On Contraception (i.e. Counter-Conception Measures)
W. Ross Blackburn has written an excellent reply (Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Spring, 2015) to Dennis Hollinger’s “Ethics of Contraception: A Theological Assessment” which appeared in the December, 2013 issue of JETS. Blackburn’s “Sex and Fullness: A Rejoinder to Dennis Hollinger on Contraception” delivers a well-deserved spanking. Sadly, it took over a year for the ETS to provide such a riposte to Hollinger’s buffoonery – rather, “hostility” vis-a-vis those whose existence Hollinger’s counter-reproduction apologetic threatens.
Sadder still is the thriving national anti-natalist mindset, which seems to have infused even the minds of evangelical theologians and pastors for more than a generation, viz. a general approbation of “birth control.”
We commend to the readers the complete article which we supply here: JETS_58-1_117-30_Blackburn- Contraception – reply to Holling
For those who would like more of the same caliber writing subscribe to the quarterly JETS at:
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But for the love of humanity, particularly the busy or the slothful, we offer the service of the following excerpts:
The essay begins:
Dennis Hollinger’s essay . . . is borne out of a very simple but important observation: the sea change that Protestantism underwent in the 20th century from staunch opposition to acceptance of contraception came without significant theological reflection. In an attempt to address this lack, Hollinger has undertaken the task of theologically backfilling the issue, seeking to provide the appropriate justification for contraception from a Protestant perspective. While there may have been no theological rationale for accepting contraception, Hollinger argues that contraception is not only theologically acceptable, but is even an important part of what it means for Christians to live as stewards of the world that God has given. It is the burden of the following essay to challenge Hollinger’s argument, and thus the theological legitimacy of contraception, a position that is largely a given in most Protestant thought, whether mainline or evangelical.
Blackburn replies to this “cultural mandate” thesis:
There is no doubt that humankind is called to stewardship over creation, and that the cultural mandate and the procreation mandate are linked. However, there are several problems with the conclusions Hollinger draws from Genesis 1–2. First, it is not altogether clear that we are warranted in seeing the cultural mandate as taking priority over the procreative mandate. Hollinger is of course correct that they are linked, but his claim that procreation serves the cultural mandate is an assumption. For the sake of argument, could the priority not as easily be reversed, seeing man called primarily to be fruitful and multiply, and so to steward creation in a manner that welcomes an abundance of children, who are raised to be fruitful and to steward the good world that God made? In other words, exegetically speaking it is equally plausible that the cultural mandate serves the call to procreation. While we will return to this issue later, my point here is not to elevate one mandate over the other, only to suggest that it is not obvious that the text elevates culture over procreation in the way Hollinger assumes. And yet the elevation of the cultural mandate above the procreative mandate is crucial for Hollinger’s argument, for faithful stewardship depends upon our understanding of the purposes for which God created the world, and man’s role within it. Otherwise, the notion of stewardship can slide into serving our own interests, rather than the interests of God (p. 120).
What is the relationship between the “cultural mandate” (care for the earth) and the “procreative mandate”(to be fruitful and multiply)?
Contraception . . . moves in exactly the opposite direction [of the cultural mandate]. Rather than working with nature, it explicitly works against nature by impeding what would happen if nature were allowed to run its course. Certainly Hollinger’s larger point that man is called to work with nature through man-made means is valid, but more precision is needed in assessing whether or not contraception is a legitimate or illegitimate intervention into nature. As he discusses the notion of intervention, Hollinger appears to assume the legitimacy of contraception, rather than arguing for it.
Although Hollinger does not give any guidance for discerning between legitimate and illegitimate interventions, he does give an example, in the quotation above, of what he sees as a legitimate intervention in nature to support his case: altering nature to alleviate the pain and suffering that are the lot of a fallen world. I doubt that Hollinger means this, but his example parallels the thinking in much of the world that treats pregnancy as a disease (and therefore contraception as health care). For instance, the human intervention that is cancer surgery is legitimate because cancer, surely a product of the fall, destroys the way the body is intended to function. In other words, such intervention seeks to work in a manner that restores God’s purposes for a life. Contraception runs precisely in the opposite direction, for conceiving children is not the product of a fallen world, and pregnancy is not a disease (p. 121).
Blackburn raises the question of harm done marriage by contraception:
Contraception harms marriage in that it deprives a couple of the children that by their very presence make us better people. Contrary to popular thinking, the perfect marriage is not a marriage where there is no conflict. Rather, the perfect marriage, if it is even appropriate to use that term, is a marriage where a husband and a wife grow together in grace. Marriage is meant to sanctify us, to make us more like Christ. And children are a major part of that purpose (p. 126).
My wife and I gave a big “Amen” to that proposition. We have for years referred to our children as little ASes. There are each in his own unique way, Agents of Sanctification – OUR sanctification.
Particularly for Christians, marriage and procreation have a significant purpose. The man signifies the Messiah and the woman signifies the Church for which He dies. Christian marriage it God’s picture of the Gospel in world, in the neighborhoods. The people of God live sacrificially in the world and they multiply their numbers.
Blackburn takes up the issue of abortion and its connection to contraception (p. 128):
Another way that contraception hinders the witness of the church is in the arena of life, particularly our ability to speak clearly on behalf of the unborn. One of the reasons Hollinger supports contraception is that he dismisses the historical relationship between contraception and abortion as having contemporary relevance. I am not convinced that this relationship has ceased. When Hollinger states that, in the past, “abortion was frequently the primary means of thwarting the birth of a child and thus equated with contraception,” he ignores the fact that abortion is still a major means of birth control, albeit often resorted to after the failure of other methods. The Supreme Court itself has recognized this, arguing in Planned Parenthood v. Casey that
[t]he Roe rule’s limitation on state power could not be repudiated without seriousinequity to people who, for two decades of economic and social developments, have organized intimate relationships and made choices that define their views of themselves and their places in society, in reliance on the availability of abortion in the event that contraception should fail.
In other words, while abortion is not, strictly speaking, a contraceptive, it is still very much the fruit of a contraceptive mentality that divorces sex from pregnancy, and is a necessary component in a society committed to sex apart from childbearing. And, with roughly 1.2 million babies aborted annually, abortion is clearly not rare, but is rather a devastatingly common method of birth control. When the church in effect blesses the separation between sex and childbearing, we are not surprised when the world insists that the two be kept apart, even at the expense of young lives. We are also not surprised when men look upon women as a means of sexual pleasure, and seek to use them accordingly. When the world takes the parts of sex it likes and discards the parts it does not, it becomes very difficult for the church show a different way when we are doing the same thing.
Blackburn reminds us of the fact that a century ago people who did not want children abstained from sex:
There was a time when couples who did not want to conceive children abstained from sex. This was the unified position of the Christian church until 1930. It is surely true that, logically speaking, just because the acceptance of contraception did not arise from theological reflection does not mean that contraception is wrong, or that the church’s theological justification could not come after the fact. Hollinger’s effort to seek to understand the issue theologically is therefore legitimate and important. But the question of why contraception was embraced apart from theological reflection is not insignificant. The implication would seem to be that either the church was lucky launching out into a direction that God approves, or that the Holy Spirit guided the church away from her historical position apart from a clear theological rationale. Neither seems satisfactory. There is, of course, another possibility. We embraced contraception because we wanted to [note below]. As fallen people we have a tendency to believe what we want to believe. One of the clear implications of Paul’s words “although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Rom 1:21) is that the darkened mind will follow the heart that is not fully submitted to God. This is not to suggest that anyone who supports contraception is more sinful than one who does not, but rather to acknowledge the strength of a cultural mindset that exerts its influence deeply, and at times upon the church. To be transformed by the renewal of our minds is always God’s call to the church, the exhortation itself clearly implying that we are far too easily conformed to the world’s thinking. While Hollinger is right that guilt by association is not a definitive argument, it is wise to pay close attention, for significant overlap between the thinking of the world and that of the church should make us suspicious.
There is no specific proof text that, narrowly speaking, supports or rejects the use of contraception. In other words, the explicit command “Thou shalt not use contraception” cannot be found in the Scriptures. What we do have in Scriptures is unqualified enthusiasm for the blessing of children, lamentation at barrenness, and the affirmation that it is the Lord who opens and closes the womb. Absent from the Scriptures is any hint of the kind of contraceptive mentality that is pervasive in our culture, and often in our churches as well. In the end, the call to the church is a call to repentance, to allow our minds to be transformed. Our culture plans children around life. The idea that one might plan life around children is peculiar. And yet the church is a peculiar people, and because this is so, it has the opportunity to bear an unusual witness in a world that has lost its wonder and enthusiasm for life, particularly young life. This is part of what it means for the church to be the light of the world, a city set upon a hill.
May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us,that your way may be known on earth, your saving power among all nations. Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you! Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon earth. Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you! The earth has yielded its increase; God, our God, shall bless us. God shall bless us; let all the ends of the earth fear him! (Psalm 67)
[Note that a penetrating discussion concerning the cultural denial of the effects of contraception is found in Mary Eberstadt’s Adam and Eve after the Pill: Paradoxes of the sexual Revolution (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012)]