Christian Sexual Ethics: What Went Wrong? pt. 3

This is the third installment of this series. For the full series here is Part 1,  Part 2, Part 4, of this series.

St. Jerome

The first was monasticism. It is unfortunate that early in western Christianity monasticism came to be set in opposition to the married life, as if the two are rivals that must be judged against one another. Views on this subject were crystallized by the writings of a monk named Jovinian, who held that virgins, widows, and married women, if they are equal in other respects, are of “equal merit.”1 St. Jerome and others responded virulently, insisting that, on the contrary, virginity is of greater merit than marriage. Jerome read in this light the Parable of the Sower, where some bear thirty-fold, some sixty-fold, and some a hundred-fold. According to Jerome, those who bear thirty-fold are the married, those who bear sixty-fold are the widowed, and those who bear a hundred-fold are virgins.2 Although insisting that he had no intent of denigrating marriage, he went on to affirm that all sexual intercourse is impure and that “he who too ardently loves his own wife is an adulterer . . . A wise man ought to love his wife with judgment, not with passion.”3 The view that virginity and marriage are of equal merit was formally condemned at synods in Milan and Rome in 393 and was thereafter considered heretical in the western church.4

The first point to note about this debate is that the terms in which it was conducted are misleading. As Alister McGrath observes in his history of the doctrine of justification, merit is not a biblical concept. McGrath explains:

In Greek . . . ‘merit’ is essentially a matter of estimation. The Latin term meritum, however, is a participial form of mereri, itself a deponent form of mereo, derived from the Greek verb μερόμαι—‘to receive one’s share’. The transferred meaning of this thus becomes ‘to deserve’ or ‘to be worthy of something’. There is, however, no Greek verb which bears quite this sense, for desert is treated [in Greek] essentially as a matter of estimation, rather than a quality in itself . . . . The Latin notion of ‘merit’ clearly refers to the right of the individual to the particular estimation in which he is held by others, or the reward which results from this . . . . This observation goes some considerable way towards explaining why the Greek-speaking church never developed a theology of ‘merit’ in a manner comparable to that of the Latin west.5

There is thus no reason to believe that, from a biblical standpoint, the question of whether marriage or virginity is more meritorious will have any determinate answer. And indeed, there is good reason to think it will not. As St. Paul makes clear in I Corinthians 7, virginity is of value because it enables one to concentrate completely on serving God. In this respect it is like gifts such as wealth, intelligence, and social position, which likewise bring with them expanded capacities to serve God. But, of course, they also bring expanded temptations, such as pride and arrogance. The same is true of virginity. Precisely in being devoted to the service of God, one is tempted to aggrandize oneself in ways one would not be otherwise. Virginity is thus like wealth and the other goods I have mentioned, something that can be either a blessing or a curse depending on how it is used.

St. Anthony the Great

When we turn to the classic sources of monasticism, such as the Life of Antony by St. Athanasius, we see no concern with anything called “merit.” Instead the overriding theme is the recovery of full humanity. We see this, for example, when Antony emerges from the abandoned fort where he spent twenty years alone wresting with demons.

And so for nearly twenty years he continued training himself in solitude, never going forth, and but seldom seen by any. After this, when many were eager and wishful to imitate his discipline, and his acquaintances came and began to cast down and wrench off the door by force, Antony, as from a shrine, came forth initiated in the mysteries and filled with the Spirit of God. Then for the first time he was seen outside the fort by those who came to see him. And they, when they saw him, wondered at the sight, for he had the same habit of body as before, and was neither fat, like a man without exercise, nor lean from fasting and striving with the demons, but he was just the same as they had known him before his retirement. And again his soul was free from blemish, for it was neither contracted as if by grief, nor relaxed by pleasure, nor possessed by laughter or dejection, for he was not troubled when he beheld the crowd, nor overjoyed at being saluted by so many. But he was altogether even as being guided by reason, and abiding in a natural state.6

The best commentary on this passage is by St. Antony himself as he goes on to discourse to his disciples. He explains that virtue is natural and innate, and is lost only when the soul departs from its natural state.

Fear not to hear of virtue, nor be astonished at the name. For it is not far from us, nor is it outside us, but it is within us, and is easy if only we are willing. That they may get knowledge, the Greeks live abroad and cross the sea, but we have no need to depart from home for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, nor to cross the sea for the sake of virtue. For the Lord aforetime has said, “The kingdom of heaven is within you.” Wherefore virtue has need at our hands of willingness alone, since it is in us and is formed from us. For when the soul has its spiritual faculty in a natural state virtue is formed. And it is in a natural state when it remains as it came into existence.7

That has been the point of the fasting, the isolation, the intense prayer and warfare with demons: to return the soul to its natural state where it directly experiences the “kingdom of heaven” that is within. The rest of the Life goes on to describe in detail what Antony was like in this restored and fully natural condition, including his teachings, his healings and miracles, and his victory in debate with pagan philosophers.

The description of Antony might seem to bear little connection to sex or marriage. As I have mentioned, however, we have here not a direct teaching about these subjects, but an end run around the entire way they had been conceived. The ideal Antony describes is not limited to monks alone; it is a vision of the human soul that, if true at all, is true for everyone. To the extent that one believes it, one will seek to live accordingly regardless of what one’s calling or station in life may be. Antony does not describe what this would look like in the case of married persons; that is left, so to speak, as an exercise for the reader. In the succeeding centuries, countless married people embraced the monastic ideal of holiness as their own—not by becoming monks or nuns, but by incorporating the monastic ethos of self-denial, humility, and constant remembrance of God into their lives as best they could. We might be tempted to think of this as a sort of “compromise,” but that would be to fall back into the trap of thinking that the monastic life is intrinsically better and more pure than life in the world. It is not. The two are simply different. Part of the difference is precisely that monastics, because they can devote themselves fully to seeking and serving God, are in a position to blaze a trail that people in the world can then follow in their own way.

It is for this reason that monastic practices such as extended periods of fasting, regular confession, and attendance at vigils took root and became normative for the Church as a whole. These were not imposed from above; they grew up spontaneously from the piety of people who had encountered the holiness of the ascetics, either directly or through the reports of others, and wanted to seek it in their own lives. Likewise, the reading of saints’ lives and veneration of the saints through their relics and icons became enormously popular. This was accompanied by a growth in the population of the saints to include not only martyrs and hierarchs, but outstanding ascetics (such as St. Antony himself) and others who were models of Christian virtue.

For our purposes, the details of these practices matter less than how they affected marriage. The monastic paradigm set before people in the world a new way of thinking about their married life, as the arena in which they have been called to pursue holiness. After all, one need not be a monk to practice charity, hospitality, forgiveness, and self-denial. The sacrifices of a mother in caring for her children, or of a father in providing his family with food and shelter, may well take this form. The point is not that most married people became saints, for obviously they did not. It is that the ancient ways of thinking about marriage—as a means of legitimizing children and providing mutual comfort and support—were now enriched by a new level of meaning. Marriage became a spiritual undertaking in a way it had not been before, and this realization carried with it new abilities to endure hardship and persevere in the face of challenge and loss.

Sex, as so integral a part of marriage, was naturally included in this process. But here the transformation was even more indirect, for the early Christians, living in the hypersexualized culture of antiquity, were all too aware of the dangers of making an idol of sexual pleasure. For the most part they continued to insist, as had some pagan moralists, that the only legitimate purpose for sex even in marriage is procreation. Yet in light of the Genesis story, this very insistence took on new meaning. This shift of perspective was encouraged by a linguistic coincidence (if that is what it is). Where the Masoretic text speaks of God bringing a deep sleep (tardema) upon Adam prior to removing his rib to create Eve, the Septuagint says instead that “God brought ecstasy (ekstasin) upon Adam, and he slept” (Gen. 2:21, LXX). St. Methodius of Olympus takes this to mean that the sleep of Adam was a “type” or foreshadowing of sexual ecstasy.

The ecstatic sleep into which God put the first man was a type (προδιατυπουμένη) of man’s enchantment in love, when in his thirst for children he falls into a trance, lulled to sleep by the pleasures of procreation, in order that a new human being, as I have said, might be formed from the material that is drawn from his flesh and bone . . . . Hence rightly it is said that “therefore a man shall leave his father and mother” (Gen. 2:24): for man made one with woman in the embrace of love is overcome by the procreative desire and completely forgets everything else; he offers his rib to his divine Creator to be removed in order that he himself, the father, may appear once again in a son.8

The pleasure of sex is seen here as a concomitant of its “ecstatic” character, where this is understood not only subjectively (as extreme pleasure to the point of the loss of self-awareness) but also objectively, as a kind of “standing forth” (ek-stasis) of one’s being to create another person. Methodius’s interpretation is aided by ancient physiology, for it was a widespread view in antiquity (found in Plato and some medical writers) that semen is formed from bone marrow and is thus, in effect, a kind of liquid bone.9 It is in this sense that a man during sex “offers his rib to the divine Creator” so that the Creator may make it, as He did once before, into a new human being.10

So far as I know, this interpretation of Genesis 2 was unique in patristic literature. Nonetheless, Methodius was not alone in his positive view of sexual pleasure. St. John Chrysostom viewed sexual desire as having been given to humanity, not only for procreation, but as a way of binding husband and wife together despite the hurts and resentments occasioned by the Fall.11 He saw sexual pleasure in the same fundamentally positive light, considering it, much as had Methodius, as an extension of the desire for offspring. 

How do they [husband and wife] become one flesh? As if she were gold receiving the purest of gold, the woman receives the man’s seed with rich pleasure, and within her it is nourished, cherished, and refined. It is mingled with her own substance and she then returns it as a child! The child is a bridge connecting mother to father, so the three become one flesh, as when two cities divided by a river are joined by a bridge . . . . But suppose there is no child; do they then remain two and not one? No; their intercourse effects the joining of their bodies, and they are made one, just as when perfume is mixed with ointment.12

Elsewhere he allows that intercourse into old age is not blamable, even though children are no longer possible.13 This softens considerably the idea that the purpose of sex is procreation, leaving it as a general rule that is true broadly or for the most part but does not constitute a standard for deciding the legitimacy of particular acts.

Despite the positive character of these views, they still place sex and sexual pleasure in a fundamentally biological light, as natural concomitants of the desire to reproduce. Although the Church Fathers say much about the need for agape in marriage, they say little about the personal dimension of marriage that we today tend to consider so important—the desire to love and be loved, to share intimate thoughts and feelings, and to be valued for what one most truly is. They certainly do not place sex in this context. This is not surprising, for they were not attempting to write a complete guide to either subject. However, it is also true that, despite the greater equality that Christianity brought to marriage, it was still viewed primarily in social and economic terms as the means of establishing a household and producing legitimate offspring.


To be continued…

  1. Quoted by Jerome, Against Jovinian I.3.
  2. Jerome, Against Jovinian I.3.
  3. Jerome, Against Jovinian I.20 and 49 (trans. NPNF Series II, vol. 6, 386). The first part of the quoted statement is cited by Jerome from the Sentences of Sextus, an early Christian ascetic work of Neo-Pythagorean provenance.
  4. See David G. Hunter, Marriage, Celibacy, and Heresy in Ancient Christianity: The Jovinianist Controversy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).
  5. Alister McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), vol. 1, 14-15.
  6. Athanasius, Life of Antony 14 (PG 26 865A; trans. NPNF Series II, vol. 4, 200).
  7. Athanasius, Life of Antony 20 (PG 26 872C-873A; trans. NPNF Series II, vol. 4, 201, modified).
  8. Methodius of Olympus, Banquet II.2 (PG 18 49A-B).
  9. See Plato, Timaeus 73b-d, with further references in Francis Cornford, Plato’s Cosmology (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1937), 295.

  10. St. Augustine also translates Gen. 2:21 as referring to the “ecstasy” of Adam (and not only sleep, sopor, as in the Vulgate). He takes this to indicate not ecstatic pleasure, however, but a kind of prophetic trance that enables Adam to recognize Eve and to then utter divinely inspired words about the nature of marriage; see Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis IX.19.36.
  11. John Chrysostom, Homilies on I Corinthians 26.2 (NPNF Series I, vol. 12, 151).
  12. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Colossians 12; trans. Catharine P. Roth and David Anderson, St. John Chrysostom: On Marriage and Family Life (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1986), 76.
  13. John Chrysostom, On Those Words of the Apostle, “On Account of Fornication” (PG 51 213), Homilies on Titus 5 (PG 62 689); cf. John T. Noonan, Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists, Second edition (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1986), 78.

About David Bradshaw

David Bradshaw is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Kentucky. He earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin in 1996 with a specialization in ancient philosophy. He is the author of Aristotle East and West: Metaphysics and the Division of Christendom (2004) and the editor of Philosophical Theology and the Christian Tradition: Russian and Western Perspectives (2012) and Ethics and the Challenge of Secularism: Russian and Western Perspectives (2013), as well as co-editor of Natural Theology in the Eastern Orthodox Tradition (2021). He also edited the section on “The Greek Christian Tradition” for Medieval Philosophy: A Multicultural Reader, ed. Bruce Foltz (2019). He and his wife attend St. Athanasius Orthodox Church in Nicholasville, KY.



  1. Thank you for this post! I am reading St Bede’s Ecclesiastical History Of The English People, in which he details communication between Pope Gregory and a British bishop (IIRC) on questions of marital intercourse. The view of sexuality therein was limited to procreation. St John Chrysostom’s view is a welcome antidote.

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