Did Everyone in the First 1950 Years of the Church Really Believe Contraception was Wrong????

In the trailer for The Birth Control Movie, R.C. Sproul Jr. says the following:

Every single branch of the Christian church affirmed that children are a blessing, and that we have no buisness seeking to say no to God’s blessings…

Go look at the history of God’s people. And if you see God’s people, throughout the history of the church, 100% of the people took the same view, there is a pretty good chance that’s the right view.

Now, if it were true that “God’s people, throughout the history of the church, 100% of the people took the same view,” there would be some exegetical bite to this argument. The problem with all of these arguments and all arguments like them is that they are based upon a grossly simplistic view of history. Sproul seems to be relying upon a hasty generalization, which is always bad logic, and also fallacious in the study of history as well.

Let me demonstrate. First, I would challenge Sproul to prove that Ignatius of Antioch or Clement of Rome believed that contraception is wrong. The Didache, which does say that abortion is wrong [Didache 2:2], doesn’t say contraception is wrong. In fact, although the apostolic fathers address many issues of morality, they don’t address the issue of contraception. However, Sproul’s statement was that everyone in church history believed contraception was wrong. So, logically:

1. Everyone in church history believed contraception was wrong.
2. Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and the authors of the Didache are someones in church history.
3. Therefore, Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and the authors of the Didache believed contraception was wrong.

Hence, I would challenge Dr. Sproul to provide proof for premise 2 from the writings of Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and the authors of the Didache. This illustrates the first problem, namely, that not everyone addressed the issue of contraception. Hence, how does Sproul know that these people likewise believed contraception was wrong? The only way out of this is to make the hasty generalization that, if some did, all did.

However, there is another problem with this argument, and that is that some of the writings of people in church history have not survived. For example, every church father I am aware of condemned Nestorius as a heretic. However, in 1895, a manuscript was found called the Bazaar of Heracleides which contained a Syriac translation of one of Nestorius’ works amazingly preserved, since none of his other writings survived. What is interesting is that the work, for all intents and purposes, affirms Chalcedonian Christology, and denies the heresy attributed to him. It appears now that there was a great political battle going on between Nestorius and Cyril of Alexandria, and the attribution of heresy to Nestorius may have been a political move to try to take preeminence over his see. Like this manuscript from Nestorius, all it would take is for a series of manuscripts from several of the people who, as far as we know, didn’t address the issue of contraception [or, who we didn’t even know wrote anything] to come to light arguing against Augustine, Chrysostom, and others who argued that contraception is wrong to completely shatter Sproul’s argument. If he cannot prove that these documents don’t exist, then he cannot say that everyone in Church history believed contraception was wrong without arguing from silence.

Furthermore, the issue of illiteracy has to be taken into account. There are many people in church history who never learned to read and write. How does Sproul know that these people believed contraception was wrong? Again, if he cannot rule that out, then he cannot say that everyone in church history believed contraception is wrong.

I suppose Sproul might argue at this point that enough people said contraception was wrong, that we can assume that everyone else believed it as well. However, how many people in church history did address the issue of contraception? Don’t know the answer to that question fully, but I have been keeping count from various websites of people who could reasonably be quoted as saying contraception is wrong. Here is the list I have so far:

1.Clement of Alexandria
2.Hippolytus of Rome*
3.Lactantius
4.Augustine
5.John Chrysostom
6.Athanasius
7.Epiphanios
8.Ambrose
9.Caesarious
10.Gregory the Great
11.Augustine of Canterbury
12.Maximos the Confessor
13.Justin Martyr
14.Turtullian
15.Thomas Aquinas
16. Jerome

*May not have been dealing with contraception. See TurretinFan’s excellent article on the topic of contraception where it is addressed.

Looking at it this way, that leaves, on average, about one person every century who addressed the issue from the founding of the church up until the time of the reformation. Since when did sixteen people become everyone in church history? Thus, the number of people who addressed the issue is grossly underwhelming. Of course, that doesn’t even take into account the fact that some of these men are bunched into the same century. Martyr, Hippolytus of Rome, and Clement of Alexandria are from the late second century. Jerome, John Chrysostom, and Augustine are from the late fourth and early fifth century. This leaves *huge* time gaps where the issue is not even addressed or very rarely addressed. Again, and this is supposed to be “everyone in the history of the church?”

Furthermore, if this is going to have any relevance to the issue of what the Bible says, one would have to argue that the patristic writers were basing their view that contraception is wrong on Biblical exegesis. However, such a statement is historically laughable. While the sixteen people above may have said that contraception is wrong, they almost *never* did so on the basis of Biblical exegesis. Hence, it is totally *irrelevant* to what the Bible teaches on the topic. Also, on those few occasions when they did try to engage in Biblical exegesis to prove their point, they took interpretations of passages that are roundly rejected by all exegetes today [such as the story of Onan]. Interestingly enough, the key passages that quiverfull folks like Sproul like to use, such as Genesis 1:28, Psalm 127, Malachi 2:15, et al, were almost *never* used. The use of some of these passages I can’t find used any earlier than Mary Pride.

Also, aside from the distinct lack of Biblical exegesis that you find from the patristic writers who believed contraception is wrong, you also find, when you look carefully, that certain movements affected the thinking of many people who said contraception was wrong. Contrary to popular belief, patristic writers were people of their time. They were affected by popular philosophies, and it affected the way they read the text of scripture. Is it any wonder that we find people saying contraception is wrong at the end of the second and the beginning of the third centuries and at the end of the fourth, and the beginning of the fifth centuries? The reason is simply the prevalence of Gnostic thought and Stoic thought at the end of the second century to the beginning of the third, and the influence of Augustine’s reaction to the Manichees in the fourth and early fifth centuries.

To understand how this played into the issue of contraception, remember that the Gnostics were Neo-platonic dualists and believed that physical matter was evil, and the spiritual was good. Of course, they viewed sexual relations, therefore, as evil. This had a great and profound influence on the church. In a scholarly article I read recently on this topic from Illinois Wesleyan University, the author, Justin Allen, puts the problem this raised for the church this way:

This rebuttal left questions for the early Christians to answer. What was preferred–celibacy or marriage? Of what nature is sex? What is teh purpose of marriage? The early Church Fathers looked at the Gospels and the letters of Paul to decide these questions. They focused on writings such as Matthew 19:12, in which Jesus praises people who “made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” and 1 Corinthians 7:1. They also incorporated Stoic arguments into their theology in response to the Romans and liberal Gnostics. These arguments claimed that sex is a base act, but is necessary to propagate the species. Passion and desire were to remain unattached to the marital act.

Hence, due to the dualistic challenge of Gnosticism, the Christians, rather than going back to the Bible, decided to run off to Stoic philosophy dealing with the processes of nature, by which they could argue that the sexuality was necessary for procreation, and passion and desire of sexuality was downplayed. That is why it is odd to see the people in this movie say that people in church history believed that it was wrong to reject the blessing of children. Celibate life was exalted to such a degree that rejecting the blessing of children due to monastic life was considered more holy than marriage. If you are confused as to how *any* of this is consistent with the Bible, you are not the only one. However, it is the foundation of the vast majority of these early church fathers in the late second and early third centuries who said that contraception was wrong. Again, has nothing whatsoever to do with Biblical exegesis.

Augustine of Hippo was also an important man in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. Augustine, who was a Manichee before he became a Christian, never learned to control his sexual desires as was required by the Manichees, and only conquered them after he became a Christian. Augustine, who certainly got many of his views from his teacher Ambrose, as well as his reaction to his former faith, continued this odd Neo-platonic-Stoic philosophical mix, but took it to the next level. Again, to quote Allen:

Augustine attacked the Manichees for their hatred of procreation and even attacked their use of the rhythm method of birth control. After reading the scriptures he taught that sex should be without passion because that is the way it was done before the fall. He defended marriage’s merit as being created by God for the primary aim of procreation. Procreation was the only reason to initiate sex.

Now, as much good as Augustine said and did, that kind of thinking is a bunch of un-Christian garbage. That view of sex and sexuality should make any orthodox Christian’s hair stand on end. Yet, this is one of the men who influenced all of those fathers in the fourth and fifth centuries into the notion that contraception is wrong.

This is what really bothers me about the Birth Control Movie. These guys complain about Margret Sanger, and want to pin Margret Sanger on us [even though contraception goes back to ancient Egypt]. However, they ignore their own history, and the gross anti-Christian thought of Gnosticism and Stoicism that gave rise to their own position. Hence, we have Margret Sanger, and they have the Gnostics and the Stoics, whom Paul went after at Mars Hill and in the book of Colossians. They will never talk about the evil beginnings of their own movement, and yet, they will attribute the Birth control movement to someone who came on the scene about 3,500 years after the first recorded instance of birth control. The problem is that arguments like these prove nothing, as can be clearly seen in the fact that the argument is self-refuting. The issue must always be what scripture says.

So, what Sproul means by “everyone in the history of the Church believed birth control was wrong” is really “around sixteen people many of whom are bunched in the same time period, addressed the issue of Birth control and said it was wrong, rarely using Biblical exegesis, and working from a paradigm of ungodly Stoic and Gnostic philosophy, and I therefore conclude that the millions and millions and millions of other people who either never addressed the issue in writing, whose writings have not survived, or who simply could not write at all believed the same thing. Such is very, very weak, and certainly not “God’s people, throughout the history of the church, 100% of the people took the same view.”

Now, why did I address this? This is a blog about Old Testament Exegesis and linguistics. It is because of this comment left by R.C. Sproul Jr. when he was challenged by the fact that Mohler, Driscoll, and Piper have written arguments against him:

Thanks for directing me to this. I haven’t looked at Drs. Mohler or Piper, at least recently on this issue, nor Mark Driscoll. They may have the superior argument, but if they did they would be right where the entire church for 1950 years was wrong. I am always suspicious when the church has spoken with one voice for millenia, the world lurches to the left, and the world soon follows. Finally, I would argue that there is about ten times as much judgment in your piece above than there was in my brief tweet. I made an affirmation, connecting the purpose of the marital act with the purpose of eating, and then a connection between separating those purposes. I didn’t call anyone a wretched sinner, nor a tool of Satan. So, in short, I agree with you on the principle that we ought to whisper and not shout where God whispers. I disagree on the clarity and certainty on this issue, and of course, on the issue itself. You have Mohler and Piper and Driscoll with you, and I the entire first 1500 years of the church. As we both agree, the key issue is what the Bible says. And it says children are a blessing from His hand. I don’t believe we act with wisdom when we turn our backs on gifts from God. Hope that helps and that God richly blesses you and your family

Of course, as we have seen, the Church has *not* spoken with one voice for millennia, unless you want to say that, in two millennia, the church has only consisted of around sixteen people. Also, he doesn’t have the first 1500 years of the church, period. He has a few people who made comments on the issue because of gnostic and stoic philosophy who very rarely even tried to engage in Biblical exegesis to prove their point, and assumes that millions and millions and millions of other people who lived all believed the same thing they wrote. Again, when you put it that way, the claim is not near as impressive, and certainly doesn’t prove what Sproul wants it to prove.

However, notice who Sproul uses this excuse to avoid the exegetical issues raised by Driscoll and Piper. That is the real crux. It doesn’t even matter to him that they may have the superior argument. In other words, he could care less about whether their exegesis might be right. That is why it is important to address this and other positions like this. Church history, because of the very complexity I already discussed, can *never* determine the correct interpretation of scripture. It can be a helpful tool, but like all tools, it must be used wisely, recognizing why various historical figures said what they said, and testing what they said to see if it make sense in the passage itself. I have found quiverfull advocates to be very reluctant to go back to the exegesis of the text of scripture. That is the weakness of this movement. They avoid it by saying things like this to try to silence the testimony of scripture that they are adding to the word of God. Hence, this myth that they have 1950 years of the church speaking in one voice must be brought down, so that the message of the text of scripture is allowed to come through loud and clear.

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2 Responses to “Did Everyone in the First 1950 Years of the Church Really Believe Contraception was Wrong????”

  1. mtv Says:

    Hi, i read your blog from time to time and i own a similar one and
    i was just wondering if you get a lot of spam responses?
    If so how do you stop it, any plugin or anything you can suggest?
    I get so much lately it’s driving me insane so any help is very much appreciated.

  2. otrmin Says:

    mtv, yes, I just make all comments private, so I have to moderate them all. Then, when I find spam, I just put it on a block list so it automatically sends it to the trash next time. That is one of the reasons why I switched to wordpress; it gives me more ability to deal with spam, as well as people who can’t control themselves.

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