Milton, Gender, Marriage, and Divorce: A Greystone Course

The Westminster Assembly famously treated the topic of divorce grounds in the Confession of Faith XXIV:5-6, which read as follows:

5. Adultery or fornication committed after a contract, being detected before marriage, giveth just occasion to the innocent party to dissolve that contract. In the case of adultery after marriage, it is lawful for the innocent party to sue out a divorce: and, after the divorce, to marry another, as if the offending party were dead.

6. Although the corruption of man be such as is apt to study arguments unduly to put asunder those whom God hath joined together in marriage: yet, nothing but adultery, or such willful desertion as can no way be remedied by the church, or civil magistrate, is cause sufficient of dissolving the bond of marriage: wherein, a public and orderly course of proceeding is to be observed; and the persons concerned in it not left to their own wills, and discretion, in their own case.

We do not have a lot of information regarding the Assembly’s deliberations regarding this topic, and mapping out divorce theory during this period – in exegetical, theological, moral-theological, and civil forms – is among the most complicated and difficult areas of post-Reformation and especially seventeenth-century research.

John-Milton-portrait-008However, there is more evidence than many students of the question have assumed. Indeed, alongside the writings of the Divines themselves, the writings of the great moral theologians such as Ames and Perkins, and the twists and turns of evolving canon law, one of the most important contextual features in the Assembly’s statement is the series of publications on divorce written by the great English poet John Milton. Milton produced five different tracts on divorce over a period of eighteen months, all in the early years of the Westminster Assembly: The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce: Restor’d to the Good of Both Sexes, From the Bondage of Canon Law (1643); Judgment of Martin Bucer (1644); Tetrachordon (1645), meaning “four-stringed” because Milton was able to harmonize four principal divorce passages in Scripture; and  Colasterion (also in 1645), meaning “rod of punishment,” in response to an anonymous critical response to his work. In at least one place (Doctrine and Discipline) he addresses the Assembly directly.

Alongside infidelity, desertion, and/or abuse, Milton argued for divorce on the grounds of what moderns have since called personal or emotional “incompatibility,” although the thin way this language is used in our day doesn’t do full justice to what Milton envisioned – although it isn’t far off either. The tracts are representative of seventeenth-century controversial polemic, and Milton’s proposals provoked plenty of predictable critical reaction. The Assembly included several members who had thought long and hard about the divorce question, particularly the eminent Hebraist and jurist John Selden, and they did not all see the same way on the matter either. At this point in a long period of studying the question, I’m inclined to propose that the Assembly rejected Milton while not rejecting all of Milton’s controversial ideas, and certainly did not reject those ideas when they were discoverable in Milton’s and the Assembly’s shared sources. This is especially important when Milton’s sources are Continental, for as many scholars are noting these days, the Assembly was driven by a desire to maximize, in a public way, the Reformed catholicity they shared with their Continental brethren.

Milton’s biography is often linked very closely to the publication of these tracts. Newly married, his wife, Mary Powell, deserted him. It is no coincidence, to be sure, that Milton wrote on divorce during this period and stopped doing so when she later returned. However, his biography is not the only factor which accounts for Milton’s tracts. He had shown interest in the question years earlier, and his divorce tracts reveal a lively, restless, though mildly anarchic mind captivated by the diversity of the Christian tradition on the question as well as the power of more recent Reformed works which treated it, especially Martin Bucer’s. Bucer was a focus of Milton’s thinking on divorce, though his treatment of the Strasbourg reformer’s thought is not always on target. But Milton was also strongly indebted to William Ames and Theodore Beza, and showed close knowledge of an impressive range of patristic and medieval sources, Christian and secular. Beyond these, Milton showed strong familiarity with the serious questions that belong to any patient consideration of the biblical divorce texts.

Another factor, and in my view the most important one for reading Milton and Westminster, is Milton’s role in pushing forward the emerging early modern mythology — often as bewildering as it has proven influential — of gender and sexuality. His divorce tracts simply must be read alongside the story of Adam and Eve in his Paradise Lost, at least. His account of Eve’s folly is particularly noteworthy. Milton seems to bear the larger burden of guilt in popularizing the fiction that the Fall occurred because Eve wandered from her man in the Garden and thus became vulnerable prey to the serpent. Interestingly, many early modern English translations of the Bible reflect the same wildly wrongheaded reading of Genesis 3 by omitting (!) in their translations what in the Hebrew is quite explicit: Adam was “with her” (Gen. 3:6). Much more on that another time.

Was Milton right about divorce? In many places, no, he was quite wrong. On incompatibility especially, he is often dangerously unhelpful. Yet incompatibility-as-ground is not the whole picture of his argument, and scholars of the question have ignored him to their detriment. He is a great deal more nuanced than he is given credit for, and one simply cannot understand WCF XXIV fully without taking a lot of time with Milton and other contemporary texts. Importantly, that Milton found in the sources of the Christian and particularly Reformed tradition is truly there, too, and not without careful biblical and theological reflection. What is often regarded in our day as “the traditional” Reformed position on these questions is, after little more than a moment’s investigation, one point in a constellation, and nothing like the entire cosmos. In light of the hefty and truly rich body of scholarly literature on the biblical divorce texts in the last few decades, Milton’s reading of Scripture in some ways bears the marks of fairly standard mistakes, yet in other ways is well ahead of its time.

The foregoing is one long way to introduce this summer’s Greystone Milton course. It is a one-week modular course on Milton as poet-theologian. The course title and description are as follows:

“Milton in Literary and Theological Perspective” – David R. Head and Mark A. Garcia, July 25-29, 2016

After a survey of Milton’s biography, the political and historical contexts of his work, and key ideas in Paradise Lost, Samson Agonistes, and select sonnets, this course will turn to a focused analysis of Milton’s controversial and influential theology of gender, marriage, and divorce, with a view to its impact on the Westminster Assembly and the Christian tradition generally.

Consider auditing the course, at least, so you can listen to the audio files and try to make sense of it yourself.

Contact to register or for more information.


Book Note: Black and White Bible, Black and Blue Wife

9780310524984_393_600_90Ruth A. Tucker, Black and White Bible, Black and Blue Wife: My Story of Finding Hope after Domestic Abuse (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016).

When I pick up a book whose back cover promises an examination of the doctrine of male headship, I get my hopes up. Perhaps like many women raised in conservative Christian communities, I have spent more time than I can account for searching the Scriptures, listening to sermons, talking to people, and reading books, trying to get my head around a concept that is frequently mentioned in connection with the lives of Christian women. And to date, much of the discussion I’ve encountered on this topic has been a deep disappointment. Late last year, for example, I read Designed for Joy and balked at the claims of ‘fresh contributions’ on marriage, manhood, womanhood, and the like. More on that another time. Then I read Women, Men and the Trinity and was greatly encouraged by the humble and convincing criticism of claims that eternal subordination of the Son is an orthodox and historically held view of the Trinity. Nancy Hedberg brings to the surface questions about women and the Word of God which, in my experience, are rarely asked in conservative circles but whose answers are frequently assumed. However, much as I benefited from her examination of who defines and preserves orthodoxy regarding the Trinity, her book lacked sufficient critical depth and failed to satisfy. More on that later as well.

Enter Dr. Ruth Tucker’s deeply personal case for mutuality in marriage. Against the backdrop of an autobiographical account of spiritual, psychological, and physical abuse at the hands of her ex-husband, Tucker employs the Socratic method to probe a pressing but overlooked issue in the family: domestic violence. For example, posing the question ‘What is rape?’, Tucker recounts incidents when her ex-husband blackmailed her for sex, when he ignored her protests, all the while struggling with what I imagine many women in similar situations must ask themselves: Did that really happen? Was that rape? Am I overreacting? Will anyone believe me? Her exploration of the issue of headship in marriage is therefore raw and deeply moving and her questions galvanized with the Biblical power of story. Among the many important questions she considers are:

Who decides what passages carry the most weight in speaking to gender issues today?
Who decides which passages are to be taken literally?
Was the apostle Paul a misogynist?
Is it possible to deal with some very touchy matters with graciousness?
Can we recognize that male headship has sometimes been used as a cover to perpetrate violence against women?
Why didn’t I just pack up and leave?
Did I need therapy?
Who could possibly understand or care about my situation?

The power of Black and White Bible, Black and Blue Wife stems also from its consideration of marginalized voices, of clerical response to domestic violence, and of the articulate, intelligent, charming, and ultimately manipulative mask that abusers so frequently wear. Over twelve chapters, organized thematically, Tucker explores these and other related issues from the perspectives of battered and later happily remarried wife, of mother, of friend, of Christian congregant, and of academic, weaving her multifaceted identity into a rich tapestry that reveals the terrible complexity of domestic violence. A particularly moving passage is her account of what can only be described as an encounter with angelic comforters during a time of crisis and despair. At each step, she considers not only her own story but those of other people of God she has encountered, both Biblical and more recent. In Chapter 6, for example, she discusses the relevance of John Calvin’s relationships with women in illuminating his ideas about headship, contrasting his with Martin Luther’s marriage of mutuality, exploring what she calls ‘biography as theology’. She considers the wives of Biblical patriarchs, whose marriages little resemble modern conceptions of patriarchy. She examines stories of female missionaries and autobiographical accounts of pastors’ marital relationships. What emerges is a riveting, beautiful, thought-provoking, haunting book that I daresay any reader will find him/herself revisiting for some time.

This is not to say this is by any means the only book we should read on this important subject. Dr. Tucker’s biography as theology fits within an increasingly popular trend to arrive at meaning via shared personal experience, what sociologists, psychologists, and anthropologists call a multi-storied or dialogic approach to understanding our world. In essence, a multi-storied approach starts with individuals, living in community, who see the world through the lens of a shared account developed over time. A related term from discourse analysis is intertextuality, the way discourse is passed along, repeated, becoming part of an invisible fabric that underlies how we view and talk about events, ideas, people, our lives. In essence, Ruth Tucker and others who share their stories in a similar way are challenging the existing rules about how stories of abuse have historically been talked about (or, to be more precise, not talked about) in Christian community. And this is a vital part of the process of change. Having used the storied approach as a research tool, I am well aware of its potential. There is much evidence that we organize our thoughts into stories, meaning that to access the deepest thoughts and beliefs of ourselves and others, we are best served by asking them to tell a story or sharing our own. Readers will engage with this as they read Tucker’s book. They will remember their own stories and feel empowered to speak about them in new ways. And yet, for all their value, these stories do not construct a complete argument against distorted, destructive models of headship or against so-called complementarianism in favor of mutuality. We cannot arrive at truth solely through the lens of personal experience. We must return to the Bible, to God’s story. Stories like Dr. Tucker’s are important insofar as they drive us back to God’s Word, to ask ourselves, have we got something wrong here?

Black and White Bible, Black and Blue Wife is a difficult read, and it is an essential read for every Christian who is grounded in these issues. Whatever conclusions one reaches about Tucker’s egalitarian theology of marriage, her story and her questions urge us to strive for greater understanding of Scripture, remembering the people at the heart of the issues about which we debate endlessly. As we work out our faith with fear and trembling, using God’s Word, Tucker encourages us to do so in love. Her book will devastate. It will encourage. It will humble. It will shake what so desperately needs shaking. It will send us back to the Bible.

Call for Papers: Special issue of Media and Communication

machomepageUPDATE: We have negotiated a 50% reduction in fees for this issue. If scholars are interested in submitting a paper but are concerned about how open access fees will be covered, please contact me at


We are pleased to announce that we will be co-editing a special issue of Media and Communication on Religious Communication. For the official call and details of how to submit a paper, see here.

Title: Religious Communication of, about, and for Women

Editors: Valerie Hobbs (University of Sheffield, UK) and Mark A. Garcia (Greystone Theological Institute, USA)

Deadline for Submissions: 31 May 2016
Publication of the Issue: August 2016

Information: Research about women in religious communities is growing rapidly, particularly in the fields of gender studies, sociology, theology, history, and journalism. At this confluence of research fields, however, much remains to be explored. Clashes over the role of religious women in marriage and in society; the nature and dynamics of domestic abuse; fertility, childbearing and motherhood; women and work; and women, their bodies, and sexuality are frequently rooted in interpretation of religious texts and realized in religious discourse. In some cases, it is not only how communities, including women themselves, talk about such matters but also whether or not women have access to certain types of discourse and/or the extent to which their discourse may be restricted. Communication therefore performs a vital role in the creation and perpetuation (or overthrow) of perspectives and practices which concern the lives of religious women. This thematic issue on religious communication seeks contributions, particularly those interdisciplinary in nature, analyzing ways in which varieties of religious discourse represent and affect women.

For this thematic issue, we welcome papers from a variety of perspectives and methodologies which advance or report on research findings about religious communication in the areas noted above. We are also interested in contributions in the form of book reviews, commentaries, reviews, and short notes. We have a special interest in questions such as the following:

– With regard to our understanding of religious communication of, to and about women, what is the state of play?
– To what extent do religious communities include or exclude the voices of women in issues about women?
– In what ways are issues affecting religious women talked about publicly and by whom?
– What is the role of sociocultural, historical, and doctrinal phenomena in the development of religious discourse about women?
– What are the religious or philosophical foundations for what qualifies as healthy verbal or printed discourse regarding men and women?

Instructions for Authors: Authors are asked to consult the journal’s editorial policies and to submit their full papers through the journal’s online submission system by 31 May 2016. Authors are also kindly asked to check with their institutions if funds are available to cover open access publication costs. Further information about the journal’s open access charges and institutional memberships can be found in the “About” webpage.