Fornication or Adultery

Fornication or Adultery

Is the term "fornication," employed by our Saviour in discussing the divorce question in Matthew 5, used as a synonym for "adultery"? Or does it involve gross promiscuity, in con­tradistinction to any unchastity or unfaithful­ness to the marriage vow?

W. E. HOWELL, Theological Seminary

Is the term "fornication," employed by our Saviour in discussing the divorce question in Matthew 5, used as a synonym for "adultery"? Or does it involve gross promiscuity, in con­tradistinction to any unchastity or unfaithful­ness to the marriage vow?

The word fornication is used in both the Old Testament and the New, but much more in the New. Its use in the Old Testament is chiefly in the spiritual sense of idolatry, in harmony with the conception of Hebrew writers that the church is married to God; and any departure from God to serve other gods is spoken of as fornication, or some equivalent term like "adultery" or "whoredom" is used.

Some vestige of this same use and concep­tion carries over into the New Testament, but for the most part the word fornication is used of illicit relations in the flesh. Of the thirty-one times this word occurs in the New Testa­ment, it is in the noun form porneia twenty-four times, and seven times in the verb form porneuo, or its intensive form ekporneuo—all, of course, in the Greek. This is a general term for any departure from sexual purity or legitimate relations between the sexes. Ap­parently, it may include adultery, but since the two words are mentioned in the same series of evils proceeding out of the unregenerate heart, or as "works of the flesh," they are evidently thought of with some distinction of meaning. Turning to adultery for the moment, its distinctive field appears to be violation of the marriage state, while fornication in its basic usage seems to apply to illicit relations out­side the marriage state, at least on the part of the aggressor. This is speaking, however, of the use of these two terms in Bible times and earlier church history, whereas fornication in our day is little used, and adultery covers the field both inside and outside wedlock.

A little study of the words themselves may be of help. Fornication comes from a Latin term fornex, meaning a cave or vault, since harlots in Roman times occupied some under­ground or otherwise-concealed quarters. In its origin, then, fornication signifies harlotry or whoredom as a practice, and its victims are spoken of as committing fornication, whether there is involved a resorting to some place of prostitution or some more personal practice. As a heinous evil, it could scarcely be less serious in either the single or the married state.

Adultery occurs more often in the Old Testament than fornication. In the seventeen times it is found, it is almost invariably used in the literal and physical sense rather than in the figurative and spiritual, beginning with its first use in the seventh commandment. The original Hebrew word is a primitive root, used uniformly in all seventeen instances, and meaning essentially what we understand by it today, though one lexicographer suggests its application to the married state by giving, as one definition "woman that breaketh wedlock." In the New Testament, adultery occurs thirty-three times, thirty-two of these in the literal and physical sense, and once in the figurative and spiritual. (Rev. 2:22.) It, too, comes from a primitive root with no other meaning.

Is there, then, a distinction to be recognized between fornication and adultery, each used practically the same number of times in the New Testament? The two are named sepa­rately in Matthew 15 :19; Mark 7:21; and Galatians 5:19 (the last in the Authorized Version only), the first two texts indicating some distinction in the mind of Christ, and the third, in Paul's mind.

The basic distinctions in the words themselves have been pointed out—namely, in their field of application as between the single and the married state. It is doubtful that this distinction can be maintained in our present-day interpretation of Scripture. About the most that can be said, and it should be said with emphasis, is that the two sins are put in the same category of evils, that they are equally heinous in kind and results, regardless of their application, and that there is no room for smoothing or softening down their import in seriousness and wickedness.


[Theological Seminary.]

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W. E. HOWELL, Theological Seminary

March 1939

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