During the 16th century, the question of divorce was a hot topic: when are the spouses permitted to separate, and what does it mean? Some theologians said that the marital bond is broken, while others argued that it remains. And what are those reasons which permit spousal separation? The Roman Catholics permitted divorce for over a dozen reasons, such as an ordination to the celibate priesthood; the famed Erasmus even wrote several Tracts on the the moral necessity of divorce, within several kinds of miserable marriages. The question stood with similarly acuteness among the Reformers; in the paradigm of aligning all doctrine to Scripture, divorce and remarriage were analyzed through the texts of the Old and New Testaments, as well as the lengthy Patristic commentary on the topic.
While the early Reformation had a much stricter control on divorce than the Roman church, by the end of the 1500s the situation had reversed. The Roman church had changed some of its medieval theology in order to erase many of the grounds for divorce which it previously allowed. On the other hand, the Reformed (and Lutheran) churches had interpreted Scripture as permitting divorce in certain circumstances; all of the top Reformed theologians such as Bullinger, Beza, Perkins, and Rainolds, wrote ardent defenses of divorce within various circumstances. This debate became entangled with the polemics of the Reformation itself, where to teach the indissolubility of marriage became interpreted as a Roman standpoint (despite the medieval evidence to the contrary). Some Protestants even eventually came to argue that since marriage was only made a sacrament in the 13th century and thus not really properly a sacrament, that it therefore was more a social than a sacred institution; which led to it being seen as mostly secular contract.
In this context the Anglican Divines remarkably distinguished themselves, as they did in many other areas; insistent on solidly establishing matrimony as both sacred and unbreakable, they were forced to reject the errant theology from either of the two camps. On the one hand, it was hard to argue with the historical question of how late marriage had become a sacrament. The Church Fathers abundantly demonstrated just how much they differed from the theology of sacraments developed in the medieval Roman church. Saint Augustine’s definition of what a sacrament is, has also been incredibly influential; if a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace, then marriage would seem to be precluded by definition. And yet — the Anglican Divines were acutely aware of the incredible danger which lurked in seeing marriage as a secular institution. Had they known the future marital developments within Western civilization, they would have felt doubly vindicated that no energy could be left unspent in correcting the secularist tendencies. If Marriage had to be defended as indissoluble, immense amount of scholarship had to be spent on re-appropriating Scripture toward that viewpoint; the defenses of marriage produced by the Divines evince an insistent isolation from the continental Protestant interpretations. But neither could the Roman theologians be cited, since they grounded marital indissolubility on its status as a sacrament. Thus the Anglican Divines were left entirely alone: without classifying Marriage as sacrament, they had to defend its Sacredness and Indissolubility entirely from Scripture and the early Church, without any reference to modern Protestant or Roman schools of thought.
We have already republished one of the texts in this series: Edmund Bunnius, Of Divorce for Adultery, and Marrying again: that there is no sufficient warrant so to do (1595). Throughout the text is an evident tension between the author and the Reformed and Lutheran theologians who had made divorce accessible. Here we present another text in the series: John Howson, Uxore dimissa propter fornicationem aliam non licet superinducere (1602), translated into English roughly as “Remarriage Be Not Permitted After Adultery.” Written in Latin and thus manifestly intended for both a domestic English and a whole European audience, Howson’s text continues the tradition of incredible scholarship and acumen that came to characterize an Anglican theologian. Citing a wide variety of sources, he does not shy away from criticizing the sacramentalizing (Roman) and the secularizing (Reformed) tendencies of his time. Just as Edmund Bunnius before him, Howson defends the sacredness and indissolubility of marriage, without having to make it a sacrament and thereby confuse the theology of sacraments. We lament that precious texts like this have not yet been translated into English, and urge enterprising spirits out there to reacquaint ourselves with the depths and riches of Anglican thought. Those of you who know Latin — enjoy the text!