Here now is the third post by Platinum blog member Daniel Kohanski, based on his recently published book A God of our Invention. This one should grab your attention!
From its beginnings, Christianity has had theological difficulties with human sexuality. In this edited excerpt from my latest book, A God of Our Invention: How Religion Shaped the Western World, I lay out what I believe are some of the reasons for this.
The first Christian commentator that we have record of, the Apostle Paul, was also the first to recommend that Christians avoid sexual activity and stay celibate. “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am” (1 Cor. 7:8). Still, he did accept that not all were capable of it. He advised the Corinthians that if a man “thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his fiancée, if his passions are strong, and so it has to be, let him marry as he wishes; it is no sin” (1 Cor. 7:36). He even acknowledged that some of “the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and [Peter]” were married (1 Cor. 9:5).
As always when reading the New Testament, we have to keep in mind that its writers were expecting the end of the existing world and the coming of the kingdom of God to occur at any moment. This expectation could help explain why Paul, and also the gospels, were opposed to divorce, an antagonism not found in Jewish or Roman law; this was to be the last generation, and all marriages will end soon anyway. It fit their general attitude toward sex and marriage. In First Corinthians, Paul makes this explicit argument: “Yet those who marry will experience distress in this life, and I would spare you that. I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time grows short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none” (1 Cor. 7:28b-29). Jesus reminds his hearers that there will be no more sex once the kingdom has come: “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Matt. 22:30, also Mark 12:25).
However, celibacy was not practical in a world that stubbornly refused to end. As the Jesus Movement morphed into Christianity, the early Church Fathers needed to construct a theology that allowed Christianity to propagate more Christians—but at the same time they couldn’t contradict texts that were even then becoming canonized. Debates over the role and proper use of sexuality occupied the Church Fathers for the next few centuries, with celibacy generally being the most favored option. Late in the second century, Clement of Alexandria advised that a man should try to conceive without desire, or any passion at all, in full control of his will (Stromata, III.7.58). Even this put him at odds with some other early Church Fathers, who believed that “only by rejecting marital intercourse and procreation could people be restored to their original, spiritual condition intended by God the Creator.” The Apocalypse of Paul, a very popular tract probably written around the fourth century, assigned lifetime virgins a higher place in heaven than married couples who had kept their vows. On the other hand, those who had premarital sex were bound in hell with red-hot chains (Apocalypse of Paul, §§22, 39).
Early in the fifth century, Bishop Augustine of Hippo formulated a concept of sex that even today remains central to Catholic doctrine: sex is the mechanism through which everyone inherits Adam’s “originating original sin”—the “primal” sin, as Augustinian scholar Jesse Couenhoven calls it. In brief, when God created Adam and Eve, he intended that “the marriage of the first human beings, which was worthy of the delight of paradise, would have produced children to love, but without any lust to be ashamed of” (City of God 14:23). But then Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge. This disobedience was the primal sin, and one that was “neither necessary nor reasonable, but perverse,” even “inexplicable,” to Augustine. It was disobedience to God, and from then on their genitals would disobey them, as it were. Sexual arousal occurs, or fails to occur, without regard to a person’s will. Arousal leads to lust, and lust overcomes the will (City of God 14:16). Everyone born since Adam’s primal sin is conceived in lust, and inherits Adam’s sin through that very act of conception. Our origin is in sin; hence we are born with an “original sin.” Augustine held that every child born of lust (which he called “concupiscence”) was “bound by original sin,” and the only way to be unbound from that sin was to be “reborn” through baptism in the only person who had ever been conceived without lust—Jesus (Marriage and Desire I.27). Original sin transmits through the father; Jesus’s father was God and his mother was a virgin. Augustine did acknowledge that one of the values of marriage was that it was the only legitimate way to relieve the pressures of lust for those who “lack the self-control for celibacy.” But this only highlighted the problem that the children of a legitimate marriage must be conceived in lust.
Augustine’s thinking about sex was nuanced and complex, and it changed from time to time. It also took a while for the Catholic Church to turn his and other theologians’ ideas into its official doctrine that yielding to sexual lust, even in marriage, is a sin, and is only to be allowed, reluctantly, as long as there is the possibility of engendering offspring. Though the Vatican has lately modified its stance, Augustine’s thinking still permeates the Catholic approach to human sexuality. In 1950, Pius XII rejected the idea of evolution on the grounds that if Adam was not the ancestor of all, then he had not transmitted his original sin to all (Humani Generis §37). And since God decides, according to the Church, if your act of lust results in a pregnancy, then using contraceptives is rejecting God’s right to decide. To have an abortion is to reject a decision God made. In these ways, early Christian beliefs about sex continue to impact today’s world.
A God of Our Invention: How Religion Shaped the Western World is published by Apocryphile Press (https://apocryphilepress.com/book/a-god-of-our-invention-how-religion-shaped-the-western-world/). The book first examines how the western world’s idea of God developed from the Israelite worship of many gods, Yahweh included, through the first centuries of Christianity. It then looks at how that idea of God has impacted the way we deal with sex, war, and death, and how the belief that Jesus is coming back has interfered with our ability to handle crises. In the end, it shows how doubt and reality have acted to weaken Christianity’s hold on political power.
(All NT quotations taken from the New Revised Standard Version.)
 Hunter, David G., Marriage and Sexuality in Early Christianity. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press (2018), 18. See Hunter generally for a survey and source materials for various attitudes towards marriage and sex among the early Christians.
 See Ehrman, Bart D., Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife. New York: Simon & Schuster (2020), 262–65.
 Couenhoven, 366.
 Augustine’s understanding of concupiscence is complex, extending far beyond sexual lust. See Couenhoven (372–76) for an explanation.
 Hunter (536), with citations to On the Excellence of Marriage.
 E.g., Augustine Against the Pelagians, I.33, On the Excellence of Marriage, I.11, and Marriage and Desire I.16.
 Pope Francis acknowledged the reality of evolution in 2015, though without addressing the conflict that had troubled Pius (Francis, In Honor of Benedict XVI).
Share Bart’s Post on These Platforms