Friday, December 28, 2018

Too Hot to Handle: All Greek If You Want It to Be

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

In an article appropriately entitled “Premarital Sex: Is It A Sin Or Not?” Charles Toy of contends it’s … not:

“There is no passage of the Bible that references premarital sex as a sin against God. The association between sin and premarital sex is a new Christian idea. The only possible reference to premarital sex being a sin in the Bible is in the New Testament. This premise although, is generally dismissed by theologians because the Greek word πορνεία, or sexual immorality is commonly incorrectly translated into the English word fornication.”

Tom: In our earlier discussion, we discovered we agree that Mr. Toy is wrong about the association between sin and premarital sex being a “new Christian idea”. It actually goes back to Genesis. So his first point is inaccurate.

Lost in Translation

So then, in the context of the New Testament, does the teaching that premarital sex is a sin against God depend on how you translate the Greek word πορνεία?

Immanuel Can: Not at all. In fact, Mr. Toy has simply not understood how language works.

In particular, he hasn’t understood a literary technique called metonymy, which means when one part of something is used as representing a whole lot of other related things — as when we use “Hollywood” to mean not just a place but the whole film industry, or when we speak of police authority as “the badge”. In ancient Greek, πορνεία originally referred to prostitution, but came afterward to be applied to a whole round of sexually incontinent actions. It’s sort of like the way people speak today of “slutting around” to refer to a whole bunch of loose behaviors.

Any failure to regard and practice one’s sexual activity as the joining of two fleshes into one, and as sacred and exclusive, is πορνεία — whether it is inside or outside of a human marriage contract is not the main point.

Tom: So knowing the exact, primary, original meaning of a word, or even how it came into a language, does not tell you how that meaning may have broadened or generalized as usage changed with time. The word must be understood in its scriptural context rather than having a meaning imposed on it from outside.

IC: Yes. To take his strict reading of πορνεία, he would have to think it referred to absolutely nothing beyond actual prostitution, rather than the whole round of unrestrained sexual activities to which it refers by metonymy. And I should emphasize, πορνεία occurs not just in the Bible but in many previous and contemporaneous ancient sources as a synonym for a whole packet of sexual misdeeds.

Hanging By a Single Word

Tom: Does the teaching that premarital sex is sinful turn on the interpretation of a single word? For that matter, does any significant, long-held doctrine?

IC: No, of course not. If our understanding of any individual word or aspect of a doctrine is sound, it has to remain consonant with the whole counsel of scripture on the subject. Sexuality is part of the larger picture of love and relationships delineated by the whole Bible, and has to fit with the attitudes and lifestyle that describes. Meanwhile, our care and focus has to be not to try to “get away with stuff”, but rather to find out what is pleasing to the Lord and reflective of his character, and do that.

So does the New Testament use of πορνεία include the idea of pre-marital sex then? Is he wrong about that?

Tom: Mr. Toy alleges that πορνεία should not be translated “fornication”. He sort of has a point here and we should concede to it him, in that “fornication” is a suboptimal translation, but his point actually hurts his argument. Because πορνεία, as you say, is a lot broader than he would like it to be. He’d like it to apply to child molestation, sleeping with a woman during her period, and so on, but not to premarital sex.

The Scholars Weigh In

You’ve pointed out the metonymy issue, which seems to invalidate any strict limitation of the word to exclude fornication. In confirmation of what you’re saying here about the term being more general and NOT excluding premarital sex, let me quote a few Bible scholars:

Ben Witherington III says:
“... πορνεία can refer to all sorts of sexual sin including deflowering a virgin.”
Rene Gehring has written a book on this subject in which he addresses this linguistic issue extensively by analyzing the Greek of every NT verse I can think of on this subject. He says it carries “a wide range of meanings” including premarital sex.

And Marshall Beretta points out that:
“[T]he New Testament clearly uses the word as a warning against pre-marital sex in 1 Corinthians 7:1-2 when Paul writes ‘... it is good for a man not to touch a woman. But because of immoralities (πορνεία), let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband.’ ”
IC: Let me add that Kittel and Friedrich’s Theological Dictionary of the NT shows that long before the NT the common usage of πορνεία in Jewish history at the time of Christ was already extended to include “incest, sodomy, unlawful marriage”, and uncontextualized “sexual intercourse in general.” By the way, Kittel and Friedrich assembled ten huge volumes on biblical Greek, and are generally regarded as a kind of last word on the subject.

Dismissed or Just Dismissable?

Tom: So scholars make it very clear that the meaning of πορνεία does not exclude premarital sex, as Mr. Toy would have us believe. He says his premise is “generally dismissed by theologians” because they misunderstand the meaning of πορνεία.

But in fact theologians seem to understand it very well. It’s Mr. Toy who doesn’t understand it, or doesn’t want to.

IC: Well, as I said earlier, I have no judgments to offer about Mr. Toy himself. But let me just say in general that I think it’s an irony that many of the people who campaign for our “freedoms” are slaves of some habit or inclination they cannot resist. So they try to convince us that freedom lies in the direction of capitulation to those inclinations, rather than in overcoming them and being delivered from them. But hey, the Bible knows it all — doesn’t it warn us about false teachers who will come “speaking out arrogant words of vanity” and “entic[ing] by fleshly desires, by sensuality, those who barely escape from the ones who live in error, promising them freedom while they themselves are slaves of corruption”? Thus we are specifically warned that sometimes “freedom talk” is no more than a game to rope others into a corruption to which the talker is himself enslaved.

Is that Mr. Toy? I have no certainty. But I’m certain that if he’s advocating the “freedom” to have premarital sex he’s not offering a godly ideal or a godly freedom.


  1. If I am not mistaken, biblical texts were not originally written in Greek. This fact obfuscates things considerably. Labeling something/anything a sin, whatever it is, while convenient and easy dismisses context. Context appears to be very important in this article.

  2. Wikipedia (accurately, for once) confirms the original languages of the Bible were Aramaic, Hebrew and Koine Greek. (

    Even the Hebrew and Aramaic of the Old Testament were translated into Greek prior to the time of Jesus Christ, and it was the standard Greek translation of the Old Testament to which the Lord Jesus and his apostles appealed most frequently when they quoted the words of God.

    Thus Mr. Toy's understanding of the Greek language as used in the first century is more than a little relevant to any discussion of what the Bible calls "sin".

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  4. Please see my comment to the prior blog. This is actually a perfect example. Premarital sex will of course occur and exactly because personal responsibility and the consequent cost to society is ignored. I for one do not want to be taxed for your irresponsible behavior and abortion nor should abortion occur. Society must be compensated for undesireable consequences of premarital sex by those who choose to engage in it

    1. I'd like to see it handled better at the legal/taxation level too, but I suspect that would be the equivalent of putting a Band-Aid on a gangrenous limb so long as our societies do not address the popular culture that promotes it.