Abridged & adapted from an address by Pastor Chris Coleborn to the ERCS on 29 May 2005

Part 4 of 4

[Editor’s note (adapted from author’s own preface to his 2nd lecture from which the 2nd and 3rd part of this article is adapted from): In the first two parts of this article we considered several basic concepts or presuppositions that our Reformed fathers believed God’s Word taught that are foundational for our understanding of divorce and remarriage. The principles highlighted were: Firstly, that the Biblical words used for divorce in both the Old and New Testament clearly point to a dissolution of the marriage bond, and not merely to a separation with the marriage bond still in place. Secondly, that ‘death’ in the Scriptures was understood by our fathers to be more than physical death. There can be covenantal death. There is judicial death, without the sentence carried out. In lawful divorce we believe there has been such a death and therefore the innocent party may remarry as in the case of the physical death of the spouse. Thirdly, we considered something of the exegesis of Matthew 19:9 and concluded, as the overwhelming majority of all reformed scholars conclude, that the meaning of the verse in the original language teaches by the exception clause, the right of the innocent party to remarry with God’s blessing. In the third part, we saw that the analogy of marriage to God’s covenant does not make remarriage sinful, and we concluded with some pastoral considerations which make it very unlikely that the Lord would forbid remarriage for the ‘innocent party’ in a divorce. In this final part, we will consider the voice of our fathers on the subject.]

5. The Historical Testimony of the Reformed Churches on Divorce & Remarriage

a. An Important Principle

While the Scriptures are our absolute authority, those same Scriptures teach us that the Holy Spirit has been given to guide the Church into truth. We belong to the Church of all ages. Therefore there is a place for a testimony of the true historical Church’s understanding of Scripture on a matter to guide us. Yes, the true Church of Christ can certainly err, but we ought not lightly to depart from their testimony - especially when its testimony is overwhelmingly united. There is an organic link between those fathers and mothers in the faith who have gone before us and us who profess the faith today.

The truth is, we are to "Walk in the footsteps of the flock" (Song 1:8) and "Stand in the way and look for the old paths and walk therein…" (Jer 6:16). In John 17:20-21 we see the Saviour in His high priestly prayer for His people, teaching this unity of believers from the past to believers yet to come. There is a unity over the ages. The Holy Spirit is given to guide, by the Word, the Church into the truth down through the ages, as we are taught in John 16:13.

This principle relates to our subject in this way. If the true Church down through the ages have, by a clear majority been persuaded out of the Scriptures in a matter, it is most unlikely that the Church in a later age, as it is led further into the truth, will be shown something directly contrary to the overwhelming belief of the true Church in previous ages. This is particularly true when the previous testimony is from the Church at a time of great enlightenment, such as at the Reformation.

Let us bear this in mind then as we consider the voice of our fathers from the past on the subject of divorce and remarriage.

b. The Voice of Our Fathers on Divorce & Remarriage

i. The Early Church

There are those historians who believe that the consensus on this matter by the Early Church was that the Lord in His Word allowed the innocent party in a ‘just’ divorce to remarry. With this understanding of God’s Word by at least some of the Early Church the great majority of the fathers at the time of the Reformation agreed and clearly affirmed.

Origen (A.D. 185-254) allowed divorce and remarriage to avoid worse sin.

Jerome (A.D. 345-419) defended a woman named Fabiola who divorced her husband for adultery and married another.

Leo, Bishop of Rome (440-446), tolerated divorce and remarriage among the priesthood.

While some ‘fathers’ in the Early Church argued against remarriage, we should note that many of these ‘fathers’ we would not own as fathers in the line of the True Church. They often erred from Biblical faith and fell into sacramentalism, with its priestly and works salvation, its world flight and veneration of celibacy etc.

However, a sound place to find out what the early church thought about divorce and remarriage is in the law codes of the ‘Christian’ Emperors of the Roman Empire. For example, Theodosius I, the Emperor of the East (A.D. 378-395), and Valentinian II, Emperor of the West (A.D. 372-392), granted divorce and remarriage for adultery.

The Reformer Martin Bucer, who wrote extensively on the matter of divorce and remarriage, gathered up a great deal of historical information on the beliefs of the early church regarding this matter. In Chapter XXII of his work The Reign of Christ, what the ancient Churches have thought, states,

"Something indeed out of the later Fathers they may pretend for this their tyranny, especially out of Austin and some others, who were much taken with a preposterous admiration of single life; yet though these Fathers, from the words of Christ not rightly understood, taught that it was unlawful to marry again, while the former wife lived, whatever cause there had bind (such as) Divorce; yet if we mark the custom of the Church, and the common judgment which both in this time and afterward prevailed, we shall perceive that neither these Fathers did ever cast out of the Church any one for marrying after a Divorce, approved by the Imperial Laws.

Nor only the first Christian Emperors, but the latter also, even to Justinian, and after him, did grant for certain causes approved by Judges, to make a true divorce; which made and confirmed by Law, it might be lawful to marry again: which if it could not have been done without displeasing Christ and his Church, surely it would not have been granted by Christian Emperors, nor had the Fathers then winked at those doings in the Emperors. Hence ye may see that Jerome also, though zealous of single life more than enough, and such a condemner of second Marriage, though after the death of either party, yet forced by plain equity, defended Fabiola, a noble Matron of Rome, who having refused her husband for just causes, was married to another."

ii. The Reformers

Let us look at a representative sample of the historical understanding of the Reformed Churches of Britain and the Continent on the matter of divorce and remarriage.

John Calvin’s basic Biblical understanding of divorce and remarriage can be seen from his sermons on Deuteronomy 24:1-4. (The Westminster Confession of Faithessentially follows Calvin’s understanding). While Calvin beautifully expounds Christian marriage and asserts the high view of marriage Scripture gives, he nevertheless does not treat divorce as sin per se. He teaches that God permits it on the ground of fornication and further, teaches the right of remarriage for the ‘innocent’ party. Among other things, Calvin in his sermon, linking this passage to Matthew 5:19 wrote:

"But the principal point is for us to understand what is lawful for us, and from this enquiry one may gather what his office and duty is towards his wife. And the wives also are to be exhorted to discharge themselves the more faithfully towards their husbands, when they shall know upon what condition they are joined together. Now as touching the husbands, our Lord Jesus Christ says, that if any man forsake his wife, except it be for fornication, he is an adulterer, and he makes his wife an adulterer also: He excepts fornication.…

"It remains now, that we come to the exception which our Lord Jesus Christ makes; to wit, that for the cause of adultery, it shall be lawful for a man to put away his wife. (Matthew 19:9) The reason is, for that the man on his part breaks not the faith which he plighted, but the wife having played the harlot does as much as in her is, undo the marriage altogether, and so defiles it, as there remains no longer any holiness in it. ...

"And in this case there is no doubt, but that a man may marry again, if he in this sort put away his wife because of adultery: ...

"Now when Christ excepts the cause of adultery, it is to set the man in the case at free choice and liberty to marry again. For what a thing were it to bar a man from a new match; if he have offered his promise faithfully, and lived in the fear of God, and not been unfaithful towards his wife, if he be constrained to put her away? Must he be punished for the offense of another? What reason were in that? Should he not have open wrong done him? Especially considering that our Lord Jesus Christ in the text adds, That all have not the gift of continence, and that such as have not received it, have the remedy of marriage, and that they ought to use it (Matthew 19:11; 1 Corinthians 7:11). When our Lord Jesus Christ pronounced this, think we that His meaning was that the poor wretched man, who has lived blameless with a harlot, should be left in despair? No; if he see filthiness in his house, he must, whether he can or not, cast forth such uncleanness, except he will infect himself therewith and be accounted a party in such wickedness. Now if a man discharge his duty in this matter, think we that God bars him of all right, and that He leaves him in such trouble and anguish, as he may not know what to become, but must remain unprovided of all remedy? It was therefore another gross folly in men not to know that our Lord Jesus Christ leaves a man in free liberty to marry again, when his mate has violated the faith of marriage."

The Register of the decisions and acts of the Reformed Church of Geneva from 1541-1564 states the following as the Scriptural understanding and practice of that Church on the question of divorce and remarriage:

"If a husband accuses his wife of adultery and he proves it by sufficient witnesses or evidences and demands to be separated by divorce, it shall be granted, and thereafter he shall be able to marry again if he so wishes. Moreover, while he should be exhorted to pardon his wife, yet one has no right to compel him to do so against his will."

The Reformer Martin Bucer (1491-1551), one of the most influential of the Reformers, argued that there were just Biblical grounds for the dissolution of the covenant of marriage. In his work, De Regno Christi, chapter 22 - 45 Bucer deals extensively with the matter of divorce and remarriage.

Bucer dealt with such aspects as, What The Ancient Churches Thought About Legitimate Divorce, Who Of The Ancient Fathers Allowed Marriage After Divorce, with the exegesis of Scriptural passages dealing with the question of divorce and remarriage and concludes with a chapter entitled, To Those Who Are Legally Divorced A Second Marriage Ought To Be Permitted. In chapter 22 he writes, for example:

"Now we shall speak about that dissolving of matrimony which may be approved in the sight of God, if any grievous necessity require. In which thing the Roman Antichrists have knit many a pernicious entanglement to distressed Consciences: for that they might here also exalt themselves above God, as if they would be wiser and more chaste than God himself, is, for no cause, honest or necessary, will they permit a final Divorce …"

Prof. W. Pauck writes of this work of Bucer:

"Bucer’s ... defense of divorce and the right of remarriage is noteworthy for the following reasons: ... he defends the right of legitimately divorced persons to remarry; he employs ... reasoning in order to demonstrate that in all these opinions he has the support not only of Scripture but also of many of the fathers of the Church. In particular he tries to show that the sayings of Jesus as recorded in Matthew 5:31-32 and 19:3-11 must not be understood as forbidding divorce, except in the case of adultery."

Johannes Wollebius (1586-1629), was a Swiss Reformed divine. His Compendium Theologiae Christianae, first published in 1626, is described as an orthodox divine whose work was widely received. J.W. Beardslee III writing of him and hisCompendium states:

"... it cannot be denied that its extensive use during the seventeenth century, its brevity, clarity, and faithful, positive expression of what Reformed theologians were saying in the decade of the Synod of Dort and would keep on saying, entitle it to consideration as an avenue to an over-all picture of the accepted "orthodox" understanding of the Reformed faith - the ‘teaching commonly accepted in our churches’ on which Voetius, Turretin, and others set such store."

What was Wollebius’ view on divorce and remarriage? It was: "what Reformed theologians were saying in the decade of the Synod of Dort…." He writes:

"Adultery, or immorality with a person married to another…are direct contradictions of marriage. ... these sins are grounds for divorce (Matthew 19:9).

Wollebius followed in the historical understanding of Calvin and the Reformed Churches on the matter of divorce and remarriage.

Zacharias Ursinus, in his Commentary On The Heidelberg Catechism, writes very positively on marriage and its sanctity, yet allows the correctness of divorce when adultery is committed. He writes in terms that divorce is not sin in itself. He says:

Yet those who have once lawfully and in the Lord contracted marriage may not break or violate their vow, except for adultery."

Confessionally the Westminster Confession of Faith summarizes what was the common understanding of our reformed fathers on the matter of marriage, divorce and remarriage. Chapter 24, Of Marriage and Divorce, sections V and VI state:

"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 was dead."

Historical scholars such as J. S. Marshall give it as their opinion that in distinction from the Roman Catholic and Lutheran view;

"... the Protestant Church generally agreed that the ordinary courts of law should have power to grant divorces, leaving the parties free to marry again."

iii. Various Other Reformed Men & Churches

The British Puritans, as represented by John Owen, believed in the high and holy office of marriage, and were renowned for their commitment to marriage and for the quality of their family life. They recognized however the power of the depravity of man, and that there were evils that could destroy marriage. In the light of Scripture they allowed Biblical divorce for adultery (fornication) and desertion. John Owen in his works defends the right of remarriage after Biblical divorce for adultery. Further, Owen affirms;

"This is the constant doctrine of all Protestant churches in the world; and it hath had place in the government of these nations…"

The New England Puritans of the United States of America, as they confessed the Reformed Faith believed likewise.

Brown’s Dictionary Of The Bible, widely accepted and used in Britain in the 18thand 19th century, can be said to express the commonly held view of British Reformed believers from that time. On the question of remarriage after divorce for adultery it states:

"In the case of adultery, the marriage covenant being broken, the marriage bond is fundamentally dissolved; and it lies in the power of the party wronged to prosecute it to a formal dissolution, by divorce; and then the wronged party is at liberty to marry again."

Various other well-known Reformed theologians have written in defense of the Westminster Confessional understanding of the Word of God on the matter of divorce and remarriage, for example, Charles Hodge, G.I. Williamson, Robert Shaw etc.

Among the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands, the received understanding of Scripture, was that divorce for adultery and remarriage was permitted by the Word. This is the position of Danaeus, Junius, Ames, Rivet, van Mastricht, and a Brakel. See also the marginal comments of the Staten Bijbel.

We should note this point once again, because of its importance. The Reformed Churches, in the light of God’s Word, have believed that the Holy Spirit leads in the development of doctrinal understanding in such a way that doctrine must be built upon that which was previously understood to be the truth. To be reformed and reforming according to Scripture, is to not depart from the received understanding of the truth from the fathers without the most clear light from God’s Word that they were wrong - so too in the matter of our understanding of marriage, divorce and remarriage.

Would the majority of the true Church in history have been wrong in their understanding of the Biblical definitions of divorce, death and remarriage and only in recent times have some, contrary to the fathers, ‘got it right’?

It is true there have been those in the early church and at the Reformation and following who opposed remarriage even after lawful divorce. However, we should note, those in the early church who held thus were generally quite unbiblical in their view of marriage, promoting the holiness of celibacy and world flight.

In the 2,000 years of the history of the Christian church, the overwhelming understanding of marriage, divorce and remarriage, among those whose faith was built upon the Word of God and not upon the traditions of men, has been that which we have stated in our address. There have been exceptions of course, but they have not been among the mightiest of our fathers. They almost without exception have been obscure and unknown men, and at times outside of and unsympathetic to, the Reformed Faith. To hold to an understanding of God’s Word that allows remarriage after lawful divorce, is to walk in our lives in the footsteps of the flock of Christ Jesus who have gone before us.


The Scriptural understanding on the matter of marriage, divorce and remarriage, is confessionally expressed in the Westminster Standards. It stands where our Reformed fathers stood on these questions, and continues to confess, we believe, the historic Reformed position on marriage, divorce and remarriage. This is not to say our adherence to the views of our fathers in the faith is through "traditionalism." We adhere to the views we hold through conviction from the Word of God.

We believe that our fathers’ understanding of the Scriptural definition of divorce - that it effectively dissolves the marriage contract and their understanding of Matthew 19:9 allows justified divorce for adultery and the remarriage of the non-offending or innocent party, as if the erring party is dead, is correct.

With our gracious God, and with our fathers, we deplore the destruction of the marriage covenant. Our delight and our prayers and labours, are not only that God would lead our people into the exceedingly precious and beautiful bonds of Christian marriage, and establish the Covenant home with all its precious blessings for time and eternity, but also that God would make us faithful to stand and witness against the dark errors and forces that today war against Christian marriage and the Covenant home.

We recognize that there are those within the community of faithful Reformed Churches who, while standing with us on the importance and the understanding of marriage and the Covenant home, have yet chosen to differ from us in their definition of what constitutes and defines divorce, and therefore on the possibility of remarriage. With them we fully agree on the need to guard and promote Christian marriage. But we cannot agree with them forbidding the innocent who have suffered divorce, remarriage. We respect such brethren, but with such brethren we choose, for conviction and conscience’ sake, to take a different stand.

May the Lord Jesus Christ, who as the wondrous great Prophet, Priest and King of His people, and who dwells and walks among us by His Spirit and Word, in grace and mercy deliver us from all misunderstanding of His Word. May He be pleased to ever lead us in His truth so that day by day we grow in His grace and knowledge, and be built up in Christ’s faith, hope and love, and be a bright and faithful light for Him in a dark world. Amen.

—Chris Coleborn,

Cohuna, May 2005