Thoughts on Christian Teachings on Sex, Family, and Life by Richard Swinburne

God has given us many moral commands by which we should live.  But why obey them?  At least two good reasons are usually given.  The first is that we should obey God’s commands because His commands have our best interest in mind.  The second is that we should obey God’s commands simply because God commanded them.  Even if God commanded us to abstain from doing something that would bring us happiness, it is still wrong to disobey because we owe our allegiance and gratitude to God.


Sometimes, however, it can be difficult to obey God for the above two reasons and additional reasons can be helpful.  For example, if one is struggling with lust of the eyes or alcoholism, it can be helpful to not only know that God has a purpose for forbidding drunkenness and lust of the eyes, but also to know the specific purpose which God has for doing so.  


Richard Swinburne is a proponent of the view that certain actions are intrinsically moral or intrinsically immoral totally independent of God’s commands and nature.  This is not a view that I accept because I follow Gordon Clark in his view that morality is defined with reference to the nature of God.  What is most interesting about the lecture below is Dr. Swinburne’s discussion of why God forbids various actions including:  adultery, divorce, suicide, sex outside of marriage, homosexuality, contraception, and others.


Dr. Richard Swinburne: Christian Moral Teaching on Sex, Family, and Life


He points out that adultery is intrinsically wrong because, among other reasons, it is a breach of a solemn promise and divorce is intrinsically wrong because it helps one breach a solemn promise and to help someone commit an intrinsically immoral act is also intrinsically immoral.  Suicide is wrong because, as Aquinas claimed, it is a sin against God, who has given us the gift of life, to “chuck it back at Him”.  


Sex outside marriage can be seen to be wrong when one understands the value of an ideal family.  For if society normally regarded sex outside of marriage as wrong, this would discourage it from happening and and more families would more like the ideal family.  If sex were limited to marriage, the intimacy of marriage would be unique, and each spouse would consider their partner as more uniquely their own.  Furthermore, when a person gets accustomed to casual sex outside marriage it becomes easier and, perhaps, more likely for him to commit adultery after he is married.  


Since homosexual couples cannot beget children and cannot provide an ideal environment for raising a child, Swinburne says that homosexuality is a disability which results from various combinations of nature, nurture, and the subject’s free choice.  He also believes that the evidence shows that sometimes a person’s sexual orientation is reversible.  So if there was a general recognition in society of an obligation to abstain from homosexual acts, that would prevent homosexual behavior from being presented to young people as an option equal to heterosexuality; which makes procreative marriage possible.  If homosexual acts were seen by society as wrong, then young people might not wonder whether or not they are homosexual and people who have started down the path toward developing a homosexual disability would be encouraged to go no further.


He also has some extremely interesting comments on how the morality of contraception has changed over time.  On abortion, Swinburne makes some fascinating arguments with which I have varying levels of agreement and disagreement.  I haven’t researched the scientific claims he makes and I don’t know of any good reasons to think that the soul is assigned to the body in the way that Swinburne claims it is.  However, I think his argument against abortion is nuanced in a very helpful way and I agree with his conclusion that abortion, at any stage, is wrong.


Dr. Richard Swinburne: Christian Moral Teaching on Sex, Family, and Life

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