Saturday, November 16, 2013

Luther, Contraception, and Onan's Sin

Over on the CARM boards a Roman Catholic posted the following:
Council or Protestant Reformer? Here's a little quiz for your Thursday afternoon. Please identify the author of the following doctrinal quotations. Is it from a Catholic Council or a Protestant Father?
What followed were a series of quotes with two choices: a Roman choice, or a Protestant choice (all the quotes though were from Protestants). The goal appears to be to demonstrate that certain historically important Protestants held to particular Roman beliefs. This sort argument really is, in essence, futile. Protestants don't follow earlier Protestants as infallible interpreters. Nor is it surprising to find that the earliest generation of Protestant reformers may have still held to particular Roman beliefs on various things. Roman Catholics are quick to point to an infallible "development of doctrine" to explain their inconsistencies with earlier periods of church history. It's a double standard then to demand that Protestant doctrine did not (or could not)"develop" further away from Romanism as history progressed. So, while some of the quotes accurately reflected the beliefs of the Protestants being cited,  some of them were historically misleading, and when placed back in context said something much different than what the Roman church believes.  Here's another quote and choices:
6. Contracepting as a violation of the natural law

“Onan must have been a malicious and incorrigible scoundrel. This is a most disgraceful sin. It is far more atrocious than incest or 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 woman conceive. Surely at such a time the order of nature established by God in procreation should be followed.”

a. First Vatican Council
b. Martin Luther
This quote is a favorite of Roman polemicists. To my knowledge, it's one of the few quotes (if not the only explicit quote, or rather from the only explicit context in Luther's writings) from Luther on the subject of contraception. The quote does indeed accurately reflect the fact that Luther was not an advocate of contraception. On the other hand, the use of it by Roman polemicists displays a double standard.

Context
Luther's comments are in regard to the law in which compelled a brother-in-law to take the childless widow of his deceased brother as his wife in order to carry on the lineage and name of the deceased brother (Duet. 25:5-10). Luther went through the story of the brothers Onan and Er, and Er's wife Tamar. Er was executed by God for being "wicked in the Lord's sight" (Gen 38:7). The father of Er and Onan (Judah) requests Onan fulfill his duty by taking Tamar as his wife and producing offspring. Onan though engaging in sexual activity with Tamar, "spilled his seed on the ground" to avoid pregnancy.

Of this situation and the law in question Luther states:
This is one of those laws; it was preserved and handed down from one to another by the very great patriarchs, a law truly difficult and troublesome beyond measure. For even if you are unwilling, it compels you to marry a wife left by a brother without offspring, although you may have no love or desire for her. Indeed, it seems impossible to love with chaste and conjugal love a woman whom you yourself do not choose or desire, unless this is done in mad lust. And what if she is sterile, like the woman of whom mention is made in Matt. 22:25? Therefore it was a very harsh law. But even in these ceremonial matters there is consideration of Christ, who must be sought in them. (LW 7:19)
Judah directs his son Onan to marry his brother’s wife. Onan does this unwillingly and for this reason seems to have treated the poor woman rather unkindly; or, since he was forced to join her to himself, he still refused to sleep with her. For he was not able to bear the vexation of this law. Therefore Tamar, who is by nature very fertile, does not conceive from these two brothers, Er and Onan. Perhaps other sins played an additional role. The end of both men testifies that their evildoing was outstanding. For the Lord killed both of them in the same year, unless we are to say that Onan, the second one, was killed at the beginning of the second year, when he was 12 years old and was being pressed by his father to marry Tamar. (LW 7:19-20)
Therefore Judah says to Onan: “Go in to your brother’s wife”—for this is the force of the Hebrew word, namely, to join a close relative to yourself, not simply to contract matrimony—“that you may raise up offspring for your brother.” This was the purpose of the law. The brothers or surviving relatives had to be concerned that the name of the dead brother was not destroyed in the land. For everyone in Israel was obliged to leave sons. But the exceedingly foul deed of Onan, the basest of wretches, follows. (LW 7:20)
Luther then states:
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 was inflamed with the basest spite and hatred. Therefore he did not allow himself to be compelled to bear that intolerable slavery. Consequently, he deserved to be killed by God. He committed an evil deed. Therefore God punished him.
And this is what I meant when I said that the probity of those who kept this law was outstanding. For it is a great burden to serve another by raising up and preserving descendants and heirs, to beget children for others, to rear and nourish them, and to leave them a patrimony—and all this in the name of a dead brother. The world knows nothing at all of such love. It is a great annoyance to be only a guardian and tutor of wards, which customarily takes place nowadays according to Roman law. How many complaints and what perfidy are found there throughout the whole world! For it is a difficult task and a mark of outstanding love to be faithful and diligent in protecting the goods of others. Accordingly, this law includes the most ardent love. That worthless fellow refused to exercise it. He preferred polluting himself with a most disgraceful sin to raising up offspring for his brother. But Judah also sins. Therefore a horrible punishment will soon follow. (LW 7:20-21)
The context certainly demonstrates that Luther was against the means of blocking pregnancy even while he considered the law demanding the pregnancy as "truly difficult and troublesome beyond measure" and harsh.  Those who were able to fulfill it Luther describes as fulfilling a great love. Luther elsewhere comments that under normal marital circumstances, "Be fruitful and multiply" is more than a command from God; it's actually a divine ordinance (LW 45:18).

Conclusion
I've always been puzzled why Roman Catholic polemicists use this proof text from Luther as in basic agreement with the tenets of Romanism. Romanism actually endorses a method of birth control (natural family planning). That is, Rome has said that contraception is wrong and contraception is right. This is typical of Romanism.

I find this double standard fascinating. While Rome's defenders will cite Luther as being against birth control, Rome herself teaches that a method of birth control is allowed (NFP). If Roman Catholics really wanted to be consistent in their argument against Protestants on this issue, Roman Catholics would embrace "Quiverfull" ideology.

I'll certainly grant the following:

1. Previous generations of those people falling under the general heading of "Christianity" (including Romanism and Martin Luther) were typically against birth control.

2. A large number of people today falling under the general heading of "Christianity" practice birth control. One Roman apologist notes 90% of Protestants use it, and 80% of Roman Catholics use it. The Washington Post controversially claimed 98% of Roman Catholic women use contraception. One Gallup Poll concluded "Eighty-two percent of U.S. Catholics say birth control is morally acceptable, nearing the 89% of all Americans and 90% of non-Catholics who agree."  Statistics probably will never provide absolute certainty on how many Roman Catholics use contraception, but they certainly do suggest that the majority of Roman Catholics practice methods of birth control outlawed by the church. An article from Catholic Answers sums this up well by stating, "And I’ve discovered, sadly, that many Catholics disagree with the teachings of the Church on the issue of contraceptives."

Factor in that the minority of Roman Catholics attempting to be faithful to their church follow the prescribed method of birth control (NFP), couldn't one conclude that the majority of Roman Catholics today are probably at odds with the beliefs of Roman Catholics during Luther's day and Martin Luther as well?

4 comments:

explorer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
explorer said...

According to some sedevacantists, NFP is sinful and was not the traditional position of the RCC.

See:

http://www.mostholyfamilymonastery.com/42_NFP.pdf

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OFSQrKrrQqw

It seems NFP is a relatively "new" thing in the RCC.

Jugulum said...

That's very interesting, about Onan and NFP.

There are coherent ways to distinguish between NFP and contraceptive birth control--in the former the physical act is being abstained from at certain times, while in the latter the physical act is being altered. The question is whether or not those distinctions are morally significant.

And I've never been able to see any good basis for thinking that "what [Onan] did was wicked in the sight of the Lord" (Gen. 38:10) is talking about "spilling his seed on the ground" rather than "doging his levirate duty while still sleeping with Tamar". You pretty much have to argue from the weight of tradition, but so many people end up thinking the passage itself clearly forbids contraception.

But I never noticed that Onan could have used NFP to accomplish his purpose.

I wonder--how many Catholic interpreters think that Onan would still have deserved death if he had used NFP to avoid conception? For those who think that through, would it make them recognize that their interpretation is on shaky ground?

Brigitte said...

There are a number of considerations. NFP can also be used to time the attempts at getting pregnant. So much has to do with intent here. Onan was intending not to have a child with Tamar and fulfill his various obligations, thus shutting down all her possibilities. (Also, many birthcontrol methods get rid of a fertilized ovum, i.e. a new individual. This is different from NFP.)

Luther, in other places, was not too thrilled with the male arousing a female and then letting her hang there. The abortion of a child, or preventing fertilization or implantation, is one thing, but the abortion of her climax and her ability to conceive, to her complete frustration is another. In some sense it is a female-protecting interpretation.