Contraception pt. 4: Onanism

In our last post we saw that barrenness and being elderly do not preclude marriage and that barrenness or impotence after marriage do not nullify the marriage. Additionally we examined the four lawful reasons Scripture gives for married couples to abstain from sexual intercourse. Abstaining is not a sinful act per se, but can be sinful depending on the intentions of abstaining, finis operantis (the end of the actor). In this post we will look at acts that are sinful finis operis (the end of the act) regardless of the actor’s pure intentions.

Due to the Church’s understanding of the purposes and duties of marriage rooted in creation and the express prohibition of sinful acts and intentions which war against these duties and purposes of marriage, Christians of all denominations were unanimously against the use of birth control until the feminist movement of the 1930’s. Up until 1930, all Protestant denominations condemned contraception as sinful. At its 1930 Lambeth Conference, the Anglican church, swayed by growing social pressure, voted that contraception would be allowed in some circumstances. This was the first time that a Protestant body of any kind had endorsed birth control. And then a year later in the US, the Federal Council of Churches of Christ (FCCC) endorsed birth control within marriage. Interestingly, the secular newspaper, the Washington Post, responded the next day saying,

The committee’s report, if carried into effect, would sound the death knell of marriage as a holy institution by establishing degrading practices which would encourage indiscriminate immorality. The suggestion that the use of legalized contraceptives would be “careful and restrained” is preposterous.

Washington Post, Federal Council of Churches of Christ accepts Birth Control, March 22, 1931

The main passage unanimously understood until recent times to prohibit contraception is that of Onan.

Onanism

But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord put him to death. Then Judah said to Onan, “Go in to your brother’s wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother.” But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his. So whenever he went in to his brother’s wife he would waste the semen on the ground, so as not to give offspring to his brother. And what he did was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and he put him to death also.
Genesis 38:7-10

Onan, acting as a kinsman redeemer (before the actual ceremonial law had been established; Deut. 25:5-10), had a covenantal responsibility to provide offspring for his brother’s wife, but he did everything in his power to not live up to that responsibility. He sinned against the 10th commandment in that he envied his brother and would not bear a child that would not be in his own name; he sinned 7th commandment in that he satisfied his desires with her in a selfish and adulterous way by not fulfilling his responsibility to her and his brother; and he sinned against the 6th commandment in that he prevented the conception of a child, which is the main purpose of conjugal relations, levirate marriage being a safeguard if barrenness should preclude child bearing in the first instance.

Onan sinned in finis operantis (the end of the actor) in that his intentions were evil as well as in finis operis (the end of the act) in that the act of coitus interruptus unnaturally warred against an end of sex, namely, procreation. In this sense he exchanged “the natural use of the woman” (Romans 1:27) for an unnatural spilling of his seed. His case is relevant to all married couples because the Bible assumes that procreation is a natural result and fundamental purpose of marriage. This may seem like an odd interpretation with our modern mindset that presumes birth control as normal and is inundated with pornography and sexual immorality, but this is what Christians have believed from the early Church up until very recently. Let’s see how Christians have always interpreted this passage.

The English Annotations, sometimes known as the Westminster Annotations, because it was prepared in part by some former members of the Westminster Assembly, outlines this threefold aggravation of sins (against the 6th, 7th, and 10th commandments):

The lewdness of this fact was composed of lust, of envy, and murder; the first [lust] appears, in that he went rashly upon it, it seems he stayed not till night, for the time of privacy for such a purpose, else the bed would have been named as well as the ground; the second [envy] is plain by the text, he envied at the honor of his dead brother, and therefore would not be father of any child, that should be reputed his, and not his own; the third [murder], in that there is a seminal vital virtue, which perishes if the seed be spilled; and by doing this to hinder the begetting of a living child, is the first degree of murder that can be committed, and the next unto it is the marring of conception, when it is made, and causing of abortion: now such acts are noted in the scripture as horrible crimes, because, otherwise many might commit them, and not know the evil of them: it is conceived, that his brother Er before, was his brother in evil thus far, that both of them satisfied their sensuality against the order of nature, and therefore the Lord cut them off both alike with sudden vengeance; which may be for terror to those Popish Onanites who condemn marriage, and live in sodomitical impurity, and to those, who, in marriage, care not for the increase of children (which is the principle use of the conjugal estate) but for the satisfying of their concupiscence.
-Westminster Annotations and Commentary on the Whole Bible (1657), Genesis 38:9.

Likewise, former delegates to the Synod of Dort in their commentary recognized the implications of the 6th commandment in Onan’s act:

this was even as much, as if he had, in a manner, pulled forth the fruit out of the mother’s womb, and destroyed it.
-Dutch Annotations on the Whole Bible (1637), Genesis 38:9

Notice it says “as if he had, in a manner…” and is not claiming that the seed alone is a human being. They knew that it took both the man and the woman together to create a human being. Spilling the seed is a kind of murder in the sense that it is a sin against the 6th commandment, not in the sense that abortion or other taking of human life is literally murder. Both Dort and Westminster commentaries on this passage should be understood in this sense.

There are literally dozens and dozens we could choose from, the Church was vigorously unanimous against birth control and onanism, but we will examine a few more. Again, pay special attention to the fact that they did not believe that the seed itself was a human being, but rather that preventing conception is a sin against the 6th commandment. Also pay attention to how they believed that the act itself was sinful, not just Onan’s intentions.

John Calvin in his commentary on Genesis 38, declared:

Onan not only defrauded his brother of the right due him, but also preferred his semen to putrefy on the ground. The voluntary spilling of semen outside of intercourse between man and woman is a monstrous thing. Deliberately to withdraw from coitus in order that semen may fall on the ground is doubly monstrous. For this is to extinguish the hope of the race and to kill before it is born the hoped-for offspring. If any woman ejects a foetus from her womb by drugs, it is reckoned crime incapable of expiation, and deservedly Onan incurred upon himself the same kind of punishment, infecting the earth by his semen in order that Tamar might not conceive a future human being as an inhabitant of the earth.

This quotation was strangely omitted from Calvin’s commentaries in the late 19th century by the Calvin Translation Society, so many who are otherwise familiar with Calvin may have never read his view on onanism. Footnote 1 on pg. 281, “A line or two is here omitted, as well as the comment on the tenth verse.” CCEL retains the missing comments (235 words in the English).

Martin Luther in his commentary on Genesis 38:8-10:

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 into her; that is, he lies with her and copulates, and when it comes to the point of insemination, spills the semen, lest the women conceives. 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, 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.

Lutheran minister Johann Gerhard (1582-1637):

Most Hebrew and Christian commentators conclude [from the grammar] that the sin of Er was of the same type as the sin of Onan, which they call effeminacy. Augustine in book 22, Against Faust Chap. 84, concluded that this Er had sinned in this offense severely because that sin impedes conception and destroys the foetus in its own seed.

God detests and punishes shameful acts….the sin of effeminacy and voluntary pouring out of seed is contrary to nature: this in itself is compared by the Hebrews to homicide. Thomas argues that it is more serious than homicide.

The Augustine (354-430) passage cited by Gerhard is as follows:

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 unlwful 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 marriage, which is the procreation of children.

William Gouge speaks of the act of onanism as one “defect” and sin against the “duty of due benevolence” [ie. conjugal relations] (the other defect mentioned is not yielding to the other); of this duty, one of the “main and principal ends thereof” being “increasing the world with a legitimate brood”:

To deny this duty being justly required, is to deny a due debt, and to give Satan great advantage. The punishment inflicted on Onan, (Gen 38:9,10) sheweth how great a wrong this is. From that punishment the Hebrews gather that this sin is a kind of murder. It is so much the more heinous when hatred, stoutness, niceness, fear of having too many children, or any other like respects, are the cause thereof.
Of Domesticall Duties, Second Treatise Part II, Of common-mutual duties betwixt Man and Wife, section 9.

English conformist Andrew Willet (1562-1621) in his Hexapla upon Genesis (1595):

It was against the order of nature, using the act of generation for pleasure only, and not for generation; it was against God, whose institution he brake; against his wife, whom he defrauded of the fruit of her womb; against himself, in preventing his issue; against mankind, which should have been increased and propagated… this sin of envy [was] against his brother, to whom he should have raised seed.

19th century Lutheran commentators Keil and Delitszch:

This act not only betrayed a want of affection to his brother, combined with a despicable covetousness for his possession and inheritance, but was also a sin against the divine institution of marriage and its object, and was therefore punished by Jehovah with sudden death.

From the minutes of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in 1888:

We believe that uncleanness, in all its polluting and debasing forms, is increasing. We fear that many, who are members of the Church, employ means to prevent offspring, using the marriage bed to gratify their lusts, destroying their own lives, and bringing on themselves the wrath of a holy God.

Franciscus Junius (1545-1602), editor of the Belgic Confession referred to Onan’s act as:

The most ugly impudence, which is not even easily named among the heathen, but was once practiced by the Gnostics according to the testimony of Epiphanius.

Junius then cites two passages from early church father Epiphanius of Salamis (315-402):

“But though they copulate they forbid procreation. Their eager pursuit of seduction is for enjoyment, not procreation, since the devil mocks people like these, and makes fun of the creature fashioned by God.”

“…the Gnostics’ wickedness. Whether they perform their filthy act with men or women, they still forbid insemination, thus doing away with the procreation God has given his creatures – as the apostle says, ‘receiving in themselves the recompense of their error which was meet’, and so on (Rom. 1:27).”

Matthew Poole’s comments on Genesis 38:9 are:

Two things are here noted:

1. The sin itself, which is here particularly described by the Holy Ghost, that men might be instructed concerning the nature and the great evil of this sin of self-pollution, which is such that it brought upon the actor of it the extraordinary vengeance of God, and which is condemned not only by Scripture, but even by the light of nature, and the judgment of heathens, who have expressly censured it as a great sin, and as a kind of murder. Of which see my Latin Synopsis. Whereby we may sufficiently understand how wicked and abominable a practice this is amongst Christians, and in the light of the gospel, which lays greater and stricter obligations upon us to purity, and severely forbids all pollution both of flesh and spirit.

2. The cause of this wickedness; which seems to have been either hatred of his brother, or envy at his brother’s name and honour, springing from the pride of his own heart.

New England Puritan Cotton Mather also refers to onanism as “self pollution”

It is time for me to tell you, that the Crime against which I warn you, is that Self-Pollution, which from the Name of the only Person that stands for ever stigmatiz’d for it in our Holy Bible, bears the Name of ONANISM.

Cotton Mather, The Pure Nazarite (1723)

The rabbis interpreted Onan’s transgression as birth control through coitus interruptus. In an illustrative euphemism, the Jewish commentator Rashi calls this “threshing within, winnowing without.” They believed what Onan had done was wasteful but the punishment should be left to God.

Brian Harrison explains that “the classical Jewish commentators – who knew the Hebrew language, customs, law, and biblical literary genres – certainly saw in this passage of Scripture a condemnation of contraception, unnatural intercourse and masturbation as such. A typical traditional Jewish commentary puts it thus:”

[Onan] misused the organs God gave him for propagating the race to unnaturally satisfy his own lust, and he was therefore deserving of death.
-Bereshis: Genesis – A New Translation with a Commentary Authorized from Talmudic, Midrashic and Rabbinic Sources, Brooklyn: Mesorah Publications, 1980, Vol. 5, p. 1677.

Clement of Alexandria (150-215) says that Onan “broke the law of coitus” and went on to explain:

Because of its divine institution for the propagation of man, the seed is not to be vainly ejaculated, nor is it to be damaged, nor is it to be wasted. To have coitus other than to procreate children is to do injury to nature.
-The Instructor of Children (191)

John Chrysostom (347-407):

Why do you sow where the field is eager to destroy the fruit, where there are medicines of sterility [oral contraceptives], where there is murder before birth? What then? Do you condemn the gift of God and fight with His laws? Yet such turpitude. The matter still seems indifferent to many men even to many men having wives. In this indifference of the married men there is greater evil filth; for then poisons are prepared, not against the womb of a prostitute, but against your injured wife. Against her are these innumerable tricks.
Homily 24 on Romans, (PG 60: 626-627), quoted in book: John T., Jr. Noonan, Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists, Harvard Univ. Press, 1986, p.98.

John IV Nesteutes, the 6th century Patriarch of Constantinople, states:

If someone to satisfy his lust or in deliberate hatred does something to a man or woman so that no children be born of him or her, or gives them to drink (pharmakon), so that he cannot generate or she conceive, let it be held as homicide.
Penitential (PG 88:1924A): quoted. by John T., Jr. Noonan, Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists, Harvard Univ. Press, 1986 p. 168n.

First Council of Nicea, First Canon, 325 AD:

If anyone in sickness has undergone surgery at the hands of physicians or has been castrated by barbarians, let him remain among the clergy. But if anyone in good health has castrated himself, if he is enrolled among the clergy he should be suspended, and in future no such man should be promoted. But, as it is evident that this refers to those who are responsible for the condition and presume to castrate themselves, so too if any have been made eunuchs by barbarians or by their masters, but have been found worthy, the canon admits such men to the clergy (cf. Deut. 23:1).

Many more could be cited but this ought to be sufficient.

Conclusion

We examined the abortifacient possibility of some forms of birth control as well as health risks associated with birth control, delaying and limiting child bearing, and neglecting nursing. It is crucial that even if one is not persuaded by the biblical and historical case against birth control that Christians ought not to use birth control that has the possibility of causing an abortion, that is tantamount. Additionally we saw how birth control creates the idea of an “unintended pregnancy” and increases the likelihood of abortions taking place, as well as how birth control facilitates sexual promiscuity.

Next we saw that birth control is not a recent invention. Its use was rampant in the ancient world and down through history pagans have used it but Christians have not because of their understanding of the blessing of children, the purpose of marriage, and the sin of onanism. And just like the state of the Church during the Babylonian exile and other times of persecution (Jer. 29:6), Christians have always understood that procreating and “raising up godly seed” (Mal. 2:15) is vital for the growth of the Church.

We also demonstrated biblically and historically that procreation has always been considered a fundamental purpose and duty of marriage given the biblical command to be fruitful and multiply and the blessing of childbearing while being careful to point out that procreation is not sine qua non to what constitutes a marriage. Additionally we made the important caveat that barrenness and other health issues do not nullify a marriage because providence beyond one’s control does not equate to breaking a moral imperative in Scripture. As well we considered the difference between sinful acts (finis operis) and sinful intentions (finis operantis) and the four lawful reasons Scripture gives for abstaining from sexual relations noting that abstaining for the purpose of preventing conception is not a lawful reason and is an affront to God’s design for marriage in the created order.

Lastly, we examined Genesis 38:9-10 and how the passage has been understood down through history to preclude the preventing of conception because it breaks a fundamental duty of marriage.

Documentaries about the History of Birth Control and the Church

The Baby War: Defenders and Defectors (free online streaming)

The Bible teaches that God created marriage with the equal purposes of procreation, chastity, and sexual intimacy. But most Christians don’t believe this. We have divorced sexual intimacy from procreation, and have lost chastity along the way. It’s time to take a closer look at marriage and procreation through a Biblical and historical lens. This documentary film examines the history of two defenders that have turned defector: the church and the government of the United States.

The Birth Control Movie

Our first award-winning documentary, BIRTH CONTROL: How Did We Get Here?, was created to educate audiences on the history of birth control and its impact on the church, marriage, and family.

Our upcoming feature documentary, BIRTH CONTROL: Is It Up to Us?, was created to train Christian audiences to apply sound biblical doctrine to the area of family planning with a true gospel-centered attitude towards children and a desire for multi-generational legacy.

Birth Control Cartoon

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