Tuesday, July 29, 2014

New Seminarian: A Brief Post on Scripture and Abortion

This is a small section of a paper I wrote for a scholarship. I recognize that this topic is highly sensitive, so I just want to acknowledge the complexities surrounding this very tense topic. Having read a few extra books since then on this topic, I know I could add more, but for the sake of my sanity I will just post this as is. As someone who came into this pro-life, I leave relatively committed to the pro-life belief.

Thanks for reading in advance.

There is a divergent stream of thought on the issue of abortion, though this is less a problem within the church. Michael Gorman lists three positions related to this issue: the first is that “abortion is (perhaps with rare exceptions) unethical. Second, “abortion is tragic but justified in certain circumstances.” Finally, “the agent [is] sacred and capable of making a free, responsible decision without providing formal justification [in favor of abortion].[1] It has been pointed out that Scripture says little – or nothing[2] – about abortion, and this is true to a certain extent, though potentially misleading. I think a more fruitful and appropriate inquiry is to ask what does Scripture say about fetuses, babies and children? That way, implications – as opposed to didactic statements regarding controversial topics – can be addressed and Scripture may speak where it has a voice.[3] There are many contemporary examples within biblical studies that involve this type of interaction[4] but the principle I am proposing stands: implications, when there are no explicit texts, are then brought fully into the discussion.[5]

The Torah says little by way of abortion, but murder is clearly condemned (Ex. 20:13; Deut. 5:17); the implication is that if a fetus were indeed a human person, the Torah would outlaw such practice. However, the Torah doesn’t specify person hood to this extent. In some sense, the loss of a child by accident (Ex. 21:22-25) results in a monetary fine for the offender, not the death penalty.[6] Utilizing common motifs, the narratives of the Old Testament showcase the grief and sadness when the matriarchs are unable to conceive of children,[7] and there is wonder when Isaac prays for his barren wife Rebekah and she conceives (Genesis 25:21). The actions of YHWH offer children to the women, and this is by implication a sign that YHWH is indeed involved, in some way, with the conceptual process. Regardless of the lack of didactic statements, the writers are often amazed at YHWH’s involvement in the mundane and in the bleak. This is poetically expressed in Psalm 139:13-17 and Jeremiah 1:5, where God “forms” the child. Richard Hays notes that these texts “are confessions about God’s divine foreknowledge and care.”[8] This beautiful poetry indicates not only that God is involved, but also that he knows the child before birth.[9] In Luke 1:4-44, Elizabeth’s exclamation that “the child in my womb leapt for joy” is certainly not a scientific observation, but an expression at mystery and wonder of the child within her. In short, it is a theologically rich proclamation, laden with the promise of the Messiah. This doesn’t speak directly to abortion, but it speaks to the value placed on the baby and the affirmation of divine promise.

In Didache (2.2), a post-New Testament document written roughly around the end of the first century AD, abortion is explicitly condemned, illustrating that abortion is not only known by the early church, but also believed to be an act of immorality. The Jewish belief appears to be the same. First century Jewish historian Josephus states, “the law, moreover, enjoins us to bring up all our offspring, and forbids women to cause abortion of what is begotten, or to destroy it afterward; and if any woman appears to have done so, she will be a murderer of her child, by destroying a living creature, and diminishing human kind.”[10] Included within the ‘law’ code are various other rules that mirror the Ten Commandments.[11] Based on this biblical material, we can reasonably conclude that abortion is unethical.


Recommended resources:

Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament; a moderate perspective that doesn't conclude dogmatically on the topic; however, a balanced and respectable contribution. Michael Gorman, Abortion and the Early Church; a masterful and incisive glance at our early history.

End notes.

[1] Michael J. Gorman, “Abortion,” Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics, ed. Joel B. Green, 35. The nuances of the various positions are contained therein.
[2] Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, 446.
[3] This is not to suggest that other theologians don’t allow Scripture to speak to the issue. However, when you have the question framed in such a way as to render it as silent, the question is begged and the conversation is stifled before it has begun.
[4] As example may be used as such: it is said that Jesus never condemned homosexual practice. This is a true statement, but it reduces implications and historical awareness for the sake of scoring rhetorical points. While Jesus never promoted/condemned homosexual practice, he consistently appealed to a male/female relationship as the basis for marriage (cf. Mark 10; par Matthew 19).
[5] Richard Hays points out that the LXX Greek translation of Ex. 21:22-15 grants personhood to the child, though there are some translational ambiguities. The Moral Vision of the New Testament, 447.
[6] The Torah does offer the death penalty for sins. A mere sample includes cursing parents (Ex. 21:17) and striking parents (Ex. 21:15), which apply to children; kidnapping (Ex. 21:16); bestiality (Ex. 22:19); prostitution (Lev. 21:9); murder (Num. 35:18-21).
[7] Sarah in Genesis 11; Hannah in 1 Samuel 1-2.
[8] Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, 448.

[9] Other texts that imply this include Job 31:15; Isaiah 44: 1-2; 49:1-6; Ecclesiastes 11:5; Psalm 22:9-10.
[10] Josephus, Against Apion, 2.202.
[11] “You shall not: murder, commit adultery, have corrupt boys, have illicit sex, steal practice magic, make potions, murder offspring by means of murder, kill him/her having been born, and desire the things of your neighbor.” Didache 2:2.

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