Sex, Puritans, and Ontology

Modified from an older post.

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). Well, Aquinas said that if sex happened in the garden, it would have been more physically intense though without bringing irrational urges, if that makes sense.  Anchoretic traditions fare no better.

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.

So What of Ontology

Some 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.  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.  We may note several things:   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.

 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 Cyprian of Carthage, Paul handed down traditions orally concerning virgins. So, which is it?

Leland Ryken (Worldly Saints) 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, e.g., 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.


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.

So, against Mark Driscoll and the Moscow, ID/Federal Vision people, the goal of sex isn’t gratifying the sexual urges themselves.  But against the angelic celibacy advocates, married sexual pleasure is also a good.



About J. B. Aitken

Interests include patristics, the role of the soul in the human person, analytic theology, Reformed Scholasticism, Medievalism, Substance Metaphysics
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3 Responses to Sex, Puritans, and Ontology

  1. cal says:

    Tertullian was a nut, but I have to give him a break. Carthage was the home to the cult of Cybelle, with naked women, phalluses, and public acts of emasculation. Maybe Tertullian was witness to one too many parades, maybe it drove him off the cliff.

    I have to say though that, having read a little Freud and Lacan indirectly and reflecting on my own life, I understand the wisdom of the Fathers. St. Paul councils a fast from sex, even as he recognizes it as a good. But fasting is something many in the Church in America are not very good at.


  2. Pingback: Review: Vanderwaal, Job-Song of Songs | Kingdom Authority

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