Patristic Thought and History
Perhaps the most volatile social issue the church has faced in recent memory, homosexuality and the issues it raises have confronted both the church and Western society. It has polarized the church and even political institutions, with fundamentalists and the Canadian Alliance political party taking a more conservative approach to homosexuality, and liberal denominations and liberal political parties, embracing it. Homosexuality is not just an ethical issue, it goes to the very heart of our Western social constructions and socio-political institutions. Questions regarding gender identity, family and sexuality are sure to come about from such a discussion. The issue of homosexuality is perhaps the greatest problem the church has had to face in the social arena. However, she has faced such issues before, or has she?
Many conservative historians point to numerous church Fathers opposition to homosexuality as proof against Biblical revisionist pro-homosexual claims. The Fathers, while differing in many other areas, did seem to offer a united front in sexual ethics. David D. Bundy has commented, Though the church fathers often disagreed about other issues, they generally present a unified voice concerning sex and social ethics, of which homosexuality was just one facet.1 The Fathers united views of homosexuality were influenced by many factors, including: their Greco-Roman heritage, Old Testament law, the New Testament (as they had it), and cultural gender norms. The question remains on whether it is appropriate for present day Christians to appropriate the views of the fathers in regards to this difficult and contentious issue.
Among the more important influences of the church fathers, were the Old and New Testament2 (albeit in its formative stages) canons. The OT canon contained two possible references to homosexual behavior. The first is the infamous Sodom account found in Genesis 19. This account has come under extreme scrutiny in recent scholarship, as having nothing to do with homosexuality or homosexual rape, but rather inhospitality. There are conflicting traditions in Christendom and Judaism as to what the sin of Sodom actually was. John Boswell comments in his revolutionary work, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, that Ambrose and Origen both seemed to associate the sin of Sodom with inhospitality, not homosexual relations.3 It seems that the story of Sodom provides a conflicting tradition to the church fathers, in the least.
The second passage often associated with homosexuality in the OT, was the Levitical code. These two passages state the following:
Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is an abomination.4
If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely bet put to death; their blood shall be upon them.5
John Boswell seems to associate these passages with a ritual impure act, as opposed to a morally impure act.6 However, Donald Wold, in his book Out of Order, disputes Boswells thesis, suggesting that the early levitical writers had no conception of ritually unclean or morally unclean, rather all imperatives were moral imperatives, because of their divine nature.7 While Wold would seem to have one up on Boswell, Boswell writes convincingly regarding the effect of these passages on Christian beliefs of homosexuality. He writes concerning the church fathers use of the Levitical text as such:
Their extreme selectivity in approaching the huge corpus of Levitical law is clear evidence that is was not their respect for the law which created their hostility to homosexuality but their hostility to homosexuality which led them to retain a few passages from a law code largely discarded.8
Boswell shows clearly that the early church fathers took little account of the Jewish law, rather attempting to reconcile their Greco-Roman cultural beliefs with early apostolic writings and practices. The Jewish ethical code was one that was largely discarded by a predominantly Gentile church.
While the Jewish law was predominantly thrown out in the early church, the patristic writers did do some bizarre allegorical interpretation that led them to condemnations of homosexuality. The prohibition against eating hares and hyenas, were thought to contain prohibitions on homosexuality and effeminacy. These allegorical interpretations were based on poor science of the day, which believed that rabbits were hermaphroditic and that hyenas were homosexuals.9 These fanciful interpretations were obviously incorrect. Speaking of Clement, John Boswell states, he believed that male hyenas regularly mounted each other rather than the female and inferred that Moses supposed prohibition against eating them must be a specific condemnation of homosexual relations.10 The most one can say about the conjectures of the church Fathers in regards to animal-allegorical interpretation, is that it is fundamentally flawed, hermeneutically and scientifically. Furthermore, present students and church apologists would do well to disregard these argumentations and hold to other, more clearer and rational explanations and condemnations of homosexuality.
The NT also contains some pertinent passages to the discussion. The texts generally used are Romans 1:26-27, 1 Timothy 1:10, and 1 Corinthians 6:9. The latter two passages suffer from linguistic mistranslation and historical ambiguity. The words in question are malakod and arsenokoitai. The first word is usually translated soft and in a moral context means licentious or loose.11 Boswell notes that until recently Christian tradition has always translated it as masturbation, not homosexuality.12 The second word is more problematic. While it refers to homosexuality, it has been suggested, and on quite good grounds, that it most likely referred to male temple prostitution, not homosexuality, per se. While, the second translation is more arguable, the most compelling text is Romans 1:26-27. The Romans passage remains the most convincing argument against homosexual behavior. Boswell does some interesting hermeneutical twists and turns in his analysis of Romans, stating, the persons Paul condemns are manifestly not homosexual: what he denigrates are homosexual acts committed by apparently heterosexual persons.13 Boswells analysis fails because he projects a twentieth century model of sexual orientations onto Paul, of which Paul had no conception. Donald Wold comments on Boswells treatment of the Romans passage as such, Scripture knows of no distinction between morally neutral homosexual inverts and immoral heterosexuals who commit homosexual acts.14 However, modern scientists are generally agreed that indeed there is a homosexual identity and orientation.15 Patristic writers and Paul had no conception of this understanding of homosexuality. Rather, there understanding was built upon homosexuality as a conscious choice against their heterosexuality, which as we will see later, was according to their own nature.
Besides philosophical and biblical considerations, cultural and historical events also had an influence on the church fathers. The Roman Empire during the 3rd and 4th centuries was facing massive political pressures and social instability. The political body was very unstable, being replaced by admirals and generals at a whim.16 This increased instability led to an urban collapse of sorts and a return to ruralization. Much like today, the values of the country (or desert) and city were often at odds. The country exhibited a more conservative morality, while the city a more liberal morality. Since the majority of the Fathers, worked out of some sort of ascetic tradition, frequenting the country or desert, it can be assumed that rural values had a definite influence. Boswell has commented that there was a polarization between the city and country, stating, There is considerable evidence that urban Christians did not share the narrow sexual views of famous ascetics17 Homosexuality has had a history of being an urban phenomenon, where they can be found in significant enough quantities to procure relationships and sex. To this day, cities often have large homosexual quarters and populations. With the ruralization of the empire, it can be assumed that homosexuals lessened in public awareness. Thus, its normality became questioned and suspect, giving rise to criticisms of it being unnatural and immoral. This subject will be taken up later.
Any study of patristic views on homosexuality is highly problematic. The Fathers wrote rather scantly on the topic, and did not give it much attention. Many passages also refer to pederasty, not homosexuality as such. Pederasty was the Greek practice of older men sleeping with young adolescent boys. The practice commonly entailed a teacher-student relationship or other such similar domineer-dominee relationships. Pederasty was though of as a training relationship of sorts, in which knowledge was transferred through the older man to the younger. However, it is obvious that a definite power imbalance existed, with the younger boy being subservient to the older man. It is in this context that many of patristic writers spoke out against, wrongly or rightly as the case may be. In the Didache, placed by some at 70A.D., we read in verse 2:2, You shall not commit murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not commit pederasty18 Pederastic behaviour was listed besides other commonly held immoralities. Barnabas, Clement of Alexandria, and Chrysostom all lambaste this form of homosexuality, saying, even, that, it is not fit to be named.19 It would seem from their writings on the subject, that they are not so much concerned with homosexuality, as such, but rather the inequitable and domineering nature of the relationship. Homosexualitys association with pederasty undoubtedly affected their views on homosexuality in general and predisposed them to be against it, in whatever form it entailed.
Besides homosexualitys unseemly association with pederasty, the Fathers were predisposed against it because of their general sexual views, which were predominantly ascetic. The Fathers asceticism was extremely critical of sexual behaviour and pleasure. Sexuality and acts were made into an archetype, defining the essential carnality and fleshiness of humanity. David F. Greenberg, author of The Construction of Homosexuality, comments as such, Sex was the essence of carnality, hence the antithesis of spirituality.20 Furthermore, most Fathers viewed sex as an evil necessity for humanity. There is little or no commendation of sex and sexuality as good in itself. Rather, its goodness is related to its procreative ends. As Greenberg further notes, The church ultimately accepted heterosexuality within marriage, for the purpose of having children. Intercourse that was not potentially procreative was forbidden.21 This undoubtedly colored the Fathers views on homosexuality. Homosexuality was inherently non-procreative; its goal was not sex for children, but sex for love or lust, depending on the individual and ones views. It is no wonder that the fathers would have disapproved of an activity that not only disturbed heterosexual norms but also flagrantly disavowed the notion of sex as only being for child production.
Gender roles and effeminacy were also reasons for disapproving of homosexual behaviour and being. The Patristic writers associated men with power and will. The act of being subservient in sexual relations (an act usually taken by the woman), which meant being physically penetrated (anal sex) and under the person, was an act that supposedly contravened the natural order of things. Chrysostom held this view, stating, For I maintain that not only are you made by it into a woman, but you also cease to be a man; yet neither are you changed into that nature, nor do you retain the one you had.22 Gender roles, were subsumed into the larger argument of natural relations and roles. Nature had somehow prescribed the dominance of men and subservience of women. Certainly, it was said to disapprove of homosexuality. However, Aristotle, who could be said to be the Father of natural philosophy and theology, actually endorsed homosexual relations, as did many Greeks. The Patristic appropriation of natural philosophy seemed to be disingenuous at best in regards to homosexuality. The Bible has little tradition of natural theology or philosophy.23 Rather, the appropriation was used as a rhetorical device to advocate their views, in a society that was governed and interpreted by the natural philosophies of Aristotle and Stoicism. Whether this appropriation was appropriate or not, is another debate.
The question of whether the fathers views can be appropriated for Christians in the present era is a rather simple one to answer. For evangelicals and Protestants it would seem at present, almost impossible. Unlike their patristic brethren, they do not hold that sexual relations only purpose is procreative; neither do they outlaw birth control, which completely nullifies sexs procreative functions. Current evangelicals are leagues away from the foundations of patristic sexual ethics. Evangelicals will not find much to comfort them in the Fathers regarding homosexuality, unless they are willing to give up on some fundamental issues. Noting this philosophical and psychological difference in belief, Joseph Trigg, states:
The Fathers certainly did not understand sexuality with the psychological sophistication we have achieved since Freud, but, on the other hand, their understanding of sexuality and, indeed, of human personhood, had a spiritual dimension we have difficultly finding today.24
This noteworthy difference is enough to make evangelicals quiver at the prospect of using the patristic writers. However, Roman Catholicism, which has kept the procreative function of sex, in its doctrinal tradition, has much more right and understanding to condemn homosexuality. Indeed, traditional Roman Catholics may be the only ones who can use the patristic writers comments on homosexuality with any legitimacy. For, they are the only ones who have kept the patristic understanding of sexuality to any degree. One cannot appropriate a belief, without first accepting its foundations, to do so would be illegitimate and disingenuous. If evangelicals wish to keep their present sexual ethics, they would do good to stay miles away from the patristic writers.
The church Fathers wrote regarding homosexuality consistently with regards to their overall beliefs concerning sexuality. However, they were unduly influenced by homosexualitys association with pederasty and some bad allegorical analysis of the Mosaic Law. Their beliefs concerning gender norms, roles and conceptions of the natural, are for the most part, in this post-feminist age, considered anachronistic. The Fathers main argument against homosexuality seems to derive from their general disdain and intolerance of sexuality and behaviour. In this regard, they should be no more shamed than their other views on gender and sexuality. However, the Fathers are an important voice in the Christian tradition that shed much light on present beliefs concerning homosexuality. Many Christians still use the supposed unnaturalness of homosexuality as justification for their disapproval, much like the Fathers did. However, the Fathers believed all sex not procreative was unnatural. Christians must come to terms with their doctrinal heritage, if they wish to continually assault homosexuality as immoral. Indeed, their consistency and legitimacy depends on it.
Boswell, John. Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in
Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.
Homosexuality and the Church Fathers. Catholic Answers (website).
Greenberg, David F. The Construction of Homosexuality. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1988.
Holy Bible. King James Version.
Kevsor, Charles W (editor). What You Should Know About Homosexuality. Grand
Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 1979.
Trigg, Joseph W. What Do the Church Fathers Tell Us About Sex? Anglican
Theological Review. Volume 74, Issue 1, p.18.
Wold, Donald J. Out of Order: Homosexuality in the Bible and the Ancient Near East.
Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998.
1 David D. Bundy, The Church Fathers and Homosexuality, What You Should Know About Homosexuality, p.119.
2 The Old and New Testaments will be referred to as OT and NT, respectively.
3 John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, p.98.
4 Leviticus 18:22 (KJV)
5 Leviticus 20:13 (KJV)
6 John Boswell, p.100-103.
7 Donald J. Wold, Out of Order: Homosexuality in the Bible and the Ancient Near East, p.107-114.
8 John Boswell, p.105.
9 John Boswell, p.137-143.
10 John Boswell, p.140.
11 John Boswell, p.106.
12 John Boswell, p.107.
13 John Boswell, p.109.
14 Donald J. Wold, p.181.
15 Whether this orientation is caused by nature or environmental conditioning is another matter, that has not been solved. However, regardless of cause, it is generally assumed that people do have homosexual identities and orientations. For the purposes of this essay, the cause of homosexuality is relatively unimportant.
16 John Boswell, p.119-122.
17 John Boswell, p.121.
18 Homosexuality and the Church Fathers, Catholic Answers (http://www.catholic.com/ANSWERS/tracts/_homosex.htm)
19 John Chysostom, Homilies on Titus 5, http://www.catholic.com/ANSWERS/tracts/_homosex.htm
20 David F. Greenberg, The Construction of Homosexuality, p.224.
21 David F. Greenberg, p.228.
22 John Boswell, p.157.
23 Romans 1-2 being one of the few exceptions.
24 Joseph W. Trigg, What do the Church Fathers Have to Tell Us About Sex?, Anglican Theological Review, Vol.74, Issue#1, p.18.