Tag Archives: Richard Swinburne

Christian Teaching on Sexual Morality

by Richard Swinburne

This essay is part of a series stemming from the ongoing research project “Contemporary Eastern Orthodox Identity and the Challenges of Pluralism and Sexual Diversity in a Secular Age,” which is a joint venture by scholars from Fordham University’s Orthodox Christian Studies Center and the University of Exeter, funded by the British Council, Friends of the British Council, and the Henry Luce Foundation as part of the British Council’s “Bridging Voices” programme. In August 2019, 55 scholars gathered for an international conference at St Stephen’s House, Oxford. These essays are summaries of presentations given in preparation for the conference and during it. They together reflect the genuine diversity of opinion that was represented at the conference and testify to the need for further reflection and dialogue on these complex and controversial topics.

Moral principles are principles about which actions are morally good or bad, and which among good actions are morally obligatory and which among bad actions are obligatory not to do (=wrong).  A moral obligation is an obligation to someone else, and we wrong that someone if we fail to perform the obligation. To wrong God is to sin. There is a longstanding controversy among Christian philosophers as to whether the fundamental moral principles are necessary truths about the moral natures of different kinds of action, or whether they are made true by the will of God. I recommend the former view, which was the view of, among others, Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus; it’s simply part of the nature of helping those in trouble that it’s a good action, and simply part of the nature of torture that it is wrong to torture someone. God just sees that these things are so and from time to time tells us this. Actions which are good in all possible circumstances are intrinsically good, and actions which are obligatory in all possible circumstances are intrinsically obligatory. It is intrinsically obligatory to keep our just promises (that is, promises which we had the right to make), and it follows that adultery and divorce without the consent of the other spouse are intrinsically wrong.

I now suggest that if we are given a gift by some benefactor on the condition that we use it for a certain purpose or do not use it at all (that is, he commands us not to use it for any other purpose), it is intrinsically obligatory not to use it for any other purpose. God is our creator; and everything we are and have is a gift from God, except those few gifts given to us by others, principally our parents, whose ability to give their gifts is itself a gift from God. Hence it is a derived moral principle that it is wrong to use any God’s gifts for a purpose other than the one for which God gave it. Our sexual organs are a gift from God. Hence it would be sinful to use them in a way forbidden by him. Continue reading