God’s Commandment vs. Paul’s Opinion

The first commandment

[28] And God blessed them, saying: Increase and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it, and rule over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air, and all living creatures that move upon the earth.

Genesis 1, 28.

Jovinian had noted that God’s first commandment was to Adam and Eve to be fruitful (increase), multiply and to fill the earth. Even before the commandment not to eat from the tree of life God commanded that man and woman procreate. Jerome is presented with an uphill battle to defend his take on marriage and virginity. Jovinian’s point is clear and obviously biblical. To make matters worse Jovinian did not fail to point out that what Paul says about marriage and virginity – the very argument Jerome based his argument for virginal superiority on – is merely Paul’s opinion and specifically not a commandment of the Lord:

[6] But I speak this by indulgence, not by commandment. [7] For I would that all men were even as myself: but every one hath his proper gift from God; one after this manner, and another after that. [8] But I say to the unmarried, and to the widows: It is good for them if they so continue, even as I. [9] But if they do not contain themselves, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to be burnt. [10] But to them that are married, not I but the Lord commandeth, that the wife depart not from her husband.

1 Corinthians 7, 6-10.

The virgin-life is not commaned by God but suggested by Paul. That the marriage bond not be broken is not a suggestion by Paul but a commandment from God! The contrast is sharp and complete. It will be Jerome’s Herculean task to prove Jovinian wrong as he himself admits:

Here our opponent goes utterly wild with exultation: this is his strongest battering-ram with which he shakes the walls of virginity.

Jerome, Against Jovinian, Bk I, par. 12.

Jovinian argues that:

The Apostle confesses that as regards virgins he has no commandment of the Lord, and he who had with authority laid down the law respecting husbands and wives, does not dare to command what the Lord has not enjoined.

Jerome, Against Jovinian, Bk I par 12.*

Jerome counters that in spite of there not being a command of the Lord that Christians must be virgins, it is obvious that virginity is a higher – namely angelic – way of life. It is not at all surprising that virginity is merely recommended because if virginity were commanded it would imply that marriage is punishable and therefore condemned. That is a bridge Jerome is not willing to cross and he therefore, at least technically, remains outside the camp of the Manicheans.

It is not good to marry

Jerome’s argument against Jovinian begins with reference to the Apostle’s words that he does not have a commandment of the Lord regarding virgins. According to Jerome the Apostle’s meaning should be clear:

The Apostle will reply: Do you wish me to give orders where the Lord has offered a favour rather than laid down a law? The great Creator and Fashioner,knowing the weakness of the vessel which he made, left virginity open to those whom He addressed; and shall I, the teacher of the Gentiles, who have become all things to all men that I might gain all, shall I lay upon the necks of weak believers from the very first the burden of perpetual chastity? Let them begin with short periods of release from the marriage bond, and give themselves unto prayer, that when they have tasted the sweets of chastity they may desire the perpetual possession of that wherewith they were temporarily delighted.

Jerome, Against Jovinian, Bk I par 12.

In other words: the virginal life is not easy. It is a difficult and arduous journey. The reward is certainly fitting for the effort, but in order not to have the “weaker” Christians drop out of the Christian life (for all Chritians are called to pray always and thus to realise the angelic life as much as their situation allows) all together. Paul provides a gradual way to enter the path of virginity. We come back to St. Paul’s not having a commandment for virginity:

[25] Now concerning virgins, I have no commandment of the Lord; but I give counsel, as having obtained mercy of the Lord, to be faithful. [26] I think therefore that this is good for the present necessity, that it is good for a man so to be.

1 Corinthians 7, 25-26

Jerome asserts that since it is good for a man to be a virgin it is consequently bad for a man to be married (Bk I, par. 12). But Jerome does not stop here. he continues to show that marriage is in fact condemned :

I think, therefore, he says, that this is good for the present distress. What is this distress which, in contempt of the marriage tie, longs for the liberty of virginity? Woe unto them that are with child and to them that give suck in those days. We have not here a condemnation of harlots and brothels, of whose damnation there is no doubt, but of the swelling womb, and wailing infancy, the fruit as well as the work of marriage. For it is good for a man so to be. If it is good for a man so to be, it is bad for a man not so to be.

Jerome, Against Jovinian, Bk. I, par. 12.

The conclusion must therefore be that even though marriage is not a sin, it is of less value when compared to virginity and it can even be said that the fruit and work of marriage is in fact condemned by the Lord. Not marriage itself, Jerome is careful not to cross over into heresy, is condemned but procreation is. We have now come to the point where the first commandment and the blessing of Genesis 1, 28 and 7, 9 must be considered and interpreted. Marriage is not to be undone, and divorce is certainly not allowed by Jerome. But Jerome has set up a very different approach to understanding the story of God blessing and commanding humanity to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth.

to be continued

Fr. Gregory Wassen

* It is not entirely clear to me where Jovinian’s argument ends ad Jerome’s counter argument begins in par. 12. It seems to me that it is possible that much of par. 12 which explains why one might want to live the angelic life rather than opt for marriage could be interpreted as coming from Jovinian. After all Jovinian was himself a monk and a virgin. He must have had some compelling reason that brought him (like Jerome and others) to prefer virginity over marriage. It may well be that Jovinian thought virginity preferable to marriage without wishing to deny the ascetic and meritoreous quality of marriage. If indeed salvation in Christ is the end-goal he may simply have intended to say that marriage and virginity both achieve that end in Christ. Jerome may have exaggerated Jovinian’s actual teaching on how marriage and virginity are of equal merit.



About Father Gregory

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