Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Wikipedia entry: "Christian views on contraception"

Wow. I could have saved myself a lot of time.

I just came across the Wikipedia entry, "Christian views on contraception." Because of the way Wikipedia is created, the articles aren't always reliable or authoritative, but this one is well-researched and annotated. It looks like a user nicknamed CyberAnth has done most of the work on it. Very impressive.

The article covers Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant (mainline, evangelical, Reformed, Lutheran, Anabaptist -- you name it) views on the topic and does a good job of explaining the main points of contention. It's given me many new links to articles I plan to read on the topic.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Marriage Bed

I came across this evangelical Christian website on marital sex, called The Marriage Bed, which has a page called Birth Control: A Christian Perspective. It covers the different methods, how they work, and what the ethical and moral considerations are for each.

They make this interesting comment about Natural Family Planning:

We have theological problems with NFP because it violates the Biblical command to only abstain from sex for the purpose of fasting and prayer (1 Cor 7:5).

LCMS: "No objection" within a fruitful union

The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, the most conservative of the major Lutheran denominations in the U.S., doesn't have an official position on contraception, but a 1981 report on sexuality by the Synod's Commission on Theology and Church Relations was "commended to the Synod for study and guidance" by the Synod in 1983. The report contained the following statement:

In view of the Biblical command and the blessing to "be fruitful and multiply," it is to be expected that marriage will not ordinarily be voluntarily childless. But, in the absence of Scriptural prohibition, there need be no objection to contraception within a marital union which is, as a whole, fruitful. Moreover, once we grant the appropriateness of contraception, we will also recognize that sterilization may under some circumstances be an acceptable form of contraception. Because of its relatively permanent nature, sterilization is perhaps less desirable than less-far reaching forms of contraception. However, there should be no moral objection to it, especially for couples who already have children and who now seek to devote themselves to the rearing of those children, for those who have been advised by a physician that the birth of another child would be hazardous to the health of the mother, or for those who for reasons of age, physical disability, or illness are not able to care for additional children. Indeed, there may be special circumstances which would persuade a Christian husband and wife that it would be more responsible and helpful to all concerned, under God, not to have children. Whatever the particular circumstances, Christians dare not take lightly decisions in this area of their life together. They should examine their motives thoroughly and honestly and take care lest their decisions be informed by a desire merely to satisfy selfish interests.

With respect to voluntary childlessness in general, we should say that while there may be special reasons which would persuade a Christian husband and wife to limit the size of their family, they should remember at all times how easy it is for them simply to permit their union to turn inward and refuse to take up the task of sharing in God's creative activity. Certainly Christians will not give as a reason for childlessness the sorry state of the world and the fear of bringing a child into such a world. We are not to forget the natural promise embedded in the fruitfulness of marriage. To bear and rear children can be done, finally, as an act of faith and hope in God who has promised to supply us with all that we "need to support this body and life."

This is pretty close to the view expressed by Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

And it seems to me that the reasons cited here for the use of contraception are very nearly the same as those that Catholics cite as grave reasons for using Natural Family Planning to avoid conception while having sex.

“Use NFP: It Doesn’t Work!”

Tim Bayly links to a funny Catholic take on Natural Family Planning: The best thing about it, says H. W. Crocker III, is that it doesn't work, and you wind up with a big family, just as God intended.

Crocker makes the case for his marketing method:

As a slogan, "Use NFP: It Doesn’t Work!" has many strong arguments in its favor. First, it is true. NFP proponents tout its 99 percent effectiveness rate, but they neglect to mention that this is true only if the husband is in the Navy and assigned to extended, uninterrupted sea duty of three-year tours or longer. Otherwise, for most Catholics I know, NFP means a baby every two years or so, though the rate can slow with age, as the couples learn a proper respect—that is, fear—for each other and are too tired in any event for what Catholics call "the conjugal act."

Then he comments on an enthusiastic NFP advocate:

As a slogan, "Use NFP: It Doesn’t Work!" puts the focus where it belongs—on babies—and away from a technique, a technique that wrongly strikes most lay Catholics as medieval. If only it were medieval, then it would be effective: a sturdy, padlocked, handsomely designed, pewter chastity belt.

Instead, NFP is shiny, modern, and scientific, as its advocates are always quick to emphasize. In his book The Truth of Catholicism, George Weigel approvingly quotes several paragraphs from a woman in love with NFP. She reminds us that:

Natural Family Planning is not the justly ridiculed rhythm method, which involves vaguely guessing when the woman expects to ovulate and abstaining for a few days around day fourteen of her cycle. The full method involves charting a woman’s waking temperatures, changes in cervical fluid, and the position of the cervix.

Nothing unnatural or artificial about that, is there? Her raptures climax with NFP apparently transformed into "Narcissism For Pleasure":

But the turning point came for me as I watched, month after month, as my temperature rose and fell and my hormones marched in perfect harmony. I had no idea I was so beautiful. I found myself near tears one day looking at my chart and thinking, "Truly, I am fearfully and wonderfully made." My fertility is not a disease to be treated. It is a wonderful gift. I am a wonderful gift.

Er, if you say so, missy. If my wife talked like this, I’d have her committed. Happily, my wife, bless her heart, takes a more robust line: "Barefoot and pregnant is better than high-heeled and professional!" That’s the spirit!

Crocker's plain-spoken humor is a refreshing contrast to the types who will go on and on in the vein of the NFP advocate he quotes, the kind who sell NFP as a cure for every marital, spiritual, and physical ill, including dandruff and toenail fungus.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Et semini eius: The problem with arguing from natural law

If I understand the Catholic teaching on contraception correctly (and I'm sure I'll be told if I don't), it isn't derived solely from Scripture, but depends on natural law. The idea behind the "Theology of the Body" -- it seems to me -- is that we should look at the workings of the body, particularly the interaction of male and female bodies in sex, and discern the Creator's intent in His design. From that intent, we deduce what we must do to be in harmony with the Creator's intent for our use of our sexual capacity. Thus we discover laws of God that are not set out in Scripture, are not deduced by good and necessary inference therefrom, but are written in nature.

The danger I see in this approach to discerning God's moral will is that it is not solely dependent on the Word of God, which is God-breathed, or even (if you Catholics will feel more comfortable with this) on the Word of God and the Tradition of the Church, but is instead dependent on some theologian's perception and understanding of nature, at the point in time when he wrote. That understanding of nature is not God-breathed, infallible, or inerrant.

Consider the English words we use for the contents of male ejaculate: semen and sperm. semen is the Latin word for "seed." Sperm is derived from sperma, the Greek word for "seed."

("Contents of male ejaculate" is an awkward phrase, but for the purposes of this discussion, about the derivation and use of the words "sperm" and "semen," it's the only way to be clear.)

In Matthew 13:24 -- "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field." -- "seed" is a translation of the Greek word sperma. Jerome in the Latin Vulgate Bible renders the word as semen. This is the literal use of the word sperma -- the seed of a plant.

In Luke 1:55, the end of the Magnificat, sperma is used to refer to the descendants of Abraham, recipients of God's promises. Obviously, it isn't literal here. Again, the word is rendered in Latin as semen (actually, it's dative case, semini), and in English, it's "seed" or "descendants" depending on the translation.

In Genesis 38:9, the story of Onan, the Vulgate has Onan spilling his semen on the ground, while in the Septuagint, the word sperma is used to refer to Onan's late brother's descendants, but isn't there explicitly as the object of execheen (spill), although it seems intended to be understood, which means that sperma is used here to refer to male ejaculate and metaphorically to refer to someone's heir or descendant.

The fact that these words are treated as equivalent indicates the understanding of human reproduction throughout all but the last 180 years of history. The contents of male ejaculate was thought to be equivalent to a seed, and we know now that that isn't true.

A plant seed needs only nutrients and protection to reach maturity. All the necessary genetic information to make a new plant is already contained in the seed.

That isn't true of the contents of male ejaculate. In order for a new human to develop, a male gamete has to unite with a female gamete. At that point, and only at that point, you have the human equivalent to a plant seed -- the necessary genetic information is complete and only nutrition and protection are required for it to develop into a full-grown human.

But Augustine and Aquinas didn't understand that, nor did Luther and Calvin. They thought the male ejaculate itself contained the seed, complete in itself, needing only the hospitable environment of the womb -- the soil for the human seed. Given that view of reproduction, it's no wonder that ancient and medieval theologians regarded "spilling the seed" as a monstrous act, the destruction -- not the prevention -- of precious souls.

If you have that kind of mistaken understanding of the mechanics of reproduction, it would lead you to draw wrong conclusions about the divine purposes behind those mechanics, which would in turn lead you to wrong conclusions about what God expects us to do in light of those purposes.

So if natural law is the basis for your case against contraception, it isn't unreasonable that in 1930, for the first time, a Christian denomination would conditionally approve the use of contraception, because it had only been 100 years since the human ovum was discovered and only 55 years since the necessity of the union of sperm and egg for reproduction was confirmed.

I wonder what, if anything, orthodox Protestants who lived in this period of discovery, men like Spurgeon, Hodge, and Warfield, had to say on the issue of birth control.

Addendum: After re-reading this, I feel I should clarify a couple of points.

In citing the way the words sperma and semen are used in the Greek New Testament, the Septuagint, and the Vulgate, I'm not meaning to suggest that the Bible is mistaken in its presentation of human reproduction. The words were used by the original author (or by the translator, in the case of the LXX and the Vulgate) in the ordinary way that they were used by their contemporaries. The Bible isn't a textbook on reproductive microbiology.

John Calvin wrote often about God's accommodation to human limitations. "God's accommodation, as Calvin explains, does not so much comprehensively express who or what God is, but rather, puts who or what He is in language and types that we fallen creatures can understand." So just as parents adjust our vocabulary to suit the understanding of our children, so God communicated His word through His prophets and apostles in the language the people of the time and place understood, using words in ways that were meaningful to them.

God makes plain His expectations of His people in Scripture. We should heed and obey what is taught there, but I don't believe we should enslave ourselves to uninspired and inaccurate views of nature and science and the uninspired commandments derived therefrom.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Tim Bayly: Contracepting couples lack faith in God's promises

In an entry from last October, PCA pastor Tim Bayly says that our use of birth control demonstrates a lack of faith in God's promises. (Tim is the brother of David Bayly, whose sermon on contraception was discussed in an earlier entry.)

He draws a parallel with God's call in Malachi 3:

Again, the principle: Man refuses to use the gifts God has given us to worship Him, and instead we take and use them for our own selfish purposes. We spend the money He gave us but refuse to tithe. We make love with the woman He provided as our helpmate but refuse to allow that love to be fruitful.

He suggests that those Christian couples who deliberately limit their fertility are just like the unfaithful servant in the parable of the talents in Matthew 25, who, out of fear, buried his master's money in the ground, rather than putting it to use and making it multiply.

What a perfect picture of Christians’ stewardship of the womb today. Walking by faith is risky and it’s clear that God will hold us accountable for the instruction and discipline of our children. So out of fear we block the womb, sheath the rod, and claim we’ve done it all for our Master.

The ironic thing is that no people across history have been blessed with the wealth God has poured out on us, but no generation of the Church has been more stingy in its use of that wealth for fruitfulness and multiplication. Twenty-five hundred square foot homes that are heated and cooled; food in the dumpsters behind our supermarkets that would make our ancestors shake their heads in disbelief; automatic washers and driers; stoves, refrigerators, and freezers; educational opportunities unheard of across history; disposable diapers, high chairs, and car seats; what more do we need?

But we look at prior generations of Christians and shake our heads in disbelief. "Susannah Wesley had fifteen children. Can you believe it? The poor woman."

Poor woman nothing. God blessed her with children and those children were her glory, each of them being a gift from God. We stand gazing at her with our own children holding their soccer trophies and SAT scores in their grubby hands, and we dare to claim we have been fruitful, too? We have helped in the multiplication and filling of the earth?

No, we have hidden our lights under a bushel; we’ve buried our talents in the ground. Instead of asking God to pour out His blessings on us, we’ve asked Him to overlook our stinginess, to spare us from stretch marks, to deliver us from the evil of a fruitful womb.

Bayly then depicts how this attitude works out in the home:

Our wives plead with us for more children but we’re the boss and we know the meaning of responsibility and good stewardship. "That’s it honey, we’re done. No more rewards. No more blessings and fruitfulness. We’re going to do something for ourselves. Finally we’ll be able to get ahead and save for our retirement. I’m tired of messy diapers and kids crying at night. Our last will be in all-day kindergarten soon. You’ll be able to get a job and help out with setting up their college funds. Call the doctor and set up an appointment for me to have a vasectomy, would you? Won’t it be nice to make love without worrying about an accident?"

(Around my house, it's my wife who has been making that argument.)

In a more recent post on the topic, Tim Bayly addresses the possibility of exceptions:

There may be extraordinary circumstances in which a Christian man and his wife would consider intentionally circumventing the fruitfulness God placed at the heart of marriage. If so, they should understand that such circumvention bears a heavy burden of proof when one stops to consider the one-voiced witness in this matter of both Scripture and the Church through the ages. To be more specific, as a pastor I am not prepared to say such circumvention is always wrong. But I don’t hesitate to say that most couples who have chosen to limit the fruitfulness of their love have done so in ignorance of this biblical teaching and command, and are unlikely to have been doing so by faith. And whatever is not of faith is sin.

Monday, January 22, 2007

David Bayly: Birth control "is a form of abortion"

The excerpts from Augustine, Calvin, and Luther were previously published on BaylyBlog, a joint venture of Tim Bayly and David Bayly, two brothers who are both PCA pastors in the Midwest.

Here is a link to the text of a sermon on birth control by David Bayly. He begins with a few implicit arguments from Scripture -- that children are a blessing from God, and as such are not to be limited; that we are still under the command to fill the earth and subdue it; that the Levitical laws concerning uncleanness after menstruation practically guarantee intercourse in the most fertile time of the month. Bayly says that these passages point toward God's will with regard to birth control.

He then deals at length with Genesis 38:1-11, and the account of Onan's wickedness and death. Specifically, the question is what is the sin for which God punishes Onan. Bayly writes:

Because we're not given an explicit answer in our passage, two theories have come to dominate thinking about this passage today: one a modern explanation and one the explanation of the Church universal for 1900 years up till the mid-20 th century. In recent years, many have suggested that the sin of Onan was his failure to provide offspring for his dead brother. This is not the classic view of this passage, but if you have spent your life within evangelical Protestant circles, it's likely that this is the only explanation you have ever heard for the wickedness Onan committed in the sight of the Lord.

The second explanation is the one which has dominated church history, yet it is almost unheard-of in Protestant circles today. By this explanation, what Onan did which was wicked in the sight of the Lord was his specific method of denying Tamar a child. This explanation says that it was Onan's practice of coitus interruptus, the only common and universally available form of birth control in ancient times, which lies at the root of his sin. By this view, God punishes Onan with death not for denying his brother offspring but for spilling his seed upon the ground.

Bayly points out that this is one of the rare occasions where God directly puts someone to death for his wickedness, which puts Onan in a league with Ananias and Sapphira and Nadab and Abihu. What follows is a methodical account of the flaws in the first explanation (and a third as well), leaving us with only the classical view of Onan's sin.

He brings his argument to this conclusion:

Is birth control permitted? I am increasingly persuaded by God's Word that it is not, that, as Calvin suggests, it is a form of abortion.

He acknowledges that one's situation may make this an especially hard teaching, but dismisses the importance of circumstances:

But may I say to you that our sensitivities cannot become our hermeneutic: we cannot let our personal situations and reasons for feeling a certain way about any passage be the decisive filter through which we view that passage. This is not faithfulness to the Word of God.

To date, the PCA, Bayly's denomination, has not issued a statement regarding contraception.

Anglicans in 1930 for and against contraception

According to many sources, this is the first official statement from any Christian body stating the permissibility of contraception under any circumstances. It was approved at the 1930 Lambeth Conference, the quadrennial meeting of the worldwide Anglican Communion, including the Episcopal Church USA:

Where there is clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, the method must be decided on Christian principles. The primary and obvious method is complete abstinence from intercourse (as far as may be necessary) in a life of discipline and self-control lived in the power of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, in those cases where there is such clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, and where there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence, the conference agrees that other methods may be used provided this is done in the light of the same Christian principles. The conference records strong condemnation of the use of any methods of birth control from selfishness, luxury or mere convenience.

Charles Gore, Bishop of Oxford, published a pamphlet expressing his dissent:

Now it is true that the sexual intercourse of married people has other recognized ends than the production of offspring. The Church has always declined to say that this is the only end. And it has never prohibited such intercourse when the laws of nature make generation improbable or impossible. But it has said steadily or constantly that this is the primary end of marriage, and it has condemned as unnatural and as a sin the attempt by any devices to separate absolutely the satisfaction of the physical desire from its chief end. The methods provided by Birth Prevention are not wrong because they are mechanical. But legitimate mechanism should tend to promote the ends of nature not to obstruct and defeat them. The Church has regarded Birth Prevention as sinful because, like other sensual practices commonly called unnatural, it is a deliberate enterprise taken in hand to separate absolutely the enjoyment of the sexual act from its natural issue. It is thus to be reckoned among the 'unfruitful works of darkness.' I must add that the Church has always and rightly bidden us have regard in our individual conduct to the general effect of what we are proposing to do. We are not allowed in judging of any matter to isolate our private interest from the general interests of the kingdom of God.

And further on, Gore writes:

But what I wish to say emphatically is that for one who is living a life surrendered to Christ and in the power of His risen life, I am absolutely convinced that no question of using contraceptives will ever arise. He gives one the power of abstinence and self-control, and other methods do indeed appear as a deadly sin and a hateful offence to His purity and that of His Mother; and I cannot believe that a life guided by the Holy Spirit will ever be led to find a 'grave moral reason' for using appliances.

Not quite to the point of this blog, but Gore also says some interesting things about private confession in the Anglican Church and preaching on sex:

But the result is this, that most of our members do not seek the judgement of the Church upon their lives, but are content to trust their own consciences; and we must leave them to the judgement of God. But this is only tolerable if we are doing our best to instruct their consciences and let them know what the mind of the Church is, as on other matters, so on the sexual relation. It is both foolish and sinful, now that sexual mysteries are matters of common conversation in all classes, to avoid plain speaking in religious instruction. We must strive to see that those who are married in church have received a letter of instruction, when notice of the marriage is given—a letter which should be sympathetic as well as firm, but not familiar or sentimental: and the questions for self-examination, which all Churchmen should use occasionally before Communion, should be quite explicit; and sermons and instructions should be in great part ethical and should not shrink from topics which every one outside the Church is discussing.

I've been attending evangelical churches all my life, and I don't believe I've ever heard a sermon about contraception.

Augustine: Spouses who use contraception aren't really spouses

This time not a Reformer, but a Catholic, albeit one beloved by the Reformers -- Augustine of Hippo, as found on BaylyBlog:

And why has Paul said: 'If he cannot control himself, let him marry?' Surely, to prevent incontinence from constraining him to adultery. If, then, he practices continence, neither let him marry nor beget children. However, if he does not control himself, let him enter into lawful wedlock, so that he may not beget children in disgrace or avoid having offspring by a more degraded form of intercourse. There are some lawfully wedded couples who resort to this last, for intercourse, even with one's lawfully wedded spouse, can take place in an unlawful and shameful manner, whenever the conception of offspring is avoided. Onan, the son of Judah, did this very thing, and the Lord slew him on that account. Therefore, the procreation of children is itself the primary, natural, legitimate purpose of marriage. Whence it follows that those who marry because of their inability to remain continent ought not to so temper their vice that they preclude the good of marriage, which is the procreation of children.

And elsewhere (cited in the comments):

It is, however, one thing for married persons to have intercourse only for the wish to beget children, which is not sinful: it is another thing for them to desire carnal pleasure in cohabitation, but with the spouse only, which involves venial sin. For although propagation of offspring is not the motive of the intercourse, there is still no attempt to prevent such propagation, either by wrong desire or evil appliance. They who resort to these, although called by the name of spouses, are really not such; they retain no vestige of true matrimony, but pretend the honourable designation as a cloak for criminal conduct. Having also proceeded so far, they are betrayed into exposing their children, which are born against their will. They hate to nourish and retain those whom they were afraid they would beget.

Calvin: Contraception "kills the son"

From John Calvin's Commentary on Genesis, as found on BaylyBlog:

I will content 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 was 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.

In the comments, David Bayly, a pastor in the conservative Presbyterian Church in America, writes:

May I suggest that it's a frequent misunderstanding of our position to think that we believe all sex must lead to procreation or else be sinful. Tim is using Roman Catholic terminology when he speaks of "separating the unitive from the procreative" in sexual union. Roman Catholicism has thought more deeply and accurately about birth control than most Protestant churches and this is their way of saying that we sin when we seek to separate intimacy and pleasure as a result of sexual union from procreation as a result of union.

Thus, man does not have the right to say, "Today I am having sex for pleasure and intimacy, but not for children. In another year I will do it for children."

We must not separate the unitive from the procreative. We must not seek to preclude the gift of children from the act of intercourse--either by birth control prior to the act of intercourse or by abortion following conception.

Luther: Contraception a "most disgraceful sin"

The first of several voices from church history, from Martin Luther's Lectures on Genesis, on Genesis 38:

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. Accordingly, it was a most disgraceful crime to produce semen and excite the woman, and to frustrate her at that very moment.... He preferred polluting himself with a most disgraceful sin to raising up offspring for his brother.

As found on BaylyBlog.

Free contraception for the mature couple!

Prevention is easy when you're old -- see this bit of tongue-in-cheek, which includes online shopping, a dog in the middle of the bed, and smart-alecky comments as safe and effective methods of preventing conception.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Does "The Pill" cause abortions?

Even if you believe that non-abortive birth control is an acceptable option for a Christian, there is a big debate about whether the birth control pill -- the oral contraceptive -- is truly a contraceptive or if it can sometimes act as an abortifacient. Imago Dei has a very helpful post outlining the scientific issues involved and drawing some conclusions. The pill acts to prevent the ovary from releasing an egg and also can thicken cervical mucus to create a barrier to sperm; in those two ways of acting, it prevents conception from occurring.

The question is, if fertilization occurs anyway, and a new life comes into being, does the Pill create a hostile environment for the embryo, preventing it from implanting. In such a scenario, the Pill would cause the death of an unborn child. In other words, it would act as an abortifacient. The problem is that we don't have direct evidence establishing that that can happen or definitively ruling it out. There are theoretical arguments made for both sides, and some Christians would argue that any possibility that this could occur is reason enough not to use the Pill.

I encourage you to read and respond to the post on Imago Dei.

Albert Mohler: Birth control OK, not deliberate childlesness

Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a leading Calvinist voice in the Southern Baptist Convention, says that evangelical leaders haven't adequately addressed the moral questions raised by modern reproductive technologies.

At the same time, evangelicals overcame their traditional reticence in matters of sexuality, and produced a growth industry in books, seminars, and even sermon series celebrating sexual ecstasy as one of God's blessings to married Christians. Once reluctant to admit the very existence of sexuality, evangelicals emerged from the 1960s ready to dish out the latest sexual advice without blushing. As one of the best-selling evangelical sex manuals proclaims, marital sex is Intended for Pleasure. Many evangelicals seem to have forgotten that it was intended for something else as well.

Mohler joins Catholics in condemning the "contraceptive mentality" and makes the case that a Christian marriage must be open to children.
Marriage represents a perfect network of divine gifts, including sexual pleasure, emotional bonding, mutual support, procreation, and parenthood. We are not to sever these "goods" of marriage and choose only those we may desire for ourselves. Every marriage must be open to the gift of children. Even where the ability to conceive and bear children may be absent, the will to receive children must be present. To demand sexual pleasure without openness to children is to violate a sacred trust.

But he rejects the Catholic requirement that this openness must apply to each and every act of intercourse:

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.

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. 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.

In another column, Mohler calls deliberate childlessness "a form of rebellion against God's design and order."

The church should insist that the biblical formula calls for adulthood to mean marriage and marriage to mean children. This reminds us of our responsibility to raise boys to be husbands and fathers and girls to be wives and mothers. God's glory is seen in this, for the family is a critical arena where the glory of God is either displayed or denied. It is just as simple as that. The church must help this society regain its sanity on the gift of children. Willful barrenness and chosen childlessness must be named as moral rebellion. To demand that marriage means sex--but not children--is to defraud the creator of His joy and pleasure in seeing the saints raising His children.

A disastrous distraction

Pro Life Blogs posts a message from the No Room for Contraception Campaign, arguing that abortion will only be defeated if the pro-life movement persuades Americans that contraception is wrong:

Silence or timidity on contraception is not the answer either. In an effort to appeal to the broadest range of people (and donors), some organizations refuse to address contraception. In the long run this only serves to preserve the culture of death by providing a supply of unborn children whose very creation stems from the contraceptive mentality and/or contraceptive failure. (Though there have been some lone voices in the desert, the movement as a whole has not addressed the issue.)

Part of the failure to address contraception stems from the “put out the fire” mentality – unborn children scheduled to die today won’t benefit from anything else but direct intervention. There is a point to this mentality – firefighters don’t sit around talking about how to prevent fires while watching a house burn, instead they put out the fire. But where this mentality falls short is that firefighters do give fire prevention classes when they aren’t fighting fires. The movement can do both, albeit with greater emphasis on the more urgent problem of abortion.

If the pro-life movement doesn't want to keep fighting the abortion battle in the trenches, and losing countless lives despite their best efforts, then it has to address the contraceptive mentality that has captured the hearts and minds of our nation. Until it does, the movement will always be fighting fires while never addressing the reason why these fires started in the first place....

It's time for a shift in strategy, and it's time to address the harms of contraception. Will this be addressed this upcoming weekend at the many conferences taking place prior to the March for Life? Sadly, the answer appears to be "no"...

This push to make contraception the central issue is a disastrous distraction from saving the lives of unborn children. While the same anti-child attitude may motivate some people to use contraception and to support abortion, many abortion opponents believe that the use of contraception to space or delay children is valid, but they would never abort a child who was conceived despite their contraceptive efforts.

Americans are noticing the amazing 4-D images of children and baby animals in the womb. Ultrasound scans and ultrasound stethescopes in crisis pregnancy centers are saving babies' lives. The age of viability is getting earlier and earlier. People are beginning to understand that abortion always stops a beating heart, and are more open than ever to laws that restrict or end abortion. This is not the time to shift the focus from the humanity of the unborn to a side-topic that not all pro-lifers are agreed on.

In fact, I'd say that this suggested strategy change from the No Room for Contraception movement came straight from the pit of Hell. Pro-abortion groups will be able to tell donors and voters that they've been right all along about the motives of pro-lifers -- they don't really care about the unborn, they just want to control what you do with your spouse in the privacy of your bedroom. Millions of unborn babies will die as new restrictions on abortion are defeated in legislatures and at the polls.

I appreciate the sound words of Scott Klusendorf, who said this in response to a question at an abortion debate on a college campus: "I am not here tonight to argue against any birth-control that does not take the life of a baby once it has begun." A pro-life activist heard that and expressed disappointment in Klusendorf that he wasn't 100% pro-life.

Klusendorf says it's a tactical error to talk about non-abortive birth control in the context of the abortion debate:

Our focus must be: What is the unborn?

Remember: Pro-abortionists do not want to defend killing human fetuses. Rather, they want to talk about why you want to invade people's privacy by taking away their condoms. Too often, pro-lifers take the bait and pay a heavy price.

We don't have to. We can win if we stay focused on abortion.

At a National Abortion Federation conference in 1996, Kathryn Kohlbert cautioned delegates that if the debate over partial-birth abortion is about what happens to the fetus, her side will get "creamed." She urged those present to stick to the abstract: "If the debate is whether or not the fetus feels pain, we lose. If the debate in the public arena is what’s the effect of anesthesia [on the fetus], we'll lose. If the debate is on whether or not women ought to be entitled to late abortion, we will probably lose. But if the debate is on the circumstances of individual women, and how the government shouldn’t be making those decisions, then I think we can win these fights."

It's not hard to see why Kohlbert is worried. For the first time in 26 years, the debate is about the abortion act itself and what it does to the fetus. "When someone holds up a model of a six-month-old fetus and a pair of surgical scissors, we say 'choice' and we lose," writes abortion advocate Naomi Wolf.

These quotes from Naomi Wolf and Kathryn Kohlbert are critical. The abortions rights people are conceding their weakest point and we should listen. In short, they are terrified of defending the act of abortion itself. Why, then, do some pro-lifers insist on letting our opponents off the hook by discussing contraception and natural family planning instead of abortion?

(Emphasis added.)

Klusendorf goes on to say that there's not even a theological reason to link the two issues. Catholic opposition to artificial birth control stands on a separate philosophical basis than opposition to abortion. It goes back again to the inseparability, in Catholic thinking, of the procreative and unitive purposes of sexual intercourse.

Church teaching, following the thinking of Thomas Aquinas, states that sex within marriage is both unitive and procreative. These two aspects of sex cannot be separated without compromising the structure of marital love. Put simply, each act of marital sex must be open (in principle) to the possibility of children. Hence, NABC is not wrong because it leads to an "abortion mentality" (after all, millions of Protestant pro-life advocates use NABC, but would never consider abortion), but because it results in a structural break in the act of marital love.

I'm not here to debate the merits of Aquinas’s argument (other then to say I respect many who defend it), but to point out that it stands or falls apart from abortion. Therefore, I think pro-life advocates should keep the two issues separate. If pro-life Christians think NABC immoral, they can make that case without linking it to abortion. (After all, why not simply cite a great thinker like Aquinas?) And they should do it when the topic for the evening is something other than abortion, especially in secular forums.

And about that contraceptive mentality: Before we blame the modern availability of contraception for the attitude that children are disposible, consider ancient practices like the exposure of unwanted infants which long predate the invention of birth control.

Greg Koukl: If it's against God's moral will, why didn't He say so plainly?

Piper's article refers to an item by Greg Koukl, actually a transcript of a radio commentary on the subject of contraception, and it's titled "Birth Control and God's Will".

Koukl was responding to a caller who said, "If you are practicing birth control then you are thwarting God's sovereign will." That's a ridiculous notion, because God's sovereign will cannot be thwarted. Otherwise it wouldn't be sovereign.

Assuming the caller meant that God's moral will, is the use of birth control a violation of God's moral will.

Koukl argues from the perspicuity of Scripture. Perspicuity is a foundational principle of the Reformation. Chapter I of the Westminster Confession of Faith, Of the Holy Scripture, states:

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.

As proof of that principle, the WCF cites Psalm 119:105, "Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path," and Psalm 119:130 "The entrance of thy words giveth light; it giveth understanding unto the simple."

Koukl writes:

If we don't fulfill His moral will, if we violate His moral will, then we are in sin so God tells us what is wrong in order that we might be careful not to do what is wrong and instead do what is right. This is why when it comes to moral will, the moral will of God is clearly articulated throughout the Scriptures. It is all the things we ought to do and we ought not do, and they deal not just with our actions but with our attitudes and our motives. It is all inclusive.

Asking whether Onan's fatal transgression in Genesis 38 was birth control by means of coitus interruptus, Koukl says:

The question occurs to me, if God feels so strongly about such a thing, why are we left up to our own devices to figure this out from one verse in the book of Genesis? Why doesn't He confirm such a hatred for this act in the Law? You've got chapters and chapters and chapters in Exodus and Leviticus and Deuteronomy of God's feelings about the conduct of His people. We have dozens of references to sexual behavior, prohibitions and concerns, such that God's people can be careful to live and act properly in their sexual and procreative life. Yet not a single mention is made of coitus interruptus.

We have the prophets speaking volumes of God's intentions about the conduct of His people, and no mention of such a thing in the prophets. We have the New Testament to clarify anything that was confusing in the Old Testament. Jesus gave His teaching, then the Apostles, Peter and James and John and Paul--volumes of information clarifying the law so that we might not be confused about proper conduct. Where is the mention against birth control--or even one form, coitus interruptus? There are none. There are no direct or even mildly indirect statements about such a thing.

As I'll get to in a later entry, at least one evangelical pastor believes that God's act against Onan in Genesis 38 is a sufficiently clear statement from God.

But it seems to be a common principle of evangelical hermeneutics that we have to be very careful about deducing universal commands or obligations from the Bible's historical narrative. E.g., we shouldn't assume because God rewarded Jabez for his prayer that we'll receive the same reward if we pray exactly the same prayer.

The Catholics get around this issue by deriving their opposition to birth control from natural law, which they then use as a grid for understanding the Scripture.

What you have to be careful about is "proving too much." Supposing I have an interpretive principle that leads me to infer a prohibition on all contraception. What are the consequences if I apply that principle to other cases? What other commands which are not explicitly declared in Scripture can I declare as holy obligations for all true Christians?

The Catholic natural law approach opens the door for all sorts of Pharisaical burdens to be placed on the faithful. (Evangelicals, particularly the more fundamental variety, are plenty good themselves at creating extrabiblical "commandments" and reasons for feeling false guilt, although they use a different approach to get there.)

John Piper: "Non-abortive forms of birth control are permissible"

Now we begin looking at the opinions of evangelical pastors and leaders on the subject. I am only going to present the opinions of men who are solid teachers, who have demonstrated that they take God's commands seriously, who have demonstrated the capacity for wrestling with theological matters.

John Piper, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, a well-known author (Desiring God), has written this statement on the subject of contraception:

[Desiring God Ministries] and Bethlehem Baptist have no formal position on birth control, but John Piper and most of the pastors on staff believe that non-abortive forms of birth control are permissible. The Bible nowhere forbids birth control, either explicitly or implicitly, and we should not add universal rules that are not in Scripture (cf. Psalm 119:1, 9 on the sufficiency of Scripture). What is important is our attitude in using it. Any attitude which fails to see that children are a good gift from the Lord is wrong: "Behold, children are a gift of the Lord; the fruit of the womb is a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, so are the children of one's youth. How blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them" (Psalm 127:3-4).

The statement addresses three common objections to birth control:

  1. Is birth control consistent with the truth that children are a gift from the Lord?

  2. Shouldn't we let God determine the size of our family?

  3. Should natural family planning be preferred to "artificial" contraception?

In response to the first point: can be pointed out that the Scriptures also say that a wife is a gift from the Lord (Proverbs 18:22), but that doesn't mean that it is wrong to stay single (1 Corinthians 7:8). Just because something is a gift from the Lord does not mean that it is wrong to be a steward of when or whether you will come into possession of it. It is wrong to reason that since A is good and a gift from the Lord, then we must pursue as much of A as possible. God has made this a world in which tradeoffs have to be made and we cannot do everything to the fullest extent. For kingdom purposes, it might be wise not to get married. And for kingdom purposes, it might be wise to regulate the size of one's family and to regulate when the new additions to the family will likely arrive.

The statement goes on to call birth control a "gift from God that may be used for the wise regulation of the size of one's family, as well as a means of seeking to have children at the time which seems to be wisest."

There's a vigorous denial of the idea that it's more godly to simply let things happen naturally, using the doctrine of providence to point out that God accomplishes his sovereign will through means, including the decisions of couples to use or not use birth control.

(I'm reminded of a coworker who stopped using his alarm clock and decided to trust God to wake him up in the morning. He didn't last long at that job, but I guess it was God's will that he be fired for tardiness.)

Does the use of birth control reflect a lack of faith?

Without regulating the size of their family, many couples would end up having more children than they can reasonably support financially. In response, some argue that we should simply have faith that God will provide the funds. However, we don't use the "God would provide" reasoning to justify going beyond our means in other areas of life. We wouldn't consider it wise, for example, to pledge twice our annual income to missions organizations in faith that God will supply the extra funds. God expects us to make wise decisions according to what he has given us, and not presume upon him providing from out of the blue.

Finally, Piper knocks down the idea that natural family planning is superior to artificial birth control:

Some conclude that "natural family planning" is acceptable but "artificial" means are not. But this seems to overlook something significant: in both cases, you are still seeking to regulate when you have children. And so if one concludes that it is wrong to seek to regulate the timing and size of a family, then it would have to be concluded that natural family planning is just as wrong as "artificial" means.

Piper doesn't address the point that Catholics make to justify their support for NFP and opposition to ABC -- that artificial birth control damages the nature of conjugal sex per se.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Is contraception harmful to marriage? The Catholic perspective

Pro-Life Blogs had a story a while back about "Birth Control Is Harmful" billboards springing up all over a midwestern city in response to the local Planned Parenthood affiliate's "Birth Control Is Easy" billboards. The anti-contraception billboards were placed by a local Catholic "Respect Life" organization.

Although most of the group's argument applies to the way contraceptives enable and encourage sex outside of marriage, their website also claims:

Contraception is harmful to marriages. Only four years after contraceptives were first tested, researchers found that marriages in which contraceptives were used were twice as likely to end in divorce as marriages in which there was no contraceptive use. Why this huge difference? Well, using contraceptives means that a couple's fertility is suppressed, and treated like a disease. They are no longer able to share themselves with each other totally in the sex act. There is a barrier not just physical, but also emotional, erected between them. They are closing one part of themselves off from each other, and from God. Often the couple begins to be dissatisfied. The wife starts to feel that the husband does not desire her, only her body. The husband begins to feel that his wife does not really want to have sex with him, that she is cold and tired. These attitudes can poison their whole relationship. With this crucial part of their marriage gone bad, other problems soon develop.

Four years after contraceptives were first tested? They must mean something modern like The Pill, not any age-old method of trying to prevent conception. I would suggest that anyone using the pill four years after it was first tested should be considered an early adopter, likelier to have a non-traditional mindset than those who would follow much later. So they might also be more inclined to bail out of marriage.

But that stat is really just there to bolster the dogmatic point. While sex has both a unitive and procreative purpose -- something most Christians would agree on -- Catholics argue that sex cannot be truly unitive unless it is also procreative. And that isn't just the totality of a couple's sex life, but each individual act. As Pope Paul VI said in his encyclical on the subject, Humanae Vitae:

Consequently, it is a serious error to think that a whole married life of otherwise normal relations can justify sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive and so intrinsically wrong.

Other Catholic sites dealing with contraception and sexuality: No Room for Contraception blog, Theology of the Body (Christopher West's website).

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

And now, the Catholic perspective

The four-minute show-stopping production number from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life:

(Please don't flame me. It's just a bit of fun.)


I have started this blog as a place to think through the issue of contraception in the context of Christian marriage.

This blog is not here for dialogue with atheists, deists, agnostics, or gnostics. If you don't believe that there is a God to whom we owe worship and obedience and that what we do with our bodies matters to him, this whole topic will seem silly and pointless to you. Your comments to the effect that this whole topic seems silly and pointless to you will seem silly and pointless to me. You may as well hit the "next blog" button at the top of the page.

I am interested in the thoughts of those who seek to worship God in spirit and in truth. I invite you to post your comments or to e-mail me (you can find the address via my "profile").

One more stipulation: We are not discussing the use of contraception to facilitate sex outside of marriage. Extra-marital sex is sinful per se, whether or not contraceptives are used. You could have a good argument about whether using contraceptives or not using contraceptives aggravates the sin of extra-marital sex; you just can't have that argument here. It's beside the point.

Where am I coming from on this issue? I am in my early 40s, a married father of three children, and an evangelical Christian. My wife and I were both virgins on our wedding night and have remained faithful to each other.

Like most of my age cohort, I grew up in an era of much smaller families than those of our parents. My mother-in-law grew up on a farm, one of nine children. My parents, townspeople though they were, had five and four siblings respectively. But my wife and I have one sibling each. Two parents, two children (preferably one of each) became the norm. As we considered plans for marriage and family, both my wife and I assumed this default family configuration.

Part of our planning included choosing a contraceptive method to use until we were ready to start having children. My wife took the birth control pill for five years. We chose it because, in the late '80s, it was not widely believed to be abortifacient, unlike some other methods, it seemed to be the most reliable method, and it didn't place a barrier between our bodies or prevent us from being spontaneous in our lovemaking. We would be able to make love without fear that we would be rushed into parenthood sooner than we were ready. (Of course, you are never really ready for parenthood.) Had my wife become pregnant earlier than planned, we would of course have welcomed and loved the child as a gift from God. We are both staunch opponents of abortion.

Many evangelicals are making different choices. If you were to glance through the directory of our church without noticing the front page, you'd be excused for thinking it belonged to a traditionalist Catholic parish, not a conservative evangelical congregation. Four and five children in a family is common, seven is not unusual, and one family has nine children. I couldn't tell you if these couples are "quiverfull" or just rhythm method practitioners who can't keep a beat, because these couples aren't preaching about their choices, and they aren't shaming couples who have a small number of children. Their own lives testify that it's possible to have a healthy and happy large family in a modern, urban environment. I'm sure some young couples in the church are more open to having a large family because they know older couples who can mentor them through the special challenges of feeding, housing, transporting and loving more kids than the parents have hands.

My wife has a friend from college who made a point of asking prospective girlfriends how many children they wanted. When one of them answered "a quiverful," he knew he'd found the girl for him.

Then there's the world-famous Jim Bob Duggar family from Springdale, Arkansas. The former state rep and U. S. Senate candidate and his wife Michelle have 15 children, including two sets of twins. They are Baptists. They've been featured in a reality TV series as well as a parody of a motivational poster. They used the birth control pill early in their marriage, but quit all forms of family planning after Michelle miscarried while on the pill, and as they considered the implications of Psalm 127.

While everyone knows that the Roman Catholic Church regards the use of artifical methods of birth control as a mortal sin, even within the context of Christian marriage, I know of no Protestant confession, catechism, or statement of faith that takes up the issue of contraception. That may be because when the major Protestant confessions were written in the 16th and 17th centuries, only one method of contraception existed (coitus interruptus) and the practice was universally condemned in the societies which were the context for those statements of doctrine. Confessions of faith typically focus on a group's distinctive beliefs; if an ethical principal was universally held, there would be no reason to raise the issue.

And conservative Protestants are very reluctant to make any changes to their core doctrinal declarations, because of the abuses by liberal mainliners. It is a simpler process to amend the U. S. Constitution than it is to modify, for example, the Presbyterian Church in America's confession of faith, even if the change is only to add a section dealing with a new ethical issue.

While there is near-universal agreement among evangelical Christians that abortion is evil, the evangelical consensus about contraception within marriage has been that it's a matter of Christian freedom: The question of how many children a couple has and when they come along is a decision to be made prayerfully by a Christian couple, just as they prayerfully make other important decisions about their life together.

That consensus is no longer as monolithic as it once was. Through the Catholic and evangelical alliance in opposition to abortion, evangelicals are being exposed to Catholic theology about sex, birth control, and "Natural Family Planning." The "quiverfull" movement, which has developed in the evangelical subculture in the last 20 years, believes that Christians should not use any form of family planning -- as every child is a blessing from the Lord, and we're commanded to be fruitful and multiply, we shouldn't take steps -- not even selective absitinence -- to block those blessings or frustrate our natural fruitfulness.

A growing number of evangelical pastors and laypeople are no longer making the issue a matter of personal conscience. They believe it is a matter of obedience to God's clear commands in Scripture.

The Roman Catholic ban on artificial birth control has been more often honored in the breach than the observance by American Catholics, and many that have obeyed have done so grudgingly. No longer content to shrug and say simply, "The Pope says so," anti-contraception Catholics (no, that is not redundant) are arguing to their co-religionists that contraception is not only a sin, but it damages the relationship between a husband and a wife and treats children as an inconvenience, not a blessing.

In the next few entries, we'll look at several different Christian perspectives on contraception.