Athanasius and Calvin on Nocturnal Emissions

Johannes Quasten, Patrology, vol. III: The Golden Age of Patristic Literature (Westminster: Christian Classics, 1990) 64.

Athanasius was a Christian thinker in the fourth century C.E. Before 356, he wrote a letter to Amun “in order to calm the overscrupulous conscience of certain monks, who were worried about involuntary thoughts and nocturnal pollution.” The monks thought that their nocturnal emissions were defiling them. You can read Athanasius’ response to them here.

Essentially, Athanasius argues (1.) that God made the body good, so its functions are not unclean, (2.) that Jesus wasn’t talking about bodily emissions when he said that what goes out of the man defiles him (Matthew 15:11), but his point was rather that spiritual purity should be our focus, and (3.) that David in Psalm 51:10, 12 asks God to establish him even when he has impure thoughts.

A question entered my mind: If bodily discharges do not defile a man, then why did God treat them as unclean in the Torah (e.g., Leviticus 15)? The monks may have had an Old Testament sort of mindset, which was not unusual in the patristic period, considering Christian thinkers appealed to the Torah as an authority (see Tertullian, OT Law, and the “Husband of One Wife”). Athanasius’ thoughts on the OT purity system may have been, “That was the Old Covenant, which had regulations for the body until Christ came (Hebrews 9:10); now we don’t have to worry about those rules about external purity, since inner purity is what matters!” Still, why would God set up a purity system in the Old Testament that treated men’s perfectly-okay bodily discharges as unclean?

I don’t know. I’m not even sure where to look for Athanasius’ take on this! But do you know what I’m going to do today? I’m going to see how John Calvin addresses the issue of bodily emissions in the Torah! Why did he think that God instituted those rules?

Today is the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth. I goofed a few days ago when I wrote Calvin on Daniel 4:27: Alms and Forgiveness to commemorate Calvin, for I assumed that January 5 was Calvin’s birthday. A blog told me that it was, but I won’t expose the guilty party, since I could’ve easily checked Wikipedia! So consider this my way to honor John Calvin. But don’t go away, Athanasius! I’ll bring you into my discussion.

For Calvin’s discussion of bodily emissions, see Leviticus 15:1-33.

In his work on the Pentateuch, Calvin groups its laws under the ten commandments. He places the law on bodily emissions under the first one, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” He said that he could have put it under the seventh, the one against adultery, since nocturnal emissions result from lust. But he chose to group it under the first one because (1.) it is one of the many purity rules that are connected with the Tabernacle, which relates to the worship of God, the subject of the first commandment, and (2.) not all bodily discharges are the result of lust, since some may come from disease. As Calvin notes, “For this flux, arising from disease and debility, unless it be contracted from immoderate venery, has nothing in common with venereal lust.”

Calvin sees four reasons for the law on bodily discharges:

1. For Calvin, the law reinforced to the Israelites how unclean they really were, thereby encouraging them to become pure in body and spirit so they could approach the Tabernacle. According to Calvin, Paul defines that as the aim of the purity laws when he exhorts Christians to cleanse themselves “from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit” (II Corinthians 7:1). Calvin also states, “Therefore he who was conscious of no sin in the seminal-flux, still must be reminded by this sign of the corruption of his nature; and at the same time be an example to others, that all should diligently take heed to themselves, because corruption cleaves to the whole human race.” Even if the person’s emission is not the result of lust, Calvin contends, he must still be reminded of his corrupt human nature.

2. Calvin believes that the law had a symbolic meaning, even in Old Testament times. Leviticus 15 says that anything an unclean man touches becomes unclean, and Calvin maintains that this law exhorted the Israelites to flee from impurity. Calvin cites Psalm 24:3-4 to show that the purity system of ancient Israel was in part a symbol for being morally pure: “Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? or who shall stand in His holy place? He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart.” For Calvin, the law had a literal and a symbolic dimension for the ancient Israelites.

3. Calvin sees symbols of Christ in Leviticus 15. When the Israelites washed themselves in water to become clean, we should remember that Christ came “‘by water and blood,’ to purge and expiate all uncleanness (1 John 5:6.).” Moreover, the sacrifice of birds teaches that purification must come “elsewhere,” namely, from the sacrifice of Christ.

4. In his discussion of female nocturnal emissions, Calvin states that unclean women were separated from others to encourage modesty.

Calvin believed that the laws on nocturnal emissions pointed to Christ and moral purity, but he also held that their literal application also taught important virtues, such as chastity and modesty.

I’m not sure how Calvin would address the monks who received Athanasius’ letter. Calvin may tell them that their bodily emissions are a sign of their corruption as human beings, so they should seek continual cleansing from Christ. I doubt he would want them to stress out about their nocturnal emissions too much, since they’re basically in the same predicament as all of us: they are flawed, unclean human beings who need Christ’s continual cleansing.

What stands out to me, though, is Calvin’s portrayal of humans as corrupt, down to their bodily functions (if I understand him correctly). But Athanasius appears to offer a different perspective:

…if we believe man to be, as the divine Scriptures say, a work of God’s hands, how could any defiled work proceed from a pure Power? and if, according to the divine Acts of the Apostles, ‘we are God’s offspring,’ we have nothing unclean in ourselves. For then only do we incur defilement, when we commit sin, that foulest of things. But when any bodily excretion takes place independently of will, then we experience this, like other things, by a necessity of nature.

For Athanasius, the body is not unclean because it was created by God, and this applies to both believers and unbelievers. But we defile ourselves when we sin.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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3 Responses to Athanasius and Calvin on Nocturnal Emissions

  1. Polycarp says:

    Another excellent post, James. My preference is Athanasius of course, and I would agree with your last point.


  2. James Pate says:

    Thanks, Polycarp. It’s been a while since I read Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. Did he believe that Christ came to recreate corrupt humanity? I wonder this because he seems to base our pure bodies on creation, so I wonder if he has much of a concept of the Fall.


  3. Pingback: Calvin’s 500th Birthday Celebrations at the Dunedin School « The Dunedin School

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