Marriage and Childbearing
With a certain trepidation, I seek to address the emotionally charged issue of birth control.
Those committed to using birth control for responsible parenting view the technology as a means of furthering the kingdom of God by helping families produce a godly posterity without impoverishing themselves and failing to provide for their children's welfare and for the church's ministry. They may see a categorical rejection of such technology as similar to the Amish rejecting electricity.
However, I believe that a firm argument is to be made for unbridled procreation by Christian families. Obviously, there is not room here to develop an airtight case with rigorous biblical exegesis; I will try to highlight the chief points in the argument.
First, to reject a specific technology as unethical does not mean that one has adopted an Amish attitude. Few Orthodox Presbyterians, I trust, would argue that the development of RU-486 (an abortion pill) means that we should be open to its use to enhance our service to the Lord. If birth control were directly forbidden by God, or if he gave us a command to bear children prolifically, then birth control would not be a matter of Christian liberty.
Old Testament Commands
Second, the unity of Scripture (Old and New Testaments) requires us to see both portions of it as setting forth "what duty God requires of man" (Shorter Catechism, Q. 3; cf. Q. 2). When Paul wrote that "All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17), he was referring directly to the Old Testament. The question of the ceremonial and civil laws notwithstanding, the fundamental position of our Lord, his apostles, and our secondary standards is that the Old Testament's commands are binding upon us.
Third, and more specifically, the New Testament recognizes a foundational role in ethics for the creation order and its ordinances. This is most prominently seen in our Lord's dealing with divorce, where he appeals to creation: "Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way," and, "He who created them from the beginning... " (Matthew 19:8, 4). In Matthew 5, Jesus uses the creation's marriage order to focus his interpretation of the seventh commandment; one could say that in ethics, the creation order is for him even more fundamental than the Decalogue (cf. Larger Catechism, Q. 92).
Elsewhere, too, the New Testament shows a tendency to go back to "pre-Fall basics" on various questions: male-female relations (1 Corinthians 11:8-9; 1 Timothy 2:13), the Sabbath (Mark 2:27-28; Hebrews 4:4 (see Dr. Gaffin's article in Pressing toward the Mark), and the propriety of eating various foods (1 Timothy 4:4; cf. Genesis 1:28-31).
This does not mean that the coming of the kingdom entails a return to the Garden of Eden. The fact that the Sabbath was made for man means that the Son of Man (Adam's heir) is now Lord of the Sabbath. The New Testament recognizes in the kingdom of Christ a fulfillment of the creation order that far surpasses the original (see especially 1 Corinthians 15:45-49). Nevertheless, the pristine creation order provides a normative theological-ethical foundation for the new kingdom, primarily because of its role as the original, unflawed, and perhaps most comprehensive pattern for the consummation order.
The Law of Moses, while not flawed, is typological in its function as the constitution of an earthly and hard-hearted nation. That is, it presupposes fallen man. Moses' permission of divorce "because of your hardness of heart" (Matthew 19:8) would not have been possible in the created order which God declared "very good." In the kingdom of heaven — as in its original prototype — such permission is not granted. Thus, if our primary and secondary standards teach the abiding and binding character of both Testaments, nowhere in the Old Testament should one expect to find this more true than in the precepts set forth in Genesis 1 and 2. Our presupposition must be that the creation order with its ordinances is normative for the kingdom of God.
"Be Fruitful and Multiply"
Fourth, a fundamental precept of creation, repeated in the Noahic covenant, is the command to be prolific in bearing children: "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth" (Genesis 1:28; 9:1). In building the tower of Babel, the stated purpose of mankind was to disobey this command. They build their tower "lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth" (Genesis 11:4).
That it was a refusal to spread out and fill the earth, rather than to be fruitful and multiply, which brought God's judgment, does not alter the fact that God punished mankind for rebellion against a commandment that also included an order to reproduce fruitfully. Thus, abundant reproduction is not only a blessing (Psalm 127:5) but a fundamental duty for those descended from Adam and Noah. Deliberate efforts to prevent the command to "be fruitful and multiply" from being carried out must be seen as ethically equivalent to the deed contrived by mankind to prevent the command to "fill the earth" from being carried out. (Even if one rejects this interpretation of the rebellion of Babel, this command still stands as a fundamental duty for all mankind in the creation order.)
The Extent of Fruitfulness
Fifth, the argument that Genesis does not specify the extent of the required fruitfulness, and thus leaves man free to define (limit) what it means, is bad exegesis that utilizes an anachronistic hermeneutic. Sound biblical interpretation requires that we first look at the words of this command in its original contexts. In Genesis 1, birth control technology was certainly not present, and one can hardly imagine that it was present with Noah on the ark. Thus, the command to be fruitful must have originally been understood as a command to marry and vigorously pursue conjugal relations. "For this cause a man shall leave ... and shall cleave to his wife" (Genesis 2:24) is then a more specific and focused form of the command to be fruitful (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:16).
With abstinence in marriage (apart from the infertile periods and times of prayer) clearly in conflict with later Scripture (1 Corinthians 7:3-5), the commands of Genesis 1 and 2, in their original context, bound first Adam's and then Noah's sons to marry and to be most fruitful. To transfer the words of the divine command to our technological context, where birth control is possible, and to interpret the lack of a modifier such as "utterly" before the word "fruitful" as implying a warrant to do something less than zealously seek to fill the earth with a righteous seed, is an anachronism.
Even if the tower of Babel had been successful, man's great city would have continued to grow and spread out, but very slowly (unless he also discovered birth control). The sin was that man willfully used his new technology (brick making) to hinder the fulfillment of God's command. Our use of new technology to hinder fruitfulness is similarly rebellion.
Some have seen in the Law of Moses a desire to maximize the procreation of children in order to fill the Promised Land quickly. The Law was a shadow of Christ's kingdom, but does that not imply that in Christ's worldwide kingdom today a similar urgency exists? The proper contextual reading of the imperative, "Be fruitful," is, "Be as fruitful as possible."
The Great Commission
Sixth, nothing in the New Testament changes this command to be fruitful and multiply. We have already seen that the New Testament's approach to the creation order is to return to it for pristine norms for the pattern of the kingdom of heaven.
The Great Commission complements the command to be fruitful and fill the earth by adding, as it were, a second dimension to the kingdom expansion. Now the kingdom grows not only by our families being fruitful, multiplying, and filling the earth with a godly seed, but also by new families and individuals becoming godly seed through baptism and preaching. This principle is presupposed in our Presbyterian interpretation of the development of the Abrahamic promise in Acts 2:38-39 (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:14).
Thus, until the full number of the elect of Abraham's innumerable seed has been produced — by either means — both commands remain in force. To limit the size of one's family by using birth control is as opposed to the command of God and as contrary to the purpose of the church on earth as it would be to limit the number of unbelievers who could hear the Word of God. No one would consider an excuse such as "We can't disciple more than two converts per month" as anything more than an attempt to overthrow the wisdom of God by the wisdom of men. The use of birth control to limit the number of children that God gives us to a supposedly manageable number is a similar use of human wisdom.
New Testament Commands
Seventh, the New Testament not only lacks any indication that the command to be fruitful is abolished, but also gives positive indications that the command is still in force. Despite our Lord's assertion that singleness can be a means of serving the Lord (Matthew 19:10-12) and Paul's similar statement (1 Corinthians 7:8), the apostle still sees the woman's role as child-bearer as her norm (1 Timothy 2:15; cf. Genesis 2:18-25; 3:16), and thus he commands young widows to "get married" and "bear children" (1 Timothy 5:14). By implication, men, too, are still covered by the general norm, "It is not good for the man to be alone" (Genesis 2:18), which led to the creation of the woman, enabling him to begin to fulfill the creation mandate.
In conclusion, the use of birth control to limit the number of children that God gives to a Christian family stands in opposition to the fundamental order and command of God, which remains binding so long as this age endures. While this does not deal with the most difficult cases (for example, your doctor warns that your wife will die if she bears another child), it does mean that human wisdom based on economics or ecology is irrelevant. Like the cross, the Christian couple's duty to be fruitful may seem to be "foolishness" in the eyes of man, but it is God's wisdom, and, like the cross itself, it will prevail and be vindicated in the end.
Those who have practiced birth control heretofore should stop; those who are older, and whose wives have passed menopause, should teach the younger families to reject the wisdom of this world in favor of the wisdom of God. May the Lord give each family in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church a full quiver, and may we reject the notion that the existence of technology gives us the prerogative to determine how many arrows constitute fruitfulness. And may we not fail to raise each child in the fear and admonition of the Lord!