About Virginity

Be fruitful and multiply

Most heresies and disputes of the early Church are exegetical. For the Fathers, including Jerome, Scripture is primary.The way the origins stories of Genesis are understood has a direct impact on how the body is viewed and what sort of ascetical behavior a Christian ought to be involved in. The story as traditionally understood goes like this:

  • God creates the world and it is good
  • God creates man in His Image, male and female
  • Man is given to live in Paradise/Eden and instructed not to eat from a certain tree
  • Man disobeys and eats from the forbidden tree
  • Man is cast out of Paradise by God

For Jovinian the pair Adam and Eve are positively intended by God: “a man shall leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they shall be two in one flesh (Genesis 2, 24)” which is affirmed by Jesus ” For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and they two shall be in one flesh (Matthew 19, 5), to which is immediately attached another passage from Scripture namely, “And God blessed them, saying: Increase and multiply, and fill the earth” which divine blessing cannot be fulfilled by virgins. For Jovinian the marital unity of man and woman is not only planned and blessed by God is it is of equal merit compared to virginity. The goodness of marriage is not obliterated by the Fall but is re-affirmed by God after Noah leaves the Ark and is given the same blessing to “increase and multiply” (Gen. 9, 7.) so that the earth may be filled. Jovinian next points out that “Seth, Enos, Cainan, Mahalalel, Jared, Enoch, Methuselah, Lamech, Noah, all had wives in full agreement to the will of God” (Against Jovinan, Bk. 1; 4). What is more, after the Flood, Noah and his descendants are given the divine blessing to multiply and fill the earth as well as the permission to consume meat.

The consumption of meat may seem insignificant, but it is not! In fact it would seem that one version of human physiology holds that meat is a “heavy” food which weighs down on the lower parts of the body (including the genitals) and stimulates them. On top of that eating is a sensual thing and therefore directly related to sexual desire. Diets designed by ascetics usually seek to counter this physiological “fact” by eating “light” foods and by abstinence they seek to control (or eradicate) sexual desire. For Jovinian, himself an ascetic, to advocate that “multiplying” and “filling the earth” is not only a divine blessing (it is in fact the first command given by God to humanity) and that meat eating is also done by divine permision (and is therefore good) is simply outrageous! It flies in the face of how Jerome understands the working of the human body and of how spiritual growth is even possible. This is a fundamental difference between Jerome and Jovinian and it makes Jerome’s angry response understandable, though perhaps not worthy of approval.

Jovinian holds up Joseph as the an example of “chastity” par excellence whose marriage was not a hindrance to his chastity at all. Moses, it appears, also features to defend Jovinian’s understanding of marriage. Is Miriam not stricken by God’s punishment precisely for criticising her brother’s marriage? In bringing this up Jovinian goes beyond merely asserting the equality of marriage and virginity he is using Scripture to make the point that those who criticise marriage – not unlike Miriam – are in danger of God’s punishment. Jerome, in spite of his strict diet, is unable to contain his anger at this offence and goes “thermonuclear” on Jovinian. The abuse Jerome pours on marriage is unacceptable and in spite of his protests it does place Jerome closer to the Manicheans than he is comfortable to admit. Yet I am unable to agree with modern scholars that Jerome’s Against Jovinian shows inconsistency or a lack of good argumentation. Nor does it strike me as true that Jerome is merely twisting the Scriptures to suit his purpose of burying Jovinian with his bombastic language and exegesis without meeting the latter’s arguments.

Jovinian does not, of course, merely rely on the Old Testament but he also looks to the New Testament to support his argument. Towards the end of paragraph 5 of Book 1 Jerome mentions that Jovinian takes 1 Corinthian vii to include a positive evaluation of marriage precisely in relation to virginity:

let them listen to the words of Paul, (1 Timothy 5:14) ‘I desire therefore that the younger widows marry, bear children.’ And ‘Marriage is honourable and the bed undefiled.’ And (1 Corinthians 7:39) ‘A wife is bound for so long time as her husband lives; but if the husband be dead, she is free to be married to whom she will; only in the Lord.’ And (1 Timothy 2:14) ‘Adam was not beguiled, but the woman being beguiled has fallen into transgression: but she shall be saved through the child-bearing, if they continue in faith and love and sanctification with sobriety.’ Surely we shall hear no more of the famous Apostolic utterance, (1 Corinthians 7:29) ‘And they who have wives as though they had them not.’ It can hardly be that you will say the reason why he wished them to be married was that some widows had already turned back after Satan: as though virgins never fell and their fall was not more ruinous. All this makes it clear that in forbidding to marry, and to eat food which God created for use, you have consciences seared as with a hot iron, and are followers of the Manichæans. Then comes much more which it would be unprofitable to discuss. At last he dashes into rhetoric and apostrophizes virginity thus: I do you no wrong,Virgin: you have chosen a life of chastity on account of the present distress: you determined on the course in order to be holy in body and spirit: be not proud: you and your married sisters are members of the same Church.

Jerome, Against Jovinian, Bk. I, par. 5.

Jovinian clealy perceives that marriage is a journey of salvation and therefore itself an ascetic path – if different from virginity – within the one Church with its end-goal in the one Jesus Christ. He again emphasizes that to value virginity to the point of repudiating marriage is not Christian but heretical: Manichean. The same is asserted with regard to diet. To repudiate what is given for consumption by God is not a Christian attitude but rather an heretical one, namely: Manichean. It is not that Jovinain denies the merit and good of virginity – he is himself a monk! – but he wants to make clear that virginity and marriage are both ascetic journeys and are leading toward the same end. For Jerome this is entirely unacceptable. What he perceives Jovinian doing is a denial of the foundations of virginity and true asceticism. And it is Jerome’s view of asceticism which guides his own understanding of Scripture. We must remember that we, moderns, find it easier to relate to Jovinian and are naturally inclined to sympathise with him (well … plus, Jerome is not a person one easily sympathises with). This should not cause us to overlook that our “natural sympathy” with Jovinian is based on shared values which Jovinan and us bring to how we understand Scripture. In other words: we must realize that Jerome’s reading of Scripture may seem incoherent to us not so much because such coherence is lacking, rather, we may simply be too biased against Jerome that we are unable to see the coherence in his exegesis. But from Jerome’s point of view his treatment of Scripture is coherent and honest. Jerome may be abusive and unsympathetic but he is not – at least as I read him here – dishonest in his interpretation of Scripture. For all his defects Jerome seems to me to be genuinely concerned about interpreting Scripture correctly so as to have a sound doctrine of the ascetic life and a correct practice of it. This is the stuff of salvation we are talking about and far from trivial or merely speculative.

to be continued

Fr. Gregory Wassen





About Father Gregory

I am an Anglican Catholic Priest, currently residing in Orvelte, the Netherlands.
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