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Is Concupiscence Sin?– Gay Christianity, Desire, and Orientation

Picking up from my previous post on the problem of gay-but-chaste Christianity, I want to talk about concupiscence.

Jack Bates criticizes me for introducing concupiscence into the discussion in an over-generalized and therefore simplistic way. Bates writes:

Wedgeworth’s treatment of concupiscence in relation to the queer Christian’s experience is the site of his most significant errors. Two crucial things to be aware of whenever one engages in historical theology are: (1) a particular word or term does not necessarily mean the same thing in the history of the development of doctrine, and (2) a particular word or term does not necessarily mean the same thing every time a particular author uses it. Both the Latin concupiscentia and the Greek ἐπιθυμία retained and still retain a semantic range encompassing but not limited to: (1) a desire; (2) a desire for that which is sinful or contrary to reason; (3) a lust. It simply is a gross historical error to say “X condemned concupiscence, and Y did not” without referring to the senses of concupiscence they employed. It simply is not a technical term that had the same meaning for St. Paul, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and John Calvin. 

I think Bates is correct on this score. While I did not claim that concupiscence only ever has one meaning, I nevertheless introduced it generally, assuming the context of post-Reformation dogmatic theology. This would have been harmless enough had the essay been published here, at TCI, since that context is the one in which we live and move and have our being, but the essay was instead published at Mere Orthodoxy and pitched to a much broader audience. Further, I wanted the essay to go out to a broad audience rather than a more limited one, and thus I should not have presented a rather complex matter in such a brief way. I felt that understanding concupiscence would highlight a key issue in the Spiritual Friendship discussion, but I also did not want to weigh the essay down with an extended technical or historical discussion. This was a mistake.

So I would like to begin to make amends here by discussing concupiscence in more detail. I will need to refine a few of my claims, as will become clear below. I still think understanding concupiscence will highlight at least one problem with Christians wanting to retain a gay orientation. I hope that some of this material will help people make the necessary category definitions and distinctions to retain an orthodox outlook on desires and the will as they discuss sexuality.

Concupiscence and Desire

Concupiscence is an ancient word for desire or lust. The term itself had a morally neutral use in classical philosophy (and thus Aquinas will speak of it this way in his ST), but its most common meaning for Christian writers is that of the sinful “desire” mentioned by Paul in Rom. 7:8. Galatians 5:17, James 1:15, and 1 John 2:16 were also texts where “desire” or “lust” was translated as concupiscence and which therefore became classical points of discussion. Thus there is the broad sense of concupiscence and the narrow sense. It is the narrow sense that Christian writers had in mind when they talked about concupiscence as an aspect of original sin.

The concept of concupiscence is probably most famously connected with Augustine. He discusses it in detail in City of GodOn Marriage and Concupiscence, and Against Julian, but it shows up in many other of his works. For Augustine concupiscence was closely linked with sex, though it was not entirely identical to it. Concupiscence is a particular desire which comes from outside the soul and then moves the body to act. In this sense, the desire is especially bad in that it is not actually an act of the will but rather an act upon the body apart from the will which then entices the will to acquiesce.

Augustine brings this together in a few places. In City of God 14.19, he says, “But the organs of generation are so subjected to the rule of lust, that they have no motion but what it communicates.” A few chapters later, he adds this:

Nevertheless this lust, of which we at present speak, is the more shameful on this account, because the soul is therein neither master of itself, so as not to lust at all, nor of the body, so as to keep the members under the control of the will; for if they were thus ruled, there should be no shame.  But now the soul is ashamed that the body, which by nature is inferior and subject to it, should resist its authority. (City of God 14.23)

So “lust,” here is not an act of the will at all, or at least not at first. One of its main problems is precisely in that it usurps the rule of the will.

In a very fascinating hypothetical, Augustine contrasts this state against what reproduction would have been like in Eden apart from sin:

The man, then, would have sown the seed, and the woman received it, as need required, the generative organs being moved by the will, not excited by lust.  For we move at will not only those members which are furnished with joints of solid bone, as the hands, feet, and fingers, but we move also at will those which are composed of slack and soft nerves:  we can put them in motion, or stretch them out, or bend and twist them, or contract and stiffen them, as we do with the muscles of the mouth and face… (City of God 14.24)

Augustine extends this illustration at some length, and at least one picture is rather hilarious. Just as we can presently control our feet and fingers (and some men can control even more of their bodies), he reasons, Adam would have been able to control his sexual members apart from an outside lust or passion:

for it was not difficult for God to form him so that what is now moved in his body only by lust should have been moved only at will… what reason is there for doubting that, before man was involved by his sin in this weak and corruptible condition, his members might have served his will for the propagation of offspring without lust? (ibid)

Indeed, Augustine continues on this thought experiment to such an extent that the Dods translation in the NPNF deems it too hot to fully translate:

As in Paradise there was no excessive heat or cold, so its inhabitants were exempt from the vicissitudes of fear and desire.  No sadness of any kind was there, nor any foolish joy; true gladness ceaselessly flowed from the presence of God, who was loved “out of a pure heart, and a good conscience, and faith unfeigned.” The honest love of husband and wife made a sure harmony between them.  Body and spirit worked harmoniously together, and the commandment was kept without labor.  No languor made their leisure wearisome; no sleepiness interrupted their desire to labor. In tanta facilitate rerum et felicitate hominum, absit ut suspicemur, non potuisse prolem seri sine libidinis morbo:  sed eo voluntatis nutu moverentur illa membra qua cætera, et sine ardoris illecebroso stimulo cum tranquillitate animi et corporis nulla corruptione integritatis infunderetur gremio maritus uxoris.  Neque enim quia experientia probari non potest, ideo credendum non est; quando illas corporis partes non ageret turbidus calor, sed spontanea potestas, sicut opus esset, adhiberet; ita tunc potuisse utero conjugis salva integritate feminei genitalis virile semen immitti, sicut nunc potest eadem integritate salva ex utero virginis fluxus menstrui cruoris emitti.  Eadem quippe via posset illud injici, qua hoc potest ejici.  Ut enim ad pariendum non doloris gemitus, sed maturitatis impulsus feminea viscera relaxaret:  sic ad  fœtandum et concipiendum non libidinis appetitus, sed voluntarius usus naturam utramque conjungeret.

…when sexual intercourse is spoken of now, it suggests to men’s thoughts not such a placid obedience to the will as is conceivable in our first parents, but such violent acting of lust as they themselves have experienced. (City of God 14.26)

The Latinists among our readers will have to give a proper translation, but Augustine is here saying that Adam and Eve would have peaceably and reasonably used their sexual organs for the purpose of having children without needing any “heat” or passion to drive them to this activity. The heat of passion is the concupiscence or lust, and after sin enters the world, concupiscence rules the whole sexual act. He says that in our experience now, we cannot imagine sexual intercourse without this heat.

In On Marriage and Concupiscence 1.7, Augustine puts it this way: “when it must come to man’s great function of the procreation of children the members which were expressly created for this purpose will not obey the direction of the will, but lust has to be waited for to set these members in motion, as if it had legal right over them, and sometimes it refuses to act when the mind wills, while often it acts against its will!” Again, we see that this lust acts apart from the will and sometimes even contrary to the will.

In fact, there are times in our experience where this unruly lust actually prevents our minds from directing our bodies towards procreation:

…sometimes this lust importunes them in spite of themselves, and sometimes fails them when they desire to feel it, so that though lust rages in the mind, it stirs not in the body.  Thus, strangely enough, this emotion not only fails to obey the legitimate desire to beget offspring, but also refuses to serve lascivious lust; and though it often opposes its whole combined energy to the soul that resists it, sometimes also it is divided against itself, and while it moves the soul, leaves the body unmoved. (City of God 14.16)

We could say much more about the implications of all of this, but we can at least see the basic picture of concupiscence in Augustine.

Development and Reformation Debate

Concupiscence was not only identified as sexual desire. According to Augustine, “lust may have many objects” (City of God 14.16). He also understood that it was related to the prohibition against coveting, and so he mentions it in connection to the Ninth and Tenth Commandments. So too with Aquinas. Concupiscence was routinely treated in the catechisms under the heading of covetousness. Still because of the medieval ordering of the 10 Commandments, there was a commandment dedicated to the uniquely sexual form of concupiscence, and so the term quite understandably continued to have a predominately sexual meaning.

For the Protestant Reformers, however, it was actually the broader sense of covetous desire which was deemed the more significant for understanding concupiscence. While later theologians still routinely called concupiscence “lust,” they distinguished their meaning as not merely sexual lust,but any species of inappropriate desire. In this sense, concupiscence was defined as an inclination, disposition, or tendency of the will itself. This would prove significant for the Protestant understanding of the effect of original sin on man’s will, which would in turn profoundly influence their understanding of justification.

Zacharias Ursinus serves as one helpful example. He discusses concupiscence in his exposition of the Tenth Commandment. He begins by noting the importance of uniting the various aspects of the commandment, “That this commandment, which has respect to lust, or concupiscence, is one, and not two…” Then he adds:

The design and end of this commandment is the internal obedience and regulation of all our affections towards God, and our neighbor and his goods …it is not superfluous, seeing that it is added to the other commandments, as a general rule and interpretation, according to which the internal obedience of all the other commandments must be understood, because this is spoken of the whole Decalogue generally. This commandment, therefore, enjoins original righteousness towards God and our neighbor, which consists in a true knowledge of God in the mind, with an inclination in the will to obey the will of God as known. It also forbids concupiscence, which is an inordinate desire or corrupt inclination, coveting those things which God has forbidden. (Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, pg. 606 of the P&R 1852 reprint)

“Thou shalt not covet” means that we must subdue our heart and regulate our affections. We must have that original righteousness with which we were created, and since this state was lost in the Fall, we must re-order our affections towards God and to the true good of our neighbor.

John Davenant also defines concupiscence in this way. Discussing original sin, he says this:

original sin consists in this, that it opposes the same law as to the inclination or habitude. Consequently this inbred propensity or habit of inordinate concupiscence, which makes man prone to transgress the law of God, is Original Sin.

…he who has within him a defect, habit, or propensity contrary to the law of original creation is infected by Original Sin. (A Treatise on Justification Vol. 1, chapter 18; pg. 126 of the 1844 Allport translation)

For Davenant, like Ursinus, concupiscence exists within man as a defective habit. It is a propensity, not original to man’s created state, but nevertheless now inherent in him because of original sin.

Davenant explains further:

we must understand that the word concupiscence sometimes denotes the mere faculty of desire… we grant that it is a good creature of God. Sometimes it denotes the contagion or unruly tendency, which has infected the faculty itself; and this disorder, we say, is formally repugnant to that rectitude which God has impressed upon the same faculty. (ibid).

There is the faculty of desire itself, and there is the infection of the desire with unruliness. The former is a generic and benign concupiscence, while the latter is the concupiscence of original sin.

Davenant makes this even more plain, and he explains the way in which concupiscence itself is considered sin:

…the corrupt disposition, which inclines internally to actual sin, is most properly Original Sin. …so although the faculty of desire itself is not sin, yet the inclination and propensity of it to evil is sin; even in one asleep, when it does not at all actually incline to sin. (ibid, pg. 127).

Is Concupiscence Sin?

This last part leads to the question of whether concupiscence is sin. This was a major controversy during the Reformation. Each side’s positions made it into their confessional declarations. See the Augsburg Confession, article 2.2 or the 39 Articles, article 9 for the Protestants and the First Decree of the Fifth Session of the Council of Trent for the Catholics.

This was no minor point either. Martin Chemnitz devotes five sections of his first volume of Examination of the Council of Trent to discussing it. It is mentioned in nearly every major dogmatic compendium of the 16th and 17th cent. Neither side debated whether concupiscence was bad. Rome denied that it was “sin,” but they meant this in a specific way. They denied that the Christian was “guilty” of it after baptism. But Rome did not deny that concupiscence was a vicious habit. Indeed, Trent says that Christians should “resist [it] manfully.”

But the debate did matter. It was significant for understanding the way in which concupiscence’s remaining presence affected our justification. For the Roman Catholics, concupiscence was counted as sin prior to baptism, in the same way that original sin is counted as sin, but its abiding presence after baptism was no longer considered sin, though it could and often did lead the baptized to sin. This was important to note because the presence of concupiscence would not then, on these grounds, stand in any contradiction to the Roman Catholic claim that the one baptized was now inherently righteous, so long as they continued in a state of grace.

For Protestants, concupiscence, along with the rest of original sin, was also not counted against the one who trusted in Christ. But this was neither because concupiscence was actually taken away and removed, nor because its nature had been changed, but because God graciously no longer imputed it to the believer. Instead, the righteousness of Christ was imputed to the believer. In itself–in its own nature–concupiscence was sin, but it was not “counted as sin” against the believer. Still, since it retained its nature as sin, the Christian was never inherently righteous in this life, even as he progressed in subduing fallen desires and ordering them towards God.

As was often the case, both sides claimed Augustine. In Of Marriage and Concupiscence, he had written, “In the case, however, of the regenerate, concupiscence is not itself sin any longer, whenever they do not consent to it for illicit works, and when the members are not applied by the presiding mind to perpetrate such deeds” (Of Marriage 1.25). Yet, later in Against Julian he said, “…the concupiscence of the flesh against which a good spirit lusts is not only a sin, because it is disobedience against the dominion of the mind—as well as punishment for sin, because it has been reckoned as the wages of disobedience—but also a cause of sin, in the failure of him who consents to it or in the contagion of birth” (Against Julian 5.3). So, for Augustine, concupiscence in the regenerate is no longer a sin unless they add to it consent, and yet it is a sin because it disobeys the dominion of the mind.

Augustine is vast, containing multitudes. We won’t be able to sort it out here. Indeed, Herman Bavinck claims that Augustine actually changed his position on this question over time (see Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics Vol. 3, pg. 142). But I do think we can form a somewhat consistent picture. Against Julian was one of Augustine’s last pieces of writing, and in it he has to clarify many of his early statements about concupiscence. We have already given one quote from it in the preceding paragraph. But a little later in it Augustine add this, “concupiscence which remains as something to be combated and healed, even though absolutely all sins are remitted in baptism, is not only not sanctified, but must rather be made void lest it hold the sanctified liable to eternal death” (Against Julian 6.18). Thus, while Augustine did not believe the guilt of concupiscence was held against the regenerate, he also did not believe that the nature of concupiscence had been changed. Concupiscence is combated and healed by being made void.

This is actually very close to the Protestant position. They argued that concupiscence was sin due to its nature, and insofar as original sin remains in all men, so too concupiscence remained, as the same kind of sin. Yet it was not counted against the regenerate, because God chooses not to impute it as sin. And this sin could be mortified, even to the point of being classified “non-reigning sin.” Zacharias Ursinus discusses this at more length here. Importantly, Ursinus states:

Sin which does not thus reign, is that which the sinner resists by the grace of the Holy Spirit. It does not, therefore, expose him to eternal death, because he has repented and found favor through Christ. Such sins are disordered inclinations and unholy desires, a want of righteousness, and many sins of ignorance, of omission, and of infirmity, which remain in the godly as long as they continue in this life; but which they, nevertheless, acknowledge, deplore, hate, resist, and earnestly pray may be forgiven them for the sake of Christ, the Mediator, saying, forgive us our debts.

John Owen wrote an entire treatise on this topic. He is clear that indwelling sin is still sin:

And this also lies in it as it is enmity, that every part and parcel of it, if we may so speak, the least degree of it that can possibly remain in any one, whilst and where there is any thing of its nature, is enmity still. It may not be so effectual and powerful in operation as where it hath more life and vigour, but it is enmity still As every drop of poison is poison, and will infect, and every spark of fire is fire, and will burn; so is every thing of the law of sin, the last, the least of it, — it is enmity, it will poison, it will burn. That which is any thing in the abstract is still so whilst it hath any being at all. Our apostle, who may well be supposed to have made as great a progress in the subduing of it as any one on the earth, yet after all cries out for deliverance, as from an irreconcilable enemy, Rom. vii. 24. The meanest acting, the meanest and most imperceptible working of it, is the acting and working of enmity. Mortification abates of its force, but doth not change its nature. Grace changeth the nature of man, but nothing can change the nature of sin. Whatever effect be wrought upon it, there is no effect wrought in it, but that it is enmity still, sin still. (The Nature, Power, Deceit, and Prevelancy of the Remainders of Indwelling Sin in Believers, chapter 4)

Owen is clear that this indwelling sin does not have dominion over the believer. Still, it is present in him, in his heart, his affections, and his mind, and that it avers from God and all good. “The heart is not habitually inclined unto evil by the remainders of indwelling sin; but this sin in the heart hath a constant, habitual propensity unto evil in itself or its own nature” (Owen, chapter 6).

Thus the Christian today, like the Apostle Paul, sees two laws within him (Rom. 7:21-23) and must cry out, “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

Now, should a Christian “repent for” this sort of sin? Yes, in the same sense that the Christian repents of original sin. “I am evil, born in sin” (Ps. 51:5). In another sense, we can also say that we have been forgiven of this sin in Christ. Its remaining presence in our life is not a new sin, and yet its nature is still of sin and it can still bring us into sin– and rather easily.

Thus, for the Christian, concupiscence is something which affects his desire. The call to sanctification is the call to critically examine the desires, to separate what is good from what is bad, and to reject all disordered or inappropriate desires. The desire, as merely desire, is not sin, and yet all of the disordered aspects are aspects of original sin, sinful as to their nature as disordered, and causes of new sin if cooperated with.

Concupiscence and Sexual Orientation

My interest in bringing concupiscence into this conversation was originally because I wanted to clarify what the Spiritual Friendship writers meant by “the desire for gay sex.” To understand a sex desire, we will have to understand desire, and that means understanding concupiscence. For the Protestant Reformers, the sex desire considered in itself would not be concupiscence– and therefore not sin– but its disordered inclination or propensity towards an illicit end would be. It is sinful insofar as it is disordered. The disorder is an effect of sin, and the disorder will cause sin, as it causes the motion to aver from its proper end. Indeed, if this disordered inclination were so pervasive as to remain constant and create a disordered habit, then you would have a textbook case of concupiscence.

Is it not reasonable to describe a disordered “orientation” as a disordered habit?

And so, putting all of this together then, we can say that the homosexual orientation is concupiscence insofar as it is a homosexual sexual orientation. If one were to attempt to detach it from the orientation towards sexual activity and find other aspects of it that are good, as Wes Hill and Ron Belgau do, then older Christian writers would say that they are simply removing the disorder and addressing the good creational anthropology as such. They are subduing the disordered concupiscence and attempting to find an original desire for the good.

Distinguishing the matter in this way also helps us avoid certain dangerous rhetorical devices. It is not appropriate to say that the disorder is a special gift in distinction from the “order.” Indeed, the disorder is not a “thing,” not a substance. It is a privation or an errant inclination. In this life, it is often the case that certain disorders have the effect of heightening other senses or, in one way or another, causing the person to strengthen other organs and faculties. We can think of the way some blind people have stronger senses of hearing or the way in which those with various mental disabilities can have extraordinary bodily strength. Still, the disorderly part of these conditions is not a good thing. The essential part of these disorders is not the good that might nevertheless accompany them; it is the disorder. The disorder is the problem. Experientially these are not always easy to separate. Theologically, the difference is clear.

Conclusion, For Now

From here I still need to go on to address the sin of effeminacy in more detail, as I mentioned in my earlier post. But as I worked through the various material in Augustine, I began to think of the relationship between concupiscence and eros. Concupiscence, after all, shares a root with cupid, the Latin counterpart to eros. And thinking of eros as a disorderly passion that affects the body quite apart from the reasonable governance of the will, as concupiscence does, reminded me of the magisterial work from Denis De RougemontLove in the Western World. 

That will be the subject of my next post.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.