In 1522 Luther declared "How I dread preaching on the estate of marriage!" (Luther 2003: 100) And yet he preached on it many times. Indeed, he wrote and preached about marriage, sex, sexuality, and women throughout the 1520s, 30s and 40s, until he died; he wrote so much that sometimes his ideas are contradictory, and scholars have debated them at some length.2 Nevertheless, a clear message in favor of marriage and against monastic life, and against celibacy in most cases, is apparent in his writings. Perhaps the most significant of Luther's writings to consider here is his Commentary on 1 Corinthians 7 written in 1523. 1 Corinthians 7 was, above all other biblical texts, key to the prevailing argument, established in the patristic era, that said the celibate life was preeminent. Or, as Luther put it, "this very chapter, more than all the other writings of the entire Bible, has been twisted back and forth to condemn the married state and at the same time to give a strong appearance of sanctity to the dangerous and peculiar state of celibacy" (Luther 1973: 3). The question was, as much as anything, how to interpret vv. 7-9 where Paul writes,
I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind. To the unmarried and widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practising self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion (nrsv).
Did Paul mean that the higher good, the ideal to which all should aspire, is celibacy? Is marriage therefore a second best, something to which one resorts if one cannot control one's lust? Or did he really mean that different people have different gifts - of celibacy and marriage - and that these are equally valid? By the fourth century the majority of learned and leading Christians were quite clear what the answer was: celibacy was the higher good - "I
wish that all were as I myself am" was the key verse - and marriage was second best; as we have seen in the example of Margery Kempe, this remained the Church's attitude for over a thousand years. Augustine, for example, who articulated positively the goods of marriage, only wrote about those goods within the larger understanding that "it is good to marry, since it is a good to beget children . . . but it is better not to marry, since it is better for human society itself not to have need of marriage." Others, such as Jerome, wrote far more intemp-erately against the married life and zealously in favor of the ascetic and celibate life (Augustine 1955: 22).3
The Protestant reformers, in attacking the monastic and celibate life and writing in favor of marriage, were embarking upon a paradigm shift of major proportions, and they knew they had to address this key Pauline text: 1 Corinthians 7. In 1522 Melanchthon had written a commentary on it, in which he had accused Jerome of superstitiously extolling celibacy, but Luther felt this commentary was too brief to give proper exegetical proof of the reformers' position. He therefore embarked upon a commentary himself; he completed it in August 1523 and dedicated it to Hans Loser, marshal to the Elector of Saxony, as a wedding song, a Christian "epithalamium" - Loser married the next year, and Luther officiated at the ceremony4
Luther's key message in his commentary was that celibacy is a gift for only a few and should not be demanded of anyone; therefore marriage is an equal calling with celibacy and it is the state to which the vast majority will find themselves called. How then did he deal with the tricky passages in which Paul seemed to be saying that celibacy was the higher good? Of the phrase which had been so important to the patristic writers - "I wish that all were as I am" - he wrote simply,
True, Paul wishes that everyone might have the great gift of chastity so that he would be relieved of the labour and cares of marriage and might be concerned only with God and His Word, as he himself was. And who wouldn't wish this for everyone, especially since Christian love desires all good things, both temporal and eternal for everyone?
Luther agreed with the statement in a wistful sort of way - if only that might be the case - and then went straight on to the part of the verse which supported his argument: "But, he [Paul] says, "each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind, and one of another." Here he confesses that his wish cannot be fulfilled and it is not God's will to grant everyone this great gift. "Note this phrase well, for there is much in it, and it praises marriage no less than celibacy." In short, Luther makes chastity the preserve of Paul and the very few and then seeks to interpret this text as making "marriage just as much a gift of God ... as chastity is" (Luther 1973: 16).
His focus was, therefore, on v. 9: "But if they are not practising self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion." Luther interpreted this bluntly. "This is as much as to say: Necessity orders that you marry. Much as chastity is praised, and no matter how noble a gift it is, nevertheless necessity prevails so that few can attain it, for they cannot control themselves." Luther's argument was entirely pragmatic. He listed all the reasons why people get married and then declared, "But St Paul gives this one reason, and I know of none fundamentally stronger and better, namely need. Need commands it." He interpreted the second half of the verse - "For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion" - with equal bluntness:
I have no doubt that everyone who wants to live chastely, though unmarried and without special grace for it, will understand these words and what they convey. For St Paul is not speaking of secret matters, but of the common known feeling of all those who live chastely outside of marriage but do not have the grace to accomplish it.
He goes on to say that "aflame with passion" is:
the heat of the flesh, which rages without ceasing, and daily attraction to woman or to man; we find this wherever there is not desire nor love for chastity. People without this heat are just as far and few between as those who have God's grace for chastity . . . Truly it can be said: for every chaste person there should be more than a hundred thousand married people.
Luther's interpretation of this phrase was so radical that he even interpreted Paul as saying "better an unhappy marriage than unhappy chastity. Better a sour and difficult marriage than a sour and difficult chastity. Why? The latter is a sure loss, the former can be of use" (Luther 1973: 27-30).
In this commentary, Luther wrote as the former monk who had "not desire nor love for chastity" and was delighted by his own marriage in that same year to a former nun, Katherine von Bora. What is striking about Luther's approach is that it was entirely needs-based, and he interpreted Paul in that way. He did write more theologically nuanced defenses of marriage and therefore more positively in favor of marriage in other texts - it was not just a remedy for that "heat of the flesh which rages without ceasing." For example, his defense of marriage connected, importantly, to his doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, a doctrine which formed the basis of his attack on the Roman Catholic idea that the clergy were the standard bearers of morals - being celibate. But his negative experience of being a monk, and his personal struggle with all that was required by that way of life, was never far from the surface in his polemic. Luther's needs-based approach meant that he found it difficult to have any empathy with those who experienced things differently. In particular, he thought that all women should marry, and some of his most abrasive language was reserved for nuns. Take this passage from the Commentary on 1 Corinthians 7, for example:
It is clear how grievously in error are those who glorify nuns, claiming that their state is more glorious and better in the sight of God than matrimony. They contrive fictitious crowns for them and all kinds of virtues and honours, and thus they produce vainglorious, un Christian and even ungodly people who rely more on their station and work than in faith in Christ and on God's grace, despising marriage as something much inferior - even before God - to their own status and calling themselves "brides of Christ." They are rather brides of the devil, because they do not use chastity as it should be used, namely, not to pretend to be better in the eyes of God, but to make people here on earth freer and more capable to give attention to God's word than to marriage (Luther 1973: 16-17).
Luther's defense of marriage had two major consequences: first, monastic houses and convents were shut down, and secondly, marriage was elevated in importance in evangelical theology and practice. While Luther, and indeed his wife Katherine, had found monastic life highly unsatisfactory, this was not the response of all monks and nuns, especially nuns, who understood that their distinctive way of life, in a society where few women had choices, was being destroyed. Women in convents were often the first to challenge the Protestant Reformation. For example, at St Clara Convent in Nuremberg, the nuns were all from wealthy and influential families. When the City Council ordered all cloisters to close, the convent refused. Neither persuasion nor intimidation worked: Protestant sermons were preached four times a week; nuns were refused confessors and Roman Catholic communion; the nuns' servants had difficulty buying food in the town; the nuns were harassed and threatened and finally the Court confiscated the convent's land. None of these measures worked; finally the Council left the convent alone though forbade it from taking in any novices. The last nun there died in 1590 (see Wesiner 1988).
The major Protestant reformers continued to write in favor of marriage and put their beliefs into practice. As one historian has put it, "by 1525, marriage had become one of the litmus tests of commitment to reform" (Carlson 1994: 4). In England, where religious reform was gradual, the question of marriage was equally a litmus test. Once the break with Rome had occurred in the 1530s, tracts in favor of clerical marriage circulated but Henry VIII was strongly opposed to it and in 1539, with the issuing of the rather conservative Six Articles, clerical celibacy was rigorously enforced. With the accession of Edward VI and a more clearly Protestant regime in place, the Six Articles were repealed and in 1549 there was an act permitting clerical marriage. As with Luther, the argument was needs-based rather than theologically nuanced. The statute noted that it was better for ministers in the Church of God to live "chaste, sole and separate from the company of women and the bond of marriage" because then they would be less troubled with the charge of a household and could attend to the administration of the gospel better. However, "such uncleanness of living, and other great inconveniences. . . have followed of compelled chastity" that it was thought better, after consultation with the Scripture, that the commonwealth suffer ministers "to live in holy marriage, than feignedly abuse with worse enormity outward chastity or single life" (Statutes of the Realm iv; excerpted in Sheils 1989: 94-5). In 1552, there was a second Act reaffirming the legality of clerical marriage and establishing that children born of such marriages were legitimate. This emphasizes the enormous cultural sea change that was being promoted. Initially - indeed for some time - resistance or, at the very least, suspicion abounded. People sometimes refused to receive communion from married clergymen. For so long, marriage had been seen as distinctly second-class from a Christian point of view, that people now had difficulty discerning the difference between the wife now living in the pastor's house and the "mistress" the old priest used to keep. Dislike of clerical marriage lingered for some time. Mary of course repealed all the legislation allowing clerical marriage in 1553. When Elizabeth became queen in 1559, she was as ambiguous about clerical marriage as she was about just about anything else: it became clear that she did not like it - she especially did not like her bishops marrying - but she did not forbid it. Article 32 of the 39 Articles of Religion of 1563 stated: "Bishops, priests and deacons are not commanded by God's law, either to vow the estate of single life, or to abstain from marriage: therefore it is lawful also for them, as for all other Christian men, to marry at their own discretion, as they shall judge the same to serve better to godliness" (Book of Common Prayer). This was finally accepted by the queen in a Bill for subscription to the Articles in 1571 and it became law.
Eric Carlson has argued that the Protestant Reformation brought dramatic changes in the status and legal regulation of marriage on the continent but not in England. Helen
Parish, more recently, has provided a lively revision of Carlson's and most other work on the subject, insisting that the English debate about clerical marriage was as vigorous as that on the continent (see Carlson 1994 and Parish 2000). In addition, she asserts that many of those engaged in the debates for clerical marriage were married - contrary to Carlson's assessment. The impact of the 1549 legislation is indicated by the number of clergy deprived of their livings in Mary's reign because they were married - up to a third of London clergy, for example (remembering, however, that London was a rather hotly Protestant area compared to other parts of the country) - though Parish believes that the move towards acceptance of clerical marriage proceeded rather slowly in Elizabeth's reign. Parish notes that a theological stumbling block was in attitudes to the priest's role in the Mass: the celibacy of the priesthood was inextricably linked with the Mass. Simply put, Christ would not be made present on the altar at Mass by words of an unchaste priest. Priests who took wives were therefore seen as administering the sacraments improperly - polluting them in the eyes of a concerned laity - and this was the primary reason why clerical wives received so much abuse and were labeled concubines in the early years. This all, of course, related to raging debates about what happened in the Eucharist: was Christ present or not? If, as the married Zwingli argued, the Lord's Supper was merely a memorial, then this problem was in any case removed. Furthermore as the role of the priest - at the altar and elsewhere - was re-thought, the issue of "purity" became less important. This is illustrated by Article 26 of the 39 Articles of 1563, which concerned "the unworthiness of the ministers, which hinders not the effect of the Sacrament."
The Protestant reformers therefore had to make marriage (especially for themselves, for many of them were ministers) not only the "norm" but even respectable. In England this resulted in a flood of polemical literature. Marriage and family were idealized in a whole series of household manuals and conduct books, written by ministers not least to justify clerical marriage (for a good discussion of these conduct books see A. Fletcher 1994). What all of this amounted to was an enormous shift in cultural and theological expectations and beliefs: marriage went from being second best to the idealized norm as Protestantism spread and made its impact. This occurred surprisingly quickly given the persistence of the former paradigm within the church - namely that celibacy was the higher good. Simply put, the Christian tradition's understanding of marriage in much of Europe and Britain changed dramatically. Scripture was reinterpreted to justify the changes - in particular, Luther's understanding of 1 Corinthians 7 marked a 180-degree turn from prevailing readings of that text - and pragmatic reasons for marriage were unashamedly given: it was seen as a necessity, a place for the expression of natural if lustful desires.
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