Thursday, July 12, 2012
The Bible is not silent about contraception
Challenging Luther on Birth Control
Harrison and Other Protestant Leaders are Dead Wrong
The Bible is not silent about contraception
The June 29, 2012 St. Louis Review of the Archdiocese of St. Louis has a photo of Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod President testifying with other religious leaders at a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Harrison said the LCMS never opposed birth control. While Christian News commended Harrison for most of his testimony in Washington, CN said the evidence clearly shows that the LCMS along with almost all Protestants and Roman Catholics opposed Birth Control until 1930. The February 27, 2012 CN noted that the Bible, Luther, and the LCMS, until recent years, condemned birth control.
The April 2012 Church State says: “According to the Guttmacher Institute, 98 percent of women who engage in sexual activity will use at least one antifungal form of birth control at some point in their lives.”
CN’s “A Handbook of Christian Matrimony” has a major section on birth control. This is one of the CN publications the LCMS bureaucracy ignores. CN quoted what Luther says in his commentary on Genesis 38-8-10 about the Onan incident. In 1988 CN published a series of articles by Charles Provan on the Bible’s view of birth control. They were later published by Chalcedon in a book. When CN asked Provan how churchmen and theologians who support birth control responded to his “The Bible and Birth Control”, he said “They don’t, they simply get mad.”
Today Lutheran leaders refuse to show where CN’s “A Handbook of Christian Matrimony” is in error. What CN says about birth control is just one more reason for the bureaucrats to say the CN editor is “an impenitent sinner on the road to hell.”
Father Brian Harrison of St. Mary of Victories Chapel writes in the June 29, 2012 St. Lois Review in an article titled Is the Bible silent about contraception?:
An editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (April 18) sharply criticized our bishops' opposition to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services mandate requiring insurers pay for contraception; sterilization and abortifacients. It claimed, among other things, that "contraception is nowhere in the Bible."
This claim actually echoes a widespread view among modern Scripture scholars, many of whom now roll their eyes dismissively at the preceding bimillennial consensus of Jewish and Christian commentators that Genesis 38: 9-10 expresses a severely negative judgment against unnatural birth control. In recent years, however, this classical reading of the passage has been making a quiet comeback –and for sound exegetical reasons.
According to the ancient oriental "levirate marriage" custom, endorsed by the law of Moses at a time when polygamy was not forbidden, a man was expected to marry his deceased brother's wife if she was still childless at her husband's death; and the first-born son of this union would then be regarded as a legal descendant of the dead man. Now, in Genesis 38 we read the following incident. The patriarch Judah's son Er, husband of Tamar and brother of Onan, died without offspring. Therefore:
"Judah said to Onan, 'Unite with your brother's widow, in fulfillment of your duty as brother-in-law, and thus preserve your brother's line.' Onan, however, knew that the descendants would not be counted as his; so whenever he had relations with his brother's widow, he wasted his seed on the ground, to avoid contributing offspring for his brother. What he did greatly offended the Lord; and the Lord took his life" (vv. 7-10, New American Bible translation).
What Onan did, of course, was the oldest and crudest form of birth control known to humanity. Now, at a time when contraception was becoming socially, legally and religiously ever more acceptable in Western culture, and fears of overpopulation ever more acute, many exegetes in the last half-century have maintained that the biblical author presents God as being offended only by Onan's selfish attitude in denying offspring to his brother, and not by the unnatural method he used in doing so.
Now, the classical Jewish commentators –who can scarcely be accused of ignorance regarding Hebrew language, customs, law and biblical literary genres–certainly saw in this passage of Scripture a condemnation of unnatural intercourse as such. And their interpretation, backed up by nearly two millennia of Christian tradition, is undoubtedly the natural, common sense one.
It is confirmed by further biblical evidence. According to the revisionist view, noncompliance with the levirate custom is, as such, depicted by the Genesis author as being such a heinous offense against God as to be worthy of death. But this view is inconsistent with what was laid down in the Law of Moses as a penalty for simple noncompliance with the said custom, for example, a man's outright refusal to marry his brother's widow. In that situation, the man was penalized only by a relatively mild public humiliation: the childless widow, in the presence of the town elders, was authorized to remove her uncooperative brotherin-law's sandal and spit in his face. He was then supposed to receive an uncomplimentary nickname –"the Unshod" (Deuteronomy 25: 8-10). But since he nonetheless became the sole owner of his deceased brother's house and goods, it is evident that his offence was not considered a serious or criminal one –much less one deserving of death.
Moreover, if Onan's simple unwillingness to give legal offspring to his deceased brother was seen as his only offence, it seems extremely unlikely that the inspired author would have spelt out the crass physical details of his contraceptive act (cf. v. 9). The delicacy and modesty of devout ancient Hebrews in referring to morally upright sexual activity helps us to see this.
We may conclude that while the Genesis author no doubt saw Onan's noncompliance with the levirate custom as something reprehensible, the critical difference between his case and the more common one contemplated in Deuteronomy –the difference that led God to punish Onan by death rather than by a transitory moment of shame –was precisely his unnatural acts of life-suppressing lust. For further biblical arguments supporting this conclusion, see my longer article, "The Sin of Onan Revisited" (Living Tradition, No. 67, Nov. 1996), accessible online at rtforum.org/ ltJlt67.html.
Father Harrison is chaplain of St. Mary of Victories Chapel in St. Louis.