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I am a lover of history (my minor in college). History is fascinating as we see the twists and turns of one generation to the next. I believe history is helpful in our current conversations as the eyes of history can give us a way to speak now and look into the future.

One area that is genuinely intriguing in CRC history is the denomination's stand on contraception. We noted in part one of this series that Synod 2003 made a startling statement: 

No Bible passage prohibits birth control that prevents the conception of life—unlike the sin of intentional abortion.

This statement is startling because it goes against 1900 years of Biblical understanding. To get just a taste of those 1900 years, here are words from Calvin, Luther, Augustine, and John Chrysostom: 

  1. John Calvin on Deut. 38: 10. "And the thing which he did displeased the LORD. Less neatly the Jews speak about this matter. I will contend 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 has 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."
  2. Martin Luther in lectures on Genesis, "But the exceedingly foul deed of Onan, the basest of wretches, follows. 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."
  3. Augustine, "Intercourse, even with one's legitimate wife, is unlawful and wicked where the conception of the offspring is prevented. Onan, the son of Judah, did this and the Lord killed him for it."
  4. John Chrysostom, "[I]n truth, all men know that they who are under the power of this disease [the sin of covetousness] are wearied even of their father's old age [wishing him to die so they can inherit]; and that which is sweet, and universally desirable, the having of children, they esteem grievous and unwelcome. Many at least with this view have even paid money to be childless, and have mutilated nature, not only killing the newborn, but even acting to prevent their beginning to live." John Chrysostom, Homilies on Matthew 28:5 (A.D. 391).

Dr. Taylor Marshall adds another text into the mix: 

The New Testament condemns contraception, which it calls pharmakeia. As I detail in my book, The Catholic Perspective on Paul, Saint Paul condemns contraception by the name of "pharmakeia," the word from which we derive our term "pharmacy." Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, pharmakeia, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God (Gal 5:19-21).

Surely, Paul does not mean to condemn those who prescribe herbs for those suffering from gout. Looking back to Saint Paul's list, we see that the sin of pharamakeia follows sexual sins and the sin of idolatry. These ancient witchdoctors or pharmacists were especially popular in idolatrous cultures, since pagan fertility rites often involved sexual orgies. Obviously, the women involved in these depraved rituals would not wish to bear children to strangers, and so they sought to become sterile or sought to relieve themselves of the responsibility of a child through abortion. The ancient Greek pharmacists could provide drugs to meet these goals.

The book of Revelation also condemns those who practice pharmakeia along with those who practice idolatry, murder, and sexual immorality (Rev 9:20-21). The grouping of pharmakeia with the three sins of idolatry, murder, and sexual immorality further confirms that pharmakeia is sin relating to killing and sexual impurity. The second-century physician Soranos of Ephesus, in his book Gynecology, uses the Greek term pharmakeia to refer to potions used for both contraception and abortion. In a similar manner, the third-century theologian Hippolytus condemned certain Christian women who employed "drugs (pharmakois) for producing sterility." 

Next time: We'll discuss CRC Synod's decisions on contraception. 


If you want a great book on this history of the church related to contraception, i recommend Charles Provan's The Bible and Birth Control.  Two other works worth considering as well are Kippley's Birth Control and Christian Discipleship or Feldman's Birth Control in Jewish Law.

Hi Larry and all. First I would dispute that definition of the Greek pharmakeia. According to the Greek-English Lexicon by Gingrich, Arndt, Danker and Baur, it and its related words refer to sorcery and magic, specifically dealing with poisons and potions, and as a less-common usage, medicine and remedies. 

Secondly, I can't help but wonder why Santa Claus and contraception are being so thoroughly discussed here. They are not current issues. Is there some other topic behind this?  


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