Augustine on the Good of Marriage

Marriage is a contested issue in today’s society, but what many don’t recognize is that it’s always been an issue that has caused sharp debate, particularly within Christian communities. While the instructions of the apostle Paul concerning marriage, as most thoroughly set out in 1 Corinthians 7 and Ephesians 5, were no doubt intended to provide clear, practical guidance on this difficult issue for these early Christian communities, subsequent generations of Christians struggled to interpret and apply the apostle’s teaching to their contexts. Particularly as the “triumph” of Christianity under Constantine largely ended the days of martyrdom as a means of proving the character of one’s faith, many Christians increasingly looked to virginity and other ascetic practices as a means of distinguishing themselves from the flood of new converts entering the church. As Christianity spread across the empire in the fourth century, penetrating deeper into the countryside and into new levels of society, the issues of marriage and virginity took on increasing importance.

A full account of early Christian attitudes toward marriage is, of course, beyond the scope of these blog posts. Thus, over this and the next post I will limit my focus to two key theologians of the late fourth and early fifth centuries: Augustine of Hippo in the West and John Chrysostom in the East, with the aim of comparing their views on the specific issue of the “good” of marriage. My aim is to briefly place the views of Augustine and John Chrysostom on marriage within their broader historical context, and then examine some of their key writings for detail on how they constructed, to different extents, a positive view of marriage.

Augustine, perhaps more than any other early Christian writer (no doubt on account of his Confessions), gives us striking insight into his own feelings regarding women, sex, and marriage. The young Augustine had a concubine for 15 years, with whom he had a son, but this appears to have been less than an entirely fulfilling experience.[1] His views on marriage, though, would be shaped not only from the forge of his apparently intense sexual desires, but from the furnace of the theological controversies of his day, and in particular that known as the Jovinianist controversy.

The 380s had been marked by an intensification of asceticism within Western Christianity, with the result that virgins were increasingly exalted as an elite class of believers.[2] But in the following decade, the Roman church was confronted by the views of Jovinian, who claimed that virgins, widows, and married women were all worthy of equal merit, and, moreover, would receive equal reward in heaven. As a result, many Roman ascetics began to abandon celibacy and marry.[3] Jovinian’s views drew a sharp response from Ambrose and Jerome, the latter of whom so fiercely defended asceticism that “he completely demolished marriage in the process.”[4] For Jerome, marriage was merely the lesser of two evils rather than something positive in its own right.

It was into this battle between the two camps represented by Jovinian and Jerome that Augustine “tried to stake a middle ground between the claims of resolutely ascetic writers who hinted that marriage and reproduction were unworthy experiences for Christians, and those, in contrast, who made out that no preference was to be given to ascetic living.”[5] Augustine shared with Ambrose and Jerome the belief that virginity was superior to marriage, but nevertheless insisted, contra Jerome, that marriage was in fact good. Drawing on many of the same biblical texts that animated the arguments of the Jovinianist controversy, Augustine set forth his mediating view on Christian marriage in 401 with his treatise De bono conjugali (On the Good of Marriage). Marriage, Augustine makes clear at the outset of this treatise, is an unequivocally good thing, having been instituted by God as “the first natural bond of human society.”[6] Over the course of this treatise, and as summarized towards its end (where he finds scriptural justification for each in 1 Corinthians 7), Augustine carefully outlines what he believed to be the three “goods” of marriage: proles, fides, and sacramentum.[7]

Concerning the first of these, the good of proles refers to the begetting of children, which Augustine believes to be “the one worthy fruit” of sexual intercourse.[8] This, for Augustine, is the first and most significant end of marriage. Augustine’s second good, fides, appears to refer to both sexual fidelity (with marriage providing “a mutual service of sustaining one another’s weaknesses” so as to not engage in “unlawful intercourse”) and the loyal companionship between husband and wife.[9] Augustine’s conception of proles and fides are linked to his broader perspective on sexual relations within marriage. For Augustine, “sexual desire experienced even by married couples was sinful to some lesser degree–a sinfulness that would be excused by God if the couple did not engage in any contraceptive practices or “unnatural” sexual acts, and remained good Catholic Christians in other respects.”[10] Particularly in his old age, in his writings against Julian of Eclanum, Augustine came to articulate a view of sexual intercourse “as an element of evil encapsulated in every marriage.”[11] Therefore, for Augustine, an ideal Christian marriage was one characterized by sexual continence, and this view of sexuality will form a sharp contrast with what we will find in the homilies of John Chrysostom.

But while proles and fides are common are the gracious gifts of God for every marriage, the third good of marriage, sacramentum, is exclusive to Christianity. By sacramentum, Augustine means that marriage is, like baptism or the Eucharist, a sign of spiritual things; in this case, marriage is a sign of the spiritual union of Christ and the church, as discussed in Ephesians 5:22-33. Given Augustine’s preference for continence within marriage, the sacramental “union” of husband and wife is based on their loyal companionship, their fides, and not on the basis of the act of sexual intercourse.[12] This good, Augustine claims, is the reason for which the marriage bond cannot be broken unless one spouse dies, for the sacred nature of the marriage union continues to join man and woman together even after the marriage has been legally dissolved through divorce.[13] The practical result of this belief is the teaching that a divorced person must not remarry, and therefore engage in sexual relations, with a person besides his or her original spouse.[14]

This understanding of sacramentum leads us to consider Augustine’s view of the good of marriage outside of the sexual sphere, which otherwise appears to be the dominant focus of his writings on marriage. Particularly given Augustine’s aforementioned desire for continence within marriage (and given his interesting view that procreation is no longer needed in the current age[15]), Augustine is indeed interested in the non-sexual aspects of marriage. For instance, in his De Nuptiis et Concupiscentia (On Marriage and Concupiscence), Augustine gives the example of Mary and Joseph as husband and wife who, though they did not have sexual relations with one another, nevertheless enjoyed “the entire good” of marriage.[16] In this sense, Augustine “pointed the way to an understanding of marriage that rested less on physical relationship and more on the acts of mind and will that brought the couple together.”[17]

Still, it nevertheless remains the case that Augustine’s writings on marriage are more often than not fixed on the issue of the intersection of marriage and sexuality. As Elizabeth Clark notes, “Augustine did not, however, elaborate much on these non-sexual aspects of his understanding of marriage; especially in his later battles with Pelagian opponents, the sexual dimension of the married relationship took center stage in the discussion.”[18] In other words, what we have in Augustine is a measured defense of the institution of marriage against the more ascetic views of someone like Jerome, yet his positive argument for marriage goes little beyond issues of reproduction and sexuality. As Peter Brown puts it, “While his defence of married life was conscientious, his treatise on virginity was quite lyrical.”[19] Augustine’s embrace of marriage, we might therefore conclude, did not receive the kind of lofty praise that we will see below with Chrysostom. We certainly see little, if any, of the emphasis we will discover in Chrysostom on how the marriage relationship can contribute to one’s growth in holiness.

It is hard to overstate the importance of Augustine’s conception of marriage, which “became decisive for all later teaching in the Christian West on issues of marriage and sexuality.”[20] But while Augustine’s views came to reign supreme in the West, in the East a much more substantial argument for the good of marriage was emerging from the voice of a “golden-tongued” preacher, to whom we’ll turn next time.


[1] Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography, 2nd ed. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000), 27.

[2] Elizabeth A. Clark, ed. St. Augustine on Marriage and Sexuality (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1996), 42.

[3] On the views of Jovinian in more detail, see David G. Hunter, Marriage, Celibacy, and Heresy in Ancient Christianity: The Jovinianist Controversy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 30-43; on the larger debate concerning Christian asceticism in late antiquity, see idem, 51-53, 74-83.

[4] Willemien Otten, “Augustine on Marriage, Monasticism, and the Community of the Church,” TS 59 (1998): 395.

[5] Clark, St. Augustine on Marriage and Sexuality, 8.

[6] De bono conjugali 1. (Trans. NPNF)

[7] De bono conjugali 32.

[8] De bono conjugali 1.

[9] De bono conjugali 6.

[10] Clark, St. Augustine on Marriage and Sexuality, 6.

[11] Brown, Augustine of Hippo, 393.

[12] Cf. Clark, St. Augustine on Marriage and Sexuality, 7.

[13] De bono conjugali 32.

[14] De bono conjugali 7.

[15] De bono conjugali 10.

[16] De nuptiis et concup. 1.13. (Trans. NPNF)

[17] Clark, St. Augustine on Marriage and Sexuality, 7.

[18] Clark, St. Augustine on Marriage and Sexuality, 7.

[19] Brown, Augustine of Hippo, 245.

[20] Clark, St. Augustine on Marriage and Sexuality, 4.


About krhughes14

Smyrna, Georgia
This entry was posted in Patristic Commentary and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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