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. One penetential of this period deems, "But it makes a great difference whether a poor woman does it on account of the difficulty of feeding [her child] . . ." Medical conditions were also seen as a mitigating factor, as in the case of a woman who took an abortifacient potion because of her fear of "death or concern about the narrowness of her birth canal. Rape was also an extenuating circumstance in some penitenbtial texts, which "explicitly state that a woman is 'not guilty', if she commits abortion after being raped."[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 or or fear of detrh due to medical conditions, or not sin at all if due to rape. 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] Margaret D. Kamitsuka, Abortion and the Christian Tradition, (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY), p. 29-32 

See also, Marianne J. Elsakkers, Reading Between the Lines: Old Germanic and Early Christian Views on Aborretion, PhD Dissertation, (University of Asterdam, 2010), p. 449-450 (chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/ 

And also, 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, Evangelicals For, 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

1 comment:

  1. So far, a very balanced, careful take on previous teachings and understandings.