Thursday, August 11, 2005

Marriage and Virginity or Marriage vs. Virginity?

A recent post that Chris Williams’s "beardy weirdy Orthodox guy" Fr. Karl Thienes linked to brought out some issues about sex and sin that I have been wondering about. In brief, an EO monk, Archimandrite Luke, denounces a few recent EO books for having a carnal approach to sex and marriage. He accuses them of seeking to confuse human eros with divine love in a way that imports our sinful lusts into the Godhead. Along the way he vigorously restates a traditional view that sexual desire even within marriage is (translating Greek patristic vocabulary into Catholic vocabulary) a venial sin. This struck me because Augustine says the exact same thing in an advent sermon I read this advent season. Sexual relations between Adam and Eve occurred only after the Fall, and were not part of God’s plan to "increase and multiply."

In response, Fr. Thienes cites on the contrary the third century Roman liturgist Hippolytus’s statement that sexual relations do not obstruct prayers because Christ has sanctified the marriage bed. Yet the sixth-century Pope Gregory (cited as Gregory the Dialogist by Archimandrite Luke) says that after marital relations a couple should briefly refrain from entering sacred buildings.

Now I personally think Archimandrite Luke has the better of the Patristic argument. The broad stream of the later Fathers do seem to associate any sexual desires with sin (venial within marriage, mortal outside of marriage) and clearly believe unfallen men and women would not have sexual desires. Just as clearly however, opinions changed over the centuries after Christ; Hippolytus’s third-century opinion and Gregory’s sixth-century opinion seem to be flatly contradictory. Moreover, I feel that Biblically as well the contortions into which Patristic Bible commentary goes to avoid the plain sense of "Simon’s mother-in-law" or "a bishop/overseer should be a man of one wife" show clearly that the patristic exaltation of celibacy is something that developed over the centuries, and was not part of the original apostolic heritage, at least not to the same extent as developed later.

Here’s my problem. Can one have any sort of practice of virginity (such as Christ envisions in Mat. 19:12 and Paul recommends in 1 Corinthians 7; cf. Acts 21:9) without forbidding to marry (1 Tim. 4:13) or treating sexual desire within marriage as a venial sin? And if one treats virginity and marriage as equally blessed (as seems correct to me), why is it that virginity as a spiritual practice essentially disappears? (We could have the same discussion about fasting, where both the EO and RC's rigid requirement of fasting and the Lutheran lack of practice of it seem contradictory to the New Testament practice).

Original posting and comments at Here We Stand

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