sola scriptura

2011: Saturday, May 14th

From Focus on the Family’s “What the Bible Says About the Beginning of Life” (compiled by Carrie Gordon Earll, whose FotF page is here):

The Bible is far from silent on the topic of the sanctity of human life, especially preborn life in the womb. This resource provides just a few of the Scripture verses that speak to the value of preborn life created in God’s image from the moment of fertilization.

Let’s take them one at a time.

(In commenting on Hebrew Bible / Old Testament passages in which the personal name of the Israelite deity appears, I sometimes use the consonants of that name: YHWH. This is an effort to be fair to the texts and to the earliest historical settings in which they were received. The lack of vowels is an effort to be fair to anyone reading this post who, for reasons of reverence, avoids pronouncing the name, even mentally.)

Psalm 100:3 (NASV): Know that the LORD Himself is God; it is He who has made us, and not we ourselves; we are His people and the sheep of His pasture. This verse says nothing about whether an individual human life begins at fertilization, though I can see how one might read it as assigning value to human life in general—on the basis of the fact that God created humans, right? And this is, after all, the heading that CGE put it under: “Why Should We Value [Human] Life?” On the other hand, this verse is not actually talking about human life in general. If you read it along with other biblical passages in which similar language appears, you will see that it is giving YHWH credit for the existence of “us” the Israelite people—not humanity in general. (On the topic of God bringing the Israelite people into existence, think: call of Abraham, redemption from Egypt, etc.) It also has to do with celebrating, by using the metaphor of a shepherd and his flock, the relationship of belonging between Israel and God. The basic idea here is: Our God YHWH made us Israelites into a nation, and he is the one who values us and takes care of us.

Isaiah 44:24 (NASV): Thus says the LORD, your Redeemer, and the One who formed you from the womb, “I, the LORD, am the maker of all things, stretching out the heavens by Myself, and spreading out the earth all alone . . .” This verse is also placed under the “Why Should We Value Life?” heading. But—it does mention a womb. But but—it says nothing about the nature of what was in this womb, only that it once was there. The focus here is on the creator, not on the created, and it is quite a stretch to extrapolate an assertion that that something is human solely from the fact that God created it—ask the heavens and the earth (also mentioned here) whether they are human, even though God is their creator.

Note that in this verse too the primary topic is the relationship between YHWH and the Israelites (which is described in the near context by the metaphor of slavery). The phrase formed you from the womb is part of a larger argument against the Israelites worshiping other gods, which runs: You owe your worship to me, o my slaves, for I “crafted” you as a nation and will take take care of you; those other “gods” can’t take care of you, for they have been “crafted” by humans.

Isaiah 64:8 (NASV): But now, O LORD, Thou art our Father, we are the clay, and Thou our potter; and all of us are the work of Thy hand. Again,just because God is the creator doesn’t mean that all of God’s creations are human. If anything, the metaphor of people-as-clay is dehumanizing. (And once more the topic is not humanity in general but the relationship of the Israelites with YHWH, the metaphor of clay expressing submission to the divine will.)

Psalm 139:13–16 (NKJV): For You formed my inward parts; You 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 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. This is the first of two passages under the heading “Who is the Creator of the Preborn?”

Again, just because God is the creator doesn’t prove that what is created is a human being. Nor does the marvelousness of the created prove its humanity—ask, for example, all those amazing beasts that Elihu talks about (toward the end of the book of Job) whether they are human. You can sense something of this if you try to imagine Psalm 139:13–16 as being spoken or thought by the sea monster Leviathan in praise of its creator—nothing in these four verses themselves necessitates the speaker being human at all, whether at an unborn or an already-born stage.

Further, in the final sentence (about “the days”) we encounter something that we’ll see more of below: God knowing something that hasn’t been brought into being yet. While I don’t dispute that this is possible for God, I would maintain that God’s having knowledge of the future doesn’t mean that the future is happening right now.

Jeremiah 1:5 (NIV): Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations. Again, God can know Jeremiah before he exists, but it’s nevertheless senseless to say that God’s knowledge of him makes Jeremiah an individual human at that point in time. As in: think of God knowing the people who will be born ten years from now, in 2021—does that mean that they are individual human beings right now, in 2011?

A possible-though-ultimately-moot counter-reading to what I’ve just said would be to interpret this verse as speaking not about the time before Jeremiah was conceived but about the period of time between his being conceived and his being fully formed in the womb. My counter-counter-argument would be that the Hebrew word translated “formed” here (and which I gave the nuance “crafted” above) generally indicates the very beginning-point of something’s existence, not a further refinement of something already in existence as itself; compare, for example, the forming of the first person from the dust of the ground in Genesis 2:7—was that dust human dust before the deity gave form to it? In fact, if we’re reading a two-step process in Genesis 2:7 (“formed” and then “breathed”), was this dust-person fully human after being formed but before the breath of life was breathed?

This, however, would be moot, because again: God’s being the creator of something doesn’t imply that that that something is human. It’s only if you already believe—based on other information—that all the stages of unborn-Jeremiah were fully, equally human that you can see this verse as supporting that belief.

Galatians 1:15 (RSV): But when He who had set me apart before I was born, and had called me through His grace . . . (This verse and the next come under the heading “How Is God Concerned With the Preborn?”) This verse could equally be talking about a post-birth setting apart of Paul, given that the Greek reads from my mother’s womb; while the phrase from my mother’s womb can very well mean “starting from the time during which I was in my mother’s womb,” it can also/alternatively mean “starting from the time at which I came out of my mother’s womb.” However, even if we assume the pre-birth reading for now—and further, even if we imagine that the verse had specified that Paul was set apart not only before his birth but after his conception—the sense of this verse does not require Paul to have been “fully human” at the time he was set apart, because remember how God can know people even before they come into being.

Ephesians 1:3–4 (PME): Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ for giving us through Christ every possible spiritual benefit as citizens of heaven! For consider what he has done—before the foundation of the world He chose us to become, in Christ, His holy and blameless children living within His constant care. If God knows you before you have been conceived—or before the foundation of the world, even—it’s nevertheless senseless to assert that God’s knowledge of you makes you human at that point in time.

Luke 1:41, 44 (NIV): When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit . . . [saying] “As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.” (This text and the next come under the heading “Are the Preborn Human Beings?”) Although babies “leap” all the time while in the womb, I haven’t ever heard of fetal movement being used as a proof for the essential humanity of the unborn (at least not in the current debate—traditional Christian positions are quite different: see under “quickening” and “delayed ensoulment”). Or is the thought here that the baby heard Mary’s greeting and responded? But the text says it was Elizabeth who did the hearing; I think it would be more natural, therefore, to interpret this coincidence as one that was meant to be a sign for Elizabeth’s benefit.

Another tack would be to use “for joy” to attribute an emotional state to John the baby and thus to prove his humanity. I don’t know many details of our current scientific opinion on fetal thought, emotion, etc, but I suspect that there’s not a lot of positive evidence for these things; hence, if this “for joy” interpretation were to be found persuasive, it could only be within circles that have the New Testament among their scriptures and take them to lead the way into places where no medical research has yet gone.

Luke 2:6-7 (NIV): While they were there, the time came for the baby to born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. I understand that this is where Luke offers his account of the birth-scene of Jesus, but Jesus being the baby that is *born* here does not make this passage relevant to the status of the *unborn* in general.

Exodus 20:1, 13 (NASV): Then God spoke all these words, saying . . . “You shall not murder.” The heading that this text (and the following text) comes under is “Who is Responsible for Life and Death?” In answer to that question, it would seem that this excerpt from Exodus (specifically, from the Ten Commandments) implies that we humans are responsible for life and death, insofar as it is up to us to fulfill the command. On the other hand, it could also/alternatively imply that the deity is ultimately responsible for life and death, giving us this command in order to keep us from getting involved in an area that is not properly ours—which would be well and good, except that there are also passages that give instructions for causing the death of humans, such as capital punishments for certain offenses. Therefore, we can’t say that all killing is a priori out of the question until we figure out how to categorize any particular instance of it. Meaning, this text gets us no closer to knowing whether abortion equals murder in all, in some, or in no cases.

One further point. I am guilty in the previous paragraph of something I have been trying to avoid: I am guilty of generalizing the “audience” or “intended recipients” of this text. This text was for an ancient Israelite audience (identified by the “you” in the prologue to the Ten Commandments, where the deity speaks: “I . . . brought you out of the land of Egypt” [20:2]). While I don’t believe that murder is right, and while I understand that there are theological arguments to be made for applying biblical statements originally addressed to ancient Israelites to contemporary Christians and to contemporary Jews, the role of particular canons of scripture in the public life of a pluralistic society is another matter entirely.

Deuteronomy 30:19 (KJV): I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live. Note that “choose life” is not meant in the sense of the contemporary pro-life slogan! In context, this verse is a warning spoken by Moses: if you, o Israelites, don’t do what YHWH commands, he will kill you—he will cause famine and plague, bring enemies against you, etc (see chapters 28 and 29 of Deuteronomy). And yet, it also seems that responsibility rests with the Israelites, since Moses is revealing a pretty straightforward if-then situation: if you do x, YHWH will do y. So, it is again ambiguous whether it is solely God or solely the Israelites who are responsible for death (which in this verse means the death of future Israelites, following from disobedience and the subsequent lethal expression of divine anger).

Exodus 21:22–25 (NIV): If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. The heading for this passage is “Are Humans Permitted to Take Life Before Birth?” For those who seek to apply these scriptures to their lives, this passage from Exodus is actually relevant to the issue (albeit indirectly). Therefore, there should be plenty of discussion about it out there, which I encourage you all to seek out. For now, let me say two things. First, the language of this passage is not particularly clear (i.e., the NIV translation above offers one interpretation). Second, take another look at the situation described in this law, compare it to the kinds of situations we invoke when we discuss abortion in our society, and try to be aware of the interpretive moves you’re willing to make in applying the one to the others.

Deuteronomy 24:16 (NKJV): Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their fathers; a person shall be put to death for his own sin. The heading for this verse is “Should a Child Conceived as a Result of Rape or Incest Be Aborted?” Chapter 24 of Deuteronomy is concerned with legal justice in social (as opposed to familial) relationships, primarily in the sense of not taking advantage of those who are less well-off and who have less power; this particular verse seems to be concerned that legal retribution be applied only to individuals and not to entire households. My objection here is simply that to apply this verse to the unborn begs the question of whether they are to be considered “children” in the first place.

Incidentally, just to knock down a straw man, no one is proposing that abortion function as a legal penalty for rape in contemporary society: “15 years—unless any resulting pregnancy is aborted.”

Exodus 4:11 (NKJV): So the LORD said to him, ‘Who has made man’s mouth? Or who makes the mute, the deaf, the seeing, or the blind? Have not I, the LORD? This passage and the next two come under the heading “Should a Child Who Might Be Born Deformed or Disabled Be Aborted?” Let me just say, if it is permissible to abort “normally” formed and abled fetuses—which is the broader question in this debate—then these verses do not give us any extra information. As for Exodus 4:11 in particular, what it tells us is that YHWH has control over human abilities. A more accurate (and more accepted) translation of the middle part is Who makes (any given person) mute or deaf, sighted or blind? (as opposed to Who creates the deaf person or the blind person, the sighted person or the blind person?, which is the meaning that the translators of the NKJV seem to be implying). What YHWH is saying to Moses here is basically: you’re slow of speech, fine, but I was the one who bestowed mouths on humankind—I can make you eloquent at a moment’s notice.

Isaiah 45:9–11 (NIV): Woe to him who quarrels with his Maker, to him who is but a potsherd among the potsherds on the ground. Does the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you making?’ Does your work say, ‘He has no hands?’ Woe to him who says to his father, ‘What have you begotten?’ or to his mother, ‘What have you brought to birth?’ This is what the LORD says—the Holy One of Israel, and its Maker: Concerning things to come, do you question Me about My children, or give Me orders about the work of My hands? Again, this passage is not informative on the subject of abortion for the reasons given for the previous verse. Also, technically (which is to say, literally), this passage advises you to think twice before questioning the way God made *you*—not the way your children are formed. According to the way this passage is phrased, *you* would be the maker of your children.

1 Corinthians 1:27 (NIV): Yet, to shame the wise, God has chosen what the world counts folly, and to shame what is strong, God has chosen what the world counts weakness. Again, this passage is not informative on the subject of abortion for the reasons given under Exodus 4:11—in addition to the fact that it doesn’t mention pregnancy or children or parenthood at all.

Psalm 127:3 (NASV): Behold, children are a gift of the LORD; the fruit of the womb is a reward. The heading for this passage and the next is “How Should A Woman View Her Body and the Preborn Life Growing In Her Womb?” The word “children,” of course, says nothing about the unborn, unless you beg the question. Even the phrase the fruit of the womb is evoking already-born children, if we think about the metaphor of fruit: the ripening fruit are unborn children, which are then “plucked” from the motherly “tree” at birth. (Somewhere I can hear the LTI folks saying: But is it fruit throughout its development, or does it become fruit only when it is plucked?) (My commentary on this verse is based only on the NASV translation; the Hebrew is much more interesting, and hopefully I’ll think of a way to bring it up in another post.)

1 Corinthians 6:19–20 (NKJV): Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body. In this passage the apostle Paul encourages his addressees to act properly, keeping in mind that God owns their bodies (having bought them in the marketplace for a certain price, as the text says—note the persistence of the metaphor of slavery). Judging from the near context, it seems that Paul is discouraging certain kinds of sexual unions and encouraging others; it does not seem that abortion—or issues of childbearing at all—are in view here.

Ephesians 1:7 (NKJV): In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace . . . ; Isaiah 43:25, NASV: I, even I, am the one who wipes out your transgressions for My own sake; and I will not remember your sins. These last two verses have the heading “Does God Forgive Those Who Have Had Abortions?” Does God forgive sins? In most Christian theologies, I think that depends. Is abortion a sin? These verses contribute nothing to answering that question.

*  *  *

Glossary: KJV: King James Version; NASV: New American Standard Version; NIV: New International Version; NKJV: New King James Version; PME: apparently the New Testament in Modern English by J. B. Philips (although the only online version of it I could find contains a slightly different wording for Ephesians 1:3–4 than that displayed on the FotF page: “Praise be to God for giving . . .”); RSV: Revised Standard Version

5 Responses to “sola scriptura”

  1. Jessi (ycw) Says:

    “But but—it says nothing about the nature of what was in this womb, only that it once was there.”
    Ah, but it does say what was in the womb–you. Not that which would become you. Not that he crafted them through birth.

    “For You formed my inward parts; You 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 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.”
    Again, David refers to himself in the womb as “himself.” He was already a human being. What was wrought was David, not a vessel for David.

    “As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.”
    Notice how what’s in the womb is a baby. And babies in the womb definitely react with pleasure or displeasure to surroundings–noises, lights, heat. Babies remember the sounds they heard in the womb and are comforted by them. Elizabeth was full of the holy spirit, and the Bible is inspired, so I believe the text.

    If what is in the womb before birth is the same person as after birth, does it not stand to reason that what is in the womb is indeed a person? I don’t think anything you have said proves the unborn are not people, and there is no doubt, scientifically, that they are human and alive. So the burden of proof is on those who wish free reign to dismember these beings, to show why this should be allowed. If you are not sure a person is dead, don’t shoot him.

    One thing God does make clear is that the disabled–blind, mute, diseased–are still human beings deserving of respect. He calls his disciples to be like a child, calls a crippled woman a daughter of Abraham, forgives the sins of a paralyzed man (implying he is a man and a sinner, not a nonperson). The Old Testament forbids cursing the deaf. It is not a person’s abilities that make him human. I don’t know of a biblical reference on the mentally or intellectually disabled, but Christians seem to near-universally grant them the status of human beings too. So if nothing else, one cannot look at the physical or mental abilities of the fetus to determine its status as a human being. The question, I suppose, would be when does it take on the image of God? And we know that a person with deformed limbs, people who look all sorts of ways, have this “image” so it is not something that can be seen. It doesn’t have to do with “looking human” (Jesus was beaten until he did not look human).

    My basic contention would be that science teaches me the unborn are living human beings, and the Bible teaches me that human beings have value. I do not argue the humanity of the unborn based on the bible; I argue it based on science.

    • lapidarion Says:

      Hi, Jessi, and thanks for following me here. I’ll respond to you soon, just not right away.

      • lapidarion Says:

        Hi Jessi,
        I’m sorry for not getting back to you right away. I had a big piece of work dumped on me the other week. To take it from the top:

        Isaiah 44:24: Well, but the “you” in this verse is the entire nation of Israel, and this metaphorical sense is primary. Of course, a metaphor has to be based on something, but still, it would seem to be the divine nation-making womb in question here, not a particular woman’s womb.

        Psalm 139:13–16: The theme here is YHWH’s ability to know, so actually—and ironically for a “pro-life” position (not that irony alone is enough to invalidate an interpretation)—the less of “David” that there is to know in these couple of verses, the more wonderful is YHWH’s knowledge (see v. 6). And that is what the first part of the psalm is all about: YHWH can see David no matter how far away he is or how dark it is around him; in fact, YHWH saw him even before he had become recognizable as himself. Remember how God can know people long before they exist (see Ephesians 1:3–4 above); I think something analogous is going on in this psalm.

        Thought experiment: Imagine David as a thorough-going pro-choicer. Even so, I don’t think his words about himself in his mother’s womb would represent a contradiction. David is looking backwards to that time, from a position of being himself; I think it’s easy to imagine even a pro-choice David feeling continuity with the “non-person” zygote/embryo/fetus that he believed he once was. Likewise, I know that “I” was once a zygote, and I know that that zygote became me. I know this “despite” my pro-choice beliefs. (And one day “I” will be lying in the cold, hard ground.) I think these kinds of reflections are appropriate in a psalm praising YHWH’s intimate acquaintance with the psalmist. But—they do not prove anything about the nature of pregnancy that is relevant to our debate about abortion rights.

        Luke 1:41, 44: “Baby” is a mistranslation. The Greek word in question is used where we would use either “fetus” or “newborn” (which you can confirm here by clicking on the links following “Show lexicon entry . . .”). The phrase “in the womb” that accompanies it indicates that Elizabeth was talking not about a newborn but about a fetus.

        I agree that what is accomplished by the original post does not amount to a full pro-choice apology—and that was not the intent. (Nor do I think that a full and coherent pro-choice apology is necessarily predicated on the non-humanity or some such of gestational life, but that’s another topic, partially addressed here and here.) My contention is simply that the verses listed above are not “pro-life” and, by implication, that those who look to Focus on the Family for biblical guidance on this and presumably other social issues have reason to take their scriptural offerings with a grain of salt.


        • I would contend that if a word could be translated “fetus” or “newborn,” a term that encompasses both–such as baby–is a pretty good translation. If the word itself doesn’t distinguish between newborn or fetus, and the only way you can tell is the location of the person in question, I’d say the fact that the word encompasses both means it does not distinguish between the “what” of a fetus and a newborn, but we can only distinguish them by the “where.”

          • lapidarion Says:

            Hey, Jessi. The word doesn’t mean both things at the same time; it means one or the other. If for you “baby” encompasses both “fetus” and “newborn,” then “baby” is a less accurate translation than “fetus.” The fact that the evangelist used a phrase to express it instead of a single word—whether because of his writing style or because of the constraints of the language he was writing in—does not make the meaning less clear.

            Whatever else is miraculous here, I’d say that at least one contributing factor is that part of the scene played out inside of Elizabeth. I think the translation should reflect this aspect of the miracle too.

            (For the record, I only published the part of your comment that had to do with biblical passages.)


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