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Tertullian on Marriage |
Tertullian

Tertullian on Marriage is drawn from Chapter Six, beginning on page 182, of Volume Two, A Pinch of Incense of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit www.TheChristians.info.

Tertullian on Marriage - Tertullian’s advice to his wife

Tertullian on Marriage – Tertullian’s advice to his wife
Tertullian’s “Letter To His Wife” contains nearly a dozen pages of advice on dealing with “things divine and heavenly”–should he die before her. Despite depicting marriage in a less than flattering light, he writes lovingly of his own: “Whence are we to find words enough fully to tell the happiness of that marriage which the church cements . . . which angels carry back the news of to Heaven?”

Don’t wed again because God couldn’t make another such perfect marriage

If drawing up instructions for the disposal of mere property after a man’s death is important, the great Christian theologian Tertullian (c. 160—220) tells his wife in a remarkable letter, then preparing a spiritual will, dealing with those “things divine and heavenly” accumulated during a lifetime, is far more urgent.

What Tertullian wrote for his wife was just that, his advice for her spiritual conduct if he should die before she did. In the letter, preserved now for nearly two millennia, he tells her this: When I’m gone, don’t get married again. Don’t even think about it.

Few writings have been more misunderstood than Tertullian’s “Letter to His Wife,” observes Eric Osborn in Tertullian: First Theologian of the West. After all, in a text that runs to nearly a dozen pages in modern typescript, Tertullian’s spiritual counsel depicts marriage as the worst state anyone could enter, short of plunging into the flames of Hell. What a benediction for a man to leave for his own widow!

It’s not that he wants to “prescribe an end to marrying,” says Osborn. Indeed, Tertullian agrees with the apostle Paul that “to marry is better than to burn,” meaning that taking a wife or husband is better than being consumed to distraction by lust. Marriage, after all, channels the otherwise unruly fires of passion. But in that sense marriage is good, Tertullian says, only because “burning” is worse. “A thing is not ‘good’ merely because it is not ‘evil.’”

Tertullian is also unconvinced by the practical argument that marriage provides “a husband to the female sex as a source of authority and of comfort or to render it safe from evil rumors . . . (and from) the fleeting desires of beauty and youth.” It would be far better, he argues, as did Paul, to keep oneself completely free of all that.

What’s more, says Tertullian, the notion that a woman should marry for economic reasons, “to roost on another’s wealth, to extort splendor from another’s store,” is a grave error. God, not a husband, is to provide for all one’s needs. Christ promised that God would care for us just as he “clothes with such grace the lilies of the field and feeds the fowls of the heavens.” And God, Tertullian admonishes, “knows what is needful for each of his servants–not indeed ponderous necklaces, not burdensome garments, not Gallic mules nor German bearers, which all add luster to the glory of nuptials, but ‘sufficiency’ which is suitable to moderation and modesty.”

Tertullian likewise dismisses the argument that “anxiety for posterity” compels marriage. He seems particularly well acquainted with the pitfalls of parenthood when he writes of “the bitter, bitter pleasure of children.” (He may have had teenagers in mind.)

When a woman’s husband dies, “the marriage, likewise, by the will of God, deceases.” So “why should you restore what God has put an end to? . . . Let us love the opportunity of continence as soon as it offers itself, let us resolve to accept it, that what we have not had strength to follow in matrimony we may follow in widowhood.”

But after all that, after excoriating marriage as a horror of barely controlled lust and shameful dependency and extolling widowhood as a divine blessing, he suddenly, in the final paragraph of his letter to his wife, stands his argument on its ear. Clearly describing his own marriage, Tertullian is as woozily romantic as a new bridegroom on his wedding night. His real concern finally shows through. A second marriage could never work for either of them, because it could never begin to recapture the joys of the first.

“Whence are we to find words enough fully to tell the happiness of that marriage which the church cements . . . which angels carry back the news of to Heaven? . . . What kind of yoke is that of two believers, partakers of one hope, one desire, one discipline, one and the same service? Both are brethren, both fellow servants, no difference of spirit or of flesh; nay, they are truly ‘two in one flesh.’ Where the flesh is one, one is the spirit too. Together they pray . . . together perform their fasts; mutually teaching, mutually exhorting, mutually sustaining.

“Equally are they both found in the church of God; equally at the banquet of God; equally in straits, in persecutions, in refreshments. Neither hides anything from the other; neither shuns the other; neither is troublesome to the other. . . . There is no stealthy signing, no trembling greeting. . . . Between the two echo psalms and hymns; and they mutually challenge each other as to which shall better chant to their Lord. Such things, when Christ sees and hears, he joys. To these he sends his own peace. Where two are, there is he himself. Where he is, there the evil one is not.”

Tertullian’s warning to his wife, it turns out, is that a marriage for the wrong reasons, a marriage for the sake of comfort or for society or for marriage itself, is an invitation to disaster, putting the unfortunate couple a single step away from Hell. On the other hand, a marriage under Christ–a spiritual union such as he and his wife apparently enjoyed–is cause for rejoicing in Heaven. And it’s not likely to be offered twice to anyone.

This is the end of the Tertullian on Marriage category article drawn from Chapter Six, beginning on page 182, of Volume Two, A Pinch of Incense. To continue reading more about Tertullian on Marriage from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at www.TheChristians.info