Wednesday, June 6, 2012

A response to Albert Mohler's piece "Can Christians Use Birth Control?"

Albert Mohler
Albert Mohler, current president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, recently re-posted a piece on his website he wrote back in 2006 entitled, "Can Christians Use Birth Control?"

It's a great piece that says a lot with which I can agree, and I'm glad to see evangelicals taking another look at the question of contraception. I do, however, have a few comments:

First: in the fourth paragraph, Mohler writes:
When Pope Paul VI released his famous encyclical outlawing artificial birth control, Humanae Vitae, most evangelicals responded with disregard — perhaps thankful that evangelicals had no pope who could hand down a similar edict.
In saying that Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae outlawed contraception, Mohler seems to be implying that Humanae Vitae was the Church's first word on the subject. In actuality, Humane Vitae simply reaffirmed what the Church had taught for centuries. Most recently before Humanae Vitae, Pope Pius XI's 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii had also reaffirmed the Church's teaching against the use of contraception.

And it wasn't just Catholics who were against the use of contraception. All Protestant denominations had also rejected the use of contraception for centuries until the mid-20th century, just before the advent of the Pill. The first Christian denomination in the whole history of the Church to approve the use of contraception under any circumstances was the Anglican Church in 1930 at its Lambeth Conference of that year (Pope Pius XI's encyclical Casti Connubii was written in response to this). For a history of Protestant teaching on contraception, I recommend the article "Children of the Reformation" by the Lutheran scholar Allan Carlson.

Second: later in the article, he writes:
To demand sexual pleasure without openness to children is to violate a sacred trust.
And soon after that:
Once the sex act was severed from the likelihood of childbearing, the traditional structure of sexual morality collapsed.
But then in the next paragraph he writes:
For most evangelicals, the major break with Catholic teaching comes at the insistence that “it is necessary that each conjugal act remain ordained in itself to the procreating of human life.” That is, that every act of marital intercourse must be fully and equally open to the gift of children. This claims too much, and places inordinate importance on individual acts of sexual intercourse, rather than the larger integrity of the conjugal bond.
So he affirms the need for sex to remain linked to procreation, but then says that this doesn't have to be true every time? This is problematic because each sex act is its own act. A sex act cannot be reduced to only part a couple's "sex life", so to speak, as though a "sex life" is an item. If it is a perversion to separate sex from procreation, then it doesn't make sense to say that a sex act can sometimes be perverted but other times not perverted. One does not make-up for the perversion in one sex act by doing other sex acts properly. E.g. Lying is not occasionally permissible as long as one is usually honest, etc.

Third: soon after that he writes:
The focus on “each and every act” of sexual intercourse within a faithful marriage that is open to the gift of children goes beyond the biblical demand.
Christians have always read the story of Onan in Genesis 38.8-10 as teaching that Onan's perversion of the sex act was why he was punished (see John Calvin's commentary on Genesis 38.9-10; the most commonly used English edition omits some of what he says, with a footnote that says that they are omitting it without saying why, so you'll need to find a commentary that doesn't omit everything he said there). In fact, the focus on each and every act is based on the fact that each and every sex act is its own moral act. You could have sex once, you could have sex a hundred times - contraception is always a perversion of the sex act.

Lastly: he writes:
Since the encyclical does not reject all family planning, this focus requires the distinction between “natural” and “artificial” methods of birth control. To the evangelical mind, this is a rather strange and fabricated distinction. Looking at the Catholic position helps, but evangelicals must also think for themselves, reasoning from the Scriptures in a careful consideration.
It's not clear to me what is strange or fabricated in the distinction there. In the natural order, a woman is not fertile every single day of the month. Since a couple is certainly not morally required to have sex on any given day, to intentionally have sex only when the woman is infertile is to work within the natural order of our bodies - or, with nature. Contraception, on the other hand, works only by impeding the natural order - or, against nature (cf. Romans 1.26-27). Thus, the Catholic position of simply abstaining from sex if one has a just cause for avoiding conceiving a child is clearly and qualitatively distinct from actively engaging in an intentionally contracepted sex act.

In any case, I'm glad to see the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary thinking through this most important issue of our times. This post was based on a response I emailed Albert Mohler privately. I'll give an update if he responds to me in an email.


  1. You see now you are being inconsistent, you just said that every sexual should include procreation as an option, yet you are ok with intentionally having sex only during non-fertile times... how is that different than Onan pulling out in your line of thought?

    1. Not having sex at all isn't the same as starting to have sex but disrupting the act part way through. Sex is still moral during infertile times if the integrity of the act is maintained. Contraception disrupts the act.

    2. lsecord -

      The following is my attempt to explain Catholic teaching. I believe the following accurately reflects Catholic teaching, but I'm not aware of this being put exactly this way. If this doesn't reflect Catholic teaching, people are free to point out why it doesn't reflect Catholic teaching and I will stop explaining it this way. This is my own personal understanding of the issue.

      I've tried to boil this issue down to one sentence and here it is: "Contraception is immoral because contracepted intercourse it is not a unitive act."

      Here is what I mean. A unitve act can be described as an act in which both spouses can make a total gift of self AND receive a total gift of self from their spouse. A contracepted sexual act is not unitive. Either one spouse witholds their fertility, or the other fails to receive their spouses fertility. During sexual activity during non-fertile times, the spouses give themselves and receive the other as they are at that time. It is a total gift and giving and receiving. Thus, sex during the non-fertile times is still unitive in its nature, where as intentionally sterilized intercourse is not unitive in nature.

      In biblical terms, the couple having sex during non fertile times becomes one flesh. In an intentionally sterilized act, they do not become one flesh.

    3. Andrew -- thank you.

    4. "In biblical terms, the couple having sex during non fertile times becomes one flesh. In an intentionally sterilized act, they do not become one flesh."

      The above quote is The Catholic justification for the use of "rhythm". It is my belief that the "pill" is a natural hormone. If the couple having sex during non fertile times becomes one flesh and therefore justified. Could it not also be justified for a woman to increase the number of non fertile days by use of a natural hormone "the pill". After-all women differ in the number of non fertile days naturally probably due to hormones.

    5. Hey Anon,
      The Catholic Church is fine with regulating births by simply abstaining from sex, even if the couple then intentionally only has sex when the woman is naturally infertile. In this case, the couple is respecting the order of nature. When a woman takes the Pill, she is giving herself artificial hormones for the sole purpose of making her body behave in ways that it would not naturally. She is intentionally changing her natural bodily chemistry with the intent of closing herself off from her husband, and in that sense is not fully giving herself to her husband, and thus infringing on the unitive purpose of sex. Sex still has the unitive purpose of sex when the couple has sex even though they know the woman (or man) is infertile because they are still giving their nature selves to the other as they are.

  2. Forgive my ignorance but, is the basis of Catholic disagreement with the use of contraception due to the fact that it divorces sex from procreation?

    1. I see three main reasons for the Catholic objection:

      1. Natural Law (separating sex and procreation).
      2. Scripture (the sin of Onan)
      3. Sacred Tradition (that from the earliest times, Catholics and Protestants alike taught that contraception was morally wrong...right up until 1930).

  3. I kind of had to laugh at this statement: "The focus on “each and every act” of sexual intercourse within a faithful marriage that is open to the gift of children goes beyond the biblical demand."

    Because we don't seem to think that it's too onerous a burden to suggest that in order to be faithful in marriage, that "each and every act" of sexual intercourse be with one's spouse!

    But I agree that it's really good that the discussion is coming up.

  4. "This claims too much, and places inordinate importance on individual acts of sexual intercourse, rather than the larger integrity of the conjugal bond."

    This does beg the question of Mohler's authority.

    "evangelicals must also think for themselves, reasoning from the Scriptures in a careful consideration."

    See, Catholics don't think for themselves. Speaking of reasoning from Scriptures, isn't that how the Southern Baptists figured this out in 1971: "That we call upon Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother."

  5. So what then would be your position on Infertile couples who seek fertility treatments? That is working against nature as well. Just curious even though it isn't what this article is about.

    1. Infertility is when something is not working that should be working. Therefore it makes sense to try and fix it like you would with any other system that wasn't working e.g. if the renal system isn't working properly you treat it with medication and/or surgery.
      Using contraception, on the other hand, to to prevent something from working that is working normally (e.g. artificially suppressing ovulation) so it is not a comparable situation.

    2. Of course it does matter what is included under the umbrella of "fertility treatments". So called treatments which seek to create life outside of the natural conjugal act, such as IVF, are immoral. As stated above, treatments which seek to directly make the reproductive system work properly for the stage of life the person is in , such as easing the effects of endometriosis, would be acceptable for those in marital relationships.

  6. Anonymous,

    Catholic teaching is that fertility treatments are licit when they work to help nature do what should be happening naturally. For example, medications that encourage ovulation in women whose hormones/ovaries don't work as they should. Or medications that help the sperm survive and migrate to an ovulated egg. Or drugs to help maintain the uterine lining so the new life can implant properly. These are all therapies that *work with* the sexual act. Therapies that work *outside* the sexual act (therapies that attempt to create a human life without intercourse taking place whatsoever) are not licit, such as IVF.

  7. So IVF is immoral? What if that is a couples' only chance to have a baby of their own?

    1. At what cost are we allowed to have a baby of our own? How many are we allowed to kill?

    2. Why do you assume it is an intrinsic right for every couple to have biological children even when infertile? Isn't that just selfishness and pride to insist on having biological children by any means possible when they can't have them naturally? What is the matter with adopting or fostering children? Maybe that is God's plan for them, to take in children without a home or even to not have any children so they can devote more time to serving God in other ways.
      IVF is trying to play God by creating children outside of natural intercourse. It is also intrinsically evil because more embryos are created than can be implanted and the ones that aren't implanted are frozen or simply destroyed. Some places that provide IVF sell the embryos for research purposes. To do this to living human beings (no, they are not 'just clumps of cells') is disgusting. Infertile couples have other options to IVF, there are other more natural methods of actually treating infertility (IVF does not treat anything, it just bypasses the natural process). Look up NaPro Technology, it involves treating fertility and it fully in line with Catholic church teaching.

    3. Yes. My wife and I were always open to more children. When it seemed as though we would not have more, instead of doing IVF we adopted a brother and sister from Russia.

  8. How incredibly judgmental of Anonymous above. Not sure if you are a man or a woman, but do YOU yourself know the pain of being in a situation where you are not able to have children naturally? A woman's body is MADE for having children, it is an instinct that every woman has. To be told that you can never grow a baby inside your womb is a gut wrenching, horrible experience to go through. And you will never, ever tell me that it is "evil", or that a child born out of IVF is "evil" (which certainly seems you have said). I know a couple that IVF was there one and only option -- nothing else would have worked. So yes, there are more natural methods of treating infertility, but not in every case. Until you have walked that mile, and know exactly what it feels like to be told that you will never have a baby the "natural" way, you have no right to be talking about what is "evil" and what is not. Unless you are God, you have no right to judge.

    And kkollwitz, it's great that you were able to adopt, but obviously were able to have children before adopting. Can you imagine if you had been told you wouldn't be able to have a baby of your own?

    And why do YOU assume it ISN'T instrinsically right for every couple to have a biological child? Once again, are you God?????

    Ugh, posts like this are why "religious" people get a bad name -- judge, judge, judge.

    1. This is obviously a very sensitive subject for you and I am very sorry that I offended you. I did not mean to come across as harsh or judgemental, rather, I wanted to try and challenge your perspective. Unfortunately, it is difficult to convey tone in writing and I can see where my comments could have come across as harsh even though I didn't mean them to.
      Just to clarify, I did not say or mean to imply in any way that those who use IVF are evil or that children conceived by IVF are evil. What I wanted to point out is that the process of IVF is evil (creating embryos which often end up being frozen indefinitely or destroyed if no longer needed), even if the outcome is good. Those using it are usually unaware of the moral implications but an embryo is a human being and should be treated as such.
      I have no doubt that infertility is a terrible burden to bear, however, Catholics stand by the principle that 'you cannot do evil so that good may come of it'. I read something recently that went something like this: Children are gifts given by God. Just as it would be impolite to refuse such a great gift, it is also impolite to demand and insist on a gift.
      Again, I am very sorry that what I wrote came across so badly but it was not meant to be uncharitable.

    2. Why do you feel that your very legitimate sadness and pain somehow creates a right for you to not feel that sadness and pain?

      That's a "fairness" argument, and that's not how life works.

      You have no RIGHT to have a child, your body may dictate otherwise. Mine did, too, to my utter surprise, with siblings and cousins all around me having children with ease.

    3. Anonymous above said: "How incredibly judgmental of Anonymous above. Not sure if you are a man or a woman, but do YOU yourself know the pain of being in a situation where you are not able to have children naturally?"

      This is a rather absurd argument. Pain does not determine morality. If it does then those suffering from emotional pain due to a desire for someone other than their spouse should be allowed to have this adulterous relationship. Your response could go be translated to "Do you not know the pain of desiring someone who is forbidden you because you are already married?"

  9. Perhaps anonymous above could have been more gentle in presenting the argument; certainly more compassionate to those who are infertile and ardently wish to have children. But, to probably put it much too bluntly for your tastes, to say that only God can make moral judgements is just incorrect. We may not judge any individual as to their personal state of righteousness before God, but we must make moral judgements about all types of actions - murder, burglary, lying, etc. IVF is immoral for the reasons stated by the previous poster. And I am quite sure, that while the inability to have children naturally is among the most terrible of human conditions, it is not the only one. How about blindness, deafness, cancer, leprosy? Our life truly can be a valley of tears, but that does not mean that any means to alleviate whatever suffering we may be enduring, even infertility, is ok. And we do not just assume that IVF is intrinsically evil, we follow the teaching of a Church which has been given the authority to teach in God's name. But that would be a whole other argument based on Jesus' delegation of authority to loose and bind, and whether or not the Roman Catholic Church was founded by Christ Himself. But then, all of these types of questions eventually end in this final one.

  10. Hello everyone! I was gone to Iowa for the weekend and so haven't had much a chance to respond.

    The key principle here is that sex and procreation go together, a connection that goes both directions.

    Regarding infertility, I've known several people who have had problems with infertility, and it is indeed a very hard cross to bear. Regarding the moral licitness of various forms of fertility treatments, any kind of treatment which helps to correct whatever the defect is so that the couple can conceive a child by means of the conjugal act are just forms of medicine and are encouraged. However, any means of creating a new person outside of the conjugal act are immoral since they divorce procreation from sex and make the child no longer the product of a loving union but of scientists in a laboratory. IVF isn't really a treatment so much as it's a different way of conceiving a child. Also, because of the way IVF is practiced (though it doesn't absolutely have to be done this way), it usually includes the creation and destruction of many extra children, which is of course gravely immoral as well.

    Someone also asked why the Church teaches that contraception is wrong? A great place to start with that is to google and read the 1968 encyclical of Pope Paul IV mentioned in the article called Humanae Vitae.

    I hope this helps. God bless

  11. Also, to the Anonymous commenters: if you'd like to remain anonymous, please still choose at least a screen name/handle so we know which anonymous is who. Thanks!

  12. Quite frankly, I'm disgusted that the Magesterium thought it logical, let alone sane, to equate marital rape to contraceptive use in any way. The Humanae Vitae reads like a lot of crusty, old men preaching from an ivory tower with zero comprehension of how women (or just people in general) actually live.

    1. Hey Nyarai, I don't know what you're talking about regarding Humanae Vitae and marital rape. Show me the quote so I know what you're talking about.

      Regarding Humanae Vitae reading "like a lot of crusty, old men preaching from an ivory tower with zero comprehension of how women (or just people in general) actually live" - this isn't an argument or anything that contributes to any discussion but is meaningless, and unoriginal, rhetoric and name-calling. In actuality, Humanae Vitae represents the Christian tradition on the issue and many people find the teaching very persuasive (my wife, e.g., was almost entirely converted on the issue after reading Humanae Vitae for the first time).

    2. Here is the quote from Section 13 (titled "Faithfulness to God's Design")

      "Men rightly observe that a conjugal act imposed on one's partner without regard to his or her condition or personal and reasonable wishes in the matter, is no true act of love, and therefore offends the moral order in its particular application to the intimate relationship of husband and wife.

      If they further reflect, they must also recognize that an act of mutual love which impairs the capacity to transmit life which God the Creator, through specific laws, has built into it, frustrates His design which constitutes the norm of marriage, and contradicts The will of the Author of life. Hence to use this divine gift while depriving it, even if only partially, of its meaning and purpose, is equally repugnant to the nature of man and of woman, and is consequently in opposition to the plan of God and His holy will."

      To elaborate on my commentary made in the heat of the moment:

      I'm not a religious person (*there's* my problem). I'm a sociologist. Therefore, arguments from authority (see section 4) don't really hold much sway for me. I would much rather see the studies, the experts' reports, or some evidence of birth control's detriment to marriage. I combed the bibliography, and all I saw were references to other Catholic works. I understand that this was an address to the faithful, but the Humanae Vitae holds no argument for nonbelievers.

      While I suppose that crusty and old was some of that immature name-calling, out-of-touch is still a fair cop, I'd wager. Namely, they seem to be unaware of abstinence's total failure as a practical birth control method among teenagers. Since the brain doesn't fully mature until about a person's mid-twenties, that's a huge number of people with raging hormones calling out for an answer, and the Humanae Vitae's response is, "Have you tried not doing that?"

      Apologies if that came off as harsh but, as a female on a medication that can harm fetuses while on it and me while off, I would need a better solution to my predicament than, "Never have sex. Ever."

    3. Nayari -

      Thanks for your perspective. I have just a few thoughts. I can see how that quote from article 13 might alarm you, but I think the Pope is doing a bit more than just equating two actions. I think what Pope Paul is doing by saying that is trying to establish some principles with which to work and to base sexual morality on. Many of my non Catholic friends evaluate sexual practices rather arbitrarily... This is ok, but that isn't. The Pope (as well as Catholic teaching) isn't as arbitrary. It is derived from a set of principles, the natural law being one. His point I think is that BOTH actions are opposed to the natural law and are therefore repugnant.

      I'm never impressed with discussions of abstinence only ed vs. "Comprehensive" sex ed. If you taught Calculus to a bunch of fifth graders you would likely deem it a "total failure," but that doesn't mean that Calculus is false. The reason most fifth graders can't learn calculus is because they don't know the perquisite knowledge. Living a life of celibacy as I do requires prerequisite knowledge as well - something we often fail to give children before high school.

      In other words, just telling people to be abstinent is as dumb as telling people to do calculus. Fact is, and I'm sure you'll agree, there are likely MANY ways to teach abstinence. Just because one or several ways have failed doesn't mean abstinence itself is flawed.

      Furthermore, I really can't see how teaching teenagers to use contraceptives has led to greater health. A college in my state is using the word "epidemic" to describe certain STDs. They weren't using that language when I was in college, which was less than 10 years ago. It is my opinion based on my own observations (which I admit may be flawed) that teenagers are more sexually unhealthy than they were in years past. Sexual assaults seem to be up. Eating disorders among women seem to be up. STD's seem to be up. All I can say is, "Maybe we're going the wrong way."

      I'm not a doctor, so I can't answer your question, but how would being pregnant harm you?

  13. Hey Nyarai,

    Thanks for your thoughtful response.

    Regarding what you quoted from paragraph 13, I'm not entirely sure that Pope Paul IV is talking about marital rape (at least not exclusively), since he mentions respecting a person's "condition". In any case, as Fr Bryan said, I'm not sure that Pope Paul IV is equating the two things anyway, but only saying that both are wrong insofar as they both go against a purpose of sex.

    Regarding arguments from authority, I agree, because of course you don't accept the authority of the Pope, and I didn't either when I first read it. The Pope is only mentioning that to remind Catholics, who supposedly believe he has authority passed on from Peter who received it from Jesus, that they have to listen to him. In the rest of the encyclical, however, he makes a natural law argument, which is not just an appeal to authority and is accessible to any person, religious or not. So Humanae Vitae does have arguments are non-believers. He's not quoting science since he's making a purely moral argument, and not a utilitarian argument at that. In other words, he's arguing that using contraception is an instrinsically immoral act, and not only when it has ill effects for someone (though he actually does predict ill effects in paragraph 17, which have all come true. For a good analysis of this, I recommend this article:

    Regarding being out-of-touch, I'm not sure that this has a whole lot more meaning than the first time you said it. Whether or not an argument is popular is irrelevant to whether the argument is sound. Saying that it is out-of-touch is your own sort of appeal to (popular) authority.

    In any case, there are many people who find the teaching very persuasive, my wife and I included, who accepted the teaching before we became Catholic (and so not just on authority, but on the persuasiveness of the arguments). My wife and I were also virgins when were married. Are we also out-of-touch? We're married with children. I think we still very much count.

    And regarding the failure of abstinence education, as a sociologist you of course know that there is much more that affects a person than what they are told in school, and so saying that particular methods of teaching abstinence is schools has failed and that therefore abstinence is a bad idea is a gross oversimplification. Our whole culture has drastically changed in the last few decades, and being told to not have sex in school when the whole rest of the culture is telling you to have sex isn't going to be very effective. Contraception is part of the root of the problem because it helped to change the culture. The mentality created by contraception affects even those who never use it.

    And yes, Humanae Vitae calls for real control, which is self control. Insofar as contraception encourages people to lack self-control, it is actually a form of enslavement rather than the control is it purported to be. The free person is the person who has the virtue such that they are free to control themselves with reason, and aren't just swept away in a raging torrent of hormones. (I find it ironic that it's a religious person saying that we need to be controlled by our reason, and the non-religious person who is saying that we should all just follow our feelings/hormones. lol)

    (cont below)

  14. (cont from above)

    Regarding your own person medical condition, I'm very sorry to hear that. That sounds like a very difficult situation. I think we can actually partly (though not fully) relate. My wife actually has a somewhat similar situation. She had a very large and dangerous blood clot at the very end of her pregnancy of our first child. As result, she now has to always been on a blood thinner. However, the kind she can take with pills orally causes birth defects or infant death (meaning you don't want to conceive or be pregnant while taking it), and the kind that doesn't do that is an injection. So when we're not actively trying to conceive, she says on the oral pills to give her body a rest from injections, during which times we simply abstain so as to not risk at all conceiving a child (since not form of birth control is 100%), which after the first child meant about a year of abstinence, and now after our second child may also be about a year or so. Then when she is pregant she gives herself an injection or two everyday. It's difficult, but it's also been a very virtue building experience for all of us.

    Anyway, sorry this is so long! Thanks for sharing your thoughts here. Feel free to respond or not. God bless

  15. Enjoying the blog; lots to think about. Just a quick question - is that magisterial teaching on the sin of Onan? Because contextually, your reading is far from compelling. Did God punish Onan because he interrupted the sexual act, or because he refused to follow his familial duty to carry on his older brother's line? Were ancient Near Easterners more concerned with the appropriate mechanics of the sex act, or with proper conduct in familial relations? I think its special pleading to argue that this text is focused purely on sexual mechanics rather than the fulfillment of one's duties to the family, especially given the emphasis later in the passage on Judah's unjust withholding of his third son from Tamar. Contextually, the story of Judah and Tamar emphasizes the necessity of capitulating to family duties; why should we read it anachronistically about sexual practice? Indeed, why are there no statements against this practice explicitly made in the covenant Law (especially given the close ties between the Genesis narrative and God's commands in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy)?

    1. Hey Doug,

      Great points. Regarding magisterial teaching on Gen 38, I am not sure at this time of the full extent, though, after making a quick search, I did find this reference to Onan to Casti Connubii (55):

      "Small wonder, therefore, if Holy Writ bears witness that the Divine Majesty regards with greatest detestation this horrible crime and at times has punished it with death. As St. Augustine notes, "Intercourse even with one's legitimate wife is unlawful and wicked where the conception of the offspring is prevented. Onan, the son of Juda, did this and the Lord killed him for it.""

      Interestingly, the Pope is showing that Augustine interpreted it the way that I am. I would also point to the reformers and subsequent Protestants who, as far as I understand, also interpreted the sin of Onan to at least include the disruption of the sexual act. In other words, it seems that the weight of tradition, Catholic and Protestant, is on the side of understanding the sin of Onan to include the disruption of the sexual act.

      And as I already mentioned, I don't think it has to be an either/or. I think it can certainly be both. I'm not sure how in-depth an exegetical conversation we want to have here, and there are several aspects of the passage that seem to me to point strongly toward the interpretation that God punished Onan for disrupting the sexual act. The first I'll say is that, as John Calvin argued, the fact that Onan was given death (which is beyond the punishment given later in the Law for not providing offspring to his brother) seems to point to a greater crime being committed.

  16. Yeah I certainly don't want to waste your time with extensive exegetical discussion. I have just had several conversations lately with Catholics over issues of biblical interpretation, and several have cited the magisterium as the source of their arguments. At that point, out of respect, I generally end the discussion. I do think the Levirate law in Deuteronomy 25 poses a very different scenario - in Deuteronomy 25, the remaining brother refuses to enter into covenantal relationship with his dead brother's wife (meaning no intercourse is even attempted), whereas in Genesis 28 Onan did initially accept the responsibility, but then reneged on his pledge. Moreover, he selfishly used Tamar for his own gratification, and yet exits at the moment wherein he might fulfill his duty. And no offense to John Calvin (though I know you remember that at least SOME of us Protestants don't regard him with the same authority as you do the church fathers), but I think it might be a little anachronistic to argue that ancient Near Easterners would have consider "coitus interruptus" a graver sin than the neglect of one's duties to his or her family.

    1. Of course the question is not whether ancient near easterners would have considered it to be a graver sin, the question is whether God did and thus still does. What I mean is that the Bible is revelation, not just a reflection of the culture in which it was produced.

  17. That only holds true if Scripture wasn't meant as revelation originally for its ancient Near Eastern readers. Did God intend to reveal his will to them or not? If not, then you're right - we can read whatever products of later revelation we desire into the text. But if God did intend them to understand what Onan did wrong, the nature of language necessarily requires that God would have done so in a manner intelligible to them. Since the text does NOT explain explicitly what Onan did wrong (i.e., with some sort of recapitulative statement like, "what he did was displeasing in God's sight, so God struck him down, because he violated the sexual act itself"), we must assume that the ancient readers would have understood from context (i.e., the sinful act would be clear to them from reading the story). Consequently, if coitus interruptus was not on their radar of potential sins, it is unlikely (if God intended these texts to be revelation to them) that they would have recognized coitus interruptus as Onan's sin.

  18. Haha I'm not trying to be a pain in your butt, brother. I'm sorry if it seems that way. I am a fellow Wheaton grad seeking the truth, and I am not a particularly good Protestant - I have always been uncomfortable with the assumption that God's biggest problem with Christians and Jews is their foolish desire to (Gasp) obey him, a desire nevertheless mistakenly cultivated by his very calls for obedience throughout the Scriptures. Nevertheless, I do think there are some big stakes here when it comes to interpretation. True, it is possible that the text wasn't meant for ancient Near Easterners to understand, and that the meaning of this passage required the presence of the Spirit-empowered Church Fathers (and a minority of later rabbis) to understand. But it is also possible that by emphasizing Onan's refusal to complete the sexual act, we miss the deeper ethical condemnation of the man - his refusal to fulfill his obligations to family, his selfish use of the woman, and his greed (by refusing to bear his older brother's child, Onan guaranteed that the rights of the firstborn would pass to himself, thus stealing his brother's birthright). The reading I offered requires little explanation - its elements are fairly clearly explained as sins elsewhere in the Torah - but the coitus interruptus reading seems to me to require a lot of special theologizing before it's sinfulness can be clearly established.

    1. lol no, don't worry, you are certainly not being a pain. lol I'm glad you're here. Always glad to hear from fellow Wheaties! And I hope that one day you make it to the Church Jesus founded. I'd love to hear more about where you're at, what you're thinking, how you found me, and what you're doing (still at Wheaton?). Feel free to shoot me an email (Click on 'Contact', and then at my About.Me page click Email Me).

      First off, revelation is not what the first readers of Genesis thought Genesis said, it's what the human author intended (literal sense), plus what God intended (literal, and the 3 spiritual senses). Though I would be interested in how the first readers interpreted this. Do you have any resources on that?

      Second, I'm not sure that it requires a lot of special theologizing to think that God killed Onan for the act of coitus interuptus. Verse 9 explains what Onan did, and then verse 10 says that what he did was wicked.

      I'd also be interested in studying more the tradition of interpretation on this passage. From what I've quoted in a previous comment, it appears that at least Augustine took my interpretation, and I'd be surprised if Augustine was going totally against the grain of his time. And I just did a quick search of the Church Fathers at Only a a few instances of the word 'Onan' came up. It looks like St John Cassian (A.D. 360-435) took my interpretation. St Jerome mentions Onan, but it's unclear what he thinks of the passage: he says that God killed Onan because he "marred the marriage rite". If I'm remembering correctly, that little book 'The Bible and Birth Control' by Provan has a long list of Protestants interpreting the Onan story the way I do for centuries up until the 20th century when everything changed.

      And even when the story of Onan was not brought up explicitly, the Church Fathers certainly had the belief that such an act is wrong. A great listing of the Church Fathers on this is here:

      I also want to note while we're having this discussion that the Catholic position does not stand or fall on the interpretation of this passage for which I'm arguing. The natural moral law is accessible by reason, and I think the natural law argument is very persuasive.

    2. As far as I can tell, the interpretation that I've given has persisted in the Church a long time and has been picked up by the Magisterium (Casti Connubii as I quoted earlier). The Church is the Holy-Spirit-guided interpreter of the Word of God.

  19. I'll definitely drop you an email. It's been a crazy journey to the fine line between Protestant and Catholic.

    I would not dream of arguing that revelation is equivalent to the interpretation of a particular audience. My point, however, is to whom the revelation came. If it could not be understood, then it was hardly revelation. If Genesis was written to ancient Near Easterners first (i.e., if the human author (at the very least) intended it to be understood by his contemporaries), then he had to use the language they understood (which he did) with denotations and connotations familiar to that audience. Consequently, if we have no evidence that they would have read coitus interruptus in the text (i.e., that they lacked the conceptual framework to see THAT as the sin), and the evidence stands equally in favor of reading the breaking of the levirate responsibility as Onan's sin, why should we assume that the human author took for granted the sinfulness of something that his audience would not been able to infer? Again, there are no other scriptural prohibitions against coitus interruptus - as there are for fairly obvious things like murder - so why would the original human author expect his audience to infer something that was neither prohibited through revelation elsewhere nor a part of their conceptual framework?

    Again, I am not saying that textual meaning is determined by the interpretation of any particular audience. I am, however, saying that the human-intended meaning at least has to be comprehensible to the original audience if indeed the text is revelation for them. If they are excluded as recipients of revelation (as some hardcore Lutherans and Calvinists would argue), then my point is moot.

    As far as unanimity in interpretation is concerned, I have no doubt that the church father's agreed on the sin of Onan. Whether or not their interpretations hold much weight will depend on your church affiliation. I have to ask this - was it your experience as a Protestant that most people took Calvin's or Luther's arguments as the "final authoritative word" on matters of interpretation? Most people I know who agree with Luther and Calvin on anything do so because they are convinced by Luther and Calvin's arguments, not because the Reformers possess some kind of divinely bestowed interpretive authority. And given the fact that neither the Church Fathers nor the Reformers gave sufficient weight to the realities of historical and cultural distance and the influence of that distance on the interpretive act, I find most of their readings (especially of the OT) little more than opinions, essentially equivalent to the "private interpretations" of most Protestants.

    I am VERY interested in the interpretive methods of the Church Fathers, and what I find again and again as I read through their commentaries is how often they assumed that the answers to various perplexities were available to the Spirit-empowered mind, without any need for familiarity with the original cultural contexts in which the texts were written. This wasn't ALWAYS the case (Theodore of Mopsuestia and John Chrysostom, trained in the Greek rhetorical schools, were a relative exception), but it was the case more often than not. So it is difficult for me to buy arguments evincing neither much historical and cultural sensitivity nor awareness of the determinative influence of literary context on individual passages.

    And I agree wholeheartedly that the Catholic position neither rises nor falls on the relevance of this passage. In that, we are in perfect agreement. I do not believe that a particular doctrine or ethical concept necessarily has to be included in Scripture to be binding.

    1. Yes, I pretty much agree with what you're saying (regarding the literal interpretation of Scripture), though I do think it gets tricky. Obviously not everyone will always understand the full meaning of a text. I am interested though if you are aware of any resources regarding how pre-Christian Jews interpreted this text.

      And yep, obviously the tradition will be taken with different weight depending on the person's beliefs otherwise. The Church has the Holy Spirit, and so I give a lot of weight to interpretations, particularly as they are sustained from early on and for a long time. Obviously the Magisterium is the custodian of the tradition, and as I pointed out, the Magisterium has lent support to the interpretation I've put forward. Though I'd be interested in any information that would show otherwise, it's my understanding, based on the little I've seen, that the interpretation of Onan that I've given was the standard interpretation from the early Church onward, even upheld by Protestants, only to be abandoned in the 20th century as the use of contraception was becoming more widespread. I give that interpretive tradition a lot of weight, and find the timing of its abandonment very suspicious.

      No, I don't think I've ever known anyone to take Luther or Calvin as definitive, but I point it out to people to show that this interpretation is part of their own faith's tradition (though many Protestants don't talk about tradition, they do have one).

      Anyway, I look forward to an email from you soon.

  20. Also, thank you for taking the time to respond to my comments. I value your time.

  21. "Christians have always read the story of Onan in Genesis 38.8-10 as teaching that Onan's perversion of the sex act was why he was punished"

    Only if they didn't know how to read or they had their brains infected with too much Talmud. The story of Onan is about leviritical marriage. He was commanded to "raise up see to his brother" by sleeping with his dead brother's wife. The only reason he was allowed to sleep with her is to raise up seed to his brother, and as the story goes, God specifically commanded this to him audibly. Then what does he do? He has sex with her, but pulls out early to specifically violate a direct audible command from God! That's why he was killed. The lesson here has nothing to do with normal sex between a man and his own wife -- this woman wasn't his wife in a strict sense. Learn how to read.

    My own position is once you're married they should put something on your drivers' license, and when you go to buy any kind of contraceptive you should be carded. And everyone who has sex out of wedlock should be put to death, as well as anyone who sells contraceptives without carding. But that's an imaginary world.

    1. Hey James, Thanks for the comment. From what I understand, virtually all Christians until the 20th century interpreted it that Onan did indeed violate his duty to his brother, but that he was also punished for his sexual perversion. According to the Mosaic law, which came later but nonetheless sheds light on God's priorities, the punishment for not fulfilling one's duty to one's brother was public humiliation, not death. Since God killed him, as well with other aspects of the text, Christians always understood that he was also condemned for the kind of sexual act that he did. God bless!