Late antique Christianity and equal marriage

In some ways the title of this post is misleading: I’m not discussing the reaction of late antique Christian writers to same-sex marriage (there are rare examples of such marriages in Roman times: see Mathew Kuefler, “The marriage revolution in late antiquity: the Theodosian Code and later Roman marriage law”, Journal of Family History 32 (2007), p. 363). Instead, what I’m interested in is how the arguments of (some) Christians in Britain today on same-sex marriage are drawing on ideas of marriage developed in the few five centuries of Christianity, rather than directly from the Bible itself, and yet ignoring elements of this “traditional” view that do not suit them.

One of the key arguments repeated in opposition to same-sex marriage is that marriage is intended for the procreation of children and that therefore any relationship in which procreation between the couple is impossible cannot be regarded as marriage. This is often extended in Catholic teaching to the claim that any sexual activity between a couple that is non-procreative is sinful.

However, the Bible says nothing explicitly about contraception (although there have been attempts to claim that the punishment of Onan in Genesis 38: 8-10 shows that all contraceptive acts are wrong). While the Creation account in Genesis 1 has God telling humans to increase and multiply, Genesis 2 has Eve created as Adam’s companion and there is no mention of marriage as involving intercourse or bearing children before the Fall.

Overall, however, the Old Testament sees marriage and procreation as good and blessings from God; the New Testament is far more ambivalent towards both. In particular, St Paul’s discussions of marriage (the most extensive in the New Testament) have almost nothing to say about procreation: when he says that it is “better to marry than to burn”, there’s no suggestion that this is only for those willing and able to have children.

The view that sexual activity is only morally acceptable for the procreation of children comes not from the Bible, but from Stoic philosophy, but it was taken up both by early Christian Fathers such as Clement of Alexandria and slightly later ones, such as Jerome in the fourth century. As John T. Noonan puts it in Contraception: a history of its treatment by the Catholic theologians and canonists (Harvard UP, 1965), p. 49: “The statement that the rational use of sexual faculties is a procreative one is not the same as the Old Testament statement that fecundity is highly desirable. The ideas do, however, harmonize”.

As discussed in detail both by Noonan and by Peter Brown, The body and society: men, women, and sexual renunciation in early Christianity (Columbia UP, 1988), a developed theology of marriage and its purposes, embodied in the works of St Augustine, took place in the late fourth and early fifth century against a background of intellectual challenges from ascetics and sects regarded as heretical. Augustine attempted to assert the good of marriage against opponents who mainly saw it as vastly inferior to virginity and sexual abstention. Some, like Jerome, asserted that the only good thing about marriage was that it generated children who could become virgins. The Manichees, meanwhile, saw procreative sex as particularly evil, generating children who were caught in the body and the darkness of the material world. Some of them, at least, argued for efforts to ensure that any sexual activity was non-procreative. On the other side of the debate were Christian writers such as Jovinian, who saw marriage and virginity as equally good.

As Kate Cooper and Conrad Leyser have discussed, this whole debate was also implicitly about authority within the church and within society. Renunciation of sex (specifically male renunciation of the sexual use of women) had become a symbol of the wider self-control that a man in authority needed to have, and a symbol that was particularly promoted by ascetics from a lower social position anxious to prove their moral superiority. This was a challenge to the other obvious claimants to Christian leadership in late antique society, the couple of senatorial social status.

Augustine attempted to steer a middle course, opposing the condemnation of marriage as heretical, but wanting to remain within a tradition that saw virginity as superior. The result was that he produced a distinctly ambivalent defence of marriage which described all sexual pleasure as sinful. It’s also typical of his own limits of perspective that he argued that Adam and Eve must have been intended by God to have intercourse in Eden: if Adam had just wanted friendship, a man would have been a more stimulating companion (Brown p. 402).

Tangled up with this was another near-simultaneous debate about the virginity of Mary, discussed in most detail by David G. Hunter, Marriage, celibacy, and heresy in ancient Christianity: the Jovinianist controversy (Oxford UP, 2007). Had Mary remained a virgin while giving birth to Jesus (virginitas in partu), i.e. had God allowed some kind of miraculous painless birth, as various apocryphal Gospels claimed? Had she remained a virgin after giving birth (virginitas post partum), i.e. had she and Joseph been in a permanently celibate marriage? Neither were agreed doctrines in the fourth century. Ambrose of Milan, however, anxious to protect the consecrated virgins of his church from pressure to marry, and seeing Mary as a symbol both of such a virginal life and of the inviolable church, became the most influential supporter of Mary’s perpetual virginity during birth and after.

This was the view of Mary that triumphed in the western church. However, it was also important to maintain that Mary and Joseph had been truly married, for obvious reasons. As a result of these debates, the doctrine that Augustine developed about the purposes of marriage sees multiple “goods” in it: offspring (proles), fidelity (fides) and symbolic stability (sacramentum, which didn’t yet mean “sacrament” in the Catholic sense). The sacramentum, in the sense of an indissoluble bond, meant that a couple who could not have children together could not divorce so that one might remarry and have children. The procreational good of marriage could be dispensed with. This could be either on grounds of incapacity (the old could marry for mutual companionship) or on grounds of choice (continence in marriage was preferable to intercourse).

Reflecting this view, the medieval church almost always adhered to the view that it was consent, not consummation that made a marriage. The churches’ current opposition to same-sex marriage on the basis that the nature of Christian marriage requires the procreation of children turns out to be based on extremely shaky historical and theological foundations.

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7 thoughts on “Late antique Christianity and equal marriage

  1. Very interesting post. At the moment I’m reading Ruth Mazo Karras’s Unmarriages: Women, Men and Sexual Union in the Middle Ages and I’ve also been struck more than ever about how so many ‘traditional’ arguments about what does and doesn’t constitute marriage are not actually traditional at all.

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    • “Unmarriages” is one of the many, many books I have on my list to read when I have more time: it sounds very interesting. I think a lot of “traditional” views on marriage ignore just how ambiguous the first Christians were towards the family (as well as the frustrating Christian spokesmen who just flat out pretend that indissoluble monogamous marriage is a universal custom).

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  2. Well in ANY case, none of the Church fathers ever endorsed homosexual relationship, for any reasons whatsoever – or maybe obviously because of the Bible being clear about it, Paul framing it as Unnatural. Why did he stated it to be unnatural – well most probably because of lack of the procreational ability… If still not – well who cares, he still did condemn it…

    The second thing that i would like to point out is 1 Tim 2,15 – that pretty clearly puts procreation in high regard – yes it is still not in the most common sense that we might think of, but still shows signs of procreation valuing.

    Also i can’t fathoom, why do you people have the need to twist the Christian teaching, to conform your personal desires and wishes – even if you make it, you’ll still Know what you did, and why you did it, right?

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    • Alexander,

      Why does something being “unnatural” automatically mean that it is morally wrong? For example, it is absolutely clear that playing the violin is unnatural: no animal does it and the results of untrained people are painful. Does that therefore make the playing of the violin morally wrong? Humans do lots of unnatural things, so why single this particular behaviour as uniquely wicked?

      Because St Paul condemns it? But St Paul also believed that the correct response to finding a runaway slave was to return him politely to his master. Do you think that is the right response? In other words, St Paul’s moral views are not accepted 100% even by the most “Biblical” of modern Christians. We always have to try and work out what the Bible means in context and what it means for us today and that often isn’t obvious. For example, there are dozens of possible interpretations of 1 Timothy 2:15, which you cite (“But she shall be saved through childbirth, if they remain in faith and hope and love, with self-control”). You may not agree with the particular interpretation I take of the Bible, but simply saying “it’s clear” is not a particularly convincing argument.

      As for “you people”, what group exactly do you mean by that? To save you the bother of having to read my blog in more detail, I’m heterosexual, I’ve been married for nearly 25 years and I have procreated (1 daughter). I support equal marriage, as many of us straights do, because I’ve benefited from marriage myself a lot, and also because I’ve seen gay friends in loving, faithful, long-term relationships and want them to share in the legal and social recognition I do.

      If you want me to say those relationships are to be condemned, that the people involved should abandon the partner they love, you have to give me some better answer than just “St Paul says” or “the Bible says”.

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  3. Uff,this is going to be pretty long…

    Oh, when i say “unnatural” i mean of something like necrophilia, pedophilia, cannibalism, bestiality and such monstrosities. It therefore wasn’t meant to condemn playing violin, or any other “unnatural” but harmless practice. Now my intention is not to compare homosexuality with the cannibalism, or necrophilia, maybe not even to a pedophilia either but comparisons to the incest may be valid in the case. Still, what i’m going to do here is to compare it to a heterosexual couple, adulterous heterosexual couple.
    Now that couple might also seriously – on the first glance at least even ingeniously be in love with each other – but no matter what, they are married and are not allowed to cheat on their spouses.

    See, hearth can be very deceiving, today you “love” this one – tomorrow you “love” somebody else. Thus it has to be tempered with mind at occasions.

    Though gay couples haven’t given any promises to anybody, they still can’t pursue their hearth as it is in it’s present shape. Instead they should find the person of the same character that they prefer, but of the opposite gender, or stay celibate. Humans are very adaptive species.

    If many people would deem that as unjust since these people would be burning with desire and be precluded from making it true; Would they deem unjust to recommend the celibacy to the pedophile, whose “sexuality” (as such person sees it) is precluded from practice as well? You do know that many of the gay people have become so, through frustration, negative example, or some other circumstances and may not stay gay till the end of their life.

    Paul wouldn’t forcibly return the slave to it’s owner, but would advise the slave to return, and that’s a huge difference. Now why would he do that? Because the conscience of the whole world, and even of the slave/s in question is formed wrongly and holds slavery legitimate practice, and your conscience should always be followed. The eradication of the slavery was a thing that was supposed to be done slowly, and over time, not revolutionary. I would still have done the same thing as Paul did with Onezimus.

    Most of the interpretations of the Tim 2,15 as you should have noticed are variations of physical , or spiritual birth. More sound being those physical.
    for “you people” sentence I apologize, though the point still stays.

    I have wrongly assumed that you intend to approach the Bible texts – at least partially – from a believer’s point of view, and not purely scientific one, and that your conscience still doesn’t give you peace for putting all of your comfort in secular humanism instead in the Word of God, and that that was still a reason why you think of His word, and try to mold them to fit your secular perspective, so you could finally find peace – of some kind, whatsoever.

    A misconception on my side…

    See this is where this dialog ceases to bear any real significance, since we are of two very much different world views, that are incompatible and can only tolerate each other, but not understand each other, well at least you can’t understand mine, since I have been close to yours once.

    „…you have to give me some better answer than just “St
    Paul says” or “the Bible says”.“

    It is said: “The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.“

    And: „the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be[a] in you.“

    Until that happens, you’ll get lost in thousands of interpretations, to no avail…

    Nevertheless you are still encouraged to study the Bible and come up with your own conclusions. It was pleasure, farewell.

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