertullian’s Kampf gegen die zweite Ehe, in the "Studien und Kritiken" for 1845, p. 607 sqq.51 He thought thus to occupy the true middle ground between the ascetic Gnostics, who rejected marriage altogether, and the Catholics, who allowed more than one.652652    De Monog. 1: "Haeretici nuptias auferunt, psychici ingerunt; illi nec semel, isti non semel nubunt."52 In the earlier period of his life, when he drew the above picture of Christian marriage, before his adoption of Montanism., he already placed a high estimate on celibacy as a superior grade of Christian holiness, appealing to 1 Cor. 7:9 and advised at least his wife, in case of his death, not to marry again, especially with a heathen; but in his Montanistic writings, "De Exhortatione Castitatis" and "De Monogamia," he repudiates second marriage from principle, and with fanatical zeal contends against it as unchristian, as an act of polygamy, nay of "stuprum" and "adulterium." He opposes it with all sorts of acute argument; now, on the ground of an ideal conception of marriage as a spiritual union of two souls for time and eternity; now, from an opposite sensuous view; and again, on principles equally good against all marriage and in favor of celibacy. Thus, on the one hand, he argues, that the second marriage impairs the spiritual fellowship with the former partner, which should continue beyond the grave, which should show itself in daily intercessions and in yearly celebration of the day of death, and which hopes even for outward reunion after the resurrection.653653    De Exhort Cast. c. 11: "Duplex rubor est, quia in secundo matramonio duae uxores eundem circumstant maritum, una spiritu, alia in carne. Nequeenim pristinam poteris odisse, cui etiam religiosiorem reservas affectionem ut jam receptae apud Dominum, pro cujus spiritu postulas, pro qua oblationes annuas reddis. Stabis ergo ad Dominum cum tot uxoribus quot in oratione commemoras, et offeres pro duabus," etc.53 On the other hand, however, he places the essence of marriage in the communion of flesh,654654    De Exhort Cast. c. 9:Leges videntur matrimonii et stupri differentiam facere, per diversitatem illiciti, non per conditionem rei ipsius .... Nuptiae ipsae ex eo constant quod est stuprum."54 and regards it as a mere concession, which God makes to our sensuality, and which man therefore should not abuse by repetition. The ideal of the Christian life, with him, not only for the clergy, but the laity also, is celibacy. He lacks clear perception of the harmony of the moral and physical elements which constitutes the essence of marriage; and strongly as he elsewhere combats the Gnostic dualism, he here falls in with it in his depreciation of matter and corporeity, as necessarily incompatible with spirit. His treatment of the exegetical arguments of the defenders of second marriage is remarkable. The levirate law, he says, is peculiar to the Old Testament economy. To Rom. 7:2 he replies, that Paul speaks here from the position of the Mosaic law, which, according to the same passage is no longer binding on Christians. In 1 Cor. 7, the apostle allows second marriage only in his subjective, human judgment, and from regard to our sensuous infirmity; but in the same chapter (1 Cor 7:40) he recommends celibacy to all, and that on the authority of the Lord, adding here, that he also has the Holy Spirit, i.e. the principle, which is active in the new prophets of Montanism. The appeal to 1 Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:6, from which the right of laymen to second marriage was inferred, as the prohibition of it there related only to the clergy, he met with the doctrine of the universal priesthood of believers, which admitted them all both to the privileges and to the obligations of priests. But his reasoning always amounts in the end to this: that the state of original virgin purity, which has nothing at all to do with the sensual, is the best. The true chastity consists therefore not in the chaste spirit of married partners, but in the entire continence of "virgines" and "spadones." The desire of posterity, he, contrary to the Old Testament, considers unworthy of a Christian, who, in fact, ought to break away entirely from the world, and renounce all inheritance in it. Such a morality, forbidding the same that it allows, and rigorously setting as an ideal what it must in reality abate at least for the mass of mankind, may be very far above the heathen level, but is still plainly foreign to the deeper substance and the world-sanctifying principle of Christianity.

The Catholic church, indeed, kept aloof from this Montanistic extravagance, and forbade second marriage only to the clergy (which the Greek church does to this day); yet she rather advised against it, and leaned very decidedly towards a preference for celibacy, as a higher grade of Christian morality.655655    "Non prohibemus secundas nuptias, " says Ambrose, "sed non suademus." None of the fathers recommends remarriage or even approves of it. Jerome represented the prevailing view of the Nicene age. He took the lowest view of marriage as a mere safeguard against fornication and adultery, and could conceive of no other motive for second or third marriage but animal passion. "The first Adam, " he says, "had one wife; the second Adam had no wife. Those who approve of digamy hold forth a third Adam, who was twice married, whom they follow" (Contra Jovin. 1). Gregory of Nazianzum infers from the analogy of marriage to the union of Christ with his church that second marriage is to be reproved, as there is but one Christ and one church (Orat. XXXI).55

As to the relation of parents and children, Christianity exerted from the beginning a most salutary influence. It restrained the tyrannical power of the father. It taught the eternal value of children as heirs of the kingdom of heaven, and commenced the great work of education on a religious and moral basis. It resisted with all energy the exposition of children, who were then generally devoured by dogs and wild beasts, or, if found, trained up for slavery or doomed to a life of infamy. Several apologists, the author to the Epistle of Diognetus, Justin Martyr,656656    Apol. I. 27 and 29.56 Minutius Felix, Tertullian, and Arnobius speak with just indignation against this unnatural custom. Athenagoras declares abortion and exposure to be equal to murder.657657    Apol. c. 3557 No heathen philosopher had advanced so far. Lactantius also puts exposure on a par with murder even of the worst kind, and admits no excuse on the ground of pity or poverty, since God provides for all his creatures.658658    Inst. Div. vi. 20 (p. 48 ed. Lips): "Let no one imagine that even this is allowed, to strangle newly-born children, which is the greatest impiety; for God breathes into their souls for life, and not for death. But men (that there may be no crime with which they may not pollute their hands) deprive souls as yet innocent and simple of the light which they themselves have not given. Can they be considered innocent who expose their own offspring as a prey to dogs, and as far as it depends upon themselves, kill them in a more cruel manner than if they had strangled them? Who can doubt that he is impious who gives occasion for the pity of others? For, although that which he has wished should befall the child—namely, that it should be brought up—he has certainly consigned his own offspring either to servitude or to the brothel? But who does not understand, who is ignorant what things may happen, or are accustomed to happen, in the case of each sex, even through error? For this is shown by the example of OEdipus alone, confused with twofold guilt. It is therefore as wicked to expose as it is to kill. But truly parricides complain of the scantiness of their means, and allege that they have not enough for bringing up more children; as though, in truth, their means were in the power of these who possess them, or God did not daily make the rich poor, and the poor rich. Wherefore, if any one on account of poverty shall be unable to bring up children, it is better to abstain from marriage than with wicked hands to mar the work of God."58 The Christian spirit of humanity gradually so penetrated the spirit of the age that the better emperors, from the time of Trajan, began to direct their attention to the diminution of these crying evils; but the best legal enactments would never have been able to eradicate them without the spiritual influence of the church. The institutions and donations of Trajan, Antonins Pius, Septimius Severus, and private persons, for the education of poor children, boys and girls, were approaches of the nobler heathen towards the genius of Christianity. Constantine proclaimed a law in 315 throughout Italy "to turn parents from using a parricidal hand on their new-born children, and to dispose their hearts to the best sentiments." The Christian fathers, councils, emperors, and lawgivers united their efforts to uproot this monstrous evil and to banish it from the civilized world.659659    For further details see Brace, l.c. 79 sqq., and Terme et Monfalcon, Hist. des enfants trouvés. Paris, 1840.59

« Prev The Christian Family Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection