Augustine: On polygamy

I’ve been reading Augustine’s little work “On Christian Teaching,” recently. In it, I came upon his interesting discussion of polygamy in the Old Testament.

Augustine uses the topic of Old Testament polygamy to make a point about the necessity of reading and interpreting Scripture with an understanding that it offers different instructions and teaching to different people depending on their need.

When interpreting the examples of virtuous polygamy in the Old Testament, Augustine writes that God wants us to see that human practices that we condemn can be used for good purposes and practices that we praise can be used for  damnable ends.

In the times and conditions of the Old Testament, therefore, a man could have several wives for the purposes of producing many children and remain chaste if his sexual relations with them were aimed at this good purpose of reproduction. In contrast, Augustine writes, a fifth century Christian could be faithfully married to one woman but be consumed by lust in his sexual relations, using her body only as a means to satisfy his appetites. In the conditions of the Old Testament, he writes, polygamy was a duty for the good of the people as a whole, but one that was practiced justly only with an absence of lust. By the fifth century, however, the conditions no longer required such arrangements, and so polygamy is condemned outright.

I share this without really knowing what to make of it or how to incorporate it into my own understanding of sexual holiness and theology. Here are a few reactions I have.

  1. Augustine assumes that sex has a purpose – procreation. He also takes as given that lust is bad. This makes him incomprehensible to contemporary American culture.
  2. His point about sex within marriage being liable to sin drives home how little we hear such things in today’s church. In many evangelical churches, indeed, it almost sounds as if marriage is being sold as great because it gives a green light to lust.
  3. His emphasis on purposes and intention highlights for me how much of our talk is about formalities. Augustine reminds me that marriage is necessary for holy sexual practices but it is not sufficient. Sex that honors God’s intention for human sexuality requires more than a wedding ring.
  4. I am struck by Augustine’s trust in the harmony of Scripture and the revelation of God. When confronted by the contradiction between Old Testament polygamy and New Testament condemnation of the practice, he does not declare part of Scripture as inconsistent with the nature of God or declare the Bible unreliable. Instead, he starts from the affirmation that God is good, just, and self-consistent and seeks to understand the witness of Scripture from that starting point. This approach would not serve him well in many contemporary seminary classrooms.

Like I wrote above, these are not very organized thoughts. I wonder what any of this stirs up for you?

 

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2 thoughts on “Augustine: On polygamy

  1. Thanks for this interesting post. I have two thoughts. First, the Pope is right. We can’t divorce sex from procreation. Second, his teaching that marital relations can be sinful is consistent with the mutual submission in love Paul talks about.

  2. According to the early church, sex does have a purpose, procreation, and this is one reason that although God was thoughtful enough to make sexual activity pleasurable, the Church also proscribed activities–homosexual contacts, masturbation, sodomy–that did not or could not result in a new life.
    Given this understanding, one might still think that viewing one’s spouse with a lustful eye could enhance the probability of intercourse and therefore procreation and thus could be an exception to the general rule against lust. The fact that it is not is due to the fact that viewing one’s spouse, or anyone for that matter, with a lustful eye strips them of his/her humanity and turns that person into an object only. This is clearly not the way Christians are to view other people and is sinful in its way.

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