Ante-Nicene Fathers/Volume IV/Tertullian: Part Fourth/On Monogamy/Chapter 3

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Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. IV, Tertullian: Part Fourth, On Monogamy by Tertullian, translated by Sydney Thelwall
Chapter 3

Chapter III.—The Question of Novelty Further Considered in Connection with the Words of the Lord and His Apostles.

But (as for the question) whether monogamy be “burdensome,” let the still shameless “infirmity of the flesh” look to that:  let us meantime come to an agreement as to whether it be “novel.”  This (even) broader assertion we make:  that even if the Paraclete had in this our day definitely prescribed a virginity or continence total and absolute, so as not to permit the heat of the flesh to foam itself down even in single marriage, even thus He would seem to be introducing nothing of “novelty;” seeing that the Lord Himself opens “the kingdoms of the heavens” to “eunuchs,”[1] as being Himself, withal, a virgin; to whom looking, the apostle also—himself too for this reason abstinent—gives the preference to continence.[2]  (“Yes”), you say, “but saving the law of marriage.”  Saving it, plainly, and we will see under what limitations; nevertheless already destroying it, in so far as he gives the preference to continence.  “Good,” he says, “(it is) for a man not to have contact with a woman.”  It follows that it is evil to have contact with her; for nothing is contrary to good except evil.  And accordingly (he says), “It remains, that both they who have wives so be as if they have not,”[3] that it may be the more binding on them who have not to abstain from having them.  He renders reasons, likewise, for so advising:  that the unmarried think about God, but the married about how, in (their) marriage, each may please his (partner).[4]  And I may contend, that what is permitted is not absolutely good.[5]  For what is absolutely good is not permitted, but needs no asking to make it lawful.  Permission has its cause sometimes even in necessity.  Finally, in this case, there is no volition on the part of him who permits marriage.  For his volition points another way.  “I will,” he says, “that you all so be as I too (am).”[6]  And when he shows that (so to abide) is “better,” what, pray, does he demonstrate himself to “will,” but what he has premised is “better?”  And thus, if he permits something other than what he has “willed”—permitted not voluntarily, but of necessity—he shows that what he has unwillingly granted as an indulgence is not absolutely good.  Finally, when he says, “Better it is to marry than to burn,” what sort of good must that be understood to be which is better than a penalty? which cannot seem “better” except when compared to a thing very bad?  “Good” is that which keeps this name per se; without comparison—I say not with an evil, but even—with some other good:  so that, even if it be compared to and overshadowed by another good, it nevertheless remains in (possession of) the name of good.  If, on the other hand, comparison with evil is the mean which obliges it to be called good; it is not so much “good” as a species of inferior evil, which, when obscured by a higher evil, is driven to the name of good.  Take away, in short, the condition, so as not to say, “Better it is to marry than to burn;” and I question whether you will have the hardihood to say, “Better (it is) to marry,” not adding than what it is better.  This done, then, it becomes not “better;” and while not “better,” not “good” either, the condition being taken away which, while making it “better” than another thing, in that sense obliges it to be considered “good.”  Better it is to lose one eye than two.  If, however, you withdraw from the comparison of either evil, it will not be better to have one eye, because it is not even good.

What, now, if he accommodatingly grants all indulgence to marry on the ground of his own (that is, of human) sense, out of the necessity which we have mentioned, inasmuch as “better it is to marry than to burn?”  In fact, when he turns to the second case, by saying, “But to the married I officially announce—not I, but the Lord”—he shows that those things which he had said above had not been (the dictates) of the Lord’s authority, but of human judgment.  When, however, he turns their minds back to continence, (“But I will you all so to be,”) “I think, moreover,” he says, “I too have the Spirit of God;” in order that, if he had granted any indulgence out of necessity, that, by the Holy Spirit’s authority, he might recall.  But John, too, when advising us that “we ought so to walk as the Lord withal did,”[7] of course admonished us to walk as well in accordance with sanctity of the flesh (as in accordance with His example in other respects).  Accordingly he says more manifestly:  “And every (man) who hath this hope in Him maketh himself chaste, just as Himself withal is chaste.”[8]  For elsewhere, again, (we read):  “Be ye holy, just as He withal was holy”[9]—in the flesh, namely.  For of the Spirit he would not have said (that), inasmuch as the Spirit is without any external influence recognised as “holy,” nor does He wait to be admonished to sanctity, which is His proper nature.  But the flesh is taught sanctity; and that withal, in Christ, was holy.

Therefore, if all these (considerations) obliterate the licence of marrying, whether we look into the condition on which the licence is granted, or the preference of continence which is imposed, why, after the apostles, could not the same Spirit, supervening for the purpose of conducting disciplehood[10] into “all truth” through the gradations of the times (according to what the preacher says, “A time to everything”[11]), impose by this time a final bridle upon the flesh, no longer obliquely calling us away from marriage, but openly; since now more (than ever) “the time is become wound up,”[12]—about 160 years having elapsed since then?  Would you not spontaneously ponder (thus) in your own mind:  “This discipline is old, shown beforehand, even at that early date, in the Lord’s flesh and will, (and) successively thereafter in both the counsels and the examples of His apostles?  Of old we were destined to this sanctity.  Nothing of novelty is the Paraclete introducing.  What He premonished, He is (now) definitively appointing; what He deferred, He is (now) exacting.”  And presently, by revolving these thoughts, you will easily persuade yourself that it was much more competent to the Paraclete to preach unity of marriage, who could withal have preached its annulling; and that it is more credible that He should have tempered what it would have become Him even to have abolished, if you understand what Christ’s “will” is.  Herein also you ought to recognise the Paraclete in His character of Comforter, in that He excuses your infirmity[13] from (the stringency of) an absolute continence.


Footnotes[edit]

  1. See Matt. xix. 12.  Comp. de. Pa., c. xiii.; de. Cult. Fem., l. ii. c. ix.
  2. See 1 Cor. vii. 1, 7, 37, 40; and comp. de Ex. Cast., c. iv.
  3. 1 Cor. vii. 29.
  4. 1 Cor. vii. 32–34.
  5. Comp. ad Ux., l. i. c. iii.; de Cult. Fem., l. ii. c. x. sub fin.; and de Ex. Cast., c. iii., which agrees nearly verbatim with what follows.
  6. 1 Cor. vii. 7, only the Greek is θέλω, not βούλομαι.
  7. 1 John ii. 6.
  8. 1 John iii. 3.
  9. There is no such passage in any Epistle of St. John.  There is one similar in 1 Pet. i. 15.
  10. Disciplinam.
  11. Eccles. iii. 1.
  12. 1 Cor. vii. 29.
  13. Comp. Rom. viii. 26.