Tag Archives: birth control

Five Ways You’re Probably Not A Calvinist

What’s a Calvinist?  That can be a tough question to answer.  It’s fair to say there are Reformed people who believe it simply means we’re followers of John Calvin.  If a Lutheran follows the teachings of Martin Luther, then a Calvinist must follow the teachings of John Calvin.  In a general sense, that’s true.  We do follow and share some of the important tenets held by John Calvin – not because he said so, but because the Bible teaches these things.  Most importantly of all, with Calvin we maintain the gospel of sovereign grace.

Nevertheless, there are things John Calvin taught or practiced that few, if any, self-identifying Calvinists would hold to today.  Let me outline five of them.

The Perpetual Virginity of Mary

Calvin believed that Mary remained a virgin after the conception and birth of Jesus.  For the proof of this, see his commentaries on Matt. 1:25 and Luke 1:34.  So what does Calvin do with the mention of Jesus’ “brothers” in Matt. 12:46, Mark 3:31, and Luke 8:19?  He follows the old interpretation that these are cousins of Jesus, not his half-brothers.  This approach was followed by other Reformers, including Guido de Brès, the author of the Belgic Confession.

Instruments in Worship

Some of our Presbyterian brethren are fond of pointing out that Calvin was no fan of instruments in public worship – and they’re right.  See, for example, his commentary on Psalm 33:2 or Psalm 71:22.  Calvin believed musical instruments were linked to the Old Testament ceremonies fulfilled in Christ.  However, what’s often missed is that Calvin wasn’t targeting musical accompaniment.  In his day, musical instruments were never used anywhere in public worship to accompany singing.  Instead, if they were used, they were used as stand-alone elements in the service.  See here for some elaboration on this by my colleague Dean Anderson. 

Birth Control

If you have Calvin’s Commentaries, you should check out Genesis 38:10.  If your edition is the same as mine (the old Baker reprint set), you’ll notice that this verse is missing, along with a few other lines.  The translator or editor decided not to include this, as if Calvin’s views on this are dangerous or troublesome.  Well, let’s put out there exactly what Calvin wrote about Onan’s spilling his seed on the ground:

Verse 10: The Jews quite immodestly gabble concerning this thing. It will suffice for me briefly to have touched upon this as much as modesty in speaking permits. The voluntary spilling of semen outside of intercourse between man and woman is a monstrous thing. Deliberately to withdraw from coitus in order that semen may fall to the ground is doubly monstrous. For this is to extinguish the hope of the race and to kill before he is born — the hoped for offspring.

This impiety is especially condemned, now by the Spirit through Moses’ mouth, that Onan, as it were, by a violent abortion, no less cruelly than filthily cast upon the ground the offspring of his brother, torn from the maternal womb. Besides, in this way he tried, as far as he was able, to wipe out a part of the human race. If any woman ejects a foetus from her womb by drugs, it is reckoned a crime incapable of expiation and deservedly Onan incurred upon himself the same kind of punishment, infecting the earth with his semen, in order that Tamar might not conceive a future human being as an inhabitant of the earth.”

I wonder how many self-proclaimed “Calvinists” would agree with that!  Now, I suspect that Calvin held to the view that women don’t contribute anything of substance to the reproductive process – they’re simply the “field” into which the “seed” is sown.  In this regard, Calvin may have had more in common with Anabaptist Menno Simons than his fellow Reformer Guido de Brès – see here for more on that.

The Use of God’s Name

A couple of years ago, I read through the entirety of Calvin’s Institutes.  One thing that discomforted me was Calvin’s occasional misuse of God’s Name.  In three places, Calvin uses the exclamation “Good God!”  (3.4.29, 3.4.39, 4.16.27).  In each context, it’s clearly an exclamation and not a sincerely-meant prayer to God.  The expression was used in Calvin’s original Latin of the 1559 edition (“Bone Deus!”), but for some reason he dropped it in the French.  In each instance, the older translations of Beveridge and Allen omit these exclamations.  I’ve encountered the same expression in the writings of Guido de Brès.  I find it troubling and can’t find a way to excuse it.  Perhaps, being former Roman Catholics, they became accustomed to using this exclamation to express great horror — a blind spot.

Servetus

Michael Servetus was a notorious Spanish heretic and opponent of Calvin.  He was a wanted man throughout Europe, both amongst Protestants and Roman Catholics.  Servetus arrived in Geneva in 1553.  He was recognized by John Calvin and reported to the city authorities.  He faced a trial before the city magistrates for heresy, was found guilty, and burnt at the stake.  As I argue here, Calvin’s involvement in the Servetus case is a quite bit more nuanced than is often realized.  Nevertheless, in 1554 Calvin wrote a lively defense of the way the Servetus case was handled in Geneva.  He believed Servetus received justice for his crimes.  Moreover, he argued that the Old Testament penalties for such things ought to be maintained in the present-day:  “Whoever shall now contend that it is unjust to put heretics and blasphemers to death will knowingly and willingly incur their very guilt.  This is not laid down on human authority; it is God who speaks and prescribes a perpetual rule for his church.”

Still a Calvinist?

I could give several more examples, but the point’s been made.  As we reflect on this, it’s important to remember two things.  First, the Bible is our infallible standard, not John Calvin.  He was a mere man and men can and do err.  Second, how we identify ourselves does matter.  Rather than identifying ourselves as Calvinists, it’s better to think of ourselves as Reformed Christians.  If we’re asked, the word ‘Reformed’ has a whole story behind it.  It’s the story of how the authority of the Bible was rediscovered, how the glory of the gospel was regained, and how the church again came to see the praise of God as her be-all and end-all.  ‘Reformed’ really means ‘Reformed according to the Scriptures.’  ‘Calvinist’ merely brings us to a man, but ‘Reformed’ brings us to God and his Word.   I think Calvin himself would prefer we use the latter.


Pastoral Q & A: The Morning After Pill

Can a Christian woman use the “Morning After Pill” as emergency contraception?

Let’s first be clear what we’re talking about.  The “Morning After Pill” is often marketed under the name “Plan B,” though there are other drugs and brands.  This is not RU-486 (mifepristone), a drug that causes abortion typically later in pregnancy.  The MAP is regarded as a form of emergency contraception — it’s for when other ways of preventing a pregnancy have either failed or been neglected.  The question is whether this is something Christian women can take advantage of.  To answer that, let’s imagine two scenarios.

Scenario 1

A young unmarried woman has been having sex with her boyfriend.  On one occasion, they forget to use their normal method of contraception.  She’s concerned that she may get pregnant, so she goes to the pharmacy for “Plan B.”  She takes the tablets and does not become pregnant.

Scenario 2

A woman in her 30s (with four children already) believes it would be unwise for her to have any more children.  She and her husband normally use a barrier method of contraception.  On one occasion, they forget and she’s concerned that she may get pregnant.  So “Plan B” is the answer.  As in the first scenario, no pregnancy results.

In both situations, the MAP/Plan B seems to prevent an undesirable pregnancy.  In both situations, the woman claims to be a Christian.  In both situations, the woman first goes to the Health Direct website of the Australian government (or equivalent) and is relieved to read that the MAP does not cause an abortion.  Instead, it simply stops or delays ovulation and it may also prevent sperm from reaching the egg.  But “if the sperm has already fertilised the egg, it is too late and the pill won’t work.”  So, going with the official information, neither scenario has caused an abortion.  No life has been taken.  Therefore, there is apparently no ethical issue with the Sixth Commandment (“You shall not kill”).

We need to think about this more carefully.

The first thing we need to reflect on is the actual facts regarding the MAP/Plan B.  The Health Direct website (and others like it) does not tell the full story.  The truth of the matter is that there are studies which suggest that the MAP can have an abortive effect (even the Wikipedia article acknowledges this — with sources).  If an egg has been fertilized, the MAP can prevent that human life from continuing to live in the womb.  No one can categorically say with 100% certainty that the MAP never causes early abortions.

That should change the way we look at this.  In pro-life circles, we sometimes use the illustration of a building about to be demolished.  Before a demolition company levels a building, they have to make absolutely certain there are no people in the building.  If there’s a shred of doubt about whether somebody’s still inside, you don’t level the building.  Similarly, if there’s any doubt about whether the MAP can cause an abortion, we would not want to take that risk.  We would never want to have blood on our hands, even by accident.

So, let’s go back to those two scenarios.

The first one is the most ethically problematic.  If the young woman in the first scenario claims to be a Christian, she is almost certainly self-deceived about her spiritual status.  You cannot be a true Christian and be actively engaged in any premarital sexual relations (Hebrews 13:4, etc.).  That would be living unrepentantly in sin — “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God” (1 John 3:9).  And if a woman in a scenario like that takes the MAP, she could be adding sin against the Sixth Commandment to her sin against the Seventh Commandment.  If she really wants to be a Christian, she must turn away from her life of sin, seek God’s forgiveness in Christ, and follow the Lord.  That will include accepting the consequences for her sexual sin, including, if it so happens, any pregnancy which might result from it.

The second scenario is somewhat more challenging.  I believe married Christian couples can have lawful reasons for using certain methods of contraception.  For example, a woman may struggle with severe postpartum depression which may leave her incapacitated for months after a birth.  She may feel suicidal or even homicidal.  In such cases, couples are wise to limit the size of their family using lawful means God has made available.  However, what if those means fail?  One thing we can say with certainty:  abortion of any sort or the possibility of an abortion is out of the question for Christian couples.  The MAP is not the answer in this scenario.  The couple has to prayerfully accept what God may bring.  If he brings them the conception of a child and they cannot see themselves clear to caring for another child, then adoption (to another Christian family) may be the best option.  But here again, using the MAP and possibly sinning against the Sixth Commandment must be ruled out.

Let me conclude with what I would say to someone who has taken the MAP.  I’ll be direct:  you may have caused an abortion.  Perhaps you did it ignorantly, working only with the information provided on official government websites and so on.  Perhaps what led you to take it was what the Bible describes as “sin with the uplifted hand,” deliberate and intentional living in sin (i.e. premarital sex).  But, whatever, the case may, if you did cause an abortion, this is not an unforgivable sin.  God’s grace in Jesus Christ is available for all who repent and believe.  God’s grace is big enough to cover this too.  However, let us respond to his grace with a hatred for all sin and a love for all life, even at its earliest stages.