Thursday, November 1, 2007

Why The Church Fathers Were So Negative About Sex

There can be little doubt that Christianity has a long history of being extremely negative about sex. Much of this is due to the negative influence of The Church Fathers. Here are a few quotes:

"We Christians marry only to produce children" - Justin Martyr (c. 100–165) .

"Adam and Eve were created sexless; their sin in Eden led to the horrors of sexual reproduction. If only our earliest progenitors had obeyed God, we would be procreating less sinfully now" [exactly how God would have populated the earth, he didn't say] - John of Damascus (writing in the eighth century).

Luther was much more positive about sex and marriage than those who came before him. Nevertheless, he seems to have believed that, although it may have been part of God's original design for husbands and wives to engage in sexual intercourse for the purpose of procreation, he also seems to eco the setiments of John of Damascus with this curious quote:

"The reproduction of mankind is a great marvel and mystery. Had God consulted me in the matter, I should have advised him to continue the generation of the species by fashioning them out of clay." - Martin Luther

Clement of Alexandria said:

"... the first man of our race did not await the appropriate time, desiring the favour of marriage before the proper hour and he fell into sin by not waiting the time of God's will...they [Adam and Eve] were impelled to do it before the normal time because they were still young and were persuaded by deception." - Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–215, On Marriage XIV:94, XVII:102-103).

He also stated:

"If a man marries in order to have children, he ought not to have a sexual desire for his wife. He ought to produce children by a reverent, disciplined act of will." - Clement of Alexandria

Augustine said pretty much the same thing:

"In Eden, it would have been possible to beget offspring without foul lust. The sexual organs would have been stimulated into necessary activity by will-power alone, just as the will controls other organs. Then, without being goaded on by the allurement of passion, the husband could have relaxed upon his wife's breasts with complete peace of mind and bodily tranquility, that part of his body not activated by tumultuous passion, but brought into service by the deliberate use of power when the need arose, the seed dispatched into the womb with no loss of his wife's virginity. So, the two sexes could have come together for impregnation and conception by an act of will, rather than by lustful cravings" - Saint Augustine, 354 – 430 (City of God, Book 14, Chapter 26).

Augustine was probably the most influential Christian theologian of all time. He has played a major role in formulating the traditional Christian doctrine of Original Sin. Augustine believed sin had its beginning in sexual desire.

Before his conversion, Augustine said he "ran wild in the jungle of erotic adventures." The problem, according to Augustine, was that his love had "no restraint imposed [on it] by the exchange of mind with mind." Hence, pure love was perverted by its misdirection toward worldly things, i.e. bodies. Ideally, according to Augustine, sex should be used only for procreation, and even then only in a relationship focused not on lust but on a loving, rational partnership. This is how he saw Adam and Eve relating before their fall. St. Augustine wrote to a friend:

"What is the difference whether it is in a wife or a mother, it is still Eve the temptress that we must beware of in any woman. I fail to see what use woman can be to man, if one excludes the function of bearing children."

Another quote from Augustine:

"It is one thing to lie together with the sole will of generating: this has no fault. It is another to seek the pleasure of flesh in lying, although within the limits of marriage, this has venial fault."

Theophilus of Antioch and St. Irenaeus also considered Adam to be in a premature age when he violated the precept of abstaining from a sexual union with Eve, his future wife. This was not because it was a wrong action, but because it was inappropriate for their age. This notion that the fall occurred in a period of immaturity before they achieved perfection is also shared by Peter Lombard, Hugo of St. Victor, Alexander of Hales, St. Bonaventura, John Duns Scotus and others in the Franciscan school.

St. Gregory (330-395), Bishop of Nyassa, taught that the sexual act was an outcome of the fall and that marriage is the outcome of sin.

St. Tertullian (150-230), said:

"Do you not know that you are each an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the Devil's gateway: You are the unsealer of the forbidden tree: You are the first deserter of the divine law: You are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God's image, man. On account of your desert even the Son of God had to die" - St. Tertullian (150-230).

Aquinas said this:

"As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from a defect in the active force or from some material indisposition, or even from some external influence" - Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274).

Saint Jerome was the most learned of the Fathers of the Western Church. Jerome is best known as the translator of the Bible from Greek and Hebrew into Latin. Saint Jerome had what many describe as an anti-sexual obsession.

According to Jerome, Adam and Eve had a sexual relationship only after the Fall. Jerome believed that a husband could love his wife only if he abstained from all sexual intercourse with her. Jerome made a distinction between love and sexual lust. Love was divine, virginal, manly, asexual. Sexual lust was obscene, fit for pigs and dogs, rather than human beings. Of course, the Bible clearly does condemn sexual lust as obscene. Yet Jerome seemed to think that all sexual desires were sinful, even within marriage. Although he allowed for the use of sex within marriage to produce children, he preferred the state of celabacy. To St. Jerome, marriage was the Old Testament, the Law. It was "carnal" and thus stood condemned. Virginity, however, was the Gospel. To Jerome, becoming a Christian meant to be or to become a virgin. Jerome held that marriage was only instituted after the fall. Marriage partakes in the effects of sin.

"Matrimony is always a vice. All that can be done is to excuse it and to sanctify it; therefore it was made a religious sacrament" - Saint Jerome(347 – 420).

Other quotes from Jerome:

"Do you imagine that we approve of any sexual intercourse except for the procreation of children? He who is too ardent a lover of his own wife is an adulterer."

"Woman is the root of all evil."

Like most early Christian theologians, Jerome glorified virginity and looked down on marriage. His reasoning was rooted in Genesis:

"Eve in paradise was a virgin ... understand that virginity is natural and that marriage comes after the Fall."

The marital act to Jerome cannot be good because it only acts as a relief valve:

"Thus it must be bad to touch a woman. If indulgences is nonetheless granted to the marital act, this is only to avoid something worse. But what value can be recognized in a good that is allowed only with a view of preventing something worse?

Jerome wrote that the only good thing about marriage is that "it produces virgins." Jerome also wrote:

"And as regards Adam and Eve we must maintain that before the fall they were virgins in Paradise: but after they sinned, and were cast out of Paradise, they were immediately married."

Sexual Influence of the Ascetic Monks
Celibacy was in vogue during the fourth century, due to the influence of ascetic monks. Suffering for the sake of a higher state of spirituality was all the rage. The teaching became widespread that "only through monastic celibacy can man recover that natural—and sexless—state for which [man] was originally created `in the image' " of God (Sherrard, Philip. Christianity and Eros. 1976: 8). Christian monks up until the Renaissance complained bitterly of being visited in their sleep by succubi, female demons that gestured and beckoned lewdly to them, just as novitiate nuns were warned of the nocturnal visitations of their erotically enticing male counterparts, the incubi.

Sexual Influence Of The Church's Founding Fathers
The churches Founding Fathers had a profound and lasting impact on much of Christianity's teachings regarding sex. Much of their influence was extremely negative. To a large extent, they were a product of their times, influenced heavily by Greek, Roman and Persian teachings and traditions. They pushed the Apostle Paul's preference for celibacy to the limit, while lashing out against all sex. Fathers like Tertullian, Jerome, and Augustine promoted teachings that viewed human sexuality as detestable and unholy.

Robert T. Francoeur summarizes how Christianity got so negative about sex:

To understand the evolution from the early sex-affirming Hebraic culture to Christianity's persistent discomfort with sex and pleasure, we have to look at three interwoven threads: the dualistic cosmology of Plato [i.e. the soul and mind are at war with the body], the Stoic philosophy of early Greco-Roman culture [i.e., nothing should be done for the sake of pleasure], and the Persian Gnostic tradition [i.e., that demons created the world, sex and your body—in which your soul is trapped, and the key to salvation is to free the spirit from the bondage of the body by denying the flesh].

Within three centuries after Jesus, these influences combined to seduce Christian thinkers into a rampant rejection of human sexuality and sexual pleasure. (Robert T. Francoeur is a Catholic priest and a fellow of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sex. He is also a Professor of Human Embryology and Sexuality at Fairleigh Dickenson University. Francoeur has written no less than twenty books on human sexuality. This quote is taken from his essay The Religious Suppression of Eros.)

Conclusion: So Why Were The Church Fathers So Negative About Sex?
So again, why were the Church Fathers so negative about sex?

Certainly, the Church Fathers were heavily influenced by the teachings of Plato. But they were also influenced by the biblical account of Adam and Eve. They recognized that there are many clues in this story that do suggest a sexual transgression. And although many early Christians interpreted that sexual transgression in a variety of ways, nevertheless, the early Fathers were almost in unanimous agreement that sex had something to do with humanity's downward spiral.

Starting with the Protestant reformation, Luther and the other reformers began to oppose the sexual negativity that was rampant at that time. Luther married a former nun. He also prompted many who had taken a vow of celibacy to recant their vows and get married. As a reaction, the reformers opposed the church's use of the Eden account to promote sexual negativity and a low view of marriage. They recognized this as a misuse of Scripture. In this regard, I applaud the reformers.

Nevertheless, I also believe the Church Fathers had a very significant and important point. They saw many clues in the story of Adam and Eve that pointed to sex. To the Church Fathers, it just made a whole lot of sense that the sin of Adam and Eve did have something to do with a sexual transgression. Somehow, sex was polluted by sin. Perhaps this is why many early Christians felt sex per se was evil, in and of itself.

It's also reasonable that the holier a person becomes, the more they will be able to recognize just how polluted sex has become since the fall. But this in no way means that sex itself, as God originally intended it to be, is sinful. In fact, isn't it more logical that if Adam and Eve had not somehow polluted sex yesterday, sex today would be more fun and more pleasurable with a lot less guilt? Let me suggest, then, that although the Church Fathers were guilty of promoting widespread sexual negativity, the reformers, in their determination to speedily eraticate sexual negativity, also did much to damage the concept that the sin of Adam and Eve was, indeed, a sexual transgression.

Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater!