Thursday, January 04, 2007

Romeo and Julietiquette

Both Alan and the Turkoman have chimed in on the current thread. Clearly I’m moving up in the world. I’ll have to trade in my Hawaiian shirt for a Tux.

BTW, glad to see you stateside, again, Alan. And in my mother’s home state.

“[Quoting me]--How does Juan know about the guilty feelings which accompany masturbation? Is he leading a double life?”
>>Steve, you're doing a really good job breaking down this debate and clarifying it. Please don't spoil it w/ out-of-place statements like this.

For several reasons I don’t regard this statement as out of place:

i) In reading Catholic literature on human sexuality, it’s as if you stumbled across a Scholastic treatise on angelology. It’s so utterly out of touch with reality. Ethereal and hair-splitting.

Or it’s like those B-movies which are so badly scripted that you can never suspend disbelief. You know very well that if you were in the same situation as that character on the screen, you wouldn’t do what he did. Indeed, you can tell from the actor’s expression that he can’t do it with a straight face either.

You read this literature, in which a Catholic man is pretending to be offended by something that no man really finds offensive, and he expects you, the reader, to pretend that he’s not pretending to be offended by it.

And one runs across this attitude in certain Protestant circles as well when we get on the same subject.
I just want to see some of the male discussants drop the studied pose of shock and horror. And I’m not referring to you or Frank.

ii) Apropos (i), I appreciate the candor which you, Frank, and Berny bring to this issue. And one of my concerns with the break-out-the-smelling-salts swooning and hyperventilating of guys like Juan is that it shuts down honest discussion.
Men share a common, unspoken understanding of what they do or used to do behind closed doors (depending on how old they are), but even though it’s an open secret, there’s a conspiracy of silence and collective mistrust due to the social stigma attaching to masturbation in some Christian circles—even though everyone concerned may be in the very same boat.

It’s like the waning years of the Soviet Union when no one believed in Marxist-Leninism anymore, but no one wanted to be the first to admit it.

So you end up this oddly circular, self-reinforcing police mechanism where you know that I know, and I know that you know, but we both continue to enforce a code which neither of us may believe in, because I’m afraid to say what I know you already now, and you’re afraid to say what you know I already know.

It’s as if all the prison guards walked off the job and never came back, but years later, none of the prisoners had ventured outside the prison walls, but had, instead, taken to guarding one another so that no one was allowed to escape. I won’t let you escape because you won’t let me escape, and you won’t let me escape because I won’t let you escape. A self-imprisoning captivity—born of mutual fear.

iii) Another reason I bring it up is that if the very men who are castigating masturbation as a mortal sin or damnable transgression are obviously complicit in the very same activity, then it raises the question of whether their code of conduct is viable.

As you know, Francis Schaeffer use to argue that non-Christian worldviews were simply unlivable. They said one thing on paper, but in practice…well…it was impossible to put into practice.

Contrary to popular and hostile representations of the Bible, the Bible is a very practical, down-to-earth book.

Indeed, one of the ironic criticisms of Scripture is that it’s too realistic and down-to-earth.

Now, since we’re sinners, there’s a sense in which Scripture sets the moral bar out of reach. Yet what the Bible condemns isn’t nature, but fallen nature.

“So far in the discussion you've been dealing w/ the act itself, which I can understand. I would like to know your thoughts on it in relation to the fact that SO MUCH of the time, the act is accompanied by lustful thoughts (I speak from personal exp as well as common sense). Obviously, that would make it sinful. Given that, this debate is mostly academic.”

Except that it isn’t obviously sinful. The problem is that “lust” is a loaded word with negative connotations. Thus, whenever that word pops up in a traditional translation or discussions thereof, people assume that a sinful desire must be in view.

The mere word has acquired a free-floating life of its own. So whenever the word is employed, it triggers the adventitious associations. And that, in turn, prejudges the interpretation.

But as France points out in his commentary, the desire in view isn’t sexual desire generally, but a *forbidden* desire. And what makes it a forbidden desire isn’t that the object of desire happens to be a woman in general, but *married* women in particular—the wife of another man.

The text needs to be interpreted on its own terms, according to whatever literary allusions are in play. It’s wrong to load it up with extraneous overtones.


“Steve. Carson aside, don't Jesus' comments on this matter coincide with Paul's admonition that it is better to marry than it is to burn with passion? (1Cor 7).”

They’re complementary, but I’m not sure of how that’s relevant to the point you’re trying to make.

“I think you are right about one thing: the Bible is almost silent on the matter of masturbation -- but not quite. But it seems to talk around the matter a good bit. Deu 23 says one becomes unclean because of a nocturnal emission of semen; Lev 15 talks about a variety of emissions making a man unclean. None of these are treated, I admit, as ‘take a sacrifice to the temple’ sort of uncleanliness -- you wash your hands and your clothes and you are unclean until the next day. But I think we also can't take all of these examples as demonstrations of utter silence on this matter.”

A couple of issues:

i) My basic point is that Scripture isn’t bashful about spelling out exactly what it means when condemning sexual sin. So, given the fact that masturbation is so prevalent, if it were a sin, it’s surprising that Scripture doesn’t come right out and say so.

That, of itself, isn’t a knockdown argument one way or the other. But I think it does create a presumption against assuming that masturbation is intrinsically evil.

ii) I agree with you that some passages of Scripture are relevant to the moral status of masturbation. So what about Lev 15 and Deut 23?

a) In Lev 15, a nocturnal emission is discussed in the same breath as conjugal intercourse and menstruation. All three contract ritual impurity.

There is a debate over why these activities would contract ritual defilement. One plausible explanation (favored by Currid and Ross in their respective commentaries) is that sexual activity was a feature of pagan worship (i.e. male and female temple prostitutes), so Scripture classifies these three activities as ceremonially impure, not because they were sinful, but to dissociate sex from the sexual immorality connected with pagan worship.

b) In any case, since the Bible clearly does not regard conjugal relations as sinful, then, presumably, by discussing it in the same breath as a nocturnal emission, the moral status of a nocturnal emission would be analogous to conjugal relations.

c) And, although Scripture doesn’t say this, we also know, as a matter of experience, that nocturnal emissions often involve erotic dreams. That would make it analogous to masturbation.

d) As to Deut 23, here a nocturnal emission is discussed in the same breath as defecation. But since, presumably, the Bible doesn’t regard defecation as sinful, then—by parity of reasoning—it wouldn’t regard a nocturnal emission as sinful.

e) As you might expect, the antidote to ritual impurity was ritual purification.

You only have to compare this to the punishment meted out for sexual sin in Scripture (e.g. rape, adultery, sodomy, bestiality, incest) to see the completely different moral status of these two different categories of sexual activity—ritual impurity and genuine impurity.

“OK -- I was going to wait for Steve to respond to what I posted already, but there's something he has said here that needs some more attention -- he has equated the sexual desire which leads to marriage with any ol' sexual desire.”

Have I? Sorry, but I’ve done nothing the kind.

There’s a fundamental moral a difference between sexual desire involving single men and women, and adulterous or incestuous or homosexual desire.

“I think your view -- that sexual motivations are all of the same moral value.”

Save for the fact that this isn’t my stated or implicit view.

“You see the sexual desire of a man or woman as always warranted, only to be bounded by some other factor -- privacy perhaps, or modesty.”

No, that’s now how I see it.

“Sex inside marriage is the view of Scripture -- leave and cleave, become one flesh, be fruitful and multiply, the husband for the sake of the wife and the wife for the sake of the husband. In that, sex is made for marriage, yes? That's what it is introduced to and for. All other sex is, by definition in scripture, sinful.”

All true.

“I agree with your definition elsewhere that sex is inherently a 2-partner deal -- but the question really is how those partners are engaged. For example, Scripture tells us that rape is wrong; Scripture tells us incest is wrong; adultery is wrong; fornication is wrong; bestiality is wrong; prostitution is wrong. Those edicts exclude all kinds of non-spousal, non-human sexual gratification. To get around all of these, you have made the urge that every married man has had toward his future bride into a virtue -- when in fact it is not a virtue until after the two are joined as one.”

Two problems:

i) I haven’t tried to “get around all of these.” I agree with your moral valuation at this particular point. But—

ii) What motives a Christian man to marry a woman? Well, there’s more than one reason. He enjoys her companionship. He wants children.

But he also wants to make love to her. He desires her sexually.

This is a primary inducement to Christian marriage. Passion. Sexual passion.

Are you suggesting that it’s sinful for man to want to make love to his fiancé, and that his desire only ceases to be sinful the moment they tie the knot? Surely that’s not your position.

What would be sinful is to carry through with his desire apart from the actual, monogamous, lifelong commitment to which the marriage ceremony bears public witness and seals certain legal obligations.

But the fact that a man has a desire to marry a woman, because he desires her as a man desires a woman, is natural, normal, and entirely proper.

He desires her to be his wife—with all that entails. This is a premarital sexual desire for conjugal sexual relations.

It’s sexually acquisitive and covetous, but in a way sanctioned by Scripture.

“You do that by citing 1Cor 7 -- but notice that Paul doesn't say there that the virtue is the urge which brings on a greater blessing: Paul says, ‘because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.’ That is, the married union is the context in which the urge is not immoral.”

i) So the sexual urge is only moral within marriage? And not the sexual urge to be married—to be married to this individual in particular? If so, I profoundly disagree.

ii) I’d add that there’s a process of elimination at work. A generalized sexual attraction which, in turn, narrows down the field to a more specific object of desire as a potential or prospective mate.

iii) Paul doesn’t indicate that the desire leading to marriage is sinful. To the contrary, in 7:36 he indicates that the desire leading to marriage is a natural, healthy appetite.

“But this is where your line of reasoning seems disturbing. If we accept the idea that the lust I had for my wife was neutral when we were dating, and is neutral now, then we have to grant that my lust for some other woman would have to be of neutral value -- and it simply is not.”

i) I don’t accept that idea. And, as I said earlier, the word “lust” is charged with invidious overtones that we carry over from other occurrences.

I would simply use a word or phrase like sexual desire or attraction or passion.

ii) I don’t regard sexual desire between a single man and a single woman as neutral. Rather, I regard it as a feature of God’s design for the sexes.

iii) And even if there are occasions when it is sinful in that broader context, I hardly regard it as sinful when it has a view to marriage. It’s good for a man to desire a woman with a view to marriage.

iv) Moreover, I certainly do not regard it as merely neutral within marriage.

“Even in Carson's view of the Mt 5 passage, the problem becomes a problem of contexts for the desire. I suggest that one's desire for one's wife is sanctified when it is a desire inside marriage, even though one had the same desire 10 minutes before the wedding and it was sinful.”

i) I’m unsure as to how you arrive at such a position.

One potential source of the problem is that to say sexual desire outside of marriage is illicit is ambiguous. For that would either have reference to premarital desire or extramarital desire.

Extramarital desires are illicit, but premarital desires are not necessarily illicit. Indeed, they may be perfectly appropriate.

ii) In my opinion, you are taking Mt 5:28 far too generally, as if it’s talking about men and women in general, and sexual desire in general. That’s not how I read it.

Rather, it’s talking about adulterous desire.

“But when it comes to the matter of willful engagement of desires, I think you have missed the point regarding marriage as an ordinance and the context it creates.”

I don’t regard marriage as sanctifying a sinful desire. Rather, marriage is the framework within which a proper, divinely-implanted, desire finds its proper, divinely appointed, outlet.

“Here's my thought on the matter, and it's more than I'm usually willing to say on this subject: Christ made it clear that to look on a woman with lust who is not your wife -- that's adultery.”

No, that is not clear. What is clear, from Mt 5:28, is that it’s incipiently adulterous for a married man to sexually covet a single woman (or vice versa), or for a single man to sexually covet a married woman (or vice versa), or for a married man and married woman to covet someone else’s husband or wife.

The actual wording, along with its literary allusions to the Decalogue, are far more narrowly drawn and tightly targeted than mere, generic, sexual desire.

And the distinctions are hardly arbitrary. Premarital desire leads to marriage, whereas extramarital desire leads out of marriage. So they are not morally equivalent by any means. One is a natural good, leading to a greater good, whereas the other is an evil leading to a greater evil.

If you want to make your point with some other verse, you’re welcome to bring it into the discussion, but this verse doesn’t get you to your destination.

“Without saying more than I am saying, I find it hard to believe that a man can do the behavior in question here and not participate in the behavior Jesus has classified as sin. Masturbation may not be sin in and of itself -- but it is for all practical purposes tied to something Christ defines as sin.”

That is building on a false premise.


  1. Shall I expect an exegetical / historical answer yet to come, or did you think your rant about Catholics constituted some sort of "answer"?

    Talk about "poisoning the well" and completely bypassing the subject matter . . .

    One thing about you, though; it is patently obvious when you feel (down deep) that you have no sufficient answer to give, because you ratchet up the pseudo-triumphalist polemics by a factor of 10. :-)

    That's all the more necessary when a Catholic is involved, because we all "know" (COUGH) that a Catholic can never best a sophisticated Protestant like yourself in any matter of exegesis or hermeneutics, or even historical theology.

    It "can't" happen, so it never "does," and y'all must make sure that it never does, so that the pretense and charade can be kept up.

    Isn't it easier to simply follow the text wherever it leads, even if it entails admitting that maybe, perhaps, the dreaded Catholic may have a valid point?

  2. All right Steve, we get it. You like pullin' your pud. Can we get to another topic already?

  3. And another thing: what the hell difference does it make to the discussion if you or I or all of us here reading and commenting (including women: let's not leave them out, as if this is only a "guy thing"!) have committed this sin or not? How is that the least bit relevant?

    So, e.g., if you condemn Catholic commenters as hypocrites, if they happen to admit that they committed this sin, why could they not come right back (on the same kindergarten-ethics basis) and condemn you as rationalizing sin and calling evil good for self-interested purposes if indeed you are doing it yourself?

    This has nothing - NOTHING - to do with the merits of the case pro or con. It cheapens and vulgarizes it every bit as much as crass and "dirty" comments do, or would. It's as stupid and ridiculous as saying that almost all men lust every virtually time they watch TV or venture out into a busy street in the summertime, and almost all of us in America are also guilty of excessive greed and gluttony; therefore, neither lust, greed, nor gluttony are sins because virtually all of us have done these things, so what right do WE have condemning the sins!!!!!!!

    It's incredible how illogical an otherwise logical, sharp man becomes when trying to shore up a desperate case. First you mock and poison the well and now you resort to sheer, transparently irrelevant and rather silly fallacies. You act like the atheists you so ably refute when they launch after some agreed-upon Christian moral or theological tenet.

    Can't you simply argue your case minus the nonsense and non sequiturs? Are you this isolated from Christian traditional sexual morality (Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox alike), that all you can offer (pretty much) is mockery and pervasive fallacy?

    Speaking for myself, I don't have any particular disdain for sexual sin more than any other sin (I would say greed and pride are far, far worse in the overall scheme of things), but what I do utterly despise is the attempt to make sin not sin: to call evil good. That makes me angry no matter what the sin involved happens to be.

    We have a history here. Christians weren't born yesterday. Even granting your anti-Catholicism and all that it entails, it is amazing that you have so little sense of it, with regard to Christian morality. Whether the issue is sexual or not has nothing whatsoever to do with your putting yourself in a bubble of the present day, as if this issue has suddenly become resolved in the wake of the glorious sexual revolution, and all thinking Christians can only mock and make fun of what was previously universally-held by Christians, with few exceptions.

  4. Interesting historical tidbit:

    "I indulged my desire too freely":

    Sexuality, Spirituality, and the Sin of Self-Pollution in the Diary
    of Joseph Moody, 1720–1724

    Brian D. Carroll

    Thurs. [July] 19 [1722 ]. This morning I got up pretty late. I defiled myself, though wide awake. Where will my unbridled lust lead me? I have promised myself now for a year and a half that I would seek after God, but now I am perhaps farther away from him than ever before.

    Mon. [April] 13 [1724 ]. Pretty Cold; wind from N. W. to S. fine weather. . . . I dined with the doctor and schoolmaster Abbott. Then with the doctor I called on Captain and Ensign Allen. I stayed up with my love not without pleasure, but I indulged my desire too freely, and at night the semen flowed from me abundantly.

    SEXUALITY and spirituality were intertwined in the early eighteenth-century world in which Joseph Moody lived; internalized cultural interpretations of sexuality informed his views of masturbation, as well as his identity as a man. For Moody, in the entries above and many similar ones in his diary from the 1720s, his salvation depended on his ability to control his "unbridled lust." When Joseph mentioned defiling himself he referred to masturbation, what theologians, moralists, and medical writers of the time termed "self-pollution." It was universally viewed as an act that defiled the soul, weakened the body, and corrupted society. The diary illustrates clearly what prescriptive religious and medical literature and other surviving diaries and memoirs from Anglo-American colonists merely suggest: masturbation was not merely a sexual act; it was a problem with profound spiritual, physical, and social dimensions.

    [emphasis added]

  5. Again, Steve, let me make it clear that any time I'm agreeing with Armstrong, I think I'm probably on thin ice -- and it's not because Armstrong is a Catholic, but because I think Armstrong is a dope. There are many Catholics who we can listen to and find reasonable -- he's just not one of them.

    (Just for you, Dave: Peter Kreeft, Fr. Frank Berna of LaSalle University [I had him in class a couple of times in college when he taught at St. Bonaventure], and the current Pope would be three people I would "find reasonable" even if I didn't think any of them were infallible)

    A-Hem. That said, I only have two things to add:

    [1] You asked, "Are you suggesting that it’s sinful for man to want to make love to his fiancé, and that his desire only ceases to be sinful the moment they tie the knot? Surely that’s not your position."

    Yes, that is my position. If a Dad wants to kill the man who murdered his son, that's sin; if a judge orders the execution of the murderer, that's not sin but justice. Same act: different context -- even if the motive of "serving justice" is inside both.

    Here is, I think, the problem -- you equate the matter of "having children" and "having sex". There's not question that you must have sex to have children -- but the pre-marital notion of "I want her to be the mother of my children" is not a euphamism, even if some treat it that way.

    Motherhood is more than being the object of sexual fanatasies, and choosing a woman who will make a great mother is more than making sure she'd satisfy one sexually.

    Let's also be clear about this: any man is going to have sexual desires for any woman in the right circumstances. The issue is if those circumstances are not just useful or practical but morally correct. It is not morally correct to have sex outside of marriage -- not outside of a marriage which exists, and not apart from a marriage which does not exist. Sex outside of marriage is morally wrong. I am sure you don't deny this.

    However, if your point is that the desire is neither moral or immoral but neutral, I'd have to think about this some more.

    [2] Regarding Mt 5, the only way to say what you are saying here Steve is to say that fornication is not wrong. If fornication is not wrong, then the argument is yours: if it is wrong, then even if the specific example Christ makes in Mt 5 about adultery is only about married people, the precept has to be applied to the sexual sins unmarried people will encounter.

    It's not enough to say, "well, Scripture is silent on such a thing". Scripture is silent on the use of the dagger in murder -- and they had daggers in those days. Does that mean we can interpret that killing with a dagger is OK, or does it mean that we can understand the precept that unjust killing is murder -- whether it is done by a rock, a sword, a knife or an arrow? There are things in Scripture which can be understood even if they are not explicitly worked out for us to the most obvious degree.

    I think this is one of them.

    For the record, I have admitted and concede all your arguments about the incidental nature of emissions. They are ritual impurities, and I think you make fine points on that matter.

  6. "Shall I expect an exegetical / historical answer yet to come, or did you think your rant about Catholics constituted some sort of "answer"?"

    Steve already addressed the Onan situation in the previous article. So far, you have yet to interact with anything he actually said or quoted.

  7. Again, Steve, let me make it clear that any time I'm agreeing with Armstrong, I think I'm probably on thin ice -- and it's not because Armstrong is a Catholic, but because I think Armstrong is a dope.

    That's absolutely fascinating. So if I say that I accept the Trinity, Grace Alone, the incarnation of Christ, the resurrection, the ban on fornication and homosexuality, heaven and hell, existence of the devil and angels and demons, the efficacy of prayer, the inspiration of the Bible, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, baptism (of some sort, as a required ritual), the Ten Commandments, etc., etc., etc., then you will porobably be on "thin ice" if you agree with me, because I'm a dope?

    Steve already addressed the Onan situation in the previous article. So far, you have yet to interact with anything he actually said or quoted.

    Really? What planet do you live on?
    If you guys would ever stop despising Catholics, you might discover that you would feel a whole lot better and that we might have a rare kernel of truth to offer you, every once in a while.

  8. Dave:

    That you have to ask this question proves my point. Your house is on thin ice -- and whether you are serving roast beef or cat food today, it doesn't matter: anyone going to your house will be on thin ice.

  9. "Really? What planet do you live on?
    If you guys would ever stop despising Catholics, you might discover that you would feel a whole lot better and that we might have a rare kernel of truth to offer you, every once in a while."

    I'm looking at the article right now, and Steve addresses the context of Onan in Genesis 38 ("i) In context, Gen 38:8-10 is describing coitus interruptus rather than masturbation. These are hardly equivalent.", then discusses the relevance of this passage to masturbation, then he provides some excerpts from commentaries that address this.

    Now is this or is this not responding to your comments? Not only that, but in a historical/exegital context to boot. Now, you may not like his response, but it's silly to say he didn't address it. You're certainly free to have a go at refuting it.

  10. nvm, just saw the link...didn't see it under the previous post. Taking a look at it now...