The issue of abortion, once considered firmly settled in the CRC, now seems to be a discussible matter, encouraged in part by Christian Faith, Health, and Medical Practice.1 Personal presentations of his views on abortion by Dr. Hessel Bouma III, one of the authors, at several different venues, resulted in some disagreement in the pages of The Outlook over the characterization of his position (March, 1994; September, 1994). Although there may be some debate over Bouma’s personal representation of his position on abortion, what stands as a matter of record for any and all to evaluate are his (and the other authors’) views of abortion as explicitly stated in their book. These views are logically presented and are representative of an insidious and progressively more frequent attack on our traditional beliefs about abortion. As such, it is timely to systematically review, as an example, the arguments in Christian Faith, with an eye toward an orthodox Biblical response. It should be noted from the outset that the book’s preface states that all the authors jointly own the thoughts expressed in each chapter; hence, each chapter is a product of agreement by all of the writers.
Since, as Christians, we generally begin and end our disputations with appeals to Scripture, it is profitable to first examine the Scriptural framework for the book as espoused in Chapter 1. There can be little disagreement with their statement, “There is…no Christian medical ethic not formed and informed somehow by Scripture,” although its impact is weakened by the insertion of the word “somehow.”
Unfortunately, this profession is followed with, “…yet the world of Scripture is strange and alien, and forging a Christian medical ethic out of it raises a number of difficult methodological questions. The bridge between the strange world of sickness in Scripture and a contemporary Christian medical ethic will be fashioned of judgments about the nature of Scripture, the questions appropriate to other sources” (p. 19). The implied concept that, in Scripture, “the world of sickness” is a separate arena or sphere to be analyzed for pertinence in an isolated fashion, rather than viewed as an integral part of the whole written revelation of God is troublesome. As such, it opens the possibility that sickness in the Bible, being colored by the culture of its day, maybe a less normative element of Scripture (sound familiar with regard to other issues?). The authors strengthen this suggestion in a brief discussion of the nature of Scripture. Here they take pains to identify “the human words—with all their peculiarity” as a process of tradition, emphasizing a circumscription of Scripture by time, rather than its timeless truth. This treatment of Scripture is also found in a footnote for Chapter 1 and may indicate the standing of Scripture reflected in inferences drawn throughout the book. In fact, use of Scripture is, for the most part, limited to the authors attempts to establish, in the first chapters, some key underlying positions from which they logically work in other sections of the book to reach conclusions about various aspects of medical ethics. While there is relatively sparse reference to Scripture in the inferential parts of the book beyond the first chapter, more liberal reference is made to secular and non-Scriptural writings.
In regard to understanding the genesis of later pronouncements on the ethics of abortion, one must first evaluate the position espoused in Chapter 2 on “imaging God.” The authors’ basic premise that “… those who image God are to be loved reverentially, even deferentially …” (p. 31) is hardly arguable, in contrast to their conclusions of who images God. For the authors, the primary ingredient in being the image of God, or attaining “personhood,” is the “ability of a person to make choices about our choices” (p.32). These choices are not merely to be responses to stimuli, but must involve making moral judgments about proper choosing. Other stated factors include self-consciousness, a moral and religious sense, and being able to “symbolically interact” with each other. From this platform, prior to propounding their own view, the authors argue against several other methodologies to determine who images God, such as the use of Biblical texts to imply that God establishes a personal caring relationship with human beings from the moment they are conceived. For example, they argue that the familiar words in Psalm 139:13 might not be properly interpreted as revealing something about when human beings become imagers of God, but it might rather be a celebration of God’s prior gracious call extended to each of God’s children. They support this interpretation with Jeremiah 1:5: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.” In rebuttal, it can be pointed out that these interpretations are certainly not mutually exclusive, and, in fact, may very well both be correct. Hence, this argument does little to accomplish the authors’ intent to weaken the use of Scriptural texts to illustrate the image of God at human conception.
The authors then point to the pre-conceptual prophecy in Judges 13 to Manoah’s wife regarding the birth and lifestyle of Samson. They imply that the revelation of God’s foreknowledge of certain persons, prior to their existence, is the proper interpretation of other passages such as Psalm 139 rather than that of a revelation of an established relationship between God and a human being “unformed” in the womb. This is at best a weak argument for two reasons: first, the genres of the passages are quite different, making it difficult to apply an implication from an historical record to an interpretation of the philosophical writings of the psalmist; second, revelation of the omniscience of God in Judges 13 certainly does not preclude the interpretation in Psalm 139 that the same omniscient God is revealing a loving, caring relationship with us before we are formed. The later use of the claim that 75% of all fertilized human ova are spontaneously aborted (miscarried) to suggest that conception cannot be the beginning of imaging of God need hardly be addressed. First, this argument is not, of itself, a proof; second, the argument is a deductive argument ungrounded in Scripture; and finally, it may well not even be based on fact (as a medical researcher, I cannot conceive of an ethical study design that could be used to support this figure).
Having used these arguments to dismiss the use of Scriptural interpretations that establish conception as the beginning of persons who are in the image of God, the authors proceed to explain their own preferred position. They propose to use considerations from the 1) potentiality principle (“what a being naturally becomes is relevant for what attitudes are appropriate toward it”), and 2) conferral considerations (conferral of personhood at some phase of development from zygote to birth), along with a 3) convenantial ethic, to propose solutions to questions about abortion. The authors tend to agree with a gradualist position, calling for an incrementally stronger conferral of protected status during fetal development. They note that fetuses are potential persons, as opposed to possible persons, because they will become persons in the normal course of their development, and as such “deserve some of the awe and respect due imagers of God.” In this, they clearly deny that fetuses are actual imagers of God. Conversely, they later calf for a societal “grant” of personhood by the end of the second trimester of gestation. Finally, they turn the question by arguing that the basic issue is not just whether fetuses or infants image God, but whether we image God in responding to their presence and their needs. In other words, they focus the discussion about abortion away from the status of the fetus, and toward our response to the fetus within a covenantal framework. They arrive at conclusions about abortion based on a “covenantal response” defined primarily by human logic rather than Scriptural interpretation. This movement into a theater of logicality at the expense of the normative status of Scripture allows for the conclusions made in later chapters.
The authors’ position on “personhood” leads them to state the following policy implications on which their book should be judged:
• In cases of rape, they would cooperate with abortions, and even recommend them in some instances.
• They would cooperate with abortions when there is a significant threat to life or health, either physical or mental.
• They would cooperate with abortions “in those cases in which the pregnancy genuinely threatens to overwhelm the woman’s or the couple’s ability to meet convenantial (socio-economic) responsibilities already assumed.”
Although the authors take great pains, rationalizing each position, to distance themselves from a “pro-choice” view, it is hard to discern where their practical application of abortion differs from a pro-choice view—the means are different but the ends are quite similar.
In brief response to their two year’s worth of logic, debate and writing, I would offer a simple response based on logic, the earliest non-Scriptural writings, and Scripture itself. First, the authors leave open the possibility that imaging of God does begin at conception, yet still allow for abortion well beyond this point. It seems self-evident that the greatest potential harm to come from this decision would be in destroying a person who might truly be in the image of God, rather than disapproving an abortion which may be an acceptable “covenantal response.” In fact, it seems remarkably presumptuous to destroy a progressive creation of God while allowing that that work might be in the image of God. Fools indeed rush in where angels fear to tread.
Further, the authors of Christian Faith make liberal use of both secular and non-Scriptural writings. In debate over the original wording of Biblical texts, a guiding principle has been that the closer a source is chronologically to the original text, the more accurate it is likely to be. The same principle might be applied to lessons from non-Scriptural religious texts. The earliest such sources are the writings of the apostolic fathers, the next generation of church leaders after the apostles had died. These writings are purported to comprise the teachings of Christ to His disciples; at the least, they represent the views of the early Christian church at the turn of the first century. Perhaps the authors of Christian Faith should have looked deeper into time, to reference The Didache , where “The teaching of the Lord to the twelve apostles” includes, as a derivative of loving your neighbor as yourself, “… you shall not abort a child or commit infanticide.”2 In The Epistle of Barnabas, written around 100 A.D. by the Alexandrian Jew who reportedly knew the apostle John, under “The Way of Light” can be found: “Thou shalt not slay the child by procuring abortion; nor, again, shalt thou destroy it after it is born.”3 It is evident, then, that the leaders of the early church viewed abortion as a sin comparable to infanticide. Since these passages were written by church leaders so soon after the earthly discourses of our Lord, they ought to carry significant weight in our decisions about abortion.
Moreover, if we profess that the Bible is perspicuous, it is objectionable to decide issues of abortion by anything other than the plain teaching of Scripture. Psalm 139 does illuminate how a loving God always knows us and cares for us, even in the womb. To deny this risks placing limits on the loving providence of our heavenly Father. Tn Jeremiah 1, God tells us that we are formed by Him in the womb and set aside for His service before we are born. Psalm 51 tells us that we bear moral responsibility from our conception on, a point not lost on the writers of the Heidelberg Catechism (Q&A 7). Scripture clearly reveals to us that God does indeed know us from our mother’s womb, setting us aside for service and establishing a loving relationship with us long before we are born, even from conception. Better that we should adhere to the eternal foundation of the Bible than the slippery slope of human logic.
1. Fellows of the Calvin Center of Christian Scholarship. Christian Faith, Health, and Medical Practice, Eerdmans, 1989.
2. “The Didache,” in The Apostolic Fathers; translated by J.B. Lightfoot and J.R. Harmen, Michael Holmes, ed., Baker Book House, 1994.
3. “The Epistle of Barnabas,” in The Anti-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, Eerdmans, 1989.
Dr. James Paauw is Assistant Professor, Department of Surgery, Michigan State University and also serves as Director of Nutritional Support at Butterworth Hospital, Grand Rapids, MI. He is the father of five children and is a member of West Leonard CRC.