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In book one of The Doctrine & Discipline of Divorce, it is written:

That indisposition, unfitnes, or contrariety of mind, arising from a cause in nature unchangeable, hindring, and ever likely to hinder the main benefits of conjugall society, which are solace and peace, is a greater reason of divorce then naturall frigidity, especially if there be no children, and that there be mutuall consent.

This I gather from the Law in Deut. 24.1. When a man hath tak’n a wife and married her, and it come to passe that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanesse in her, let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house, &c. This Law, if the words of Christ may be admitted into our beleef, shall never while the world stands, for him be abrogated. First therfore I here set down what learned Fagius hath observ’d on this Law; The Law of God, saith he, permitted divorce for the help of human weaknes. For every one that of necessity separats, cannot live single. That Christ deny’d divorce to his own, hinders not; for what is that to the unregenerate, who hath not attain’d such perfection? Let not the remedy be despis’d which was giv’n to weaknes. And when Christ saith, who marries the divorc’t, commits adultery, it is to be understood if he had any plot in the divorce. The rest I reserve untill it be disputed, how the Magistrate is to doe herein. From hence we may plainly discern a twofold consideration in this Law. First the End of the Lawgiver, and the proper act of the Law to command or to allow somthing just and honest, or indifferent. Secondly, his sufferance from some accidental result of evill by this allowance, which the Law cannot remedy. For if this Law have no other end or act but onely the allowance of a sin, though never to so good intention, that Law is no Law but sin muffl’d in the robe of Law, or Law disguis’d in the loose garment of sin. Both which are too foule Hypotheses to save the Phænomenon of our Saviours answer to the Pharises about this matter. And I trust anon by the help of an infallible guide to perfet such Prutenick tables as shall mend the Astronomy of our wide expositors.

I'm trying to decode the bolded phrase. What might Milton mean here by his own? Does he refer here to the Pharisees? Or perhaps to his disciples? Jesus addresses the topic of divorce in Matthew 5:31-32, Matthew 19:3-9, as well as Mark 10:2-12, and Luke 16:18, and he indeed seems to be stricter than Moses in Deuteronomy 24,

When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house.

And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man's wife.

And if the latter husband hate her, and write her a bill of divorcement, and giveth it in her hand, and sendeth her out of his house; or if the latter husband die, which took her to be his wife;

Her former husband, which sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after that she is defiled; for that is abomination before the LORD: and thou shalt not cause the land to sin, which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance.

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By his own, Milton means the apostles. The context of both Matthew and Mark makes this clear. The Pharisees ask Jesus about divorce. Jesus replies that given what Moses said, divorce cannot be regarded as entirely forbidden. Adultery in particular is grounds for divorce. However, Jesus says to the Pharisees:

Moses, because of the hardnesse of your hearts, suffered you to put away your wiues: but from the beginning it was not so. (Matthew 19:8)

The godly attitude would be to soften one's heart—to relent even in cases of adultery, and to find a way to reconcile. Jesus goes on to say that remarriage after divorce constitutes adultery:

And I say vnto you, Whosoeuer shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away, doth commit adultery. (Matthew 19:9)

The apostles thereupon say to Jesus that perhaps it is better to remain celibate if marriage could lead to such difficulties: putting up with an adulterous spouse or, by divorcing and then remarrying, committing what is in effect adultery. The assumption here is that marriage, divorce, and remarriage are all caused by sexual urges, and it is better to forgo the satisfaction of those urges altogether than to risk either countenancing or committing the sin of adultery. Jesus responds:

All men cannot receiue this saying, saue they to whom it is giuen. For there are some Eunuches, which were so borne from their mothers wombe: and there are some Eunuches, which were made Eunuches of men: and there be Eunuches, which haue made themselues Eunuches for the kingdome of heauens sake. He that is able to receiue it, let him receiue it. (Matthew 11–12)

That is, Jesus agrees with the disciples that celibacy is preferable to marriage. He says, however, that only eunuchs can lead a celibate life. Eunuchs are of three kinds: those born so; those made so by others; and those who make themselves eunuchs (i.e., swear celibacy) for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.

Mark has a less full version of these exchanges between the Pharisees, Jesus, and the apostles, but does make clear that Jesus is speaking to the apostles when he forbids divorce:

And in the house his disciples asked him again of the same matter. And he saith unto them, Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her. And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery. (Mark 10:10–12)

Milton has these passages in mind in the sentence you're asking about. Milton notes that Jesus endorses Moses's words, i.e., that a man may in fact divorce his wife. Jesus however says that the Law allows divorce (and remarriage) only because humans are too weak for the alternatives: either forgiveness and reconciliation, or giving up marriage altogether and remaining celibate. To his own disciples, however, Jesus urges those alternatives. That is, Christ deny’d divorce to his own: he told his apostles that divorce breaks a sacrament and is permitted only as a concession to human fallibility. Milton goes on to say that unlike the apostles, we are "unregenerate" and (being more like Amy Klobuchar than like Pete Buttigieg) have "not attain'd such perfection". For us lesser mortals, then, divorce is of necessity permissible.

Edit in response to comment. @DLosc asks:

Is Milton saying that Christ forbade divorce, but only for some people (those who have attained perfection)? Or is he saying that Christ in theory forbade divorce, but none of us are perfect, so we can't live up to that standard?

Milton interprets these passages to mean that though Christ did not approve of divorce, he nevertheless permitted it. Christ says to the apostles that in an ideal world, there should be no divorce. Since the apostles are Jesus's own, they must abide by the ideals and honor the proscription against divorce. But, Milton asks,

what is that to the unregenerate, who hath not attain’d such perfection? Let not the remedy be despis’d which was giv’n to weaknes.

Unlike the apostles, the mass of humankind is unregenerate. Since we have human weaknesses (such as hard hearts), the Mosaic law allows for divorce. Jesus does not overturn Moses, which forbidding divorce outright would do. Instead, he says that Moses allowed divorce only because he acknowledged our imperfection. Milton says that divorce may be a remedy for weakness, but it should not be despised on that account.

@DLosc adds:

In my holiness-movement, born-again Christian background, "his own" and "regenerate" would apply to all Christians, though "attain'd such perfection" would only apply to some.

In the context of this passage, his own refers only to the apostles. Milton is not arguing that Christ forbids divorce to all Christians, and that it should therefore be available only to unregenerate non-Christians (such as, presumably, the Pharisees). Rather, Milton is making the case for reconciling divorce with Christian belief. So what were Milton's beliefs?

Milton is generally held to be an Arminian, which would place him in opposition to the Calvinist theology of the Puritans. Stephen Fallon describes the difference between Arminianism and Calvinism as follows:

The debate between Calvinists and Arminians rests on the question of free will: for Calvinists, God chooses whether human beings are saved or damned before creation and irrespective of their choices; for Arminians, God predestines human beings only as he foresees their free choices in response to sufficient grace. Predestination is normally understood in its "absolute," Calvinist form, as referring to God's division of human beings into the saved and the damned prior and without regard to any demonstration of merit. In Arminius's "conditional" predestination, on the other hand, God does not select particular human beings (as opposed to others) for salvation; instead, God decrees that those who freely accept universally offered grace will be saved.

A key word here is sufficient. In Arminian belief, God's freely offered grace is both necessary and sufficient for salvation. This contrasts with the Calvinist position that God's grace irresistibly draws only the elect; i.e., grace, while necessary, is not sufficient, as the elect are predestined to salvation.

For Milton, then, divorce might be a sign of weakness, but it is not a sign that divorced individuals have turned away from God's grace, which is freely available to all. The unregenerate here does not mean damned, or un-Christian; it simply means those who do not share the moral stature of the apostles.

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  • I'm still a bit confused. Is Milton saying that Christ forbade divorce, but only for some people (those who have attained perfection)? Or is he saying that Christ in theory forbade divorce, but none of us are perfect, so we can't live up to that standard? (In my holiness-movement, born-again Christian background, "his own" and "regenerate" would apply to all Christians, though "attain'd such perfection" would only apply to some. But Milton evidently has different definitions than I do.)
    – DLosc
    May 25, 2023 at 18:49

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