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Anthropology Ethics Pastoralia

Fruitfulness in the Ruins

Grace does not destroy nature but perfects it.[1]

So, Kevin DeYoung has—unwittingly I assume—caused some disagreement and distress. In a recent blog post, he argues that ‘It’s Time for a New Culture War Strategy’. In short: children. Lots of them, faithfully discipled.

I can understand why his article, as it stands, was hard for some childless couples and some single people to read. I suspect a few more caveats or acknowledgements of the complexities and pains of life would have been helpful. But, whether or not one is persuaded, his argument isn’t new. And whether or not we personally agree with him, it really shouldn’t, as someone suggested on Twitter(!), unite all evangelicals in disagreement.

In what follows, I want to do three things. First, I’ll make some preliminary observations to frame the main substance of this article. Secondly, I’ll examine what DeYoung actually says, as although I have some questions of my own, I think he’s been misunderstood and misrepresented by some.[2] And thirdly, I’ll explore whether or not his basic thesis (or my reading of it) holds water.

But first to some preliminaries.

Life in the Ruins

Life in this world is life in the ruins. As the ruins of something unimaginably beautiful, happy and good—the good God’s good creation—they still bear many traces of his goodness, beauty and blessing. Sin cannot utterly destroy creation and created goods (it is far beyond the capacity of the creature to uncreate itself). But sin has wrought devastating harm to every aspect of creation, including every part of human nature. Rooted in our knowledge of the infinite goodness, holiness, justice, mercy and grace of God, the doctrines of creation, providence, and sin (original and actual) mean that everything we experience—and the ways we experience, think and talk about it—is always a mixed experience of God’s good and gracious gifts comprehensively marred by human evil. 

At the centre of the ruined world stands our own ruined humanity. Created to be like God in true holiness and righteousness, blessed to be fruitful and to rule as his image bearers, in our first parents we broke God’s law, which is the law of our very being and nature. Therefore, in our Creator’s righteous judgment, we became subject to all kinds of evils, both natural and moral. Even though God did not abandon us, nor withdraw his blessing entirely, in myriad ways, we bear the devastating wounds of our fall. 

In terms of natural evils, in light of Genesis 3:16, it should come as no surprise that thinking about marriage, and about begetting, bearing and raising children—thinking about these things as blessings—is, at times, almost unbearably hard. These gifts are damaged gifts. Our experiences of them—as single people, spouses, children, siblings, parents, grandparents, infertile couples, widows…—are fraught with pain. And yet they are still blessings from the Lord.

In terms of moral evils: sin has ravaged our minds and our desires. We now face not only the darkness of ignorance, but also the far deeper darkness of rebellion and unbelief. Our minds themselves are clumsy, and they stumble over the tangle of our chaotic desires. Thinking is slow work. None of us do it easily or well. Our grasp of reality, in its details and its whole, is tenuous at best. We struggle to articulate our own thoughts adequately. We struggle to listen well to others. We long for clarity and mastery, but are subject to confusion and uncertainty. Not only is thinking hard, deep down we don’t want to do it. As T. S. Eliot knew, ‘Humankind cannot bear very much reality’.[3] We long for the reality for which God made us. But when, in our ruined nature we touch this ruined world, it burns.

As loss added to loss, in the late modern West we live in our ruined humanity, in a ruined world, among the shattered fragments of a ruined civilization. Philosophically and theologically, we are in disarray, grasping at shards of knowledge, but rarely grasping that they properly belong within a rich and coherent whole. This means that often we not really know the meaning or the function of a particular word or doctrine or reality. And we do not even know what we do not know.[4] What is true intellectually is also true of our lived experience of the world. Things that would have seemed obvious to our ancestors strike us as bizarre.[5] We have been malformed, and we do not even realise the extent of our intellectual and moral disfigurement.

When it comes to our understanding and our lived experience of sex, singleness, marriage, family, culture and society this fragmentation is especially severe. The sexual revolution has intensified the damage of our fallen state, such that the damage is not only chronic (as it is in every age), but also acute. We have been taught explicitly and formed implicitly to separate sex (in the sense of sexual intercourse) from marriage, sex from procreation, marriage from procreation, the individual from the family, the nuclear family from the extended family, the family from society, and so also the procreation and nurture of children from the formation of society and culture. This is true in all Western societies—in the stories we tell, the films we watch, the books we read, the songs we sing, and in our laws and social mores. It is also true, and to almost the same extent, in the lives of Christians and their families and churches.

So, here’s my assumption in what follows: We are all, in multiple and complex ways, damaged goods, dealing (unwittingly) in damaged goods, and thus (unintentionally) damaging ourselves and others further.

This is cause for humility and charity and patience—as well as a loving kind of skepticism—with ourselves and one another. But it is not cause for despair. ‘For ever, O Lord, your word is firmly fixed in the heavens…I have seen a limit to all perfection, but your commandment is exceedingly broad…Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, for it is ever with me.’ (Ps 119:89, 96, 98). God has spoken, and his Word is firmly fixed forever. Holy Scripture is an unchangeably reliable and sufficient guide to what is real. Liberating wisdom—the wisdom of God’s broad commands—is available, even in the ruins, even to us. Through his Word and by the illumination of his Spirit, God pledges to re-order our disorder and make us wise. Despite our confusion, through prayerful attention to the Scriptures, we can become wise.

Chastened, but suitably fortified, let’s press on to consider what Kevin DeYoung said and what he may have meant.

Fruitful Happy Warriors?

DeYoung’s thesis is simply stated: ‘Here’s a culture war strategy conservative Christians should get behind: have more children and disciple them like crazy.’ 

Let’s unpack this bit by bit.

Not the only word

It’s worth noting at the outset that this is not the only thing DeYoung has ever written or said about marriage, procreation, (in)fertility and singleness. Someone helpfully pointed out on Twitter that he has spoken and written previously about the value and pain of singleness, about the pain of infertility and the need for sensitivity, and about the value of small, childless, and large families.[6]

It is obviously unrealistic to expect everyone to know every public word that someone has written or spoken on a subject. But especially when dealing with a relatively short piece of writing, like a blog post, it is incumbent on us to remember that this is probably not intended to be the only word, the last word, or the most polished word someone has ever uttered. We know not to pull a verse or paragraph of Scripture out of context, but to read it in the light of the whole. Everyone who has ever preached or taught or written anything knows that it’s impossible to say everything in one go. In reading other people, we need to extend the basic courtesy of recognizing that this is part of what they might say on a subject. This is especially true if our complaint is that ‘He should also have said this’, or, ‘Why didn’t he also address my situation?’ This is just a basic matter of intellectual honesty and integrity. That it is often hard for us to delay reacting until we have a fuller picture, that we are often slow to seek out more information before responding in high dudgeon, raises uncomfortable questions about our maturity and teachability.

Not THE strategy

It is also worth noting how DeYoung frames his strategy of militant fecundity. In context, the indefinite article is significant: this is culture war strategy, not the culture war strategy. He’s not claiming to have found the silver bullet, nor is he saying that single people or couples without children are therefore firing blanks.

The backdrop of this piece is that rather odd phenomenon of the US culture wars (more on this in a moment). It seems to have been occasioned by the recent US Supreme Court ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County, in which a 6-3 majority of the justices ruled that the legal definition of ‘sex’ includes ‘sexual orientation or gender identity.’ That the majority opinion was written by Trump appointee, Neil Gorsuch, has certainly raised questions about the culture war strategy of some religious conservatives, who have fixated on getting conservative justices appointed to the Court. All of this is clear in the framing of DeYoung’s argument.

However, although he points to this as revealing a monumental failure of this political-legal strategy, DeYoung is also explicit that he values and supports the work of Christians and the importance of Christian convictions in ‘politics, in higher education, in the media, and wherever else we can be a “faithful presence.”’[7] He’s not advocating for retreat, not saying that having more children is the only important thing. 

Rather, he seems to be drawing on Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option. DeYoung summarises Dreher as saying, ‘we must commit ourselves to strengthening alternative institutions, investing in counter-cultural church communities, and catechizing our own children.’ In other words, a three-pronged strategy. DeYoung does not criticize or reject the first two points, but simply says, ‘Let me underscore the last item.’

You see the point? This is strategy within a panoply of strategies. It’s quite possible that DeYoung sees it as the central, or the most important strategy, (‘The future belongs to the fecund’), although at the end of the piece he also reinforces the need to invest in one’s local church. But even if he does see having children as the most significant strategy, this does not mean that he’s claiming it’s the only, or the only important, one. It’s possible (though not certain, in my mind) that he thinks it’s the most effective one. But there is no reason to think he believes that it’s the best strategy for every individual, or that other ways of serving the Lord are bad.

Have more children

DeYoung rightly, and surely uncontroversially, notes that in Scripture, ‘children are always lauded as a blessing’. He sets this against falling fertility rates in the West, and a culture that tends to view children as a liability rather than a blessing. More controversially, perhaps, he advises, ‘Strongly consider having more children than you think you can handle.’ And although he doesn’t rule out the use of contraception, he does suggest that it might be overused.

Let’s notice, though, what he’s not saying. He notes later in the article that ‘many couples will be unable to have all the children they want to have.’ This note could perhaps have been sounded more strongly, but it really wasn’t the main point of his article, and as I’ve noted above, he does address this painful question elsewhere. 

He does not say every couple has a duty to have as many children as possible. Nor does he even hint at a right, or better, number of children. He’s not saying, ‘Have more children than you can handle.’ Rather, he refers to the number of children that you think you can handle. In saying this, he’s addressing a common, and understandable, fear among parents that they won’t be able to cope with another child, let alone another two or three. Sometimes this fear is based on a sober assessment of reality—time, money, emotional and physical resources. But often it can be exaggerated. And often the calculus regards parents and children in isolation from the resources of wider family, church and community, and in its resulting decision to stay small and ‘manageable’, it further confirms an insular model of the nuclear family.

Nor does he say, ‘You should have more children than you think you can handle.’ Rather, he urges strong consideration of this possibility. This seems to me just common sense advice. In a world where small family sizes are the norm, and where certain kinds of lifestyle expectations inhibit having larger families, it seems wise to say, ‘Pause. Think again. Give it serious, prayerful reflection.’ Are there prudent, godly reasons not to have big families? Of course. Are there also ungodly, or just unthinking reasons? Yes. And it’s good to be aware which side of the horse we’re most likely to fall off.

Disciple them like crazy

Vitally, DeYoung is not arguing simply for big families with lots of children. In his vision, procreation is intimately connected with nurture: ‘once we have those children, there is nothing more important than catechizing them in the faith, developing their moral framework, and preparing them to be deeply compassionate lovers of God and lovers of people and relentlessly biblical lovers of truth.’ What a beautiful vision this is for our children. Again, he insists, ‘in so far as we are able, let us welcome new life and give our children the best opportunity for new birth. Presidents and Supreme Court justices will come and go. A child’s soul will last forever.’ (My italics)

No matter what our view of the covenant and of the status of children in relation to it, can’t we all basically agree with the sentiment if not the precise wording of that? This is not simply a vision for breeding. It’s a vision for birth and new birth, children and the (evangelism and) discipleship of children. 

Therefore, any response to this argument that cites the Great Commission, as if it somehow stands in tension with DeYoung’s argument, simply misses the point. This just is a disciple-making strategy. And it certainly does not contradict our joyful duty also to evangelize others. Apparently in response to this piece, someone tweeted, ‘Have as many children as you can…spiritual, eternal children of the King. As Spurgeon said, “The increase of the kingdom is more to be desired than the growth of a clan.”’ Amen. Hallelujah! Gloriously true. And entirely beside the point, even if you are a Baptist.

A ‘culture war strategy’

There is, however, one possible objection to DeYoung’s piece that probes a little deeper and may be more of a problem.[8]As I’ve already observed, the article is framed in reference to the US culture wars, and as an alternative culture war strategy. It is contrasted with the mistake of thinking that ‘we are one president or one Supreme Court justice away from resounding victory in the culture war.’ It is presented as a ‘more important’ way to ‘promote Christian virtue and preserve Christian orthodoxy in our world.’ And so we’re offered the contrasting propositions: ‘Elections have consequences. But families have more.’ And again, the contrast between marshalling energies ‘as if political victories were more important than strengthening the family’, which is ‘a decidedly un-conservative position.’ 

At this point, some may wish to register an objection to the whole idea of a ‘culture war’. Who cares about the culture? What matters is the new creation! While I am not particularly fond of the term ‘culture war’, at root what it expresses is a longing to see a lot of people obeying Jesus in our culture. Understood in this way, whatever one’s convictions regarding eschatology, surely this is a good and lovely desire?

The problem I see here is rather different. At least on the surface, DeYoung’s position is framed in consequentialist terms. In strict consequentialist ethics, the overriding moral concern is the desired outcome. This is what defines a course of action as good or bad. A course of action is good to the extent that it maximises the desired outcome.

In DeYoung’s article, having and discipling children is presented as ‘a strategy’ for a war (my italics). Past strategies—involvement in politics or higher education, getting conservative Supreme Court justices—have failed to achieve the desired outcomes. What is needed is something different, something more effective. As he concludes: ‘The future belongs to the fecund. It’s time for happy warriors who seek to “renew the city” and “win the culture war” by investing in their local church, focusing on the family, and bringing the kingdom to bear on the world, one baby at a time’ (my italics). Those prepositions seem to be important: what is the goal here? It appears to be renewing the city and winning the culture war, with church and family presented as means towards those ends. 

On this reading, although DeYoung’s strategy is refreshingly different from the old culture war strategy of the religious right, the basic structure of his argument is the same. The goal is winning the culture war; only the means differ.

Assuming for a moment that this is a correct reading, the problems of this consequentialist approach, which is endemic in discussions of politics (and also of strategies for growing churches), are various. First, it overstates our knowledge of the future, let alone our ability to effect or control a particular outcome. Secondly, it is governed by the idea that our strategies should be driven by what will work for the ends we want. The means we use are therefore subordinated to the ends we’re trying to accomplish, and they will be evaluated in the light of whether they are the most effective way to achieve those ends. It might be that the means are, in and of themselves, good things to do. But if they are chosen not for themselves, but for the purposes they serve, this leaves open the possibility that if they don’t produce the desired outcome, they will be discarded for other, potentially more efficient means. This focus on ends and means also risks the possibility that other goods we should value will be missed or disregarded if they don’t seem to serve the strategy for accomplishing our intended outcome.

More significantly for this particular strategy, a consequentialist understanding of raising children would have the chilling consequence of turning our children into means towards a higher end. They become mere instruments in the service of some higher good, rather than being loved and valued simply in themselves. Rather than being persons, ordered towards God and created for fellowship with us, they are instrumentalized by being ordered towards a utilitarian end.

For this reason, I am sure that DeYoung is not meaning to argue in this strictly consequentialist way. I imagine that he sees the nurture and discipleship of children (and serving in a local church) as simply good and right things to do, regardless of long-term outcomes. Nevertheless, as his article stands, his argument does seem to be framed in a consequentialist way. Therefore—and this may be my failure as a reader—even after multiple re-readings, I’m uncertain precisely what he’s arguing. 

Because either he, or I, am not clear on this, I don’t wish to state definitely that the article has this problem. But if it does, or if others read him in that way and get on board for that reason, then it’s potentially a significant problem. However, I also think that there’s a way to clarify how ends and means relate that removes the problem, and preserves what I think DeYoung wants to argue for.  I’ll come back to this question at the end of the next section and propose something of my own answer to it.

It will already be obvious that I’m sympathetic to what DeYoung has been arguing. In the next section, I want to make a positive case that fills in a few gaps and fleshes out why (on my reading of him) DeYoung’s thesis is basically correct.

Fruitful in the Ruins

In what follows, I want to suggest that, if we are thinking biblically, prioritising having and raising lots of children in the Lord is both a great blessing and also foundational to any possibility of the renewal of the Church, culture and society.

Like DeYoung, I am not arguing it is the only thing we need. I am also not arguing that singleness is wrong, or a failure in any way: in God’s grace singleness, whether chosen or painfully unwelcome, is a gift given as a wonderful opportunity for service. Nor do I wish to stigmatize or make life harder for couples who know the heartache of infertility, or struggles to conceive, or the death of children whether in or outside the womb. Nor am I arguing that that every couple that can have children should have lots of children. Nor that godliness is in proportional relationship to the number of children a couple has. Families come in all kinds of shapes and sizes, and Scripture gives no rules. That said, I do think voluntary childlessness for a couple is morally wrong. It is inherent both to our created nature as male and female, and to the teaching of Scripture on the blessing of fruitfulness, that procreation is an intrinsic marital good. Therefore, a posture of hospitable openness to the gift of children is just natural and therefore good. It is a sign that a couple embraces, rather than denies, their God-given created nature and welcomes, rather than rejects, God’s blessing upon their union.[9]

Until the Lord returns in glory, fruitfulness and multiplication, the procreation and raising of children, are simply fundamental to what it means to be male and female in the image of God. This is God’s original blessing upon us: ‘God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion…’ (Gen. 1:28) Already we see that the fruitful union of male and female (cf. 1:27; 2:23-24) is intrinsic to human life in this world. Already we see that it is a joyful sign of God’s blessing, as well as a command. Already we see that it is necessary: the earth must be filled with the glory of the Lord displayed in his image-bearers. Already we see that the procreation and nurture of children is foundational to our cultural mandate: without children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and on through generations, responsible and loving human dominion over the entire created order is an impossibility. No children, no families, no culture—even in a world without sin and death.

Perhaps some will baulk at this because they think that the cultural mandate is wholly subsumed by evangelism. But as I’ve noted above, this vision for raising children is not in tension with the Great Commission; it is precisely about making disciples. The question before us is whether our understanding and practice of discipleship is broad and deep enough. God’s grace does not float somewhere above nature; it cleanses and renews nature. Culture and cultural work are intrinsic and unavoidable to being human, and the gospel does not deny the God-given goodness of our humanity, only its sinful corruption. The devastating effects of the fall have poisoned every aspect of our being and all our relationships. The grace of the gospel in our world of sin and death is as extensive as the fall. The full restoration of our humanity has already begun in the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, and will be completed at his return. 

Alternately, some might argue, via a particular construal of a two kingdoms theology, that Christ alone can fulfil the cultural mandate, and therefore we can’t. This is obviously, and wonderfully, true in the sense that in Adam we have broken God’s covenant of life, and Christ alone, the faithful Second Man and Last Adam, has obeyed perfectly even unto death and so has been enthroned as Lord of all (Phil 2:5-11). But we are not separated from Christ. By God’s grace, through the Holy Spirit and by faith we are in Christ, already raised and seated with him in the heavenly places, above all rule and authority, power and dominion (Eph 1:20-21; 2:4-10). The Church already is the queen of heaven, our glorious Adam’s bride and body (Eph 1:23; 5:25-33), the fulness of the Man with all things under his feet, who is filling all things in every way (Eph 1:22f; cf. Ps 8 and Gen 1:28). By the grace of the Holy Spirit, in their union with their Head, through every variety of good works prepared in advance by the Father, the dominion of the Lord Jesus is worked out now in the world by his saints. And included in these good works are our marriages, our work and our work relationships, and, yes, the way we raise our children and the assumptions that operate as we do (Eph 5:22-6:9).

To return to the opening chapters of Genesis, God’s original blessing and mandate explains why it was not good for the man to be alone, and why he needed a fitting helper (Gen 2:18). If Adam had simply needed a friend, or a companion in his labour in the garden, another man would have done just as well. But Adam needed a fitting helper for the task of fruitfulness and dominion. Until Eve was formed, full obedience to God’s mandate in creation was impossible for Adam. He needed a helper who shared his human nature—‘bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh’, and yet whose bodily form was different ‘she shall be called woman, for she was taken out of man’ (Gen 2:23). Standing among the animals, naming them, as a body among bodies, Adam discovered the deep truth of his aloneness (Gen. 2:19-20). Standing, naked and unashamed before his bride, Adam discovered the meaning of his body and what it meant for him not to be alone. In relation to the bodily form of the woman taken from his side, he discovered himself, for the first time, not just as Man, but as male. Standing before the bodily form of her man, the woman discovered herself as female. And together, they discovered the conjugal meaning of their bodies:[10] fitting to one another, perfectly crafted, two made from one, in order to become one flesh—distinct from one another and yet so intimately united that a new life could be implanted in her body, that with God’s help and under his blessing, even after the fall, she could bring forth a man, enacting her name of Eve, mother of all the living (Gen 3:20; 4:1).

Together Adam and Eve discovered the foundational meaning of their bodies and of their personhood. In distinction from woman, but in union with woman, the meaning of a male body, and so the fundamental meaning of masculinity, is paternity. In distinction from man, but in union with man, the meaning of a female body, and so the fundamental meaning of femininity, is maternity. This does not mean that if you are not the father of your own children you are less of a man, or that if you are not the mother of your own children you are less of a woman. The Lord Jesus Christ, single and yet perfectly whole, is without biological children but is the perfect Man. Additionally, Scott Swain has helpfully shown that Scripture’s gendered categories are broader than simply husband and wife, or father and mother.[11]

Moreover, in the Gospels, we see that the Lord Jesus was paternal in his relationships (Mk 2:5; 5:34). He also welcomed children to himself for blessing (Mk 10:13-16) as well as returning children to their biological parents and restoring natural families devastated by the fall (Mk 5:21-24, 35-43; 7:24-30; Lk 7:15). The apostle Paul both commended the maternal (spiritual) faithfulness of Timothy’s biological mother and grandmother (2 Tim 1:5; 3:14f) and undertook a paternal role in relation to Timothy (2 Tim 1:2; 2:1; cf. 1 Cor 4:17). In various ways, the boundaries between natural and spiritual paternity and maternity are not as watertight as we might think, although the distinction is real and natural parents have particular spiritual responsibilities towards their children. After all, the Lord who called children to himself, restored children to their parents in response to their parents pleas for mercy.

Thus, we learn from the Scriptures as well as from simple observation of human life, that a true father is not just someone who inseminates a woman. Rather, fatherhood entails a lifelong personal commitment of love, protection, provision, discipleship and care. Some who biologically father children never really fulfil their role as fathers. Others who never have children of their own fulfil this paternal role in the lives of many. Mutatis mutandis, the same is true of women and motherhood.[12] Nevertheless, although this extends parental and familial opportunities and responsibilities, not least within the church and also, e.g., through adoption, this does not dissolve the ordinary organic connection between having children and parenting them.

It is important to recognize, then, that the place of children in God’s relationship to and plan for his people is not simply an ‘old covenant’ thing, somehow surpassed by the coming of Christ. (This is true at some level whatever we make of the relationship between the old and new covenants.) For this is a reality and a blessing and a command that precedes the fall, that is ours simply by virtue of being God’s human creatures. 

After the fall, childbearing is cursed (Gen. 3:15). Corrupt and violent children produce corrupt and violent cultures (Gen. 4). Adam fathers corrupt and dying children in his likeness (Gen. 5). And the earth is indeed filled …with sin and pollution (Gen. 6). Therefore, God wipes out almost every living thing (Gen. 7). But God renews his covenant, on the basis of sacrifice, with Noah and his offspring. Thus, after the fall, among corrupt and sinful people and on the basis of sacrifice (Gen. 8:20-21), God reiterates the cultural mandate, and its connection to having and raising children. Cultures are formed and shaped as children are born and shaped. Parents raise and shape their children and in so doing, for good or ill, they shape, even as they are shaped by, culture. Once again, this precedes the Abrahamic and Mosaic administrations of God’s covenant, precedes circumcision and the formation of Israel. It applies to all humanity.  Human nature, ravaged by sin in every aspect, yet retains the goodness of its original structure, faculties and powers. In the ruins of a world racked by sin and cursed with death, God’s original blessing remains upon the humans redeemed from his terrible judgement. And his command remains in force: ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth…Be fruitful and multiply, increase greatly on the earth and multiply in it.’ (Gen. 9:1, 7).

We could go on an explore how this principle works its way out in both Old and New Testaments, but I’ve gone on long enough. Here is the principle—already crystal clear in the story of Noah, and not overturned but perfectly fulfilled and renewed in the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ in whom all God’s promises are Yes and Amen (2 Cor 1:20). When people find favour in the eyes of the Lord (Gen 6:8), and when God redeems them from sin and judgement, his grace does not destroy or bypass our created nature. Rather, it restores, re-orders and renews it, directing it towards its original created ends—the natural ends of procreation and family and the communication of goods in a just culture and society, and the supernatural end of redeemed fellowship with the Triune God in the Church. 

Grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it.

As Herman Bavinck notes in an article on providence, ‘Christianity does not introduce a single substantial foreign element into the creation. It creates no new cosmos but rather makes the cosmos new.”[13] Because Christ has borne the curse of sin and risen from the dead as the Last Adam and firstfruits of his people, in Oliver O’Donovan’s words, ‘New creation is creation renewed, a restoration and enhancement, not an abolition.’[14]

God’s grace—manifest in the incarnation, miracles, sufferings, death, resurrection, ascension and future return of his Son, and applied in Christ to us by the gift of his Spirit—is not a strange new substance that floats somewhere above our created nature, or sits alongside it (which is often the mistake of pop evangelical theology). Neither is it simply identified with nature (which is often the mistake of liberal theology). Rather, God’s gracious acts in his Son and by his Spirit restore, renew and glorify created nature, delivering it from sin’s corruption and advancing it to its final end in God.

In Christ, the joyful blessing and weighty responsibility of parents to have children and then to love them, catechize them, pray for them, form them morally and train them as stewards of God’s grace has not been removed. In this life, until Christ returns and there is no more marrying and giving in marriage, it remains the most basic, foundational way to enact our (re)created natures as male and female. This is so especially for parents in their families, but also, by extension, for all of us in the family of the Church. 

This should not be set against evangelism and the discipleship of adults, nor against Christian advocacy and vocational service in all the various institutions of society. But it’s not a choice or strategy so much as it is a simple recognition of reality. God has created us to procreate, fill the earth, subdue and rule in godly cultures and society.  The family (not isolated, but embedded in a network of relationships) is foundational to human community. Healthy families are vital for a healthy society. The procreation and nurture of children—lots of them—simply is foundational to how a culture grows and changes.  And here, now, among the ruins, if parents do not disciple and catechise our children, someone will. The world is always already at work in this task. 

What of my earlier concern about the consequentialist calculus that may be in play in DeYoung’s framing of the relationship between having children and influencing culture? Let me give two reasons why I don’t think this needs to be a danger. 

First, we do not have and disciple children as a mere strategy to achieve an appointed goal. Rather, we do it simply because we trust God’s gracious promises and in faith we obey his command to have and raise children in the Lord (Eph 6:4). 

Secondly, I believe that it is also illuminating to distinguish two ways that means and ends can relate to one another. The first way, which is the way I have critiqued above, is when means and ends are extrinsic to one another. There is no natural, organic connection between them. The end is all that ultimately matters. The means to the end (whether good, bad or indifferent in itself) is just a useful way to get to the desired goal. In contrast, the second kind of relationship is an intrinsic relationship. In this case, as William Mattison explains, the ‘activity is continuous with, indeed constitutive of or a participation in, the state of reward.’[15] Or, as Herbert McCabe describes it, ‘happiness is not just the result of praiseworthy action; it is constituted by praiseworthy action.’[16]

This is the kind of connection that exists between the procreation and vigorous discipling of children, and a godly Christian society, nation and world. Marriage, the procreation and nurture of children, and cultural transformation are not extrinsically related. There is an organic connection between them. The dispositions, virtues, relationships and practices that nourish and sustain one are the very things that nourish and sustain the other. Within the discipline and discipleship of children, the eschatological end of a just, generous and peaceful society of mutual comfort, love and support is already present in seed form. As children and family, church and community grow together and the seeds are planted and lovingly tended, they become saplings, saplings become trees, and the trees reach fruition in a glorious forest.

Having and discipling children is not really a strategy to win a culture war. It is far more fundamental than that. The procreation and nurture of children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren in the Lord, by parents within the natural family and by pastors and all believers within the family of the Church, simply is the foundational form (though not the only form, nor a higher, better or more faithful form) of grace-infused human life in this age. A family and church devoted to the welcome and nurture of children need not seek victory in a culture war, because, in a very real sense, it has already won.

Conclusion

So, does the future belong to the fecund? Well, at one level it seems like a basic matter of maths. But life is more complex than that. Which future are we talking about? When? For how long? What is our timeframe? And where? Are we speaking globally or locally? In which country? At what stage of its history? Under what conditions? With what economic, social, cultural, religious, legal, political, geopolitical, geological, environmental constraints? And who? Whichever community happens to be most fecund, regardless of status, social benefits, religious beliefs? 

Whatever the short-term, small-scale answers to these imponderable questions, the future belongs, fixed and unchanging, to the Lord Jesus Christ. Once, he was dead. But now he is alive, raised and seated at his Father’s right hand in the heavenly places. From there, he rules the nations of the world, extending his sceptre, receiving them as his inheritance, filling the earth and subduing it, until all his enemies are his footstool, when the last enemy will be destroyed and he will hand the creation, cleansed, subdued, filled, glorified to his Father as his kingdom forever. In the long ‘culture war’ of history, from Genesis 3:15 to the end, there is only one Victor, now and forever. The future belongs to the Seed of the woman, Christ Jesus the Lord.

And so, the future belongs to the Church, Christ’s bride and body and fulness, on whom he has poured out his Spirit, in and through whom he is producing abundant fruit in all the world. The union of Christ and the Church is not a fruitless marriage. It is a union of fulness and multiplication and filling. The future belongs to the communion of saints, who in fellowship with our head lack no good blessing and together share all good things now—including children—in our common life in him.

But neither grace nor glory destroy nature. They perfect it. And so the ordinary means by which the Lord Jesus Christ our Creator and Redeemer works, from now until the End, is through the procreation and nurture of children, by the Spirit in the Lord, in families and in the church, by prayer and catechesis, worship, Word and sacrament. The future belongs to the fecund people of God. And in that people, the future is already here in seed and sapling form. So, yes, ordinarily husbands and wives do have the joyful privilege of warmly welcoming God’s good blessing of fecundity, and the weighty responsibility of nurturing, by grace through faith, all the children that he gives. 

This essay is also available on the Pastors’ Academy website


[1] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I q.1, a.8, ad.2.

[2] I wish I didn’t have to add this caveat, but I probably should: I don’t know Kevin DeYoung, have never heard him speak or preach, haven’t read any of his books beyond skimming bits of his introduction to the Heidelberg Catechism, and have maybe read a score of his blog posts over the past umpteen years. This gives me the advantage of not feeling the need to think about Kevin-the-man as I write, so I can focus only on the issues. The disadvantage is that I may well miss some important context to what he’s written—I’m addressing one short blog post and the guy’s not only fecund, he’s prolific!

[3] Burnt Norton, I. Poignantly, in the poem these words are spoken in response to a bird  banishing the poet and his (female?) companion from an Edenic garden, full of children among the leaves, that lies at the bottom of a path never taken and through a door never opened. This may well be rooted in Eliot’s own complex, emotionally close relationship with Emily Hale, which ultimately, and somewhat callously, he ended.

[4] See Alastair MacIntyre, After Virtue (2nd edition; Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1984) for a seminal account of this in relation to ethics.

[5] This is not to deny that earlier generations were also intellectually and morally malformed. Nor to deny that we may truly grasp some things that they could not see. In relation to the subject at hand, our biggest problem is that we are sons of Adam, not sons of Hugh Heffner; daughters of Eve, not daughters of Marie Stopes. But that doesn’t render our situation in the wake of the Enlightenment and the scientific, industrial, technological, sexual and information revolutions insignificant.

[6] https://twitter.com/JimCurtis_/status/1273624961916248076 and the following thread.

[7] The phrase ‘faithful presence’ is from James Davidson Hunter’s important book on cultural engagement, which also points to the fact that DeYoung’s view is richer and more nuanced than might at first appear (James Davidson Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010]). It was Hunter who, in an earlier work, coined the term ‘culture wars’.

[8] I’m grateful to Andrew Errington for raising this question and helping me to frame it. He’s not, of course, responsible for how I develop this point later.

[9] Again: this should not be taken to suggest that somehow a couple who cannot conceive are somehow ‘cursed’, or somehow suffering for some particular sin. As I said at the beginning, we must distinguish natural and moral evils. Childlessness is a tragic result of the fall, a sign that all of life is lived east of Eden, but not a sign of individual guilt, nor of God’s failure or disfavour.

[10] John Paull II, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, trans. Michael Waldstein (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2006), 6:3; 10:1.

[11] Scott Swain, ‘Thoughts on Theological Anthropology: Man as Male and Female’, Reformed Faith and Practice 5.1 (2020): 54-65. Also available at https://www.scottrswain.com/2020/05/14/more-thoughts-on-theological-anthropology-man-as-male-and-female/.

[12] See J. Budziszewski, On the Meaning of Sex (Wilmington: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2012). Note also within Scripture, language of church as family, Paul’s paternal relationships with Timothy and with his churches, Deborah as a mother in Israel, the description of kings as fathers of the nation.

[13] Herman Bavinck, ‘Common Grace’, trans. Raymond C. van Leeuwen, Calvin Theological Journal 24 (1989): 61.

[14] Oliver O’Donovan, A Conversation Waiting to Begin: The Churches and the Gay Controversy (London: SCM, 2009), 99.

[15] William C. Mattison, The Sermon on the Mount and Moral Theology: A Virtue Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 24.

[16] Herbert McCabe, The Good Life: Ethics and the Pursuit of Happiness (New York: Continuum, 2005), 6; quoted in Mattison, Ibid.

Photo by Alex Holyoake on Unsplash