Before me and my soon to be wife started counseling a friend gave me a book by Fr. Josiah Trenham. the book is called marriage and virginity according to St.John Chrysostom.
A terrible book, from both a scholarly and pastoral point of view. Truly terrible.
I am almost finished reading it. I disagree that it a terrible book. It is well written and researched. First let me clearly state that Fr. Josiah's knowledge of the Fathers is far superior to mine. He is a patristric scholar. I am an historian. Therefore, I naturally tend to put St. John Chrysostom's thought within its proper historical context. I believe that although Fr. Josiah makes many valuable points that relate to marriage and sexuality it is a mistake to make this book a comprehensive guide for how one should live as a married Orthodox Christian in the modern world. The subject of Fr. Josiah's work is the thought of St. John Chrysostom, not contemporary Orthodox moral theology.
Like all of the Fathers, St. John Chrysostom was not infallible. Orthodox Christians are not required to believe everything that he taught. For example in his commentary on the Wedding at Cana in his Homilies on the Gospel of St. John, he implies that Mary sinned by the way that she treated Christ. Obviously the Eastern Orthodox Church does not agree Mary sinned.
In applying the teachings of St. John on marriage and sex, it is very important to put him in his proper historical context. In modern American culture it seems sexist to emphasize the role of the Father as the authority figure in the family, while in the culture in which St. John lived that was the norm. Now most moral theologians see marriage more as a partnership between equals. St. John recommends that a boy get married when he reaches the age of 15. However, in the time of St. John, there was no concept of adolescence. Besides most people only lived to about 30 back then. St. John states that a Father should not allow his sons to visit the theater. However, in passing he mentions that one sees naked women in the theater. At that time popular entertainment was rather risque. A modern interpretation would be that a Father should not take his son to a strip club or an R or X rated movie. Taken in this context most of the book is very good and can be used with some modernization as a guide for Orthodox Christian family life.
St. John Chrysostom does have a positive view towards marriage and sexuality. Although he follows the common patristric view that virginity, especially in monasticism is superior to marriage, he does not denigrate marriage, but states marriage "good" but that "virginity" is better. He even states that marriage is almost as good as monasticism and emphasizes that a married couple can live a holy life that is equal to and can even exceed that of a monastic. He states that God created humans with sexual desire and that pleasure through sex, obviously in marriage, is a good thing. He does not, as Augustine, consider sexual intercourse almost sinful because he does not accept Augustine's view that sexual intercourse is tainted by the transmission of original sin.
I find two areas in which I personally would disagree with Fr. Josiah and by extension St. John Chyrsostom. First although he considers it good and created by God within marriage, apparently St. John sees sex as a result of the fall. Frankly, I do not know how St. John would know that Adam and Eve did not have sex in the Garden of Eden. The command ""Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it..." Genesis 1:28 was given before the Fall. There is only one way that humans can "be fruitful and multiply." That is through sexual intercourse. Again before the Fall, Adam said, "Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh." Genesis 2:24. No less an authority than Our Lord applies this to marriage and by extension to the sexual relations between a husband and wife. Matthew 5:19 This view of sexuality as created after the Fall would have to be classified as a theologoumena, or theological opinion, not the doctrine of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
The most controversial aspect of St. John's teaching according to Fr. Josiah is his strong opposition to birth control. It is true that there are those within the Eastern Orthodox Church who agree with the Roman Catholic position on birth control, especially those highly influenced by monasticism. However, there are other Orthodox authorities that disagree. Frs. Stanley Harakas, John Meyendorf both argue that used properly within marriage, non-abortive methods of birth control are not sinful. In 1992 the Holy Synod of the Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America issued a document "Synodal Affirmations on Marriage, Family, Sexuality, and the Sanctity of Life" which allows for non-abortive methods of birth control. The document states, "Married couples may express their love in sexual union without always intending the conception of a child, but only those means of controlling conception within marriage are acceptable which do not harm a fetus already conceived." More important is "The Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church," section XII. 3" approved by the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church in 2000 which also affirms that non-abortive methods of birth control are not in and of themselves sinful. This particular document is perhaps the most complete and authoritative statement of Orthodox moral teachings issued in modern times.
Once again, we have to put the Fathers in their proper context. At that time knowledge of biology had not advanced to the point that the Fathers realized the distinction between abortion and birth control. Until the 18th century scientists held a position called "preformation" that maintained that the semen contains a preformed immature infant that simply grows in the womb. That would make all forms of birth control a form of abortion because it destroys a human life. However, William Harvey, d. 1657 who first described the circulatory system of blood through the body, also discovered that the sperm is not a complete, but very small human, but that conception takes place when the sperm fertilizes the egg, creating a new human being. Thus it was only natural that the Fathers would consider all forms of birth control a form of abortion, because they falsely believed that the semen contained a small person.
Fr. Josiah argues that St. John Chrysostom and other fathers made a distinction between birth control and abortion and condemned both. However, the only canons that speak to this particular issue only condemn abortion, not birth control. If the Holy Fathers made a distinction between birth control and abortion, and considered birth control forbidden, one would expect to find a canon specifically condemning birth control. Besides one text that he uses to prove his point is from St. John's Homilies on Romans. Fr. Josiah usually cites translations from the Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers. However, for this particular quote he cites a different translation, from John Noonan's Conception: A History of its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists.
Noonan translates the key phrase, "where there are the medicines of sterility," However, the Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers translate it as "many efforts at abortion." (Homily XXIV) Therefore it can reasonable be argued that St. John is not speaking about birth control, but abortion. Significantly, Fr. Josiah argues that St. John would approve of "Natural Family Planning." What is the moral difference between a married couple having sex when conception is not possible and using a non-abortive method of birth control, since both would involve destroying the sperm?
Therefore, Fr. Josiah's work is a significant contribution to our knowledge of St. John Chrysostom. However, it must be read in its proper context as a study of the writings and homilies of this great Saint and not as an authoritative statement of the moral teaching of the Church on sexual matters,especially in the light of modern scientific knowledge. Thus, Fr. Josiah's work provides is an important work that helps us better understand the teachings of St. John. However, some of Fr. Josiah's conclusions are questionable, especially his condemnation of non-abortive methods of birth control. St. John, a very learned man for his time, did not have the benefit of modern science and therefore did not understand the very important difference between abortion and the prevention of conception through non-abortive methods of birth control. Therefore my chief criticism of Fr. Josiah's book is that he fails to put St. Johh Chrysostom within his proper historical context.
Fr. John W. Morris