Two Become One, Two Become Three:

Michael McClymond
Thursday, June 7th 2007
Nov/Dec 2001

The gospel is good news for humans as sexual beings. The Bible affirms sexuality as created good by God and speaks of the profound union of man and woman in the words “the two shall become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). Marital love is generative, and children are an expression of human love and divine blessing (Ps. 127:3-5). Yet as R. J. Levis has noted, “Puzzling cross-currents of opinion have characterized the Christian approach to sex, love, and marriage from the beginning.” I hope to show that some common assumptions regarding the history of Christian thought on sexuality are not supported by the evidence, and that a reexamination of the data can be a help in rethinking the relevance of the Christian message in our day of sexual waywardness and brokenness.

One assumption is that Roman Catholicism embodies an otherworldly spirituality that denigrates sex and marriage and that sixteenth-century Protestantism changed this. Yet over the last millennium, the Roman Catholic tradition has shown a slow but unmistakable progress toward recognizing the legitimacy of sexual pleasure in marriage. Conversely, Luther and Calvin preserved key aspects of the Augustinian tradition, including its distrust and disapproval of sexual pleasure even in marriage.

A second assumption is that contemporary Christians have rediscovered the fullness of biblical teaching on human sexuality. Rather, Christians today are at risk of buying into a functionalist or physiological understanding of sexuality that misses the richness, depth, and spiritual significance of married love. The more that we think about sex on the basis of secular or biological assumptions, the less prepared we will be to resist the lure of sexual licentiousness. The Russian revolutionary Lenin stated that the need for sex was just like the need of a thirsty man for a glass of water; Christians will need to grasp theology as well as physiology to refute this sort of reductionism.

In treating the history of Christian thinking on sexuality, it is helpful to highlight the twin aspects of pleasure and procreation, first treating early Christianity and Protestantism and then medieval and modern Roman Catholic teachings. This is not intended as an exercise in antiquarianism. Rather the hope is to examine history in such a way as to shed light on the present.

Early Christianity and Protestantism

Pagan Romans were struck by the early Christians’ stringent stance on sexuality. Sex was only for married persons. Marriage was permanent, and divorce was either entirely forbidden or grudgingly allowed in cases of adultery or abandonment. Although the early Christians did not disapprove of sexuality as such (as did certain Gnostic groups), many were sexual ascetics, suspicious of pleasure even in marriage. Clement of Alexandria, writing in about a.d. 200, tells us: “The man who has taken a wife in order to have children should also practice continence, not even seeking pleasure from his own wife, whom he ought to love, but with honorable and moderate desire having but one intention, children.”

Augustine sanctioned and deepened the tendency to denigrate the goodness of sexual desire and fulfillment. He intimated that uncontrolled sexual desire (or concupiscentia) is a paramount danger to believers, with the power to derail the Christian’s journey toward holiness. As readers of Augustine’s Confessions will be aware, the sinner-turned-saint wrote from personal experience. Once he had prayed for God to “give me chastity, but not yet,” and his sexual compulsions may have hindered his conversion for many years. For Augustine lust “assumes power not only…from the outside, but also internally; it disturbs the whole man.” At the climax of sexual experience, “there is an almost total extinction of mental alertness,” and so “every lover of wisdom would prefer, if this were possible, to beget his children without suffering this passion” (City of God, 14.16). Echoing the pagan philosopher Seneca, he wrote that “too ardent a lover of his wife is an adulterer, if pleasure in his wife is sought for its own sake” (Contra Julian, 2.7). Augustine speculated that in paradise Adam had the ability to procreate calmly and deliberately, and that the organ of generation would then have obeyed Adam’s will “as the hand now sows seed on the earth.”

The quandary here is that Augustine teaches simultaneously that the Christian life is an exercise in rational control and that the sexual act is by nature a loss of rational control. So how does one keep control while losing control? And then there is a further problem of discerning motives. Who could ever be sure that his or her marital act was not “adulterous” in pursuing pleasure for pleasure’s sake? Augustine’s response was to lay emphasis on procreation, which is the ordered good that serves as a moral justification for an otherwise dubious act.

Martin Luther did not essentially break from Augustine. Although he rejected the medieval valuation of celibacy as spiritually superior to marriage, he repeated much of Augustine’s teaching on marital sexuality. Luther wrote that “in Paradise marriage would have been most delightful. The heat and fury of sexual desire would not have been so intense there.” Though Luther spoke of marriage as a “remedy” for lust, he also stated that those who enter into marriage “to avoid fornication” are “not the equals” of those who do so “looking for children.” For Luther, as for Augustine, procreation has priority over pleasure. The reformer also insisted on sexual moderation in marriage: “It is indeed true that sexual intercourse in marriage should be moderate, to extinguish the burning of the flesh. Just as we should observe moderation in eating and drinking, so pious couples should refrain from indulging their flesh too much.”

John Calvin, too, followed the broader Augustinian tradition. In his commentary on 1 Corinthians 7, he wrote of the letdown that follows intercourse: “A husband, having satisfied his passion, not only neglects his wife but even despises her. And there are few who are not sometimes waylaid by this feeling of distaste for their wives.” Sex, for Calvin, involved regret as much as rejoicing. Like Augustine and Luther, Calvin disapproved of sexual fervor in marriage: “The uncontrolled passion with which men are aflame is a vice springing from the corruption of human nature; but for believers marriage is a veil which covers over that fault, so that God sees it no longer.” Note the word “fault.” Though the passion is culpable, God “covers” it.

Puritanism showed a more positive view of marital sexuality, and this is connected with an emerging view of spouses as both practical and spiritual companions. The New Englander Thomas Hooker wrote approvingly of ardent love: “The man whose heart is endeared to the woman he loves, he dreams of her in the night, hath her in his eye and apprehension when he awakens … [and] the stream of his affection, like a mighty current, runs with full tide and strength.” Yet many Puritans retained scruples regarding marital sexuality. Since it was popularly believed that children were born on the day of the week on which they were conceived, some looked askance at the Sabbath-day activities of couples with children born on Sundays.

A distinctive of recent American evangelical writing on sexuality has been the rise of a physiological or functionalist outlook. In their widely read book, The Act of Marriage (1976), Tim and Beverly LaHaye speak of marital sex as the “legitimate, God-ordained method for releasing the natural pressure” of sexual desire, and an “eruptive climax that engulfs the participants in a wave of innocent relaxation.” LaHaye links male self-esteem to sexual fulfillment: “A man can endure . . . failure as long as he and his wife relate well together in the bedroom; but success in other fields becomes a hollow mockery if he strikes out in bed.” LaHaye tells of a man whose business went under, and he became depressed. His wife made “aggressive love” to him, and “this started him upward . . . and today [he] is enjoying a successful career.” Sex for wives, according to the authors, is less about success and ego and more about reassurance and being loved. One is struck at how purely functional and physiological LaHaye’s presentation of sexuality, or at least male sexuality, is: Sex is a stress-reducer and career-enhancer.

The Roman Catholic Tradition

During the early medieval period, the Roman Catholic tradition became even more hostile toward marital pleasure than the early Christian teachings had been. Gregory the Great (590-604) taught that even married couples intending procreation transgressed the law of marriage if pleasure were “mixed” into their act of intercourse. Some church teachers forbade sexual intercourse except in the so-called “missionary” or man-on-top position. St. Peter Damian (1007-1072) prescribed a penance of twenty-five years of fasting and penance for married persons over the age of twenty whenever an unorthodox coital position was confessed! John Brundage writes: “It is sobering, even depressing, to reflect upon the pall that the [Church’s] teaching … has cast upon the lives and intimate joys of so many generations of married men and women, who were scarcely able to beget a child without pangs of conscience and mortal dread lest they enjoy the experience and die without repenting it.”

A change appears in Thomas Aquinas, who wrote that “the natural inclination of a species cannot be to that which is evil in itself … therefore carnal intercourse cannot be evil in itself.” Aquinas continued to view intercourse as sinful if couples pursued it simply for the sake of pleasure, but he broke with Augustine in teaching that even “the abundance of pleasure in a well-ordered sex-act is not inimical to right reason. The Quaestiones morales of Martin LeMaistre (1432-1481) went further than the teachings of Aquinas and asserted that sex for pleasure per se is not culpable. For LeMaistre sex was a form of bodily relaxation and hence was good. He seems also to have had a pastoral consideration in adopting this position: if making love to one’s wife when one feels the urge is a mortal sin, then why should one not seek out a mistress or a prostitute? Yet the Catechism of the Council of Trent (1566) continued the traditional teaching that “marriage is not to be used for purposes of lust or sensuality.” During its Byzantine period, Eastern Orthodoxy was less concerned with the perils of sexual pleasure than was Latin Christendom. Married couples who did not engage in sex on holy days, or in unusual ways, were able to escape Church censure.

A still more favorable position toward sexual pleasure appeared with St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787), who argued that it was not culpable for married couples to desire sexual pleasure per se, so long as they also had other ends in view. The “chaste touchings” between married persons were necessary “for showing signs of affection to foster mutual love.” Alongside of the procreative function of sexuality, Liguori implicitly recognized a unitive function, in which sexual lovemaking served to express and enhance the mutual love of husband and wife. A century later, the moral theologian John Gury wrote in 1852 that there were four legitimate ends for marital sexuality, each of them sufficient to justify the conjugal act: producing offspring, fulfilling the marital “debt,” avoiding infidelity, and promoting conjugal affection. By presenting conjugal affection per se as a legitimate end for sex, Gury decisively broke from the Augustinian tradition and helped set the context for later Catholic debates over the relationship between the procreative and unitive aspects of sexuality.

In the mid-twentieth century, Herbert Doms presented the sexual act as first and foremost a union of two persons and an intimate participation in the life of another. Thus the primary end of marriage lay in the personal fulfillment of the spouses. Procreation was distinct from marriage itself, considered in its meaning as two-in-oneness. The Vatican II document, Gaudium et Spes (1965), basically upholds Doms’s position. Marriage is defined as “an intimate partnership of love and life,” and marital acts are called “noble and worthy” and “signs of the friendship distinctive of marriage.” Equally “marital and conjugal love are by their nature ordained toward the begetting and educating of children … the supreme gift of marriage.” Thus in Gaudium et Spes there is no explicit prioritizing of the unitive and procreative functions of marriage. But the Vatican teaching was soon to change.

Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968) taught that openness to procreation is essential to legitimate sexual activity and forbade all methods of artificial birth control. “The Church … teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.” This is based on “the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act.” Humanae Vitae treated both contraception and abortion as a “direct interruption of the generative process” that runs seamlessly from intercourse to conception and to childbirth. The encyclical anticipates and opposes the objection that one must consider the fruitfulness of the entire marriage relationship, rather than that of individual marital acts. Yet it sanctions the “recourse to infertile periods” as a method of natural family planning. Paul VI opines that a man using contraceptives would be likely to “forget the reverence due to a woman” and “reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires.”


So what should we make of this historical overview? Let me suggest three things: a reconsideration of the relation between Roman Catholic and Protestant thinking, a reevaluation of the proper role of sexual pleasure, and a renewal of sacramental thinking on marriage.

First, Roman Catholic and Protestant approaches to sexuality are not as disparate as the recent disputes over birth control might lead one to believe. Both emerge from a common Augustinian legacy that, for better and worse, has shaped most Christian thinking on the subject of sexuality since the fifth century. Unfortunately, by condemning every sexual act unaccompanied by a willingness to procreate, Humanae Vitae nixed fourteen centuries of effort to recognize pleasure as a legitimate sexual aim. For if legitimate sexual acts are defined by an openness to procreation, then pleasure per se cannot be a valid and independent goal.

Second, and balancing out what has just been said, it is clear that many of the church’s eminent teachers have viewed sexual pleasure-seeking as a spiritual impediment. Such a wide and deep current of opinion, amounting to a near consensus among writers prior to 1900, should give us pause. Though it is easy to scoff at an ecclesiastical killjoy such as Peter Damian, the concurrence of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin is hard to dismiss. Does the contemporary American church have something to learn here?

Christians immersed in a pleasure-seeking culture, and affirming the goodness of sexual pleasure, may simply be conforming to the world. If we disapprove of pleasure-seeking individuals, should we approve of pleasure-seeking couples just because they are married? Paul wrote that greed amounts to idolatry (Col. 3:5), and this is true of sexual greed as much as material. Every aspect of the believer’s life is under Christ’s Lordship, and Jesus’ followers are not to bow to Aphrodite. Sexual fulfillment is legitimate, but it is not an end-all or be-all of human life nor even of the marriage relationship. Augustine understood the power of sexual desire to captivate the mind and overwhelm the soul.

In North America, the multibillion-dollar pornography industry unveils hundreds of new websites each day, young people engage in sex earlier and delay marriage longer than ever before, and countless households are destabilized or destroyed by infidelity. The secular world does not need to hear that sexual pleasure is good. Instead it is in dire need of people who indicate by their words and actions that bodily pleasure is less important than loving one’s spouse, keeping one’s promises, and seeking God’s kingdom. And the unmarried can make an even greater statement against sexual idolatry than the married since perseveringly celibate people are a powerful witness against the culture’s obsession with pleasure.

Third, Christians need to understand the spiritual significance of marriage. The sexual philosophies of our day place a premium on variety and intensity of experience, and not on fidelity or charity toward one’s partner. The advice books expatiate on the physical aspects of sex, yet say nothing about whether the acts occur with a spouse, a neighbor, or someone one just met. The personal relationship does not matter. What matters is the sexual technique as applied to Ms. X or Mr. Y. The biblical teaching differs radically. There everything depends on the context, that is, the presence or absence of a lifelong, for-better-or-for-worse pledge of commitment. “Covenant” may be the term that best expresses a Christian alternative to today’s sexual confusion, a word that captures the rocklike firmness and stability of faithful love. Unfortunately, books such as the LaHayes’ The Act of Marriage do not provide much of a counterpoise to the secular sex manuals. They share many of the same presuppositions and interpret sex largely in biological and impersonal terms.

Of course, Protestants and Roman Catholics disagree on whether or not marriage is a sacrament. Because marriage began with creation and not with Christ, Protestants assert that marriage is not properly a means of grace. And even if Augustine’s definition of a sacrament as “a visible sign of an invisible grace” does not quite work, Protestants along with Roman Catholics should be comfortable affirming that the primary reality signified by Christian marriage is the meaning explained in Scripture: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the Church” (Eph. 5:31-32).

Marriage is a tangible, concrete, earthly expression of an intangible, heavenly, and eternal reality, namely, the loving relation between Christ and his people. Non-Christians may not know this, but Christians should. By their faithful, persevering, covenant love as husband and wife, Christian couples provide a tangible expression of a spiritual reality much greater than themselves. For this reason, the two who are one, are also three, since they point beyond themselves to the Savior who draws people to himself in faithful love (John 12:32). What could possibly be more significant than that-my tiny and faulty little marriage relationship as a tangible sign of the everlasting and unfailing love of God?

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Michael McClymond
Michael McClymond (PhD, University of Chicago) is professor of modern Christianity at Saint Louis University.
Thursday, June 7th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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