Sex, the Puritans, and Ontology

One of the sad ironies of history is that the Puritans are painted as kill-joys, when in fact, among other things, they rejoiced in the idea of sexual pleasure in marriage.  I suppose other Christian traditions assert that sex is a “good” in marriage, but until the Reformation it’s hard to see that in action (any pun in that sentence was mercifully unintended).  We all know Augustine’s hang-ups with married sexual pleasure.  Aquinas simply enshrined those hang ups (read Aquinas’ reasons for why incest between brother and sister is wrong.  He comes to the right conclusion, but gives the wrong reasons for it.  It’s actually hilarious).  Anchoretic traditions fare no better.  Read the introduction to St Basil’s book On Social Justice.  The author cites Basil as urging his flock to live a monastic lifestyle.

I attack RTS a lot, and I will continue to do so.  That said, in Covenant Theology class Ligon Duncan made a very astute point.  He noted that the Puritans reasoned that God instituted marriage between Adam and Eve, not for the sake of child-begetting–the text never says that–but for the sake of companionship and completion.  Anchoretic traditions fail at that point.

So What of Ontology

Some Anchoretic traditions say that the goal of the Christian is to mortify the passions.  On one level this is good advice.  Unfortunately, included in such a statement is sexual passion in marriage.  Granted, at least in Eastern Orthodoxy, it’s not actually attacked.  However, it is, to borrow some lingo from the Radical Orthodoxy groups, deconstructed and marginalized.   At least it is with the Fathers.  I am indebted to “Olivianus” for his painstaking research on this point.  Tertullian, in a letter to his wife, urges imitation of (and he explicitly admits this) the satanic doctrines of celibacy. To His Wife 1.6, Examples of Heathens Urged as Commendatory of Widowhood and Celibacy

These precepts has the devil given to his servants, and he is heard! He challenges, forsooth, God’s servants, by the continence of his own, as if on equal terms! Continent are even the priests of hell! For he has found a way to ruin men even in good pursuits; and with him it makes no difference to slay some by voluptuousness, some by continence.”

Someone might respond that Tertullian was a heretic and not a church father.  That’s technically true, but note two things:  1) everyone appeals to him as a historical witness of post-apostolic practice, and 2) it’s in line with things said elsewhere by other fathers.  Drake, in one fell move, established several points:   a) the post-apostolic church, with a few exceptions, taught angelic celibacy for men, and b) a positing of this doctrine necessarily makes Paul contradict either himself or the Anchoretic Church.   Drake notes,

 1 Corinthians 7:25 Now concerning virgins I have no command of the Lord, but I give an opinion as one who by the mercy of the Lord is trustworthy. Yet according to the Cyprian of Carthage, Paul handed down traditions orally concerning virgins. So according to Cyprian of Carthage, Paul is lying.

Quoting Taylor, here is Drake’s devastating (and in my mind, unanswerable) conclusion:

On page 186 Taylor gives his explanation of what he thinks happened in the apostasy of the early Church. First, when Christianity met the Jews, in a short time it Judaized (See Galatians). When the Church met Platonism, Platonism became a key interpretive reference point for the early Church’s allegorical method and was basically the Philosophy of the Church at least in the West until the time of Aquinas.   When the Christian religion dominated the pagan lands and overthrew their temples, Paganism was “baptized” and the pagan cyclical calendar based on the movement of the planets and the changing of seasons practiced by the pagans was transformed into the holy days of the Church (Not to say there was not also the idea of replacing the ceremonial days of the Jews).  What the Romans once called “Saturnalia” became Christ-mass etc. The mysterious rites of the pagans were borrowed and incorporated into the Church that boasted it could steward these superstitions better than the pagans could. “Catholic Answers”, the popular Catholic website can argue straw men and debate with fundamentalists as much as it likes, but the point remains that though these practices were going on before the rise of Constantine they were nevertheless taken straight from paganism and used to worship Jah; which is exactly what he prohibited in Duet 12:29-32.

Leland Ryken has given us a fine contrast of Puritan and Patristic quotes on sexual passion in marriage:

When a New England wife complained to her pastor that her husband was neglecting their sex life, the session excommunicated the man (39).

Ryken lists a litany of Patristic quotes on married sex as evil, but doesn’t give the sources part of the time.  Some of them, pace Augustine, are correct and common knowledge.   We know Tertullian frowned on married sex (even he admits he borrowed abstinence within marriage from the pagans).  Ryken could have delivered the “knock-out” blow had he cited his sources and expanded the list.

Puritan Passion

Pastor John Cotton writes, concerning abstinence within marriage, “The dictates of a blind man…And not that of the Holy Spirit, which saith that it is not good that man should be alone” (quoted in Ryken, 42).  In fact, the Puritans are able to combine the highest and most precise levels of theology with the sexual act itself.   The term “communication” is loaded with theological import, especially as it relates to Christology.  The Puritans applied it to marriage:  “”A mutual communication of bodies” (Ames, quoted in Ryken, 43).

I could quote more, but modesty and reserve require me to stop here.  In fact, if I kept quoting the Puritans on sex, Google might list this as an over-18 website!   I am not being irreverent.  This is similar to the charge that the Romanist Thomas More leveled against the Protestants:   they drink liquor and have sex (actually, More was more stern:  “they eat fast, drink fast, and lust fast in their lechery,” quoted in Ryken, 45.  This reminds me of a conversation I had with a Christian brother of mine when in college–and he later came to embrace Calvinism, for what it’s worth:  I said to him, right before he was to be married, and I meant this sort of in jest, “You know, Augustine said that married sex was nothing short of animal lust.”  He pondered that for a moment and replied, perhaps with less reverence than he should have had, “You know what?  He’s exactly right!”).


But sex is meant for more than that.  Ryken writes, “William Whately told spouses that marriage ‘will keep their desires in order, and cause that they shall be well-satisfied in each other, as in God’s gifts‘” (45).  In other words, delighting in sex-in-marriage fulfills a number of spiritual duties:  1) it is a means of delighting in God (shades of John Piper’s Christian Hedonism!  Also see Psalm 37); and 2) it orders the sexual urges themselves.


2 comments on “Sex, the Puritans, and Ontology

  1. […] said, of course we can outdo the pagans in sexuality.  The Puritans provide an excellent meditation on […]

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