REPLYING TO A CONCERNED FRIEND ON THE SUBJECT OF ONAN
By Charles D. Provan
Since the Christian News of March 21, 1988, has printed a rebuttal to my article against birth control (CN of Feb. 29, ’88), it is necessary for me to produce a “counter-rebuttal”, so that the readers of CN may judge for themselves which position is Scriptural. Because our theological opponent on this issue has called himself “a concerned friend”, we will call him this throughout our reply. When we use this term we do not use it sarcastically, nor do we doubt his or her sincerity in attacking our position. Rather, we believe that our “concerned friend” is to be highly commended for his thinking about a subject which is very rarely considered by churchgoers today. For this, we are truly appreciative, for does not the road to changing one’s mind on something begin by considering the subject first?
1. Our friend begins his main argument by attempting to demonstrate that all emission of semen results in the death of the vast majority of the semen. It is of course true that each time sexual intercourse takes place, many individual sperm die, since only one sperm unites with the female egg. Many sperm die during nocturnal emissions. Therefore our concerned friend thinks that there is no difference between deliberate intentional destruction of semen and the death of semen which takes place during “non birth control” sexual intercourse.
However, this reasoning is not correct, because it leaves out the factor of the human will and intent. Concerning this subject, the Scripture is explicit – this makes the difference between sin and non-sin in many cases.
For example, suppose a married woman is discovered engaging in sexual intercourse with a man who is not her own husband. What does the Bible say? The woman who engages in this act willingly is worthy of death. (Lev. 20:10) But if the woman is forced at gunpoint to do this thing, the woman goes free, without any blame being attached to her. (Deu. 22:25-27) In both cases, the act is the same. The only difference is the will of the female. This makes the difference between life and death. So it is with the death of the semen. If we have done our limited part to “be fruitful and multiply”, it is enough. God does the rest, for, after all, it is God who creates children. But birth control involves intentional destruction of semen, the ultimate goal of which is to destroy the single semen which might combine with the female egg, conceiving a child.
To use another example: sometimes a woman who is pregnant will unintentionally do something which inadvertantly causes a spontaneous abortion, otherwise known as a miscarriage. (She may accidentally fall down the steps, for instance.) Do we attach moral blame to the woman? No. Rather, we sympathize with her misfortune. Yet if a woman goes to a doctor and pays him to exterminate her child while it is yet in the womb, we correctly say that she is a murderess. The results are exactly the same in both of our hypothetical cases, but how different are the acts in the eyes of God! Guilt is determined by the intent and action of the woman.
2. According to our concerned friend, Onan was killed by God for refusing to give seed to his brother. Let us point out again that the man in Deuteronomy 25:7,9 also refuses to give seed to his brother. Yet this man is not killed. Therefore, the difference in conduct is the key to the difference in punishment, and the only difference in conduct is this: while both refused to give seed to his brother, only Onan destroyed his seed. Therefore, it is for this that he was killed by God. When we say this, we are not saying so on our own: we are saying it because careful consideration of the Scripture proves it, and in eighteen hundred years of church history, the view that Onan was killed because of his intentional destruction of semen is the universal view of the Christian Church. It is only in our “wonderful modern day churches” that birth control has become “approved”. Let us be quick to point out that our century has also produced churches in abundance which have amazingly repudiated the infallibility of the Scriptures; churches which assert that abortion isn’t murder, and homosexuality isn’t a perversion! (We are by no means saying that those who disagree with us on birth control are in agreement with any of the preceding. We are merely pointing out that the same “bad tree” which produced the theological denial of Scripture and the theological acceptance of homosexuality and abortion also pushed for the acceptance of birth control.) We ask you, where did this view (that birth control is morally acceptable) originate? With those who believed the Bible, using it as their guide, or with non-believers? Any study of the modern birth control movement will show that it did not originate in the holy Church of God, but rather in pagans like Margaret Sanger.
Getting back to the statement of our friend that Onan’s “spilling of seed” is no different than “spilling of seed” which occurs during “non birth control” sexual intercourse, we would also point out a fact which he has not commented upon. Namely, that out of all the verses which mention the emission of semen in the Old Testament, the Onan verse (Gen. 38:9, “he wasted his seed on the ground”) is the only verse to employ the word “shachath” (which means “to waste, corrupt, destroy, devastate”, as our friend has noted). This word is used in many passages as a synonym for “killed.” (See, for example, Gen. 6:17, 9:15 and Judges 20:21) Do you think that there might be a reason for Onan’s emission of seed to be described as a “killing” of seed, while all the other passages use words which merely mean “emit”? We do! In all other passages, no one does anything to intentionally harm the semen – but in Onan’s case, he deliberately killed his. If, as our concerned friend says, “There is nothing in the whole Bible that specifically condemns the spilling of the seed”, then why does the Scripture use the very negative word “shachath” in Onan’s case but not in any of the others?
3. Another question raised by our friend is this: “How can anybody say that spilling the seed is worse than adultery or even incest?” Let me point out that Martin Luther said this, not me, but I think that his reasoning on the subject went something like this: “Adultery and incest, though great evils, at least perform the sexual act in a natural manner, allowing nature to take its course. Onan, on the other hand, took steps to frustrate God’s creative activity, perverting nature. Onan’s deed is an assault upon the natural order of things, and is therefore worse than adultery or incest.” Luther may also have been influenced by the fact that although Tama (Onan’s wife) later committed incest with her father-in-law Judah (as Genesis 38 says), yet God did not kill her – but he did kill Onan. We are not at this point able to positively affirm Luther’s particular statement, as we wish to carefully consider the subject first. But, at the same time, neither do we wish to disagree with Dr. Luther, who certainly at the very least deserves our respect. So we will leave this particular statement on which sins are the worst (adultery and incest, or destroying one’s semen) for later consideration. We emphatically do affirm, however, Luther’s view on birth control: namely, that it is a great sin.
4. Our friend also asks the question, “How can we condemn it [the spilling of seed] if God himself spills the seed – in night losses, in intercourse, in menstruation?” We agree that God does indeed do these things. Yet this does not mean that the intentional destruction of seed is permitted. By no means! We can easily prove that our friend’s logic is incorrect, by examining parallel cases in the Bible. First, we shall examine the topic of miscarriages. The prophet Hosea says that God causes some miscarriages in order to punish people for sin: “Give them, O Lord – what wilt Thou give? Give them a miscarrying womb and dry breasts.” (Hosea 9:14) Does this mean that we humans are permitted by God to punish women by aborting their children? No, for Moses says that if a man causes an abortion, he shall be put to death. (Exo. 21:23) Likewise, God kills people all the time, as God declares in Deu. 32:39: “And there is no other god besides Me; It is I who put to death and give life.” Because God, without moral blame, kills people all the time, does this mean that we can kill people when we please? Of course not, for God says to us, “You shall not murder.” (Deu. 5:17) In the Bible, it is stated that God has killed children for the sins of their parents. For example, God said to Jeroboam of Northern Israel: “You also have done more evil than all who were before you, and have gone and made for yourself other gods and molten images to provoke Me to anger, and have cast Me behind your back – therefore behold, I am bringing calamity on the house of Jeroboam, and will cut off from Jeroboam every male person, both bound and free in Israel, and I will make a clean sweep of the house of Jeroboam, as one sweeps away dung until it is all gone.” (1 Kings 14:9-10, fulfilled in 1 Kings 15:29) Yet God clearly forbids us from putting children to death for the sins of parents, as he says in Deu. 24:16: “Fathers shall not be put to death for their sons, nor shall sons be put to death for their fathers; everyone shall be put to death for his own sin.” Scripture contains many things which are allowable to God but forbidden to us. So, just because God causes the vast majority of semen to die without causing the birth of a child, this does not prove that it is morally acceptable for us to cause semen to die by means of birth control.
Later, our friend says that the command of God to be fruitful and multiply “is not an absolute command. Jesus did not marry. Paul did not marry. Many cannot marry even if they would.” We would agree that the command to be fruitful and multiply is not an absolute command for all persons. We do not think that eunuchs, three year olds, women who are unmarried, and so forth are obligated to do this, because they are not or cannot be married. The command is not an absolute command for all people, just married people. This is not unusual,for the command was not given to Adam until God had given him a wife, which makes sense to us! Is it not obvious that God’s rules on divorce apply only to those folks who are married in the first place? God says that a husband should love his wife. Is this an absolute command of God? Yes, but (obviously) it only applies to men who have a wife! Just because the command “be fruitful and multiply” does not apply to people who cannot or are not married, this by no means proves that it does apply to those to whom the command was given, namely, married couples!
6. Next, our theological opponent says, “God does not say anywhere that we must have as many children as possible. A person may be said to be fruitful even if he has only six children although having been capable of having more.” Our reply is that, God does not need to say this directly for it to be so. He says it by implication. When God gave this command to Adam, to Noah’s family and to Jacob, do you think God meant that they were to be fruitful for only a day or a month or a year, or until they had a nuclear family? Or, as long as they were able? We think that the latter option is correct, since, if God had thought it was all right to limit God’s blessings to the above people, he would have said so in the pertinent passages. Our friend’s example of “six” being a good number of fruitfulness is to be faulted for the simple reason that , to us, being fruitful and multiplying has no mandatory number. For Abraham and Sarah, their efforts to be fruitful produced only one child, Isaac, and so they obeyed God to the extent of their ability. This is what God expects of us, not some particular number. What right do we have to cancel God’s first blessing (“He blessed them,” etc.; Gen. 1:28) to married couples?
7. Our friend says, “God told our first parents to fill the earth. The earth is pretty well filled up, etc.” I would ask, “How does he know this?” There are Christians and pagans who quite forcefully disagree with the idea that there is some sort of overpopulation crisis. (For example, R.J. Rushdoony in The Myth of Overpopulation, and Germaine Greer in Sex and Destiny, Chapter 14). In any case, let us look to Scripture for our guidance, not to the high priests of the new religions “Science” and “News Media”. In Exodus 35:4-9, God told the Israelites to donate gifts to Moses to help build the tabernacle. When enough gifts were received to build it, God gave a revelation to Moses to tell the Israelites to stop giving. (Exo. 36:5-7) If God would give a revelation to stop, about something like this, don’t you think that he would let us know when the world was full, to stop a command which has been in effect for some seven thousand years?! We could also ask the question, “If the world is full (so eliminating the command to be fruitful and multiply), then why does God still keep adding ‘unnecessary’ people to the ‘already overpopulated ‘ world?” After all, He is the one who causes children to be created, as Psa.139:13 says: “For Thou didst form my inward parts; Thou didst weave me in my mother’s womb.” So this objection to our opposition holds no water.
8. Our friendly opponent makes the overstatment, “The seed is not human life.” Though we of course do not think that millions of little people die when someone has a nocturnal emission, nevertheless this statement needs to be qualified. The fact of the matter is that each seed is alive in a different sense than that of an ordinary cell in the human body: each seed is self-propelled and can live even when separate from the body. No other types of cells in the human body have the ability to create new and separate human life, given the proper circumstances, except for the female egg, the female counterpart to the male seed. And if the seed is not “human life”, then, pray tell, what type of life is it? Both myself and my opponent once existed as a seed, and I would call both him and myself human. If one eliminated all the human semen from the earth, one would thereby eliminate all future humans also. So, there is a close connection between the two, so close that we do affirm that destroying semen is in effect destroying the children who would otherwise be born. And let it be plain to all, that those who practise birth control do so to eliminate children that they themselves do not wish to raise. They do not dislike the semen: they dislike the children the semen will turn into! In wartime, soldiers do not blow up trains because they don’t like trains: they blow them up because they don’t like what the trains deliver!
9. It is of course true that “Nobody has the right to burden consciences wherein God does not burden them.” We agree. But it is also true that we are commanded to “declare to My people their transgression.” (Isa. 58:1) So, if birth control is a sin, then it is commendable and helpful to say so! Since the Bible says that it is a sin, and the holy Church of Christ has, since its inception, declared it to be so, we come to the conclusion that we are guilty of no sin in declaring that Christians should not practice birth control. And I can truthfully say that my motives are to strengthen the Church, not to tear it down.
Charles D. Provan