“Ye shall not eat of anything that dieth of itself: thou shalt give it unto the stranger that is in thy gates, that he may eat it; or thou mayest sell it unto an alien: for thou art an holy people unto the Lord thy God….”
“But that we write… that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood. For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day.”
“Now as touching things offered unto idols, we know that we all have knowledge… we know that an idol is nothing in the world… Howbeit there is not in every man that knowledge… Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend.”
1 Cor. 8:1,4,7,13
Rev. Travis Fentiman
Free Church of Scotland (Continuing)
On Eating & Drinking Blood
The Argument Against Eating Blood
The Argument that we may Eat Blood:
. Old Testament
. New Testament
. 1. Eating Blood may Still be Unnatural
. 2. Ingesting a Placenta?
. 3. Legalism & False Teachers
. 4. The Holy Spirit is a Principled Pragmatist
May Christians drink blood and eat animals that died by strangling themselves? The near-universal consensus of the Reformed Church during its classical era (1500’s-1600’s) was: Yes. As this issue comes up once and a while in life (black pudding or blood sausage anyone?), and more often on the mission field, it is a practical question.
The Argument Against Eating Blood
There are many who argue that blood ought not to be eaten by Christians as they see the command in Gen. 9:4 to be a natural and moral one given to both Jews and Gentiles before the Ceremonial Law: “But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat.” The following verses (Gen. 9:5-6) institute the death penalty for murder, which appears to be a moral and perpetual ordinance.
The prohibition of eating blood was later restated in the Mosaic Law itself in Lev. 7:27; 19:26; Dt. 12:16; 15:23. Dt. 12:23 gives a reason for the prohibition: “Only be sure that thou eat not the blood: for the blood is the life; and thou mayest not eat the life with the flesh.” Even the gentile sojourners among Israel were not to eat blood (Lev. 17:12,13). Later, this prohibition is reiterated by Saul in the period of the kings, and the transgression of it is called a ‘sin’ (1 Sam. 14:34). Eating blood is also considered a sin in Eze. 33:25, ranking right up there with idolatry and violent blood-shedding.
After Christ, the General Assembly of the Church held in Jerusalem, in seeking resolution among its Jewish and gentile members, appeared to hearken back to the days of Noah in binding the prohibition of eating blood upon the early Christians (in Acts 15:20 & 29) as a thing ‘necessary’ and approved by the Holy Ghost (Acts 15:28).
Groups that have held that eating blood is forbidden have included in the Early Church the Donatists, in the Medieval Church Greek Orthodoxy and the Cathari, and in modern times: Jehovah Witnesses, some fundamentalists, some Theonomists, those who hold that the Covenant with Noah is binding in all its particulars, and others.
The Argument that we may Eat Blood
The Old Testament
Creation & Noah
It is clear that not all Creation ordinances are in every way moral, not subject to alteration. Though the principle of the Sabbath, of spiritually and physically resting one day in every seven (Gen. 2:1-4; Ex. 20:8-11), is “a positive, moral, and perpetual commandment, binding all men in all ages”, yet the day which this was to take place on changed from the seventh day of the week in the Old Testament to the first day of the week after the Resurrection of Christ (WCF 21.7).
Likewise, whereas men originally only ate plants and their produce (Gen. 1:29), at the time of Noah, God changed this creation ordinance so that man could eat meat from animals as well (Gen. 9:3). In this context, in the change to a new, altered, positive ordinance, God qualified this liberty so as not to include blood (Gen. 9:4).
The Noahic restrictions include not only the death penalty, but also that every animal which kills a man is to be put to death:
“And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it…”
This ordinance was repeated in a more particular and qualified form in the Mosaic Law (Ex. 21:28-32). Yet it appears that this ordinance here in Gen. 9 was new, that it was an imposed judicial restraint which was not of moral force before God’s express prescription. If all of the Noahic prescriptions are universally moral for all time following, who believes that it is of moral necessity, in all cases everywhere, that every animal which kills a person must be chased down and killed, else the society is in sin? Such a belief is a strange form of Theonomy.
What precisely is the connection between the prohibition of eating blood in v. 4 and the implementation of the ordinance in v. 5, to put to death animals and men that kill a man? The opening Hebrew word of v. 5, instead of being translated ‘and surely’ (KJV), may be translated as ‘for’ (see the many Bible versions that translate the verse this way at Biblegateway). If this be the case, then the connection is that
“God would have them abstain from all cruelty or savage behavior in eating of the blood of beasts, that they should have a greater detestation of the spilling or shedding of man’s blood;”
So the reformed commentator Andrew Willet (Hexapla on Gen. 9:5, Question 6) following Peter Martyr Vermigli. The prohibition of eating blood then, it being a deterrent to the shedding of human blood,† is no more binding than the statute that every animal which kills a person must always and in every case be killed as well.
† Calvin: “…He does not forbid the use of blood out of regard to animals themselves, but because he accounts the life of men precious.” (Commentary on Gen. 9:5)
Regarding the death penalty, the very fact that God’s positive commandment (Gen. 9:5-6) was needed for lawful human authority to implement it at a time later than from the beginning of man’s fall into sin, shows that the death penalty is not inherently universal in its applicability. Samuel Rutherford argues this in Lex Rex, pp. 2-3, 50-51, 62 and other places. See also p. 23 of ed. Fentiman, ‘Rutherford on the Judicial Laws of Moses’.
The law of nature, on the other-hand, is only that just ‘violence may repel unjust violence’ (Lex Rex, p. 3); self-defense does not formally aim at the killing of the attacker. Because the death penalty had not been sovereignly appointed by God for man yet after Cain killed Abel (the race not having descended yet into wholesale, universal violence, Gen. 6:11,13), God banished Cain (Gen. 4:11-12) instead of putting him to death, God forbidding anyone else to kill him as well (Gen. 4:15). The ordinance of the death penalty in Gen. 9:5-6 is a positive law given by God which serves as a righteous precedent and example to the laws of nations, though it is not absolutely binding in all cases (this is one reason why Theonomy is wrong, per Rutherford, the Westminster divine).
For a further explanation of the difference between the law of nature (which is more basic and is from natural instincts) and the law of nations (involving positive, civil judgments, which are to be based on the law of nature), see the first several chapters of Lex Rex and Paul Barth’s article, ‘Lex Propria: Proper Law’. The institution of the death penalty in Gen. 9 not being inherently universal further confirms that neither is the prohibition of eating blood.
Further, Gen. 9:5-6 does not only say that murderers are to be put to death, but it says that “whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.” It includes all forms of homicide, including the accidental killing of a person. Hence, during the Mosaic economy, persons who accidentally killed a person were in fear of their life from the ‘avenger of the blood’ (Deut. 19:6; Num. 35:19) till he could reach a Levitical city of refuge and be safe (Num. 35:11,15). Yet murderers were still to be put to death (Deut. 19:11-13). During the Mosaic era, God’s instituting the Levitical cities was at once a show of mercy and a changing and relaxing of the Noahic statute.
Yet, it is clear that the moral imperative regarding the killing of persons who committed accidental homicide was still in place under Moses to some extent as Num. 35:26-28 says that if the offender strays outside of the city, the revenger of blood may lawfully kill him. All of this was highly typological and ceremonial as Num. 35:28 says that the offender is stay in the Levitical city until the high priest of Israel dies (a picture of Christ), and then he can return to his own land in safety.
Tellingly, Deut. 19:6 says that the person who accidentally killed a man (i.e. Deut. 19:5) was ‘not worthy of death’. This means that the Noahic prohibition (that the person guilty of accidental homicide should be killed) was intentionally heightened by God beyond what was strictly natural or moral, due to the past, wide-extent and severity of violence in the pre-Flood days and due to God’s desiring to extra-abundantly teach people the sanctity of human life in the image of God.
(Yes, John Calvin’s teaching that Scriptural, judicial penalties may be varied according to societal circumstances, contra Theonomy, was correct. Institutes, Book 4, Ch. 20, Section 16)
Just as a society need not put to death every person committing an accidental homicide, so we need not necessarily keep the deterrent of not eating animal blood.
The Mosaic Law
If any of this were in doubt, the Mosaic Law is clear. Dt. 14:21 says that Israelites may sell an animal that died of itself, where the blood was not immediately drained from it, to the gentiles to eat:
“Ye shall not eat of anything that dieth of itself: thou shalt give it unto the stranger that is in thy gates, that he may eat it; or thou mayest sell it unto an alien: for thou art an holy people unto the Lord thy God….”
While gentile ‘sojourners’ in Israel, those who dwelt amongst Israel for a period of time, were not to eat blood (Lev. 17:12-13), yet the Israelites were allowed to sell the same meat to neighboring gentile nations in their gates and borders and to other traders that bought and sold in that proximity.
It is known by General Revelation (the light of nature, providence and conscience) and Scripture that any assisting of others to sin, is likewise sin for that individual. Westminster Larger Catechism #99 summarizes this ethical teaching:
“6. That under one sin or duty, all of the same kind are forbidden or commanded; together with all the causes, means, occasions, and appearances thereof, and provocations thereunto.[z]
7. That what is forbidden or commanded to ourselves, we are bound, according to our places, to endeavour that it may be avoided or performed by others, according to the duty of their places.[a]
8. That in what is commanded to others, we are bound, according to our places and callings, to be helpful to them;[b] and to take heed of partaking with others in what is forbidden them.[c]
Hence, if the eating of blood was sinful for gentiles as well as Israelites, then it would have been sinful for Israelites to sell meat with blood to gentiles to eat. However, it is clear from Dt. 14:21, by this time, that the restriction from eating blood only bound Israel.
The Spiritual Teaching of Blood
What then is made of the reason God gives as to why the Israelites are not to eat the blood: “for the blood is the life, and thou mayest not eat the life with the flesh”? (Dt. 12:23) That this reason was ceremonial and related to their sacrifices is taught by Lev. 17:10-11 (note the sacrificial context immediately preceding in Lev. 17:1-9):
“And whatsoever man there be of the house of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among you, that eateth any manner of blood; I will even set my face against that soul that eateth blood, and will cut him off from among his people.
For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul.”
The blood was used by God as a spiritual type for the instruction of the Jews in their sacrificial system, which pointed to Christ’s blood taking away our sin (in that it provides the payment of the penalty that is due to us). This is the reason that no gentile ‘sojourning’ in the land of Israel was to eat blood, so that the type of what it represented on the Israeli altar would remain pure (which is the reason given in Lev. 17:10-11) and so that no offence would be given to the Jews (this will be important in the consideration of Acts 15).
However, if this reason for not eating blood is ceremonial, how is it that this same spiritual symbol seems to be implied in Gen. 9:4 (“But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat.”) before the Jewish Temple was ever around? The answer is that gentiles in the time of Noah (ever since the Fall, Gen. 3:21; 4:3-4) also were able and obliged to offer sacrifices to God, God instructing all people typologically as to what these sacrifices meant and looked forward to. The ceremonial prohibition of not eating blood fits Noah’s context, as Noah (and by implication, the gentiles after him) was already offering only ceremonially clean animals to God as sacrifices (Gen. 8:20-21), which was another ceremonial regulation.
If the prohibition of blood bound the gentiles in Gen. 9, how did it cease to bind the gentiles by Dt. 14:21? It is because previously God allowed altar-sacrifices anywhere in the earth unto his Name (Job 1:5; Gen. 4:3-4; 8:20-21; 31:54; 46:1; etc.), until He sovereignly appointed that sacrifices should only be made to Him upon the altar in the Tabernacle and later the Temple to be built at Jerusalem (Dt. 12:1-14; Jn. 4:20). As many nations heard of Israel exiting Egypt by the Almighty hand of God, and when Solomon built the Temple, the glory and fame of the true religion spread throughout the earth, all nations found out about how the true God ought to be worshipped. God having appointed an an exclusive altar upon which men should sacrifice to him, relieved the gentiles of making sacrifices on any other altar. As typological purity in the presence of blood-sacrifices on an altar was the divinely given reason for not eating blood (Lev. 17:10-11), so the obligation for the gentiles not to eat blood ceased with their altars becoming null and void.
How does all of this relate to covenant theology? With the oncoming of the progression in revelation with the Mosaic Covenant, the spiritual substance of the Noahic Covenant was brought into, continued and developed in the Mosaic Covenant, while the outward particulars of the administration of the Noahic Covenant fell away and was changed into the more expansive and detailed Mosaic administration.
The spiritual substance of the Noahic Covenant involved the promise of a coming redemptive sacrifice (Gen. 3:15 with 8:20-21), not cursing the ground anymore for man’s sake (Gen. 9:21), the continuance of the seasons, and all the typology wrapped up in the ark and the renewed earth. The particulars of the Noahic administration that changed as it came to be transformed into the Mosaic administration (by God’s express, positive and particular prescriptions in Exodus through Deuteronomy) were:
(1) Previously sacrifices were allowed to be set up anywhere on the earth; under Moses only the sacrifices on the altar at Jerusalem were accepted.
(2) Previously all animals were allowed by God to be eaten; under Moses the gentiles could continue to eat anything without sin, yet the Jews were restricted to only ‘clean’ animals.
(3) Previously no one was to eat blood and strangled animals; under Moses this prohibition continued on Jews and sojourners in the land, but the gentiles at the borders and gates could lawfully eat blood.
(4) Previously the command was that ‘every beast’ that killed a man was to be killed; under Moses it appears that this was no longer necessary, but was only true of oxen and possibly other domestic animals in the civil setting.
(5) Previously any killing of a man (even that which was accidental) was to be rewarded by putting the offender to death; under Moses, accidental homicide was protected through the Levitical cities and essentially only murderers were to be put to death.
How Positive Laws Bind
Needless to say, the Mosaic ecclesiastical separation from, and the cutting off of, Jews and sojourners in Israel who eat strangled animals and blood (Lev. 7:27; 17:10,15-16) today, is no longer necessary as the administration of the ceremonial system under Moses has been done away with Christ’s one sacrifice (Heb. 8-9). While not every ceremonial defilement under Levitical law was considered a personal sin, yet the deliberate transgression of such ceremonial laws in most circumstances was a personal sin; hence the eating of blood in the Old Testament histories and prophets was often reckoned as a sin right up there with heinous moral sins. The reason for this is that a positive law imposed by God upon persons requires moral obedience (as much as any moral law) even though it might only refer to given circumstances and may be different or changed for other persons, circumstances and times.
The New Testament
Jesus & Peter
Jesus, in preparation for breaking up the decaying, outward, Mosaic regulations, taught that (Mt. 15:11,17-18):
“Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man… Do not ye yet understand, that whatsoever entereth in at the mouth goeth into the belly, and is cast out into the draught? But those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man.”
When Christ offered up his one, eternal sacrifice for the payment of sin on the cross (Heb. 10:11-12), the altar in the Temple became obsolete, the obligation to its sacrifices becoming indifferent for the rest of the period that it still stood (till A.D. 70). As the significance of the sacrifices of Jerusalem’s altar was removed, so was the reason and justification for the prohibition to not eat blood (Lev. 17:10-11).
In continuity with this, after the Atonement, God confirmed to the apostle Peter through a vision that the clean and unclean laws have been abolished. The prohibition against eating strangled animals was encompassed in these laws (Lev. 17:15-16). Acts 10:11-15 relates in the vision that Peter:
“saw heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending upon him, as it had been a great sheet knit at the four corners, and let down to the earth: Wherein were all manner of fourfooted beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air.
And there came a voice to him, ‘Rise, Peter; kill, and eat… What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common.”
The liberty that Christians have in the food they eat, as taught in these two, early New Testament passages, forms a foundation for interpreting Acts 15.
The General Assembly at Jerusalem was held in order to resolve a doctrinal dispute (over circumcision, Acts 15:1) which gave rise to controversy between Jews and gentiles (Acts 15:3,5,7,12,14,19, 23-24). Given that God had, with great evidence by his mighty working through the apostles (Acts 15:4,7-8,12,14), called the gentiles to Him through the grace of Christ (Acts 15:11) and placed his name upon them (Acts 15:17), they hearing the gospel, believing (Acts 15:7) and being saved through faith (Acts 15:9,11) apart from circumcision, so Peter did not desire to put a further yoke upon the gentile disciples (which the Jews themselves were never able to bear, 15:10).
James likewise states that he did not desire to trouble the gentile converts in verse 19, but then, as an exception to this, proceeds to propose his lowest common-denominator rules to bind them with in verse 20:
“19 Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the gentiles are turned to God:
20 But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood.”
‘Pollutions’ in verse 20 likely forbids not simply idolatry, but also things that may appear to be polluted by idolatry, that is, food which had been offered to idols. This is confirmed in verse 29 which restates the same prohibition in the words, “That ye abstain from meats offered to idols…” Eating of food offered to idols was never forbid in the Old Testament, and hence could not be of itself a moral sin. It was, rather, a precautionary measure in that the food may have been, and likely was, unclean (possibly having come into contact with something else unclean), and in that it involved a somewhat close association to an idol, which relation was suspect. If it were not clear already by general revelation (1 Cor. 8:4-6; 10:19,26) though, Paul argues and states explicitly in 1 Cor. 8:1-13 and 10:19,25-31 that it is not inherently sinful to eat food in the market which has previously been offered to idols. This shows that not everything in James’ list is inherently moral; some of it is indifferent.
While fornication is a universally moral sin, yet it had been so common amongst the gentiles as to have been considered something indifferent. Hence James troubled himself to spell out its prohibition to the gentiles, and grouped it with the other things that actually are indifferent.
James gives as his reason for prohibiting some things that are indifferent in the following verse (Acts 15:21):
“For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day.”
James’ reason is that even in gentile countries there are synagogues which were, and would continue, preaching Moses’ regulations against pollutions of idols, eating blood and things strangled, and fornication. The clash of how the newly converted gentiles commonly lived would cause quite a stir of conflict with Jewish Christians, the latter possibly not having great knowledge about their liberty in Christ (1 Cor. 8:1,7).
Thus, to prevent conflict (which had already been stirred up) in the young Church and to promote its peace with gentiles and Jews together, James advises to prohibit gentiles from certain indifferent things which may unduly cause scandal. Because he does not want to unnecessarily lay a yoke of hardship on the gentiles, he limits these rules to the minimum necessary.
James’ proposal for Christian prudence (W.C.F. 1.6) ‘pleased’ (Acts 15:22) the assembly, they testifying that ‘It seemed good unto the Holy Ghost and to us to lay no greater burden than these necessary things.’ (Acts 15:28) Most of these things were not ‘necessary’ out of their own intrinsic merit (as can be see from the rest of the Scriptures), but were necessary in order to palliate the controversy that had arisen in the Church (v. 24) in those early days while new gentile and Jewish converts composed the Church. If the Christians that the apostles wrote to kept these things, the apostles said, ‘ye shall do well’. (Acts 15:29) All of this is the language of Christian prudence and wisdom rather than language of what is obvious righteousness and sin.
If the prohibition to not eat animals with the blood still in it (the animal not having its blood drained immediately upon dying) still continues in unabated force, then all Christians should only eat kosher meat with as strict of regulations as the Hasidic Jews employ. But is it always, and in every case, immoral to eat an animal that recently strangled itself or died some other way?
It may be objected that a Church council cannot ‘lay upon’ (Acts 15:28; 16:4) Christians rules that are indifferent and are not inherently moral. However, if such indifferent things are ‘necessary’ (Acts 15:28) in order to fulfill the general, moral rules of the Word (W.C.F. 1.6), such as maintaining the peace and purity of Christ’s Church and preventing undue scandal, Church government can bind Christians to those general rules of the Word by prudential, indifferent measures, as long as those circumstances, which make the rules necessary, last.
This was the presbyterian doctrine that George Gillespie articulated and defended in English-Popish Ceremonies, Part 3, Chapter 7, Sections 6-7, pp. 131-132 based on the teachings of passages like this one and others:
“If the Church prescribe anything lawfully, so that she prescribe no more than she has power given her to prescribe, her ordinance must be accompanied with some good reason and warrant given for the satisfaction of tender consciences.”
As this is the case, once those circumstances relieve themselves in the passage of time, the purpose of the regulations being fulfilled, those regulations must likewise cease. The reason for this is also necessary: so that the Church, who holds all authority ministerially from Christ, exercise no unnecessary power that has not been given to her by Christ in his Word.
As the early Church grew in its knowledge and maturity (especially through the later letters of Paul, who instructed them in their liberty in Christ), the need to abstain from eating blood ceased, as it is in our day. In fact, in the gentile churches throughout Asia minor, where there was not a significant, cultural, Jewish presence in society which might cause undue scandal, Paul positively forbid keeping the ceremonial laws (whether out of conscience or not) as soul damaging, a turning away from Christ and a falling from grace (Col. 2:16-23; Gal. 2:12-15,18,21; 3:1-3; 4:9-12; 5:1-5), there not being in these circumstances any legitimate occasional reason for them. Hence Paul warned (1 Tim. 4:1-5):
“In the latter times some shall depart from the faith… commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth. For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving: For it is sanctified by the Word of God and prayer.”
During the intermediate time-period when Jesus had made obsolete the Temple system, and yet it still stood as a relic of God’s ordinance while the knowledge of the gospel was young and not thoroughly disseminated, it was lawful for Jews (not necessarily gentiles) to continue its ceremonies (Acts 18:21; 20:16; 21:22-24), though these things were inherently indifferent (Acts 16:1-3; Gal. 2:3-4; Rom. 14:4-5) and might be used for a positive purpose. However, after the intermediate time period, after the Temple has been done away (Heb. 12:27-28), and for the rest of the Church age, keeping such ceremonies without any such legitimate occasional reason, as the passages above make clear, is not indifferent but is positively immoral and forbidden (see Rutherford’s Divine Right below).
The Lord’s Supper
Under the sacrificial system, the ‘flesh and blood’ of animals were offered on the altar. Yet the priests were to pour out the blood on the altar and only eat the flesh (Dt. 12:27). In the spiritual life, but especially in the Lord’s Supper, Jesus says, “Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you… and my blood is drink indeed.” (Jn. 6:53,55)
This, of course, as specified by the context throughout the chapter, is figurative and not literal (Jn. 6:26-27, 29, 32, 35-36, 40, 47, 63-64). Yet it is true that, by faith, through our spiritual union to Christ living in us, mystically bonding us to his Person in heaven in the flesh, we derive spiritual nourishment from all that Christ has done, and continues to do, in his living body and blood for us (it being the fountain of his mediatorial blessings to us), just as the priests of the Old Testament ingested and derived life from eating the flesh of the sacrifices. This is the spiritual reality which is outwardly figured when we ‘drink his blood’ in the Lord’s Supper.
The language our Savior used about drinking his blood further evidences that the prohibition not to drink blood has been removed. This removal also helps to lessen the unnecessary offense sometimes taken by unbelievers in hearing that we are to drink the blood of Christ, and that we do so in the Lord’s Supper (by faith).
1. Eating Blood may Still be Unnatural
It is possible for eating blood and things strangled to not be absolutely wrong, and yet for the action to be generally unnatural and to be avoided by natural instinct in most situations, as the light of nature is to inform our ethical living (see ‘The Westminster Standards on Natural Law’). This ethical distinction is possible as man has some sovereignty over nature (to some extent): man was not made for nature, but nature was made for man (Gen. 1:26-28). Hence it is possible (and regular, often) that we may go against certain natural instincts and designs for other God-glorifying lawful and higher purposes. Let this not be misunderstood: Some natural designs are moral and ought never to be transgressed in any form (e.g. Rom. 1:26-27).
It is very possible that the initial prohibitions of eating strangled animals, eating blood, cooking an animal in its mother’s milk (Ex. 23:13; Dt. 14:21), not making any cuttings in one’s flesh (Lev. 21:5; though see Ex. 21:5-6; Eze. 16:12), etc. is due to their unnaturalness. A caution-less or regular and gross indulgence in these things may very well be wrong in given situations, despite that they may not be absolutely prohibited in all scenarios. Just as the ceremonial defilement of eating unclean foods offered to idols may be typologically indicative of a person’s unsafe, or perceived to be unsafe, practical association to idols, so eating blood may likewise generally have an unnatural nature to it, to be avoided.
This consideration, of the unnaturalness of eating blood, may explain why some persons have found it plausible to argue from Scripture and nature that eating blood is inherently wrong. However, if a culture has become desensitized to regularly eating blood, and does not mind it (as the gentile culture in Acts 15), then let them have their blood. There is no reason to bind them otherwise if there are not newly converted Jews around.
2. Ingesting a Placenta?
Numerous cultures in world history, to a greater or lesser degree, have sometimes eaten or ingested in some manner the placenta that comes out of a woman in childbirth. Is this right, wrong, indifferent, or something in-between? The previous considerations regarding eating blood factor into the issue, though there are numerous other specific and unique factors to the practice that also bear weight on determining the answer to this question (which will not be considered here).
3. Legalism and False Teachers
Paul says in 1 Cor. 8:13, “Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend.” While this ought to be taken to heart by all Christians, yet many errant Christians have abused such verses to seek to make a weak and errant practice determinative of the Church at large.
1 Cor. 8:13 applies directly to Christian prudence and charity (1 Cor. 10:28; Rom. 14:1,15,19,21), preventing others from reflexively speaking evil of oneself (1 Cor. 10:30; Rom. 14:3,10,16) and fellow Christians (usually new converts) who, by such a perceived offense, would legitimately be seriously scandalized and spiritually hurt by such (1 Cor. 8:7,12; Rom. 14:13,20) and/or thrown into a downward spin into significant sin (1 Cor. 8:10; 10:20; Rom. 14:23) and/or may apostatize from it (1 Cor. 8:11; Rom. 14:15,20,23).
However, Paul is clear in these passages to teach what is right, who is stronger and who is weaker (Rom. 14:2,14) and to defend himself exercising the liberty Christ has given him (Col. 2:16). Is it Paul’s purpose to make the Church as weak as the weak brother? When a Christian is in fact not weak, but is actually strong, would not not be spiritually injured by you exercising your liberty, and that person with some knowledge teaches and pushes doctrinal and practical error: he or she is not a weaker brother; rather, he or she is a false teacher (and probably hardened in the unnatural error at that).
The New Testament says a lot about false teachers. If their error is significant, or leads to significantly damaging practical conclusions, Paul (an authoritative teacher of the Church) would not put up with them for a minute (Gal. 2:3-5,11; 3:1; 5:1). If the issue may not seem that significant to some, but it brings a whole swath of Christ’s sheep under a legalistic yoke, no matter how small it is, Paul thunders against it (Gal. 2:4-5; 5:1; see also Col. 2:18,20-23):
“And that because of false brethren unawares brought in, who came in privily to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage: To whom we gave place by subjection, no, not for an hour;
Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.”
If persons are unnaturally divisive, resolute, do not heed wisdom, the Scripture or authority and are contentious in pushing even secondary errors, they are not to be tolerated, but disciplined and/or separated from (Rom. 16:17; 1 Cor. 14:16; Titus 3:10).
It may be hoped that for the issue of eating blood and related matters, most Christians, and even one’s with opposite convictions, would be persuaded, or at least outwardly submissive, to the kind, beneficent and authoritative entreaties of church governors as exampled by the apostles in Acts 15:28-29 in their climate of sprung up controversy. Love and authority go best together, and it is doubtful that the church-governors after the decision of the council of Jerusalem put up for long with the Christian pharisees (Acts 15:5) that had initiated and continued the doctrinal errors.
4. The Holy Spirit is a Principled Pragmatist
The council decision took the pragmatic (practical) measure of binding (Acts 15:28) the liberty of Christians with specific, indifferent, injunctions in a contentious time for the pragmatic purpose of the peace, health and prosperity of the Church and the good of all; and this is expressly said to have been the will of God the Holy Ghost (Acts 15:28). Did people on either side still have opinions and convictions otherwise? You bet. Could things have been done differently, and should have been done differently in many persons’ estimation? More than likely. Were all Christians satisfied with the decision? Doubtful.
Such contrary wisdom is always justified of her children (Mt. 11:19), and yet who are they resisting? The Holy Ghost. When your church governors, in dependence upon the Lord, make a reasonable decision in a controversial setting which preserves the integrity, peace and health of the Church, and you, according to your perspective, believing you are right, continue to complain otherwise and deride the decision and the persons who made it, attracting some sympathy, Jesus says of you:
“Ye are they which justify yourselves before men… that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God.” (Lk. 16:15)
Who were the persons spoken of in this verse? “The Pharisees… who were covetous” and derided even the wisdom and judgments of God in the flesh (Lk. 16:14). Lawful Church authority opposed, even in its necessary, reasonable and pragmatic decisions, is the opposing of Christ and his Spirit.
What happens when Christians are not willing to humbly and kindly defer to each other (Eph. 5:21) in the bonds of peace over indifferent affairs? Acts 15:36-41 describes, immediately on the heels of the Jerusalem council and its blessed outcome, the shame of Barnabas and Paul dividing from each other over a pragmatic issue they could not agree on that each one of them thought was of the utmost import.
The Spirit, being pleased in the decision of the Jerusalem Council, shows Himself to be a principled pragmatist. Not every path may be taken and yet one has to be chosen. He rightly judges some things respecting the Church to be more important than other things, that some persons’ Christian liberty ought to be impinged upon out of care for others and the greater good of all. Though He could have come down hard on only one side or the other, He took a path through the middle, knowing that this too shall pass as the Church grows in maturity. Oh that we would learn from the wisdom of the Spirit and give the benefit of the doubt and great liberty to our godly church governors and to God the Spirit!
The Resources Below
Below you will find a mass of testimony from the historic, reformed Church confirming the view we have presented here (this author became persuaded of it from them). Some of their arguments and insights have not been mentioned above.
We have only come across three reformed persons from the classical era of reformed theology (1500’s-1600’s, all towards the end of it) which have argued that eating blood remains inherently immoral. One of them was the baptist John Bunyan in his influential work, Pilgrim’s Progress.
May the Spirit who inspired the Council of Jerusalem be your teacher in this doctrine and may He lead you into “the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” (Eph. 4:13)
Confessions & Books of Public Authority
Confession of Augsburg 1530
in ed. Peter Hall, The Harmony of Protestant Confessions (London, 1842). This was a Lutheran confession; see Wikipedia.
Confession of Wirtemburg early-1550’s
in ed. Peter Hall, The Harmony of Protestant Confessions (London, 1842). This was a protestant confession offered to the Roman Catholic Council of Trent for debate. See more background info here.
Theodore Beza’s Confession 1560
in ed. Dennison, Reformed Confessions of the 16th & 17th Centuries, vol. 2, pp. 311-312
Ch. 18, ‘Disciplinary Procedure in the Church’
“First, there ought to be a greater difference placed between the doctrine of salvation required in the Church and those things which they establish only to keep civil order… the canonical ordinances concerning the manner of proceeding are all exterior and outward according to the circumstances of places, times and persons, by reason of which they can neither be perpetual nor universal without exception. For such order and fashion may be held in one place which cannot be used in another place. Such a thing also is good in one place or at one time which would be unprofitable or harmful at another. And for this reason, there is often contradiction among the canons, as it is necessary to have with respect to those things which are expedient. Since such ordinances are mutable and made by man, it follows that they do not concern the conscience… the purpose for which they were established, i.e., the edification and peace of the church.
For example, it was agreed by the council of Jerusalem… that the gentiles should abstain from eating the sacrifice of idols, from blood and beasts that are suffocated or strangled. I say that this is an ordinance distinct from the one before [fornication] (which pertains not to conscience nor to salvation simply, but only to the external and outward life), to attain an end more excellent and perfect, i.e., that the doctrine of salvation may take place among the Jews (Acts 15:19-21). For if it had been otherwise, apostles would have contradicted themselves… and the doctrine of Jesus Christ, who witnessed and said that what enters into the mouth does not defile a man; and St. Paul, who was in this council, would have been contrary to himself (Rom. 14:17; 1 Cor. 8:8; Col. 2:16-23; Titus 1:14-15)… Such prohibitions are devilish doctrines (1 Tim. 4:1-3), except when they are used for the liberty of the edification of neighbors…
let those then who will not understand this difference [and object to ecclesiastical ordinances] declare to us why they have abolished the apostolic ordinance [for even the opponents accept that eating blood is not wrong]; or whether they have greater power than the apostles…”
Confession of Bohemia 1573
in ed. Peter Hall, The Harmony of Protestant Confessions (London, 1842)
Propositions and Principles of Divinity Propounded and Defended in the University of Geneva by certain students of divinity there, under Mr. Theodore Beza and Anthonis Faius, professors of divinity (Edinburgh, 1591), pp. 251-2 This book functioned as a textbook of systematic theology in its day.
“6. …Some [apostolic traditions] are concerning the rites and the good order of the Church; as that touching the blood of things that were strangled, the covering of women’s heads, that men should not be covered in the time of prayer, and such like.
7. Those things, which are concerning the substance of doctrine [e.g. Lord’s Supper], are to be perpetually observed in the Church: but as for the things which apertain to outward rites, they in consideration of diverse circumstances, as of time, place and person, may be changed: yet so, as regard be always had (which must be generally observed in all indifferent things) unto that which makes most for the glory of God and the edification of the Church.”
The Genevan Bible Annotations 1599
on Acts 15:28-29 in Annotations on Acts
These annotations are comments by way of margin notes on the Bible by the following editors: John Calvin, John Knox, Theodore Beza, Miles Coverdale, William Whittingham, Anthony Gilby, Christoper Goodman, Thomas Sampson, William Cole, William Keithe, Laurance Tomson, Franciscus Junius, John Bale, Heinrich Bullinger and some others.
Apollonius was a reformed, Dutch presbyterian, whose book was written with the authority of his classis (presbytery) against the errors of Independent Church government in England.
The English (Westminster) Annotations 1st ed. 1645
For background on this commentary see the Introduction to ‘The Westminster Annotations on the Sincere Free Offer of the Gospel’.
Order of Quotes
Brown of Haddington
Erasmus – on Acts 15:20 in Paraphrases in the New Testament d. 1536
Vermigli, Peter Martyr 1550/1566
In a letter to John Hooper (who was against vestments) Nov. 4, 1550
Not everything that Martyr says here is recommended, at least as applied to the vestment controversy. Martyr did not like vestments and wished for their removal, but he also opposed Hooper’s deliberate opposing of them at that time as Martyr believed there were much more pressing matters to contend for (so as not to get distracted on small matters) and that vestments could be tolerated for a time till further reformation was made.
As quoted by Henry Bullinger in a letter to L. Humphrey & T. Sampson (who were against vestments) May 1, 1566
p. 217 (top) of Zurich Letters, 2nd ed. chronologically arranged in one series (Parker Society, 1846)
Melancthon, Philip d. 1560
As quoted approvingly by William Ames, A Fresh Suit Against Human Ceremonies in God’s Worship (1633), Part 1, ch. 2, section 6, p. 142
“It follows not: The Apostles retained the rite of blood and things strangled, therefore we may set up new things as matters of worship. This consequence is false because: [1.] the apostles did not establish [invent] this rite, but only take it up for a while. 2. Though they had instituted some new thing, here follows nothing for innovation. (vol. 3, p. 91)”
Calvin, John d. 1564
“Yet we must remember, that this restriction [against eating blood] was part of the old law. Wherefore, what Tertullian relates, that in his time it was unlawful among Christians to taste the blood of cattle, savours of superstition. For the apostles, in commanding the Gentiles to observe this rite, for a short time, did not intend to inject a scruple into their consciences, but only to prevent the liberty which was otherwise sacred, from proving an occasion of offense to the ignorant and the weak.”
Commentary on Acts 15
“But here appeareth a manifest reason why they gave particular commandment concerning things offered to idols, blood, and that which was strangled. They were, indeed, of themselves things indifferent; yet such as had some special thing in them more than other rites of the law. We know how straitly the Lord commandeth to eschew those things which are contrary to the external profession of faith, and wherein there is any appearance or suspicion of idolatry.
Therefore, lest there should any blot of superstition remain in the Gentiles, and lest the Jews should see anything in them which did not agree with the pure worship of God, no marvel if, to avoid offense, they be commanded to abstain from things offered to idols.”
Cox, Richard – p. 393 (top) of Zurich Letters, 2nd ed. chronologically arranged in one series (Parker Society, 1846). In a letter to Henry Bullinger, 1572.
Cox was an Anglican who was an opponent of John Knox (notably on worship). Not all in this excerpt is recommended, but it shows the common Anglican position on this topic.
Beza, Theodore – The Moral, Ceremonial and Political Law of God as Derived from the Books of Moses and Distributed into Particular Classes 1577 being Appendix B in A Clear and Simple Treatise on the Lord’s Supper (RHB, 2016), p. 177 This work categorizes the many Mosaic statutes into the categories of moral, ceremonial and political.
“Other Assorted Ceremonial Laws
Lev. 7:26-27; 17:10-14; 19:26
Deut. 12:15-16, 20-25″
p. 142 of Synopsis Papismi, that is, A General View of Papistry, First Book, Fourth General Controversy, Seventh Question, The First Part, ‘Whether the Pope may make laws to bind the conscience, and punish the transgressors thereof judicially?’ 1592
“Secondly: neither is there any contradiction in these words, of themselves: for to know which are the canonical books may be held to be a substantial point and belonging to the faith, and yet not simply necessary to salvation: he knows little if he cannot distinguish between a simple and absolute necessity, and a necessity not absolute: as some things are absolutely necessary to salvation without the which a man cannot be saved: as Heb. 10:36…
But in another sense the apostles write, Acts 15:28, “It seemed good, etc. to lay no more burden upon you than these necessary things”: yet was it not simply necessary to abstain from blood and things strangled, but convenient and profitable for that time because of offence: so to know which books are canonical, though it be not simply necessary to salvation, if a man hold the foundation: yet is it necessary, as a profitable mean for the increase of faith: and though it be not so substantial as the foundation of faith, yet is it substantial, as many necessary parts in an house are beside the foundation.”
“[The first time was when the ceremonial law was obliging under the Mosaic system.] The second time was from the ascension of Christ, till about the time of the destruction of the Temple and city: in which ceremonies ceased to bind conscience and remained indifferent. Hereupon Paul circumcised Timothy: the apostles after Christs ascension, as occasion was offered were present in the temple, Acts 3:1; And the council of Jerusalem tendering the weakness of some believers, decreed that the Church for a time should abstain from strangled [animals] and blood. And there was good reason of this, because the Church of the Jews was not yet sufficiently convicted that an end was put to the ceremonial law by the death of Christ.
In the third time, which was after the publishing of the Gospel, ceremonies of the Jews Church became unlawful, and so shall continue to the world’s end.”
“The laws then which the Church in proper speech is said to make, are decrees concerning outward order and comeliness in the administration of the Word and sacraments, in the meetings of the congregation, etc. and such laws made according to the general rules of God’s Word (which require that all things be done to edification, in comeliness, for the avoiding of offence) are necessary to be observed, and the Word of God binds all men to them so far forth as the keeping of them maintains decent order, and prevents open offence.
Yet if a law concerning some external rite or thing indifferent, be at some time upon some occasion omitted no offence given, not contempt showed to ecclesiastical authority, there is no breach made in the conscience: and that appears by the example before handled. The apostles guided by the Holy Ghost made a decree for the avoiding of offence necessary to be observed, namely that the Gentiles should abstain from strangled [animals] and blood and idolythites, and yet Paul out of the case of scandal and contempt, permits the Corinthians to do otherwise, 1 Cor. 8 & 9, which he would not have done, if to do otherwise out of the case of scandal and contempt had been sin”
“Conclusion III. We hold that the Church of God has power to prescribe ordinances rules, or traditions touching time and place of God’s worship and touching order and comeliness to be used in the same; and in this regard, Paul, 1 Cor. 11:2, commends the Church of Corinth for keeping his traditions, and Acts 15, the Council at Jerusalem decreed that the Churches of the Gentiles should abstain from blood and from things strangled.
This decree is termed a tradition and it was in force among them so long as the offence of the Jews remained. And this kind of traditions, whether made by general Councils or particular Synods, we have care to maintain and observe; these caveats being remembered: first that they prescribe nothing childish or absurd to be done; secondly that they be not imposed as any parts of God’s worship; thirdly, that they be severed from superstition or opinion of merit; lastly that the Church of God be not burdened with the multitude of them. And thus much we hold touching traditions.”
The Whole Treatise of the Cases of Conscience (1606), p. 541
“Obiection II. There was blood and things strangled forbidden in the council at Jerusalem after Christ’s ascension, Acts 15.
Answer. It was forbidden only in regard of offence and for a time, so long as the weak Jew remained weak, not in regard of conscience. And therefore afterward Paul says that all things, even blood itself was lawful, though not expedient, in regard of scandal (1 Cor. 6:12). And to the pure all things are pure (Titus 1:15).”
Taylor, Thomas 1612
A Commentary upon the Epistle of St. Paul Written to Titus, pp. 89-90. Taylor was a reformed puritan.
“Objection: But Paul and Timothy delivered some decrees, ordained by the apostles and elders, to be kept, Acts 16:4.
1. They must know [that] their power [was] subjected and inferior to this apostolical [power].
2. Even the apostles themselves gave no decrees but such as were comprehended in the written Word, as in Acts 15:29, “It seemeth good to the Holy Ghost and us to lay no other burden but in these necessary things”, wherein, besides that in ordering the Church, we see they had such an immediate assistance of the Holy Ghost that they could not err: so also the things decreed were according to the written Word: as the things offered to idols and fornication were condemned in the moral law: the eating of blood forbidden to Noah, before Moses, and in the law: partly, because there was some symbol in it of the blood of Christ, by which the soul is purged, and partly to avoid the note of inhumanity and cruelty.
And things strangled were before the apostles’ times prohibited for the former reason, lest blood not let out should be eaten. Which two latter, although their nature were changed and free in themselves after Christ, yet the apostle in the time of gathering the Church of the Jews and gentiles, because he would have no bones of dissension cast between them and [would] avoid the scandal for a time required them, and forbore to abrogate them, but would have them for the time retained without all opinion of worship, necessity and much less of merit: by all which bonds the Papists would fasten upon us all their human inventions so that all their allegations are too weak to remove us from this hold, so immovably grounded upon the Scriptures.”
Sanderson, Robert – 36 Sermons, 5th Sermon, p. 241 1624 The sermon is on 1 Tim. 4:4. See the previous page for context.
Sanderson (1587-1663) was a reformed Anglican.
Andrewes, Lancelot 1629
96 Sermons, One of the Sermons upon the 2nd Commandment, on Acts 2:42, pp. 29-30 Andrewes was a reformed Anglican.
“Epiphanius writes (Heresies, 61), ‘There were a sect, a branch of the old Cathari [12th-14th centuries, southern Europe], or Puritans, (as he says) which called themselves Apostolici, propter exactum disciplinae studium, etc., for an extraordinary desire they had above other men to have discipline and all things to the exact pattern of the apostles’ days;’ which is itself an imagination.
For, it were cacozelia, an apish imitation, to retain all in use then, seeing diverse things even then were but temporaria. For beside their canon in matters of knowledge (Gal. 6:16), they had their dogmata or decreta, not of equal importance; as was that of eating ‘things strangled, and blood’ (Acts 15:20), which no man now thinks himself bound to abstain from. And besides their epitaxes, commandments in matter of practice (1 Cor. 7:10), they had their diataxes, injunctions, not of equal regard with the former. Such were their agapae, love-feasts after the sacrament (Jude 12): and their celebrating the sacrament after supper (1 Cor. 11:20-12) [in the evening, as the word in Greek for ‘supper’, δεῖπνον, in the Lord’s ‘Supper’, intimates]; which no Church at this day does imitate. Therefore, to press all that was in that time is an imagination.
And, as to press all so of these things that remain, to press all alike, or think an equal necessity of them, which was a parcel of the imagination of the Donatists. For, some things the apostles peremptorily commanded (1 Cor. 7:10); Some things they had no commandment for, but only gave counsel (1 Cor. 7:25); Some things they commanded and taught (1 Tim. 4:11); somethings they taught and exhorted (1 Tim. 6:2); whereof each was to be esteemed in his own value and worthiness; Neither to dispense with the commandment, nor to make a matter of necessity of the counsel. Both which have not a little harmed the Church.
Lastly, to these matters of counsel, which for the most part are things indifferent, they also fall upon two imaginations. 1. Some say: omnia mihi licent [‘all is lawful to me’] (1 Cor. 10:23), and so [if] it be not condemned as unlawful, make no bones of it, which tends to all profaneness. [2.] Others say, ‘Touch not, taste not, handle not’ (Col. 2:21), which speak of things indifferent as merely unlawful, which imagination ends in superstition.
A mean [middle] way would be holden between them both, that neither ‘a snare be cast’ (1 Cor. 7:35) on men’s consciences by turning non expedit [not expedient] into non licet [not permitted], nor our ‘liberty’ in Christ (Gal. 5:13) [to] be made an occasion to the flesh by casting non expedit out of doors. For the Spirit of Christ is the spirit of ingenuity, which will freely submit itself to that which is expedient, even in things of their own nature lawful. The not observing whereof, with good heed and discretion, has in old time filled the world with many a superstitious imagination and in our days has healed the imagination and superstition and hypocrisy with another of riot and licentious liberty as bad as the former, yea a great deal worse.”
Abbot, Robert 1639
“But then (say they) this makes things arbitrary and indifferent to become necessary. This is true: but you must conceive that a thing may be said to be necessary two ways: necessary in itself, and necessary in the outward submission to the use of it. In itself, a thing indifferent cannot be made necessary. It is always as it is by nature, and conscience informed must so judge it; yet in the outward use, for the peace of the Church, it may upon command become necessary.
After the death of Christ, till the destruction of the temple, abstaining from things strangled and blood, circumcision, legal vows and purifyings were indifferent in themselves, (for else the apostles would not have used them so): yet for the peace of some churches they were judged necessary to be yielded in love; and so may it be in other things: yet the indifferent nature of things is not taken away, but the necessary use prescribed for the peace of the church, upon better grounds than that we should suffer ourselves to be unsettled from royal power [as in his day with the civil government instituting ceremonies].”
Lord Bishops, None of the Lord’s Bishops. Or A short discourse, wherein is proved that prelatical jurisdiction is not of divine institution, but forbidden by Christ Himself (1640), ch. 7. Prynne was a prominent Erastian.
But perhaps they will object the apostles determination (Acts
15) concerning the Gentiles newly converted to Christianity, that
they should abstain from eating of blood and things strangled,
which was a Mosaical rite.
To which I answer:
First, that the apostles in the same place (v. 10) do show, that that burden of legal ceremonies was removed by the death of Christ and buried in his grave. Secondly, they did this in regard of the Jews which dwelt among those Christians for the time, being for peace’s sake, until the Christian Jews were better confirmed in the faith and knowledge of Christ (v. 21). Thirdly, they did it by the special direction of the Holy Ghost (v. 28), for the reason alleged.
So as that example being extraordinary, and for the time of the infancy of the Gospel, it is no rule for us to follow now after so long a shining forth of the Gospel. And I might add this moreover, that the apostles did not this alone, but with the whole congregation, the presbyters, or elders, and brethren being joined with them. Whereas our prelates, though, they confess that a General Council has no immediate institution from Christ to determine controversies; but that it was prudently taken up in the Church from the apostles’ example, Acts 15. Yet for all their prudence in taking up that which belongs not unto them, they shew themselves very unfaithful, while they follow not the example of the apostles in determining alone, and not with the whole congregation; and therefore Christians have the
less reason to captivate their faith to prelatical decrees, either in
a General Council where the Pope of Rome and of Canterbury
are the rulers of the rost, or in a convocation, where the Pope of
Canterbury is Prime, Primate, Metropolitan, and All, who without
the Holy Ghost (which is never given to any such Antichristian
assemblies) whatever they decree in point of faith or otherwise,
be it never so erroneous, yet they enjoin obedience thereunto
by all men, as our Prelate affirms.
Diodati, John – on Acts 15:20-21, 28 in Annotations on Acts 15 in Pious Annotations, upon the Holy Bible 1643
Rutherford, Samuel 1644
The Due Right of Presbyteries, ‘Acts 15, A Pattern of a Juridicial Synod’,
7. The immediately inspired apostolic spirit, though it may discourse and infer a conclusion from such and such premises, as Paul does, Rom. 3:28, and he proves from the Scripture, Rom. 4:4-6, that we are justified by faith without works, and 1 Tim. 5:17-18 and Acts 9:22; 24:14,17 and so does Christ reason and argue from Scripture, Mt. 22:31; Lk. 24:25-27 and so have both the prophets and apostles argued, yet the immediately inspired Spirit of God in arguing does not take help by disputing one with another and yet does not obtain the conclusion in hand, but here Peter and Paul argue from Scripture, and they prove indeed a true conclusion that the Gentiles should not keep Moses’s Law, as they would be saved, yet they did not remove the question, nor satisfy the consciences of the Churches in their present practice, for if James had not said more, then the Churches had not been sufficiently directed in their practice by the synod, and for all that Peter and Paul said, the churches might have eaten meats offered to idols, and blood and things strangled, which at that time had been a sin against the Law of nature [scandal being spiritual homicide] and a great stumbling block and a scandalizing of the Jews.
Except therefore we say that the apostles intending, as apostles, to determine a controversy in the Church, they did not determine it, which is an injury to that immediately inspiring Spirit that led the apostles in penning Scripture, we must say that Peter, Paul and James here spake as members of an eccleiastical synod, for the Church’s after-imitation.
“2. The apostles gave no positive commandment to keep Moses’s Law as apostles, nay nor to keep any part of it; they did not as apostles forbid, before this synod [at Jerusalem], that the gentiles should abstain from blood and things strangled, which were Mosaical laws before this synod, yet now they give a commandment to keep some Mosaical laws in the case of scandal; hence we must either judge that now [that] as apostles they command in positive commandments the keeping of Moses’s Law, contrary to what they say (for their not commanding to keep Moses’s Law [Acts 15:24] is a commanding not to keep it, observe this) or then their commandment here is but synodical and so far binding as the case of scandal stands in vigor, which certainly a synod may command, and one Church may enjoin, by way of counsel, to another, for otherwise as apostles forbidding scandal (which is spiritual homicide) they forbid also eating of blood in that case when it stood indifferent.
3. [In] The apostles saying, ‘to whom we gave no such commandment’ [v. 24], they clearly insinuate that their commandment as apostles de jure [by right], should have ended the controversy, but now for the edification and after-example of the churches they took a synodical way.”
“…for here [at the Jerusalem Council] that not only the doctrinal power was to be used, but beside that:
1. the schism was to be removed, and the authority of the synod to be used against the willfulness and obstinacy of those obtruders of circumcision, in rebuking them as perverters of souls.
2. For the scandal which might have been taken if the Gentiles should have eaten blood and things strangled, and meats offered to idols, and therefore the apostles and elders behoved, as a convened synod to forbid a grievous scandal and a spiritual homicide against the Law of nature, to wit, that the gentiles for fear of scandalizing weak. believers amongst the Jews, should abstain from the practice of some things at this time merely indifferent in their nature, though not indifferent in their use, such as were to eat things offered to idols, things strangled and blood:”
“2. They [the Jerusalem Church] were under a tie by due proportion, not to keep the Law of Moses and not to be circumcised by any necessity of a Divine Law, but only by permission to use these ceremonies for fear of scandal. 3. They are tied by proportion also to give no offence in things indifferent. 4. Not to reject the gentiles whom the Lord had called to his heavenly kingdom as well as the Jews.”
(3) Yet divers of the apostles, as Peter, Paul and Barnabas see not the resolution fully that they aimed at, but determine the question imperfectly, and so, as if James had been absent, or if he had seen no more in resolving the question, then Paul and Barnabas and Peter said, which was only that the Law of Moses was not to be kept by either Jew or Gentile, upon the necessity of salvation, but that both Jews and gentiles are saved by the grace of Jesus Christ; if James (I say) had seen no more than this, the consciences of both sides [of the controversy between the Jews and the gentiles] had not been satisfied, and the question not resolved, but the Jews should have gone on in a total abstinence from all ceremonies, which because of the indifference of the ceremonies, was then dangerously scandalous, and spiritual homicide, and the gentiles should freely have eaten blood, meats offered to idols and things strangled, which also was scandalous in a high measure to the weak Jews, and so the matter should have been worse after this synod, and the controversy hotter, the fire bolder and the scandal more dangerous than it was before the synod, which I cannot believe that the apostles as apostles could have done…”
The question was, whether or not are believers now to keep the Law and the ceremonies of Moses’s Law? It was answered by the synod, by a distinction which favored, in part, both sides:
1. There is no necessity that the believing gentiles who are saved by grace, as well as the Jews, be troubled to keep all the ceremonies, and this satisfied the apostles who taught that the Gentiles were now made one people with the Jews, and both are freed in conscience from Moses’s yoke, the other part of the distinction it was this: yet there be some ceremonial commandments as not to eat things offered to idols, blood, and things strangled (for fornication is of another nature, and abstinence therefrom is of perpetual necessity, 1 Cor. 6:13-16; 1 Thess. 4:3; Col. 3:5), these must be avoided for scandals sake by all the Jews, but especially by the Gentiles, lest the weak Jews who take these to be divine commandments yet in force, take offence; and this was satisfactory to the obtruders, and we hear no more of their disputing and there is an end of the controversy by the blessed labors of a lawful synod.
Divine Right of Church Government (1646), Introduction, p. 8-9
“…to say [as the opponent does], that the Word teaches the Church to abstain from blood (Acts 15), is a part of the perfection of the Scripture, and yet the Scripture teaches that abstinence from blood, not as an eternal and unalterable Law, for we are not now tied to abstain from blood, therefore the Scripture may make the man of God perfect in some works that are alterable and changeable:
This (I say) is no answer, for saying that God should now make abstinence from blood and things strangled indifferent (Acts 15), as He made them in that interval of time when the [Levitical] ceremonies were mortal [alive] but not deadly and unlawful, as is clear in that Paul circumcised Timothy (Acts 16:1-3), that rite being then indifferent; and yet he writes in another case when the Gospel is now fully promulgated, that to be circumcised makes a man a debtor in conscience to keep the whole Law of Moses, and so to abstain from eating of blood and things strangled must be a falling from the grace of Christ and an apostasy from the Gospel (Gal. 5:1-7).
The like I say of observing of days (Rom. 14:5-6) which were indifferent and [yet] in another case (Gal. 4:9-10; Col. 2:16-17) [were] deadly, unlawful and not necessary. So the matter (Acts 15), which in the case of scandalizing the weak, is abstinence from things indifferent, say ‘that they are indifferent’ binds as a perpetual law to the end of the world, and binds us this same very day (Rom. 14:20) in the morality of it, as abstinence from murdering one for whom Christ died, (Rom. 14:15; 1 Cor. 8:12-13; 1 Cor. 10:26-28).
And upon the ground laid by prelates, which is most false and untrue, to wit, that many positive things in Church government, such as are [by] prelates deemed to be warranted by apostolic, though not by Divine, right: ceremonies and crossing, kneeling to bread, altars, surplice, rochet, corner-cap, yea, and circumcision, a passover lamb, and all the Jewish ceremonies, though with another spirit and intention than to shadow forth Christ to come in the flesh, [are] imagined to be indifferent and alterable things, we hold that all these are to be abstained from as eating of blood and things strangled of old were.
If you say they are as indifferent as blood and some meats were in the case (Acts 15; Rom. 14; 1 Cor. 8; 1 Cor. 10), its a most false principle as we shall hear, and therefore the Scripture, if it make the man of God perfect to every good work, as the apostle says, it must teach us to abstain from all these as scandalous [things], and must set down as perfect and particular directions for Church-Government as Paul does (Rom. 14) set down a particular platform, how we shall eschew murder for scandalizing our brethren in the use of things indifferent, is spiritual murder (Rom. 14:15,20).”
of Part 3, ch. 3 of Aaron’s Rod Blossoming 1646
Miscellany Questions, ch. 18, ‘Whether conscionable Christians and such as love the power and practice of piety, can without defiling their conscience…’ pp. 165-166
“3. ‘Tis contrary to the example of the Apostles themselves, and condemns them as well as us, for they did not only teach and commend to the Churches that Reformation which Mr. Dell calls the mortifying or destroying of corruption and lust, or Christ dwelling and living in us, but likewise an external acclesiastical reformation, and several canons concerning the reformation of external abuses and scandals in the Church: as for instance, that the Churches should abstain from blood and things strangled; that two or three at most should prophesy in the Church at one meeting; that the men should pray with their heads uncovered, the women covered; that young widows should be no longer admitted to serve the Church in attending the sick and that such widows must be at least 60 years old, and the like.”
English-Popish Ceremonies, ch. 3, pp. 17-18
Paul’s circumcising of Timothy was lawful only because it was necessary, for he behooved by this means to win the goodwill of the people of Lystra who had once stoned him, otherwise he could not safely have preached the Gospel among them. Therefore he had done wrong if he had not circumcised Timothy since the circumcising of him was according to the rules of the Word, and it was expedient to circumcise him and inexpedient to do otherwise.
And (because de paribus idem est judicium) whensoever the use of any indifferent thing is according to the rules of the Word, that is, when it is profitable for God’s glory and man’s edification, and the doer is persuaded of so much, I say, putting this case, then (for so much as not only it may, but ought to be done) the use of it is not only lawful, but necessary: and (for so much as not only it needs not, but ought not to be omitted) the omission of it is not only unnecessary, but also unlawful.
Again, put [forward] the case that the use of a thing indifferent be either against or not according to the said rules, then (for so much as not only it may, but ought to be omitted) the omission of it is not only lawful but necessary: and (for so much as not only it needs not, but may not, neither ought to be done) the doing of it is not only unnecessary, but also unlawful. For which it makes that the apostles in their decree, allege no other ground for abstinence from blood and things strangled (which were in their nature indifferent) but the necessity of abstaining caused and induced by the foresaid rules.
London Ministers, The Divine Right of Church Government 1st ed. 1646 / 3rd ed. 1654
“Such commands, which are accidental and occasional, whose grounds and general principles are also the Lord’s; yet determination or deduction of particulars can hardly be made, but in such emergent cases and occasions accidentally falling out, as necessitate thereunto.
As in that case, Acts xv., when the synod commands abstinence from blood, and things strangled, and that necessarily, (though the Levitical law was now abrogated,) because the common use thereof by accident grew very scandalous: therefore, by the law of charity, the use of Christian liberty is to be suspended, when otherwise the scandal of my brother is endangered; yet from any ground of equity to have provided such a particular rule as this, without such a case occurring, would scarce have been possible. Now the synod saith of this determination, “It seemed good unto the Holy Ghost, and unto us,” Acts xv. And another synod, walking by the like light and rule of the Scripture as they did, may say of themselves as the apostles said.”
The Westminster Assembly
Their response to the Independents. The Grand Debate (Naphtali, 2014), I. Presbyterian Government: Jerusalem, The Answer of the Assembly of Divines, Assertion 2, Section 5, p. 162. (That the Independents were agreed that the prohibitions of the Jerusalem Council were only necessary for the temporary cause of scandal, and not otherwise binding, see p. 90.)
“However that laying on of the burden, and prescribing some things at that time necessary for the avoiding of scandal ([Acts 15] verse 28), is taken as well by Protestant as Popish writers, who have disputed for the binding authority of ecclesiastical canons, for a foundation thereof, with this difference, that Papists will have their binding power arise from the will and authority of the church–and these Protestants hold that they bind only per et propter verbum Dei (by and because of the Word of God), only so far forth as they are founded upon, and warranted by the Word of God, as here the decree of the apostles and elders binds; and is therefore called ‘the laying on of a burden’. Yet so, that they lay on no other burden, but what was the will of Christ, and what the law of love for removing of scandals did at that time make necessary to be imposed.”
Thaddaeus, Johannes – on Acts 15:28 in The Reconciler of the Bible Enlarged: Wherein Above Three Thousand Seeming Contradictions Throughout the Old and New Testament, are Fully and Plainly Reconciled d. 1652
Richardson, John – On Gen. 9:4 in Commentary on Gen. 9 in Choice observations and explanations upon the Old Testament 1655
Richardson (1580-1654) was reformed. This was printed a year after his death and a few years afters the second edition of the English Annotations (which were nicknamed the Westminster Annotations as 6 of the 11 commentators were Westminster divines), to which it was designed as a supplement.
Hall, Joseph – on Acts 15:20-21, 28 in A Plain and Familiar Explication: by way of Paraphrase, of all the hard texts of the whole divine scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, vols. 2 d. 1656
Baxter, Richard – p. 107 (bot) of The Safe Religion: or, Three Disputations for the Reformed Catholic Religion against Popery 1657 This is in the context of differing with Roman Catholic views.
Trapp, John – On Acts 15:21, 28 in Commentary on Acts in A Complete Commentary on the Bible d. 1669
p. 240 on the Fourth Commandment, in The Law Unsealed, a Practical Exposition on the Ten Commandments 1676 See also the previous page for the context.
pp. 181-182 of Part 3, ch . 8, ‘How Some Errors are to be Forborne’ in A Treatise Concerning Scandal ed. 1740
Poole, Matthew d. 1679
Commentary on Acts 15:20-21
“The reason why St. James would not have the ceremonies buried as soon as they were dead, was because the Jews had been so long confirmed in them, and bare such a love unto them; and he would purchase concord between them and the Gentile converts; though the Gentiles should bear with some inconvenience into the bargain, as not presently using all the liberty which through Christ they had a right unto.”
Owen, John – p. 429 under Heb. 7:1-3 on Melchizedek & Tithing in Exposition of Hebrews, vol. 3 of 4 vols d. 1683
Calamy, Benjamin – pp. 45-46 of Some Considerations about the Case of Scandal, or, Giving offence to weak brethren 1683
Calamy (bap. 1646 – c. 1685) was reformed.
Forrester, Thomas – p. 66 of ch. 7 of A Confutation of the First Dialogue in Rectius instruendum, or, A review and examination of the doctrine presented by one assuming the name of ane [sic] informer in three dialogues with a certain doubter, upon the controverted points of episcopacy, the convenants against episcopacy and separation 1684
Forrester was reformed and was a Scottish, divine-right presbyterian. In this book he is arguing against the episcopalians in the context of the formation of the 1690 Revolution Church of Scotland.
Turretin, Francis – ed. Dennison, Institutes of Eclenctic Theology, vol. 2, Eleventh Topic, ‘The Law of God’, Question 14, ‘The Lord’s Day’, p. 95 d. 1687
“XIV. Although certain ordinations of the apostles (which referred to the rites and circumstances of divine worship) were variable and instituted only for a time (as the sanction concerning the not eating of blood and of things strangled [Acts 15:20]… because there was a special cause and reason for them and (this ceasing) the institution itself ought to cease also; still there were others invariable and of perpetual observance in the church, none of which were founded on any special occasion to last only for a time by which they might be rendered temporary…”
Anonymous – p. 123 of God’s Judgments Against Whoring, Vol. 1, being an Essay Towards a General History of it (London, 1697)
Ellis, John – pp. 21-22 of Article 7, ‘Of the Old Testament’ in A Defence of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England d. 1665, published 1700
PRDL lists Ellis as an Anglican, but not necessarily reformed.
La Placette, Jean – p. 178 of ch. 3, ‘The Duties of Conscience’ of The Christian Casuist : or, a Treatise of Conscience 1705
La Placette (1629-1718) was reformed.
Osterveld, Jean Frédéric – pp. 34-36 of Ch. 5 in The Nature of Uncleanness Consider’d 1708
Osterveld (1663-1747) was reformed.
Doddridge, Philip – pp. 287-8 of Lecture 192, ‘Of the Obligation of New Testament Precepts’ in Lectures on Divinity in Works, vol. 5 of 10 d. 1751
Gill, John – p. 265 (top) of Book 3, ‘Of the Liberty of the Sons of God’ in Body of Divinity d. 1771
On the extra-Biblical Jewish Regulations about eating blood, etc.
Lightfoot, John – pp. 133-134 of Hebrew and Talmudic Exercitations on Acts d. 1675
On the History of
Mosheim, Johanne – p. 556 of Ecclesiastical History 1803
This is an older, standard ecclesiastical history. Mosheim was Lutheran. The passage relates the Greek Orthodox charge against the Latins for not abstaining from blood.
Gibbon, Edward – p. 302 of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. 7 of 8 (1805)
Gibbon was a secularist (not friendly to Christianity) who wrote the massive and detailed history of the decline of the Roman empire during the Middle Ages. The passage relates the Greek Orthodox charge against the Latins for no abstaining from blood.
Perkins, William – Argument 3 on pp. 41-45 in ch. 2 of A Discourse of Conscience wherein is set Down the Nature, Properties and Differences thereof: as also the way to get and keep good conscience 1596
Willet, Andrew – Hexapla in Genesin & Exodum 1633
On Gen. ch. 9:3, Explanation of Doubts
Gillespie, George – pp. 65-66 of the Second Part, ch. 11, ‘Objections made Against the Authority of Synods Answered’ in An Assertion of the Government of the Church of Scotland (1641/1846)
Annand, William – ‘Question 7: Whether the reading of the Ceremonial Law be profitable to a Believer? Or whether any part of that Law be established under the Gospel?’ in Ch. 4, Section 3 of Fides Catholica, or, The doctrine of the Catholick Church in eighteen grand ordinances 1661
Annand (1633-1689) was a Scottish episcopal priest in Edinburgh and later a Doctor of Divinity at St. Andrew’s University, though PRDL lists him as a reformed Anglican.
Edwards, John – pp. 595-598 of ch. 18 of Polpoikilos Sophia, a Compleat History or Survey of all the dispensations and methods of religion…, 1699
Edwards (1637-1716) was a reformed Anglican.
Gill, John – on Acts 15:20 in Commentary on Acts 15 in Commentary on the Bible d. 1771
Gill was a calvinistic baptist.
Dick, John – pp. 212-214 of Lectures on the Acts of the Apostles 1850
Dick (1764–1833) was a Scottish Secession Church minister and professor.
Gloag, Paton – pp. 91-93 of A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles 1870
Gloag (1823–1906) was a Church of Scotland minister and Bible scholar.
Ferguson, Sinclair – ‘4 Principles for the Exercise of Christian Liberty’ 2017
Ferguson affirms that we may eat blood.
Exceptions: That Not Eating Blood is Still Morally Binding
Bunyan, John – pp. 56-58 of Pilgrim’s Progress, the Third Part 1678/1771
Bunyan was a Calvinistic baptist. Pilgrim’s Progress has been one of the most popular books in the world next to the Bible.
Thomas Barlow – The Trial of a Black-Pudding, Or, The unlawfulness of eating blood proved by Scriptures, before the law, under the law, and after the law Ref 1652
Barlow (1607-1691) was a reformed Anglican.
Du Veil, Charles-Marie – pp. 338-345 of A Literal Explanation of the The Acts of the Holy Apostles d. 1685
Du Veil (1630-1685) was Reformed, though here he takes the view that the prohibition in Acts 15:29 hearkens back to the Noahic prohibitions, which he takes as natural and moral. This section is valuable for the mass of Church history excerpts he collects evidencing his view.
On Marital Relations During Menstruation
Is it morally lawful to have conjugal relations with one’s wife while she is menstruating? The Bible says quite a bit about the topic, though the answer of reformed history on this question has been mixed (e.g. Andrew Willet, Hexapla on Leviticus, on Lev. 18, Question 20, p. 429). If an answer will be found, it will be by searching the Scriptures.
We will give both sides of the argument and will let that which is found to be most consistent with the Scriptures and the light of nature to provide our answer. The article concludes that making love to one’s wife while she is menstruating is not in every case inherently, morally wrong.
Marital Relations with a Menstruating Wife in Scripture
In Scripture, having marital relations with one’s wife during menstruation is not mentioned in the Noahic Covenant, though it was later explicitly prohibited under the Levitical code for the Jews (Lev. 15:19-20,24-25; 18:19). If a man deliberately laid with his wife during this period, both of them were to be ‘cut off’ (Lev. 20:18). It is likely that a part of the reason for this was due to the unnaturalness of the act. The strong penalty attached likely ensued from the act being such a high-handed and deliberate transgression of God’s commandment.
The Argument Against Conjugal Relations During Menstruation
The view that conjugal relations with a woman during menstruation is absolutely and always wrong typically holds that 1. the light of nature teaches it to be inherently wrong because it is unnatural, and 2. that some of the relevant Scriptures which forbid it are moral (confirming the light of nature). Hence these Scriptural prohibitions apply rather directly to persons today.
1. Having conjugal relations during menstruation is unnatural as (1) it is an alteration from the normal bodily circumstances which are conducive to making love, (2) it involves blood and physical uncleanliness in the most intimate relations of the husband and wife, which there is a natural aversion from, and (3) the wife may not be in a desirous state of making love due to some of the attendant physical symptoms that often occur with menstruating. A fourth reason that may be given by some persons (though not all), is that a woman cannot normally conceive during this time.
Under the Seventh Commandment (against adultery and lusts), the Westminster Larger Catechism (#139) forbids, as point of morality: “all unnatural lusts; all unclean imaginations, thoughts, purposes, and affections… and all other provocations to, or acts of uncleanness, either in ourselves or others.” John Calvin observes that the unnaturalness of conjugal relations during menstruation “restrains the brutes themselves.” (Commentary on Lev. 20:18)
2. In scripture, Lev. 18 seems to group this prohibition against marital relations during menstruation (v. 19), in the overall context of the chapter, right along with moral precepts against incest, adultery, beastiality and the worshipping of Molech. Such practices were the ‘abominable customs’ (Lev. 18:30) which the Canaanites had descended into, these transgressions being a primary reason why God chose to kick the Canaanites out of their land (this same threat being held over Israel if they do such things, Lev. 18:27-28). If God held the practice of lying with their wives during their menstrual period against the Canaanites and judged them for it, then it must have applied equally to Jews and gentiles before the Mosaic code. If the prohibition applied to gentiles as well as Jews, it must be moral in nature.
In Eze. 18:6 & 22:9-12, lying with a woman during her period is ranked right up there with the moral sins of idolatry, disobedience to parents, oppressing the poor, sacrilege, violence, lewdness, adultery, incest, extortion and forgetting God. Acts 15:20 & 29’s commandment to ‘abstain… from blood’ could plausibly, and perhaps might have included abstaining from marital relations during a wife’s period.
The Argument for Liberty in Conjugal Relations During Menstruation
in Some Contexts
The view that making love during menstruation is not necessarily wrong in all contexts, as argued in this article, holds that (1) the Scriptural prohibitions, being ceremonial in nature (though based on some natural principles), do not directly apply to persons today, and that, (2) the unnaturalness of the act may be in many ways mitigated, and therefore the action may be largely indifferent, being something that we have an amount of liberty over. Scripture will be examined first, and then Natural Law.
In general, the same reasoning previously argued above on this webpage with respect to eating blood applies rather directly to making love during a woman’s cycle. As Lev. 18 is the strongest Scriptural argument for the morality of the prohibition of conjugal relations during menstruation (and as it is unique to this subject and does not factor into the discussion of eating blood), Lev. 18 will be given detailed consideration.
Theodore Beza, in his The Moral, Ceremonial and Political Law of God… Distributed into Particular Classes (being Appendix B to A Clear and Simple Treatise on the Lord’s Supper, RHB, 2016), classed the prohibition against marital relations with a menstruating woman not under the ‘the Moral Laws’ (as he did homosexuality, beastiality and prostitution, p. 172), but under ‘Political Laws’ (pp. 179-180).¹ As Beza was not a Theonomist,² so the details of these political laws specific to the nation of Israel were not necessarily applicable to all persons in all times. Hence, Beza does not interpret every prohibition in Lev. 18 to be of the same kind, but thinks distinctions should be made within the chapter. We will show the many contextual reasons from Scripture why this ought to be done.
¹ Apparently interpreting the couple being ‘cut off’ (Lev. 20:18) as involving a civil cutting off.
² See the quotes by him on the webpage, ‘The General Equity of the Old Testament Case Laws’.
A Ceremonial Precept may be Listed with other Moral Precepts
That a ceremonial prohibition may be listed right along with numerous other purely moral precepts is seen in the list in Eze. 33:25-26 and in the regulations of the Noahic covenant, the Mosaic covenant and the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15:20,29 (as argued above on this webpage in our article on eating blood). In like manner, it will be abundantly shown below that as not lying with a menstruating woman was fundamentally ceremonial, so it is an exception to the otherwise innately moral sins listed in Eze. 18:6 & 22:9-12.
Hence, it is very possible that the prohibition of lying with a menstruating woman in Lev. 18:19 is an exception to the moral nature of the other delineated sins in that chapter. If God bound Israel with the positive, ceremonial law to refrain from marital relations during a woman’s period, then to deliberately transgress the instituted ceremonial separation in the highest fashion was just as much a grounds of the Lord spewing them out of the land as transgressing the other moral commandments. A practical overturning of the spiritual symbolism and teaching of the whole ceremonial, sacrificial system was a major, moral offence.
The Ceremonial Nature of the Prohibition
The ceremonial nature of the ‘uncleanness’ of a woman during her monthly period (and her husband making love with her during it, Lev. 15:24) is evident from the extensive, particular regulations around it, including everything the woman touches becoming unclean, the woman being directed to go to the Tabernacle after her period ends to offer sacrifices and the priest making an ‘atonement’ for her due to her ceremonial ‘uncleanness’ (Lev. 15:19-33). Part of the reasons stated for the prohibitions included preventing the Tabernacle ‘that is among them’ from being defiled (Lev. 15:31).
If the couple did not know beforehand that the woman’s period had started, rather than being cut off, the man, having done it in ignorance, was to be unclean for seven days (Lev. 15:24). This distinction and qualification casts some doubt on the prohibition being inherently moral.
(Compare the regulation about a man’s involuntary ejaculation of semen making him ceremonially unclean, Lev. 15:16-17, which regulation is in a similar category. Note also that every time a man had relations with his wife, they were both made unclean, Lev. 15:18. This is an example of a righteous and moral action being reckoned ceremonially unclean under the Levitical code and it showed in a figure how original sin defiles all our actions, especially procreation: Ps. 51:5. This is the immediate context for the prohibition against relations during menstruation in Lev. 15:19-33)
Interpreting Lev. 18
The close context to Lev. 18, the end of Lev. 17 (vv. 10-16), prohibits the eating of blood and strangled animals, which set of precepts has been seen above on this webpage to be ceremonial and temporary, not moral. Lev. 19, the chapter following Lev. 18, also contains numerous ceremonial and political precepts. Lev. 20 is very similar to Lev. 18, containing most of the same prohibitions (including that of marital relations during menstration, Lev. 20:18) and reasons for them (Lev. 20:7-8,22-24,26), and yet it also contains numerous ceremonial, civil and judicial (non-moral) details as well (e.g. Lev. 20:2,9,14,25,27).
When God said at the beginning of Lev. 18, “Ye shall do my judgments and keep mine ordinances, to walk therein…” (v. 4) this, no doubt, did not only refer to the statutes in Lev. 18, but all of the statutes revealed by Moses (compare the same language in Lev. 20:22, which included civil and ceremonial commandments). It is an unsafe rule (in fact, an erroneous one) to assume that all precepts in a given section of Moses must be of one type, rather than discerning their type from other relevant factors also.
Lev. 18 uses the peculiar phrase ‘thou shalt not uncover her nakedness’ numerous times in relation to the prohibitions of incest and in having conjugal relations with a wife during her menstruation. What exactly does this phrase mean? Lev. 20:17 is clear that uncovering the nakedness of a woman included not only sexual relations with her, but it also forbid that one ‘see her nakedness’. Transgressing this boundary is termed ‘a wicked thing’. Yet clearly there must be contextual qualifications to these commandments:
Is it wrong for a father to see the nakedness of his baby daughter in order to care for her? Is it wrong for a doctor to see the nakedness of a relative in treating her injuries in an emergency? Is it inherently wrong, in our times, for a husband to see the nakedness of his wife for the week she is having her period?
To fully prove the argument of this article: When Scripture speaks of a woman’s period, it normally uses phrases to refer to it (in the KJV) such as: ‘her sickness’ (Lev. 20:18), ‘her flowers’ (Lev. 15:24), ‘the fountain of her blood’ (Lev. 20:18), ‘the custom of women’ (Gen. 31:35), ‘the manner of women’ (Gen. 18:11), etc. In Lev. 18, however, the prohibition is against a man uncovering a woman’s nakedness ‘as long as she is put apart for her uncleanness.’ (v. 19)
The woman’s uncleanness was not only for the time of her period, but according to Lev. 15:28, it included the seven days following the cessation of her menstrual period also. This means that her uncleanness lasted about half a month, and hence, according to Lev. 18:19, her husband was not to make love to her during the whole of this time. Further, according to Lev. 15:16-18, anytime a:
“man’s seed of copulation go out from him, then he shall… be unclean until the even… the woman also with whom man shall lie with seed of copulation, they shall both bathe themselves in water and be unclean until the even.”
As Lev. 18:19 says that a man shall not uncover the nakedness of a woman “as long as she is put apart for her uncleanness”, and a woman was unclean for the rest of the day after copulating, this entails that Lev. 18:19 forbids a married couple from making love more than once a day. The verse also forbid making love to a woman who was unclean for any reason throughout the month (for instance, due to eating unclean food, touching the dead body of an unclean animal, etc. A woman was unclean after giving birth to a girl for 80 days, though only for 40 days for a son.).
Are these Levitical restrictions taught by the light of nature, and is it a moral sin to make love less than a week after your wife’s period ends, or more than once a day? There simply cannot be a direct one-to-one correspondence between Lev. 18:19 and persons today, as the verse speaks of the wife being ‘put apart’, which must refer to the physical quarantining that the Levitical Law prescribed. Yet surely those today who consider it to be inherently wrong to have marital relations with their menstruating wife do not also advocate quarantining her? Clearly the prohibition in Lev. 18, despite it being listed with numerous other moral sins, was not wholly moral, but was ceremonial in its very terminology, definition and extent of its restraint.
Typology & the Gentiles
Lev. 20:18 connects the prohibition of conjugal relations during menstruation to the significance of blood: “she hath uncovered the fountain of her blood”.. Blood, as it was argued in our article on eating blood above on this webpage, was given a ceremonial significance in relation to the sacrifices on the altar in the near context of Lev. 17:11-12 (consider also the preceding context of Lev. 17:1-9).
If this be so, how is it that the Canaanites, who were gentiles, before Israel entered the land, knew that they ought not to have conjugal relations during menstruation and were judged for transgressing this boundary?
(1) They too were to sacrifice to God in that pre-Mosaic era upon the altars in their land, blood, for that reason, having a special typological significance. That typological significance was given to blood ever since God accepted Abel’s animal sacrifice and not Cain’s agrarian sacrifice (Gen. 4:2-5), along with the implicit repetition of this significance in Noah’s prohibition of eating ‘flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof’ (Gen. 9:4). If this special significance attached to blood generally, then it would have implicit implications for other circumstances involving blood, such as copulation during menstruation.
In addition, as Noah already knew certain ceremonial regulations about clean and unclean animals (Gen. 7:2; 8:20) even before they were spelled out in Leviticus, it is likely that those early generations had other special revelation given to them (including ceremonial prescriptions) which have not been preserved in the Canon (consider Jude 14-15).
(It is interesting to note that there are no prohibitions or condemnations of the gentiles copulating with their wives during menstruation after Moses, as the condemnations in Eze. 18:6 & 22:9-12 are to Israel. Once God ordained through Moses that the accepted altar was to lie exclusively with Israel, any typological significance tied to the presence of a valid altar ceased for the gentiles. This is further fleshed out in our article above on eating blood.)
(2) It is known by the light of nature and our basic natural instincts that there is some unnaturalness in conjugal relations during menstruation, especially if it is unnaturally and grossly indulged in, without any sensitivity otherwise (this involving ‘unnatural lusts’ such as Westminster Larger Catechism #139 forbids).
Liberty in the New Testament
In the New Testament the ceremonial aspects of this prohibition against copulation during menstruation have been done away with, along with the altar and sacrificial system. The falling away of ceremonial distinctions is partly seen in Jesus publicly healing the woman with the ‘fountain of blood’ in Mk. 5:29.
If Acts 15:20 & 29’s commandment to ‘abstain… from blood’ did involve the early Christians (after the Council of Jerusalem) not making love during menstruation, this law, as argued above on this page regarding eating blood, was a temporary measure to prevent scandal with the newly converted Jews while the Gospel was new and its full teaching on the cessation of the ceremonial law was not fully realized. Principles later in the New Testament in 1 Cor. 7:2-5 and Heb. 13:4 seem to assume that there is no such thing in marital relations that inherently defiles or separates spouses.
While ceremonial laws have fallen away with the revelation of Jesus and his one, perfect, atonement of blood (Heb. 8-9), yet the light and obligations of Natural Law remains. It is true that all persons, by the light of nature and the Word, ought to avoid all ‘uncleanness’ (Rom. 1:24; 6:19; 2 Cor. 12:21; Gal. 5:19, Eph. 5:3, etc.), this term encompassing actions which are naturally or morally filthy. We are to live “according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.” (WCF 1.6)
While Natural Law ought to inform our ethics and sometimes it plays a determinative role in it, not all things are natural or unnatural in the same way or degree. Four distinctions will be relevant:
1. (1) Natural Law derives from the most fundamental, inherent designs in nature and our most basic natural instincts and tendencies, which principles may be common to many actions in general. Natural laws do not change as long as the nature of things remain the same. This is in contrast to (2) Positive Laws, which, though built on natural laws, involve ethical determinations about particular circumstances and specifics in their relation to the contingencies of our environment, various relations and society. Positive Laws, due to their dependence on various, changeable circumstances and relations, are not purely moral or absolute, but are necessarily dependent and may be alterable.
Avoiding what is uncomely, filthy and dis-harmonious is part of Natural Law. Conjugal relations during menstruation, due to its encompassing of numerous particulars, circumstances, contingencies, relations, motivations and possible outcomes, is subsumed by positive law.
2. Some things are (1) inherently unnatural, and are so in every part and degree of them. Other things, though, are (2) unnatural due to contingent adjuncts and circumstances (which are not necessary to the thing itself), and may be only relatively unnatural, the degree of their unnaturalness playing a part in their ethical use and acceptableness.
Homosexuality is inherently unnatural (Rom. 1:26-27), as no matter what circumstances or characteristics are added or taken away from it, conjugal relations between persons of the same sex remains fundamentally contrary to nature, and that in every part and degree of it. Marital relations during menstruation, however, is only unnatural due to certain unnatural and undesirable contingent adjuncts to it (namely the flow of blood, dryness, not always feeling well, etc.). These adjuncts are in some ways changeable and relative in their presence and degree. The essential part of the action though, of a man making love to his beloved, is essentially good.
3. While the phrase (1) ‘Natural Law’ (in the singular) emphasizes the unity and harmony of God’s designs in nature, yet the phrase (2) ‘natural laws’ (in the plural) is much more applicable to specific ethical situations, as there is a great variety of subsidiary natural principles, designs and instincts that apply to any given, specific situation, not all of which may be compatible with each other for the same instance, action or purpose, especially in light of the multifarious contingencies of our environment in this world, especially as it is affected by sin. Sometimes an action for a natural good, in the settings we find ourselves in, must necessarily go against other inherent designs of nature. (In no way, though, is one to sin that good may come of it, Rom. 6:1.)
It may be doubted whether there would be any filthiness in menstruation according to Natural Law if Adam had not plunged our world into corruption and sin. However, due to the effects of this fallen world, natural designs are often set against each other in dis-harmony and it is not always possible to fulfill all of them when we ought to, or may, fulfill some of them. That God said to the woman that He would “greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children” (Gen. 3:16, this all being unnatural), does not mean that there is not a natural reason, liberty and even obligation (to some extent) for married ladies to conceive and have children, though it entail going against nature in some ways.
4. In God giving man dominion over all things in this creation (Gen. 1:26-28), God has given some sovereignty to man over nature, and the designs inherent in nature, to be used according to man’s will and purposes (with qualifications). Man was not made for nature; nature was made for man.
Hence it is possible (and regular, often) that we may (and sometimes are obliged to) go against certain, lower natural instincts and designs for other God-glorifying, lawful and higher purposes. It is against nature for someone to voluntarily allow himself to die; it was the highest form of love for our Savior to voluntarily, and unnaturally, die for us.
While (1) some natural designs are fundamentally moral and ought never to be transgressed in any form (e.g. Rom. 1:26-27), yet (2) others we have much liberty over and are adaptable to our uses, for life and good and to improve upon Nature.‡ There is a great variety of natural things and a plethora of distinctions to be made in the laws of nature, each according to their nature.
‡ Adam was to improve the garden that God had made (Gen. 2:15) with his labor, ingenuity, care and natural wisdom. This is what taking dominion of the earth entails.
To apply these distinctions to our present case:
1. While making love, or not, during menstruation may be based on natural principles, yet it fundamentally, in its specifics, involves positive law, which, of its nature allows for some variation of what may or may not be acceptable.
2. Making love during the time a woman’s body is menstruating is not essentially unnatural, but is only so in some of the undesirable circumstances which may attend it in a greater or lesser degree.
3. If making love during the time of menstruation is morally lawful in any circumstances, natural and good marital purposes are fulfilled through it, though the action may be in a lesser way contrary to a byproduct of fallen Nature (the action not necessarily being immoral on this consideration alone).
4. God has given us much sovereignty over nature, and we are able to improve upon things that may go against our nature in order to make them more suitable to our natural uses. As making love to one’s spouse is a good thing, though menstruation is a deterrent thereto, it seems that, if able, using safe and indifferent means to adapt menstruation to be less inconvenient and less unnatural, is a positive good and a blessing.
While it is affirmed that making love during active menstruation is somewhat unnatural due to its undesirable circumstances, yet modern conveniences (which were not necessarily readily available to the historic, reformed Church) are able to mitigate much or most of the unnaturalness of it (regarding blood and other physical symptoms of the woman). The wife during this time also often has desires for marital relations with her husband, which is also a reflection of natural instinct and teleological design in nature.
Though a woman is not normally able to conceive during menstruation, yet making love is for pleasure, closeness and friendship in marriage, besides for conceiving children. Nor do we find (by the light of nature) that it is necessary to wholly abstain from making love at other times the wife is not able to conceive, such as: for (roughly) two weeks out of every month, during pregnancy (and before her cycle returns after giving birth), after a hysterectomy, after menopause or if either the husband or wife are infertile.ª
ª Godly Abraham and Sarah, and Zacharias and Elisabeth didn’t abstain on the latter two accounts (Gen. 18:11; 21:2; Lk. 1:13,18,24) even though during old age there is an alteration from the normal bodily circumstances which are most conducive to making love, which circumstances can be significantly improved in some degree through modern (and some ancient) conveniences.
Given these considerations, and that blood no longer has a God-given typological significance, but is simply a creaturely thing, indifferent of itself (1 Cor. 10:23; 1 Tim. 4:4-5; Rom. 14:20, “All things indeed are pure”), so making love during menstruation, in some circumstances, may largely be an indifferent matter that we have some liberty over, to be used with prudence and wisdom to the glory of God, it not necessarily involving moral filthiness or unnatural lusts. “Unto the pure all things are pure.” (Titus 1:15) *
* We don’t find it necessary for a wife who has a chronic flow of blood from her vagina due to a medical condition (such as in Mk. 5:25,29) to forego making love to her husband for her whole marriage (though that was entailed by Levitical Law), and we would encourage otherwise.
That making love during a woman’s period is not absolutely prohibited, it should be remembered, is still consistent with it being unnatural and possibly wrong in some contexts (this explains the phenomenon of a significant share of reformed history holding it to continue to be unnatural and wrong).
We have argued that the Scriptural prohibitions to abstain from marital relations during menstruation, though in someways based on nature, are largely ceremonial and do not directly bind persons today. Nonetheless, natural laws concerning this ethical question continue to inform our ethics. While Natural Law may positively conclude an unnatural practice to be immoral, we do not believe it does in this case with the numerous alterable circumstances that attend it.
It is affirmed that making love during menstruation, with a full flow of blood, is unnatural and that our actions are to be generally in harmony with the light of nature. However, it is not clear that even here the action is necessarily sinful. How may an action be unnatural and yet not be inherently sinful in all cases? In the same way that drinking blood may be unnatural and yet not be absolutely sinful, but may be commonly practiced and condoned (as is argued above on this page from Scripture).
Yet, when making love during menstruation is indulged in through unnatural lusts, it is positively unnatural and wrong: “…unto them that are defiled and unbelieving is nothing pure; but even their mind and conscience is defiled.” (Titus 1:15)
We conclude that, with some modern conveniences which do away with the issue of blood and make other aspects of it more convenient, if both the husband and wife are congenial to this, making love during menstruation is not unnatural, but of itself is indifferent and may be used for positive good.
Lastly, for men, Calvin provides wise advice on how to relate to one’s wife during ‘the custom of women’ (Commentary on Lev. 20:18):
“…believers should be kept far from all filthiness… God… chooses here to be an instructor in decency to his people… men are warned against all indelicacy, which is abhorrent to the natural sense; and by synecdoche, married persons are exhorted to restrain themselves from all immodest lasciviousness, and that the husband should enjoy his wife’s embraces with delicacy and propriety.”
“But if any man say unto you, this is offered in sacrifice unto idols, eat not for his sake that shewed it, and for conscience sake: for the earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof: Conscience, I say, not thine own, but of the other: for why is my liberty judged of another man’s conscience? For if I by grace be a partaker, why am I evil spoken of for that for which I give thanks? Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God. Give none offence, neither to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the church of God: Even as I please all men in all things, not seeking mine own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved.”
1 Cor. 10:28-33
“Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils… commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth. For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving: For it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer.”
1 Tim. 4:1-5