In the absence of clear teaching in the New Testament on birth control, we must rely heavily upon our knowledge of the social context of Judaism and Hellenism in which early Christianity existed. Wherever Christian faith did not pronounce against the norms of the non-Christian society in which it existed, and wherever its own general teaching does not stand in contrast to specific social practices, we assume that Christianity maintained those practices. In New Testament days, Old Testament marriage laws and practices were still in force in Judaism, with strong emphasis upon the family and procreation within marriage. Judaism generally frowned upon birth control, certainly upon sterilization and abortion, though general famine was seen as a legitimate reason for limiting reproductive efforts and contraceptive devices were allowed for medical reasons.

The Gentile world held a theoretical view resembling that of Judaism, but in practice it followed a lower standard. Although the declared purpose of marriage was procreation, contraception and abortion were widely used. Still, a large number of pagan writers speak of abortion as evil. Not surprisingly, then, very early Christianity, as represented in the Didache and other writings separated from the New Testament by only a brief time, also presented abortion as unlawful.

So we turn to the New Testament with the presupposition that primitive Christianity maintained Judaism’s reservations about birth-control practices and paralleled both Judaism and Hellenism (at its best) in the disavowal of abortion. This does not at all mean, however, that such practices are eternally contradictory to the heart of the New Testament faith and practice.

In the past, it was considered self-evident ...

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