Tag Archive : sexuality

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In Part 1 of this series, we looked at two common objections to a traditional Christian view of sexuality: “What about other Old Testament rules we don’t keep?” and, “The New Testament teaching on sexuality was socially constructed and not intended for universal application.” In Part 2, we will examine two more recent arguments that have become quite popular and to some, deceptively persuasive.

Objection 3: “Later churches added the doctrine. “Porneia” is being mistranslated as fornication.”

Some now contend that there never was an explicit prohibition against extramarital intercourse in either Old or New Testaments. They argue that the word “porneia”, translated as “fornication” and appearing 26 times in the Greek New Testament , refers to other sexual sins, not premarital (or homosexual) sex. Maybe it was pederasty, or sex with temple prostitutes, or adultery, they counter. The odd thing is that this is nearly the opposite of the “cultural bias” argument. While the other argued that the prohibition was a mere social construction; this argues that the prohibition never existed, and the original Christians leaned the other way. Many excellent resources review all the exegetical grounds for rejecting this argument, but two points are in order. First, it embraces the error of the Pharisees by reducing Eternal Law to a game of legal semantics. Second, it is fatally inconsistent with the internal evidence of Scripture and external evidence of historic interpretation.

A compelling internal refutation is found in I Corinthians 7, where Paul writes concerning the unmarried:

“’Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.’ But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.” (vs 1-2).

Again, in verses 8-9:

“So let me say to the unmarried and those who have lost their spouses, it is fine for you to remain single as I am. But if you have no power over your passions, then you should go ahead and marry, for marriage is far better than a continual battle with lust.”

Twice, Paul urges believers to marry if they cannot restrain their sexual impulses. These instructions are rendered incoherent if there were any other legitimate outlets for sexual activity. If the critics were correct, Paul ought to have told the Corinthians to “quit worrying and have fun”. The critics also must reckon with the words of our Lord Himself, who declared the intent of adultery as sinful as the act. Are we to suppose that while merely thinking about “doing it” with a married person is a sin, actually doing it with an unmarried person is not?

What did porneia convey to the New Testament authors and readers? Clearly, Jesus and the Apostles were communicating with fellow Jews and Gentile converts on the basis of shared assumptions. On this, the historical record is quite clear.

Although the Old Testament law did not explicitly proscribe premarital intercourse, there was a clear expectation that wives would be virgins at the time of marriage. If that bridge were crossed, it was commanded that they would be married. (Deuteronomy 22:13-29) Abstinence until marriage (or at the least, betrothal) was universally assumed.

The Mishnah – a compendium of rabbinic sources compiled between the 2nd century B.C. and the 2nd century A.D, is unequivocal on the subject:

“Rabbi Eleazar says, even an unmarried man who has intercourse with an unmarried woman not for the sake of marriage engages in bi-ilat znut [forbidden sexual practice].” [1]

Jacob Neuser, possibly the most noted Jewish scholar of the last century, wrote:

“It is beyond the Mishnah’s imagination for a man and a woman to live together without the benefit of a betrothal, a marriage contract, and a consummation of marriage.” [2]

In New Testament times, there were two noteworthy Jewish authors whose works are well-known and well-preserved, Philo Judaeus and Flavius Josephus. Philo (15-10 BC – 45-50 AD) was the philosopher and his lifetime would have overlapped with Jesus. Josephus the historian came a little latter (37 AD – c 100) but overlapped the later Apostolic period. The writings of both illuminate what the contemporary Jewish culture would have thought about sexual matters at the time of Jesus and the Apostles, and thus what shared assumptions would have been implicit in the teachings of Jesus and Paul.

Philo Judaeus:

“Of the second table, the first commandment is that against adulterers, under which many other commands are conveyed by implication, such as that against seducers, that against practicers of unnatural crimes, that against all who live in debauchery, that against all men who indulge in illicit and incontinent connections”

The Decalogue, 168-169

Josephus:

“But, then, what are our laws about marriage? That law owns no other mixture of sexes but that which nature hath appointed, of a man with his wife, and that this be used only for the procreation of children.”

Against Apion Book II

The Didache is considered the earliest Christian document that is not part of the New Testament canon, and dates from 65-80 AD:

“My child, be not lustful, for lust leadeth unto fornication; be not a filthy talker; be not a lifter up of the eye, for from all these things come adulteries.’

The Didache 3:3

This consistent refrain continues through the earliest writings of the Church Fathers:

Origen (184-253 AD):

“Fornication in the strict sense is consorting with prostitutes. Impurity is the generic name, in the maelstrom of our bodily existence, not only for adultery and pederasty but also all the other inventions of sexual licentiousness in all the many and diverse practices.”

Commentary on Ephesians 5:3

Severian of Gabala 380-408? AD

“This is Paul’s reply to those who had written to him about this subject. He forbade fornication because it was against the law, but he allowed marriage as being holy and an antidote to fornication. However, he praised chastity as more perfect still.”

Commentary on I Corinthians 7:1

Chrysostom 347-407 AD

“Paul states that continence is better, but he does not attempt to pressure whose who cannot attain to it. He recognizes how strong the pull of concupiscence is and says that if it leads to a lot of violence and burning desire, then it is better to put an end to that, rather than be corrupted by immorality.”

Homilies on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians, 19.3, commenting on I Corinthians 7:8-9

In short, spanning a period of over one thousand years with the New Testament in the middle, there is no evidence that extramarital sex was ever acceptable within Judeo-Christian culture, and overwhelming evidence that it was not.

[For a much more extensive review of the usage of “porneia” in New Testament times, see Harper, Kyle, Porneia: The Making of a Christian Sexual Norm, The Journal of Biblical Literature, (2012) 131:363-383]

Objection 4: “Christian sexual morality has been refuted by modern science”.

The trendiest objection today is to invoke the mantle of “Science”. The obvious riposte to such a claim should be “how, where, and when?” For four hundred years, there has been a quest to redefine morality within a naturalistic, scientific framework. That effort has failed. While philosophers and researchers have made great headway in describing morality (and finding it surprisingly consistent across cultures), the mission of prescribing morality never quite made it to shore. The problem, defined by David Hume in the 18th century, was summed up by the so-called “Hume’s law”: One cannot derive an ought from an is.

“Oughts” can only be assumed. It is here that natural law comes to the rescue. If we accept as a first principle that human flourishing is a morally worthy objective, then we can develop a system of ethics in support of that cause. In that regard, science can be of immense value in identifying what methods and behaviors contribute to, or detract from, human welfare. Science cannot define morality, but it can inform it. Science cannot refute morality; to imagine otherwise is a category error.

We may be born with any number of proclivities conducive neither to our own welfare nor that of others.

A common variant of this argument is that “since same-sex attracted people are born that way, it should not be considered immoral. To think otherwise is cruel.” The premise of the argument is, of course, unproven, and the American Psychiatric Association continues to hold that “the causes of sexual orientation (whether homosexual or heterosexual) are not known at this time and likely are multifactorial.” [3] The implicit claim is not merely that they were born with those impulses but should act upon them, an obvious non sequitur. Many defenders of Christian morality allow themselves to get trapped in an argument over the causes of same-sex attraction, failing to see that etiology is irrelevant to the question of morality. We may be born with any number of proclivities conducive neither to our own welfare nor that of others. More specifically, Scripture has always held that we are born with an innate disposition toward sin. We are all “born that way.” Such proclivities are to be tamed, not indulged.

The accumulated body of scientific knowledge through the second decade of the twentieth century is no challenge to Christian morality. Science cannot prove that lying, adultery, racism, and murder are wrong, or that telling the truth and faithfulness are right. These things must be assumed. As it happens, we find them quite easy to assume because Natural Law is imprinted upon our psyche – and this can be empirically validated.

Conclusion

Over the course of this discussion we have zeroed in on objections to Christian morality that may arise within the congregation of believers and exposed the underlying errors. For the sake of young believers, these need to be taught and understood. There is no back door for the “sexual revolution” within Christian orthodoxy. We should not expect these arguments to have much purchase with unbelievers and others who reject Scripture. For them, we must begin elsewhere. But the foundation has been laid. We are not finished with Natural Law.

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  1. Sifra Emor 1:7 (94b) quoted in: Machael L Satlow, Tasting the Dish: Rabbinic Rhetorics of Sexuality (Brown Judaic Studies, 2020) 122.
  2. Jacob Neuser, A History of the Mishnaic Law of Women (5 vols; Leiden: Brill, 1980) 5. 266.
  3. David Scasta and Philip Bialer, American Psychiatric Association, Position Statement on Issues Related to Homosexuality, Approved by the Assembly November 2013.

Discerning right from wrong.

What is the foundation of your moral principles?

If you consider that a simple question, you’ve never really thought about it much.

The gut reaction of most Protestants would be “Scripture” – certainly a fitting place to begin – but when one drills down into the details things get complicated rather quickly. For decades, theological liberals have dismissed Biblical teaching on sexuality because they dismiss the Bible. In more recent years, a newer contingent rejects traditional Christian teaching on sexuality arguing that the Bible never taught it in the first place.

One purpose of apologetics is to defend Christian teaching before a skeptical, hostile world that cares nothing about what the Bible does or does not say. But discipleship begins at home, and by all measures the Western Church is failing. Sex has a great deal to do with it. On one hand, unmarried adults who are sexually active are far less likely to attend services. On the other, many young people raised in the church experience a crisis of faith when, on embracing the secular narrative, they come to see Christianity as not merely anachronistic but immoral.

“It’s not science that’s secularizing Americans — it’s sex.” Mark Regnerus

The Washington Post, September 5, 2017

A comprehensive sexual apologetic must begin with the church family. Let us begin by considering two traditional objections against Biblical teaching on sexuality.

Objection 1: “What about the Old Testament prohibition against _____[fill in the blank]?”

Many Christians, perhaps most, view Biblical Law as one might understand the US and State criminal codes: an exhaustive attempt to define and categorize every important wrong one can commit against others or the state. Yet if we assume that is the case, we immediately run into problems. Where was the law prior to Moses? What was the law outside of ancient Israel? Why were there no prohibitions against slavery or polygamy? And what about all the weird ones? These questions may seem quite challenging, but the answer is simpler than you think. For that we should begin with how the great medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas explained the matter.

Aquinas divided Law into four categories. The first, Eternal law, reflects the mind and desire of God concerning the behavior of humankind and the universe. The universe, of course, obeys. Humanity, not so much. Eternal law is what all believers should aspire to obey but is beyond our apprehension.

The second, Natural law, is the will of God imprinted upon the minds of all people in all places in all times. It is manifested in a universal God-consciousness, the universality of conscience, and the general consistency of moral principles across most human civilizations. As history attests, Natural Law can easily be resisted, suppressed, or ignored.

The third, Divine Law, can also be called the Revealed law and we will refer to it as such. The Revealed law, as found in the Old Testament, expresses Eternal Law (the mind of God) and codifies Natural Law, but with some major caveats. Importantly, Mosaic Law included much that was clearly of ceremonial or civil intent pertaining to the worship and governance of ancient Israel. Those elements did not overlap with Natural Law, and merely expressed Eternal Law as it applied to the nation of Israel.

The fourth category of Aquinas, Human Law, would consist of ordinances created by human agents. Theologically, we predict that it would reflect the existence of Natural Law, which in fact it does.

If one imagines the Mosaic Law as a comprehensive code, it had significant shortcomings. The Old Testament never specifically proscribed prostitution* or slavery – but every time they are mentioned, it is in a disparaging way. Is that not sufficient to know they are wrong? The Old Testament never explicitly proscribed premarital sexual intercourse. If it happened, the law simply demanded that the man must pay the bride-price and marry her (Exodus 22:16). Mosaic Law never proscribed polygamy. Adultery was a one-way street: if a married woman slept with another man, it was adultery. If a married man slept with another women, it was permitted if she were not married or betrothed to another, though he would still have to marry her. [By New Testament times, after polygamy ended, the definition of adultery became more symmetric and inclusive]. These examples demonstrate that the Mosaic Law was never intended to be comprehensive; not that such things were acceptable because they were not prohibited.

Christians are privileged to receive clarification on the Law through the ministry of Jesus and the apostles. When Jesus spoke of the Law, He judged the Pharisees not for their lack of conformity to the Mosaic Law, but to Eternal Law. Hence, on the one hand He could judge them for being too literal in its interpretation (their rules on the Sabbath or divorce), and on the other for thinking mere outward compliance was good enough (declaring lust as equivalent to adultery). At the Jerusalem Council described in Acts 15, the Apostles, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, ruled that Gentile converts were not subject to the Mosaic Law, but:

“Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.”

Acts 15:20

Without an understanding of Natural Law, this appears to make no sense. Other than refraining from sexual immorality [funny how that keeps popping up] and three dietary restrictions [probably to maintain peace between Jews and Gentile converts], the entire Law was just abolished? Of course not. While Christians were no longer under the Mosaic Law, they remained bound by Eternal Law and Natural Law. Lest there be any uncertainty concerning those obligations, the New Testament reaffirms and elaborates on the demands of Eternal Law through the commandments of Jesus and the instruction of the apostles (establishing a new Revealed Law for future generations). Many believe that the Ten Commandments remained in effect. This approach, however, is not without its problems. According to the Westminster Larger Catechism, the Jesus Film would be in flagrant violation of the Second Commandment, and any sort of recreation on Sunday violates the Fourth (questions 109 and 119).

When we understand the various forms of Law, it makes complete sense to declare that “love is the fulfillment of the law” – without the ludicrous inference that love is the only law.

Christian moral principles are based upon the Eternal Law of God as understood through Natural Law and explicitly affirmed by Jesus and the Apostles. The Mosaic Law is not relevant to this discussion, and the Christian apologist should not rely on it in evidence. While this may seem controversial, it is consistent with the historic teaching of most major Christian traditions. We are not “throwing out” the Old Testament, as some might charge. Old Testament wisdom and historical narrative, as well as prophecy and Psalms, remain an integral part of Christian theology and experience. The crucial moral elements of Mosaic Law are subsumed under Natural Law and the Revealed Law of the New Testament.

Objection 2: “On matters of sex, the New Testament writers were merely accommodating the cultural biases of first century Palestine.”

This argument sounds plausible enough except for the word “accommodating”. That word reverses the flow of information in a fundamental way. It implies, without evidence, that moral teaching was not delivered to the “masses”, but derived from them. According to this narrative, God really would have liked to liberate those early Christians from their sexual hang-ups, but they were just too primitive and barbaric.

Of course, that is all complete nonsense. The early Christians (and Jews) were hardly different from those in the West today – a devoutly religious minority surrounded by a licentious, pagan majority. Christian sexual teaching was certainly in conformity with Jewish tradition, and Jesus and the Apostles all assumed a common acceptance of these principles. But in the broader society, Christian teaching was decidedly countercultural.

In the broader society, Christian teaching was decidedly countercultural .

Now, there are legitimate instances in which certain New Testament instructions – I hesitate to call them commands – are socially constructed. A traditional example of this would be Paul’s extended riff on head coverings in I Corinthians 11:1-16. This has been almost universally understood as a specific application of a much more general principle: when gathering in worship, men and women should attire themselves in a manner appropriate to their sex as understood in their own culture. As explained by R. C. Sproul, “Principles are those commands of God that apply to all people at all times in every culture….Customs are local applications of those principles.”

Many such minor matters come up in the writings of Paul, who was busily occupied with teaching early Christians how to behave and get along. We can infer their moral significance by the degree to which they are, or are not, framed in moral terms. In Matthew, Jesus warned “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. These are the things which defile a man, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man.” (Matthew 15:19-20). In Romans 1:28-32, Paul describes the reprobate as “filled with all unrighteousness, sexual immorality, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, evil-mindedness; they are whisperers, backbiters, haters of God, violent, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, undiscerning, untrustworthy, unloving, unforgiving, unmerciful.” Nowhere will one find Paul’s instructions regarding the conduct of worship or church governance couched in such language. They are altogether in a different category. All commands of the Law are instructions, but not all instructions are commands of the law. Hopefully, the passages we have considered here help to illumine the distinction.

In our next post, we will look at two more contemporary objections raised to Christian sexual morality. Is it all based on a mistranslation of New Testament Greek? Has Christian sexual morality been refuted by modern science??

Stay tuned. And subscribe now (upper right) if you would like to receive the next post in your inbox!

*Leviticus 19:29 says “do not degrade your daughter by making her a prostitute” – but it didn’t prohibit her from entering voluntarily.


For a concise, easily accessible introduction to Natural Law from a Protestant perspective, see: David Haines & Andrew A Fulford, Natural Law: A Brief Introduction and Biblical Defense (The Davenant Trust, 2017).