God's Babies: Natalism and Bible Interpretation in Modern America
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5. Augustine on Fruitfulness

In the early centuries of Christianity, the significance of reproduction was intensely debated. The writings of Augustine (354-430) dominated subsequent western Christian reflection on the topic until the 16th century. In part, that simply reflected Augustine’s predominance in Christian thought generally,154 but it was also because later Christian leaders valued his innovative resolution of tensions concerning the origin, past, present, and future of human reproduction.

Today most heirs of Augustinian thought are selective. Catholicism has mostly abandoned his hope that lay Catholic women could aspire to a higher vocation than motherhood. Though it still esteems vowed celibacy above marriage, even that has become weak or muted, especially after the scandals of recent years. Its episcopacy and some laity still hold to Augustine’s anti-contraceptive teachings, but have modified them to allow the rhythm method (or rather its scientific variant in Natural Family Planning), which he condemned as a Manichean custom. Protestants mostly reject all this, but in other areas they lean on Augustinian ideas transformed by Luther and Calvin. My ressourcement from Augustine in this chapter is a helpful step in evaluation; it does not stand by itself as a viable modern Christian approach to reproductive ethics, but it offers helpful insights toward such a development.

Chronology and writings

Augustine was born in 354 in Numidia (roughly where Algeria is today), a prosperous Roman province near Carthage, the second largest city of the western Empire. He worked as a teacher of Rhetoric there and later also in Rome and Milan. He was brought up as a Catholic by his mother Monica, but as a teenager he investigated various philosophies and became a ‘hearer’ of the Manichean sect for nine years155 until he moved on to Neoplatonism. While in Milan Augustine heard the preaching of bishop Ambrose which, alongside the inspiring example of Christian monks, led him to return to Catholicism and be baptized in 387. After returning to Numidia, he was ordained a priest in 391 and made an assistant bishop in 395. He soon became the bishop of Hippo Regius, a city on the north coast of Africa, and worked there until his death in 430.

Augustine commented on the Genesis creation narrative in five of his writings: De Genesi adversus Manichaeos in 388, De Genesi ad litteram imperfectus liber around 393, books 11-13 of Confessiones around 400, De Genesi ad Litteram between 401 and 415, and parts of De Civitate Dei between 413 and 427.156 However, he also wrote much about reproduction elsewhere, in his other writings against Manicheism,157 during the controversy about Jovinian and Jerome,158 and against Pelagianism. Helpful insights also appear in Sermones, especially his Christmas sermons reflecting on the Virgin Mary, and in enarrationes in Psalmos, especially the sermons on Psalms 127 and 128. The 544 surviving sermons,159 and the 299 letters in Epistulae constitute, by length, almost half (45%) of Augustine’s writings, but they have been relatively neglected (Kretzmann and Stump 23, 11). In some areas of thought, Augustine’s thinking did change during his Christian career, but the aspects important for my discussion, including his spiritual interpretations of the fruitful verses, remained constant.

The intended audience of his writings was ordained people and elite laity. The sermons, however, were preached in church, mostly at Hippo and sometimes in Carthage. One contextual feature alluded to later is that Augustine often signals in sermons that he is turning to address different parts of the congregation. Standing near the front were the virgins, and behind them the consecrated widows, with the married people further back. Also, before and after Easter, he might address the competentes (those who had asked for baptism), the catechumens (those in preparation for baptism), or the infantes (those recently baptized), who were mostly adult converts.

Historical context of Augustine’s thought

Philosophical ideas about reproduction

State-sponsored natalism was common in ancient Greek and Roman cities for strategic reasons. Reproduction sufficient to maintain the population was essential, especially as city dwellers often suffered higher mortality from plagues than their rural compatriots. The word for the poor, the proletarius, means “one who produces offspring.” However the real problem was encouraging the upper class to reproduce itself sufficiently. Stoic philosophers argued that citizens had a duty to produce legitimate offspring. The ideal constitution designed by Cicero banned singleness: On the Laws 3.3.7 states that “caelibes esse prohibunto” (Daube 27).

The belief that sexual acts should always aim at reproduction (and be contained within marriage) was discussed in chapter 1, which noted its origins in Pythagorean and Stoic eugenic philosophy, its religious transformation in Philo, and its adoption into Christianity by Clement of Alexandria (94, 255). Augustine inherited this “Alexandrian rule” as traditional (Brakke 186), but his version was milder than Clement’s. It became the main source of subsequent Catholic teaching. For example, Augustine wrote that “to demand the debt from your marriage partner more than is required for the procreation of children is indeed a sin, though a venial one.” He commented on the Old Testament patriarchs: “So chaste were they in their relations with their wives … that they never went in to them for carnal intercourse except for the sake of procreation” (serm. 51.22 tr. WSA III/3:34, 33). This is a minor feature in Augustine’s thought and though it does shape his ideas about reproduction, his non-natalist attitude is rooted less in his antipathy to sexuality than in deeper themes of salvation history and eschatology, the supreme good, and the consequent relative value of different vocations.

Christian, Encratite, and dualist attitudes to reproduction

Reproduction featured in Augustine’s writings because of tensions within the canon of Scripture that generated diversity in Christianity. Under the Old Covenant the patriarchal genetic line and sexual reproduction had been important, but the New Covenant prioritized the church “family,” spiritual kinship, and personal resurrection. The contrast was heightened by an early Christian orientation toward a heavenly rather than an earthly vocation. Celibacy and asceticism were part of Christianity from the 1st century, but the form we call monasticism emerged in the 3rd. Augustine’s encounter in Rome with a house of monks and the Life of Antony played a part in his conversion (conf. 8), as did bishop Ambrose, a mediator of the ascetic spirituality of Origen, Athanasius, and the Cappadocian Fathers. Augustine told his congregation in Hippo that before he became a bishop “I … came to this city as a young man … looking for a place to establish a monastery, and live there with my brothers” (serm. 355.2 tr. WSA III/10:165). Augustine founded in Hippo a special type of monastery, attached to his main church, for priests as well as lay brothers (H. Chadwick 63). In the West, the only earlier “cathedral” monastery was founded circa 363 by the bishop of Vercelli (Harrison 184). Augustine was a pioneer of monasticism in the province of Numidia.

The ancient orthodox (those Christians deemed orthodox by the later Catholic Church) wrote about reproduction mainly when reacting against other groups that identified themselves as Christian while forbidding marriage. The latter can be placed in two categories labelled dualist and encratite. For those in the first category, who included Marcionites and many Gnostics, their denigration of marriage was one aspect of a dualist denigration of the physical world (Cohen 243). Married people could not be baptized in Marcionite churches since only unmarried (or divorced) people were eligible for full membership (Lieu 40). Those in the second category, encratism, worked with common early Christian beliefs about a hierarchy of spirit and flesh, an idea that humankind as originally created was not sexual, and an eschatological reading of Paul’s words which led to the idea that marriage was obsolete and celibacy a command. Some churches in Syria where Tatian was a leader, and some in Egypt led by Hieracas, required catechumens to vow celibacy (Hunter, Marriage 132). Augustine reported that “they are also called Encratites … they do not admit into their number anyone, whether man or woman, who is living a married life” (haer. 25 tr. WSA I/18:38).160 Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Epiphanius of Salamis, Origen, John Chrysostom, and other orthodox Fathers also wrote against such ideas, laboring to affirm marriage (and marital reproduction) even though almost all of these orthodox writers were themselves celibate.

Historians call others “moderate Encratites” who claimed that the “original things have passed away” (2 Corinthians 5:18), or even that “male and female” are abolished (Galatians 3:28), but did not step over the line into heresy by forbidding marriage (D’Angelo 1). “Encratism predominated for a time in the Churches of eastern Syria and Mesopotamia, without those Churches being considered heretical” (Price 122). Aphrahat, a leading Syriac Christian, regarded celibacy as the only path to holiness (Koltun-Fromm 386). In the West, the anonymous treatise De castitate (circa 400) argued that the marriage of Adam and Eve (Genesis 2:24) symbolically prefigured the relation of Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:31), and therefore marriage no longer had any function and should be expected to pass away (Clark 358). Even so, these moderate Encratites stayed within the orthodox consensus that celibacy was a voluntary evangelical counsel rather than a command.

The three controversies that were the immediate causes prompting Augustine to develop his theology of reproduction were Manicheism, the controversy over Jovinian and Jerome, and Augustine’s long-running debate with Julian of Eclanum. His efforts to shake off his opponents’ accusations that he was a secret adherent of Manicheism are a thread running through all three of these controversies.

Manicheism, real and imagined

In the 3rd century AD, in Persian Mesopotamia, a preacher named Mani broke away from a Jewish Christian sect called the Elcasaites who condemned virginity and made marriage compulsory. Mani instead began teaching a dualist cosmogony in which divine light (he revered the sun) was trapped in earthly bodies and sought to escape to the heavenly realm. He called it the “religion of Light,” but outsiders named it Manicheism. He deprecated reproduction because conceiving a baby imprisoned a fragment of divinity, a soul, in flesh (AE 239 citing mor. 2.18). There were two levels of Manichean: the ‘elect’ were celibate, while the married ‘hearers’ were encouraged to practice contraception.161 As a young man, while a hearer, Augustine had persuaded many Catholic friends and pupils to join the Manicheans, but now he urgently desired to call them back, and by 411 he had written approximately fifteen anti-Manichean works. These anti-Manichean writings include Contra Adimantum Manichei disciplum in 393/4, and Contra Faustum Manichaeum in 397/9. David Hunter observes that these polemical writings are more pro-marriage (and, I would add, more pro-reproduction) than his other works written during the same period such as the Confessiones (“Introduction” WSA I/9:9-11).

In their apologetics, Manicheans quoted the Scriptures used by Christians.162 They liked the New Testament, especially Paul’s letters, but regarded the Old as carnal. Adda (called Adimantus in the Latin West) claimed that the New Testament and Old Testament were incompatible. While the New looked to eternal rewards, the Old focused on temporal rewards. To show this, he juxtaposed verses from the two that he found contradictory, for example contrasting Deuteronomy 28 and Matthew 16:24. Augustine responded that the older pattern was appropriate to its time. “Carnal and temporal rewards were suitably promised to a people that was still carnal” (c. Adim. 18.1 tr. WSA I/19:212). That era lived under different rules and standards, for “when God commands polygamy it is virtue” (conf. 3.7.12). Augustine wanted to reject any idea that lust played a part in Old Testament polygamy: the patriarchs “only have wives for the sake of getting children” (serm. 51.23 tr. WSA III/3:34). Augustine also challenged the Manichean dichotomy between the Testaments: referring to Isaiah 56:4 he observed that “even in the Old Testament … they have the great promises made to eunuchs, lest the Manicheans think that they were praised by the Lord only in the New Testament” (c. Adim. 3, tr. WSA I/19:180).

Faustus the Manichean ridiculed a scripture (Deuteronomy 25:5) that obliged a man to perpetuate the name of his dead childless brother by marrying the brother’s widow and begetting a male offspring, a boy regarded as being the dead man’s son. In its defence, Augustine deployed allegory: “every preacher of the gospel should so labor in the Church as to raise up seed to his deceased brother, that is, Christ, who died for us, and that this seed should bear His name” (c. Faust. 32.10). In other words, converts are named Christ-ian after Christ. The text prefigures the gospel. Thus, in varying ways, Augustine justified the emphasis on marriage and reproduction in the Old Testament.

At the time when Augustine was a bishop, to be accused of Manicheism was dangerous. In the late 3rd century Mani’s teachings had spread to the Roman empire, but its foreign origin and “immoral” teachings provoked emperor Diocletian in 302 to order the burning of Manicheans and their scriptures (Lieu 6). That decree had lapsed, but emperor Theodosius in 381 issued a new law tasking “members of the secret service” with prosecuting the Manichean elect (Lieu 111). Priscillian of Avila and two other bishops in Hispania (modern Spain) were accused by their local peers of Manicheism. They travelled to Rome to appeal to the Italian bishops, but the emperor beheaded them in 385 (Hunter, “Resistance” 50). Priscillian was not a Manichean, but he was ascetic and he urged Christians to avoid marriage (Lieu 114). Ambrose of Milan was “plagued” in his later years (he died in 397) by accusations of Manicheism (Clark, “Heresy” 100), and in 412 two ascetic bishops in southern France were forced to retire after similar false accusations.

Augustine was unusually vulnerable because he really had been a Manichean in his younger years. When Augustine first became a priest, Megalius the archbishop of Numidia did not trust him, and his promotion to the junior episcopacy in 395 was enabled by his mentor bishop Valerius of Hippo (M.T. Clark 11). It was common knowledge that Manichean hearers were adept in religious camouflage. Cyril of Jerusalem had warned, in his book about heretics, of the danger of accepting repentant Manicheans into the church too easily. Augustine, in a letter written after he became a bishop, reported to Deuterius that he had exposed and punished Victorinus, a subdeacon, as a secret Manichean:

After he confessed that he was a hearer in the Manichees, he in fact asked me to bring him back to the path of truth, which is Catholic doctrine. But I admit, I was aghast at his pretense in the guise of a cleric, and I took measures to expel him from the city after chastising him. (ep. 236 tr. WSA II/4:135)

It is unsurprising that Augustine “lived his entire Catholic life in dread of being branded a crypto-Manichean” (Coyle 18; also see H. Chadwick 65). His reputation, influence, and legacy were all at stake.163 In such circumstances it is remarkable that Augustine dared to write anything less than entirely positive about marriage and marital reproduction. That he sometimes did compare it unfavorably with celibacy suggests he was confident he could show that his ideas were firmly anchored in the New Testament and mainstream Christian tradition.

The controversy over Jovinian’s teachings

The teachings of Jovinian (d. 405) have been reconstructed from Jerome’s response to him, and from Ambrose’s letter to Siricius. Jovinian argued that virgins and widows would not receive a greater reward in heaven than married people, because “baptism with full faith” confers equal merit on all recipients, and so in heaven all will receive the same reward (Hunter, “Resistance” 45). Jovinian had been provoked by liturgical innovations that elevated celibacy, for example the use of the text “I espoused you to one husband” (2 Corinthians 11:2) in the veiling of women who took vows of Christian celibacy (Hunter, Marriage 33). The wider context of the controversy was that Siricius as bishop of Rome (from 384 to 399) was calling for all priests to be celibate: many were but it was not compulsory. Siricius mentioned in a letter that some Italian bishops opposing his proposal to change canon law were using the precedent of married priests in the Old Testament. Jovinian accused Siricius and his ally bishop Ambrose of being Manicheans.164 Jovinian argued that marriage’s goodness was modelled by the patriarchs of Genesis and confirmed by Christ in Matthew 19:5 (Jerome adv. Jov. 1.5 tr. NPNF2 6:348). He won supporters in Rome among priests and the senatorial class: some were named by the papal condemnation of Jovinian in 393 (Hunter, “Resistance” 48, citing Siricius ep. 2.2.3).

Jerome’s intemperate response seemed to vindicate Jovinian’s claim that advocacy of celibacy inevitably led to denigration of marriage. Augustine addressed the problem in 404 with two books that should be read together: De bono conjugali, “On the Good of Marriage”, and De sancta virginitate, “On Holy Virginity.”165 The first book identified what he called the “three goods of marriage” which were: bonum sacramenti (enduring union as a symbol of Christ and the church), bonum fidei (the friendship between husband and wife), and bonum prolis (offspring brought up in the Christian faith). Augustine asserted that marriage is good, and celibacy is better. He advised that one “must not flee from marriage as if it were a pit of sin, but must pass over it as a hill of less grandeur, to settle on the higher mountain of celibacy” (virg. 18 tr. WSA I/9:78). He warned virgins that they should not:

disdain the early fathers and mothers of God’s people who served the future Christ even by having children [as] future events were still being prepared and brought to birth, and even their married life had the character of prophecy In the present times, however, those to whom it is said, If they are unable to be continent, they should marry do not need our encouragement, but our sympathy. (virg. 1 tr. WSA I/9:68)

Some of Jovinian’s arguments were similar to those that Augustine had used against the Manicheans, but he went further. Jovinian claimed that “Sarah, who was a type of the church … exchanged the curse of sterility for the blessing of childbirth” (Jerome, adversus Jovinianum 1.5, tr. Hunter, Marriage 33). Augustine perceived Jovinian’s error as being in the opposite direction from the Manichean error (Hunter, “Reclaiming” 325), so he adjusted his earlier arguments defending the Old Testament patriarchs to point out clearly the dispensational differences between old and new covenants, and the dangers of praising external features of the patriarchs’ lives as if they were suitable models for Christian readers to imitate.

Augustine affirmed the belief in differences in heavenly reward (homily on John 14 tr. NPNF1 7:324; also see Matthew 16:27; 25:14-30; Romans 2:5-6; and 1 Corinthians 3:11-15). Augustine did query Jerome’s reading of the thirty, sixty, and hundred fold yields in the parable of the sower (Mark 4:3-20) as three levels of reward with the greater corresponding to widowhood and celibacy. Elizabeth Clark cites this as evidence of Augustine elevating marriage, but it is only his hesitation about Jerome’s reading of one text, “God in his kindness grants many gifts, and some are greater and better than others … should we conclude that there are too many for them to be divided into three kinds?” Yes, there are more than three gifts: a list can include martyrdom, virginity, widowhood, and non-virginal celibacy (Augustine was in this category), as well as continence within marriage and marital chastity (that is, married people who only engage in sex for reproduction). Married women, even if senior in age and senatorial in class, have a lower place than virgins. These are real differences, but, Augustine urged, they should not provoke pride or jealousy:

See how that Lamb walks on the path of virginity! the faithful who are unable to follow the Lamb this far, will see you but they will not be jealous. They will not be able to sing that new hymn that is exclusively yours, but they will be able to hear it and to share your enjoyment Those who have less will not be resentful toward you. Where there is no envy, there is harmony in diversity. (virg. 29 tr. WSA I/9:86)

The dispute with Julian of Eclanum

In the twenty years before Augustine’s death in 430, most of his polemical works were aimed at Pelagianism.166 These included his controversies with Julian of Eclanum, a bishop who refused to accept the condemnation of Pelagius in 417 by Zosimus, bishop of Rome. Augustine’s first anti-Pelagian work was De peccatorum meritis et remissione et de baptismo parvulorum, “On sin ... and infant baptism,” in 411. Others cited here are De nuptiis et concupiscentia, “On marriage and the sinful nature,” written between 418 and 420, and Contra Julianum, “Against Julian,” in 422.

Julian claimed that everyone is born with the power to choose right or wrong, with free will, just like Adam before the Fall: a fresh start for every newborn baby. In his view, human nature was not altered by the Fall, so phenomena such as the pain of childbirth and man’s domination of woman were original features of creation and not results of the Fall. Julian identified the root of the sinful character that enslaved each generation as depraved human culture (rather than nature), which was passed down from parents to children by example and imitation. In theory, anyone could live a life without sin if they so chose.

Augustine answered that Adam’s nature was corrupted by the Fall, and all his descendants were born with a fallen nature, lacking the ability to live a sinless life. The corrupt nature was in the “vitiated seed” and was unavoidably passed on from parents to children. Augustine complained that his Pelagian critics

keep shouting in a most hateful manner that we condemn marriage and the divine work by which God creates human beings from men and women. One of their reasons is that we say that those who are born from such a union contract original sin we claim that, regardless of the sort of parents from whom the children are born, they are still under the power of the devil, unless they are reborn in Christ. (nupt. et conc. 1.1 tr. WSA I/24:28)

Julian and others labelled this as Manichean. Augustine observed: “You say I praise the celibacy of the Christian era, not to inspire men to virginity, but to condemn the goodness of marriage” (c. Jul. 16(65) tr. FC 303), and he rejected this claim. Julian’s focus on Genesis 1:28 (and 2:24) and on reproduction (Clark, “Heresy” 120) ensured that Augustine kept writing on this topic and these verses to the end of his life. He died before finishing his second book against Julian, the Opus imperfectum.

Reproduction: past, present, and future

Previous scholarly discussion of Augustine’s thought on reproduction has focused on his change of mind about its origin, expressed in his innovative exegesis of Genesis 1:28. Earlier Christian thinking about the origins of reproduction was based on the principle that whereas mortals reproduce a new generation to take their place, immortals do not reproduce, and they believed that the first humans were created immortal. They also believed that the eschatological human condition would restore what had been lost through the Fall.167 Given that post-resurrection humans will be “like the angels” (Mark 12:25) and not conceiving babies (Luke 20:35), this implied that the first humans were originally like that. Gregory of Nyssa reasoned that “the resurrection promises … the restoration of the fallen to their ancient state … If then the life of those restored is closely related to that of the angels, it is clear that the life before the transgression was a kind of angelic life” (The Making of Man 17.2 tr. NPNF2 5:66). In the creation narrative it was not until after the expulsion from the garden that the first instance of sexual reproduction was reported (Genesis 4:1), and so Christian tradition accepted an idea from the Jewish book of Jubilees in which the garden of “Eden was like a temple and sex was not possible within its precincts” (G. Anderson 62).168 As for “be fruitful” (Genesis 1:28), commentators suggested that God had foreseen the Fall and made provision for it in advance, or alternatively they interpreted it spiritually as the fruit of the spirit.

Augustine at first accepted those beliefs, but later decided that reproduction must have been original. That change in his exegesis has been closely tracked by historians. His earliest comment on “be fruitful and multiply” was in 388, when he asked: “Should we understand it carnally or spiritually? For we are permitted to understand it spiritually and to believe that it was changed into carnal fecundity after sin.” He suggested that “before they sinned” the first humans had been intended to generate “spiritual offspring of intelligible and immortal joys filling the earth” (Gn. adv. Man. 1.19(30) tr. FC 84:77-78). A decade later in Confessiones, he suggested: “If we consider these words as intended figuratively, which I rather think Scripture intended … we would understand … human procreation in terms of matters conceived intellectually, on account of the fecundity of reason” (conf. 12.36).

The change began in 401 when Augustine expressed “many different opinions” about the original human condition in Genesis 1:28, including the possibilities that “the first parents both were mortal in their original state” and would have reproduced, and that they could “have children in some other way, without physical union.” However, he affirmed the principle that “sexual union is possible only for mortal bodies” (b. conjug. 2 tr. WSA I/9:33). Then in De Genesi ad Litteram, in 405, he decided that the original plan must have been sexual reproduction by immortals (Harrison 163). Later, looking back in his Retractationes, he wrote that “I do not at all agree” (Cohen 243) with his earlier views. According to his new theory, if the Fall had not happened then sexual reproduction would have been rational and limited, until “the determined number would be complete” (Gn. litt. 9.3). In this hypothetical scenario:

children … would succeed their parents, who themselves would not be destined to die. Thus, finally, the earth would have been filled with immortal men, and when this just and holy society would be thus brought into being, as we believe it will be after the resurrection, there would be an end to the begetting of children. (Gn. litt. 1.16 tr. ACW 41:97)

Significance of the changed exegesis

Three questions are considered here. Why did Augustine change his mind about Genesis 1:28? What significance, if any, did his changed ideas about origins have for his attitude to contemporary reproduction? Did it imply a rejection of his spiritual exegeses of this and other Old Testament fruitful verses? Patristic scholars disagree about his motive and the implications. Peter Brown sees it as part of a turning away from the Platonic hierarchy of spirit and flesh, but Margaret Miles responds with examples of a soul/body hierarchy from later writings by Augustine (Brown and Donovan 5-9, 19). Susan Schreiner considers that by setting Paradise in the continuum of real history, he “attacks Neo-Platonic devaluation of history” in order to defend the transcendence of God (“Eve” 158). David Hunter claims that the change was provoked by Julian, but Elizabeth Clark argues it was a response to Jovinian (“Heresy” 108), which is more plausible given the timing of the change in 405. In any case it is unlikely that Augustine’s motive was pro-reproductive.

Augustine’s changed view about the historical origins of reproduction never detracts from his belief that it has no future, and that this points to a proleptic celibate ideal for the present. Virginity is “a foretaste of eternal incorruptibility” (virg. 13 tr. WSA I/9:74). Augustine affirms in the 420s that “in the resurrection there will be no generation” (civ. Dei 15.17 tr. Bettenson 627): reproduction will cease in the future. Augustine preached at Lent circa 420:

As for those of you who have taken vows you are leading the life of angels on earth. Angels, you see, don’t get married That’s what we shall all be like, when we have risen from the dead. How much better you people are, then, who already begin to be before death what everyone will be after the resurrection! God is keeping for you your respective honors. The resurrection of the dead has been compared to the stars (1 Cor.15:41-42). There will be one splendor there for virginity, another for married chastity, another for holy widowhood. (serm. 132.3 tr. WSA III/4:327)

Augustine’s shift in exegesis of Genesis 1:28 was a move from one scheme of primordial history to another. It did not, contra Jeremy Cohen, supersede figurative and spiritual exegeses of Genesis 1:28. Cohen claimed that medieval exegetes such as Aquinas and the Glossa Ordinaria compilers were contradicting Augustine when they rehearsed both his literal and spiritual readings. In this argument, Cohen wrongly assumed that a text could have only one meaning, but Augustine explained why they are compatible: in de Genesi ad litteram, he noted

three generally held opinions about this topic; one held by those who think Paradise should only be understood in the literal material sense, another by those for whom only the spiritual sense is true, the third by those who take Paradise in each way169 [i.e. in both ways] ... it is the third opinion which I favor. (Gn. litt. 8.1-2 tr. WSA I/13:346)

The historical literal meaning is the first elementary and preliminary step. In itself it may not be edifying, but a wealth of figurative, typological, and other spiritual interpretations await beyond it. Augustine wrote in the same commentary that

In the case of a narrative of events, the question arises as to whether everything must be taken according to the figurative sense only, or whether it must be expounded and defended also as a faithful record of what happened. No Christian will dare say that the narrative must not be taken in a figurative sense. (Gn. litt. 1.17 tr. ACW 1:39)

He continues: “in this book I wanted to see what I could accomplish in the laborious and difficult task of literal interpretation.” Accordingly, at a later point, he arrests himself from straying into figurative exegesis: “But this is to give an interpretation, a thing which I did not set out to do in this treatise, I have started here to discuss Sacred Scripture according to the plain meaning of the historical facts, not according to future events which they foreshadow” (Gn. litt. 1.17.34 tr. ACW 1:41).

He had written in his first Genesis commentary that “this whole discourse must first be discussed according to history, then according to prophecy” (Gn. adv. Man. 2.3 tr. ACW 1:95). His attempt at the historical approach in Genesi ad litteram imperfectus liber (394) had halted at Genesis 1:26; subsequently, he worked on prophetic exegesis in Confessiones chapters 12-13; and now, in Genesi ad litteram, he fills in the missing history. The spiritual exegesis that he made (and will continue to make) is not superseded. Except for the specific point about when reproduction began, De Genesi ad litteram supplements his earlier (and later) spiritual interpretation. He commented late in life (circa 421) on Genesis 1:28 that “all of these things can appropriately be given a spiritual meaning” on top of the historical meaning (civ. Dei 14.22). Spiritual exegeses of the fruitful verses continued in his later writings, and some will be mentioned in the remainder of this chapter.

Progress from old ways to new life

Augustine used two complementary models, both drawn from earlier writers, to explain why the meaning of the imperative “be fruitful” is historically contingent. The first is a binary model: the Old Testament commanded marriage, but the New Testament does not. This is evident from Jesus’ example and in Paul commending singleness: the challenge is to explain the difference without disparaging the Old Testament. Augustine preached in 409 about other differences between the two covenants, using a metaphor of the Word as doctor. “The doctor visits the patient, and says, ‘Take this one in the morning, and that one in the afternoon.’ … So in the same sort of way, then, some things were good for the benefit of the human race in earlier times, other things are good in later times.” Augustine imagines an objection to this argument: “the patient comes back to the doctor with, ‘Why not the same one in the afternoon as in the morning?’ … my dear sick man, don’t start giving the doctor advice!” (serm. 374.16 tr. WSA III/11:402). Ultimately only God knows why He divided history into a time before and after Christ’s birth, and why many of the rules given in the Old Testament have been abolished.

Augustine nevertheless attempted an explanation of the old compulsion. The most important purpose of reproduction in God’s plan was Christ’s birth. The messianic lineage that would ultimately lead to the singularity of Advent depended on the mothers of Genesis: “since it was necessary that Christ come in the flesh, both the marriage of Sarah and the virginity of Mary served to propagate that flesh” (contra Secundinum 22; Hunter 323). Augustine, also concerned to defend as much as possible the morals and motives of Old Testament patriarchs and matriarchs, suggested that they were aware of this divine purpose. He wrote in 418 that “Abraham was fully imbued with faith in the incarnation” (gr. et pecc. or. 2.27; Hunter 333). A secondary purpose was symbolic: the biblical accounts of patriarchs’ marriages existed to serve figuratively as prophecies of the marriage of Christ and the church, and the promises and narratives of their childbearing and genealogies served as prophecies of the gospel’s spread. “Not only the words of these holy men … but also their lives, their wives, their children, and acts … signified spiritual mysteries closely associated with Christ and the Church of which those saints were members” (cat. rud. 19.33). Now that the reality foretold by those symbols has come, the canon is closed and the old symbols are past.

In the progressive model, the urgency of reproduction had already gradually been diminishing during the Old Testament period. In the earliest period after Adam and again after Noah, the number of humankind was tiny and tasked with spreading a human presence to unpopulated lands. Also, the chosen people descending from Abraham were at first very few in number and survived precariously. Therefore early practices such as marriage to close relatives and polygamy were virtuous at first but later prohibited even before Christ. Genesis indicated that “men took their sisters as wives … a decent procedure under the pressure of necessity; but it became reprehensible in later times” (civ. Dei 15.16 tr. Bettenson 623). Childbearing was necessary to create Israel and produce the prophets who brought revelation. “Sarah too should be seen as acting from the pious motive of wanting the Israelite race to be increased” (c. Faust. 22.30-31, 47 tr. WSA I/19). That became less important after the nation was established, and after the prophets had written. And now the people of God is not limited to the Israelite race. Augustine wrote in 421 that:

This propagation of children which among the ancient saints was a duty for begetting a people for God, amongst whom the prophecy of Christ’s coming had precedence over everything, now has no longer the same necessity. For from among all nations the way is open for an abundant offspring to receive spiritual regeneration, from whatever quarter they derive their natural birth. (nupt. et conc. 1.13)

Augustine also suggests that the progressively diminishing importance of human fertility continues during the Christian era as the gospel spreads, beginning with Jesus, then Paul, and now with the growing evangelistic celibate movement of his own time: “For who does not know that the multitude of Christian men of perfect continence is daily spreading farther and farther, throughout the entire world, and especially in the East and in Egypt” (mor. 1.65). Elizabeth Clark observes that from Augustine’s perspective the greatest outpouring of the Spirit so far was in the 4th century (147). The rules, methods, and permissions appropriate for the dawn of human history were no longer necessary.

Advancing from reproduction to continence

This progress could be mirrored in individual life histories. Within the span of their marriage, a couple might begin with reproduction but a few years later, while still biologically fertile, become continent (that is, abstain from conjugal sexual relations). In the 4th century Western church, married men ordained in middle age often became continent. Bishop Ambrose expected that although these men “have had sons,” they should “not continue to make sons” (Harrison 188). Augustine circa 420 recommended this custom as an option for non-ordained people.

He also praised married couples in which husband and wife “observe a perpetual abstinence” (nupt. et conc. 12 tr. NPNF1 5). At least since Irenaeus, some leaders had affirmed the perpetual virginity of Mary,170 and Augustine emphasized that Joseph and Mary had a true marriage even if they were celibate. A similar pattern was found in the story of Moses and Zipporah. He wrote in 418 that “we know many brothers and sisters bearing much fruit in grace, who by mutual consent withhold from each other in the name of Christ the desire of the flesh, but do not withhold from each other their mutual married love. The more the former is held in check, the stronger grows the latter” (serm. 51.21 tr. WSA I/24:33). Examples known to him included Therasia and Paulinus, and also Melania the Younger, who wished her marriage to be continent from the beginning but agreed to her husband Pinianus’ wish to produce one male heir for his family’s sake. After one daughter and a dead infant son, they became celibate marriage partners (Brown 409).

Roman society, mainly to maintain property inheritance, disapproved of this behavior and sometimes intervened legally to dissolve such marriages. Augustine defended them and wrote: “Heaven forbid that in the case of those who have decided by mutual consent permanently to abstain from the use of carnal concupiscence the marital bond between them is broken. In fact, it will be stronger to the extent that they have entered more deeply into those agreements with each other” (nupt. et conc. 1.11 tr. WSA I/24:35). However, he emphasized the need for mutual agreement and by letter he reprimanded Ecdicia, who dragooned her husband into continence, which he at first accepted, but then when she started giving away their money he turned to adultery. Augustine reminded Ecdicia of Paul’s teaching on the “marital debt” owed between husband and wife (ep. 262 tr. WSA II/4).

Augustine also advised that after the death of a spouse, it is good for the surviving partner to remain single. This was a counsel and not a command. He criticized Tertullian for making it a rule and condemned the “Catharii or Novatians … [who] do not allow second marriages” (haer. 38 tr. WSA I/18:111). Augustine commended a widow who was “at an age when she could still marry and have children if she wanted to, and she then embraced chastity as a widow” (b. vid. 14 tr. WSA II/4:124). When Augustine’s own sister became a widow she joined a celibate community of women in Hippo Regius and became their abbess (AE 354 citing ep. 211.4; and Possidius, vita Augustini 26).

Spiritual exegesis and celibate fertility

Throughout his career, Augustine used figurative, allegorical, and other kinds of spiritual exegesis to find deeper meaning in Scriptures that, on the surface, concerned biological fertility. In the 420s, reading the promise to Abraham that “I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth” (Genesis 13:16), Augustine first noted that it was “hyperbole … [for] how incomparably greater is the number of the sands than the number of all human beings can possibly be, from Adam himself to the end of the world.” The text has a double meaning, with the initial reference to offspring having a deeper reference to spiritual descendants, the church, “the whole seed of Abraham” (civ. Dei XVI.21 tr. Bettenson 679). Looking at another promise, “count the stars ... so shall your offspring be” (Genesis 15:15), Augustine emphasized the spiritual meaning: “God’s promise refers to a spiritual posterity in heavenly beatitude” (civ. Dei XVI.23 tr. Bettenson 681).

Augustine also used allegory. Preaching on Psalm 127:3-5, he presented the man with a quiver full of sons as Christ, the sons as the twelve disciples, and the arrows sent far by the Lord’s bow as the apostles (en. Ps. 126.10 tr. WSA III/20:93).171 Another text he considered best interpreted spiritually was Psalm 128:3: “Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table.” The wife is the church, and the children are the peacemakers (through an intertextual reading with Matthew 5:9), for it is they who shall be called the children of God (en. Ps. 127[8].13 tr. WSA III/20:111). Augustine also offers an alternative interpretation of the children and grandchildren in verse 6 of the same Psalm, the blessing “May you live to see your children’s children”:

What do your children represent? The works you perform here. Who then are your children’s children? The fruits of those works. If you give alms they are your children; but because you gave alms you receive eternal life, and that is what your children’s children stand for. (en. Ps. 127[8].16 tr. WSA III/20:115)

Words such as “children” and “son” when used in Scripture do not always refer to biological offspring. Augustine wrote in 428: “The name of sons is interpreted in three ways in the Scriptures.” Apart from the obvious way “according to nature,” a person can have sons “according to teaching, as the Apostle calls his own sons those to whom he has taught the Gospel.” The third way is “according to imitation,” when someone hears about or sees a saint’s faith and life and follows their example (retr. tr. FC 60:94). Augustine earlier had explained that “virginity is no obstacle to fertility” because “No one gives birth to consecrated virgins except a consecrated virgin” (virg. 2, 12 tr. WSA I/9:69, 74). Spiritual fecundity refers not only to the number of other people led to Christ, but also to personal fruits of the spirit:

Nor should you count yourselves barren because you remain virgins; since this very integrity of the flesh, chosen for love, contributes to the fruitfulness of the mind. Do what the apostle says: since you are not thinking of the affairs of the world, how to please husbands, think of the affairs of God, how to please him in all things, so that instead of wombs fruitful with offspring, you may have minds fruitful with all the virtues. (serm. 191.4 tr. WSA III/6:44)

Ressourcement contrasted with natalism

What is the highest good that a person and a society ought to seek? Augustine’s answer is that “eternal life is the Supreme Good, and eternal death is the Supreme Evil” (civ. Dei 19.4). Temporal, this-worldly blessings are good, but not if they distract from pursuit of the supreme good. On reproduction, Augustine reflects upon material interpretations of the “fruitful wife” and the “children like young sprouting olives” in Psalm 128 and warns: “do not lose heavenly happiness by pursuing temporal, earthly well-being” (en. Ps. 127[8].2 tr. WSA III/20.99).

Augustine would also not accept the idea that more of a temporal good is necessarily better. For all things there are appropriate limits “by measure, number, and weight,” and Augustine liked the maxim, “nothing in excess” (AE 204). He advised that the “indulgence of the bodily appetites is intended to secure the continued existence and the invigoration of the individual or of the species. If the appetites go beyond … the limits of temperance, they become unlawful” (c. Faust. 22.29 tr. NPNF1 4). There he is writing about food, but the idea could well be applied to reproduction. The broader concept of incontinentia covers any inordinate love and accumulation of God’s good gifts and has been related to greedy consumption and ecological sustainability by Gerald Schlabach. Those who become addicted to the experience of raising infants and want to spend their adult life repeating that good moment are incontinent.

Perpetuating family, nation, and species

Reproduction enables the continuity of clan lineages and nations. At the small scale of a family line, to seek perpetuity was a common goal among ancient Romans. The consul Cassius Dio rejoiced circa 225, “Is it not blessed, on departing from life, to leave behind as heir to your line and fortune one that is your own, produced by you, and to have only the mortal part of you waste away while you live on in the child?” (Rawson 100). Augustine commented on the text “see your children’s children” in Psalm 128:5 (whose figurative exegesis was treated above):

And consider this: Have your children been born to you in order to live with you on earth? Or to supplant you and oust you? Can you rejoice over the birth of those who are born only to push you aside? All new-born children tacitly say to their parents, “Get out of the way, it’s our show now.” (en. Ps. 127[8] tr. WSA III/20:112)

This was no path to immortality but a delusion. All that survives is the family name and a similarity of appearance, and the dead individual does not live beyond death that way: the only path to immortality is resurrection.

The wish to perpetuate a human society (whether it be a nation, city-state, or clan) is at minimum the hope that some will reproduce so that society continues. This hope does not seek exponential or absolute increase in population and does not impose an obligation on particular individuals. Augustine in 388 deployed against Manichean denigration of reproduction an argument that the continuity of species is a benefit of reproduction, for all species “by that blessing preserve their kind by giving birth” (Gn. adv. Man. 15.50 tr. FC 84:180). Responding to the controversy over Jovinian in 401, he similarly accepted that reproduction does “contribute to the continuation of the human race” (b. conjug. 9 tr. WSA I/9:40). However, he added:

It is good to bear children and be the mother of a family; but not marrying is better because to have no need of this task is even better for human society … There is no shortage of offspring … so holy friendships may be fostered. What this means is that in the earliest ages of the human race, especially because of the need to propagate the people of God, through whom the Prince and Savior of all peoples would be proclaimed and be born, holy persons had a duty to make use of that benefit of marriage … Now, however, since among all peoples everywhere there is an abundant provision of the spiritual kinship required for creating a true and holy society, even those who desire to marry solely for the sake of having children should be advised to avail themselves rather of the greater benefit of abstinence. (b. conjug. 9 tr. WSA I/9:41)

Augustine does not make clear whether the “holy society” envisaged is the whole communion of saints across all ages, or only those walking the earth at a particular moment. Are there already enough regenerated people for the holy society, or must production be maintained in each future generation? If the latter, then an implication would be that if at a future time there were very few new offspring being born, one would either have to rescind commendation of singleness or discard this particular argument. Augustine did not consider this implication, but in the 13th century, Latin scholastic writers did entertain such questions (Biller 120).

The perpetuation of the whole species was a philosophical concern, but at the smaller scale of a nation or city it was a common worry of ancient politicians, as noted earlier. Aware of the accusation that Christianity had weakened the empire, Augustine in general emphasized patriotic duty (AE 197 citing ep. 91.1), but this did not extend to reproduction. He wrote that “if it is part of a wise man’s duty (and this is something which I have not yet discovered for certain) to devote himself to children, the man who takes a wife for this sole reason can seem to me worthy of admiration, but not of imitation” (WSA I/9:10). In any case, in later years Augustine gave less weight to patriotism.

Cornucopians claim that a rising population stimulates economic growth. The vision of continuous increase is uniquely modern, but a ressourcement against this secular eschatology can be made by comparing it to the Roman imperial ambition with which Augustine engaged in his analysis of Roman history. The driving force of the “City of Man” is libido dominandi (the will to power), which is not a virtue. The sinful and delusional nature of this imperial libido was a key concept in Augustine’s writings (Markus, Saeculum xvi; Kretzmann and Stump 23).

Strengthening the visible church

Some natalists advocate Christian fecundity as a long-term project to grow numerically and politically relative to other religions. Augustine makes a comparison between his “two cities” motif and the Old Testament genealogies of Seth and Cain which seem at first sight amenable to the natalist vision. He outlines his book The City of God as “a summary of the origins of both these cities” that would go on to “describe their development from the time when that first pair begin to produce offspring up to the time when mankind will cease to reproduce itself” (civ. Dei 15.1 tr. Bettenson 595). Later in the book, he refers to the “two lines of descent of the human race” and observes that “the genealogies of the two societies are recorded separately, one deriving from Cain the fratricide, the other from the brother called Seth” (civ. Dei 15.8 tr. Bettenson 608). This does sound like a tribal vision because none of the godly species are descended from Cain.

However, only some of Seth’s descendants were godly. Augustine suggests that the names listed (Enos, Cainan, Mahalaleel, Jared, Enoch, Methuselah, Lamech, Noah) are the lone men from each Sethite generation who turned to godliness. Given the advanced age of the fathers recorded at the time of the births of each of these men, Augustine concludes that there were large numbers of Sethite offspring (civ. Dei 15.20 tr. Bettenson 631), but only a few good ones. Further, they “all became bad enough to be wiped out by the Flood, except for one righteous man” (civ. Dei 15.8 tr. Bettenson 608). Of the period before Abraham, he asked “whether the progress of the Holy City can be traced in a continuous line after the Flood” and noted that “the record is silent about any righteous men … [for] more than a thousand years” (civ. Dei 16.1 tr. Bettenson 649). So there is no genetically inherited righteousness here. Augustine later clarified that his contrast between the descendants of Cain and Seth merely “gave an appropriate picture of the two cities” (civ. Dei 15.21 tr. Bettenson 635 Cf. Genesis 4:26.), and that it was a rhetorical device in Genesis. When Augustine writes that “the City of God has even in this world many thousands of citizens who abstain from the act of procreation” (civ. Dei 15.20 tr. Bettenson 625), this is not a lament for competitive disadvantage but a sign of hope.

Some modern natalists argue that biological reproduction is the most effective way of adding members to the church. But circa 420, Augustine wrote: “No longer is God’s people to be propagated by carnal generation; but, henceforth, it is to be gathered out by spiritual regeneration” (nupt. et conc. 15 tr. NPNF1 5:270). He discerned that the time for reproducing had been superseded by a time for gathering those people already sown. One of the arguments Jovinian used in support of his claim that marriage has as much merit as celibacy was that it produces Christians.172 Augustine countered with this reductio ad absurdum:

What then if some rich woman spends a great deal of money on the good work of buying slaves of various nations in order to make them Christian? Will she not procure the birth of members for Christ more abundantly and fruitfully than would be possible from her womb, however fertile? She still will not dare to compare her money to the gift of holy virginity. Yet if physical motherhood truly makes up for lost virginity, because the children born become Christians, there will be even more to be gained from this enterprise if the loss of virginity is in return for payment of a large sum of money. With that money a much greater number of children can be purchased, to become Christians, than could be born from one woman’s womb, however prolific. (virg. 9 tr. WSA I/9:72)

Though slave-buying or motherhood could add people to the church, the better way was preaching and holy life. Augustine wrote of the apostles “begetting children through the preaching of the gospel” (en. Ps. 44.23 tr. WSA III/16:301). Commenting on Psalm 40:6, “I proclaimed and I spoke; they were multiplied beyond counting,” he claimed that “it’s happening now; the gospel is being proclaimed, Christians are multiplying beyond counting” (serm. 229m.1, Friday before Easter 412, tr. WSA III/6:316).

Augustine observed that in his time “the human race is converging on the name of the crucified and streaming together … It’s high time for all and sundry to be inside. Now just a few have remained outside” (serm. 354a.25 tr. WSA III/11:382). His motive for bringing everyone inside was that extra ecclesiam nulla salus – none can be saved outside the church. He did not think all those inside would be saved. Membership was necessary but not sufficient for salvation. The two cities are both inside the church for “many reprobate are mingled in the Church with the good. Both are collected in the net of the Gospel … [and] both swim … in the net until brought ashore” on Judgement Day (civ. Dei 18.49). Markus notes Augustine’s “protest against the readiness to see within any society the ultimate eschatological conflict prematurely revealed” (Saeculum 101). Since one cannot even identify or count the true members of the City of God mingled inside the visible church, a sectarian project to outnumber outsiders is not viable or meaningful.

Some natalists argue that increasing the number of people is intrinsically good, regardless of how many are redeemed, because everyone is made in the image and likeness of God. However, following a major strand of Christian tradition, Augustine argued that the original “likeness” to God was lost in the Fall (AE 441 citing retr. 2.24) and though a “spark” of reason shows that the imago Dei “has not been utterly quenched,” it is broken (civ. Dei 22.24). The likeness can be restored only by Christ, and therefore increasing the quantity of births does not in itself increase the quantity of the divine image unless those born are subsequently regenerated.

Eternal destination of Christians’ offspring

A few natalists argue that increasing Heaven’s population is a benefit from fecundity. My counter-argument inspired by Augustine’s writings considers the consequent parallel increase in Hell’s population. The question is whether a rise in biological reproduction adds more to endless torment than to eternal bliss? Will most (or at least half) of church members’ offspring ultimately be added to Heaven’s population? There are various ways to make that scenario imaginable, but Augustine suggests problems in each line of reasoning.

If all the offspring of Christian parents were automatically born Christian, as Julian of Eclanum argued, that would be a good start toward a Heavenly majority. Augustine, however, responds that “our offspring are born as children of the present world” (nupt. et conc. 1.18; c. Jul. 6.13.40). Biological reproduction cannot transmit regeneration. Due to Adam’s sin, “the whole of mankind is a massa damnata; for he who committed the first sin was punished, and along with him all the stock which had its roots in him” (civ. Dei 21.12 tr. Bettenson, 989; c. Jul. 16.4 tr. FC 35:111). Augustine offers an illustration from horticulture: seedlings from cultivated grafted olive trees always revert to the wild form, which is comparatively fruitless (nupt. et conc. 2.58). Our “parents, in giving us birth, bear us to eternal death, because of the ancient fault” (serm. 216). Christian parents are not privileged, because “what is born of the flesh is flesh … if they do not receive that rebirth [baptism], righteous parents will do them no good” (pecc. mer. 2.9 tr. NPNF1 5:88).

Baptism removes the guilt and penalty of original sin (retr. 199), but even if all parents had their infants baptized, only a minority would ultimately be saved. First, Augustine was aware that many die before baptism, either in the womb or in the days after birth. He observed in 411 that “mothers come running to church when their babies are ill” (en. Ps. 51 tr. WSA III/17:418). He discerned that “God does not wish to admit to His kingdom that immense number of infants who die without baptism” (c. Jul. 6.43 tr. FC 35.206). Julian responded that if it were so, it would be better if they had never been conceived. Augustine refused to concede this: “I do not say that children who die without the baptism of Christ will undergo such grievous punishment that it were better for them never to have been born … who can doubt that non baptized infants, having only original sin and no burden of personal sins, will suffer the lightest condemnation of all?” (c. Jul. 5.11.44, tr. FC 35:285). Nevertheless, the punishment would be endless in duration, and Augustine in a letter to Jerome in 415 expressed his distress regarding “the condemnation of so many thousands of souls, which in the deaths of infant children leave this world without the benefit of the Christian sacrament” (ep.166 tr. NPNF1 1:525).

Even if those dying before baptism are set aside as a special case,173 infant baptism does not solve the problem of the hell/heaven balance because it does not guarantee salvation. In early 5th century Roman Christianity there may have been a popular idea that people were “incorporated” into the church “by birth and (infant) baptism, not by an act of conscious and deliberate decision … no longer made but born” (Markus, Christianity 26). Augustine, however, rejected the idea that baptism automatically saves recipients (civ. Dei 21.19; 21.25; Daley 223). He regarded the visible church as a corpus permixtum (mixed body) composed of both wheat and tares (Harrison 220 citing en. Ps. 61.6), for “the identity of the predestined elect of the city of God is unknown in this life … [and] they share … in some cases, the same family” (civ. Dei 19.17; also see 21.23; 22.24). Preaching at the Easter vigil after 412, Augustine advised:

Don’t be surprised, either, at how many bad Christians there are, who fill the church, who communicate at the altar … The Church of this time, you see, is compared to a threshing-floor, having on it grain mixed with chaff, having bad members mixed with good … Every day people who seemed to be good fall away and perish; and again, ones who seemed to be bad are converted and live. (serm. 233.2 tr. WSA III/7:210)

So the destiny even of baptized children is unknown. Augustine, responding to Julian, referred to “the pious parents you so eloquently urge to procreate” and noted wryly that “we must attribute to parents their wish to have children, although they know nothing of their future” (c. Jul. 5.11.44 tr. FC 35:285-6). That uncertainty might give parents reason to hesitate before conceiving.

Natalists might press on with confidence that at least more will be saved than lost, but Augustine suggests a chilling thought: perhaps even among the baptized less than half will be saved. By the 410s most people within the Roman empire were members of the church, and from 416 imperial law required the baptism of infants. Yet still in the mid-420s, Augustine considered that the godly were “a mere few, in comparison with the multitude of the ungodly” (civ. Dei 16.21 tr. Bettenson 679), and he discerned that “there are many more condemned by vengeance than are released by mercy” (civ. Dei 21.12 tr. Bettenson 989). “There are a few among Christians who live good lives … This threshing floor is going to be winnowed, there will be a huge pile of chaff, but there will also appear a shining mass of saints” (serm. 299a.9 tr. WSA III/11:271). The idea that even among church members the saved are few compared to the chaff is an additional argument against the idea that high birth rates serve the ultimate good by adding to the sum of eternal joy.

Augustine, following earlier Christian writers, believed that God had planned before the foundation of the world a fixed number of the redeemed to fill heaven. If Adam had not fallen, “there would have come into being a number of saints sufficient to complete the muster of that Blessed City” (civ. Dei 14.23 tr. Bettenson 585). After that, God “did not fail to have a plan whereby he might complete the fixed number of citizens predestined in his wisdom even out of the condemned human race” (civ. Dei 14.26 tr. Bettenson 591). This predetermined number is the cumulative total across all generations. Augustine was not eschatologically anxious about how many of the redeemed might be born in his lifetime, as he contemplated the possibility of the secular order continuing for 6,000 years or even “600,000 years, if the mortal state of humanity, with its succession of birth and death, should last so long, and our frailty, with all its ignorance, should endure” (civ. Dei 12.13 tr. Bettenson 487). The birth rate would make no difference to the number of the elect.

Choosing the greater blessings

Natalists argue that children are a blessing, “the more the better” (Provan 28). Augustine identified differing kinds of blessings, spiritual and temporal, greater and lesser. In many cases one has to choose between blessings. In a sermon to celibates at Christmas, circa 412, he pointed to the example of the Virgin Mary: “Setting at nought earthly marriages, you have chosen to be virgins … Imitate her as far as you can; not in her fruitfulness, because you cannot do this and preserve your virginity. She alone was able to have both the gifts, of which you have chosen to have one” (serm. 191.2 tr. WSA III/6:43).

The blessing in Psalm 128 superficially refers to biological offspring, but Augustine shows that logically it must refer primarily to spiritual blessings:

How will this God-fearer be blessed? By seeing his wife like a fruitful vine against the sides of his house, and his children like young sprouting olives around his table. Does this mean that people who for God’s sake have renounced marriage have missed their reward? Perhaps a celibate will say, “God blesses me in other ways.” But that will not do: either he blesses you like this or he does not bless you at all, for the psalm plainly says, Lo, this is how anyone who fears the Lord will be blessed.” What does it mean then, brothers and sisters? (en. Ps. 127[8].1 tr. WSA III/20:98)

Augustine warned that “carnally-minded persons … may be tripped up rather than built up by this psalm” if they fail to unpack the “wrapped-up parcel” of its figurative meaning (en. Ps. 127[8].1,2), since:

It would be disgraceful … to refer the promises in our psalm to this-worldly happiness. That would be to say of any faithful follower of God … who, though married, does not happen to have any children, “That man clearly does not fear the Lord.” … If we talk like that, we show ourselves to be carnally-minded … trapped in the love of earthly things.

Augustine then imagined a debate with someone who points to the case of a godless man who acquires many grandchildren as a contradiction of the Psalm:

If you look for those good things with earthly eyes, you will be expecting hordes of children and grandchildren, and a wife who is fertile and frequently pregnant. But these are not the good things of the eternal Jerusalem; they are the good things that belong to the land of the dying … Beware of running after blessings that are not from Zion … Yes, these temporal things truly are blessings from the Lord … but do you not see that he has given them to animals as well? That blessing cannot originate from Zion … Remember how even the birds were bidden, Increase and multiply. Can you rate so highly a gift conferred equally on birds? If you are given these temporal blessings, make good use of them; but give more thought to how you are going to bring up the children already born than to having even more. Happiness lies not in merely having children but in having good ones. If they are already born to you, work hard on their upbringing; if they are not born, give thanks to God, because you will perhaps have fewer worries. (en. Ps. 127[8].15 tr. WSA III/20:101)

Of the three goods of marriage, the good of offspring is the least and is not essential. Marriages that are infertile or perpetually continent completely lack the bonum prolis, and yet Augustine considered them to be true marriages nonetheless. The bonum sacramenti, symbolizing Christ and his bride, shines from every married couple. The bonum fidei can be achieved by every couple “helped by the grace of God.” But if a couple’s offspring are not saved (which is manifest if the children leave the church, and uncertain even if the children stay within the visible church), then for those parents there would ultimately be no bonum prolis, but only (I coin the term) a malum prolis.

Ordinance of God and nature

Some natalists invoke “be fruitful” as a command for people today. Augustine, as discussed earlier, limited the command to the Old Covenant. Instead he poses a choice: “the married, the widowed, the virginal … Let each of you choose from these three kinds of life whichever you wish” (serm. 61.2 tr. WSA III/3:196). This had to be a choice because individuals had different levels of ability and faith in this area. Augustine’s advice closely followed Paul’s in 1 Corinthians 7. He advised that “the only ones who should marry are those who are unable to be continent, in accordance with that advice of the same apostle” (b. conjug. 42). Similarly, circa 426, he referred to “those men to whom the apostle permitted as a matter of indulgence to have one wife because of their incontinence” (doc. Chr. 18/26). For those who are capable, singleness is the better option.

The idea that humankind was originally designed for reproduction does not in Augustine’s thought lead to a “law of nature” requiring obedience to natural urges. In the 420s Augustine wrote that although “man .. is brought [down] to the level of the beasts, and he breeds like the beasts,” the created natural order now conveys only “the possibility, not the necessity, of propagation” (civ. Dei 22.24 tr. Bettenson 1071). Biology does not dictate behavior when the Holy Spirit rules. For natalists, the default life-path is marital fecundity, but Augustine reverses this: singleness is the default way of life, the norm. He wrote: “Do not look for a wife, is a statement of advice, not a commandment; hence to marry is not something wrong to do, but it is better not to do it” (virg. 15).

Modern natalists (like Luther in the 1520s) marginalize celibacy as a rare exceptional gift rather than a life-choice. Augustine admitted that “unless God grants it, no one is able to be continent” (cont. 192). However, this is equally true for married faithfulness: it also is only possible by grace, so rarity is not a valid argument against volunteering for either state. Augustine often refers to celibacy as something one may choose. For example, in sermons at Christmas he addressed the celibate members of his church, remarking in 411 that “you have chosen to be virgins” (serm. 191.2 tr. WSA III/6:43), and in 412 that “for Christ’s sake you have declined to give birth” (serm. 192.2 tr. WSA III/6:47), and in the 410s that “virgins decide against being mothers” (serm. 188.3 tr. WSA III/6:33).

Julian of Eclanum used this acknowledged freedom as an argument for the power of the will to Christian perfection, but Augustine answered,

you say as though to test me: “If you are really inviting men to strive for continence, you will admit that the virtue of chastity can be possessed by those who wish, in such a way that whoever wishes may be holy in body and soul.” I answer that I admit it, but not in your sense. You attribute this to the powers of the soul itself; I attribute it to the will helped by the grace of God. (c. Jul. 16 tr. FC 35:303)

Celibate singleness is an “evangelical counsel” that any Christian may choose to accept. Elaine Pagels found that a “theme of human freedom … dominates patristic exegesis of Genesis 1-3,” and although she argued that in some ways freedom was “buried” by Augustine because of his teaching on the fallen state as “not able not to sin” (“Politics” 68), elsewhere she admits that “freedom from cosmic necessity … expresses itself most powerfully … in … choosing celibacy” (“Freedom” 93). In this respect, compared to the ideas Luther presented in the 1520s, Augustine is an apostle of freedom from necessity. Mary Clark argued that for Augustine, “free choice itself was not lost … human will is never held ‘in bondage’… and he did not use the expression ‘natural law’” (52, 55).

God’s means of forming disciples

Many natalists regard parenthood as a necessary discipline for adults and the intentionally childless as selfish. Augustine agrees that all must be consecrated to service but adds that this can be oriented toward the neighbor as understood in a broad sense. In comparison with Christian love that extends even to enemies, Augustine regarded parental love of offspring as merely natural and instinctive. He preached in 397 on the distinctive quality of the true Christian love of neighbor as compared to the pagan love of blood relatives, offspring, and family:

Can’t you see how mutual love holds sway among irrational animals So what’s so great about what you’re doing, if as a human being you want to be with another human being? It’s still no different from the animals in your stable. I don’t know whether that’s the sort of love that God requires of us. Perhaps you’ll say, “I do love my neighbor; after all. I love my son, and as myself.” That’s easy enough too. Tigers love their cubs. After all, none of these animals would reproduce, unless one were loved by another. Go beyond [animal behaviour]. (serm. 90a.6 tr. WSA III/11:79)

Seven years later in 404, he preached: “Nor are human beings to be praised for a quality that is to be found in dumb animals … what is so wonderful about a man loving his son?” (serm. 159b.4 tr. WSA III/11:149). Such love was unimpressive as a witness, as an example of distinctively Christian love.

Some natalists regard childrearing as a formative discipline that is good for the soul. Augustine has no such idea, but he agrees that childrearing is onerous. Enquiring into the “supreme good” in City of God, he observed “the number and the gravity of the ills which abound in society and the distresses of our mortal condition? Our philosophers should listen to a character in one of their own comedies … I married a wife; and misery I found! Children were born; and they increased my cares” (civ. Dei 19.5 tr. Bettenson 858). Parenthood is just one of the sources of distress in this world, and these troubles do not function as a purifying penance but only as a distracting worry. He wrote in 404 that marriage should be regarded as

[not] something bad and forbidden, but as something burdensome and worrying… In the present age, however, when bearing children physically does not contribute toward the future physical birth of Christ, to undertake for the sake of having a marriage the burden of those afflictions of the flesh that the apostle pronounces to be the lot of those who marry would be utter foolishness. The only exception is for those who lack self-control, if there is danger they will … fall into mortal sin … Is there anyone, among those who have tied themselves with the bonds of marriage, who is not tossed and torn by those cares? (virg. 16 tr. WSA I/9:76)

Elizabeth Clark finds in Augustine a “proreproductive and anticontraceptive marital ethic” (“Vitiated” 396). That represents two separate claims because, as I showed earlier, there is no logical connection. The second claim is obviously true: Augustine is anti-contraceptive. As to the first claim, by comparison with the Marcionites, Manicheans, Encratites, and many of the Fathers preceding him, Augustine is less antipathetic to sexual reproduction. But when compared with modern natalists, he is anti-reproductive. Strands in early modern and especially 19th-century Catholicism, influenced by nationalism, developed a two-tier model of vocation with a small celibate elite and a lay married majority encouraged to have big families. That model would be alien to Augustine, and to most medieval Christians. Augustine wanted all to aspire to as high a spirituality as possible, to continence within marriage if not to celibacy.

Augustine’s ideas about reproduction developed in the context of various controversies. Against the Manicheans he justified the reproductive obsessions of the patriarchs of Genesis by finding their purpose in salvation history. To oppose Jovinian, he clarified the dispensational distinction between the Old Testament and Christianity. Augustine argued that marriage is good, and celibacy is better. Against the Pelagians he claimed that Christians are not able to give birth to Christians and that baptism does not guarantee salvation.

Ressourcement from Augustine offers much help in critiquing natalism. A secular pragmatism about reproduction is found in Augustine’s writings, but it is minimal and trumped by his focus on eternity. Christians have no obligation to perpetuate the City of Man. The church’s future is assured not by biological but by spiritual reproduction. The human future is assured not by sexual reproduction but by the general resurrection of the dead. Motherhood is a blessing but non-reproductive lives are more blessed. Nature does not dictate motherhood (or fatherhood), and grace enables anyone to follow the apostolic counsel of singleness. Earlier rationales for Christian celibacy had been vulnerable to criticisms like those made by Jovinian, but Augustine stabilized the tradition and forestalled any emergence of aggrandizing natalism within Christianity, at least until Luther’s demolition work in the 1520s.

So there is much to use against natalism in Augustine’s thought as it stands, but without the anti-contraceptive ideas he inherited from Alexandria there would be even more. If one imagines Augustine’s thought without that, his high esteem of celibacy would remain, and some of the benefits he perceived in continent marriage could then be ascribed to contraceptive marriage, if it was devoted to rational and spiritual fruitfulness. Augustine’s non-natalist view is not rooted in his antipathy to sexuality but in his sense of vocation, in God’s purposes in history and eschatology, and his relative valuation of different blessings.


154 For example, the standard medieval Catholic compilation of Bible commentary, the Glossa ordinaria, is dominated by quotations from Augustine (AE 383).

155 Hearers were second-rate Manicheans who settled for a less than perfect life.

156 The last is the most popular of Augustine’s writings today, The City of God. For consistency of referencing I use the standard abbreviation of Latin titles.

157 Two books by Augustine contradicting individual Manichean teachers, Contra Adimantum and Contra Secundinum, were published for the first time in English in 2006 as part of a new multi-volume translation entitled The Works of Saint Augustine (WSA I/19:12). My citations from that translation use the standard format WSA series/volume:page.

158 Especially in De bono conjugalis which was written in 401.

159 New sermons have been discovered since 1989, and twenty-six of them were translated in WSA III/1:16.

160 Encrateia is the Greek word for abstinence or continence.

161 WSA I/19:11. In 373, a year after Augustine took a common-law wife (concubine), their son Adeodatus was born. Around that time he joined the Manicheans, and Kim Power speculates that the non-appearance of subsequent children during the 17 years of Augustine’s faithful concubinage indicates their use of contraception (AE 222; cf. b. conjug. 5).

162 For example, Faustus’ Apologia includes many references to the Bible, but none to any Manichean scriptures (Lieu 120).

163 Retractationes indicates that Augustine was concerned to safeguard his legacy.

164 In the late 380s, in Rome, the Manichees conducted an evangelistic campaign, and their superior asceticism was advertised. Christian ascetics may have been trying to counter the appeal of Manicheism by outdoing them (Hunter, “Resistance” 50, 53).

165 Previously dated to AD 401, Hombert and Hunter now date these two books to 404.

166 Pelagius was a British monk who claimed, among other ideas, that babies are born free of sin. Augustine construed the ideas of Pelagius and his followers as Pelagianism.

167 There was diversity in earlier ideas. Cohen finds three views: 1) sexuality in Eden was allegory, represented by Origen; 2) mortality and sex were a result of the Fall, represented by Gregory of Nyssa; and 3) humans in Eden were not yet immortal and not ready for sexuality, represented by Irenaeus of Lyons and Theodore of Mopsuestia (Cohen 235-42).

168 There are many parallels between Old Testament descriptions of the garden of Eden and the temple sanctuary (Wenham, “Sanctuary”), indicating their similarity.

169 Here, “in each way” means in both ways, allowing multiple meanings.

170 Jesus’ siblings were presumed to be from Joseph’s previous marriage.

171 The difference in Psalm numbering (126 for 127, and 127 for 128) is due to the old Latin numbering which Augustine used. There is one fewer between Psalms 10 and 148 than in Hebrew and in modern English Bibles (Green, Preface xxiv).

172 Jovinian alone used this to argue that marriage has as much merit as celibacy.

173 Which modern Catholic and Lutheran theology does.