Augustine on Marriage and Virginity
In the year 401 Augustine wrote a pair of treatises that propose a middle path between the virtues of marriage and celibacy – hot button issues at the time. He defended marriage in On the Good of Marriage and he argued for the supremacy of celibacy in On Holy Virginity.[i] We may disagree with Augustine’s view of the superiority of virginity; however, his defence of marriage sets out a theological basis for the inherent goodness of marriage. In fact, his theology of marriage provided the basic framework for the traditional Western view of marriage. The following article outlines Augustine’s theology of marriage, which is based on what he identified as the three goods (bona) of marriage: children (proles), fidelity (fides), and sacrament (sacramentum).[ii] Our contemporary culture has sought to redefine marriage by denying these three goods.
The Three Goods of Marriage
For Augustine the three goods of marriage are children, fidelity, and sacrament. He usually lists the three goods in this order, with sacrament consistently appearing last. Émile Schmitt suggests the order reflects the ascending value of each good, so that the sacramental character of marriage is the greatest good.[iii]
Augustine states at the outset of his treatise On the Good of Marriage: “the first natural bond (copula) of society is that of husband and wife. God did not create them as separate individuals ... but he created one from the other, making the side, from which the woman was taken and formed, a sign of the strength of their union.”[iv] Augustine argues that this first natural bond of society is not an end in itself. It’s procreative. Since children are the fruit of sexual union (concubitus), sex cannot be viewed as evil. On the contrary, it’s commanded: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Gen. 1.28).[v] Augustine concludes, “the union (copulatio) of male and female for the sake of having children is, then, the natural good of marriage.”[vi] The union of husband and wife in marriage is potentially procreative, which means the call to marry is also a call to parent. Husband and wife are also father and mother.
The second good of marriage is fidelity or conjugal chastity (castitas coniugalis).[vii] (Chastity should not be confused with celibacy.) Mutual fidelity sustains the marital bond between husband and wife. However, it is not simply a prohibition on adultery. Fidelity requires mutual submission in the bedroom (cf. 1 Cor. 7). Augustine maintains that performing one’s conjugal duty is not a sin.[viii] He adds that marital fidelity is good because it bridles sexual promiscuity: “in itself sensuality has the unbridled weakness of the flesh, but from marriage it has the permanent union of fidelity.”[ix] Fidelity, when observed, curbs sexual promiscuity, prevents procreation outside of marriage, and provides the optimal opportunity for children to be raised and nurtured within the natural bonds of the family. Thus, fidelity is not only an inherent good of marriage, it’s a social good.
Augustine sees marriage as a sacrament in two ways: (1) as a sacramental sign (signum) and (2) as a sacramental bond or covenant (vinculum; foedus).[x] The sacramental significance of marriage can be inferred from the citation and application of Genesis 2.24 in the New Testament: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” Paul cites Genesis 2.24 in Ephesians 5.31 and then adds, “this mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Eph. 5.32). (In Augustine’s Latin translation, the word sacramentum was used to translate the Greek word mystērion.) Marriage is a sacrament because it signifies the relationship between Christ and the church. This allows Augustine to read Genesis 2.24 typologically. The first marriage between Adam and Eve prefigures the last marriage between Christ and the church:
When [Christ] slept on the cross, he bore a sign, yea, he fulfilled what had been signified in Adam: for when Adam was asleep, a rib was drawn from him and Eve was created; so also while the Lord slept on the cross, his side was transfixed with a spear, and the sacraments flowed forth, whence the Church was born. For the Church, the Lord’s Bride, was created from His side, as Eve was created from the side of Adam.[xi]
The Marriage of Christ and Church
Just as the first union between Adam and Eve signified the union of Christ and his church, so every Christian marriage signifies Christ and his church. In this way, marriage is a sacramental sign.
Marriage is also sacramental because it is a covenant. The husband and wife make a vow of fidelity, “till death us do part.” When Jesus was asked about divorce, he cited Genesis 2.24 and then added, “so they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matt. 19.6; cf. Mark 10.9). The marital bond is sacramental because it has been forged by God and the indissoluble permanence of that bond signifies the indissoluble bond between Christ and the church. Commenting on Paul’s exhortation to husbands and wives in Ephesians 5, Augustine writes:
Beyond any doubt the reality signified by this sacrament is that the man and the woman united in marriage persevere inseparably in that union as long as they live ... this is, after all, what is preserved between Christ and the Church, that while Christ lives and while the Church lives, they are not separated by any divorce for all eternity.[xii]
Thus, for Augustine, temporal marriage has eternal significance because it is a symbol of the eternal union of Christ and his bride.
[i]. English translations of both treatises can be found in Marriage and Virginity, vol. I/9 of The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century, ed. John E. Rotelle, trans. Ray Kearney (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1998).
[ii]. This article does not consider Augustine’s view of sexuality, which certainly falls short of the biblical view. Peter Brown notes, “Augustine never found a way, any more than any of his Christian contemporaries, of articulating the possibility that sexual pleasure might, in itself, enrich the relations between husband and wife” (The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity [New York: Columbia University Press, 1988], 402). Augustine was troubled by the affect sexual desire has on human behaviour and relationships and he wrote extensively on concupiscence and the libido. As he saw it, the disharmony between sexual desire and the will was evidence of original sin. A concise account of his view on sexual desire can be found in City of God 14.16-28. Victorian translators found Augustine’s description of prelapsarian sex in City of God 14.26 so titillating, they left it untranslated (see NPNF1, vol 2, 281 [http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf102.iv.XIV.26.html]).
[iii]. Le mariage chrétien dans l’oeuvre de Saint Augustin, 223, n.33.
[iv]. On the Good of Marriage 1.1. English translation: “The Excellence of Marriage (De bono coniugali),” in Marriage and Virginity, vol. I/9 of The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century, ed. John E. Rotelle, trans. Ray Kearney (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1998), 33 (cited hereafter as WSA I/9).
[v]. On the Good of Marriage 1.1-2.2 (WSA I/9, 33-34).
[vi]. On Marriage and Concupiscence 4.3. English translation: “Marriage and Desire (De nuptiis et concupiscentia),” in Answer to Pelagians, II, vol. I/24 of The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century, ed. John E. Rotelle, trans. Roland J. Teske (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1998), 30 (cited hereafter as WSA I/24).
[vii]. On the Good of Marriage 4.4-6.7, 10.11 (WSA I/9, 35-38, 42).
[viii]. On the Good of Marriage 6.7 (WSA I/9, 38). Augustine does write, however, that “complete abstinence is more meritorious” and “demanding [sex] more than is necessary for procreation is a venial sin (culpae venialis) [i.e., pardonable]” (ibid.). As he interprets 1 Corinthians 7.28, 36-38, sex for pleasure rather than procreation is “excusable” (secunda venia) (ibid., 6.7, 10.11). In this regard, Augustine does not faithfully present the biblical perspective on sex.
[ix]. On the Good of Marriage 5.5 (WSA I/9, 37).
[x]. Schmitt, Le mariage chrétien dans l’oeuvre de Saint Augustin, 221–32.
[xi]. Explanations of the Psalms 127.4 (NPNF1 8, 607 [http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf108.ii.CXXVII.html]).
[xii]. On Marriage and Concupiscence 10.11 (WSA I/24, 35).