Outlooks of the past and the present
C.S. Lewis once wrote that ‘every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes.’ 1
Though written in the mid-twentieth century, Lewis’s words are no less true today. Like all of those before it, our age has its own outlook. We twenty-first century people tend to consider ourselves especially insightful on certain matters, especially able to perceive certain truths. But of course, what we are not able to recognise quite so clearly is that our age is also liable to make certain mistakes, especially prone to not seeing the errors of its own way. That is, after all, the harsh reality of cultural blinders – we normally aren’t even aware that we own any, let alone that we are actually wearing them.
Both our confidence in this age’s idiosyncratic outlook and our failure to recognise its particular cultural blinders is certainly evident in relation to sexuality, marriage and singleness. But it’s not just the secular world that is guilty of what Lewis elsewhere describes as the ‘uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited’. 2 This attitude is one which we Christians also adopt so easily – and again, not least when it comes to matters concerning sexuality, marriage and singleness.
When did we last turn to the early Church fathers to help us think through a thoroughly biblical approach to sex?
Think about it for a moment. The (real and virtual) shelves of Christian bookshops are full of contemporary titles, all jostling to be the most current voice on one aspect or another of our sex lives, our love lives, our married lives and our single lives. And some of them are even worth reading! But when was the last time any of us looked to the Church’s history for resources to inform our current thinking on these matters? Perhaps some of us have a vague idea of what a Reformer or two may have said on some of these topics. But when did we last turn to the early Church fathers to help us think through a thoroughly biblical approach to sex? When did we consult some of the leading medieval Christian minds about a truly scriptural view on marriage? When did we consider that perhaps some of the great ancient theologians – the ones who were the first to discern true doctrine from heresy on all sorts of fundamental Christian topics – might have something of insight to offer on the value of celibacy?
Having recognised each age’s tendency towards what he calls ‘chronological snobbery’, Lewis concluded that the ‘only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books’. 3 It’s an intriguing thought isn’t it? What might the contemporary Church (re)discover were she to fling open the windows to her past and allow its refreshing breeze to blow through on questions of sexuality, marriage and singleness?
Well, the first thing we might discover is that it would be utter foolishness to think that 2000 years’ worth of that sea breeze could be summarised in just one short article! Even narrowing our focus to just one of those topics – singleness – in one particular period of Christian history – the early Church – can still only result in a woefully brief exploration of what was a matter of complex discussion for over 500 years. And yet, even in the midst of such necessary brevity, we are still able to recognise and appreciate a refreshing murmur of the breeze from ages past.
Looking to the past
Throughout the Church’s first five centuries, the unmarried Christian life – normally interpreted through the theological framework of ‘virginity’ – enjoyed a (by and large) elevated position within the faith community. 4 And yet, at the same time, the single Christian was also the exception to the rule – most Christians still married.
In fact, for the vast majority of early Christians marriage was a social necessity. What is more, since marital destiny was normally arranged by the elders within a household, it was an obligation that the soon-to-be-spouse usually had little say in! And so, even though the unmarried life was considered ideal (for reasons we’ll get to in just a moment), being single – let alone choosing to stay single – was just not a realistic option for most ancient believers. This meant that within the early Church, the single life was generally considered to be superior to the married life, while also being considered as somewhat abnormal.
Of course, there were certainly a variety of perspectives on singleness within the early Church (including times and places in which singleness was regarded with some suspicion). But in looking back on the ‘old books’ of that time, we find that the majority of Christian leaders and writers generally expressed a heightened theological appreciation for the unmarried life. In fact, one particular thread tends to runs through the writings of prominent early Church fathers such as Origen, Cyprian, Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom, Augustine and many others – an appreciation for how the resurrection urgently affects the way Christians ought to think about singleness and marriage as we await Jesus’ return.
In looking back on the ‘old books’ of that time, we find that the majority of Christian leaders and writers generally expressed a heightened theological appreciation for the unmarried life.
This theological thread was in no small part the result of their diligent thinking on passages like Matthew 22:22-33 in which Jesus teaches that, as individuals, none of us will be married to each other in heaven. In contemplating Jesus’ words here, these early theologians observed that single Christians in this creation are already living a life that (in some sense) anticipates that very future! Because they concluded that it isn’t only the married life that foreshadows heaven (see Ephesians 5:31-32), these fathers encouraged others to recognise the single Christian life as a wonderful gift to be appreciated, honoured and even pursued.
Not only this, but because as resurrected people in eternity none of us will be in an exclusive, covenanted relationship with one other person, many early Church fathers celebrated the non-exclusive, non-covenanted relationships that unmarried Christians have with all other Christians here and now. Indeed, they concluded that this meant the single Christian had a vital role to play in challenging the way we think about ourselves as the Church – we are first and foremost brothers and sisters in Christ, rather than husbands and wives.
Some of them even went so far as to suggest that, because we will all be unmarried like the angels in heaven (Matthew 22:30), the earthly single life ought to be dignified and honoured as the earthly form of life that bears the closest imaginable resemblance to the future glorified angelic life of eternity.
Looking to the past for the present
While some of these ancient Christian arguments may seem familiar, others strike us as distinctly strange. Indeed, if we had the opportunity to undertake a much deeper dive into some of these ‘old books’ we’d likely find ourselves surveying what seems to be a remarkably foreign landscape when it comes to the topic of singleness.
We must always read these ‘old books’ in the light of the greatest ‘old book’ – Scripture.
But is that not the precise reason why we ought to dust off the covers and open them up? Our brothers and sisters from a previous age had their own particular outlook, an outlook which allowed them to perceive certain truths, an outlook which is able to challenge our own. Of course, as Lewis also wrote, it is important for us to recognise that there isn’t ‘any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we.’ 5 We must not think of the early Church fathers as infallible in their teaching on singleness, or any other topic. There will be things that they didn’t perceive clearly, truths that they didn’t understand fully, cultural blinders that they didn’t realise they were wearing. This means that we must always read these ‘old books’ in the light of the greatest ‘old book’ – Scripture. And we must open them prayerfully, asking God to give us great wisdom, humility, and discernment through his Spirit as we do so.
But open them we should, for just think what treasures may be awaiting our (re)discovery! Now is the perfect time to fling open the windows and allow the clean sea breeze of the past – of our past – to blow through and refresh our theological and pastoral appreciation of the single Christian life.
For further reading:
A few old books on singleness:
Augustine, ‘The Excellence of Widowhood’, Ray Kearney (trans.) in David G. Hunter (ed.) Marriage and Virginity (New City Press, 1996), pp.113–135.
Augustine, ‘Holy Virginity’, Ray Kearney (trans.) in David G. Hunter (ed.) Marriage and Virginity (New City Press, 1996), pp.68–105.
Cyprian, Treatise II: On the Dress of Virgins, Ante-Nicene Fathers. Vol. 5 (T&T Clark, 1995).
Gregory of Nyssa, ‘On Virginity’ in Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (eds.), A Select Library of the Christian Church (Hendrickson Publishers, 1995), pp.343–371.
John Chrysostom, ‘On Virginity’, Sally Rieger Shore (trans.) in John Chrysostom: On Virginity; Against Remarriage (The Edwin Mellen Press, 1983), pp.1–128.
Tertullian, ‘An Exhortation to Chastity’, William P. Le Saint (trans.) in Johannes Quasten and Joseph C. Plumpe (eds.), Treatises on Marriage and Remarriage (The Newman Press, 1951), pp.37–64.
A few newer books about old books on singleness:
Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (Columbia University Press, 1988).
Peter Brown, ‘The Notion of Virginity in the Early Church’ in Bernard McGinn and John Meyendorff (eds.), Christian Spirituality: Orgins to the Twelfth Century (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986), pp. 427–443.
Danielle Treweek, ‘The Eschatological Abnormality of Christian Singleness’, St. Mark’s Review, no.251 (2020) pp.6-20.
- C.S. Lewis, ‘On the Reading of Old Books’, Reasonable Theology.
- C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1966), pp. 207-8.
- C.S. Lewis, ‘On the Reading of Old Books’.
- For the sake of ease, we’ll continue to use the contemporary term ‘single’ in our discussion of the unmarried life in the early church. However, it is important to recognise that we are using it anachronistically. The linguistic roots of the word ‘single’ only date back as far as the fourteenth century, and so it was most definitely not a term familiar to the early church! Instead, their overarching concept of what we refer to today as ‘singleness’ was typically that of ‘virginity’. However, unlike today, ‘virginity’ didn’t just describe the physical state of someone who had never had sex. Rather it summed up the whole concept of the godly life of someone who was not married (and so, strangely enough, there was a sense in which those who were widowed could also be encapsulated within the broader theological concept of ‘virginity’).
- C.S. Lewis, ‘On the Reading of Old Books’.