How We Can Know Premarital Sex Is Wrong

Funky fresh
Funky fresh

I need to apologize. My post last week with the sensational title about the Bible being silent on premarital sex took my playing Confused Millennial Protestant Advocate too far.

As several readers pointed out in the comments, there are passages that, when properly understood, forbid premarital sex. While there is no explicit prooftext that says, “premarital sex is sinful,” most Protestants don’t require such prooftexts, being willing to take the preponderance of the evidence of the Scriptures as a whole as making a compelling case against premarital sex.

Knowing From the Natural Law

I’ll get back to that idea in a minute. But another argument made in the comments was also important: Brent brought up that the natural law itself reveals to us that premarital sex is wrong. I find this argument interesting for a few reasons. First, even when I was an atheist I believed sex was best saved for marriage. Second, if the natural law argument holds, it means that even without divine revelation in the Scriptures and Tradition we can know premarital sex is wrong.

Catholics (and some Protestants) accept natural law theory. God has written certain truths upon our hearts, and we can know them apart from revelation. Murder and stealing are wrong, for example.

One problem comes from the fact that many Protestants do not know or believe in the natural law. Instead, they hold to a sort of divine positivism where the only thing that is true is what is explicitly found in the Scriptures themselves.

Scripture and Tradition

The comments include various passages that can be connected and plausibly interpreted to forbid premarital sex. As a Protestant, I found these compelling. I think the Scriptural case against premarital sex is much stronger than the one for it, which mainly trades on ambiguities with word usages. Solid exegesis tips the scales heavily in favor of the traditional belief.

That said, the Scriptures are never interpreted in a vacuum. The person interpreting them is always bringing a tradition to the table: a lens or paradigm through which he interprets the meaning of the passages. The prevailing tradition, both Catholic and Protestant, on the question of premarital sex, has been firmly on the sex-within-marriage-only side.

So far, so good. But enter the millennials. The Christian principles which have undergirded our society’s culture have eroded away to a substantial degree. Those of us who grew up in the preceding generations did so in a milieu where traditional mores and norms were still widely accepted as right (even if people rebelled against them–they at least knew that they were rebelling). Millennials are growing up in a different environment. Those old ties are weaker. The power of the conservative Protestant denominations has waned, and affiliations with mainline and major Evangelical denominations has fallen by the wayside.

The pervasive Protestant paradigm that interpreted the Scriptures as forbidding premarital sex is beginning to lose its force. That is the cultural shift we are seeing, exemplified by young adults like my friend Brandan, who wrote the original article toying with the idea that sex before marriage is okay in some situations.

Those Darn Catholics

Why do the Catholics always have to be right? Good question. It’s enough to know they are. The best way back to sanity for Protestants is to consider the Catholic Church’s claims. She makes a multi-tiered appeal for traditional sexual morality: Natural Law plus Scripture & Tradition.

The correct lens for interpreting the Scriptures is the one that God Himself provides: sacred Tradition as authoritatively understood by the Magisterium of the Church. There is no ambiguity or question. And the Church goes on the offensive as well. Not only is premarital sex denounced, but the beautiful, amazing, incredible truth of why sex should be within marriage is unveiled. St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body is a powerful explanation of this truth. Notably, he drew from the philosophy of Natural Law, Scripture, and Tradition to make his arguments.

The Slope Really Is Slippery

I was a conservative/traditional Evangelical Protestant. So were all my friends at the time. So it would have been hard for me to fathom a Protestant like Brandan making an argument for premarital sex. Surely he is just off the deep end?

Yet, in the years since becoming Catholic I have been dismayed by even conservative Protestants arguing for all sorts of things: Contraception, sterilization, divorce and remarriage, and even masturbation. These are sola Scriptura Protestants who take the Scriptures seriously. Once sacred Tradition is jettisoned, and a faulty, human tradition put in place, the slope is greased up for a fast slide into sin and error.


The great thing is that, with Protestantism’s traditional and denominational ties loosening, Protestants like Brandan are becoming open to the Catholic Church. They don’t have the age-old grudges against the Church, and when they start to read the wisdom of the Church: the Catechism, lives of the Saints, the Church Fathers, the Councils, and so on, they are dumbstruck by its depth and beauty. God draws them to full communion.

So we as Catholics have the opportunity to invite them to read and listen to this wisdom, praying they will be able to see what we have seen, and that God wants them to see. The Church needs their gifts and energy to spread the Kingdom and become great saints.

As for the post from last week, mea culpa. I have a moderately large responsibility as a public writer to be careful in what I say. I got sloppy on that post and stretched the case against perspicuity too far.

When writing that post, I had Brandan’s new paradigm in mind more so than the old Protestant one, because Brandan’s world is the future of Protestantism. The two worlds have changed in hermeneutics.  The “old” model is more interested in the model of “interpret Scripture with Scripture” (which is how pornea’s use is rightly understood by the old Protestant traditions–the Greek most plausibly denotes “fornication” to include premarital sex), and the new model is more enamored by explicit proof-texts (which hinders Brandan’s paradigm from realizing that the Bible forbids premarital sex).

A Reformed Protestant’s Criticism of My Book

lanekYou can read Lane Keister’s criticisms at Green Baggins. My response doesn’t come until later in the comments, as I didn’t realize he had written anything about the book until I swung over to his blog randomly a few days ago.

Lane believes that I misrepresent Protestantism’s view of authority. He believes that in Protestantism the authority of “the Church” and its “pastors,” is greater than that of the individual Christian. The problem with that belief, as I point out in the comments, is that the Called to Communion guys definitively showed it to be false. First in the big sola reduces to solo post and then in Dr. Mike Liccione’s follow-up.

Protestants are forced to define “the Church” circularly:

But how does he determine what is the Church? Being Reformed, he defines ‘Church’ as wherever the gospel is found, because the early Protestants defined the marks of the Church as including “the gospel,” where the gospel was determined by their own private interpretation of Scripture. So he claims that it is in the Church that the gospel is found, but he defines the Church in terms of the gospel. This is what we call a tautology. It is a form of circular reasoning that allows anyone to claim to be the Church and have the gospel. One can read the Bible and formulate one’s own understanding of the gospel, then make this “gospel” a necessary mark of the Church, and then say that it is in the Church that the gospel is found. Because one has defined the Church in terms of the gospel [as arrived at by one’s own interpretation of Scripture], telling us that the gospel is found “in the Church” tells us nothing other than “people who share my own interpretation of Scripture about what is the gospel are referred to by me as ‘the Church.’” This kind of circular reasoning allows falsehood to remain hidden.

The Catholic position does not suffer from this circularity, because ‘Church’ is not defined in terms of “gospel,” but in terms of apostolic succession, involving an unbroken line of authorizations extending down from the Apostles.

This is an incredibly difficult truth for Protestants to see. I remember sitting in my room during my Evangelical Protestant days, trying to work out in my mind whether this was true or not. I didn’t want it to be true, and I tried to see how it was not a tautology. But it was, and I eventually realized it. Now it seems obvious, but back then it did not. It is not obvious to Lane or to Dr. Mathison, or to many learned and Christ-loving Protestants.