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There was much debate in christianity over the ideology of marriage and sexuality; was it sinful or was it acceptable? Early in the 5th century around 401 A.D., St Augustine wrote pieces on his opinions of sexuality and marriage coinciding with Pauline thought in the New Testament. St. Augustine is a famous christian theologian. His main works that will be discussed in this essay are The Good of Marriage, Holy Virginity, Tractates on the Gospel of John, and The Excellence of Widowhood and they all come from the edited book by Elizabeth Clark entitled St.
Augustine on Marriage and Sexuality in which these texts are outlined. These works were written mainly to oppose opposite views coming from Pelagius and his followers, as well as Manichean theologies, which St Augustine was famously and firmly against. The topics that will be discussed include St Augustine’s views on marriage, virginity, and human sexuality.
According to St Augustine, marriage is good. That is to say, it is not the best option, but it is still a good one.
The 5th century is now at a time when apocalyptic beliefs were abandoned and structures and ethics for future christian generations had to be outlined and discussed till orthodoxy was established. This means that the Pauline belief to abstain and remain in celibacy and wait upon the end of the world was not exactly the same thought at this time. St Augustine still agreed that celibacy was better, but marriage was still good. As stated in the book St Augustine on Marriage and Sexuality from St Augustine’s text The Good of Marriage, “…according to the present condition of birth and death, which we know and in which we were created, the marriage of male and female is something good” (45).
Marriage is the union of a man and wife bonded in love and fidelity to God together. There is no sin in the union of marriage nor in the physical acts that ensue in marriage. The shame of marriage can only come from the sins of the persons in the union itself. Infidelity and adultery are sinful and shameful and should not be committed, but if they are it is of no fault to the marriage. “Whatever immodest, shameful, and sordid acts the married commit with each other are the sins of the married persons themselves, not the fault of the marriage” (47). When married the man and wife give each other their authority of their bodies. This creates a powerful consolidation between the two in which their bodies are looked after each other to not sin and only act in conjugal actions. Here it is explained, “The wife has not authority over her body, but the husband; the husband likewise has not authority over his body, but the wife” and “the violation of this fidelity is called adultery” (46). Divorce and adultery according to St Augustine are not allowed. The result of this is a sin and will require punishment. If adultery occurs and divorce is enacted then neither the man nor woman should be able to remarry lawfully and without more sin. St Augustine even states that, “…violation of another’s marriage is worse than associating with a prostitute” (50). To commit sexual acts outside of marriage is very bad, but to violate another’s marriage is worse. If a married woman sleeps with a man outside of her marriage, or a married man sleeps with a woman outside of his marriage it is worse than having sex while being unmarried. It is also worse for the person engaging in this act who is not in the marriage, to have sex outside of marriage it is better to do that with someone who is not married. Even in the face of sterility, divorce and adultery are not pardoned. The holy bond and union of man and wife are more important than the production of children, “…it is not lawful for married people who know they will not have any children to separate and to unite with others even for the sake of having children. If they do unite, they commit adultery with the ones whom they join themselves” (56). This no doubt could be trying with married couples of the christian faith. Those who joined with another person in matrimony to bear children face sin and adultery if they must look elsewhere to have a child. Marriage of this time came with complicated and strict rules like these because marriage had to be limited for it was not good. In terms of worse evils it was good but, “All will be good in comparison to that which is worse” (50). This statement rings true for the above claims as well as the comparisons between marriage and celibacy. It is good to be in marriage, but it is better to be in celibacy and those who remained virgins were better in the Lord’s eyes.
Celibacy in the christian faith is to remain a virgin and abstain from all sexual intercourse to better devote oneself to God. But, it was admitted in the faith that this commitment was hard because of our innate sexual nature and uncontrollable lust that could be more easily controlled within a partnership of two people helping each other in devotion to God and not give in to carnal pleasures. Those who could practice effective self control were thought of as better people and were, “…more blessed” in judgement (65). This practice of celibacy and the ideology that celibacy is good and greater than marriage has been in practice since the early beginnings of christianity. Celibacy on top of being an act of lifelong self control from carnal hunger, it is also a strong bond to God. In marriage the bond is with the partner, man or wife. Marriage gives in to earthly pleasures and unions, virginity allows for the time in marriage spent devoted to their partner devoted to God. Instead of being “divided” and concerned with their husband or wife they are concerned with the Lord (52). St Augustine warns those however that if they cannot remain celibate and have deliberate and effective self control then it is better to marry than to break a promise with God. This is another one of the better than the worser evil mindsets that are patterned through the discussion of marriage and sexuality in christianity. St Augustine says on this matter to, “…let those who do not have self-control marry rather than pledge themselves by vow to God, for, if they do not keep their promise made to God, they will be deserving of just condemnation” (82). For it is not a sin to be married, but it is better to be celibate. Though if one cannot practice self control and remain celibate he has broken an oath with God which is far worse than the benefits that come from the union of marriage which are not sinful if the union is just. For the reason celibacy is difficult and trying is because of our innate nature which we cannot help but have. So, only those strong and willed enough to go against their inner human nature can remain a virgin throughout their entire life. St Augustine says also on this, however, that just because celibacy and those who are celibate is better, it does not mean they may act with pride. For they are better, but those who are married are not bad. When compared to marriage St Augustine says, “…it is better not to marry, since it is better for human society itself not to have need of marriage” (51-52). To remain celibate is to be humbled by their virginity and their strong bond with themselves to God to have the self-control that is needed. For, there are many goods that come with marriage, but better goods with celibacy.
St Augustine outlines three exact goods that come from marriage but cannot come from celibacy. These goods are faithfulness, offspring, and sacrament. The good of marriage that begets children seems obvious since it was God himself who said, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth” (43). The only way christianity has known how to do this is through sexual intercourse. There may have been a way before the sin was committed in Eden but the sin was committed before the earth could find out how God had planned for multiplication to happen. Yet, more than this, St Augustine says, “This [marriage] does not seem to me to be a good solely because of the procreation of children, but also because of the natural companionship between the two sexes” (45). This companionship cannot be seen through celibacy since in celibacy a person’s devotion is to God alone. In marriage devotion is to the others partner as well as God. This good in partnership is what makes adultery such a heavy sin. To break that faith under union with God is like breaking a faith with God. It is he who judges this faith and commitment and to break it is an awful sin no matter what the reason. The other good besides faith and offspring is sacrament which is the union itself of the two people. To break this union in divorce is like breaking the faith. St Augustine warns those too in marriage however that though they can have intimate sexual relationships it is not advised to go beyond the necessity of intercourse, “ The intercourse necessary for generation is without fault and it alone belongs to marriage. The intercourse that goes beyond this necessity no longer obeys reason but passion” (53). Intercourse is only allowed in marriage with the intent to produce offspring, anything more than that may become sinful and takes advantage of the goods of marriage. The resistance to this innate human feeling is what can keep the faith strong between man and wife as they work together to be as holy and good in God’s eyes as possible, though they are not good enough to be celibate.
St Augustine also discusses this innate sexual nature humans have. His views on this matter are that human sexuality is described as “noncontrollable lust” which derives from original sin (74). Original sin being the first sin committed by Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. Original sin is passed down through conception and childbirth. According to St Augustine, “…no man is born clean” (87). He is born with a weakness for the desires of the flesh which can only be cleansed by the Holy Spirit. This cleansing, however, does not rid of that desire. It only gets ride of the sin that is already with people as they are born. Since this lust is born with us it hard for humans to be celibate, which is why marriage is seen as a good. It is natural to us and we are God’s creation, to deny to us what we desire is not reasonable. This innate desire is evil since it is born from sin but, marriage makes a “good use of that evil” (92). If it were not for the good of marriage St Augustine predicts that intercourse would not be restricted and would become immodest. Kept in the confines of good marriage, it becomes modest as long as the marriage is good and without sin in its relationship.
As mentioned before, St Augustine was similar to the Pauline school of thought with a few modern differences of the time. In fact, St Augustine actually believed that his ideologies on marriage and sexuality were closest and truest to Pauline christianity. As one can see from Paul’s writing in Corinthians 7, Paul also believed marriage was good and celibacy the better option: “But because of the temptation to immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband… I say this by way of concession, not of command…To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain single as I do” ( lines 2, 6, and 8). Paul understood that human nature had in it the evil desire for a woman and man to come together, so he saw it as an acceptable union. However, he does not say that it is something every man and woman must do. No one is being forced to marry under the christian faith because he believes that it is better to remain single and a virgin. He also believed that if one does not have the self control to remain celibate it is better to marry, if the union is good. Paul did not believe in divorce and he too saw it as a broken promise to God if one were to commit adultery or divorce their spouse. “To the married I give charge, not I but the Lord, that the wife should not separate from her husband…and that the husband should not divorce his wife” (lines 10-11). Here it explicitly says just that. St Augustine’s views match almost exactly to Paul in Corinthians even on the matters of why celibacy is better than marriage in terms of devotion to God versus devotion to earthly relations, “I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman or girl is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please her husband” (lines 32-34). As one can plainly see, St Augustine’s views very closely matched Paul’s on their ideologies of marriage and sexuality.
St Augustine’s ideologies on marriage and sexuality were widely debated but still contin ued despite Pelagians and the manicheans. He remained widely popular and talked about from ancient to medieval christianity. To this day he is the theologian who wrote the most and documented all his thoughts and concerns and even invented the autobiography. It is interesting that his claims were so disputed when he had basically the very same views as Paul, who was very influential in early christianity foundations. As one can see in modern day the views on sexual intercourse outside of marriage and divorce which were greatly discussed by St Augustine has become much more relaxed in present day. Though, of course, there are those who still may follow these laws as strictly as they were implemented then.
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