Friday, March 17, 2023

An Episcopal Bishop's Teaching on Abortion, Part 5: Tradition


We start with the Bible, but most Christians, including Anglicans, do not stop there. “We understand the meaning of the Bible by the help of the Holy Spirit, who guides the Church in the true interpretation of the Scriptures” (BCP, p. 853). We look to how the Church has interpreted the Bible through the years with particular attention to official teaching, the thinking of major theologians, and the lives of the saints. We are not bound to simply repeat the Tradition. For one thing, the Tradition is not uniform and we have to attend to a diversity of voices that do not always agree. Also, the Tradition is not static and unchanging. Still, we do believe the Holy Spirit has been present in the Church to inspire and guide it. So, while we are not bound to simply repeat the Tradition, we do want to humbly engage and maintain continuity with it even as we pray and listen together for the guidance of the Holy Spirit in our own day.

Christianity’s Radical Newness

As Christianity spread throughout the classical Greco-Roman world, it reshaped the imagination of converts and eventually society itself. Things that had been despised or held in low esteem were now valued – things like humility, compassion for the poor and the weak, for slaves, etc. This included the then radical idea that every human being, regardless of social standing or nationality or gender or age, was a person with dignity and worthy of respect and care. This included a new valuing of children.[1]

One thing that set Christians (along with Jews) apart from their pagan neighbors was their emphatic rejection of infanticide. In the ancient world it was assumed that a father could dispose of an unwanted baby after it was born as he saw fit. Any offspring belonged to the father and he had the right to choose if it lived or died. From its beginning, the Church rejected this, insisting that the life of the child was God’s, not the father’s.

Early Christian Teaching on Abortion

Christians extended this concern for life into the womb. From the beginning, Christianity taught that abortion was a serious sin. An early Christian text, the Didache, usually dated in the decades after the death of Paul says, “you shall not abort a child or commit infanticide”[2] The Epistle of Barnabas, another early Christian text said, “You shall love your neighbor more than your own life. You shall not slay the child by abortion. You shall not kill that which has already been generated.”[3] St. Basil the Great (c330-379), Bishop of Caesarea, wrote, “The woman who purposely destroys her unborn child is guilty of murder. With us there is no nice enquiry as to its being formed or unformed..”[4]

St. John Chrysostom (347-407) also described abortion as murder.[5] This became the standard teaching in the Eastern Church. But, despite the quote above, Basil imposed a lesser penalty or penance for abortion than for murder.[6] And though abortion was generally against the law in the medieval Byzantine Empire, “both Imperial Legislation and the Orthodox Church accepted selective abortion for medical reasons,” particularly when the mother’s life was threatened.[7]

The Beginning of Soul/Person in Church Tradition

But it gets more complicated. Although Basil in the quote above explicitly rejects the idea, other theologians made a distinction depending on how far along the pregnancy was. Basil’s younger brother, St. Gregory of Nyssa (335-395), took this approach,

“. . . just as it would not be possible to style the unformed embryo a human being, but only a potential one, assuming that it is completed so as to come forth to human birth, while as long as it is in this unformed state, it is something other than a human being. . .”[8]

This became the common understanding in the Western Church of which the Anglican Tradition and the Episcopal Church are a part. Christian thinkers in the Western Church grappled with the question, at what point are we talking about a human soul? They did not engage this question in a vacuum. In the absence of a clear teaching in the Scripture, they were also influenced by the teaching of classical philosophy. And on this, ancient philosophers and philosophical schools differed. Plato taught that the soul was there from conception (although he still advocated for the option of abortion and infanticide for the sake of population control and eugenics). Aristotle taught that the life in the womb was not animated, or ensouled, until some weeks after conception (he also believed that abortion and infanticide were useful for population control and eugenics. The Stoics, like the Jewish tradition, taught that human life began at birth. Ironically, the Stoics were nevertheless strongly opposed to abortion.[9] These philosopher and philosophical schools shaped the thinking of Christian theologians.

The common teaching in the Western Church has been, until relatively recently, that in the early stages of pregnancy there was only a potential human in the womb which did not become or receive a fully human soul until later in the pregnancy – after it was the body was “formed”. The rationale seems partly to be based on the Christian conviction that the human soul and body are fundamentally inseparable. Though the teaching has generally been that the soul in some sense survives the death of the body, the tradition has insisted that the soul remains incomplete until it is reunited with the body in the resurrection. There must be a human body for there to be a human soul. And one cannot have a soul or relate to God or others until one has the biological capacity – physical and mental.

St. Jerome (died, 420), who translated the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin, affirmed the notion that only at a certain stage of development was the life in the womb a fully human person,

“For just as seeds are gradually formed in wombs and for so long a time murder is not considered until mixed up elements take up their appearances and limbs . . .”[10]

Though the question of the origin of the human soul baffled him throughout his life, St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) wrote,

“If what is brought forth is unformed (inforne) but at this stage some sort of living, shapeless thing (informiter), then the law of homicide would not apply, for it could not be said that there was a living soul in that body, for it lacks all sense, if it be such as is not yet formed (nondum formata) and therefore not yet endowed with its senses.”[11]

In On Virginal Conception and Original Sin, St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109) wrote, 

"no human intellect accepts the view that an infant has the rational soul from the moment of conception."[12]

The great mystic and theologian, St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), also taught that it was not until the fetus was formed whole with all its members that it received a spirit,

“. . . when a woman has conceived by human semen, an infant with all its members whole is formed in the hidden chamber of womb. . . by God’s secret and hidden command and will, fitly and rightly at the divinely appointed time the infant in the maternal womb receives a spirit . . .”[13]

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), the most consequential medieval theologian also taught that the life in the womb gradually became human, but was not fully human until it was “animated” (ensouled) many weeks into the pregnancy.[14]


In the medieval period penitential canons were developed. These were handbooks to guide those who heard confessions in discerning what penances needed to be done for various sins. The more serious the sin, the more intense the penance. The teaching was always that abortion was a sin. But the seriousness of the sin depended on when it occurred and other circumstantial factors.

The Canons of Theodore were an early medieval penitential composed around 700 A.D soon after the death of Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury. In assigning penance for an abortion a distinction was made based on whether it was earlier and later in the pregnancy. Only if the abortion is later is she “to be accused as a homicide” and do penance accordingly.[15] Irish penitentials form this period made similar distinctions.[16]

In some early medieval penitential guides, the reason for resorting to abortion was considered, and penance was significantly reduced if resorted to due to poverty, for example.[17]

Gratian's Decretum was a collection of canon law completed around 1140 by a Benedictine monk from Italy Gratian became known as the father of the study of canon law. The Decretum became the standard for church discipline in subsequent centuries. Gratian states, "He is not a murderer who brings about abortion before the soul is in the body."[18] He does not specify precisely when the soul enters the body, but, as with the theologians quoted above, it is at a later point in a pregnancy.

Reformation and After

Martin Luther did not write extensively about the issues and questions related to abortion. But when he did refer to abortion, he condemned it.[19] He does not mention any distinction between early and later pregnancy.

John Calvin also makes no mention of a distinction between early and later life in the womb. In his Commentary on Exodus 20:21 he wrote,

“If it seems more horrible to kill a man in his own house than in a field, because a man’s house is his place of most secure refuge, it ought surely to be deemed more atrocious to destroy a foetus in the womb before it has come to light.”[20]

But his interpretation of this passage is problematic.[21]

Luther’s collaborator, Phillip Melanchthon “believed that the soul was given by God only after the body was formed” and “seventeenth-century Anglican and Puritan authors shared in condemning abortion, usually associating it with sexual immorality, and sometimes reviving the distinction between the formed and unformed fetus.”[22]


The Christian Tradition has always taken a negative view of abortion. The mystery and sanctity of life and the process of procreation have always been a concern. But its most authoritative theologians have taught that the life in the womb was not a fully ensouled human early in the pregnancy. They considered abortion at any point a sin. But the seriousness of the sin depended on when it occurred. It was not considered homicide before the fetus was formed. In the Church's on-the-ground pastoral practice, the seriousness of the sin could also depend on other factors. For example, abortion might be considered less sinful if resorted due to poverty. And, in any event, if the life of the pregnant woman was threatened, her life took precedence.

This was more or less the common teaching of most of the Church. It was the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church until 1869. I’ll look at that change and make some other observations in the next post.


[1] O. M. Bakke, When Children Became People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity (Fortress Press, 2005)

[2] Didache 2.2

[3] Epistle of Barnabas XIX, 5

[4] Basil of Caesarea, Letter 188, To Amphilochius, concerning the Canons II (

[6] David Albert Jones, The Soul of the Embryo (Continuum International, 2004), p. 64

[7] Poulakou-Rebelakou, Lascaratos, and Marketos, Abortions in Byzantine Times, Vesalius, II, 1,19-25, 1996

[8] Gregory of Nyssa, On the Holy Spirit, Against the Macedonians ( This can appear to be in some tension with what Gregory (or his sister, Macrina) seems to say in On the Soul and the Resurrection and in On the Making of Man where it is affirmed that the soul is coterminous with the body. But those isolated quotes need to be understood in light of Gregory’s understanding that even plants and animals have souls to a degree. The soul of the preformed fetus has only the potential to become a fully human soul even as the embryo has only the potential to be a fully human body. See On the Making of Man, VIII.4 ( Thomas Aquinas also articulated this understanding (see footnote #14)

[12] Anselm of Canterbury, On Virginal Conception and Original Sin, Chapter 7 (chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/

[13] Hildegard of Bingen: Scivias, Mother Columba Hart (Translator)  (Paulist Press, 1990) p. 119

[14] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Question 64, (

[15] Early Penitentials: Canons of Theodore (opensource) p. 20 B66.05.02 (

[16] G R Dunstan in The moral status of the human embryo: a tradition recalled (Journal of medical Ethics, 1984 Mar;10(1):38-44)

[17] Pierre Riché; Jo Ann McNamara, ed and trans, Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne (University of Pennsylvania Press), p. 50

[18] Donald DeMarco, The Roman Catholic Church and Abortion: An Historical Perspective - Part I, (

[19]  Peter Barnes, Abortion and the Reformation, EvangelicalsFor, posted on May 24, 2010. (

[21] Ibid, As we saw in Part 3, this passage is unclear. Calvin admits that it is ambiguous and unclear as to whether it applies to the pregnant woman only or to the foetus also. But then he assumes it must include the foetus given his conviction expressed in the quote above.

[22] Lisa Sowle Cahill, “Abortion” in The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics, James E. Childresa and John Macquarrie, ed., p. 3. Unfortunately she does not include names or references.


Part 6: Tradition, continued


Part 1: The Episcopal Church’s Stated Position on Childbirth and Abortion

Part 2: Context

Part 3: Old Testament

Part 4: New Testament

Thursday, March 16, 2023

Taking Up The Cross In A Time Of War

Sermon for Lent 2, Year B, 3/16/03 (Three days before the invasion of Iraq)

St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, Glen Ellyn, Illinois

Genesis 22:1-14, Psalm 16:5-11, Romans 8:31-39, Mark 8:31-38

In the year 390, Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, sent a letter to one of his parishioners. Ambrose was convinced that this parishioner had committed a grievous and public sin. In his letter, Ambrose told the parishioner that until he repented publicly he would not be allowed to receive Communion.  Ambrose had excommunicated him. But this was no ordinary church member. It was Theodosius, emperor of the Roman Empire. It seems one of Theodosius’ officials had been murdered in the Greek city of Thessalonica. The exact circumstances are unclear. Perhaps it was a tax revolt.  Perhaps it was a random terrorist attack. In any event, Theodosius had done what emperors always do. He sent in the army to teach the people of Thessalonica, and by extension the rest of the empire, a lesson. Some 7,000 people – men, women, and children – were killed, the vast majority of whom had had nothing to do with the death of the official. Ambrose was not a pacifist, but he knew that the emperor’s actions needed to be condemned even if it meant the very real possibility of being sent to prison or killed.  Emperors don’t usually like to be challenged. Against all odds, Emperor Theodosius repented and publicly sought absolution from his bishop.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Ambrose and Theodosius lately. What would Ambrose say about the looming invasion of Iraq?  Would it make any difference? Christian leaders around the world and the leaders of nearly every Christian denomination in America have stated that this war does not meet the standards of a just war. The Pope has declared the same. But it does not seem to matter.

Some of these leaders can perhaps be written off as the religious lackeys of the left – people who would reflexively oppose any use of force by America. But, not all of them. The current Pope has never been accused of being a liberal lackey. Nor is Miroslav Volf, an evangelical theologian on the faculty of Yale. There are others who cannot be so easily written off.

There are some theologians who have argued that a preemptive war on Iraq is justifiable. One has to wonder though if the religious lackeys of the left don’t have their parallel among some conservatives who have never seen a war waged by their own country that they could not justify. Did Theodosius have any theologians around to reassure him that his use of force was necessary and justified for the good order of the Empire?  “You can’t run an empire after all without a little collateral damage.” One problem I have with the just war theory is that in practice it is too elastic. It can be stretched, and has been, to support every war this nation and others have waged. Too often, the just war theory has become merely the “excuse war theory.”

I have referred in passing to the pending war in sermons a couple times recently but have been hesitant to address it directly. On reason for that hesitancy is that the texts have not seemed to naturally lend themselves to addressing the issue of Iraq. I do not want to do violence to the scriptures just so I can preach against violence. Another reason for my hesitancy is that I, like you have heard too many sermons where the pulpit was used as a platform for the preacher’s political prejudices rather than a proclamation of the gospel.  I am wary of doing the same. I have also been hesitant because I am all too aware that I am no Ambrose. And you are not Theodosius.  None of us here this morning has any control over the decision to attack Iraq.  And, to be perfectly honest, I have been hesitant to address the topic directly because I don’t particularly like controversy. But this morning’s text and the urgency of the situation lead me to wade into the thicket. 

Jesus said: “If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” I want to explore with you this question, what does it mean to take up the cross in a time of war?

There has been lots of public talk about God recently; some of it by the president, some of it by those who oppose him. But talk about God is cheap and all too often self-serving. I am convinced that any talk about God without the cross tends to be either insipid or dangerous. There have been plenty of examples of both lately.

What does it mean to take up the cross in a time of war? I have said before that I am persuaded that the way of the cross means a commitment to peace. It is harder to get around Jesus’ nonviolence and that of his earliest followers than some want to suggest. But, any talk of peace must not avoid the reality of sin and death. Talk of peace that implies that if we are just nice to others they will be nice to us is not the way of the cross. It is simply naïve. Any serious talk of nonviolence must recognize that it is a call to martyrdom. My own, certainly, but more problematically, the martyrdom of others who I might otherwise intervene to help. Being resolutely nonviolent does not mean doing nothing, but to totally avoid having blood on my hands in a world of violence, sin and death means being prepared to stand by while others bleed. That is not an easy way. But, I am not convinced that it is not the way of the cross.

There is no avoiding the hard fact that, whether we commit to nonviolence or to the “judicious” use of violence, we are all stretched out between the catastrophe we have made of the world and the promise of God’s good creation and his kingdom.

But what if nonviolence is not the only faithful posture for Christians? I am catholic enough to recognize that the majority wisdom of the Church has believed that it is not. I take that seriously.  But even then we must ask, what does it mean to take up the cross in a time of war? Another problem with the just war approach as it is usually presented is that it does not ask this question seriously enough. I have serious reservations about a moral system in which the particulars of Jesus’ teaching, life, and cross are essentially irrelevant. Hindus, Moslems, and agnostics could all support the classic just war approach. What does it have to do with Jesus and the cross?

If we decide that sometimes we cannot avoid participating in violence, we still have to make that decision in light of the cross and of Jesus. What does the way of the cross look like then? This way must also be understood as a way of martyrdom, but not first and foremost in the obvious sense that some are going to die in a war. That is true, but we must accept the way of the cross as first of all dying to ourselves and following Jesus. Among other things that means:

1) Taking up the cross in a time of war means getting our loyalties straight. I saw a woman wearing a t-shirt last summer that I found very troubling and very telling. It was a white t-shirt that had JESUSAVES written across the front. I believe he does. But that was not the only message on the shirt. It actually looked more like this: JESUSAVES. All the letters were blue except for those in the middle – USA – which were red. It was a telling icon of the confused syncretism of many Christians in America. Who saves?  Jesus? The USA? Or, are the two so entwined that we can’t tell the difference? We cannot begin to discern whether war in general or this war in particular is justifiable until we can tell the difference between the way of Jesus and the way of the United States. The way of the cross means dying to, and being suspect of, all other loyalties. If talk of just war just means that it is OK for Christians to kill when their government says so, it is not the way of the cross.

2) Taking up the cross in a time of war means the way of humility. It means being prepared to entertain the possibility that we are wrong. It means asking, why does most of the rest of the world disagree with us? Even those governments that support the United States’ invasion of Iraq do so against the will of the overwhelming majority of their people. Most of those closest to Iraq do not agree with us.  Right and wrong are not determined by majority vote. But, it is arrogant to presume that everyone else is automatically wrong because they don’t see it our way.

If it is America’s fate to be the de facto empire of the world, it will make a big difference how we live that out. The way of the cross means we cannot lord it over others. We have not been doing a very good job of it lately. Because the United States has been seen as lording it over others, we have remarkably managed to loose a public relations contest with a thug and tyrant like Saddam Hussein and alienated much of the world. Humility means listening to those who disagree with us, not derisively dismissing them so we can ignore their concerns.

We might not need U.N. approval to go to war. The just war approach allows that any nation has the right, on its own authority, to defend itself when attacked. But, Iraq has not attacked us and it is not clear that it is able to. If, however, we are going to war to enforce U.N. resolutions, it would seem the proper authority resides in the body that passed the resolutions. What does it mean to enforce the will of others against their will? What if Egypt and Syria decide on their own to enforce the U.N.’s resolutions condemning Israeli settlements on the West Bank? I do not think we would find that to our liking. We apparently haven’t run out of patience there.  Humility means we must be careful of the precedents we set just because we can.

3) Taking up the cross in a time of war means we must recognize our own sin. It is a Lenten theme.  It is a Christian theme. Much of the rest of the world looks to America as an example, a beacon of hope, liberty, and prosperity. But it is also suspect of our power and of our motives. We need to deny ourselves the indulgence of self-justification and recognize that this is neither accidental nor simply a matter of colossal misunderstanding. There are reasons many in the world do not trust us.  I am very concerned that as a result of this war and our behavior leading up to it we will be living with the deep resentment of much of the rest of the world for a long time. And we will only be less safe and secure for it.

Recognizing our sin means we need to be suspicious of our own motives. Can it be that every country that opposes war with Iraq has mixed motives, but the United States does not? Do we really believe that we are the only ones who are realistic about the dangers of the world? Do we really believe that we the only ones who have courage? We need to take the reality and pervasiveness of sin more seriously than that.

4) Taking up the cross in a time of war means repentance. We need be prepared to repent of sins we commit as individuals and as a nation. And if sometimes we decide we must resort to violence, we need to repent for that violence. Some have suggested that the classic just war approach does not presume that violence is wrong. I do not know if that is true. If it is the just war theory needs to be rethought in light of Jesus and the cross. Killing some people for the sake of other people is always a devil’s bargain – even if we decide it is the only bargain we can make. St. Basil of Caesarea who was a contemporary of Ambrose said that though the church had decided that sometimes we must resort to war, when we do so we should repent and those who participate should do penance, enduring a time of exclusion from the sacrament. That is the position still of the Eastern Orthodox Church which is not pacifist, but has never accepted the theory that for Christians war can be just or pleasing to God.

Lent is about taking up the cross, denying ourselves, and following Jesus. It includes denying our tendency toward self-justification – as individuals, as a church, and as a nation.  It means dying to other loyalties.  It means humility. It means acknowledging our own sinfulness.  It means repentance. It is a way of martyrdom. If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow.

I can’t say whether, if he were here, Ambrose would oppose war with Iraq. What disturbs me more is that for many Christians in America – it wouldn’t matter.

Thursday, February 23, 2023

An Episcopal Bishop's Teaching on Abortion, Part 4: Scripture – New Testament

As we saw in the last post, there is little if anything in the Old Testament that directly addresses abortion. There is even less in the New Testament. Jesus says nothing about it. Paul writes nothing about it[1]. This is curious because abortion was not at all unheard of 2,000 years ago. Roman and Greek philosophers of the time had a range of things to say on the subject.

It is significant that the Jewish understanding at the time of Jesus was that while the life in the womb had value and was in some sense sacred as a potential human being, it was not a fully human person before birth. According to Jewish commentary from around the time and place of Jesus if it came to it, the mother’s life must take precedence.[2]

This has remained more or less the teaching of Judaism since. Joseph Schenker, Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, summarized the attitude toward abortion in the classic sources of Jewish law:

1. That the only indication considered for abortion is a hazard to the mother’s life.

2. That, otherwise, the destruction of an unborn child is a grave offence, although not murder.

3. That it can be viewed that the fetus is granted some recognition of human life, but it does not equal that of the mother’s, and can be sacrificed if her life is in danger.[3]

Something like Dr. Schenker’s summary would have been the common Jewish teaching at the time of the New Testament. That Jesus and the rest of the New Testament say nothing to directly contradict this understanding does not necessarily mean agreement with it. Arguments from silence cannot take us very far. Still, it does seem significant, given Jesus’ willingness to take issue with the understanding of his contemporaries on other issues.

It is also true that, grounded though Christianity is in Judaism, it is not the same. We do not share all the same scriptures and those that we do share, we interpret differently. We have different traditions beyond the scriptures. Both traditions have wrestled with questions around the issue of abortion. In both traditions, the answers to those questions have been complex. For more on the Jewish understanding, see this footnote.[4]

While there is nothing in the New Testament that explicitly and clearly addresses abortion, that does not mean it has nothing relevant to say on the topic. There are other themes and passages that could have bearing on how we might think about abortion, the life in the womb, and the agency of the woman bearing that life. There is Jesus’s uncommon respect for women and their personal integrity. There is also his even more uncommon valuing of children. There is the general commitment to care for the vulnerable and the “least of these.” There is the Visitation in which John leaps in Elizabeth’s womb when Mary appears bearing Jesus in hers (Luke 1:39–56). We will look at some of these later. Next, I want to look at another authority that Christians look to in order to make sense of things, the Church’s tradition.

[1] A possible exception is the reference to pharmekeia in Galatians 5:19-21; Revelation 9:21; and 18:23. This can mean any kind of medicine or drugs (“pharmacy” comes from this Greek root).  It can also mean potions, particularly magic potions – something that was common in the ancient world. Hence it is commonly translated as witchcraft or sorcery. But in some early Christian texts, e.g., the Didache, it is listed alongside abortion which seems to suggest the possible meaning of drugs meant to induce abortions. But it is not clear that that is the meaning when it is used in the New Testament.

[2] Mishna 7.6 : “If a woman is having trouble giving birth, they cut up the child in her womb and bring it forth limb by limb, because her life comes before the life of [the child].” (

[3] Schenker, Joseph G., ‘The Beginning of Human Life: Status of embryo. Perspectives in Halakha (Jewish Religious Law)’, Springer Science, Business Media, LLC, Published online: 13 June 2008


[4] Meacham, Tirzah and Lipinsky, Yoelit, ‘Abortion: Halakhic Perspectives’, Jewish Women’s Archive, July 27, 2022 (

Fischer, Elli, ‘What You’re Getting Wrong About Abortion And Judaism’, The Forward, August 1, 2022 (


Part 5: Tradition


Part 1: The Episcopal Church’s Stated Position on Childbirth and Abortion

Part 2: Context

Part 3: Old Testament

Thursday, February 9, 2023

An Episcopal Bishop's Teaching on Abortion, Part 3: Scripture – Old Testament

The Outline of the Faith, or Catechism, in the Book of Common Prayer affirms that the Christian Scriptures are “the Word of God because God inspired their human authors and because God still speaks to us through the Bible.” (p. 853). So, that is where Christians begin when discerning answers to moral questions.

It must be admitted, though, that the Bible has nothing to say explicitly about deliberate abortion. Even theologians who firmly oppose abortion concede this. In his encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II wrote,

The texts of Sacred Scripture never address the question of deliberate abortion and so do not directly and specifically condemn it.[1]

Though he affirms a pro-life position, New Testament scholar, Richard B. Hayes, admits,

The Bible contains no text about abortion. This simple fact – often ignored by those who would make opposition to abortion a virtual litmus test of true Christian faith – places the issue of abortion in a very different category . . .[2]

That the Old Testament says nothing directly about abortion is curious, given that it contains extensive and explicit regulations about sex, pregnancy, childbirth, and even menstruation, but there are no regulations about abortion. This is notable because some, though not all, ancient societies did have laws explicitly forbidding abortion. This is true of ancient Assyrian, Greek, and Roman law codes. Even then, it is uncertain if these laws were intended for the sake of the life in the womb. Such laws might have been meant to protect the pregnant woman given that most methods of abortion were as likely to end in her death as in a successful termination of the pregnancy. More likely, given that these ancient societies were exceedingly patriarchal, laws against abortion were as much as anything to protect the rights of the father who legally had the right to kill the baby after birth if he chose.

One place the Old Testament might come close to addressing something like abortion is Exodus 21:22–23 which reads:

When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

There is a basic lack of clarity in the passage. To whom does “no further harm” refer? Is it the miscarried baby or the woman, or either one? From the earliest Jewish interpreters in the Talmud to most contemporary scholars the consensus interpretation is that financial compensation is due the father if the fetus is lost while more severe penalties are exacted if “further harm” comes to the woman. That interpretation is in line with the law codes of many of ancient Israel’s neighbors. Not every scholar agrees with that consensus, but it is the majority view held by Old Testament scholars.[3]

In any event, the lack of clarity means it is not a passage we can rely on to settle the question as to the moral value of the fetus or the morality of elective abortion. It also raises the question in a less patriarchal age, why the fine for the reckless causing of a miscarriage is determined by the father rather than the mother.

Another passage in the Old Testament that possibly refers to something like abortion is Numbers 5:11–31. Like the one above, this passage is hard to translate and hard to interpret. Here, a woman suspected of adultery is given a concoction by a priest in order to determine her guilt and inflict a penalty. It is a passage notoriously hard to understand or even translate. Some translations, e.g., the New Revised Standard Version, New English Bible, and English Standard Version, seem to suggest that the penalty is essentially an induced miscarriage or abortion. Other translations suggest the penalty is some physical affliction on the woman. So, this is another passage that is too uncertain to have much bearing on the subject. Either way, one might wonder why the man with whom the woman had the affair is unpunished by the potion.

These are the only two places in the Old Testament that address anything like abortion. The sacredness of life, human and otherwise, is a general theme of the Old Testament and there is of course the commandment against killing. The question is, “Does that prohibition include the life in the womb or, if so, to what extent?” Abortion is never explicitly equated with murder in the Old Testament. That does not necessarily mean that abortion is simply morally neutral. Indeed, there are passages that point to the value of fetal life (Job 10:9-11, Psalm 139:12). But that abortion is simply or always murder is more than can be proved reading the Old Testament alone. This more complicated position on the moral weight of abortion has been the Jewish understanding as we will see more in the next installment.

There are other passages from the Old Testament that have some bearing on the question such as Job 10:9-11, Psalm 139:12, and Jeremiah 1:5. We will look at those later. But, next, we'll look at the New Testament.

[2] Hays, Richard B., The Moral Vision of the New Testament, p. 446. See also, Meilander, Gilbert, Bioethics: A Primer for Christians, p. 29

[3] See for example The Rabbi Sacks Legacy, ‘The Meaning of Texts’ (


Part 4: Scripture – New Testament 


Part 1: The Episcopal Church’s Stated Position on Childbirth and Abortion

Part 2: Context

Thursday, January 26, 2023

An Episcopal Bishop's Teaching on Abortion, Part 2 – Context


On June 24, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade and placed the question of abortion into the hands of each state. Americans, including church members, have mixed feelings and complex convictions regarding abortion, as reflected in various polls.[1] Most Americans want safe, legal abortion to be available. A majority is also uncomfortable with abortion in at least some circumstances. Of course, morality is not simply a matter of public opinion. The resolutions passed by the Episcopal Church’s General Convention[2] reflect the tension in these overlapping majorities.

That the issue and the questions surrounding it are complex is reflected in the Church’s history as it has grappled with the morality of abortion. The official teaching of the Church and that of its major saints and theologians have not been simple or straightforward.

Some Personal Context

I have come to see it as less than straightforward. I invite you to prayerfully think it through with me. I have long been persuaded by what is often referred to as the “consistent ethic of life,” which is committed to cherishing, defending, and nurturing the flourishing of all life (including to one degree or another, life in the womb). Such an approach opposes nearly all uses of violence and all “the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God” (BCP, p. 302). Many Christians whose life and teaching I respect have held this ethic, e.g., Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day, Fanny Lou Hamer, Helen Prejean (of ‘Dead Man Walking’ fame), Joan Chittister, Stanley Hauerwas, Rowan Williams, and others. That remains generally where my convictions lie.

In my 20’s, I was on the board of a pro-life organization, Matrix Lifeline, in Bloomington, IN (like those commended by General Convention Resolution D105 in 1994[3]). Ironically, the chair of the board of that organization was a woman who was also a leader in the local Democratic Party. And when I was invited to speak on the topic with a class at Indiana University, my counterpart defending the pro-choice position was a woman who was involved in the local Republican Party. Things were different then.

Recent Historical Context

This last point is significant. Things were different before the 1980’s. The abortion fault lines have not always run simply between conservatives and liberals/progressives, whether inside or outside the church. The Roman Catholic Church has long been Pro-Life and opposed to abortion (though, as we will see, even that is more complicated in the tradition). But that has not always been so for other Christians, including conservative Christians.

In 1968, before Roe v Wade, Christianity Today, the conservative Christian magazine founded by Billy Graham, gathered 25 conservative evangelical theologians, doctors, and scientists to discuss the morality of abortion in a “Protestant Symposium on the Control of Human Reproduction.” The statement coming out of that symposium affirmed, “Whether or not the performance of an induced abortion is sinful we are not agreed, but about the necessity and permissibility for it under certain circumstances we are in accord.”[4] A special issue of Christianity Today followed including a lead essay by conservative Old Testament scholar, Bruce Waltke who asserted, “the absence of any biblical text forbidding abortion” and “the Old Testament does not equate the fetus with a living person.”[5]

In 1971, another conservative Christian magazine, Eternity, published an essay by Nancy Hardesty that came to a similar conclusion. Also in 1971, conservative Evangelical scholar and apologist, Norman Geisler, published a book with Zondervan (a conservative Christian book company) in which he contrasted the Roman Catholic position with what he understood to be the biblical view, asserting that “The embryo is not fully human.”[6]

There were certainly also conservative evangelicals who disagreed with these positions[7], but there was no anti-abortion consensus among those who otherwise shared basic conservative theological commitments And it was not considered a litmus test issue.

Nor was there a consensus among more liberal/progressive Christians. Some Protestant theologians influential among liberal/progressives who were not conservative evangelicals, like Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, argued for a more pro-life position. In ‘Ethics’, Bonhoeffer wrote,

Destruction of the embryo in the mother’s womb is a violation of the right to live which God has bestowed upon this nascent life. To raise the question whether we are here concerned already with a human being or not is merely to confuse the issue. The simple fact is that God certainly intended to create a human being and that this nascent human being has been deliberately deprived of his life. And this is nothing but murder.[8]

Many of the Roman Catholics and others who formed the first anti-abortion organizations in the late 1960s were liberal Democrats who also opposed the Vietnam War and nuclear proliferation.[9] Civil Rights icon, Fannie Lou Hammer, was also pro-life.[10]

The November 1980 issue of the progressive Christian magazine, Sojourners was dedicated to affirming a pro-life position from a more progressive position. There were several essays by women and men including one by Jesse Jackson[11]

Certainly, many liberal/progressive theologians advocated for a more pro-choice position[12]. But, again, there was not a clear consensus on the issue despite many shared convictions otherwise.

Well into the 1970’s, there were a significant number of pro-life Democrats and a similarly significant number of pro-choice Republicans. It has not always been a matter of conservatives on one side and liberals/progressives on the other. Beginning in the later 1970’s into the early ‘80’s, many liberals who had been pro-life became pro-choice and many conservatives who had been pro-choice became pro-life.

It is worth wondering what happened culturally and politically in those years and what has happened over the last generation or so that has made the divisions over abortion so much starker, more contentious, and a matter of partisan identity.[13] We might also wonder if a Christian understanding of abortion or any other moral issue should be expected to fit neatly into the contemporary categories of conservative or liberal or progressive.

An Episcopal Bishop’s Case for a Christian Understanding

The Episcopal Church has passed a number of resolutions over the last several decades on the subject of abortion at its General Convention. Together, those resolutions affirm the sanctity of life and strongly condemn abortion in some circumstances while defending access to safe, legal abortion as a necessary option for women. Thus, they reflect the conflicted, complex convictions many have and have had on the subject.

In this teaching series I will explore the issue of abortion, the life in the womb, and the agency of the woman bearing that life, offering what I believe is a faithful and reasonable understanding based on scripture, tradition, and creation (biology and science). That understanding recognizes that the holy mystery of becoming fully human is a gradual process in the womb and that the pregnant woman is not merely a passive vessel of that process of becoming. The moral balance at first tilts toward the agency of the pregnant woman (usually along with the father) and gradually tilts to include the baby developing in her womb.

I invite your feedback, comments and questions along the way. I also ask for your patience as we make our way toward a conclusion.

[1] Saad, Lydia,Where Do Americans Stand on Abortion?(

 Americans’ Opinions About Abortion, Jan. 2022, Marist Poll (chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/

 ‘Public Opinion on Abortion’, Pew Research Center, May 17, 2022(

 Saad, Lydia, ‘“Pro-Choice” Identification Rises to Near Record High in U.S.’ (

[2] The Episcopal Church’s Stated Position on Childbirth and Abortion(

[4] ‘A Protestant Affirmation on the Control of Human Reproduction’, Christianity Today, November 8, 1968, (

[5] Waltke, Bruce K., ‘The Old Testament and Birth Control: Family Planning Under the Law’, Christianity Today, November 8, 1968, (

[6] Geisler, Norman, Ethics: Alternatives and Issues, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand-Rapids, Michigan, 1971

[7] For example, Cottrell, Jack W., ‘Abortion and the Mosaic Law’, Christianity Today, March 16, 1973, (

[8] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Ethics, Fortress Press, p. 206

[9] Williams, Daniel K., ‘The Partisan Trajectory of the American Pro-Life Movement: How a Liberal Catholic Campaign Became a Conservative Evangelical Cause’, Religions, 2015, 6, 451–475

( pdf)

[11] Sojourners Magazine, November 1980, (

[13] See Williams, Daniel K., ‘The Partisan Trajectory of the American Pro-Life Movement: How a Liberal Catholic Campaign Became a Conservative Evangelical Cause’, Religions, 2015, 6, 451–475( See also: Roach, David, ‘How Southern Baptists became pro-life’, Baptist Press, January 16, 2015 (


Part 1: The Episcopal Church’s Stated Position on Childbirth and Abortion

Part 3: Scripture – Old Testament