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.”

THIS ARTICLE ONLY AVAILABLE TO SUBSCRIBERS.
FOR QUICK ACCESS:


David Mills has been editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things.

calling all readers

Please Donate

"There are magazines worth reading but few worth saving . . . Touchstone is just such a magazine."
—Alice von Hildebrand

"Here we do not concede one square millimeter of territory to falsehood, folly, contemporary sentimentality, or fashion. We speak the truth, and let God be our judge. . . . Touchstone is the one committedly Christian conservative journal."
—Anthony Esolen, Touchstone senior editor

Support Touchstone

• Not a subscriber or wish to renew your subscription? Subscribe to Touchstone today for full online access. Over 30 years of publishing!


personal subscriptions

Purchase Print &
Online Subscription

Get six issues (one year) of Touchstone PLUS full online access including pdf downloads for only $39.95. That's only $3.34 per month!


RENEW your print/online
subscription

Purchase
Online Subscription

Get a one-year full-access subscription to the Touchstone online archives including pdf downloads for only $19.95. That's only $1.66 per month!


RENEW your online subscription

gift subscriptions

GIVE Print &
Online Subscription

Give six issues (one year) of Touchstone PLUS full online access including pdf downloads for the reduced rate of $29.95. That's only $2.50 per month!


RENEW your gift subscription

Transactions will be processed on a secure server.

bulk subscriptions

Order Touchstone subscriptions in bulk and save $10 per sub! Each subscription includes 6 issues of Touchstone plus full online access to touchstonemag.com—including archives, videos, and pdf downloads of recent issues for only $29.95 each! Great for churches or study groups.

kindle subscription

OR get a subscription to Touchstone to read on your Kindle for only $1.99 per month! (This option is KINDLE ONLY and does not include either print or online.)

Your subscription goes a long way to ensure that Touchstone is able to continue its mission of publishing quality Christian articles and commentary.


more from the online archives

33.3—May/June 2020

Deliberation, Inc.

Human & Divine Societies Require Careful Thought & Discourse by Anthony Esolen

30.5—Sept/Oct 2017

The Age of Reformations

The Critical History Before, During & After Martin Luther by James Hitchcock

35.6—Nov/Dec 2022

The Prince’s Peace

on the Divine Promise Fulfilled by the Child of Bethlehem by James M. Kushiner

00