Theology and the ethics of sex: A study of patristic and medieval writings

Henley, John A (1972) Theology and the ethics of sex: A study of patristic and medieval writings. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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This thesis investigates the influence that patristic and medieval theology exerted upon the ethics of sex. We deal first with Tertullian, who argued that a new dispensation of the Holy Spirit required Christians to submit their wills to a discipline in which severe restrictions were placed on sexual relations. Athough Tertullian claimed that these restrictions were implicit in the New Testament, he also sought to justify them by means of metaphysical dualism which opposed the duties of the spirit to those of the flesh. However, the frequency with which he refers to a decline in catholic morality indicates that an important factor in his conception of Christian obligation was anxiety about the preservation of Christian identity in a social environment that was becoming lees hostile to the church. This helps to explain why Cyprian, Ambrose, and Jerome accepted his account of spirituality, even thought they denied that every member of the church had to practise the discipline it involved. The early writings of Augustine reveal that a neo-Platonic conception of moral excellence can allow for a moderate enjoyment of temporal goods, including those that the church associated with marriage. Through experience and theological reflection, however, Augustine began to appreciate the sinfulness of man and the importance of divine grace. When the Pelagians challenged his teaching, then, he was prompted to elaborate a doctrine of original sin which cast aspersion on the sexual desire of man. His theological insights led him to qualify some of the views that others expressed on the subject of chastity but he was able to assure the anxious monks that his conception of divine grace did not conflict with their conception of Christian identity. The monastic version of the Christian life developed from the protest which ascetics had been making against the moral laxity of the church. This confirms our view that patristic and early medieval ethics was designed largely to cope with a crisis of confidence in Christian identity. The monasteries provided the early medieval church with its leadership and so successive generations of the faithful had the ascetic pattern of virtue impressed upon them. An improvement in social conditions led theologians of the High Middle Ages to express new confidence in human reason and greater interest in the temporal prospects of man. Anselm of Canterbury developed a theory of the atonement in which the monastic conceptions of divine justice and human obedience were extended and room was made for an appreciation of the dynamics of historical existence. Hence he found no fault in marriage. Nevertheless, he maintained the superiority of celibacy, partly because the loyalty that celibates gave to the church was an important factor in the power that it wielded over medieval society. The premium that Peter Abelard placed upon human reason led him to challenge many traditional doctrines and practical abuses of the church but it also led him to attack the sensual nature of man. Although he denied that sexual pleasure was intrinsically sinful, then, he went so far as to claim that marriage was an obstacle to salvation. Hugh of St. Victor accepted the Augustinian account of the human predicament but his sacramental view of the world enabled him to discern something of value in marital love. The responsibility that ecclesiastical courts were assuming for matrimonial affairs also gave Hugh the opportunity to emphasize the freedom with which a couple should choose to enter into a relationship of mutual love. The cautions approval that some theologians were now giving to marital sex could not avert the romantic protest against this aspect of Christian ethics. However superficial or idealistic courtly lyrics and romances may have been, they emphatically rejected the theological estimates of woman and sexual love. The thesis concludes with an analysis of the ethical system of Thomas Aquinas. With his knowledge of Aristotle, Thomas was able to appreciate the order that reason could discern in, and impose upon, the world. His doctrine of natural law affirmed both the power of human reason and the goals of social life. However, respect for the authority of the church led him to maintain the traditional view of Christian perfection. Since he also confused the status of medieval woman with natural law and made room for the Augustinian doctrine of original sin, his account of marriage was not as favourable as it might have been. From this analysis we conclude that theological principles did help to determine to patristic and medieval ethics of sex but that the most important factors were sociological.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Additional Information: Adviser: Ian Henderson
Keywords: Theology, Ethics
Date of Award: 1972
Depositing User: Enlighten Team
Unique ID: glathesis:1972-73942
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 14 Jun 2019 08:56
Last Modified: 14 Jun 2019 08:56

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