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§ 107. Voluntary Celibacy.


The old catholic exaggeration of celibacy attached itself to four passages of Scripture, viz. Matt. 19:12; 22:30; 1 Cor. 7:7 sqq.; and Rev. 14:4; but it went far beyond them, and unconsciously admitted influences from foreign modes of thought. The words of the Lord in Matt. 22:30 (Luke 20:35 sq.) were most frequently cited; but they expressly limit unmarried life to the angels, without setting it up as the model for men. Rev. 14:4 was taken by some of the fathers more correctly in the symbolical sense of freedom from the pollution of idolatry. The example of Christ, though often urged, cannot here furnish a rule; for the Son of God and Saviour of the world was too far above all the daughters of Eve to find an equal companion among them, and in any case cannot be conceived as holding such relations. The whole church of the redeemed is his pure bride. Of the apostles some at least were married, and among them Peter, the oldest and most prominent of all. The advice of Paul in 1 Cor. 7 is so cautiously given, that even here the view of the fathers found but partial support; especially if balanced with the Pastoral Epistles, where marriage is presented as the proper condition for the clergy. Nevertheless he was frequently made the apologist of celibacy by orthodox and heretical writers.721721    Thus, for example, in the rather worthless apocryphal Acta Pauli et Theclae, which are first mentioned by, Tertullian (De Baptismo, c. 17, as the production of a certain Asiatic presbyter), and must therefore have existed in the second century. There Paul is made to say: Μακάριοι οἱ ἔγκρατεῖς, ὅτι αὐτοῖς λαλήσει ὁ θεός μακάριοι οἱ ἔχοντες γυναῖκας ὡς μὴ ἕχοντες, ὅτι αὐτοί κληρονομήσουσι τὸν θεόν μακάρια τὰ σώματα τῶν παρθένων, ὅτι αὐτὰ εὐαρεστήσουσιν τῷ Θεῷ καὶ οὐκ ἀπολέσουσιν τὸν μισθὸν τῆς ἁγνείας αὐτῶν . See Tischendorf: Acia Apostolorum Apocrypha. Lips. 1851, p. 42 sq.21 Judaism—with the exception of the paganizing Essenes, who abstained from marriage—highly honors the family life; it allows marriage even to the priests and the high-priests, who had in fact to maintain their order by physical reproduction; it considers unfruitfulness a disgrace or a curse.

Heathenism, on the contrary, just because of its own degradation of woman, and its low, sensual conception of marriage, frequently includes celibacy in its ideal of morality, and associates it with worship. The noblest form of heathen virginity appears in the six Vestal virgins of Rome, who, while girls of from six to ten years, were selected for the service of the pure goddess, and set to keep the holy fire burning on its altar; but, after serving thirty years, were allowed to return to secular life and marry. The penalty for breaking their vow of chastity was to be buried alive in the campus sceleratus.

The ascetic depreciation of marriage is thus due, at least in part, to the influence of heathenism. But with this was associated the Christian enthusiasm for angelic purity in opposition to the horrible licentiousness of the Graeco-Roman world. It was long before Christianity raised woman and the family life to the purity and dignity which became them in the kingdom of God. In this view, we may the more easily account for many expressions of the church fathers respecting the female sex, and warnings against intercourse with women, which to us, in the present state of European and American civilization, sound perfectly coarse and unchristian. John of Damascus has collected in his Parallels such patristic expressions as these: "A woman is an evil." "A rich woman is a double evil." "A beautiful woman is a whited sepulchre." "Better is a man’s wickedness than a woman’s goodness." The men who could write so, must have forgotten the beautiful passages to the contrary in the proverbs of Solomon; yea, they must have forgotten their own mothers.

On the other hand, it may be said, that the preference given to virginity had a tendency to elevate woman in the social sphere and to emancipate her from that slavish condition under heathenism, where she could be disposed of as an article of merchandise by parents or guardians, even in infancy or childhood. It should not be forgotten that many virgins of the early church devoted their whole energies as deaconesses to the care of the sick and the poor, or exhibited as martyrs a degree of passive virtue and moral heroism altogether unknown before. Such virgins Cyprian, in his rhetorical language, calls "the flowers of the church, the masterpieces of grace, the ornament of nature, the image of God reflecting the holiness of our Saviour, the most illustrious of the flock of Jesus Christ, who commenced on earth that life which we shall lead once in heaven."

The excessive regard for celibacy and the accompanying depreciation of marriage date from about the middle of the second century, and reach their height in the Nicene age.

Ignatius, in his epistle to Polycarp, expresses himself as yet very moderately: "If any one can remain in chastity of the flesh to the glory of the Lord of the flesh" [or, according to another reading, "of the flesh of the Lord], let him remain thus without boasting;722722    Ἐν ἀκαυχησίᾳ μενέτω.22 if he boast, he is lost, and if it be made known, beyond the bishop,723723    Ἐὰν γνωσθῇ πλὴν τοῦ ἐπισκόπου, according to the larger Greek recension, c. 5, with which the Syriac (c. 2) and Armenian versions agree. But the shorter Greek recension reads πλέον for πλήν which would give the sense: "If he think himself (on that account) above the (married) bishop; si majorem se episcopo censeat."23 he is ruined." What a stride from this to the obligatory celibacy of the clergy! Yet the admonition leads us to suppose, that celibacy was thus early, in the beginning of the second century, in many cases, boasted of as meritorious, and allowed to nourish spiritual pride. Ignatius is the first to call voluntary virgins brides of Christ and jewels of Christ.

Justin Martyr goes further. He points to many Christians of both sexes who lived to a great age unpolluted; and he desires celibacy to prevail to the greatest possible extent. He refers to the example of Christ, and expresses the singular opinion, that the Lord was born of a virgin only to put a limit to sensual desire, and to show that God could produce without the sexual agency of man. His disciple Tatian ran even to the Gnostic extreme upon this point, and, in a lost work on Christian perfection, condemned conjugal cohabitation as a fellowship of corruption destructive of prayer. At the same period Athenagoras wrote, in his Apology: "Many may be found among us, of both sexes, who grow old unmarried, full of hope that they are in this way more closely united to God."

Clement of Alexandria is the most reasonable of all the fathers in his views on this point. He considers eunuchism a special gift of divine grace, but without yielding it on this account preference above the married state. On the contrary, he vindicates with great decision the moral dignity and sanctity of marriage against the heretical extravagances of his time, and lays down the general principle, that Christianity stands not in outward observances, enjoyments, and privations, but in righteousness and peace of heart. Of the Gnostics he says, that, under the fair name of abstinence, they act impiously towards the creation and the holy Creator, and repudiate marriage and procreation on the ground that a man should not introduce others into the world to their misery, and provide new nourishment for death. He justly charges them with inconsistency in despising the ordinances of God and yet enjoying the nourishment created by the same hand, breathing his air, and abiding in his world. He rejects the appeal to the example of Christ, because Christ needed no help, and because the church is his bride. The apostles also he cites against the impugners of marriage. Peter and Philip begot children; Philip gave his daughters in marriage; and even Paul hesitated not to speak of a female companion (rather only of his right to lead about such an one, as well as Peter). We seem translated into an entirely different, Protestant atmosphere, when in this genial writer we read: The perfect Christian, who has the apostles for his patterns, proves himself truly a man in this, that he chooses not a solitary life, but marries, begets children, cares for the household, yet under all the temptations which his care for wife and children, domestics and property, presents, swerves not from his love to God, and as a Christian householder exhibits a miniature of the all-ruling Providence.

But how little such views agreed with the spirit of that age, we see in Clement’s own stoical and Platonizing conception of the sensual appetites, and still more in his great disciple Origen, who voluntarily disabled himself in his youth, and could not think of the act of generation as anything but polluting. Hieracas, or Hierax, of Leontopolis in Egypt, who lived during the Diocletian persecution, and probably also belonged to the Alexandrian school, is said to have carried his asceticism to a heretical extreme, and to have declared virginity a condition of salvation under the gospel dispensation. Epiphanius describes him as a man of extraordinary biblical and medical learning, who knew the Bible by heart, wrote commentaries in the Greek and Egyptian languages, but denied the resurrection of the material body and the salvation of children, because there can be no reward without conflict, and no conflict without knowledge (1 Tim. 2:11). He abstained from wine and animal food, and gathered around him a society of ascetics, who were called Hieracitae.724724    Epiphan. Haer. 67; August. Haer. 47. Comp. Neander, Walch, and the articles of Harnack in Herzog (VI. 100), and Salmon in Smith & Wace (III. 24). Epiphanius, the heresy hunter, probably exaggerated the doctrines of Hieracas, although he treats his asceticism with respect. It is hardly credible that he should have excluded married Christians and all children from heaven unless he understood by it only the highest degree of blessedness, as Neander suggests.24 Methodius was an opponent of the spiritualistic, but not of the ascetic Origen, and wrote an enthusiastic plea for virginity, founded on the idea of the church as the pure, unspotted, ever young, and ever beautiful bride of God. Yet, quite remarkably, in his "Feast of the Ten Virgins," the virgins express themselves respecting the sexual relations with a minuteness which, to our modern taste, is extremely indelicate and offensive.

As to the Latin fathers: The views of Tertullian for or and against marriage, particularly against second marriage, we have already noticed.725725    See § 99, p. 367.25 His disciple Cyprian differs from him in his ascetic principles only by greater moderation in expression, and, in his treatise De Habitu Virginum, commends the unmarried life on the ground of Matt. 19:12; 1 Cor. 7, and Rev. 14:4.

Celibacy was most common with pious virgins, who married themselves only to God or to Christ,726726    Nuptae Deo, Christo.26 and in the spiritual delights of this heavenly union found abundant compensation for the pleasures of earthly matrimony. But cases were not rare where sensuality, thus violently suppressed, asserted itself under other forms; as, for example, in indolence and ease at the expense of the church, which Tertullian finds it necessary to censure; or in the vanity and love of dress, which Cyprian rebukes; and, worst of all, in a desperate venture of asceticism, which probably often enough resulted in failure, or at least filled the imagination with impure thoughts. Many of these heavenly brides727727    Ἀδελφαί, sorores (1 Cor. 9:5); afterwards cleverly called γυναῖκες συνείσακτοι, mulieres subintroductae, extraneae.27 lived with male ascetics, and especially with unmarried clergyman, under pretext of a purely spiritual fellowship, in so intimate intercourse as to put their continence to the most perilous test, and wantonly challenge temptation, from which we should rather pray to be kept. This unnatural and shameless practice was probably introduced by the Gnostics; Irenaeus at least charges it upon them. The first trace of it in the church appears early enough, though under a rather innocent allegorical form, in the Pastor Hermae, which originated in the Roman church.728728    Simil. IX. c. 11 (ed. Gebhardt & Harnack, p. 218). The Virgines, who doubtless symbolically represent the Christian graces (fides, abstinentia, potestas, patientia, simplicita, innocentia, castitas, hilaritas, veritas, intelligentia, concordia, and caritas, Comp. C. 15), there say to Hermas, when he praises an evening walk Οὐ δύνασαι ἀφ’ ἡμῶν ἀναχωρῆσαι Μεθ’ ἡμῶν κοιμηθήσῃ ὡς ἀδελφός , καὶ οὐχ’ ὡς ἀνήρ ἡμέτερος γὰρ αδελφὸς εἶ· Καὶ τοῦ λοιποῦ μέλλομεν μετὰ σοῦ κατοικεῖν, λίαν γὰρ σε ἀγαπῶμεν. Then the first of these virgins, fides, comes to the blushing Hermas, and begins to kiss him. The others do the same; they lead him to the tower (symbol of the church), and sport with him. When night comes on, they retire together to rest, with singing and prayer; καὶ ἔμεινα, he continues, μετ’ αὐτῶν τὴν νύκτα καὶ ἐκοιμήθην παρὰ τὸν πύργον. Ἔστρωσαν δὲ αἰ παρθένοι τοὺς λινοὺς χιτῶνας ἐαυτῶν χαμαί, καὶ ἐμὲ ἀνέκλιναν εἰς τὸ μέσον αὐτῶν, καὶ οὐδὲν ὅλως ἐποίουν εἰ μὴ προσηύχοντο· Κἀγὼ μετ ̔αὐτῶν ἀδιαλείπτως προσηυχόμην . It cannot be conceived that the apostolic Hermas wrote such silly stuff. It sounds much more like a later Hermas towards the middle of the second century.28 It is next mentioned in the Pseudo-Clementine Epistles Ad Virgines. In the third century it prevailed widely in the East and West. The worldly-minded bishop Paulus of Antioch favored it by his own example. Cyprian of Carthage came out earnestly,729729    Ep. I, Xll., also V. and VI.29 and with all reason, against the vicious practice, in spite of the solemn protestation of innocence by these "sisters," and their appeal to investigations through midwives. Several councils at Elvira, Ancyra, Nicaea, &c., felt called upon to forbid this pseudo-ascetic scandal. Yet the intercourse of clergy with "mulieres subintroductae" rather increased than diminished with the increasing stringency of the celibate laws and has at all times more or less disgraced the Roman priesthood.



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