Continuing a series of posts on abortion, engaging with Richard Hays’ chapter on the topic in his The Moral Vision of the New Testament, in light of the upcoming Referendum on 25 May 2018.
So what does the Bible say? At one level, the answer to this question is simple – nothing. No text addresses the issue directly.
In a sense this is not that surprising – here’s why. In Scripture, children are seen as a wonderful blessing from God. Not only is the child to be loved, but children are a source of security and a guarantee of future lineage. In the OT in particular, childlessness is a terrible affliction, so having children is a source of great joy
Children are a heritage from the Lord,
offspring a reward from him.
Like arrows in the hands of a warrior
are children born in one’s youth.
Blessed is the man
whose quiver is full of them.
In this sense, the Bible portrays a world, as Hays puts it, “in which abortion would be not so much immoral as unthinkable or unintelligible.” (449)
Various texts are sometimes marshalled to provide biblical support for opposition to abortion. But none of them comment specifically to the issue, and the use of some texts is far-fetched.
To cite Exodus 20:13 “You shall not murder” as an anti-abortion text is to beg the question. Yes, it can be claimed that abortion is murder in the sense that it is intentional killing of a human person. But such a view depends on how human personhood is defined. And Exodus 20:13 says nothing to that question.
The text probably most commonly cited is Psalm 139:13-16
For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.
Now, this text is relevant in relation to modern debate about abortion, but like any text it needs to be read in context. A Psalm of David, its focus is not a general statement about the status of the unborn, but a song in praise of God’s loving omniscience and foreknowledge, specifically his providential hand of blessing upon David in the face of potentially deadly opposition. Such a lyrical poem is at best only tangentially related to the issue of abortion.
Similar comments can be made about Luke 1:44 (Elizabeth’s child leaping in her womb). The text is Christological – focused on the unique identity of Mary’s son Jesus. As Hays comments, “To extrapolate from this text … a general doctrine of the full personhood of the unborn is ridiculous and tendentious exegesis.” The issue of abortion is simply not in view.
And also Matthew 19:14 “‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” Again, to try to use this text about children as one which somehow speaks against abortion can only, as Hays puts it, “be judged as an embarrassing instance of decontextualized prooftexting.”
We should pause here for a moment to acknowledge the fact of the paucity of Bible texts that address, even indirectly, the issue of modern abortion. Understandably, some Christians will either not want to acknowledge this fact or will try to make some texts say far more than they actually do say about abortion. Neither move is helpful.
Better upfront to recognise that, when it comes to modern abortion practice, the lack of direct biblical teaching means that we will need to look at broader biblical principles in order to develop a considered theological response to a contemporary issue.
This is not at all unusual. While there are many contemporary issues that are addressed directly in Scripture (think of how much the Bible has to say about money for example), obviously there are many which are not (think artificial intelligence for example). We do not live in the biblical world, but Christians affirm that the ancient text, inspired by the Spirit, continues to speak powerfully and relevantly into our world. Bridging the gap between the two worlds is what hermeneutics (the methodology of interpreting the text) is all about.
More on that in the next post.
Comments, as ever, welcome.