In Orthodox Wiki’s article “Birth Control and Family Planning,” the following questionable statement was made:
When opponents of contraception look for biblical support for their position, they inevitably point to the story of Onan in Genesis 38, claiming that the sin committed by Onan was his commission of coitus interruptus. However, this is an almost exclusively Western reading of the text. The only Eastern Father to read the Onan account as a condemnation of contraception was St Epiphanius of Cyprus. Origen had not done so in his commentary on the passage, nor had St John Chrysostom, nor St Ephrem the Syrian.
Is it true that Epiphanius alone is the only eastern saint that condemns onanism? And, is Orthodoxy exclusively the religion of eastern saints to begin with? Is the interpretation of a condemned heretic, Origen, relevant?
As follows is a florilegium on the topic exclusively from saints. As one will see, the preceding passage is not accurate in its particulars (Ephraim does condemn the practice). My comments will be in between each passage.
Epiphanius of Salamis:
They soil their bodies, minds and souls with unchastity. Some of them masquerade as monastics, and their woman companions as female monastics. And they are physically corrupted because they satisfy their appetite but, to put it politely, by the act of Onan the son of Judah. For as Onan coupled with Tamar and satisfied his appetite but did not complete the act by planting his seed for the God-given [purpose of] procreation and did himself harm instead, thus, as [he] did the vile thing, so these people have used their supposed [female monastics], committing this infamy. For purity is not their concern, but a hypocritical purity in name. Their concern is limited to ensuring that the woman the seeming [ascetic] has seduced does not get pregnant—either so as not to cause child-bearing, or to escape detection, since they want to be honored for their supposed celibacy. In any case, this is what they do, but others endeavor to get this same filthy satisfaction not with women but by other means, and pollute themselves with their own hands. They too imitate the son of Judah, soil the ground with their forbidden practices and drops of filthy fluid and rub their emissions into the earth with their feet. (Epiphanius of Salamis, The Panarion, Against the Origienists, 1.4-5, p. 131)
While the preceding is clearly not a positive take on onanism, its substance is a condemnation of extra-marital sex among supposed monks. The onanist aspect just makes it even more hypocritical in the eyes of Epiphanius.
Ephraim the Syrian:
Even though his brother [Onan] took Tamar out of love for her, because of his hatred towards his brother, Onan did not wish to raise up offspring for his brother. When God also slew the second son because of the cruel strategem that he had contrived [i.e. coitus interruptus], it was thought that due to the sins of of Tamar that her two husbands had died…Tamar thought, “How can I make the Hebrews realize for it is not marriage for which I am hungering, but rather that I am yearning for the blessing that is hidden in them [i.e. her husbands’ potential children].” (Ephraim the Syrian, On Genesis, Section 34, Par 1-2)
The passage states that onanism, though its motive in the passage is to avoid offspring in spite of one’s biological brother, is itself called a “cruel strategem.” Calling coitus interruptus “cruel” is clearly a disapproval of the practice. Additionally, this strategem is contrasted with the Godly intent of Tamar, her desire for “the blessing” of children as opposed to “marriage” (i.e. conjugal relations for their own sake). If one continues reading the second paragraph after what is quoted here, Tamar is extolled as faithful in her desire for progeny. Clearly, Ephraim is condemning onanism.
[W]hat is your advantage because Onan, the son of Judas, did a most disgraceful thing, which I am ashamed to say: what, I say, does it profit you? [quia onan filius iudae fecit rem turpissimam, quam dicere erubesco: quid, inquam, tibi prodest?] (Jerome, Treatise on the Gospel of Mark)
Again, after the deluge, when the human race started as it were anew, men and women were paired together and a fresh blessing was pronounced on procreation…Judah also and Thamar are brought upon the scene, and he censures Onan, slain by the Lord, because he, grudging to raise up seed to his brother, marred the marriage rite. (Jerome, Against Jovinian, Par 5)
Due to no one debating whether Jerome condemned onanism, his words need no extensive elaboration. Instead, one must point out that the statement “he imagines that we” implies that Jerome is consciously defending a majority opinion (the whole Church) against a minority (Jovinian). Being that he lived for years in both the east and west, he would have some grounds for this observation. Additionally, judging from the preponderance of contemporary quotations against onanism here, his inference appears justified.
On his death, Onan took his brother’s wife; and he is related to have been destroyed by God, because he spilled his seed upon the earth. (Sulpicius Severus, Sacred History, Book I, Chap 11)
This Orthodox saint, who is discounted by Orthodox Wiki for no other fault then being born in the Latin West, takes for granted that onanism is a sin.
The children of Judah were Her, Onan and Sela. Dead hero, Onan, his brother, took with him Thamar wife of this one, but he did not want to raise a child to his brother. He died himself, and Judah did not want to give Thamar as wife to Sela, his third son. (John Chrysostom, Synopsis on Genesis)
Chrysostom is alone among the saints in that he comments on the passage with Onan and makes no negative reference whatsoever to the actual act of onanism. The same is true in his homily on the topic (Homilies on Genesis 46–67, p. 199) which sadly I cannot quote here because it has been 4-5 years since I read the book (and I did not buy it). While one may take this silence as “proof” he did not find the practice objectionable, this is an argument from silence which is inconsistent with Chrysostom’s theology on marriage. In Homily 23 of 2 Corinthians, he explicitly states that sexual desire exists so that in marriage, this desire can be used lawfully for “the procreation of children:”
Nor again did He abolish all desire, but only that which is unlawful, for he saith, “Nevertheless, because of desires, let every man have his own wife.” But to lay up treasure He allowed not, either with cause or without. For those passions were implanted in our nature for a necessary end; desire, for the procreation of children, and anger, for the succor of the injured, but desire of money not so.
Elsewhere, Chrysostom does not condemn sexual relations and even extols that they may be enjoyed within the marital context. These views are quite reconcilable, because it is no contradiction for sex to be enjoyed within the marital context presuming its enjoyed lawfully, to use Chrysostom’s terminology, for the procreation of children. Hence, I find it more morally safe to reconcile the silence as consistent with the explicit statements of every other saint on the issue of Onan rather than casting him as a contrarian. It is much easier to infer agreement from silence than disagreement, considering Chyrsostom’s categories of unlawful and lawful sexual desire.
Onan, the name of the younger, means, their grief; that is, the grief of those to whom he does no good, wasting the good he has on the earth. The loss of life implied in the name of the elder is a greater evil than the want of help implied in the name of the younger. Both being killed by God typifies the removal of the kingdom from men of this character. (Augustine, Contra Faustum, Book 12, Par 84)
Augustine, unsurprisingly, condemns onanism.
Of fornication there are three sorts: (1) that which is accomplished by sexual intercourse; (2) that which takes place without touching a woman, for which we read that Onan the son of the patriarch Judah was smitten by the Lord; and which is termed by Scripture uncleanness: of which the Apostle says: But I say to the unmarried and to widows, that it is good for them if they abide even as I. But if they do not contain let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn; [1 Corinthians 7:8-9] (3) that which is conceived in heart and mind. (John Cassian, Conference 5, Chap 11)
Cassian, who was born in Scythia Minor and had his entire formation long into adulthood in the east, apparently committed the “crime” of writing Orthodox works in Latin when he moved to Gaul. (His works were immediately translated into Greek.) Here, we see him clearly call onaism a kind of “fornication,” which he appears to conflate with self-abuse.
When Er died childless, Judah married her to another of his sons, Onan. But when he, too, was cut down from among the living on account of his wickedness, Judah did not marry her to any other of his sons. But she desired to have a child of the seed of Abraham, and so she put off the garments of a widow, dressed as a harlot, came together with her father-in-law, and from him conceived twin boys. (Theophylact, Gospel of Matthew 1, Chap 3)
Theophylact, another eastern saint, generally follows Chrysostom (somewhat slavishly) when giving his own exegesis. And so, the passage simply states Onan was “cut down…on account of his wickedness” and this is juxtaposed (though without an explicitly condemnatory contrast) with Tamar’s “desire to have a child of the seed of Abraham.” Is there a slightly negative connotation in its discussion of Onan not providing the necessary “seed?” Yes. However, there is no explicit condemnation of onanism, though one may infer it is implied. Again, the morally safest (and simplest) interpretation one may draw is that Theophylact implied a condemnation consistent with other saints. This is the best way to interpret the relative silence.
Reflection. In the above, there are eight saints. Half wrote in Latin, though among that half included Jerome and John Cassian. Those two saints cannot properly be called “Western” or strictly “Latin” as both were literate in other languages and spent half their lives outside the Latin West. By any measure, the assertion that Epiphanius was alone in condemning onanism is disproved. Additionally, the only saint who was entirely silent on the matter, John Chrysostom, explicitly taught elsewhere that sexual desire is lawful specifically in the procreation of children.
Why does the Orthodox Wiki article so profoundly misinform its readers? It appears an editor (or editors) are trying to push a non-Patristic, pro-contraception ideology. For example, in the “discussion” section of that article, it is apparent that Chrysostom is treated as a “pro-birth control” saint despite there being not a single passage where he approves of any such practice. To cast Chrysostom as such borders on the disingenuous, though I prefer to believe it is simple “wishful thinking.” Most egregiously, one contributor, included a false quotation from the same saint, when he had in fact quoted a secondary scholar’s interpretation of the quote. When called to task on this, the contributor appears to say that the false attribution is forgiveable, because he agreed with what was misquoted.
Not being able to get a “break” from having his name dragged into the mud, the article itself likewise contains an unverifiable quote from Chrysostom which is brashly framed in such a way to convey that Chrysostom did not teach that God’s intent for marriage is procreation (something which explicitly contradicts the quote from Homily 23 of 2 Corinthians quoted here). The exact book being quoted is left unsaid and the quote itself looks like it is interpolated with a scholar’s interpretation. Despite the debates on the topic of Chrysostom in the discussion section of the article, this has yet to be corrected and this quote is likewise circulated in the “marriage” article on Orthodox Wiki, also without correct attribution. Not surprisingly, the quote is employed to contradict Chrysostom’s very teaching that sexual desire is lawful when used for procreation. Presuming the quote to be fairly accurate in most respects, I’d wager that given proper context it does not prove out what the editor intends in employing it.
When people do not seek to quote the fathers in context, but make questionable attributions and put no work in harmonizing them, this is a good indication that the position they take is incorrect. The saints are not pitted east against west. Neither is it pious to believe, as Orthodox Wiki approvingly cites John T Noonan Jr’s speculations, that all the saints in the West were fools and got something wrong, because they syncretized stoicism with authentic Christianity. We should hope the Holy Spirit is a little more effective at preserving correct doctrine among the saints than that!
As the preceding florilegium shows, there was a consistent teaching on onanism, visible in both east and west. Hopefully, Orthodox Wiki will correct their article accordingly.