A Paradigm for Procreation

A few weeks ago, we briefly sketched different views of contraception within Roman Catholic and Protestant circles. We left off with the view that the Christian use of contraception is only permissible when biblical principles of human flourishing are applied within the context of the biblical paradigm of marital fruitfulness.

To unpack that statement, it is important to understand the basic Biblical paradigm of procreation. Specifically, it is important to consider two questions: 1) How does the Bible view conception? and 2) How does the Bible view contraception? 

How does the Bible view conception?

The first question begins to be answered in the very first chapter of the Bible. The cultural mandate of Genesis 1:28 (quoted at the beginning of this paper and repeated to Noah and his family after the flood in Genesis 9) outlines the basic Biblical attitude towards conception and procreation. Procreation is not just an optional activity to be pursued if and when a couple desires it, but a divine command for humanity to obey.[1] But the Bible views the procreation of children as more than a mere command, it is a blessing as well.[2] The Bible states this positively in passages such as Psalm 127:3-5, and Psalm 128:1-6 which speak of the blessed man having “a full quiver” of children and of the godly wife being “a fruitful vine” in the house of the righteous. The picture of a large and fruitful family is a picture of happiness and blessing.[3] In contrast to the radically anti-child attitude of contemporary culture, the Bible is consistently pro-child, and therefore, pro-procreation. This same basic point is made in the way that the Bible portrays childless marriages as tragedies.[4] Foregoing children is never portrayed as a neutral choice, but as a great burden or even (at times) as a curse (Lev. 20:20). Malachi 2:15 says that one of God’s purposes for Christian marriage is that He seeks after “godly offspring” and Paul took for granted that young widows should seek remarriage and “bear children.” Throughout both Old and New Testaments, children are always viewed as blessings instead of burdens, and procreation is presented as the normal expectation instead of as an optional exception.

How does the Bible view contraception?

 Contraception was well known in the ancient world. At the same time that the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt, it was common in Egyptian culture to prescribe various means to prevent pregnancy.[5] At the same time that the New Testament was written, oral contraceptives were widely used in the Greco-Roman world.  Various methods of contraception and birth control were employed by the ancient Celtic and Germanic tribes as well as by Middle Easterners and some Western Europeans during the ancient and medieval periods.[6] Contraception, therefore, is not just a modern phenomenon. 

So does the Bible explicitly address contraception? Those who maintain that contraception is absolutely prohibited frequently point to the story of Onan in Genesis 38 as a prooftext condemning birth control.[7] The argument is that Onan used coitus interruptus (or “spilling his seed” as some have colorfully put it) as a means of contraception. God was angry with him for this and took his life because of it. This story, then, becomes one of the primary texts in condemning contraception. 

The question must be asked however, what exactly was it that caused the Lord’s displeasure? In the relevant verses (Gen. 38:8-10) Onan’s purpose in spilling his seed is made explicit and clear. Although his father, Judah, had commanded him to go in to his brother’s wife in order to “raise up offspring for your brother” (vs. 8), Onan “knew that the offspring would not be his. So whenever he went in to his brother’s wife he would waste the semen on the ground, so as not to give offspring to his brother.”[8] Onan’s reason for preventing pregnancy, therefore, had nothing to do with the typical use of contraception today, but was tied to the Patriarchal custom of the next of kin providing a seed for their deceased relative (this custom would be enshrined in law in Deuteronomy 25:5-10). What angered the Lord and caused Onan’s death was not his use of “birth control” but his refusal to obey the will of his father Judah, and the custom given by God to provide for his brother’s line. It would appear then, that Genesis 38 is not concerned with contraception as such and therefore cannot be the basis for either accepting or rejecting birth control.[9]

This leaves the Christian interpreter with a mixture of clarity and questions. The Bible is clear and unapologetic in its positive view of children and childbearing and consistently presents fruitful marriages as a divine command and blessing. At the same time, although contraception would have been well known to the biblical authors, no explicit discussion of the legitimacy or illegitimacy of contraception is given. So, the Christian couple might rightly ask: Does the Bible give any guidance on if (or when) to use contraception?

Indeed, the Bible does provide some principles to guide us through this issue—but we will wait to consider them until next time.

Ben Franks is an MDiv student at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. A native son of the PCA, he has done mission work in England with the EPCEW and served with churches in the PCA and OPC. He studied at Patrick Henry College and completed his B.A. in Classical Christian Education through Whitefield College. His writings have been published in the Puritan Reformed Journal, the Confessional Presbyterian Journal, and the Banner of Truth Magazine.

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Life, Bioethics, Christianity by C. Everret Koop


[1] This does not rule out celibacy or diminish the role or worth of those who cannot bear children, as the example of Jesus and passages such as 1 Corinthians 7 make clear.

[2] Dan Doriani comments, “This is not only the first blessing; it is the fount of all others for mankind. If reproduction were to cease, so would the race.” Doriani, Birth Dearth, 26.

[3] Often, this blessing comes in the form of confronting our native selfishness and sin as parents. Children are needy, and part of the blessing of rearing them comes from the ways in which they expose our own need and confront our own selfishness. For a probing and helpful discussion of this point, see Doriani, Birth Dearth, 26-28.

[4] The Scriptures are beautifully balanced on this point.  While the fruitful bearing of children is the normal expectation of Scripture, it recognizes that sin has brought “pain in childbearing” which means that some couples long for children do not receive them. Such situations are not necessarily due to individual sin, and barrenness is often chosen as the context in which God delights to unfold His redemptive purposes (Sarah, Rachel, Hannah, Elizabeth etc…).   

[5] This usually involved placing some mixture in the opening of the uterus to prevent conception. Scholars have found papyri prescribing, “acacia tips, bitter cucumber, dates, and honey, [and even] crocodile dung […] in the opening of the uterus.” John Jefferson Davis, Evangelical Ethics 3rd ed., (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, 2004), 28.

[6] Davis, Evangelical Ethics, 28-30.

[7] Provan, The Bible and Birth Control, 12-15.

[8] Genesis 38:9.

[9] The only other passages which possibly address birth control are texts such as Galatians 5:20, and Revelation 9:21; 21:8; and 22:5. In these texts, φαρμακεία (pharmakeia) is condemned. This word is most commonly translated as “sorcery” but it can also extend more generally to medicines and drugs as well (there was a strong link between “magic” and “medicine” in the ancient world which can be hard for modern man to appreciate). Some have argued that this word should be understood as condemning the use of oral contraceptives which were common at the time, but given the semantic range of φαρμακεία and the imprecise distinction between oral contraceptives which prevent pregnancy and abortifacients which destroy pregnancy, this argument is not clear enough to cast the deciding vote.