Patristic Christian Views of Virginity, Marriage, and Sex

"The man who commits adultery will be excluded from participation in the sacred rites for fifteen years. During the first four years, he will weep; for the next five he will be a hearer; for the next four he will kneel; and for the next two he will stand without communion. The fornicator will be excluded from participation in the sacred rites for seven years. For two years, he will weep; for two he will be a hearer; for two he will kneel; and for one he will stand. In the eighth year he will be received into communion."
--Basil of Caesarea , Letter 217 to Amphilochius

"The good of marriage, therefore, among the nations and peoples lies in the purpose of procreation and in the faithful preservation of chastity. But for the people of God the good of marriage lies in the holiness of the sacramental bond."
--Augustine, De bono conjugali

"It is truly just and right, proper and helpful for our salvation. You have joined the marriage pact with the sweet yoke of concord and the indissoluble bond of peace, so the chaste fruitfulness of holy spouses might be preserved for the adoption of children. For your providence, O Lord, and your grace arrange both of these: generation adds to the splendor of the world, regeneration leads to the increase of the church."
--The Hadrianum (784)

I. Important New Testament Witnesses

A. The Gospels

  • Lk 14:26, Matt 10:37, Mk 10:29—Radical loyalty to Jesus over one’s physical family
  • Mk 12:25, Matt 22:30, Lk 20:35--Post-resurrection life is post-marital.
  • Matt 19:9—Porneia clause regarding divorce (compare with Mk 10:5-9)

B. The Epistles

  • I Cor 7—Paul’s teachings regarding marriage, remarriage, virginity, and divorce. 
    (cf. 7:28ff.—Paul regards virginity as better choice.)
  • Eph 5:21-6:4, Col 3:18-4:1, I Tim 2:8-15, Titus 2:1-10, I Pet 2:17-3:9—The Household (oikos) Codes

II. Second and Third-Century

Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch—Both affirm marriage and condemn boasts of celibacy. 
(I Clement 33:4-8, 38:2, Epistle to Polycarp 5:1-2)

The Shepherd of Hermas—Permits remarriage after divorce, but urges the single life as the better choice.

Tertullian—His position becomes more rigid with each work. At first he argues that remarriage after one’s spouse dies is acceptable, then only permissible, then finally unacceptable.
[To His Wife (ca. 200-206), An Exhortation to Chastity (ca.208-210), On Monogamy (217)]

Tatian, Concerning Perfection According to the Savior—Held the encratite position (enkrateia—“self-control,” “chastity”) that sex and marriage are the result of the fall. One must be chaste and avoid sex to be restored to the original, God-connected state.

Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies 2-3

  1. Marriage and procreation are part of God’s plan for creation.
  2. Marriage also fulfills a civic function in helping support one’s people and country.
  3. Rejects the Gnostic and Encratite position that marriage is a fallen state to be rejected.
  4. Holds that some restraint of the show of desire should take place in marriage, too. Unrestrained passion is unseemly even in marriage.
  5. Chastity is God’s plan for the next life, thus to be honored now.

III. Fourth-Century

Methodius of Olympus, Symposium (ca. 312)

  1. Defends marriage and procreation as aspects of the goodness of creation.

  2. Marriage brings new Christians and martyrs into the world.

  3. Marriage represents part of humanity’s cooperation with God’s purposes, even pagan marriages.

  4. Still more honor is given to the chaste life, even while marriage is not to be looked-down upon.

Lactantius, Divine Institutes (304-313)

  1. The libido is God-given but can be easily distorted.
  2. Adultery and fornication are sinful in that they misuse God’s gifts.
  3. Sexual pleasure within marriage is good.
  4. However, chastity is the best and highest good.

Jovinian of Rome (ca. 380)—Himself a monk, he taught that chastity and married life are equal in the eyes of God and that both will be equally rewarded in heaven.

Jerome, Against Jovinian--Took a very intemperate position that praised virginity as the New Covenant and mocked marriage as animal-like and the remainder of the Old Covenant. Efforts were made to suppress the work by other church leaders. Many condemned as going too far.

Augustine of Hippo

Early Period: Augustine's views on marriage and sex develop over time. In his pre-Confessions writings, he regards sex as mostly a distraction from the higher life of Christian contemplation, but he defends marriage as approved by both Jesus and Paul against Manichean disapproval of it.

Middle Period: De bono conjugali (The Good of Marriage); De adulterinis conjugis (On Adulterous Marriages)--these in response to the popularity of Jovinian's views, despite being condemned earlier by church leaders. Also many feel he was also seeking to moderate Jerome's views.

  1. Marriage has three goods, and one more:
    • proles: offspring
    • fides: fidelity (including helping relieve the pressure of sexual desire)
    • sacramentum: a sacramental union (not in the Church per se, but in life in general)
    • societas: companionship.
  1. Chastity is the higher, better state. Sexual intercourse within marriage is not to be condemned, but as the couple ages they should give it up when they are able.
  2. Children of even adultery are valuable and can pursue holiness of life.
  3. Procreation of children before the fall might have taken different directions, such as non-sexual procreation, a spiritual “multiplication” of virtue and reason rather than actual children, or perhaps physical birth without death—Augustine is unwilling to decide.
  4. Divorce and remarriage are unacceptable. The marriage bond continues until one member dies.

Late Period: Julian of Eclanum rejects Augustine’s position as downgrading God’s creation and blessing on sexual reproduction. Sex was similar before the fall. He holds that Augustine's position is semi-Manichean. Augustine counters by stressing:

  1. Sex after the fall is always distorted to some measure by animalistic desire (i.e. lust). All states—marriage, virginity, widowhood must struggle to be chaste in heart.
  2. Procreation puts to good use the evil concupiscence of marriage.
  3. Marriage’s concupiscence softens and moderates the concupiscence of the flesh.
  4. The life of the blessed in heaven will be peacefully free of sexual frustration.


"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding