Calvin on Onan

Genesis 38:8-10 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.

I will content 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 was 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.

John Calvin, Commentary on Genesis

Comments

Many years ago a woman who was a popular home school speaker described the purpose of sexual relations as pleasure and procreation, never to be separated. I wondered about times when it wouldn't be possible to conceive, such as during pregnancy. Would relations then be considered sin? I never asked, but assume the answer might be in the difference between God changing man's circumstances versus man seeking to change the circumstances in which God has placed him.

What is the place of the heart in these things? To what extent was spilling the sin, and to what extent was it the avoidance of the law's obligations? Trying to be mindful of Calvin's "sense of shame," is it sin to engage in some activity that clearly will not result in conception, conception avoidance not being the intent, but instead just plain old fun? Take a hypothetical example of a husband and wife with ten kids. They aren't using contraception, and aren't even beholden to the Catholic Church for rhythm. Is fun sin?

No matter who's said it, or how many times, it's quite ridiculous to speak of "killing" someone who does not exist.

People who have grown comfortable with the idea that sex is largely recreational with occasional permanent consequences (in the form of children) will have difficulty interacting with any of their fathers in the faith, not hesitating to dismiss those fathers' wisdom with barely a thought. "The unitive and procreative function of the marriage bed should be united? Ridiculous!" And of course, the subtext often is "Neanderthal!"

So was Calvin strictly equating the use of birth control with the murder of a living man? Of course not. The word 'kill' is often used in a figurative sense, as in "Kill the engine." That doesn't mean shoot the engine with a 357 like Richard Prior did the engine of his wife's car, but simply "Turn the ignition off."

But the man with superficial thoughts about the marriage bed does not easily reconsider the basic premises upon which life in the Western church is built, today. That's my problem, and the problem of all our readers here in the West.

Thus, I encourage Mr. Phillips to read Calvin again, this time realizing that he's speaking of a potential man--not a living man--and that it's that potential man he faults Onan for killing.

Then, it's time to consider whether, when God said in Malachi 2:15 that He makes man and wife one "for the propagation of a godly seed," it might not be one more indication that the frustration of the procreative purpose of marital intimacy is not really morally neutral. Church fathers across the ages, Protestant and Roman Catholic, have spoken with one voice on this.

God designed the sexes and sex to particular ends. We may not like His design, but we frustrate it to our own destruction.

Dear Eric,

I hope you aren't as troubled by God's Word when it says,

"And, so to speak, through Abraham even Levi, who received tithes, paid tithes, for he was still in the loins of his father when Melchizedek met him." (Heb 7:9)

It is no less "ridiculous" to speak of Levi paying tithes while in the loins of his father Abraham than to speak of Onan killing his offspring.

Eric, I sometimes wish our readers could be required to demonstrate a basic knowledge of God's Word before being permitted to go into attack mode. I really consider your response simply a demonstration of your basic lack of knowledge of the Word.

In Christ,

David

Pastors Bayly,

I appreciate your blog and the challenge or sharpening from which I benefit. My question is a sincere inquiry. What of a situation where a man's wife is in early pregnancy? Any relations at this point would obviously be separate from procreation.

I forgot to end my last post with, "A somewhat less than hypothetical father of ten."

I also forgot to brag about my recent CBD purchase of Calvin's commentaries for $100.

Pators Bayly,

I have been reading your Blog for quite some time now. I too have been quite challenged, in a good way, by the things posted here and from your sermons on your church site. The last thing I desire is for this post to be misunderstood as an attack, but more of a differences in understanding the references which were provided.
Tim's reference in Malachi reads in the NIV:

"2:15 Has not the LORD made them one? In flesh and spirit they are his. And why one? Because he was seeking godly offspring. [a] So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith with the wife of your youth."

Later it talks about God's despise for divorce and breaking the faith of the wife of your youth. The reference here talks about Godly offspring through a marriage that is pure in faith. Can you clarify the implication to sex = procreation?

Secondly, to David's verse, I am reading that Levi's tithes were paid while still in his ancestors loins. This makes sense to me, as it should, that Abraham 's offspring would include Levi, but the reference shows a lineage link. I understand it to mean more along the lines, but in an oposite sense, that the doings of a father are delt through 3 and 4 generations. I am missing the sex = procreation aspect here too.

I post this blog, which I RARELY do, because this is a subject I want to learn more about and how this conclusion is reached.

I am conflicted by another verse, John 1: 12,13:

"12Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God-- 13children born not of natural descent,[c] nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God."

Now, the husbands will, can be when he wants to procreate, or it can mean when he has relations. Like I stated earlier, I am conflicted on this verse, and this topic. Can you shed some light on the meaning on all of these verses and where I may be reading them wrong?

I find it impossible to believe that Calvin didn't mean to say that Onan was violating the 6th commandment. That's what he says. That's why it's so heinous, and why calvin thinks God kills Onan.

Would you say that use of birth control is a 7th commandment violation, or a 6th commandment violation?

(Taking comments in order. . .)

Dear Mark,

You ask an interesting question.

We do well to seek God's attitude toward birth-control from passages beyond Onan. For instance, the Levitical laws of purity address the proper time for sexual union. From the onset of menstruation, we are told in Leviticus 15:19-24, a woman is unclean. She remains unclean throughout the issue of blood, and for seven days after the issue has stopped. Thus, for an average of 12 to 14 days from the onset of mentruation the woman is impure. The net result of the seven-day post-menstruation unclean period is this according to an obstetrician/gynecologist. . .

The "normal" menstrual cycle is supposed to occur every 28 days. Day 1 marks the first day of the cycle. 7 days of bleeding. Ovulation occurs only once a cycle and in the normal cycle will occur on day 14. If conception occurs then no more periods for 9 months. If conception does not occur then two weeks go by and the lining of the uterus is "shed" or expelled and the process begins again. . . With the Levitical laws, God has insured that sexual relations are timed to occur at the best time for ovulation and conception. A.F., M.D.

This would call into question, to my thinking, the "rhythm" method of birth control. But it does not suggest that all sexual relations outside fertility are wrong. It simply suggests that the natural goal of intercourse must not preclude children and that timing intercourse to avoid children is wrong--something which is, ipso facto, not the case when a man's wife is pregnant. Thus, Scripture contains no prohibition on intercourse during pregnancy, nor after menopause.

In fact, the Bible assumes continuing sexual activity in those who are barren in numerous cases, including Hannah, Sarah, Elizabeth, etc.

Congratulations on your gift and your buy, brother.

In Christ,

David

Dear Kevin,

Thanks for your comment and question.

May I suggest that it's a frequent misunderstanding of our position to think that we believe all sex must lead to procreation or else be sinful. Tim is using Roman Catholic terminology when he speaks of "separating the unitive from the procreative" in sexual union. Roman Catholicism has thought more deeply and accurately about birth control than most Protestant churches and this is their way of saying that we sin when we seek to separate intimacy and pleasure as a result of sexual union from procreation as a result of union.

Thus, man does not have the right to say, "Today I am having sex for pleasure and intimacy, but not for children. In another year I will do it for children."

We must not separate the unitive from the procreative. We must not seek to preclude the gift of children from the act of intercourse--either by birth control prior to the act of intercourse or by abortion following conception.

This does not mean we sin if we have sexual union at times when fertility is low--or even non-existent--so long as we are not confining union to such times in order to avoid the gift of children. We must look positively on children as a gift from God.

Turning to your second question. . . . It is one thing to speak of Levi tithing through his father Abraham because Abraham was his federal head. Scripture often speaks this way. As you suggest, the sins of the fathers being visited on their children is an example of heads implicating descendants in their deeds.

Yet in Hebrews the statement is quite explicitly physical: Levi was in the loins of his father we're told. We can't ignore this explicitly physical, generational connection when Scripture emphasizes it so strongly. In fact, because of the broadly physical statement of headship contained in this passage, it is understood by some to indicate the mechanism of federal headship.

Finally, you are right in suggesting that there can be a will for union in a father that is not based in procreation, but in physical desire. We do not--indeed we cannot--do everything we do in life for every good reason which exists to do it at one and the same time. I might rush to throw a live grenade out of a foxhole to save myself, yet in so doing save others as well. Is it thus a wrong deed because I didn't consider every good reason for doing it before doing it? Not at all. I did the right thing.

So too with sexual union in marriage. Onan seeks to preclude children from sexual union and on that basis is judged. Our argument is twofold: first, children are a blessing; second, artificially rejecting children as the product of sexual union opposes one of God's primary purposes for such union. We don't add to these arguments any claim that children MUST come from sexual union because that clearly goes against the teaching of Scripture.

Your brother in Christ,

David

David,

I appreciate your charitable assumption that I do not know God's Word. Clearly you are forgetting past discussions.

As long as you're being so high-handed, though, maybe you could explain something to me about the very passage you are attempting to wallop me over the head with.

"Levi also, who receiveth tithes, payed tithes in Abraham."

The first thing to note about this is that "receive" is present tense, not past tense as it is in your quotation.* Verse 9 says that LEVI receives tithes from Israel when the SONS of Levi (mentioned in v. 5) receive tithes from Israel.

So when the same sentence says 1) Levi receives tithes via his descendants and 2) Levi gave tithes via his ancestor Abraham, by what warrant do you read the second statement as a claim that Levi was a homunculus living within Abraham, capable of giving tithes and of being murdered by a condom? Would you like to try interpreting the first statement in the same way? Is Levi a homunculus living in all his descendants to this day, also, literally receiving tithes from within them?

Or is Paul speaking figuratively, simply making the point that Levi is not greater than Abraham his father, and thus if Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedek, then Melchizedek must be greater than Levi as well?

Here's the place where, if I were you, I would tack on some accusation that you don't know your Bible very well.

* You're using the NASB apparently. The ESV, KJV, NKJV, NIV, and Young's Literal Translation all have present tense there, and more to the point, the Greek does too (lambanwn).

Tim,

First, thanks for responding to me without the random abuse practiced by your brother.

I do not think we can say Calvin is simply using an innocent metaphor when he says that contraception "kills." He is using this word in an attempt to portray contraception as "doubly horrible," "wickedness," "cruel" and "violent." If pressed he might well allow that there is a moral difference between contraception and murder, but the force of the quoted argument depends on him blurring the lines as much as possible. Even the innocent "kill the engine" figure of speech that you mention would sound like murder in such a context.

Onan is seekeing to preclude children in an act of sexual interocurse that he is only allowed to have due to the exceptional nature of the levirate code. His only lawful reason for enaging in sex with his brother's wife was that her husband was dead and it was his duty to procreate. If that weren't the case, he'd be killed for committing adultery.

You can't demonstrate that every husband has a duty to attempt to procreate with every sexual act within a marriage by analogy with Onan, since the cases are disanalogous.

pduggie,

The only reason Onan was not committing adultery with his brother's wife was that after the brother died, she became Onan's wife:

"If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead shall not be married outside the family to a stranger; her husband's brother shall go in to her, and *** take her as his wife ***, and perform the duty of a husband's brother to her." (Deut. 25:5)

Onan, as the traditional interpretation always held, was killed for an act of marital contraception. This interpretation was so wildly held in the past that it even made its way into the english language as the word, "Onanism". The interpretation you propose became popular only after Christians began using contraception and thus became uncomfortable with the prior understanding.

In Christ,
John

I'm sure it's a typo, John, but I'm enjoying the fact that you said this opinion was "so wildly held in the past."

Onan's crime was that he had no intention of ever giving Tamar a child, although he was obligated to do so. It's a huge stretch, and one the passage definitely does not support, to condemn isolated contraceptive acts that occur in the context of a fruitful marriage.

Actually, Eric, whether or not Mr. Callaghan's use of 'wildly' was intentional, it fits quite well. Think wildly in the sense of riotously profligate. You know, the very behavior that sodomites ridicule by calling fathers and mothers who make babies while making love, "breeders."

And he is quite right concerning the meaning of "Onanism" prior to our decadent age. As for the proper interpretation of the Onan account in Scripture, I have no objectiion to your announcing that your own interpretation should be considered carefully, as long as you always make a point to tell those you are presenting it to that it is directly contrary to the whole counsel of the Church from the early church to about fifty years ago.

In other words, give them an historical context for evaluating your position, explaining that your position is in lockstep with almost every evangelical voice today and contrary to almost every Christian voice of the past--including both Roman Catholics and Protestants. Whether or not this gives you pause, I'm hopeful about them.

I'm just reading the text, Tim. When the guy is struck dead for the specific situation of refusing to grant ANY offspring to his wife despite the fact that he was happy enough to enjoy her sexually, and the fact that his father had commanded him to produce an heir for his dead brother (a command that God later included in the Mosaic Law), it is simply illegitimate to use this as a proof-text to condemn all contraception whatsoever. The fact that hundreds of people have done it does not change that simple, obvious truth; it merely proves that they "knew" contraception was wicked before they ever read the story of Onan.

Most of these hordes of past exegetes you are appealing to were enamored of virginity to an excessive extent. The problem they saw with Onan's sin wasn't the same problem you see with it (failing to have children). It was _having sex_ and yet failing to have children, since procreation and the avoidance of fornication (if you were one of those weak folks who couldn't manfully embrace chastity) were the only legitimate excuses for sex that most of them recognized.

Also, a large number of these past exegetes were led by a bad understanding of biology to confusion between contraception and abortion. You're probably happy to blame modern Christian acceptance of contraception on the moral state of our culture at large, but the fact that we understand reproductive biology better than our ancestors did has a LOT to do with it. When someone believes that the sperm is a seed in the same way an apple-seed is a seed, i.e. that it is a proto-person, and needs nothing but nourishment to become fully actualized, it is hard for him to draw a firm line between contraception and abortion. When someone knows that the sperm is only _half_ a potential person, and needs to unite with an egg in a way that fundamentally changes them both, it is easy to see the distinction.

Dear Eric, your view of past fathers of the church and their convictions concerning the meaning and purpose of sexuality is contradicted by the plain statement of, among other things, the Wesminster Standards' reiteration of the three purposes of marriage. Again, let me say how regularly I'm amazed at how easily we moderns dismiss two millenia of past Christian testimony.

So now I'm supposed to think it was science that gave us a proper view of the meaning of God's judgment of Onan? Sorry, but I'm chuckling.

I own a copy of the most extensive reappraisal of birth control by evangelical scholars published in the past fifty years, "Birth Control and the Christian." And although I've not taken a look at it recently, my memory is that a review of the nature of conception in light of modern science was not even a peripheral consideration in their wholesale endorsement of the church changing its view on birth control, and using it.

Eric, I'd suggest you read my brother's sermon on Onan and respond to his views there. I'm off and can't take the time to find the link, but you can find it through the search box or index.

Eric,

However, the issue still remains that your interpretation runs contrary to thousands of years of interpretation by the church. I find your flippant dismissal of this troubling. No matter what your level of education or training, reading a text opposite to the reading of Calvin, Luther, and Augustine should cause a humility and pause that I do not see and have never seen from any of your posts. You seem to think that your thoughts on the passage should be considered by all of us just as heavily as these fathers of the faith, and that you have just as much authority as do they. So, for the record, why in the world should I listen to what you have to say over Calvin, Luther, and Augustine? From where do you draw your authority? And don't give me any poppycock about biology and seeds.

Tim quips,

"So now I'm supposed to think it was science that gave us a proper view of the meaning of God's judgment of Onan? Sorry, but I'm chuckling."

Well then, you're crackin' yourself up, because I didn't say that. I argued from the facts of the Onan story as presented from Scripture itself. Then I said that modern medicine has shed necessary light on questions of reproductive ethics that previously could not be well-determined due to scientific ignorance. The connection between those two statements is indirect, and would not exist at all if Scripture actually said anything about contraception, one way or the other. Because if it did, the Onan story wouldn't matter. The only reason it's been made to bear weight far beyond what it can take, is that it's the closest thing to a proof-text there is for people who have decided for other reasons (some of which have been based on scientific ignorance) that contraception is ipso facto wrong.

Tim,

Also, the Three Purposes of Marriage, as formulated by St. Augustine and later cited in the WCF, do not in any way "contradict" what I am saying.

1) St. Augustine's work _On the Good of Marriage_, from which those three purposes come, is noteworthy among patristic works because it has such a relatively _positive_ view of marriage. It is hardly a good representative of general patristic attitudes on the subject.

2) In that very treatise, as is shown by the quotation I offer in the "Augustine on Onan" thread above, Augustine says that it is shamefully wrong for a husband to have intercourse with his wife while she is pregnant, because there is no chance of conception in such a case.

You should not assume that Augustine intended his three goods of MARRIAGE to be three goods of SEX. Furthermore, you should note the way Augustine divorced sex from sexual PLEASURE. Sex itself could accomplish good things. Sexual pleasure was simply sinful.

I am not among the moderns who "easily dismiss two millenia of past Christian testimony." The Fathers have had a great impact on me. For one thing, they helped me see clearly that Scripture teaches Baptismal regeneration. Had I not studied the Fathers, I would probably never have become Lutheran. And I have studied them. I've just defended my dissertation, receiving a doctorate in Patristics. When they were wrong, however, I will not pretend otherwise.

When I was discussing Gregory of Nyssa's _On Virginity_ with a fellow graduate student one day, he smiled ruefully and shook his head. "The Cappadocians," he said. "They got everything right except sex."

That's only a touch overstated.

Archie,

"So, for the record, why in the world should I listen to what you have to say over Calvin, Luther, and Augustine?"

Don't. Read the story of Onan for yourself. Then answer the question, "According to the Bible, what did Onan do that displeased God?" You'll find it's not simply that he "spilled his seed."

Eric, thank you for recognizing publicly that moderns have not given the church the first positive view of sex in the history of the Christian church.

As for baptismal regeneration, there are times when the the teaching of the Apostles must trump the teaching of the church fathers because the Apostles' teaching, recorded in Scripture, is inerrant, and the church fathers (patristics) are not.

Nowhere is this more clear than the heresy of baptismal regeneration. A false view of the Sacraments was one of the principal battles the Apostle Paul faced down, but it crops up eternally because men cannot give up claiming they're children of Abraham because their flesh was cut, dipped, or sprinkled. And we all know what Jesus said to men making this claim.

Wait, who's favoring his own interpretation of Scripture over the witness of millenia now?

Oh, the irony.

Eric, I thought you knew I was a reformational Protestant? No historic Protestant would ever say the witness of the church through the ages trumps the Apostolic witness--in other words, God's Word. But it's hard for non-reformational men to see that reformational Protestants submit to church authority in a subordinate way.

As for irony, it's only ironic to those who see it as an inconsistency.

That's right, Tim. "No historic Protestant would ever say the witness of the church through the ages trumps God's Word." You have now explained on my behalf why it is that I feel free to disagree with the Catholic consensus with regard to the sin of Onan, and the subject of sex and virginity more generally.

As for consistency, the pot that denies baptismal regeneration (which is much more widely attested by the Fathers than any interpretation of the Onan story, and unlike your reading of the Onan story, is explicitly taught in Scripture) should refrain from calling the kettle that denies the old reading of the Onan story "black." If the issue is the respect and fidelity we pay to our Christian forebears, I'm way ahead of you. I disagree with them on a minor point. You call them heretics.

i just had a question, sir, i had a 27 day menstrual cycle, i had sex 3-4 days after my menstruation, will i be able to get pregnant then, please reply, thnx

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