Does the Bible provide some insight into the marriage relationship that will help answer growing questions on birth control?

The English Renaissance exegete and saintly “Oxford reformer” John Colet, a close friend of Erasmus and Thomas More, is supposed to have remarked: “Better that no one should marry.” Whereupon someone asked, “But Dean Colet, then what would happen to the human race?” Taken aback, the Dean of St. Paul’s pondered the question, then suddenly brightened and said, “Why then the end of the age and our Lord’s coming could not tarry!” This tale may well be apocryphal, and certainly Colet eventually acquired a positive view of the marital state (Seebohm informs us that he advised More to marry and entrusted the control of St. Paul’s school to married burghers); but the story typifies some of the confusions that have attended theological thinking on the subject of marriage and childbearing across the centuries. Christians have often manifested strange blind spots in dealing with the theology of marriage, and current discussion of birth control by both Roman Catholics and Protestants is the unwitting manifestation of a theological perplexity that extends far beyond specifics such as the “rhythm method” or “the pill.”

Roman Catholics: Marriage As A Means

The attitude of the Roman church toward birth control is well known, though its rationale is seldom comprehended. Rome has never been happy with the principle of birth control. Limitations on childbearing in marriage are indeed permitted (preferably by sexual continence, but also today by the so-called natural rhythm method); however, such limitations are regarded as exceptions, applicable in cases of ill health, disease, acute poverty, serious temptation to sin, and so on. The use of “unnatural” (i.e., mechanical) birth-control devices stands condemned by papal decree; indeed, in 1930, the famous encyclical Casti Conubii declared that artificial contraception is “an unspeakable crime” and “shameful and intrinsically immoral.” Widespread debate is presently going on in Roman Catholic circles over the legitimacy of the birth-control pill (see The Pill and Birth Regulation: The Catholic Debate, ed. by Leo Pyle; London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1964), but Pope Paul has as yet given no indication that the pill trill be classed with “natural” birth-control methods. The Pope’s conservative statement of June, 1964, and his reported directive to the Ecumenical Council to re-endorse the affirmations on birth-control made by Popes Pius XI and XII suggest that Rome still looks with grave concern upon any techniques that would limit offspring in marriage (see CHRISTIANITY TODAY, Dec. 17, 1965, p. 34).

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Critics of Rome have often gleefully pointed out the strange inconsistency that holds up the celibate state as an ideal for the clergy and at the same time seems to do all within its power to encourage childbearing on the part of the married. This is not, however, a genuine inconsistency at all, as one can see if he understands the theological base of the Roman view of marriage. Celibacy is most definitely regarded as the ideal state of life, permitting undivided attention to things spiritual (cf. the “marriage” between nun and Christ symbolized by wedding ring and white vesture). Marriage is of value not as an end in itself but as a means to an end. What end? As the Corpus Iuris Canonici makes clear (1013, Par. 1), and as the Holy Office reasserted in 1944 (Denzinger, 2295), the primary purpose of marriage is the generation and raising of children; other aspects of the marriage relationship must be viewed as contributory to the procreative purpose. Even the progressive Vatican II Schema 13, which endeavors to set marriage in a more Christocentric framework, twice states that “matrimony and conjugal love are by their very nature ordained for the procreation and education of children.” Rome is thus quite consistent in making every effort to discourage birth control, and in taking particularly strong measures against all attempts to limit birth by techniques in opposition to the “natural law” doctrine fundamental to all Thomistic theology.

The traditional Roman view of marriage and birth control has been a source of embarrassment to its advocates and a fruitful base for criticism by moderns who resent religious authority. It is pointed out that, pragmatically, fewer and fewer Roman Catholics accept the procreative “marriage as means” interpretation of their church. Thus in a 1956 survey of the marital relationships of English women, Chesser found that of his sample of Roman Catholics 47 per cent were practicing birth control; and in 1959 Freedman and his associates, in investigating the contraceptive practices of American wives, discovered that even among the Roman Catholics who were regular churchgoers, 26 per cent were using birth-control devices considered gravely sinful by the Church.

The application of “natural law” thinking to the birth-control issue seems especially bizarre, since it is difficult to see why man can legitimately control “natural” phenomena such as vegetation and animal population and yet cannot without sin control his own numbers in the face of severe population pressures. As one writer has put it, a fixed law of nature dictates that male Caucasians grow hair on their faces; but it is not sinful to use a razor—whether straight or electric! And why is the use of mechanical contraceptives more “unnatural” than the application of the rhythm method? The latter obviously creates an unnatural pressure on the married couple to restrain their desire during one phase of the menstrual cycle, whereas the use of contraceptives or birth-control pills permits intercourse when natural desire dictates. The rhythm method, according to Dr. John Rock of the Harvard Medical School, himself a Roman Catholic, “is to be considered an unnatural method, for it is during the fertile period that the whole psychosomatic psychology of the healthy, normal female is prepared and intended by her primate nature for coitus” (Medical and Biological Aspects of Contraception, Boston: Lippincott, 1943).

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Secularists And Liberal Protestants: Marriage As An End

More important, however, than these specific objections to the Roman Catholic theology of birth control has been the rise of a very different philosophy of marriage in modern times. This is the view, nourished by the courtly love tradition of the medieval period and the romantic movement of the nineteenth century, that sees the union of man and woman not as a means to an end but as an end in itself. The twentieth-century ideological shift from essentialistic to existentialistic patterns of thought has greatly accentuated the new view of man-woman relationships; as the distinguished French medical scholar Chauchard puts it, “To speak of natural law is to produce an easy indifference. Modern man sees himself as free.… He refuses every constraint” (Apprendre à aimer; régulation des naissances et morale sexuelle, Paris: Fayard, 1963, p. 62). When combined with a thinly disguised contemporary humanism, the result is a sex ethic (not limited to marriage) that sees in the love relation per se the fulfillment of human aspirations and the manifestation of God-as-Agape. Thus we arrive at the so-called new morality of the Bishop of Woolwich and the permissive sex ethics of numerous moderns—philosophies that, in radical contrast with Roman Catholicism, absolutize the love relation with hardly a second look at procreation.

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The attitude toward birth control arising from such an existentialistic-humanistic context is easily predictable: Birth control is no longer a theological problem; “we are faced with a problem that must be solved at the purely biological level” (David J. McCallion, “Human Population Pressures and Birth Control,” Canadian Journal of Theology, July, 1960). The ethics of birth control becomes situational and ad hoc. As a car sticker my wife saw yesterday expressed it: “Trouble Parking? Try Planned Parenthood.” The overpopulation issue engulfs birth-control thinking, resulting in weird volumes such as retired Army Colonel Alexander J. Stuart’s Overpopulation—Twentieth Century Nemesis: A Condensed, Objective Study of Procreation—from the Amoeba to Modern Man (New York, 1958). Even a respectable work like The Population Explosion and Christian Responsibility (1960) by Richard Fagley, an official spokesman for the World Council of Churches, focuses chief attention on the economic and technological aspects of population growth and sees the ecumenical movement, with its united witness to an overpopulated world, as “the way forward.”

Though liberal Protestants and secularists have readily identified the erroneous reasoning in Roman Catholic birth-control doctrine, they have, strange to say, fallen into a more acute form of the same error. Roman Catholic “natural law” thinking is a variety of what G. E. Moore in his Principia Ethica called the “naturalistic fallacy”: the assumption that the descriptive (what is) automatically gives rise to the normative (what ought to be). But the liberals commit this same blunder with far less “justification” (since they have neither absolute church nor inerrant Scripture to interpret nature for them). The overpopulation problem in itself does not establish the morality of birth control, any more than it would establish the morality of war as a means of reducing the population. And the situational ethic of agape-love, as I emphasized in a previous article in CHRISTIANITY TODAY (“The Law’s Third Use: Sanctification,” April 26, 1963), leaves man with no guideline for the content of ethical action. Love is a motive, not a structure, and one makes a severe logical “category mistake” to think that it can serve both functions. A reliable revelation of God’s divine will is sine qua non for man’s ethical decisions in the realm of marriage and birth control as in all other areas of life. In Holy Scripture, one has the key to interpret God’s hand in nature and human life and the guideline for love’s operations.

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Biblical Christianity: Marriage As Analogy

And how does the Bible view the problem area we are confronting? To answer this question we must move beyond proof-texting to the focal center of scriptural teaching on marriage. This center is not to be found in the first two chapters of Genesis, so often cited in isolation, but in Ephesians 5:22–32, which quotes Genesis in the context of the New Covenant in Christ. Understood in the light of New Testament fulfillment, marriage cannot be regarded simply as a means (“Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth”) or unqualifiedly as an end (“They shall be one flesh”). Rather, it is seen as an analogy—indeed, as the best human analogy—of the relationship between Christ and his Church. After having connected husband-and-wife with Christ-and-the-Church by no less than three hōs’s (“as”) and two kathōs’s (“just as”) in ten verses, Paul concludes with a summary statement on the marriage relation: “This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church.” When and only when marriage is viewed as the “type” of which Christ-and-Church are “antitype” can we avoid the Hegelian-like dialectic extremes of the Roman and liberal Protestant views of marriage and birth control. Specifically:

1. As Christ’s relation with the Church is a total love relation, not just a means to an end, so one must not view marriage simply as a procreative function. Where birth control can contribute to “subduing the earth” in order to achieve a better total human relationship, it is not to be condemned (cf. William E. Hulme, “A Theological Approach to Birth Control,” Pastoral Psychology, April, 1960). By the same token, the psychosomatic wholeness implied in Christ’s incarnation for man’s salvation condemns the Manichean and neo-Platonic depreciation of the flesh that colors so much of Roman Catholic celibacy teaching. No better counteractive exists to all such functional misunderstandings of marriage than the writings of Charles Williams, the late Christian poet and friend of C. S. Lewis (Shideler well titles her treatment of Williams’s thought The Theology of Romantic Love).

2. Yet neither is the human love relationship an end in itself. “In the resurrection they neither marry nor are given marriage”—why? Because “when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away”; in the full manifestation of the antitype the type is embraced and disappears. Thus the love relationship between male and female must never be absolutized. It is truly meaningful only insofar as it reflects the Christ relationship. Apart from this it becomes idolatrous, taking on demonic quality despite its lack of genuine ultimacy. The present state of American mores and morals is sufficient evidence of the appalling consequences that attend the isolation of sex from God’s revealed will.

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3. In light of the divine analogy of marriage, we can see the centrality of children to marital union. Christ did not give himself up to death as an isolated deed; he did it to “bring many sons unto glory” (Heb. 2:10). As the union of Christ and his Church does not exist for its own sake but to bring others to spiritual rebirth, so the marital union is properly fulfilled in natural birth. And since natural birth precedes spiritual birth, as creation precedes redemption (John 3:3–12), so the Christian home can be the greatest single agency for nurture in the twofold sense; thus did the Reformers view it (cf. Lazareth’s Luther on the Christian Home). The burden of proof rests, then, on the couple who wish to restrict the size of their family; to the extent possible and desirable, all Christian couples should seek to “bring many sons unto glory.” After all, as C. G. Darwin pointed out at the University of Chicago’s Darwin centennial, those who restrict their birth rate will ultimately be engulfed by those who do not: “Homo contracipiens would become extinct and would be replaced by the variety Homo progenetivus.” The Christian application of this principle is obvious.

4. Sexual relations outside marriage are unqualifiedly to be condemned, not for the naturalistic (and logically questionable!) reasons set forth by Bertocci (“Extramarital Sex and the Pill,” The Christian Century, Feb. 26, 1964), but because they violate the high analogy of Christ-and-Church. Thus Israel’s prostitution of God’s grace through idolatry was symbolized by Hosea’s wife, who lived as a woman of the street, and Paul expresses revulsion at the thought of those who are “members of Christ” becoming “one flesh” with harlots, thereby violating the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:13–20). The crux of Paul’s argument against illicit sex is the analogy relation—that Christians “are bought with a price.” So the use of birth-control devices outside of marriage is not to be tolerated. And the hypocrisy of gas-station dispensers “for prevention of disease” is to be made clear in no uncertain terms.

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How practically are Christian marriage partners to decide the birth-control question? Within the framework of the analogy relation, they are to consider it personally and prayerfully in light of their own physical, emotional, financial, and spiritual situation, and in light of the population picture in their area of the world. (The answer will not be the same for Christians in India and those in Canada; for those led to lucrative vocations and those led to pioneer missionary work.) They will act responsibly, remembering that irresponsibility is equally possible at the Roman Catholic antibirth-control and the secularistic pro-birth-control extremes. Viewing marriage as neither means nor end, but as the great analogy of Christ’s work of salvation, the Christian will seek to do all he can to make his marriage evangelistic—generatively and regeneratively. He will consider with all seriousness such proposals as that recently made by the Rev. Eldon Durham, who, in the face of the severe and rapidly growing population problem in so many parts of the world, advocates that Christians “begin to constitute families by means of adopting the unwanted, the disinherited, the dispossessed and the rejected children” of the earth (Time, Dec. 3, 1965, p. 77). Though such a suggestion must not be used to justify non-childbearing in American marriages and irresponsibility or immorality on the part of couples living elsewhere in the world, is not the proposal genuinely analogous to the “grafting” of the Gentiles unto the tree of salvation (Rom. 11)? Surely the childless Christian couple is here offered a superlative privilege and opportunity.

But however he is led to fulfill his personal responsibility before the Lord of the Church, the Christian stands free from the shackles of legalism and from the chaos of libertarianism. “If the Son shall make you free,” said Jesus, “you shall be free indeed.” On the basis of this merciful freedom in Christ the Apostle beseeches us as a reasonable act of worship to present our bodies “a living sacrifice holy, acceptable unto God.”

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