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From the January/February, 2005 issue of Touchstone

 

Onan’s Onus by David Mills

Onan’s Onus

A sidebar in W. Bradford Wilcox’s “The Facts of Life & Marriage”

by David Mills

Though opposition to contraception is now widely thought to be a “Catholic thing,” the great Reformers rejected it as strongly as any modern Catholic. For earlier Christians, children were such a great gift from God and sterility such a curse that the evil of willed sterility was self-evident. As Martin Luther wrote in his Lectures on Genesis, in Genesis “fertility was regarded as an extraordinary blessing and a special gift of God,” but

we do not regard this so highly today. Although we like and desire it in cattle, yet in the human race there are few who regard a woman’s fertility as a blessing. Indeed, there are many who have an aversion for it and regard sterility as a special blessing. Surely this is also contrary to nature. Much less is it pious and saintly.

Those who do not want children (and he meant many children), he wrote elsewhere, “deserve that their memory be blotted out from the land of the living.” Their desire for sterility “serves to emphasize original sin. Otherwise we would marvel at procreation as the greatest work of God, and as a most outstanding gift we would honor it with the praises it deserves.”

Luther and Calvin’s opposition to contraception is revealed in their writing about what Luther called “the exceedingly foul deed of Onan, the basest of wretches,” described in Genesis 38:8–10. Onan, he wrote in Lectures on Genesis, “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.”

He insisted that “at such a time the order of nature established by God in procreation should be followed.” Onan, however, “preferred polluting himself with a most disgraceful sin to raising up offspring for his brother.”

John Calvin wrote much the same thing in his Commentary on Genesis:

The voluntary spilling of semen outside of intercourse between man and woman is a monstrous thing. Deliberately to withdraw from coitus in order that semen may fall on the ground is doubly monstrous. For this is to extinguish the hope of the race and to kill before he is born the hoped-for offspring.

“The impiety is especially condemned,” he continued, because like an abortion, it “casts upon the ground the offspring of his brother, torn from the maternal womb. . . . If any woman ejects a fetus from her womb by drugs, it is reckoned a crime incapable of expiation, and deservedly Onan incurred upon himself the same kind of punishment.” Onan “tried, as far as he was able, to wipe out a part of the human race.”

But it was fruitfulness they valued. Luther noted that many people avoid having children because they feel they couldn’t support them. They unjustly blame marriage and fruitfulness, he said. “You are indicting your unbelief by distrusting God’s goodness, and you are bringing greater misery upon yourself by disparaging God’s blessing. For if you had trust in God’s grace and promises, you would undoubtedly be supported. But because you do not hope in the Lord, you will never prosper.”


David Mills is executive editor of First Things. He was editor of Touchstone from 2003-2008. His most recent book is Discovering Mary: Answers to Questions About the Mother of God (Servant Books). He is living with his wife and two of their four children in Manhattan, where they attend Immaculate Conception church.

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