A fellow pro-life friend of mine recently sent me a post by the theologically and politically liberal Christian writer Fred “Slactivist” Clark in favor of abortion titled The ‘biblical view’ that’s younger than the Happy Meal. It begins this way:
In 1979, McDonald’s introduced the Happy Meal.
Sometime after that, it was decided that the Bible teaches that human life begins at conception.
Normally, I don’t think it’s much worth engaging that realm of theology that wants to use the Bible to support the cult of death, whose most central sacrament is abortion. But because a friend sent this to me for response, and also because, based on the percentages of Americans who claim Christianity as their faith (roughly 77%) compared with those who support abortion (roughly 47%, depending on how support is defined), from the necessary overlap there is clearly a sizable chunk of the population who think that abortion is perfectly consistent with Christianity.
Orthodox Christianity, of course, believes that abortion is murder and always has. It astounds me that some people (even some purportedly Orthodox people) agree with that assessment yet want to keep abortion legal. If they recoil in horror when they see another story on the news of some mother who has murdered her (post-birth) children and line up behind the prosecution at her trial, it makes little sense that they should affirm that abortion is also the killing of a human person yet would want to keep that legal.
One has to wonder on what theological basis they would hold such a position. Perhaps they actually do hold to a theology that human personhood does not begin at conception, that abortion is therefore not murder. The above Slacktivist article is the kind of thing that feeds into this mentality, supposedly giving a “Biblical” basis for the taking of the life of the pre-born.
Well, this is nonsense, of course, but it’s a kind of nonsense that can only arise within a particular set of circumstances of ignorance. (And we must presume it’s ignorance and not malice, since it is only proper to think the best of one’s theological opponents.) I’d like to look briefly at the circumstances of this brand of ignorance and comment on them from an Orthodox point of view.
First of all, the notion that Christian theology is derived exclusively from the Biblical text (the presumption of the Slacktivist article) is a doctrine characteristic of only a certain minority of Christians, both historically and even in the present day. This is the basic doctrine of authority of the Protestant Reformation, known by the watchwords sola scriptura (“Scripture alone”). The overall insularity of the Protestant world, which translates into a presumption of sola scriptura by American media—even secular media, who have no problem trying to use the Bible against Christians—nearly guarantees that everything must be proclaimed “Biblical” in order to be considered truly Christian. Thus, even theologically liberal Christians have a vested interest in trying to interpret the Bible in such a way as to support their doctrine, even if it clearly goes against previously traditional beliefs.
It is within this matrix that Clark writes his piece, noting, for instance, that he was able to find pieces written by Protestants in the late ’60s which criticize the idea that human personhood beginning at conception is what the Bible “says”:
At some point between 1968 and 2012, the Bible began to say something different. That’s interesting.
Even more interesting is how thoroughly the record has been rewritten. We have always been at war with Eastasia.
What Clark seems not to know is what the Orthodox (and Roman Catholics) have known for 2000 years: the Christian world in which the Bible was canonized was solidly pro-life and regarded abortion as murder. Here are just a few references from the centuries prior to and quite near the finalization of the Biblical canon (which is first seen in its entirety only in AD 367):
The second commandment of the Teaching: “Do not murder; do not commit adultery”; do not corrupt boys; do not fornicate; “do not steal”; do not practice magic; do not go in for sorcery; do not murder a child by abortion or kill a newborn infant. (Didache, 1st c.)
Canon 68: If a catechumen should conceive by an adulterer, and should procure the death of the child, she can be baptized only at the end of her life. (Council of Elvira, AD 305)
Canon 21: Women who prostitute themselves, and who kill the child thus begotten, or who try to destroy them when in their wombs, are by ancient law excommunicated to the end of their lives. We, however, have softened their punishment and condemned them to the various appointed degrees of penance for ten years. (Council of Ancyra, AD 314)
In our case, murder being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the foetus in the womb, while as yet the human being derives blood from other parts of the body for its sustenance. To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man – killing; nor does it matter whether you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to the birth. That is a man which is going to be one; you have the fruit already in the seed. (Tertullian, Apologia, late 2nd / early 3rd c.)
What reason would we have to commit murder when we say that women who induce abortions are murderers, and will have to give account of it to God? For the same person would not regard the fetus in the womb as a living thing and therefore and object of God’s care [and then kill it]…. But we are altogether consistent in our conduct. We obey reason and do not override it. (Athenagoras, Legatio 35, late 2nd c.)
Some, when they find themselves with child through their sin, use drugs to procure abortion, and when (as often happens) they die with their offspring, they enter the lower world laden with the guilt not only of adultery against Christ but also of suicide and child murder. (Jerome, Epistle 22, late 4th c.)
She who has intentionally destroyed [the fetus] is subject to the penalty corresponding to a homicide. For us, there is no scrutinizing between the formed and unformed [fetus]; here truly justice is made not only for the unborn but also with reference to the person who is attentive only to himself/herself since so many women generally die for this very reason. (Basil the Great, To Amphilochios of Iconia, mid 4th c.)
…those who give the abortifacients and those who take the poisons are guilty of homicide. (Basil the Great, ibid.)
There are many more such quotes we could find. One has to ask, therefore, would those who refined the canon of the Scriptures into what they are today have canonized a book that taught against themselves? Even the most cynical reader of Christian history could not admit such a thing. Surely they would only have canonized texts that agreed with their doctrines! Indeed, that is of course the traditional Christian view of the formation of the canon—that the Scriptures represent the faith of the Church, not that the Church derives its faith from the Scriptures.
This was the world that actually put the New Testament together.
Now, would it make sense that they would canonize a set of books that contradicted such a strong moral teaching? I suppose it’s possible, that centuries of Christians were so supremely obtuse about what the Bible “says” that they somehow didn’t notice it when they canonized books that disagreed with them, but then you have to say that you understand the Bible better than the people who lived much closer to it in time and were actually the community who gave us the Bible we have. If you know better than they, well, we’ve essentially lost the game already, because that means your authority is higher than the canon itself. And why should I believe you?
It’s no surprise that Clark can conjure up 20th century Christian writers who claim that there is no support in the Bible for the idea that personhood begins at conception. He has a point, of course, that within a few decades, you can find Evangelicals who write on both sides of this question, all claiming Biblical authority. But so what? People have been saying for 2000 years that their heretical ideas are supported by the Bible, even prior to its canonization! (Arius, for instance, supported his heresies with quotes from John’s Gospel, decades before that Gospel was fully canonized.) This is nothing new. This observation should at the very least give sola scriptura adherents pause. The claim to be deriving all of one’s theology from the Bible would be much more convincing if everyone who used the Bible all agreed on what it “says.” But they quite manifestly don’t.
In any event, even if you are inclined toward sola scriptura, you will still have to contend with some sticky stuff in the Biblical texts. Psalm 138(139):13 comes to mind: “For You formed my inward parts; You covered me in my mother’s womb.” If the unborn is not a person, how can there be a “me” there? The “me” wouldn’t exist until birth, right? Shouldn’t that line therefore read, “For You formed what became my inward parts; You covered what became me in my mother’s womb”?
There are other passages like this, but the most problematic of them all for those who claim authority for the Biblical text yet support abortion are the accounts surrounding the conception and birth of Jesus Christ. There are enormous Christological problems that arise if one assumes that the pre-born are not persons, not truly human.
If none of us are persons before birth, then that means that, for nine months, the being contained in the Virgin’s womb is fully God and fully something else, but not human. Fully what? I’d really like to know. What exactly did the divine Son of God take to Himself for those nine months? He wasn’t the God-man, but the God-fetus? What kind of pre-born Christological hybrid horror is that in there, anyway?
I suppose one could argue that He’s the exception, that He was indeed fully human in the womb of the Virgin, but that the rest of us aren’t. If that’s so, then how is His humanity actually our own humanity? How can He be said to be one of us if His humanity is so radically different from ours as to take on personhood prior to the moment the rest of us do?
(As an aside, I believe that this argument—let’s call it the Christological Pro-Life Argument—is one of the strongest that can be made against abortion. One doesn’t hear it often being made, though, probably because of the tacit agreement that Christian doctrine doesn’t belong in public life. But if in a republic the changing of culture (and subsequently, the changing of law) is accomplished by changing the hearts of citizens, then shouldn’t we appeal to that 77% of self-identified American Christians, telling them that the Christ in Whom they believe is fully a man in His mother’s womb?)
There is also a related problem with Christ’s second cousin John the Baptist, who is “filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb” (Luke 1:15). Does the Holy Spirit actually fill non-human protoplasmic blobs? Where else in the Scripture do we see an inanimate non-person “filled with the Holy Spirit”?
One has really big problems, too, at the meeting between Elizabeth and the Virgin, especially where the former is astounded “that the mother of my Lord should come to me” (Luke 1:45). How can Mary be the mother of the Lord, if what is inside her does not have personhood? Elizabeth does not speak in the future tense here—she knew that her Lord was currently inside the womb of the Virgin.
And, just to make things worse, John the Baptist (that is, the not-yet-John-the-Baptist protoplasm) leaps in the womb when meeting Christ (the not-yet-Christ protoplasm). Those seem to be some rather highly aware blobs of non-personhood there.
So, yes, it’s true that there is nowhere in the Bible that it explicitly says “human personhood begins at conception,” but I have to think that most of the people in the Bible and certainly most of the people who came after it and participated in its canonization would have looked dumbfounded at you if you were to suggest to them the contrary.
Mind you, they were also living in a world where the people around them routinely would drop their babies off in the woods to get eaten by wolves, frozen to death, etc., when they were unwanted. The stakes were pretty high for both the unborn and the born. Christianity was the great revolution that shook the world with the claim that every human person was worth more than the world itself. Their pagan persecutors would not really have much cared about the claim that personhood began before birth, if only because they didn’t really care that much about persons.
We are therefore brought back to where we began, to the cult of death, which is willing to interpret even the Jewish and Christian Scriptures in such a way as to serve its priesthood and its anti-sacraments. It should be no surprise that people can interpret the Bible to say one thing or another. To pretend as though their theological opponents (“A-ha!”) should be shocked at such interpretations is to assume that they’ve somehow missed that key verse they’ve found that undoes all their opponents’ beliefs. But, really, shouldn’t we always assume that our Christian interlocutors (even ones with whom we profoundly disagree) have not only read the whole Bible but actually have interpretations for all of it?
The question really is which tradition is being used to interpret the Scriptures. It’s not particularly noteworthy that some traditions are inconsistent over time in this regard. It doesn’t mean anything about what the Bible “says.” The Bible always “says” whatever one’s tradition says it says. But is that tradition right? Certainly 20th century Evangelicalism has had some wobbles in this regard, as Clark correctly observes. But, on the whole, it’s actually been consistent with the rock-solid, ancient doctrine of humanity that the Church has always believed and always taught:
A unique, unrepeatable, infinitely precious and worthy human person comes into existence from the moment of conception. Let any who would do violence to that creation of God tremble before his Creator at the Last Day.
Update: This post is about the historical and Christological questions regarding abortion and relevant Biblical interpretation—that is, it’s about theology. Comments about politics, “what we really ought to be doing,” etc., will not be published.
The Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick is pastor of St. Paul Orthodox Church of Emmaus, Pennsylvania, author of Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy (Conciliar Press, 2011), and host of the Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy and Roads from Emmaus podcasts.