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THE EARLY CHURCH AND CONTRACEPTION

Matthew D. Schultz

One cannot understand the medical ethics of ancient times unless one acknowledges that
these ethics were informed by a wide variety of cultural and philosophical persuasions.1

If one asks, then, where the Christian Fathers derived their notions on marital
intercoursenotions which have no express biblical basisthe answer must be, chiefly
from the Stoics.2

Erich Loewy and Roberta Loewy, Textbook of Health Care Ethics, Second Edition (Dordrecht: Kluwer
Academic Publishers, 2004), 6.
2
John T. Noonan, Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967), 68.

ABSTRACT
This paper seeks to address the claim that the early church fathers were universally
against contraception, and that this historical fact should in some way be of a concern to
Protestants who only began to accept the practice in the early twentieth century. A
faithful understanding of the early church's condemnation of contraception and an
evaluation of its application to Protestantism requires several components. First I
examine ancient reproductive biology and the extent of its impact on the beliefs of
ancient Christianity. I then note the extent to which Stoic thought influenced
condemnations of contraception. Quotations from some church fathers are provided,
with special attention paid to the general rejection of the "unitive" function of sexual
intercourse. From this it is clear that neither Protestants nor Catholics consistently follow
the testimony of the early church. This is followed by an attempt to articulate and engage
the implicit argument concerning the Protestant departure from the consensus of belief in
the early church. I conclude by observing the silence of Scripture on contraception,
despite its practice in the ancient world and the New Testament era, and commend
wisdom as a superior method by which to evaluate contraception.

INTRODUCTION
In the realm of Catholic and Protestant apologetic exchanges, a popular maneuver
on the part of Catholics is to claim that one form or another of Protestant practice is
clearly and distinctly denied by the universal testimony of the Christians before the
Reformation. While such charges have been largely defeated, on both historical and
methodological grounds, there remains one area of inquiry that has not been often
addressed in the relevant literaturethat of contraception.3 It is common for Catholics to
assert that no one in the Church universal, Protestant or otherwise, allowed for
contraception until the early twentieth century, and only then was the practice reluctantly
accepted. The picture is often tendentiously framed as a Protestant capitulation to secular
moral values, with the Roman Catholic Church alone resisting the afflictions of
modernity.
Whatever might otherwise be said about the historical basis for this appeal, it is
perhaps sufficient to grant the claim of universal consensus, that every single Christian
condemned contraception before the early twentieth century, and so proceed to evaluate
the claim on the strongest conceivable terms. If the implicit argument herethat we, as
Protestants, should in some manner be concerned and change or modify our beliefs on
contraception due to the weight of a universal consensus on the matterfails on the
strongest conceivable historical terms, then it serves to say that similar arguments built on
weaker historical terms will also fail.
As with other allegations that Protestants have violated the universal consensus of
the Church, such as with sola fide before Luther or infant baptism before the Radical
3

By contraception I mean those non-abortive measures used to prevent the joining of sperm and egg. I
take this to logically include NFP, but, for the sake of argument, another distinction can be admitted
between physical devices (condoms, pills, etc.) and physical practices (e.g., abstaining during times of
fertility).

Reformation, the appropriate response should cover at least two areas. First, we must
identify the rationale that drove previous generations of Christians to condemn
contraception.4 Was there an impetus for these condemnations, such as an external or
internal threat to doctrine or practices of piety and holiness? Was the rationale informed
by Scripture? If so, what were their exegetical arguments? Was it informed by particular
biological or philosophical notions? If so, were these notions, or the intellectual
framework out of which they arose, grounded in Biblical principles? If not, were they at
least grounded in wisdom? A failure to address these sorts of questions will hamper
efforts toward the second area of inquiry: What weight should the universal consensus of
the church carry on this matter? Can we find a reason that such an appeal does not
reduce to a fallacious appeal to authority or appeal to consensus?
This paper, however, limits the area of inquiry to the early church fathers, rather
than the entire Christian tradition. I take this to be appropriate since what the fathers
believed on contraception seems to have been carried down throughout the ages.5 If their
authority or reasoning is insufficient or flawed, so will the future generations who relied
on their conclusions. It also suffices to observe that if the early church fathers were, as I
will argue, universally against contraception for reasons that no one would hold today,
including Catholics, we can dismiss the weight they give to the idea of a universal
consensus.

Unlike many acts on which moral judgment has been passed, contraception requires a knowledge of
technique. Even the most elementary contraceptive behavior calls for possession of some biological
information; mechanical methods rest on some awareness of physiology; chemical preparations demand a
further mastery of pharmacology. If these kinds of technical knowledge were nonexistent, there would be
no acts of contraception for moralists to judge.The judgments made by Christians on contraception in the
first four centuries can only be understood if the existence, effect, and use of contraceptive technique in the
Roman Empire are appraised. Noonan, 23.
5
Certain church fathers in this area seem to have been decidedly influential, such as Augustine, as will be
discussed below.

Finally, it is not enough to simply illustrate the historical context of the fathers
and judge their positions to be inadequate; it does no good to define ourselves merely in
opposition to an error, and thus artificially limit our beliefs. To counter this, I spend a
moment commending the use of Biblical wisdom to adjudicate the ethics of contraception
for Christian belief and practice.

THE INFLUENCE OF ANCIENT BIOLOGY ON EARLY CHRISTIANITY


An obvious area of inquiry is whether the early church fathers had a sufficient
grasp of biology to validate their condemnations of contraception. A notion of sperm
containing, for example, a tiny, yet fully formed, human being would necessarily lend
itself to swift and harsh condemnations of contraception; such contraception in this sense
would simply be another kind of abortion. As the early church grew out of ancient
Greco-Roman scientific6 knowledge, it is to this we now turn.
The course of ancient knowledge was defined almost wholly by Aristotle. His
influence on Greek and Roman philosophy and science was immense,7 and this influence
continued throughout the ages and throughout the ancient world as a whole.8 Aristotles
particular notions of biology were also known throughout the Greco-Roman world from
the beginning of Christianity. Andronicus of Rhodes catalogued Aristotles works and
6

The term scientific here being admittedly anachronistic. As will be observed, science and philosophy
were fundamentally of the same branch of knowledge in the ancient world. Here I simply use the term in
the crude sense of what the ancients understood about physical things.
7
For most of Western thought, Aristotle and his descendants all but ruled the learned world. Michael
Ruse, The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Biology (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008),
14.
8
Aristotles influence upon all later Western thought has been immense. During ancient and medieval
times, his works were translated into Latin, Syriac, Arabic, Italian, French, Hebrew, German, and English.
The later Greek writers studied and admired his works, and so did Byzantine philosophers. His work was a
major influence on Islamic philosophy, and for centuries his writings dominated European thought.
Michael H. Hart, The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History (New York, NY: Citadel
Press, 1992), 73.

published them at Rome in the first century B.C.,9 and these works were known and
commented on by the famous physician Galen (b. 130 A.D.), who came to represent the
common depository of the anatomical knowledge of the day; what he had learnt from
many teachers, rather than the results of his own personal research.10 In terms of
influence, Galen was on par with Aristotle, being the most influential medical authority
in antiquity (and later)active in Rome from the mid to second century.[he]
dominated medical understanding into the fourth century.11 Galen himself drew heavily
from Aristotles works, thus cementing the reign of Aristotelian biology.12
With respect to the beliefs of the early church fathers, it is clear that they often
drew on Galens writings and beliefs. As Gary B. Ferngren has observed, contrary to the
idea that all early Christians thought the practice of medicine to be pagan and the
speculative philosophy of Galen and Hippocrates dangerous to Christians:
Yet some Christians had little trouble with Galen, whom they came to appreciate
for his prolific output of medical and philosophical works. Robert Grant thinks it
likely that Origen had read several of Galens medical and philosophical treatises,
and Jerome seems to have done so as well. Moreover, during the pontificate of
Victor as bishop of Rome (c. 189-c.198) a group of Christians led by Theodotus
of Byzantium, who advocated an adoptionist or Monarchian Christology, were
influenced by Galen in evidently attempting to present Christianity in
philosophical terms that would appeal to pagans. While it is true that Christians
initially condemned pagan philosophy, they came in the second century to borrow
9

Anthony Grafton and Megan Williams, Christianity and the Transformation of the Book: Origen,
Eusebius, and the Library of Caesarea (Harvard University Press, 2008), 54.
10
Charles McRae, Fathers of Biology (Percival, 1890), 51.
11
Laurie Guy, Introducing Early Christianity: A Topical Survey of its Life, Beliefs and Practices (Downers
Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 144. See also Charles Singer, Greek Biology & Greek Medicine
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1922), 69, 65; and Galen, On Diseases and Symptoms, trans. Ian Johnson
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 3.
12
[Galen] would seem to be in as good a position as an Ancient could be to understand the Aristotelian
zoological research program. He clearly had access, as Diogenes apparently had not, to the Andronican
edition of Aristotles treatises....That is to say, he apparently had access to the whole zoology, and he
knows it in roughly the form we have come to know it. This includes more than 250 references to
Aristotle throughout his writings. James G. Lennox, Aristotles Philosophy of Biology: Studies in the
Origins of Life Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 119. To avoid a potential
misrepresentation, Lennox proceeds to argue that Galen fundamentally failed to understand Aristotles
overall zoological project. This, however, is a methodological concern irrelevant to our current purposes.

extensively, if selectively, from it.Beginning in the fourth century several


Christian writers demonstrate the influence of Galens medical and philosophical
views.13
Surveying other scholarship, Ferngren also observes that, Far from being rejected as a
professionmedicine proved to be an especially attractive one to Christians and that the
familiarity that many of the fathers exhibit with Greek medical writings demonstrates
that in spite of Theodotuss heresy Christians did not ordinarily regard medical theory as
theologically harmful.14 Having established the raw influence of Aristotle and Galen on
the church fathers, it is now time to analyze their notions of reproductive biology.

SEED AS FORM: THE REPRODUCTIVE BIOLOGY OF ARISTOTLE, GALEN


Ancient knowledge subsumed what we roughly call both philosophy and science
into the same body of knowledge.15 Philosophy was often practiced in near the same
rubric as what we might otherwise call hard science, and this is relevant to our
understanding Aristotles reproductive biology inasmuch as his physical findings are
intricately tied to his metaphysical views of reality:
Greek science began in the large unity of the grand desire to know the
constituents and processes of the world. It was pursued by men whom we have
been taught to call philosophers; and in fact only gradually did philosophy, more
properly speaking, differentiate itself from physics, that is, from the elemental
attempt to observe and know the physical world. Greek philosophy was to consist
of logical and metaphysical conceptions; Greek physical, or let us say specifically
biological, science was to continue as observation and induction. Yet it did not
part company from philosophy, and occasionally employed the same processes of
logic and even metaphysics. The same men might still both be scientists and
philosophersor metaphysicians. The greatest of Greek biologists was very
13

Gary Ferngren, Medicine and Health Care in Early Christianity (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins
University Press, 2009), 105.
14
Ibid., 106.
15
For problems in terminology, see also Ruse, The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Biology, 12;
Marjorie Grene and David Depew, The Philosophy of Biology (New York, NY: Cambridge University
Press, 2004), 5ff; and Ferngren, Medicine and Health Care in Early Christianity, 4.

nearly the greatest of Greek philosophers; and Aristotle the biologist did not
abjure the logical and metaphysical reasonings of Aristotle the philosopher.16
This methodological approach was no less the case for Aristotle or Galen. Both men
understood their biological project through the lens of a philosophical system,17 and this
lens dictated their scientific judgments.18
For Aristotle, his approach to biology19 was governed by his highly influential
teleology of causes:
In observing the world, Aristotle saw four causes responsible for making an
object what it is: the material, formal, efficient, and final. In the case of a chair,
for example, the chairs material cause is its wood and cloth, its formal cause is
the structure or form given in its plan or blueprint, its efficient cause is the worker
who made it, and its final cause is sitting. The material cause, then, is that out of
which a thing is made, the formal cause is that into which a thing is made, the
efficient cause is that by which a thing is made, and the final cause is that for
which a thing has been made. It is the last of these, the final cause, that Aristotle
held to be most important, for it determined the other three. The goal or end
(telos in Greek), the final cause, of any given substance is the key to its
understanding. This means that all nature is to be understood in terms of final
causes or purposes. This is known as a teleological explanation of reality.20
This teleological explanation can be seen throughout his treatise on reproductive
biology, On the Generation of Animals.21 In this work, Aristotle argues that the male
sperm contains the form of the species, and that the female contribution to sexual
reproduction resides only in material. As the classic study on Aristotle notes:
The form is the plan of structure considered as informing a particular product of
nature or of art.the male parent, whose function in reproduction is treated as
16

Henry Osborn Taylor, Greek Biology and Medicine (Boston: Marshall Jones Company, 1922), 40-41.
And perhaps they were more sophisticated than some modern scientists who seem to forget that a good
scientist is also competent philosopher of science.
18
For example, sometimes his philosophical framework would dictate biological conclusions. Aristotles
theories, which were in part a response to the Hippocratic pangenesis, stresses the unity of form in the
male parent more for metaphysical than for empirical or ideological reasons. Grene and Depew, The
Philosophy of Biology, 29.
19
For a longer overview, cf. Lennox, Aristotles Philosophy of Biology, 128ff. Also consider relevant
articles at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
20
Forrest Baird and Walter Kaufmann, From Plato to Derrida, Third Edition (Prentice Hall, 1999), 143.
21
Cf. On the Generation of Animals, http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/a/aristotle/generation/index.html,
accessed July 24, 2011. These examples are replete such that it would be redundant to quote them here.
17

being purely that of form, finds in the matter contributed by the female parent a
new embodiment for the form of the species.22
Not only did the male contribution contain the all important form,23 but the form in
particular was judged to be more valuable than the material offered by the female:
It is clear that Aristotle believes not only that there is a difference in the
contributions of male and female to generation, but also that there is a hierarchy
between those contributions, the hierarchy between matter and form. It is also
clear that he places the female lower on that hierarchy by identifying her with
matter rather than with form.24
Like Aristotle, Galen incorporated philosophical categories into his biology,
especially Aristotelian categories. For example, while Galen critiqued Aristotle in some
places, in Galens teleological viewsit is Aristotles immanent teleologywhich is
most discernable. In his methodology, Galen is clearly and profoundly influenced by
Aristotle.25 For example, in the book, Uses of the Parts of the Body, he approvingly
expounds Aristotles dictum that nature makes nothing in vain.26 He also possessed an
22

Sir David Ross, Aristotle, Sixth Edition (New York, NY: Routledge, 1995), 79.
Consider Ross analysis: Having rejected the doctrine of pangenesis, Aristotle proceeds to the other
question, What is the actual nature of the contribution of each parent in generation? Being found in the
body, semen must be either one of its natural parts (a tissue or an organ), or something unnatural like a
tumour, or a surplus product, or a morbid secretion, or a nutriment. Of these, there is little difficultly in
seeing that it can only be a surplus product. It must represent a surplus either of useless or of useful
nutriment, i.e. either of those elements in food which go to make healthy tissue or of those which do not;
and the fact that young and healthy animals have most semen shows that it is the former. It is, in fact, the
surplus of useful nutriment in its final form, that in which it goes directly to build up tissue. This final form
assumed by nutriment is in sanguineous animals blood, and in bloodless animals an analogous fluid.
Semen is obviously not blood, and must therefore be supposed to be a direct product of blood. The bulk of
the blood in an animal goes to form its tissues; what is not needed for this goes to make semen. And
offspring resemble their parents simply because the surplus resembles the bulk. [Quoting Aristotle:] The
semen which is to form the hand or the face or the whole animal undifferentiated, and what each of them is
actually such is the semen potentially. What corresponds in the female to the semen of the male is the
menstrual dischargei.e. the surplus blood which the female, owing to its inferior vital heat, is unable to
work up into semen. The semen, thus being more formed than the catamenia, acts as a formal or efficient
cause of the offspring, while the catamenia are the material cause; the male element works up the female
element as rennet curdles milk. There is thus an analogy between natural and artistic production. Ibid.,
124-125.
24
Cynthia Freeland, Feminist Interpretations of Aristotle (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998), 156157. For an alternative, perhaps completely unique, interpretation, cf. Mayhew, The Female in Aristotles
Biology: Reason or Rationalization, 31ff.
25
Johnston, On Diseases and Symptoms, 13.
26
Peter Lutz, The Rise of Experimental Biology: An Illustrated History (Totowa, NJ: Humana Press, 2002),
44.
23

overzealous tendency to read into all of the structures and processes of the body the
purposefulness of nature.27 This concern for teleology, for the purposefulness of
nature is an important point to which we shall return.
It is somewhat significant that Galen differed from Aristotle on the nature of the
male contribution to reproduction. This can be seen in his treatise De Semine, where he
engages Aristotles arguments on the subject.28 Phillip De Lacy observes that Galen
thought that male semen is not merely a power initiating a process but that, contrary to
Aristotles view, its substance provides matter for the formation of the fetus.29 Whether
Galen or Aristotle was followed, or a similar theory available at that time,30 is ultimately
insignificant to the final calculus; all views would have thought the male contribution to
be of particular import, and this valuing would have likely influenced the judgments of
the early church fathers to some extent.
All this, however, does not lead to a conclusion that the early churchs views on
contraception can be outright dismissed due to faulty biology. The biology, of course, is
faulty by modern standards, but not in a way that is of concern to us. Whatever the
fathers thought, it seems their biology was influenced more by teleological concerns than
modern concerns of personhood, of when life begins. This is confirmed by the fact that
the early church fathers seemed not believe life or personhood (as we would
understand the concepts) began until sometime in the first trimester.31 And while the
27

Paul Carrick, Medical Ethics in the Ancient World (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press,
2001) 42.
28
Cf. Michael Boylan, Galen, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://www.iep.utm.edu/galen/#H4,
accessed July 27, 2011.
29
Galen, On semen, Vol. 5, Part 3, Issue 1, trans. Phillip De Lacy (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1992), 48.
Also consider Guy, Introducing Early Christianity, 145.
30
Cf. Noonan, 116-117.
31
Aristotelians followed Aristotle and without much further study of embryos interpreted development,
including human development, as gradual and epigenetic. Traditional Catholicism agreed. St. Augustine
and St. Thomas Aquinas both held that hominization, or the coming into being of the human, occurs only
gradually. Quickening was thought to occur around 40 days, and to be the point at which the merely animal

teleological approach will be critiqued below, we must dismiss outright any attempt to
suggest that the early fathers conflated abortion with contraception on strictly biological
grounds, since no classical writer literally identified semen with man.32 Whatever
value they might have placed on the semen as form over against the female reproductive
contribution as mere material, the ancients did not consider either to be life proper.33

STOIC AND HERETICAL INFLUENCES ON EARLY CHURCH SEXUALITY


The teleological approach to reproduction, however, bears imminently on
contraception; ancient notions of purpose were powerful influences in the early churchs
grappling with questions of sexual morality. John T. Noonans34 treatment of the subject
has been decisive, and his work deserves an extended quotation:
Turning now to the secular intellectual influences on the doctrine [of
contraception], we look at material whose influence, if more transitory, was as
real as that of Scripture. If the Stoic writings did not occupy a privileged position,
if consequently they were not to be consciously returned to by later generations
seeking renewal, they had a powerful grip on the minds of many of the ablest
Christians; and as the writings of the Fathers incorporating Stoic doctrine were
frequently returned to, the teaching of the Stoics was not without its impulse of
life long after Stoicism had perished. Stoicism was in the air the intellectual
mix of material fluids was ensouled. Until 1859, when Pope Pius IX decreed that life begins at
conception, the Church was epigenetic along with the Aristotelians. Jane Maienschein, Epigenesis and
Preformationism, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2010), ed. Edward Zalta,
http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2008/entries/epigenesis/, accessed July 28, 2011.
32
Noonan, 117.
33
It appears to be true that a significant strand of thought in the early Christian Church did not primarily
address abortion in terms of the language of personhood, and the killing of persons. Indeed, in the early
Church, there is sometimes no sharp distinction drawn between contraception and sterilization, on the one
hand, and abortion on the other. This was neither because the Church wished to downgrade the evil of
abortion, nor necessarily to elide the distinction between contraception and murder in the sense in which
the fifth commandment prohibits it. Rather, both contraception and early abortion were looked upon as
grave contra-life sins. Practically speaking, however, there could have been little profit, as the work of
Aristotle and Aquinas inadvertently reveals, in speculation about the nature of the early embryo or even
fetus, given the paltry biology at hand. At the Roots of Christian Bioethics: Critical Essays on the Thought
of H. Tristram Engelhardt, Jr., ed. Ana Iltis and Mark Cherry (Salem, MA: M&M Scriverner Press, 2010),
166.
34
A brief biography of Noonan is available online: https://sites.google.com/a/nd.edu/the-notre-damecenter-for-ethics-and-culture/about/personnel/fellows-of-the-center/past-fellows/john-t-noonan-jr, accessed
July 28, 2011.

converts to Christianity breathed. Half consciously, half unconsciously, they


accommodated some Christian beliefs to a Stoic sense.The Christians shared
with the Stoics, or took from them, the assumption that there was a natural law by
which acts unworthy of human beings might be judged.
The Stoic approach to sexuality apparently had a particular appeal for Christian
moralists.Logically, a Stoic might have condemned marriage as another form of
coerced dependence on another. But moderation and respect for nature curbed
Stoic logic. Passion in marriage was alone suspect. Marriage must have another
basis. Plainly that basis was its necessary part in the propagation of the race. By
this standard of rational purposefulness, self-evident and supplied by nature,
excess in marital intercourse might be measured. This view of marriage was to
seem right and good to many Christians.

Musonius taught that marital intercourse was morally right only if its purpose
were procreative; intercourse for pleasure within the limits of marriage was
reprehensible. His doctrine joined the Stoic distrust of pleasure and the Stoic
insistence on purpose.

The prevailing doctrine in these highly respectable, morally earnest circles thus
favored the restriction of sexual activity by rules of reason appealing to nature.
These authors had sought a purpose for sexual activity, and they had found it in
the biological function. The suspicion they felt toward affection and dependence
excluded the expression of love as a purpose. The supreme norm for them was
not love, but nature.
If one asks, then, where the Christian Fathers derived their notions on marital
intercoursenotions which have no express biblical basisthe answer must be,
chiefly from the Stoics. In the case of such an early and influential teacher as
Clement of Alexandria, the direct descent is obvious; his work on the purposes of
marriage is a paraphrase of works of Musonius. In the second century, Origens
standard for intercourse in pregnancy is clearly Senecas. In the third century,
Lactantius remarks on the obvious purpose of generative faculties echo Ocellus
Lucanus. In the fourth century, Jeromes most austere remarks are taken from
Seneca. It is not a matter of men expressing simple truths which common sense
might suggest to anyone with open eyes. It is a matter of a doctrine consciously
appropriated. The descent is literary, the dependence substantial.35
It must be observed that the rationale for appropriating these Stoic categories was
borne out of a concern for defending theological truth. Facing a tide of heretical factions,
35

Noonan, 66-68.

most notably in Gnosticism, and also in secular immorality,36 the early fathers found that
Scripture had little to say on sexuality, and contraception specifically.37 Needing
intellectual tools by which to respond to these concerns, they found the Stoic conception
of what was natural to be an effective reply:
Sturdier, more tangible, commoner reasons were needed, or so at least the
Christians of the second century seem to have thought, if the Gnostic view of
marriage was to be successfully opposed. The demands of Ephesians 5 must have
seemed unreal; the requirements of love [in a society that based marriage on
anything but love], too much. The Old Testament seemed a stronger position
from which to answer the Gnostics.38
This, however, resulted in the Gnostics refusing to hold the Old Testament as
authoritative; and so both the New Testament and Old Testament were seen as
inadequate:
The greatest reliance in argument, then, had to be placed on the law of nature, the
concept sanctioned by Paul in Romans 2:15, developed by the Stoics, invoked by
Philo....Nature became the ground on which the orthodox stood, the measure by
which they measured.39

36

The formation of early Christian doctrine on contraception is largely a response to two major attitudes
prevalent in the Greco-Roman world. One attitude was religious and therefore, I believe, of greater
concern to religious men. It was an attitude hostile to all procreation. It was the position of the Gnostics.
The other attitude was less defined, more generally secular. It consisted of indifference to the preservation
of embryonic and infant life. It was the attitude of many pagans. Connected with it, although
distinguishable, was an indifference to male promiscuity and to the sexual exploitation of other persons.
Ibid., 78.
37
To answer the questions Gnosticism forced on the Christians, second-century intellectuals like Clement
of Alexandria and Irenaeus had three responses: the New Testament, the Old Testament, and the law of
nature. The New Testament could be used to show that some kinds of sexual behavior were not allowed
even the redeemed Christian. The antinomians were denounced often enough, but what positive ethic
replaced their liberated acceptance of all sexual acts as good? The difficulties may be suggested by the
straits to which Clement of Alexandria was reduced. Arguing against the Gnostics, he thought the best text
blessing marriage that he could draw from the Gospels was the saying of the Lord, For where two or three
are gathered together for my sake, there I am in the midst of them (Mt 18:20). Clement asked, Does he
not mean by three husband, wife and child? Yet he admitted the text could be also expounded
allegorically so that the three meant flesh, soul and spirit (Stromata 3:10.68, GCS 15:226-227). There
was, in fact, only the single text ascribed to Paul, 1 Timothy 2:15. Clement did as much as he could with it,
speaking of the Christian layman, and saying he shall be saved by childbearing. Ibid., 97-98. Ephesians
5 did not factor into the discussion until several centuries into church history.
38
Ibid., 99.
39
Noonan, 99.

It was not, therefore, out of a crass and mindless adherence to pagan philosophy
that the early church fathers found themselves committed to Stoic principles. The
motivation was decent, even if the final calculation seems less than reasonable and
ultimately problematic. Should we think ourselves above such errors, this is, of course, a
temptation that besets Christians in every age; we often behave, and perhaps even
believe, that the Bible is insufficient to solve contemporary intellectual challenges to
faith.40

THE FATHERS ON CONTRACEPTION


One qualification we need to make when we speak about the universal
consensus of the fathers is that there are relatively few mentions of contraception in the
early church. To simply state that the fathers were against contraception gives the
impression that there was a widespread belief among them regarding the subject. Rather,
it is the case that in those places where the fathers spoke to the subject, they were
universally against it. These places, however, are few and far between.41
The following quotations and commentary are given as representative of the kinds
of statements the fathers made on this subject. The list is not exhaustive, nor need is it
intended to be; other quotations can easily be found (usually without context) with a basic
Internet search, and it is neither necessary nor appropriate, given the scope of this paper,
40

Consider, for example, how some forms of evidentialist apologetics begin by or operate within an appeal
to thick conceptions of objective reason, identified as sets of uncontroversial, self-evident truths. This
project was and, to the small extent to which it still exists, is largely influenced by Enlightenment
conceptions of reason. The motivation for this appeal was not, in this instance, necessarily evil. It was
born out of a desire to defend the truth of Gods Word.
41
For the first centuries, there are admittedly only a few references that go beyond a general appreciation
of human fertility and an emphasis on the purpose of sexual reproduction in marriage and unequivocally
condemn contraception.Even when Christianity becomes a state religion in the fourth century, examples
of written sources in which contraception is expressly condemned are still few and far between. Robert
Jtte, Contraception: A History (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2008), 23-24.

to analyze their words in depth given the general scholarly consensus about the early
churchs beliefs on this matter.

Clement of Alexandria
Two quotations from Clement of Alexandria, offered up at the popular
Catholic.com, are drawn from Clements The Instructor: Because of its divine
institution for the propagation of man, the seed is not to be vainly ejaculated, nor is it to
be damaged, nor is it to be wasted (2:10:91:2), and To have coitus other than to
procreate children is to do injury to nature. (2:10:95:3) The sentiment here is quite
clear. But rather than merely a condemnation against non-abortive contraception,
Clement asserts that sexual intercourse is for one purpose, and one purpose only
procreation. This can be seen again elsewhere in his works:
For [Scripture] regards it not right that [sexual intercourse] should take place
either in wantonness or for hire like harlots, but only for the birth of children.42
In this passage, Clement identifies sexual intercourse for the purpose of procreation and
directly juxtaposes it with sexual intercourse for non-creative purposes, condemning the
latter without qualification.43 This is a sentiment Clement repeats elsewhere.44

Augustine
Consider Augustines comparison between the proper functions of food and
eating with that of proper sexuality:
42

The Stromata 18, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf02.vi.iv.ii.xviii.html, accessed July 27, 2011.


David W. Bercot provides the following translation: Scripture does not regard it as right for sexual
relations to take place either in wantonness or for hire like prostitutes. Rather, it is only for the birth of
children. A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998), 537.
44
Consider the other quotations Bercot provides from Clement emphasizing the sentiments, the following
be one example: Since pleasure and lust seem to fall under marriage, it must also be addressed. Marriage
is the first union of man and woman for the procreation of legitimate children. Bercot, op. cit.
43

What food is for the health of man, intercourse is for the health of the species, and
each is not without carnal delight which cannot be lust if, modified and restrained
by temperance, it is brought to a natural use. What is unlawful food in supported
life, this is fornication or adulterous intercourse in seeking offspring; and what is
unlawful food in the wantonness of the belly and gullet, this is unlawful
intercourse seeking in lust no offspring; and what is for some the immoderate
seeking of lawful food, this is that pardonable intercourse in spouses.45
Consider as well the Enchiridion, where Augustine explicitly denies that it is acceptable
for married couples to engage in sexual activity for non-procreative ends:
What sins are trivial and what are grave, however, is not for human but for divine
judgment to determine. For we see that, in respect of some sins, even the apostle,
by pardoning them, has conceded this point. Such a case is seen in what the
venerable Paul says to married folks: Do not deprive one another, except by
consent for a time to give yourselves to prayer, and then return together lest Satan
tempt you at the point of self-control. One could consider that it is not a sin for a
married couple to have intercourse, not only for the sake of procreating children
which is the good of marriagebut also for the sake of the carnal pleasure
involved. Thus, those whose self-control is weak could avoid fornication, or
adultery, and other kinds of impurity too shameful to name, into which their lust
might drag them through Satan's tempting. Therefore one could, as I said,
consider this not a sin, had the apostle not added, But I say this as a concession,
not as a rule. Who, then, denies that it is a sin when he agrees that apostolic
authority for doing it is given only by concession?46
Thus, for Augustine, sexual intercourse serves a singular purpose, and that is
procreation.47 This is a position he continued to hold throughout his life, as his
reflections on the above passage in Retractions reveal,48 and his conclusions on this
matter exerted enormous influence over the church, including up and through the present
day.49
45

The Good of Marriage, 18, as cited in Noonan, 163. An alternative translation, with context, is available
at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf103.v.ii.xix.html, accessed July 28, 2011.
46
Enchiridion: On Faith, Hope and Love, trans. Albert Outler, 34. Available at:
http://www.ccel.org/a/augustine/enchiridion/formats/enchiridion1.0.pdf, accessed July 28, 2011.
47
After analyzing several passages from Augustine, Noonan concludes that, for Augustine, Offspring are
assigned an absolute value. The Stoic rule is accepted without acknowledgment of its derivation. Only
sexual intercourse for the sake of procreating is fully lawful. Noonan, 163.
48
Augustine, The Retractions, trans. Sister M. Inez Bogan (Chicago, IL: Catholic University of America
Press, 1968), 165.
49
The heart of the Augustinian position is the old rule of Philo and the Stoics, buttressed by their appeal to
a nature whose purposes are evident. Augustine did not invent the doctrine. He gave it its classic form.
He synthesized, to a degree, the requirements of procreative purpose with the requirements of fidelity and

Lactantius and Chrystotom


These fathers belong in the heading simply because deviated somewhat from the
total appropriation of Stoic notions of sexuality:
In the late third century Lactantius gave a value to the Pauline purpose of
intercourse as remedy for incontinence. He wrote, Whoever cannot control his
affections, let him keep them within the lines of a lawful bed. The passage by
itself would be ambiguous, but Lactantius went on to discuss intercourse in
pregnancy. God has made other female animals reject their mates when pregnant,
but He has made woman suffer her husband lest, when their wives repel them,
husbands be driven by lust to seek elsewhere and so doing not keep the glory of
chastity (Divine Institutes 6.23.3, 26, CSEL 19:566, 568). This rejection of
animal behavior and of the Stoic norm is the only opinion I have encountered in
any Christian theologian before 1500 explicitly upholding the lawfulness of
intercourse in pregnancy. Yet even Lactantius did not give the practice complete
approval. The wife does not sin, but neither can she be considered as having the
virtue of modesty (pudicitia).50
Noonan continues by noting that Lactantius also argued, despite his position offered
elsewhere on the Pauline purpose of intercourse, that nature demonstrates that the only
purpose for intercourse is to produce children. He references Divine Institutes 6.23.18,
which I quote from another translation:
But just as God gave us eyes not to gaze and grab at pleasure but to see for the
sake of those actions relevant to the needs of life, so too we have been given the
genital part of the body, as the word itself indicates, merely for the creation of
offspring.51
It seems, then, Lactantius would have rejected any intentional frustration of the normal
purpose.52
indissolubility. For a thousand years and more the Augustinian formulas guided the Church in the West.
From A.D. 400 to the present, the Augustinian terms proles, fides, sacramentum have, with much
development, served to define for Catholic theologians the good of marriage. Noonan, 165-166. Noonan
gives an exposition of these terms as Augustine understood them on 161ff.
50
Ibid., 103.
51
Those searching for this citation at CCEL or similar resources dependent on Fletchers nineteenth century
translation will find only Latin. The quoted translation of this passage can be found in Anthony Bowen,
Lactantius: Divine Institutes (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2003), 380.
52
Noonan, 104.

John Chrysostom was the other father who did not incorporate the Stoic view.53
However, it did not temper his view of contraception, which he, due to his implicit belief
that interfering with marital intercourse was a direct assault on the work of God, thought
worse than homicide:
Why do you sow where the field is eager to destroy the fruit? Where are the
medicines of sterility? Where there is murder before birth? You do not even let a
harlot remain a harlot, but you make her a murderess as well. Do you see that
from drunkenness comes fornication, from fornication adultery, from adultery
murder? Indeed, it is something worse than murder and I do not know what to
call it; for she does not kill what is formed but prevents its formation.54

Despite his rejection of Stoic categories, it seems that Chrysostom would still have
objected to sexuality that was not used specifically for the purpose of creating children.
Many points could be raised at this juncture, but one observation in particular
requires emphasis. It is clear that the only valid purpose the fathers held for sexual
intercourse was that of procreation.55 Sexual activity that in any way frustrated the
natural purpose of procreation was strongly condemned. This would include even
those practices Catholics today would not call contraception proper, such as Natural
Family Planning. The only licit means of preventing pregnancy is total abstention from
sex. It is here that we see that no denomination or movement follows the early church
53

Ibid.
Homily 25 on the Epistle to the Romans, 60, 626ff, as cited in Jtte, Contraception, 24. An older
translation of this passage may be accessed here: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf111.vii.xxvi.html,
accessed July 27, 2011.
55
Catholic.com tacitly concedes that the early church fathers did not see any value in the unitive function
of sexual intercourse: It should be noted that some of the Church Fathers use language that can suggest to
modern ears that there is no unitive aspect to marital intercourse and that there is only a procreative aspect.
It is unclear whether this is what some of them actually thought or whether they are intending simply to
stress that sexual activity becomes immoral if the procreative aspect of a given marital act is deliberately
frustrated. However that may be, over the course of time the Church has called greater attention to the
unitive aspect of marital intercourse, yet it remains true that the procreative aspect of each particular marital
act must not be frustrated. http://www.catholic.com/library/Contraception_and_Sterilization.asp, accessed
July 27, 2011.
54

fathers on contraception, whether Catholic or Protestant,56 since none restricts the


natural function of sexual intercourse only to procreation.

EVALUATING EVIDENCE: THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE EARLY FATHERS


While the universal consensus of the fathers is often quoted and referenced as if it
carried great significance, the precise weight we should assign the early fathers on the
question of contraception is unclear. More critically, the reasons we should assign the
fathers this great weight are also unclear. Since Catholic explications on this point seem
to be nonexistent, it would be best for us to carry the burden for a moment, as it were, and
see whether this appeal has standing.
Here are three potential reasons57 we should give the fathers a high to very high
deal of weight: (a) they are better exegetes of Scripture, (b) they are more spiritual, and
(c) they are closer in proximity to the Apostles. Of these, we can discard (a) rather
quickly. It seems obvious, from both the exegetical floundering of Clement of
Alexandria to the near-complete failure to address passages like Ephesians 5,58 that, on
the question of human sexuality, they were not better exegetes of Scripture. Reason (b)
provides us with a pious, but ultimately vacuous appeal, since what is spiritual will be
determined beforehand by other sources; and spirituality, while a potential indicator of
wisdom and Godly truth, is no sure indicator. Reason (c) is perhaps one of the strongest,
56

The Eastern Orthodox also deviate from the church fathers, and from Catholicism, on the matter of
contraception. Cf. Rev. Dr. Stanley S. Harakas, The Stand of the Orthodox Church on Controversial
Issues, http://www.goarch.org/ourfaith/ourfaith7101, accessed July 27, 2011. Also consider Timothy
Wares discussion in The Orthodox Church (New York, NY:Penguin, 1997), 296. Whereas the later
edition says that there is room for debate within the Orthodox communion, the 1963 edition flatly
condemned contraception.
57
We can, of course, immediately dispense with brute appeals to consensus and authority, for these are
ultimately fallacious. The weight of the fathers must lie somewhere between irrelevant and important, but
it cannot be totally binding. No modern denomination treats the fathers as normative without qualification.
58
See footnote #35 above.

although here we run into the difficulty of defining proximity. What kind of proximity do
we mean? Chronological proximity is of no help, since this alone would qualify
Diotrephes59 as an individual with significant spiritual insight. Proximity in belief is of
no help either, since that would be a viciously circular appeal; we would, by necessity,
first define the belief of the Apostles before we could measure the church fathers against
this standard.
What, then, drives this intuition that there is an enormous deal of weight we
should give the fathers? Perhaps this reasoning arises from the Catholic assumption that
the early church is an earlier manifestation of their modern denomination. Rather than
treating the fathers broadly as Christians simpliciter, and accounting for their unique
historical, theological, cultural and political contexts, lay Catholic apologists specify the
church fathers religious essence as faithful submission to the Magisterium at Rome.
This anachronistic posture lends itself to a framework wherein the church fathers
functionally hold to the same philosophical and theological assumptions, utilize the same
Biblical and historical sources, and believe the same doctrines as what is professed by
modern Roman Catholicism.
Of course, if several people of similar disposition are evaluating the same set of
evidence, then their majority conclusions carry a strong measure of weight. If one
hundred scientists, utilizing the same methodology and operating out of the same
philosophical framework, all study a set of data, and each conclude that these data have
one valid interpretation, this would carry a certain amount of credence, at least in the

59

A man who rejected the apostolic authority of John. I have written something to the church, but
Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority. Cf. 3 John 1:9, ESV.

sense that they have likely identified the correct application of their framework to the
current data.
However, as we have seen, the early church fathers deliberated their doctrine in
exceptionally different historical circumstances. Their philosophical framework was
largely alien to ours. This does not necessitate that their conclusions are wrong; far from
it. It does, however, require us to temper the idea that their consensus on the matter
should carry an enormous amount of weight. If the modern world operated on Stoic
principles, and all Christians thought these principles were to be appropriated in the fight
against secular moral values, then perhaps we should be concerned that modern
Protestants have rejected contraception. But we are not Stoics. Neither are we
Aristotelians. Not only do modern Christians, Catholic or Protestant, apply a different set
of intellectual tools to questions of sexuality, we are not even working with the same
theological or spiritual raw materials to begin with. We would be wise to avoid
imprudence and take for granted that the underlying framework of the early church
fathers is either shared with ours or is basically true.

THE SILENCE OF SCRIPTURE AND THE PURSUIT OF WISDOM


Is the underlying philosophical framework of the early church fathers Biblical?
Certainly it is not Biblical in the sense of being derived from clear passages of Scripture;
the early fathers themselves turned to Stoic philosophy since they believed that Scripture
did not speak sufficiently to the purposes of sexuality.60 And contrary to the Stoic view

60

See note #37 above.

that sexual intercourse is only moral when engaged for the purpose of procreation, Gods
Word celebrates this union as intrinsically good.61
The Scriptures do not speak directly of contraception, and, again, the flight of the
early church to Stoic philosophical categories during their time of need reinforces this
truth. This general silence is remarkable given the practice of contraception in the
ancient world, including in areas Paul worked and to which he ministered by letter. As
Paul Carrick observes:
we must confront an additional important fact: limiting family size by whatever
means was a widespread ancient practice. We possess several reliable reports,
especially during the Hellenistic and Roman periods, of whole communities
facing much lower population counts than their leaders and their own social
critics deemed desirable from the standpoint of national welfare. In Macedonian
times, for example, Philip V was so worried about his country's depopulation that
he created a law forbidding the willful limitation of the family by contraception,
abortion, or infanticide. It is reported that in thirty years Philip's edict succeeded
in raising the manpower of his nation by almost fifty percent. Polybius, writing
about 150 B.C., was well aware of the widespread practice of family limitation.62
While the limiting of family size was generally carried out through abortion and
infanticide, contraception was still utilized.63
One possible reason the New Testament documents, in particular the Pauline
epistles, do not speak to contraception is that such measures were usually only available
to the rich and upper class.64 However, given that it is likely Pauls letters would
circulated among at least some wealth individuals, especially to the church in Rome, it is
difficult to perceive why Paul, if he did disapprove of contraception, would fail to
61

Song of Solomon being one prominent example.


Medical Ethics in the Ancient World (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2001), 122.
63
That contraception was used in the ancient world is uncontroversial. The scholarly opinion differs only
on the extent to which it was used. Leading expert John M. Riddle argues that it was highly popular and
widespread in Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance (Harvard University
Press, 1992) and Eves Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West (Harvard University
Press, 1998). For a critique of Riddles latter title as both speculative and built on very slender data,
see Gary B. Ferngrens book review in The New England Journal of Medicine,
http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJM199711063371920, accessed July 28, 2011.
64
Cf. Jtte, Contraception, 15-16.
62

condemn its use in his broad, sweeping denunciations of sexual immorality. This does
not mean that, were we able to ask Paul today what he thought of the modern use of
contraception, that he would not condemn the practice. That would be taking the absence
of evidence too far. But since Scripture is silence, we must respect this silence. We must
turn to wisdom instead.
What might a Protestant ethic of contraception look like? For interested readers, I
commend the work of David VanDrunen in Bioethics and the Christian Life: A Guide to
Making Difficult Decisions (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009).65 With refreshing clarity,
VanDrunen analyzes broader Scriptural principles and applies wisdom to discern their
relationship to questions of contraception. His overall approach can be related as
follows:
Is our present technological ability to separate sex and procreation simply an
amazing expression of our God-given capacities or a transgression of the way in
which God intended human beings to act? We must reflect on the answers to
such questions, and these answers must be properly nuanced. Scripture does not
provide any direct instruction about contraception or reproductive technology.
This puts a high premium on the exercise of wisdom and discretion for Christians
reflecting on what is at stake in particular circumstances.

What is morally central for the Christian couple is not the method of birth control
used in a discrete sexual encounter but their fidelity to biblical concerns about
sexual purity, love for one another, and a wholesome attitude toward children as
blessings from God.66
The Word of the Lord is sufficient to guide our beliefs and practices. By its light
we will traverse the paths of righteousness, and where it does not shine, it has equipped
us with principles of wisdom by which to navigate the dark patches. If the church fathers
65

VanDrunens treatment of contraception can be found in his chapter on marriage, procreation and
contraception, pp. 97-117.
66
VanDrunen, 104, 116, op. cit.

had trusted its sufficiency, the Church might not have spent centuries laden with a Stoic
sexual norm that denied the unitive function of marital relations. Since the early churchs
Stoic framework is ultimately unscriptural, its condemnations of contraception carry far
less weight than if they had been established within the scaffolding of Scriptural
principles. That the entire post-Apostolic Church has been against contraception is an
exaggeration of dubious quality, given how little it was commented on in the first several
centuries, but even if it were the case, we would be free to dismiss this conclusion as
insufficient to change our belief and practice. The church fathers, for all their wonderful
accomplishments and brilliant insights, are not binding on the matter of contraception, all
the more so when their reasoning on this subject is exposed for what it is.