The “Biblical” Argument for Abortion

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.

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21 thoughts on “The “Biblical” Argument for Abortion

  1. Father can you explain or reconcile something that sincerely puzzles me? The Orthodox stance on abortion (at least in North America) typically references the Amicus Curiae submitted in 1988:

    http://orthodoxinfo.com/praxis/abortion.aspx

    In this document it says while abortion is indeed the killing of a human person, it can be permitted in some cases.

    The Antiochian website also says as much in note 9 of the following:

    http://www.antiochian.org/abortion

    I would assume that would mean it can be legal.

    How is that reconciled with the typical Pro life stance or even calling abortion murder (which would entail that it is uniformly illegal)?

    • In certain rare cases (such as a tubal/ectopic pregnancy), abortion is unavoidable—if not done, both the mother and child will die. It is still fundamentally killing, still the taking of an innocent life. And it still must be repented of.

      We as Orthodox Christians confess our sins, both voluntary and involuntary, of knowledge and of ignorance. While there isn’t exactly “blame” to be laid in such cases, blame isn’t really the point from the view of Orthodox soteriology—healing is. Whenever a life is taken—even unavoidably or accidentally—healing is needed. We can’t pretend like it didn’t happen. Remember that our basic soteriological matrix is not about guilt and forgiveness but about corruption/death and healing/life. Forgiveness is of course included in the latter, but it’s not all there is to it.

      I’ve never known anyone who’s in favor of re-illegalizing abortion who thinks that it ought to be illegal in such an unavoidable case, and when most pro-life advocates press for its re-illegalization, they are speaking generally and not about cases like this.

  2. I believe that you are wrong on a couple points. Sola Scriptura isn’t the reason for the many interpretations of the Scriptures, instead the sinfulness of man is to blame. The Scriptures are objectively true. It is man that twists the Scriptures and the truth which the Scriptures proclaim. Furthermore it was the Scriptures that formed the church not the other way round as you propose.

    • You are right that sola scriptura isn’t a reason for interpretations. It is, however, a foundation for interpretation, something that permits a great variety. One can argue, of course, that everyone who interprets the Bible incorrectly is simply a sinner, and you’ll get no argument from me on that—we’re all sinners! But, given sola scriptura, how is one supposed to tell who’s interpreting out of sin and who’s not? Who actually gets to decide which interpretations are correct?

      Also, you state that “it was the Scriptures that formed the church not the other way round,” but you give no evidence for this claim. Forgive me, but your assertion is really false on its face, even with the most cursory examination of the history of the Biblical canon. The earliest known list of the 27 books of the NT does not arise until AD 367 (in the Paschal epistle of St. Athanasius the Great, bishop of Alexandria). The Church existed for more than 300 years without a canon of the New Testament. How can you therefore say that the Church comes from the Bible?

      It’s not as if the last act of the Lord before He ascended into Heaven was to hand a copy of the Bible to His Apostles, who then use it to found the Church. The NT texts weren’t even completed until nearly the end of the 1st century, which at least leaves the Church with several decades of functioning without it, and then nearly another three centuries pass before the canon that we recognize now fully takes its shape.

      • And arguably, Athanasius’ list was not *ecumenically* received for centuries more. There’s no way to get around the fact of history that the Church existed for centuries without what people today would call “the Bible” (and point of fact, there’s no canon that matches the Protestant canon today in any age or council of the Church — which, would do little to prove the above claim, since it shows the Bible is dependent upon the Church in some sense — until the reformation… did the Church go 16 centuries without a *true* Bible?).

        Most references to “the Scriptures” in the earliest centuries were references to the Alexandrian canon of the Old Testament (in Greek) as well as the four Gospels (by the end of the second century), but little more.

        Even more problematic for such an argument above is the fact that the Church read books such as Sirach, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Didache, the Shepherd of Hermas and the Epistle of Clement more widely and frequently than the vast majority of what was later known as the New Testament.

        Given the apostolic preservation of the Church (and Faith) by the Holy Spirit — and Peter’s announcement that the day of Pentecost in the 30’s AD was a new age of the Spirit, where even children should prophesy — we should not be surprised that all of the above was the case.

        My 2 quid.

  3. surgei, one might also point out that a mere 50 days had passed since the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, before 3,000 (or more) people were added to the Church, in just one day (Acts 2). Certainly you would agree that not a single letter of the NT had been written in that 50 day span, and yet the “formed” Church was being added to in large numbers daily (v47). But I suppose you could argue that the Church was just in the fetus stage at 50 days and not really formed, thus is wasn’t really the Church at all; that the Body of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was not yet really alive.

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  5. It’s an interesting side note that Aquinas probably wouldn’t give full personhood to the unborn under his Aristotelian philosophy of human development. I forget the specifics but if I recall correctly his philosophy would deny the developing fetus human form until a later date in development. I think it was about the time of ‘quickening’ or three months.

  6. Fr. Damick, are you not just taking the argument back one step? I mean, you ask “Who actually gets to decide which interpretations are correct?”.
    Well then couldn’t I ask you the same question? If I did, my guess is you would say something like, “The Church. Since the Church wrote the Scriptures, since the Scriptures are part of the Tradition of the Church, then of course the Church would know the correct interpretation.”
    But then the question just becomes, who is the Church? And you might reply, “the Orthodox Church is the Church.” And I might ask, how do you know that? You can’t very well reference the Scriptures to prove that the Orthodox Church is the Church, because I could just disagree with your interpretation.
    You are stuck then dealing with history, and isn’t history also open to interpretation?
    I would agree that you can quite easily disregard the Protestants and their doctrines, as no one except Protestants themselves believe they go back more than 500 years.
    And you might be able to disregard the great heretics like the Arians and the Nestorians, because they were so soundly thrashed by the Ecumenical Councils, but of course the few Arians and Nestorians that still remain today would certainly disagree.
    But what about the Coptic Church or the Ethiopian Church or the Roman Catholics? How do we know that these churches are not The Church, and the Orthodox Church is The Church?
    Haven’t you just moved the argument from interpreting Scripture to interpreting history?

    • There’s more to it than that, but, yes, of course it is true that in the end one must decide for oneself what one believes. But some things are far less believable than others. I find sola scriptura to be one of those things. Of course, there are people who know the historical record fairly well and yet still walk away believing in sola scriptura. How they do that, I honestly cannot fathom. For me, discovering the historical record is what debunked sola scriptura for me. In the end, one has to believe an argument or not, and one can of course be wrong. Does that mean we shouldn’t make them?

      Mind you, one could interpret history as showing that, even though it looks like the Church produced the Scriptures and that the Scriptures agree with the Church, what really happened is that God preserved the Scriptures in spite of the official faith of the Church, which was mistaken when it claimed that the Scriptures agreed with it, that the Biblical canonization process was actually against the interests of the Church.

      In terms of determining which is the true Church, I would at least suggest those who wish to explore the question consider that what is true is always true, and so the true Church wouldn’t change its teachings but would teach them unchanged for 2000 years. That in itself eliminates quite a large swathe of claimants—most of them, in fact.

      In any event, there’s a big difference between acknowledging that the agency of the will is involved in all interpretation, conversion, etc., and enthroning the individual will as the ultimate and only proper judge of what is true.

      There’s no argument one can make that eliminates the necessity of faith. Traditional Christian teaching as professed in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed includes a belief in the Church. That makes the Church an object of faith. You can’t quite get away from the reality that something you can totally prove rationally isn’t really an object of faith.

  7. I think Sola Scriptura will eventually destroy itself, like a snake eating itself up by the tail. Sola Scriptura is what kept me from understanding the Gospel for so long – people don’t realize how many hidden assumptions they use to fill in the gaps in scripture. They don’t realize how many different ways it can be interpreted. When I first asked all of my questions about the Gospel to a non-denominational pastor, he had trouble even understanding what the basis for my questions were – he didn’t understand how many assumptions he already had in place, which I did not – he didn’t understand the gaps I was being confronted with, so he couldn’t answer my questions satisfactorily. It wasn’t until I found Holy Tradition that those gaps were bridged so that I was able to understand and have faith in the Gospel at all.

    I don’t know if Protestant communities are so insular they they don’t see this – but if they would spend more time talking to people who are of different faith backgrounds and see how they interpret the Bible – and there are even volumes written from those perspectives – perspectives that can range from absurd to sickening, in that they use the words of the Bible to violate itself: the abortion example above falls into this category. One day I hope that people will wake up and smell the coffee – to at least see that scripture alone forms the bones of an animal – without tradition, we don’t have the muscle, sinew, skin, etc. to pull it all together: at which point you’re no longer dealing with phrases on a page that you can extract, rearrange, and link however you please, you’re instead learning to face, live with, and abide by the real, living, breathing, truth. Once you realize that the devil had you duped, you’ll drop that snake and never turn back.

    • Idk, when i’ve spoken to Protestant friends, none of them sincerely believed in Sola Scriptura in the way that the doctrine is taught. Kinda like how a good number of my Roman Catholic friends really don’t believe in the pope. I guess when we know eachother and it’s friends talking amongst eachother, we do open up a little more.

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  9. I didn’t read the linked article and have no issue with the fact that the Church has always stood against abortion (and the exposure of infants) or that even that such a stance is a good thing. (I don’t know how I feel about changing our laws until we address things in such a way that a desperate teen who has an “illegal” abortion isn’t then charged with capital murder as an adult. Fr. Ernesto Obregon at Orthocuban has written about that aspect of it.)

    However, I absolutely do take exception to the idea that “life begins at conception” in its modern sense has any connection to ancient pagan, patristic, or modern definitions of when a pregnancy begins. In ancient terms (and in some of the references you mention) one common view and I would say the dominant one among Christians (though not all nor among all pagans) was that life began when the womb was “quickened”. (Others placed it farther along in the pregnancy.)

    However, that’s not conception. That’s implantation. And the modern scientific definition and the formal definition in obstretic definition is that a pregnancy begins when the blastocyst implants in the uterus. So the idea that “life begins at conception” is indeed an extremely modern one that is not consistent either with modern or ancient definitions.

    And there are interesting theological and practical issues when you try to equate human life solely with conception. First, the majority and quite possibly the large majority of blastocysts never implant. Naturally. And nobody ever knows. So from a Christian perspective, if those are all full human beings, that means the overwhelming majority of those in the Kingdom of God are “people” who never experienced any sort of the life we experience at all, not even the experience of life in the womb. The lived and died in this life as a largely undifferentiated collection of cells that no other human being ever even knew existed. Now, I’ll grant that’s a possibility. But then why is it necessary for a minority of us to actually experience this life at all — especially when so many who do will become twisted and damaged sometimes almost beyond recognition as a human being?

    Now, I’m comfortable saying that a blastocyst has the potential to become a human being. And while truthfullly, there doesn’t seem to be all that much we can do either way to encourage or prevent implantation, I can understand some being concerned that they might interfere in the process. But the unqualified assertion that life begins at conception (using the modern scientific definition of conception) has no deep support beyond our present time at all and introduces a different set of issues.

    • A few things here:

      1. We largely haven’t been publishing comments like these, since they mostly don’t address the theology at hand (except for a brief foray into theodiocy in the penultimate paragraph). I’m publishing this one, however, as I think it’s illustrative of what I’m talking about and gives occasion for further clarification as to why we’re not publishing them. That said, in one breath it decries a use of scientific language to express anew Orthodox theology (something the Fathers do throughout history), but in the next, it uses that same language essentially to attempt to debunk the moral theology of the Fathers, which neither expresses a consensus regarding the timing of “quickening” nor would for a moment permit the idea of abortion prior to “quickening” (whenever that might be timed).

      2. When a “pregnancy” begins is not at issue here. Rather, we are talking about when a new human person has come into being.

      3. The assertion that what is present at conception is not, in fact, a human person still opens up gaping Christological holes. Either the Son of God takes something into His hypostasis that is not actually human, or He waits to make the union until it is human, thus giving us a pre-existing being who is essentially adopted into the divine hypostasis. Again, we have a Christological mess.

      4. That there may be more miscarried babies in Heaven than born ones is largely irrelevant to these Christological and anthropological questions. Such imperfections of human nature are a result of the Fall. One could also just as usefully ask why it is “necessary” for most of us who are born to suffer in this life when there are people who don’t have much suffering, why so many are at near-starvation, etc.

      5. That the legal system might choose to treat a teen murderer differently (or not) from an adult murderer is also essentially irrelevant.

      6. Always read the linked articles (especially when the point of a post is to respond to them). :)

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  11. Sir, I just wanted to thank you for this article, as the specific Slacktevist post referenced started quite a debate among my circle of acquaintances and relations. I have friends who are Nihilists and are very biblically literate, who have been arguing against resistance to abortion on theological grounds, since they note that the in the laws of the Old Testament, causing the loss of a pregnancy is a property crime punished by a fine, and abortion is never specifically mentioned anywhere. This article certainly gives my some useful tools in defending my positions. Again, thank you for your concise and useful summary of the issues, I am relieved to have stumbled across this!

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