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Topic: Eikon

The Ancient Paths, On Sexual Intimacy in Marriage

November 16, 2022
By Michael A.G. Haykin

Editor’s note: The following essay appears in the Fall 2022 issue of Eikon.

Words not only bear distinct meanings, but the way they are employed reflects back on the cultures that coin them. So, forexample, one evidence of the hyper-sexualized culture in which we live is the way the term “sexy” — which used to have a distinct meaning of “sexually alluring” — has morphed into a variety of spheres where the adjective would never have been used in years past: course descriptions, cars, and cameras, for example, are all sexy — or not, as the case may be! The new usage of this term even among Western Christians is surely indicative that the hyper-sexuality of our culture is re-shaping the world as well. Of course, human sexuality is important — too important, in fact, to be misused in this way.

The Puritans on Marital Intimacy

Now, this overt sexualization of modern culture is to some degree a reaction against what is perceived to be Victorian prudishness, sometimes wrongly labelled as “Puritan,” as we shall see. As Marxist historian Christopher Hill once observed, “very few of the so-called ‘Puritans’ were ‘Puritanical’.”[1] More generally, it is a reaction against what is perceived to be the Christian view of sex. But what exactly is that view? To journey through the history of sex in Christianity is to discover a number of differing perspectives. For instance, there is the clear delight that Puritans like Richard Baxter (1615–1691) had in sexual intimacy within the context of marriage. Here is Baxter giving advice to married couples:

“Husband and wife must take delight in the love, and company, and converse of each other.” There is nothing that man’s heart is so inordinately set upon as delight; and yet the lawful delight allowed them by God, they can turn into loathing and disdain. The delight which would entangle you in sin, and turn you from your duty and from God, is that which is forbidden you: but this is a delight that is helpful to you in your duty, and would keep you from sin. When husband and wife take pleasure in each other, it uniteth them in duty, it helpeth them with ease to do their work, and bear their burdens; and is not the least part of the comfort of the married state. “Rejoice with the wife of thy youth, as the loving hind and pleasant roe, let her breast satisfy thee at all times, and be thou ravished always with her love” [Proverbs 5:18–19].[2]

In a lifetime of studying Anglophone Puritanism and its worldview, J. I. Packer was convinced that the Puritans gave to marriage “such strength, substance, and solidity as to warrant the verdict that . . . under God . . . they were creators of the English Christian marriage.”[3] To take but one example, the Puritan poet, Edward Taylor (1642–1729), of Westfield, Connecticut, once told his wife that his passion for her was as “a golden ball of pure fire” and that their “conjugal love ought to exceed all other,” excepting only their love for the Maker of marriage.[4] It was thus not fortuitous that when that quintessential Puritan text, The Westminster Confession of Faith, listed the reasons for marriage, companionship came first. “Marriage was ordained,” we read in chapter 25.2, “for the mutual help of husband and wife, for the increase of mankind with a legitimate issue, and of the Church with an holy seed; and for preventing uncleanness.”[5] As Packer has noted, Puritan preachers and authors are regularly to be “found pulling out the stops to proclaim the supreme blessing of togetherness in marriage,” which surely entails, among other things, sexual intimacy.[6]

The Roots of Puritan Views in the Reformation Battle

This clear delight in marriage and human sexuality as good gifts from God had its roots in the Reformation. The sixteenth-century Reformation is often remembered as a rediscovery of the heart of the gospel and the way of salvation, but it was also a recovery of a biblical view of marriage and sexual intimacy. The mediaeval Roman Catholic Church had affirmed the goodness of marriage but at the same time argued that celibacy was a much better option for those wanting to pursue a life of holiness and serve God vocationally.[7] In fact, at the Second Lateran Council (1139), legislation was passed that only those who were celibate were to be ordained. But it was precisely here that reality collided with theological legislation, for many of those who were technically celibate priests in the High and Late Middle Ages were not able to actually live chastely. As Calvin later noted: “virginity . . . is an excellent gift; but it is given only to a few.”[8]

One of the major scandals of the late mediaeval church was thus the very household of the parish priest, who was celibate but not chaste. His so-called “cook” or “housekeeper” actually served as his concubine.[9] Little wonder, then, that Calvin regarded the Roman Catholic requirement of the celibacy of its priests as “a modern tyranny” and “doctrine of devils.”[10] Calvin’s language, while strident, is not at all out of place. Sexuality has been and still is a major battlefield in the struggle for purity and holiness. And Calvin, wishing to take his guidance above all from the Scriptures, rightly saw the mediaeval Church’s position as both out of sync with the Bible and a doorway to sexual scandal.

As was the era of the Reformation, so ours is a day in which there is an enormous battle over sexuality and sexual expression. And if the modern Church is to be wise, she must cleave to the ancient paths laid down in God’s Word.

[1] Christopher Hill, Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution Revisited (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), 260–261.

[2] Richard Baxter, Christian Directory 2.7 in The Practical Works of the Rev. Richard Baxter (London: James Duncan, 1830), IV, 122–123.

[3] J.I. Packer, “Marriage and Family in Puritan Thought” in his A Quest for Godliness. The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1990), 259–260.

[4] Cited Roland Mushat Frye, “The Teachings of Classical Puritanism on Conjugal Love,” Studies in the Renaissance 2 (1955): 158.

[5] On the significance of the order of reasons given for the institution of marriage, see Packer, Quest for Godliness, 261–262..

[6] Packer, Quest for Godliness, 262.

[7] John Witte, Jr., From Sacrament to Contract: Marriage, Religion and Law in the Western Tradition (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 24–25.

[8] Cited J. Graham Miller, Calvin’s Wisdom. An Anthology Arranged Alphabetically by a Grateful Reader (Edinburgh; Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1992), 206.

[9] Susan C. Karant-Nunn, “Reformation Society, Women and the Family” in Andrew Pettegree, ed., The Reformation World (London; New York, NY: Routledge, 2000), 437–438.

[10] Cited Miller, Calvin’s Wisdom, 206; and Scott Brown, Family Reformation: The Legacy of Sola Scriptura in Calvin’s Geneva (Wake Forest, NC: Merchant Adventurers, 2009), 114.

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