It is easy enough, and not entirely misleading, to say that Paul’s thought was compressed by the heavy weight of the apocalyptic atmosphere. He wanted his churches to live devotedly toward the coming age, during the small slice of time remaining. But that never led ancient Christians to doubt the larger significance of Paul’s austere counsels. After all, as the time between Christ’s ascension and return lengthened, the entire orthodox tradition in early Christianity chose not to write off Paul’s rigorism as a distortion of his apocalyptic lens; quite the opposite, it tended to accentuate the more extreme and anti-erotic possibilities latent in his thought. The possibility of full-blown Encratism stalked much of early Christian history. (Auden’s “Roman Wall Blues” is about right: “Piso’s a Christian, he worships a fish; / There’d be no kissing if he had his wish.”) In the second century, Clement of Alexandria held fast to the view that within marriage, only sex solely for the purpose of procreation was permissible. Not until the Jovinianist controversy was extinguished in the late fourth century, and Augustine’s tour de force “Of the Good of Marriage” was written, did it become completely clear within Christianity that marriage could be a genuine good and not merely some kind of lesser evil.
Over this same span of centuries, the Church gradually worked out another revolutionary implication of Paul’s message: Sexual morality would require moral agency for all persons, even those whose bodies were beyond the field of vision for ancient thinkers. In today’s terms, Christian sexual morality was inclusive. To be sure, Paul hardly announced the legal emancipation of the unfree. But already (so I have argued, though not all agree) Paul’s ban on porneia restricted one of the slave-owner’s most ordinary prerogatives: sexual access to his slaves. We can trace a dawning awareness in the early Church, unlike anything in pagan antiquity, of the sexual integrity of all persons. By the fifth century, Christian emperors were actually taking proactive (if still, by our standards, limited) measures to protect the bodily integrity of vulnerable women. The heightened place of sexuality in the overarching structure of morality, the respect for the human dignity of all persons, and the insistence on the value of the transcendent and sacred over the secular and the civic—these all went hand in hand in the growth of Christian culture.
Paul’s prohibition on fornication, his highly qualified acceptance of the practical necessity of marriage, and the liberatory movement of Christian individualism form a coherent ethic: For the early Christians, sexual morality was woven inseparably into their whole effort to live rightly in the world. Sex, by its essence, is entangled in the most fundamental questions about the nature of the self and its relation to God. Once launched, the revolution was not easily contained, and when the early Christians tore sexual morality away from the familiar outlines provided by the civic background, the repercussions were not confined to one discrete section of the moral code. Sex came to occupy a place in the foreground of moral instruction in a way that it simply never had in Judaism, or even the most stringent pagan philosophies. The conspicuous austerity of the early Christians caught the eye of early observers, including the Greek doctor Galen. In the competitive marketplace of Roman imperial religion, the way in which Paul loaded questions of sexual morality with dramatic salvific significance gave the moral teaching of this small but vocal movement a particular flavor. The proclamation of the gospel and this strange, spiritualized rigorism were inseparable.
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