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Abortion as a Challenge to Christian Orthodoxy
by Terry Schlossberg
Approval of abortion by mainline Protestant denominations is a thoroughly modern phenomenon—scarcely more than two decades old. Early Church documents—the second-century Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas, for example—specifically condemned abortion. Opposition to abortion can be found as a thread running through the ancient writings of church fathers up to those of twentieth-century theologians and denominational proclamations. Orthodox scholar Alexander Webster notes that for all the points of division in the Christian Church through the centuries, abortion was one matter on which the Church was never divided.
John Calvin, in his Commentary on the First Five Books of the Bible, called abortion “an almost monstrous crime.” Martin Luther wrote that “those who have no regard for pregnant women and who do not spare the tender fruit are murderers and infanticides.” In our own century such noted theological voices as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Karl Barth, Helmut Thielecke, and Paul Ramsey all expressed the opposition to abortion that has characterized the Christian Church historically. And as recently as 1962 the Presbyterian Church, the denomination to which I belong, said, “The fetus is a human life to be protected by the criminal law from the moment when the ovum is fertilized. . . .”
The Test of Abortion
The consensus of opposition to abortion, tied to the biblical and confessional tradition of the Christian Church, began to erode in the late 1960s and seemed to disappear altogether in the 1970s, particularly in mainline Protestantism. It was replaced by a new ethic, introduced by a rapidly changing ethos of the culture in which the basis for deriving truth was transformed from an objective and revealed standard to subjective and individual judgments. The new orthodoxy of mainline denominations is expressed in the oft-repeated “Faithful Christians hold a variety of views about abortion.” But to say that people who profess to be Christians hold a variety of views about abortion is not the same as saying there are a variety of Christian views about abortion, and the distinction is critically important.
Though abortion may not be used as a litmus test for separating Christians from non-Christians in the Church today, it does constitute a test of Christian orthodoxy. Abortion, since it deals with the nature and value of human beings and the order and purpose of God for his creation, raises questions of moral right and wrong. Such a moral and spiritual matter must profoundly concern the Church, and it is proper and necessary for the Church to raise—and to resolve—the moral questions related to abortion, as well as to the problem pregnancies that lead to abortions.
Today the overwhelming need, particularly in the Protestant mainline churches, is not to develop new frameworks for thinking about moral decisions related to abortion, but to return to the framework of Christian orthodoxy itself—and then to think about abortion from within that framework. The abortion issue requires the Church to look again at Scripture, and its doctrinal statements, to examine its confessions, and to reassert what it has believed historically, particularly in contrast to opposing belief systems. The churches are charged to speak the very words of God to his people and to the culture. The churches that now countenance abortion must consider again what they already have been taught about the nature of life in the womb and the moral implications of a decision to kill it. And finally, they must listen to what Scripture has to say about our responsibility to those in need—in this case those women whose personal circumstances lead them to have abortions.
A Common Framework of Absolutes
It obviously is futile to argue these points apart from a common authority framework. Many of my fellow Presbyterians, for example, need to be reminded of what gives them the right to call themselves Presbyterians: an allegiance to prophetic and apostolic doctrine as understood in the Reformed tradition. Reformed doctrine historically has held Scripture to be God’s written revelation of himself and his will to us. Calvin says that Scripture is our means of distinguishing between the true God and those gods devised by human imagination:
. . . God, the Artificer of the universe, is made manifest to us in Scripture, and . . . what we ought to think of him is set forth there, lest we seek some uncertain deity by devious paths. . . . no one can get even the slightest taste of right and sound doctrine unless he be a student of Scripture. ( Institutes, I.VI.1,2).
Those defending the wide divergence of beliefs about abortion in the Church today commonly argue that differences in interpretation of Scripture must prevail and that each of us must act according to the dictates of our individual consciences. Nothing could be farther from Christian orthodoxy. No Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox church member who understands their tradition would attempt this argument. For Presbyterians who would like to attempt it, historical Reformed teaching is expressed by the Second Helvetic Confession, which states that, “The apostle Peter has said that the Holy Scriptures are not of private interpretation (2 Peter 1:20), and thus we do not allow all possible interpretations.” And the three traditions further agree that varieties of private interpretation do not by any means suggest a variety of truths that are all of equal validity.
In considering moral questions, our first obligation is to orthodoxy, to Christian doctrine, to biblical revelation, to truth outside ourselves. Proponents of novel “orthodoxies” typically ask whether “good” emanates from faith or from following a list of rules. It is the wrong question. When faith—our system of orthodox Christian beliefs—is understood to be, above all, the truth that comes to us from God’s revelation in Scripture, “good” becomes a matter of obedience to that truth rather than a subjective construction of our own personal inner truth. Christian orthodoxy provides the guide for moral decisions. We are not cast adrift with no help but inner voices that tell us inner truths that may vary for each individual and for each circumstance.
In looking to Scripture for guidance on abortion, we should concern ourselves with three things: the nature of the life in the womb, our duty to protect and to care for life, and our obligation to those whose circumstances lead them to seek abortion.
Life in the Womb
When we consider life in the womb, both Testaments picture God in relationship with those who bear his image before birth. Scripture speaks of his calling, of assigning meaning and purpose to individual lives, before they are born.
Beverly Harrison, professor of ethics at Union Seminary in New York and author of Our Right to Choose, says, “The question is not when biological human life begins, but when does fetal life become a person, a full member of the class of human beings?” The implication of her statement is that our obligation is to protect and to care for persons, a status of value, not humans, a status that does not convey value, but only identifies a species.
The reason historical Christianity does not offer help in answering the question she poses is that Scripture does not separate humanness from personhood. There is no fixed definition of personhood apart from humanness. Detached from humanness, personhood is entirely subjective. But Scripture establishes the value of humanity by referring to us as made in God’s image. That alone puts us in a position to be adopted as God’s children, purchased with the price of his own blood. There is no biblical line between the physical and the spiritual, or any other quality that those professing the “new ethic” would use to distinguish human from person. And there is no biblical line between how God relates to the born and the unborn as these scriptures show:
• Psalm 139:13–16: “For you formed me in my inward parts; you have covered me in my mother’s womb. I will praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; marvelous are your works, and that my soul knows very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was made in secret, and skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed. And in your book they all were written, the days fashioned for me, when as yet there were none of them.”
• Jeremiah 1:5: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; before you were born I sanctified you. . . .”
• Luke 1:15: “For he will be great in the sight of the Lord. . . . He will also be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.”
• Luke 1:41,44: “And when . . . Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, . . . the babe leaped in her womb . . . for joy.”
• Galatians 1:15,16: “For even before I was born God had chosen me to be his, and called me . . . .”
The Scriptures bear witness that one of the sharpest distinctions between historic Christianity and alternate belief systems is over the nature of human beings and their relationship to God. The clear biblical teaching—understood, taught and practiced by the Church historically—is that human beings derive their value from God who has made them all in his own image, that there is no distinction between human beings born and unborn in terms of their value and our obligation to protect and care for them, and do them no harm.
Our Care for Life
Protection and care for human life, particularly for the innocent, the vulnerable, and the unwanted is a recurring theme of Scripture, beginning with Genesis 4:9 where God declares his expectation that we will be our brothers’ keepers. Care for each other also is the focus of the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10, where Jesus ties the parable to the second tablet of the law. Other examples among many include:
• Proverbs 24:11,12: “Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering toward slaughter. If you say, ‘But we knew nothing about this,’ does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who guards your life know it?”
• James 1:27: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
Other passages that bear on the obligation to care are Psalms 12:5; 72:4,12,13; 74:21; 82:3,4; 107:41; 140:12; Ezekiel 34:16; Deuteronomy 15:11; 24:14; 1 Samuel 2:8; Job 5:15; Isaiah 25:4; 41:17; Jeremiah 7:5–8; 22:16; and Acts 4:34.
The Westminster Larger Catechism, in its explanation of the Ten Commandments, addresses both forbidden sins and our duties under the law. The sixth commandment forbids “. . . the neglecting or withdrawing the lawful or necessary means of preservation of life . . . and whatsoever . . . tends to the destruction of the life of any.” Conversely, it says, our duties under this commandment include “. . . avoiding all occasions, temptations, and practices, which tend to the unjust taking away the life of any . . . and protecting and defending the innocent.”
Our Obligation to Those in Need
What about pregnant women whose circumstances appear to provide no solution but abortion? The Church’s duties here include giving the gospel message of God’s mercy and grace to those who have transgressed his law in their sexual relationships and leading them gently to repentance, as well as addressing the physical, emotional, social, and economic needs that accompany problem pregnancies.
The Scriptures that speak to protection and to care apply as much to the women involved as to their unborn babies. They are as much our neighbors as the children in their wombs. Our obligations to them are to provide, by every means possible, for their needs in ways that preserve their lives and do them no spiritual harm. Jesus’ every act in response to those in need was to override the circumstances: to heal, to feed, and to intervene in situations that threaten life and well-being.
The Epistle of James makes the same connection between faith and active care for those in need, as Jesus did in the story of the Good Samaritan. “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:15–17)
The account of Abraham and Isaac, in which God provided a ram as substitute for the life of Isaac, resulted in Abraham’s naming the place “The Lord will Provide” (Genesis 22:13–14). There is a consistent picture in Scripture of God as helper and provider, and of our obligation to be like him in that respect (Matt. 25:40; Matt. 10:8).
Rebuilding on Solid Foundations
The book of Haggai in the Old Testament has as its context the ruin of Jerusalem and the Temple. It is a call to rebuild the house of the Lord. How we handle this issue of abortion is critical to the process of rebuilding the churches. The word of the prophet was, “Who of you is left who saw this house in its former glory?” More important than negotiating peace between opposing sides on moral issues such as abortion is to have a vision of God’s design for the Church and to restore it so that, in the words of the prophet, “The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house. . . .” That can only happen if what we build is laid on the historic foundations of Christian orthodoxy.
The clear biblical foundation—understood, taught and practiced by the Church historically—is that human beings derive their value from God who has made them all in his own image; that there is no distinction between human beings born and unborn in terms of their value and our obligation to protect and care for them, and do them no harm; and finally, that, before God, we as his body—the Church—are responsible to meet both the physical and spiritual needs of those in crisis, both mothers and their unborn children.
Terry Schlossberg is executive director of Presbyterians Pro-Life (www.ppl.org), one of the sixteen unofficial renewal groups in the Presbyterian Church (USA).