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Wai Ming Jimmy Chan: A Critical Assessment of Augustine’s View of Sexuality and Marriage PDF Print E-mail
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Monday, 31 January 2011 10:08

A Critical Assessment of Augustine’s View of Sexuality and Marriage

Referee: Dr. Benedict Kwok

Anthor: Wai Ming Jimmy Chan



Augustine is considered to the greatest theologian of early Christianity, and, arguably, the greatest Christian theologian of all times beside Paul. His theological point of view on sexuality and marriage has great impact on Christians, Catholics and Protestants alike, even to this day. It is thus essential to provide a fair discourse and assessment on his theology of sexuality.

There are usually two lines of critiques for Augustine’s theology of sexuality and marriage. The first group often claims that Augustine is being impersonal in that marriage becomes a tool for producing offspring instead of mutual enjoyment. The other critiques complain that Augustine’s view of sexuality is overall pessimistic and sin-bound; the sexual desire is like a time bomb for sin and evil actions. While on surface these critiques have some valid points, as we will see below, they often miss taking a careful examination of Augustine’s text and understanding him fully and correctly. It is thus the intent of this paper to respond to these critiques by putting Augustine’s words on sexuality and marriage in the proper context, and at the end provide affirmation for Augustine’s contribution, or potential contribution, to modern theology of sexuality and marriage. I shall first provide the historical context of the theological stance of Augustine, who stood against both the thought of both the Manicheans and the Pelagians.

Historical context of Augustine’s view of sexuality and marriage: Augustine combating the Manicheans and the Pelagians


Perhaps it would be fair to start off with the influence of asceticism on Augustine’s theology of sexuality. Asceticism is the worldview that stringent self-discipline on the body is necessary because the body is a lesser good than the soul or spirit; Indeed, Augustine had been rather intentional to fight off his traces of Manichaeism and Neoplatonism backgrounds after his conversion to Christianity. For instance, Augustine intentionally wrote on the contrast between Manichean sexual ethics and those of Catholic Christians, which was primarily accomplished in two treatises: On the Morals of the Manicheans and On the Morals of the Catholic Church, by pointing out the difference of motivations of sexual restrains – for the Manicheans it was the hatred of the ‘tainted’ body and, to the Christians, it was the love of God. 1 On the other hand, the influence of Neoplatonism on Augustine was harder to shove off. The Neoplatonists regarded the material world, including the human body as evil.2 Whereas Augustine asserted a positive view of nature, in particular, creation and the human body, when it comes to sexuality, Augustine was believed to have cast a negative nuance on it, and received blames for laying an imbalanced view for sex in centuries after him. For example, Lewis Smedes, the renowned contemporary renowned, late theologian on ethics, in his popular book Sex for Christians, describes Augustine’s mingling sex and post-Lapsarian in the following manner: “Augustine could not imagine an innocent person in Paradise turned on sexually: a sinless Adam could never have been sexually aroused by a pure Eve; Adam and Eve could not have walked with God in the day and made spontaneous love at night.”3 It is rather well-known that Augustine’s stance, which lays the foundation of subsequent Roman Catholic Church’s belief, that the legitimacy of sex is procreation in marriage. Augustine’s emphasis on the procreation purpose on marriage could be attributed to the rejection of the Manichean practice of allowing sexual relations if contraceptive measures were used.

In addition to combating Manichean beliefs, Augustine, at his old age stage, faced a strong opposition from the Pelagian bishop Julian of Eclanum, on the nature of concupiscentia (or concupiscence, or lust, in English)4. Suspecting that the elderly Augustine still remained to be a Manichaean, Julian pointed out that Augustine believed that the human body is evil because the concupiscentia carnis (fleshly desire) was built into the body by the devil, that is, concupiscentia is part of human nature, and these ideas are originally Manichaean.5 Julian forcibly argued that concupiscentia is not a natural deficiency but a sentimental quality, and that it can be directed and controlled by the human mind. In other words, he insisted that sexual desire is a good thing, a divinely willed tool for a successful sexual union and procreation. With human persons as imago Dei, Julian could not accept Augustine’ stance that concupiscentia had the power to “elude the rational and moral autonomy of the human person”.6 We shall see how Augustine defended his theology of sexuality surrounding the meaning of concupiscence in the next section.

Response to Augustine’s critiques:


The Trinity of Matrimonial Goods


Augustine’s theology of sexuality and marriage centers around the trinity of matrimonial good, or three distinct and yet inseparable goods to marriage: procreation, conjugal love and fidelity, and the symbolic function of the matrimonial sacrament which reflects the commitment of Christ to His church.7 In Augustine’s own word:


The good, therefore, of marriage among all nations and all men, is in the cause of generation and in the fidelity of chastity; in the case of the people of God, however, the good is also in the sanctity of the sacrament. Because of this sanctity it is wrong for a woman, leaving with a divorce, to marry another man while her husband still lives, even if she does this for the sake of having children…As to the sanctity of the sacrament, this is pertinent: ‘A wife is not to depart from her husband, and if she departs, that she is to remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband,’ and ‘Let not a husband put away his wife.’ These are all goods on account of which marriage is a good: offspring, fidelity, sacrament.8


First and foremost, Augustine stresses that the sanctity of the matrimonial sacrament features the mutual fidelity of the spouses, which symbolizes the picture of the Christ-Church relationship. And this mutual fidelity is based on conjugal love, which is so unique in that the couple let each other to take control of his or her body in sexual intercourse, a naturally procreative action between the husband and wife.

For the Manicheans, the body is evil in the sense that it is used by the devil and hence the procreation of body is evil; on the contrary, for Augustine, procreation is good and the sex in the context of marriage is good as well; this is not only because of procreation (which seems to contributes significantly to the overall goodness of marriage) but also conjugal love and faith. Augustine states this clearly in his famous treatise The Good of Marriage (De bono coniugali):


This [that is, 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. Otherwise, we could not speak of marriage in the case of old people, especially if they had either lost their children or had begotten none at all…9


It is thus obvious that Augustine embrace natural companionship, or conjugal love and fidelity, as another important good of marriage aside from procreation. On the surface, though, Augustine’s belief that sexual intercourse within marriage that is void of procreation purpose is imperfect, in the sense that it constitutes a venial sin, might seem odd to the modern ears. However, one must understand that his argument is based on an exegesis from Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:5-7:


5 Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.

6 But this I say by way of concession, not of command.

7 Yet I wish that all men were even as I myself am. However, each man has his own gift from God, one in this manner, and another in that. 10


Augustine argues that Paul is making a concession when he advised couples not to abstain from sexual intercourse for too long, lest Satan will tempt them because of their “lack of self-control”, a concept which will be discussed further in the next section. Suffice it to say that here Augustine points out that there is a sexual intercourse which is done because of lack of self-control, not specifically for procreation purpose, and this is all together a ‘concession’, not the best way it is meant to be. (Hence he considered it a venial or pardonable sin.)

However, one must not take this too far to think that Augustine is being negative about the function of sex. He is simply being a careful theologian of sex that distinguishes the perfect from the imperfect. In Augustine’s mind, the trinity of marriage is always prevalent – the good purposes of marriage, i.e. procreation and unity (or, in his own term, mutual fidelity that is based on conjugal love), together with the symbolic value of matrimonial sacrament, is never separated. This is to say, in Augustine’s theology, in a perfectly good marriage, mutual fidelity expressed in sex between spouses always involves the sharing of procreative power.11 (In practice, of course, actual realization of this procreative power, that is, conception, “can” be avoided by applications of contraceptives.) This makes sense, as both the husband and wife are to surrender the body to each other, completely, in their sexual intercourse (which the context almost certainly has this connotation), as instructed by Paul in the biblical text preceding the one above, 1 Corinthians 7:3–4:


3 The husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband.

4 The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. 12


In other words, the mutual fidelity in marriage must entail the selfless sharing of body, including genital organs, which provides the procreative power. According to Augustine, any withholding of this sharing of body or sharing the body but withholding its procreative purpose, induces a self-seeking element to the “conjugal love” that tainted the complete goodness of marriage, or, in other words, causes sin. One should appreciate the biblical logic that Augustine is trying to address here. Right from Genesis, the book which is so important to Augustine that he mentions it in many of his works, God ordained the first married couple to be fruitful and multiply. Procreation has implicitly implied in it the presence of conjugal love and fidelity for the complete good of marriage. That is why for Augustine, even if the sexual intercourse has an element of concupiscence in it, if it has a procreative purpose, it still constitutes to the good of marriage: “Marriage has also this good, that carnal or youthful incontinence, even if it is bad, is turned to the honorable task of begetting children, so that marital intercourse makes something good out of the evil of lust.”13

Augustine has more to say on this non-procreative purpose of sex, which stems from concupiscence in the context of his theology of sexuality and marriage. We shall see in the next section how Augustine carefully refutes the critiques on the issue of concupiscence especially those from Julian of Eclanum who took his affirmations about concupiscence out of context.




Julian the Pelagian bishop opposed Augustine’s position as he noticed that Augustine often described the human desire as a vitium, which means a deficient characteristic of the human fallen condition. With this presence of this weakness, Julian argued that it would be the devil who instigates marriage, arouses men and women to engage in sexual act, including those between husbands and wives. The ultimate challenge for Augustine is then this “what can the value of sexuality within marriage be if it directly refers to the devil, yet, at the same time, is the condition sine qua non for the realization of the physical end of marriage, namely procreation?”14 In fact, Julian’s critique is also echoed by modern scholars: Augustine seems to be supporting the theological sense that experience of sexual desire is in itself a sin already.15

The primary approach to respond to Julian’s fierce concern is to realize that the term concupiscentia (or concupiscence) is used by Augustine in several contexts. For instance, concupiscentia bona refers to the human desire for the things of the Spirit, something that comes from God or bound to God. He has also used this Latin word in reference to biblical texts wuch as concupiscentia spiritus (Gal 5:17b) and concupiscentia sapientiae (Wis 6:21). Then there is the nature desires, the concupiscentia naturalis; these are the desires of human as a person belong to humanity would have, for example, the desire to get married and the desire to have children. These ‘natural desires’ are pre-Lapsarian qualities of human as designed by God. Finally there is the concupiscentia carnis (fleshly desires), which is often automatically assumed to be the sexual desires. This should not be the case. When Augustine speaks of this term, he refers not only sexuality per se, but “an aspect of the antinomy between flesh and spirit which was to be found on the level of the disordered soul, and which, given that it had to do with the entire person, was a total experience”.16 In this sense, sexual desire shares the so-called “negative connotations” of the entire “desire of the flesh”. It is not because Augustine turned back to become a Manichaean or his traces of a Manichaean that he ‘became’ negative towards sexual desire. As part of the post-Lapsarian desire of the flesh, if not properly controlled by the will, with the grace of the Lord, sexual desire can indeed become evil and causes evil. After all, the desire is not really a bodily faculty but rooted from the corrupted human will. As such, the the human will need to submit to the Spirit of God. In short, for Augustine, concupiscence is the “compelling tendency to seek pleasure independently of reason or will”. I tend to agree with Burke that it seems more accurate to describe concupiscence as a lack of control of reason and the will on the movements of the sexual organs (E. Schmitt, Le Manage Chrétien, 95) than merely as “the passionate, uncontrolled element in sexuality” (G. Bonner, St. Augustine of Hippo [Canterbury Press, 19861, 375].17 In other words, the distinct feature of concupiscence is the lack of control of reason and will, rather than the passion.


Conclusion: Contemporary Contribution of Augustine’s View of Sexuality


Augustine’s theology of sexuality and marriage has been influential to the Christian thoughts on the subject. It is generally agreed that he has a negative view on the subject, which can stem not only from his combats against the Manichaeans and the Pelagians, but also from his personal youthful experience which was, according to his Confessions, is filled with lust. However, rather than calling it ‘negative’, I would say that Augustine is scripturally balanced and biblically ambivalent in his view of sexuality and marriage. While the latter is clearly ordained by God, Augustine made is clear that a good marriage would not work without a sacrament before God, a mutual fidelity and a readiness for procreation. Sexuality and sexual intercourse has a procreation purpose is definitely biblical according to Genesis. Despite the emphasis of procreation by Augustine, he is simply ringing the bell that the procreative purpose of sex is theologically founded. For the modern people, contraceptives are very common, but we should all re-think why we are men or women, and why husbands and wives have sexual intercourse. Are we having sex because of the enjoyment per se, or is there a social function (procreativity) and mystery of unity promoted by such act? And fallen human should certainly be on guard of the misuse of concupiscence, even within marriage. Augustine would certainly be loud in this generation to call people back to God’s purpose – and indeed, his theology speaks loud and clear for the sound mind.




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D. C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1996.

. The Fathers of the Church: Saint Augustine - Treatises on Marriage and other Subjects.

Edited by Roy J. Deferrari. Vol. 27. Washington, D. C.: The Catholic University of America

Press, 1955.

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Deferrari. New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1952.

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Canterbury Press, 2002.

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International Catholic Review, 1990.

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1 Elizabeth Clark, ed., St. Augustine on Marriage and Sexuality (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1996), 5.

2Dennis P. Hollinger, The Meaning of Sex: Christian Ethics and the Moral Life (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 44.

3 Lewis Smedes, Sex for Christians: The Limits and Liberties of Sexual Living (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 5, quoted in Hollinger, 47.

4 The English word “concupiscence”, meaning a strong desire especially sexual desire or “lust, comes from the Latin word concupiscentia.

5 Mathijs Lamberigts, "A critical evaluation of critiques of Augustine's view of sexuality." In Augustine and His Critics, edited by Robert Dodaro and George Lawless (London: Routledge, 2000), 178-179.

6 Ibid., 177.

7 Dennis P. Hollinger, The Meaning of Sex: Christian Ethics and the Moral Life (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 48.

8 Augustine: The Fathers of the Church: Saint Augustine - Treatises on Marriage and other Subjects. Edited by Roy J. Deferrari. Vol. 27. (Washington, D. C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1955), 47-48.


9 “Bonum coniugii…cur sit bonum merito quaeritur: Quod mihi non videtur propter solam filiorum procreationem, sed propter ipsam etiam naturalem in diverso sexu societatem.” in Augustine: The Fathers of the Church: Saint Augustine - Treatises on Marriage and other Subjects. Edited by Roy J. Deferrari. Vol. 27. (Washington, D. C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1955), 12.

10 New American Standard Bible : 1995 Update (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), 1 Co 7:5–7.

11 Monsignor Cormac Burke, “The Inviolability of the Conjugal Act”, in Creative Love (Findings of the San Francisco Conference on Human Reproduction: July 1987) (Christendom Press, 1989), 151-167.

12 New American Standard Bible : 1995 Update (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), 1 Co 7:3–4.

13 Augustine: The Fathers of the Church: Saint Augustine - Treatises on Marriage and other Subjects. Edited by Roy J. Deferrari. Vol. 27. (Washington, D. C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1955), 13.


14 Mathijs Lamberigts, "A critical evaluation of critiques of Augustine's view of sexuality." In Augustine and His Critics, edited by Robert Dodaro and George Lawless (London: Routledge, 2000), 178.

15 Ibid., 179, n. 25. See E. Pagels, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent (New York: Random House, 1988), 111, which references CSEL 60:108.

16 Ibid., 180-181.

17 Monsignor Cormac Burke, “Saint Augustine and Conjugal Sexuality”, Communio: International Catholic Review 17 (Winter, 1990), available from http://www.churchinhistory.org/pages/booklets/augustine.pdf


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