Some reflections on fornication

Nov 26, 2022 by

by Martin Davie:

In his article ‘What is Fornication?’ published on the website Earth & Altar on 22 November,[1] the American Anglican writer Benjamin Wyatt rejects the traditional idea that fornication means sex outside marriage in favour of the idea that:

‘Fornication is the kind of sex that deforms us into less caring, less loving people. Good sex is the kind of sex that can make us better.’

In this article I want to argue that Wyatt fails to make a persuasive case for this change of meaning. There are five reasons why I think his argument is unpersuasive.

First, the meaning of a word is determined by communal usage and at the moment communal usage means that fornication means sex outside marriage. It is for this reason that the New Oxford Dictionary of English, for example defines the verb fornicate (and by extension the noun fornication derived from it) as ‘have sexual intercourse with someone one is not married to’[2] and why the Chambers English Dictionary defines fornication as ‘voluntary sexual intercourse between unmarried people.’[3]  Wyatt is, of course, free to start a campaign  to change the accepted meaning of fornication, but until this campaign succeeds in changing the general usage of the word its meaning remains the one that he rejects.

Secondly, Wyatt’s appeal to history is unhelpful to his case. He argues that fornication cannot mean sex outside marriage because (a) ‘Plenty of societies throughout history have not equated unmarried sex with wrongdoing’  and (b) ‘a few centuries ago in America, it was generally accepted that a couple could begin sleeping together when they had become engaged.’  Even if we accept that both claims are true (and b is in fact untrue[4]) this would not affect the meaning of the word fornication. The fact that the meaning of fornication is sex outside marriage is true for the reason previously given, regardless of the fact that sexual ethics have varied over the course of human history.

Thirdly, Wyatt’s argument that ‘the Bible never actually says that fornication is the same thing as unmarried sex.’ is misleading in a number of ways.

Read here

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