Contraception and the Reformed Faith
By Matt Yonke
The Catholic Church has stood, since its inception, firmly against the use of any artificial methods of contraception. In fact, it is the only Christian institution that, as a whole, has held this teaching consistently for all of Christian history.
Within years of the 1930 Lambeth Conference, where Anglicans became the first Christian group to officially approve the use of contraceptives, contraception came to be viewed as an unquestionable human right even by many conservative Protestants. And it’s understandable from a pragmatic point of view. It can be a difficult issue for pastors to dictate what ought and ought not happen in the bedroom affairs of their parishoners. But lately, I’ve seen a few Reformed pastors thinking about the issue out loud and coming to some negative conclusions about the practice of artificial birth control.
Tim Baly took on the topic in conjunction with RU486 “medical” abortions last year, and more recently Doug Wilson chimed in with a video explaining his thoughts on the subject. Tim Challies has also weighed in with a two-part post on contraception here and here.
What Do Today’s Reformed Pastors Say?
All three come down pretty hard on the birth-control pill because of its abortifacient potential, though Wilson doesn’t mention the pill by name, he does refer to the command against destroying life as prohibiting the use of birth-control methods that work by abortifacient means. For those unfamiliar with the issue, the pill works by making the womb inhospitable to a pregnancy. If conception does take place, it becomes very difficult for the brand new baby to attach to the walls of the uterus and begin its gestation. In essence, the baby, only a few cells big, would starve to death.
There is no solid medical evidence that this does actually happen, but the manufacturers of the pill acknowledge it as a possibility in the instructions that come with the drugs. But even if the chance is remote, Christians have no place putting the lives of their children in jeopardy and I applaud these Reformed pastors for taking a stand against it for that reason.
Though Baly doesn’t weigh in on barrier methods of contraception, like condoms, both Wilson and Challies seem to find such methods acceptable provided the reasons are within the range they consider reasonable. Their criteria tend to center around Scripture’s repeated insistence that children are a blessing and a gift of God, that they are to be desired and treasured, not avoided for personal gain or ease.
Thus, Wilson states that a newly married couple avoiding children so they can make more money are in a problematic situation, while the couple with seven kids who are using contraception to postpone a pregnancy for a short time are doing just fine.
This seems to be a pretty common line in Reformed Christianity. The pill is perhaps to be avoided, but contraception in and of itself is not morally wrong, largely because Scripture does not say it is. Wilson’s video cites a fear of putting undue, Pharisaical burdens on people and Jim Jordan cites the same concern elsewhere.
If contraception other than the pill is considered wrong by modern Reformed theologians, it is not because of the nature of the act itself, but rather the motivations behind it.
What Does the Scripture Say?
Scripture is, of course, notoriously silent on contraception, at least in explicit terms. The go-to passage is the sin of Onan in Genesis 38—the only passage that explicitly mentions contraception. But I, along with many scholars on both sides of the Tiber, find this passage insufficient for building a case against contraception by itself.
Onan’s brother died and he married his brother’s wife according to the law in order to provide her with heirs. But instead of doing that, Onan practiced coitus interruptus and spilled his seed on the ground, thus affording him sexual pleasure and releasing him from the obligation to take care of any children the union might produce. For this, Onan was struck dead by the Lord.
Many argue that Onan’s sin was not spilling his semen per se, but rather the avoidance of his vowed duty to produce heirs for his sister-in-law. This does seem to be the case and for that reason I think the passage is not capable, on its own, of providing Christians with an air-tight ban on contraception. But, fortunately, the passage is not on its own. But more about Onan in a moment.
What Did the Reformers Say?
It should be noted that the Reformers stood united with the rest of the Christian tradition in opposing all forms of contraception. Indeed, as noted above, no Christian group of any kind approved of contraception till the early 20th century.
It is interesting to note that both Calvin and Luther did see enough evidence in Onan’s sin to condemn contraception outright, but I believe that is because both were steeped in the Catholic understanding of natural law.
Calvin had this to say in his commentary on Genesis:
It is a horrible thing to pour out seed besides the intercourse of man and woman. Deliberately avoiding the intercourse, so that the seed drops on the ground, is double horrible. For this means that one quenches the hope of his family and kills the son, which could be expected, before he is born. This wickedness is now as severely as is possible condemned by the Spirit, through Moses, that Onan, as it were, through a violent and untimely birth, tore away the seed of his brother out the womb, and as cruel as shamefully has thrown on the earth. Moreover he thus has, as much as was in his power, tried to destroy a part of the human race. When a woman in some way drives away the seed out the womb, through aids, then this is rightly seen as an unforgivable crime. Onan was guilty of a similar crime. (Calvin’s Commentary on Genesis, vol. 2, part 16)
And Luther had this to say in his commentary on Genesis:
“[T]he exceedingly foul deed of Onan, the basest of wretches . . . is a most disgraceful sin. It is far more atrocious than incest and adultery. We call it unchastity, yes, a sodomitic sin. For Onan goes in to her—that is, he lies with her and copulates—and, when it comes to the point of insemination, spills the semen, lest the woman conceive. Surely at such a time the order of nature established by God in procreation should be followed. Accordingly, it was a most disgraceful crime. . . . Consequently, he deserved to be killed by God. He committed an evil deed. Therefore, God punished him” (Luther’s Commentary on Genesis)
Why the Disconnect?
I believe the disconnect we see between the Reformers and their theological descendants stems from the implications of sola Scriptura that the Reformers didn’t see.
The ecclesial chaos caused by every man being his own arbiter of spiritual truth led, slowly, to the 1930 Lambeth Conference allowing for married couples to use contraception in extreme circumstances. Thus, the ancient teaching of the Church on this subject was breeched by a small exception. As is nearly always the case with such breeches, a small exception was soon opened into the wide corridor we now see where no institution as a whole will decry contraception as an objective evil except the Catholic Church.
The reason the Catholic Church is able to take such a stand is because of its view of Sacred Tradition as another sure source of knowledge of the things of God. If the sin of Onan leaves us unsure on whether or not contraception is forbidden by God, we need not despair or decide that forbidding contraception would be a Pharisaical burden, like Wilson and Jordan. The opening paragraph of the 4th Session of the Council of Trent put it this way:
The sacred and holy, ecumenical, and general Synod of Trent,–lawfully assembled in the Holy Ghost, the Same three legates of the Apostolic Sec presiding therein,–keeping this always in view, that, errors being removed, the purity itself of the Gospel be preserved in the Church; which (Gospel), before promised through the prophets in the holy Scriptures, our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, first promulgated with His own mouth, and then commanded to be preached by His Apostles to every creature, as the fountain of all, both saving truth, and moral discipline; and seeing clearly that this truth and discipline are contained in the written books, and the unwritten traditions which, received by the Apostles from the mouth of Christ himself, or from the Apostles themselves, the Holy Ghost dictating, have come down even unto us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand; (the Synod) following the examples of the orthodox Fathers, receives and venerates with an equal affection of piety, and reverence, all the books both of the Old and of the New Testament—seeing that one God is the author of both—as also the said traditions, as well those appertaining to faith as to morals, as having been dictated, either by Christ’s own word of mouth, or by the Holy Ghost, and preserved in the Catholic Church by a continuous succession.
In Sacred Tradition we have a sure guide because the Tradition has its roots in Christ Himself and its protection from error from the promises of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit through the Apostolic Succession of bishops in union with the Roman Pontiff. So when we have an issue like contraception, which the Tradition of the Church has taught us is a moral evil from the time of the Apostles, we can know that this tradition is a reliable guide and not the mere opinion of men.
If we follow the model of sola Scriptura, where every man is his own interpreter and Scripture is the only available means of sure knowledge of morality, it’s only a matter of time until someone decides that it’s easier to give up the fight on contraception. The same thing has happened with a number of the Church’s teachings, such as those on divorce and remarriage, female clergy and homosexuality. Without the sure defense of the Spirit-guided Magesterium of the Catholic Church, compromise is inevitable.
So What’s the Big Deal About Contraception Anyway?
In an era where nearly every other Christian group has approved at least some method of contraception, why does the Catholic Church continue to oppose it so strenuously? The reason is simple: God created the sexual act with the three-fold purposes of procreation, the unifying of the couple and pleasure. To remove any one of these elements from the sexual act is to pervert it into something other than what God intended it to be. To remove the life-giving potential of the sexual act is to change its nature.
What makes a sexual act licit or illicit is whether or not it is performed in accordance with God’s design for sexual activity. Homosexual acts are illicit because God designed sex to be between a man and a woman. Adultery and fornication between a man and a woman are illicit because God intended sex to be between a married man and woman. Rape is illicit because God designed sexual union to be entered into willingly. Contraceptive sex acts are illicit because God designed sex to produce children.
When the procreative aspect of the sexual act is removed, the act takes on a different nature than it had when procreation was a possibility. As Pope John Paul II pointed out in his Theology of the Body talks, the couple engaging in contraceptive sex is lying with their bodies. The body is saying, “I am giving you the gift of my whole self,” but one of the most incredible gifts spouses can give to each other, their reproductive capacity, is being withheld. The act becomes primarily about pleasure and thus becomes inherently selfish. The act that is supposed to reflect the life-giving union of Christ and the Church becomes an act that seeks only its own temporal satisfaction, not the self-sacrifice and self-donation that comes with the possibility of the creation of new life.
This pleasure-centered version of sex is contrary to the nature of the Triune life which, as the Divine Liturgy reminds us, is fundamentally life-giving. If marriage is to be a picture of the life of the Trinity and the relationship of Christ and the Church, we can never say “no” to life and sacrifice, which is precisely what contraceptive sex does.
I’m encouraged by the attention being given to the question of contraception in Reformed circles and I hope the conversation continues. But I say that with the fervent hope that Reformed ministers will heed the words of the Reformers, as well as the voice of the Church throughout history, rather than relying on their own interpretations of Scripture. There is much more to be said on the topic, delving more deeply into Pope John Paul II’s teaching and even the many pragmatic problems with contraception, but I hope this post will serve to start some discussion on why this ancient teaching is so crucial to our Christian life today.
- Theology of the Body Explained: A Commentary on John Paul II’s “Gospel of the Body”—Christopher West’s excellent compendium of John Paul II’s groundbreaking series of addresses on the topic of human sexuality
- Tabor Life Institute—A ministry dedicated to spreading a Catholic understanding of sexuality
- CD Set of the “Contraception is Not the Answer” Conference—A conference sponsored by the Pro-Life Action League on the problem of contraception