Thursday, March 15, 2007

Contraception and the "Fewer Children is Better" Mentality: the Opposition of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Other Protestants

Genesis 38:9-10: “But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so when he went in to his brother’s wife he spilled the semen on the ground, lest he should give offspring to his brother. 10 And what he did was displeasing in the sight of the Lord, and he slew him also.”
It is a matter of historical fact that no Christian communion sanctioned contraception until the Anglican Lambeth Conference in 1930. Protestant historian Roland Bainton states casually that the Church “very early forbade contraception” (Early Christianity, 56). According to The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, “many Christian moralists . . . repudiate all methods of family limitation” (Cross, 889). The great Catholic writer and apologist Ronald Knox eloquently recounted how Christians used to detest contraception:
Practices hitherto connected with the unmentioned underworld have found their way into the home . . . it is not merely a Christian principle that has been thrown overboard . . . Ovid and Juvenal, with no flicker of Christian revelation to guide them, branded the practices in question with the protest of heathen satire. It is not Christian morality, but natural morality as hitherto conceived, that has been outraged by the change of standard.

(Knox, 31-32)

Christianity (Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism alike) had always opposed contraception as gravely sinful, until just two generations ago. When I first learned of this in 1990 (as an inquiring evangelical pro-life activist very curious about the “odd” and inexplicable Catholic prohibition) it was a shocking revelation to me and the first step on my road to conversion to Catholicism.

Today, probably upwards of 90% of Protestants and 80% of Catholics use contraceptives. It is a mortal sin in Catholicism, and used to always be considered an extremely serious sin in Protestant circles (how things change). The respected and widely-read Anglican apologist C.S. Lewis, for example, opposed contraception:

As regards contraceptives, there is a paradoxical, negative sense in which all possible future generations are the patients or subjects of a power wielded by those already alive. By contraception simply, they are denied existence; by contraception used as a means of selective breeding, they are, without their concurring voice, made to be what one generation, for its own reasons, may choose to prefer. From this point of view, what we call Man's power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.

(The Abolition of Man, 68-69)

Genesis 38:9-10 (about Onan) has been one of the main prooftexts traditionally used to oppose contraception. Observe how Martin Luther passionately interpreted this biblical passage:
Onan must have been a malicious and incorrigible scoundrel. This 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 . . . He was inflamed with the basest spite and hatred . . . Consequently, he deserved to be killed by God. He committed an evil deed. Therefore God punished him . . . That worthless fellow . . . preferred polluting himself with a most disgraceful sin to raising up offspring for his brother.

(Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 38-44; 1544; LW, 7, 20-21)

John Calvin, in his Commentary on Genesis is no less vehemently opposed to the practice (what would he think if he knew about the vast majority of Calvinists today who regularly contracept?):
I will contend myself with briefly mentioning this, as far as the sense of shame allows to discuss it. 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 doubly 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, by defiling the earth with his seed, so that Tamar would not receive a future inheritor.
The New Bible Dictionary concludes, on the other hand, “this verse does not pass any judgment on birth control as such” (Douglas, 789). The reasoning often used to overcome the force of the verse is that Onan was punished by God (with death) for disobeying the “levirate law,” whereby a brother of a dead husband was to take his sister-in-law as his wife and have children with her (Deuteronomy 25:5-10).

But that can’t apply in this case (or any other) because the same work informs us that the law “allows the brother the option of refusing.” Thus we find in Deuteronomy 25:9 that a sister-in-law so refused should “spit in his face,” but there is no mention of any death penalty or the wrath of God.

How then, can the New Bible Dictionary maintain that the slaying of Onan by God had no relation to contraception? God didn’t command Onan in this case – another argument sometimes heard -- , so he wasn’t directly disobeying God (it was his father Judah who asked him to do what he didn’t want to do: Gen 38:8).

Whatever was “displeasing” to God couldn’t have been disobedience regarding the levirate law, since He allowed people to disobey it and recommended that they suffer only public humiliation, not death, which is not nearly as serious as being “wicked” -- the reason God slew Onan’s brother Er (Gen 38:7).

Moreover, the passage which teaches about the levirate law (Deuteronomy 25:5-10) is from God, as part of the covenant and the Law received by Moses on Mt. Sinai, and proclaimed by Him to all of Israel (see Deut 5:1-5, 29:1,12).

If God Himself did not say that the punishment for disobeying the levirate law was death (in the place where it would be expected if it were true), how can modern commentators “know” this? Can it be that their “knowledge” exists in order to avoid uncomfortable implications concerning a prohibition of contraception? Might there be a little bit of bias at play?

Yet the article on Onan in the same dictionary (the earlier comment was in the article, “Marriage”), written by the editor, J.D. Douglas, states:

Onan . . . took steps to avoid a full consummation of the union, thus displeasing the Lord, who slew him.

(Douglas, 910)

Douglas appears to contend that Onan was killed for the contraceptive act, not disobedience to the levirate law. If so, his opinion contradicts the view expressed in the other article by J.S. Wright and J.A. Thompson. The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary concurs:
. . . whenever Onan and Tamar had intercourse he would spill his sperm on the ground to prevent her from conceiving; for this the Lord slew him.

Onan’s tactic of withdrawing before ejaculation . . . costs him his life.

(Myers, 781, 653)

In its article on “Levirate Law,” we are also informed that “the brother had the option of refusing to take his sister-in-law in levirate marriage (652). The logic is apparent: if refusal alone was not grounds to be killed by God or by capital punishment issued by his fellows, then there must have been something in the way Onan refused which was the cause. This was the “withdrawal method,” a form of contraception (probably the one most used throughout history). Therefore, Onan was killed for doing that, which in turn means that God didn’t approve of it.

One might still retort as follows: “it is not contraception per se that was wrong in Onan’s case, but the fact that he wanted to have sex with the woman but not to have children. He had the right to refuse the levirate marriage, but once he agreed to it he was obligated to produce the children which was the purpose of it.”

I would agree with this hypothetical objection prima facie, but (upon closer inspection) I would add that it actually confirms the central moral point on which the moral objection to contraception is based: the evil of separating sex from procreation. It is precisely because the central purpose of marriage is procreation, that the levirate law was present in the first place. If one married, they were to have sexual relations, which was (foremost) for the purpose of having children.

If a husband died with no children, it was so important to continue his name with offspring that God commanded the man’s brother to take his wife after he died. But Onan tried to separate sex from procreation. He wanted all the pleasure but not the responsibility of perpetuating his brother’s family. He possessed the “contraceptive mentality” which is rampant today, even among otherwise traditional, committed Christians.

This is what is evil: an unnatural separation of what God intended to be together. Onan tried the “middle way” of having sex but willfully separating procreation from it. This was the sin, and this is why God killed him. Martin Luther understood the fundamental evil of contraception and the “anti-child” mindset:

Today you find many people who do not want to have children. Moreover, this callousness and inhuman attitude, which is worse than barbarous, is met with chiefly among the nobility and princes, who often refrain from marriage for this one single reason, that they might have no offspring. It is even more disgraceful that you find princes who allow themselves to be forced not to marry, for fear that the members of their house would increase beyond a definite limit. Surely such men deserve that their memory be blotted out from the land of the living. Who is there who would not detest these swinish monsters? But these facts, too, serve to emphasize original sin. Otherwise we would marvel at procreation as the greatest work of God, and as a most outstanding gift we would honor it with the praises it deserves.

(Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 1-5, 1536; LW, I, 118; commentary on Genesis 2:18)

The rest of the populace is more wicked than even the heathen themselves. For most married people do not desire offspring. Indeed, they turn away from it and consider it better to live without children, because they are poor and do not have the means with which to support a household. . . . But the purpose of marriage is not to have pleasure and to be idle but to procreate and bring up children, to support a household. . . . Those who have no love for children are swine, stocks, and logs unworthy of being called men and women; for they despise the blessing of God, the Creator and Author of marriage.

(Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 26-30; LW, V, 325-328; vol. 28, 279; commentary on the birth of Joseph to Jacob and Rachel; cf. LW, vol. 45, 39-40)

But the greatest good in married life, that which makes all suffering and labor worth while, is that God grants offspring and commands that they be brought up to worship and serve him. In all the world this is the noblest and most precious work, because to God there can be nothing dearer than the salvation of souls. Now since we are all duty bound to suffer death, if need be, that we might bring a single soul to God, you can see how rich the estate of marriage is in good works.

(The Estate of Marriage, 1522; LW, vol. 45, 46)

You will find many to whom a large number of children is unwelcome, as though marriage had been instituted only for bestial pleasures and not also for the very valuable work by which we serve God and men when we train and educate the children whom God has given us. They do not appreciate the most pleasant feature of marriage. For what exceeds the love of children?

(In Plass, II, #2834)

Matthew Henry decries “the great abuse of his own body” and “sins that dishonour the body and defile it” which “are very displeasing to God and evidences of vile affections.” John Wesley, in his Explanatory Notes on the Old Testament, actually quotes Henry, adds that Onan was abusing his wife, and concludes with this powerful condemnation:
Observe, the thing which he did displeased the Lord -- And it is to be feared, thousands, especially of single persons, by this very thing, still displease the Lord, and destroy their own souls.
The influential German Protestant theologian Johann Peter Lange (1802-1884) wrote:
Onan's sin, a deadly wickedness, an example to be held in abhorrence, as condemnatory, not only of secret sins of self-pollution, but also of all similar offences in sexual relations, and even in marriage itself. Unchastity in general is a homicidal waste of the generative powers, a demonic bestiality, an outrage to ancestors, to posterity, and to one's own life. It is a crime against the image of God, and a degradation below the animal. Onan's offence, moreover, as committed in marriage, was a most unnatural wickedness, and a grievous wrong. The sin named after him is destructive as a pestilence that walketh in darkness, destroying directly both the body and soul of the young.

(from: “Church History and Birth Control”: many full citations:

Further Citations of Protestants and Catholics on Contraception
It was the Catholic Church's firm stand against contraception and abortion which finally made me decide to become a Catholic . . . As the Romans treated eating as an end in itself, making themselves sick in a vomitorium so as to enable them to return to the table and stuff themselves with more delicacies, so people now end up in a sort of sexual vomitorium. The Church's stand is absolutely correct. It is to its eternal honour that it opposed contraception, even if the opposition failed. I think, historically, people will say it was a very gallant effort to prevent a moral disaster . . .

(Malcolm Muggeridge, Confessions of a Twentieth-Century Pilgrim, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988, 140-141)

It has been left to the last Christians, or rather to the first Christians fully committed to blaspheming and denying Christianity, to invent a new kind of worship of Sex, which is not even a worship of Life. It has been left to the very latest Modernists to proclaim an erotic religion which at once exalts lust and forbids fertility . . . The new priests abolish the fatherhood and keep the feast - to themselves.

(G.K. Chesterton, The Well and the Shallows, New York: Sheed & Ward, 1935, 233)

I hope it is not a secret arrogance to say that I do not think I am exceptionally arrogant; or if I were, my religion would prevent me from being proud of my pride. Nevertheless, for those of such a philosophy, there is a very terrible temptation to intellectual pride, in the welter of wordy and worthless philosophies that surround us to-day. Yet there are not many things that move me to anything like a personal contempt. I do not feel any contempt for an atheist, who is often a man limited and constrained by his own logic to a very sad simplification. I do not feel any contempt for a Bolshevist, who is a man driven to the same-negative simplification by a revolt against very positive wrongs. But there is one type of person for whom I feel what I can only call contempt. And that is the popular propagandist of what he or she absurdly describes as Birth-Control.

I despise Birth-Control first because it is a weak and wobbly and cowardly word. It is also an entirely meaningless word; and is used so as to curry favour even with those who would at first recoil from its real meaning. The proceeding these quack doctors recommend does not control any birth. It only makes sure that there shall never be any birth to control. It cannot, for instance, determine sex, or even make any selection in the style of the pseudo-science of Eugenics. Normal people can only act so as to produce birth; and these people can only act so as to prevent birth. But these people know perfectly well that they dare not write the plain word Birth-Prevention, in any one of the hundred places where they write the hypocritical word Birth-Control. They know as well as I do that the very word Birth-Prevention would strike a chill into the public, the instant it was blazoned on headlines, or proclaimed on platforms, or scattered in advertisements like any other quack medicine. They dare not call it by its name, because its name is very bad advertising. Therefore they use a conventional and unmeaning word, which may make the quack medicine sound more innocuous.

Second, I despise Birth-Control because it is a weak and wobbly and cowardly thing. It is not even a step along the muddy road they call Eugenics; it is a flat refusal to take the first and most obvious step along the road of Eugenics. Once grant that their philosophy is right, and their course of action is obvious; and they dare not take it; they dare not even declare it. If there is no authority in things which Christendom has called moral, because their origins were mystical, then they are clearly free to ignore all difference between animals and men; and treat men as we treat animals. They need not palter with the stale and timid compromise and convention called Birth-Control. Nobody applies it to the cat. The obvious course for Eugenists is to act towards babies as they act towards kittens. Let all the babies be born and then let us drown those we do not like. I cannot see any objection to it; except the moral or mystical sort of objection that we advance against Birth-Prevention. And that would be real and even reasonable Eugenics; for we could then select the best, or at
least the healthiest, and sacrifice what are called the unfit. By the weak compromise of Birth-Prevention, we are very probably sacrificing the fit and only producing the unfit. The births we prevent may be the births of the best and most beautiful children; those we allow, the weakest or worst. Indeed, it is probable; for the habit discourages the early parentage of young and vigorous people; and lets them put off the experience to later years, mostly from mercenary motives. Until I see a real pioneer and progressive leader coming out with a good, bold, scientific programme for drowning babies, I will not join the movement.

But there is a third, reason for my contempt, much deeper and therefore much more difficult to express; in which is rooted all my reasons for being anything I am or attempt to be; and above all, for being a Distributist. Perhaps the nearest to a description of it is to say this: that my contempt boils over into bad behaviour when I hear the common suggestion that a birth is avoided because people want to be "free" to go to the cinema or buy a gramophone or a loud-speaker. What makes me want to walk over such people like doormats is that they use the word "free." By every act of that sort they chain themselves to the most servile and mechanical system yet tolerated by men. The cinema is a machine for unrolling certain regular patterns called pictures; expressing the most vulgar millionaires' notion of the taste of the most vulgar millions. The gramophone is a machine for recording such tunes as certain shops and other organisations choose to sell. The wireless is better; but even that is marked by the modern mark of all three; the impotence of the receptive party. The amateur cannot challenge the actor; the householder will find it vain to go and shout into the gramophone; the mob cannot pelt the modern speaker, especially when he is a loud-speaker. It is all a central mechanism giving out to men exactly what their masters think they should have.

Now a child is the very sign and sacrament of personal freedom. He is a fresh free will added to the wills of the world; he is something that his parents have freely chosen to produce and which they freely agree to protect. They can feel that any amusement he gives (which is often considerable) really comes from him and from them, and from nobody else. He has been born without the intervention of any master or lord. He is a creation and a contribution; he is their own creative contribution to creation. He is also a much more beautiful, wonderful, amusing and astonishing thing than any of the stale stories or jingling jazz tunes turned out by the machines. When men no longer feel that he is so, they have lost the appreciation of primary things, and therefore all sense of proportion about the world. People who prefer the mechanical pleasures, to such a miracle, are jaded and enslaved. They are preferring the very dregs of life to the first fountains of life. They are preferring the last, crooked, indirect, borrowed, repeated and exhausted things of our dying Capitalist civilisation, to the reality which is the only rejuvenation of all civilisation. It is they who are hugging the chains of their old slavery; it is the child who is ready for the new world.

(G.K. Chesterton, "Babies and Distributism," from The Well and the Shallows, New York: Sheed & Ward, 1935, 142-146)

You [Manicheans] make your Auditors adulterers of their wives when they take care lest the women with whom they copulate conceive. They take wives according to the laws of matrimony by tablets announcing that the marriage is contracted to procreate children; and then, fearing because of your law [against childbearing] . . . they copulate in a shameful union only to satisfy lust for their wives. They are unwilling to have children, on whose account alone marriages are made. How is it, then, that you are not those prohibiting marriage, as the Apostle predicted of you so long ago [1 Tim. 4:1-4], when you try to take from marriage what marriage is? When this is taken away, husbands are shameful lovers, wives are harlots, bridal chambers are brothels, fathers-in-law are pimps.

(St. Augustine [354-430], Against Faustus)

When home ties are loosened, when men and women cease to regard a worthy family life, with all its duties fully performed and all its responsibilities lived up to, as the best life worth living, then evil days for the commonwealth are at hand. There are regions in our land, and classes of our population, where the birth rate has sunk below the death rate. Surely it should need no demonstration to show that willful sterility is, from the standpoint of the human race, the one sin for which the national penalty is national death, race death--a sin for which there is no atonement.

(Theodore Roosevelt, Sixth Annual Message to Congress)

[Onan's act] was even as much as if he had, in a manner, pulled forth the fruit out of the mother's womb and destroyed it.

(Synod of Dort, Dutch Annotations on the Whole Bible)

...there is a seminal vital virtue, which perishes if the seed is spilled; and by doing this to hinder the begetting of a living child, is the first degree of murder that can be committed, and the next unto it is the marring of conception, when it is made, and causing of abortion: now such acts are noted in the scripture as horrible crimes, because, otherwise many might commit them, and not know the evil of them.

(Westminster Annotations, 1657, by John Ley of the Westminster Assembly)

[Onan’s contraceptive act] was an abhorrent thing and worse than adultery. Such an evil deed strives against nature, and those who do it will not possess the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9-10). The holier marriage is, the less will those remain unpunished who live in it in a wicked unfitting way so that, in addition to it, they practice their private acts of villainy.

(16th-century Lutheran theologian Lukas Osiander, Commentary on Genesis)


Bainton, Roland H., Early Christianity, New York: D. Van Nostrand Company, 1960.

Calvin, John, Calvin's Commentaries, 22 volumes, translated and edited by John Owen; originally printed for the Calvin Translation Society, Edinburgh, Scotland, 1853; reprinted by Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI: 1979. Available online:

Cross, F.L. and E.A. Livingstone, editors, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2nd edition, 1983.

Douglas, J.D., editor, The New Bible Dictionary, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1962.

Henry, Matthew [Presbyterian], Complete Commentary on the Whole Bible, 1706;
reprinted by Hendrickson Publishers, Inc. (Peabody, Massachusetts), 1991. Available online:

Lewis, C.S., The Abolition of Man, New York: Macmillan, 1947.

Luther, Martin, Luther's Works (LW), American edition, edited by Jaroslav Pelikan (volumes 1-30) and Helmut T. Lehmann (volumes 31-55), St. Louis: Concordia Pub. House (volumes 1-30); Philadelphia: Fortress Press (volumes 31-55), 1955.

Myers, Allen C., editor, Eerdmans Bible Dictionary, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987; English revision of Bijbelse Encyclopedie, edited by W.H. Gispen, Kampen, Netherlands: J.H. Kok, revised edition, 1975; translated by Raymond C. Togtman and Ralph W. Vunderink.

Plass, Ewald M., What Luther Says, an Anthology, two volumes, St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1959.

Uploaded by Dave Armstrong on 21 February 2004.

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