Monday, May 15, 2023

An Episcopal Bishop's Teaching on Abortion, Part 7: Back to the Bible

Earlier in this series we saw that the Bible has almost nothing to say about abortion. Neither is there much in the scriptures about when a human being becomes a human being. There are a few passages that hint at this question. They support the conviction among most Christian thinkers in the tradition before the 19th century that the life in the womb, however sacred, is not a fully ensouled human being at conception.

Remember that you fashioned me like clay;
            and will you turn me to dust again?
Did you not pour me out like milk
            and curdle me like cheese?

(Job 10:9-10)

“Did you not pour me out like milk and curdle me like cheese?” It is not hard to imagine what the question is getting at. Our ancestors were less squeamish about some things than we often are. The understanding behind it is the idea that male semen interacted with female blood in the womb similar to the way milk interacted with rennet to make cheese. There it “curdled” or “coagulated” to gradually form a new baby. As with the making of cheese, the making of a new human was a gradual process. This was a common understanding in the ancient world and Middle Ages across different cultures. The ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, used this image. The buddha is recorded as having used it. It shows up in the medieval Muslim world and medieval Europe.[1] It is this understanding that informs one of Hildegard of Bingen’s visions though she does not reference Job. In her vision, the soul is infused into the fetus’ body only after it has taken the proper form symbolized by people carrying baskets of cheese around the mother.[2]

The passage from Job 10 continues with a more familiar image that is also found in Psalm 139:

You clothed me with skin and flesh,

and knit me together with bones and sinews.

You have granted me life and steadfast love,

and your care has preserved my spirit.

(Job 10:11-12)


For you yourself created my inmost parts;

you knit me together in my mother's womb.

I will thank you because I am marvelously made;

your works are wonderful, and I know it well.

My body was not hidden from you,

while I was being made in secret

 and woven in the depths of the earth.

(Psalm 139:12-14, Book of Common Prayer)

Like the cheese image, the poetic picture of life being “knit” or “woven” in the womb suggests a gradual process of becoming. A skilled knitter sees in a ball of yarn the potential for a beautiful sweater. The yarn might be beautiful and costly. It might thus have great value in itself and to the knitter. But the ball of yarn is not a sweater. It only gradually becomes a sweater as it is fashioned day by day. As the waistband takes shape one can see what it is becoming, but a waistband is not an actual sweater. A knitted sleeve by itself is not a sweater. A sweater is more and other than the ball of yarn from which it began and the stages in between.

Though it is not the only way these inspired poetic images can be interpreted, they lend themselves to the Church’s traditional understanding that becoming human in the womb is a gradual process. This is not exactly what Hildegard, Thomas Aquinas, and others taught. They believed the soul was created directly by God and infused into the body once the fetus had developed sufficiently to be a proper home and instrument of a soul. But that creates a problematic separation of the body and soul.

I think Gregory of Nyssa’s understanding is better. Gregory believed (as did most Christian teachers until the modern era) that all living things, including plants and animals, have souls to a degree.[3] Humans contain all those degrees of soul and our soul develops with our body in the womb. According to Gregory, everything we need to become fully human, body and soul, is there at conception (like a ball of yarn). From there, the body and soul gradually become fully human. Here is how Gregory put it:

“. . . 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. . .”[4]

“[A]s the soul finds its perfection in that which is intellectual and rational, everything that is not so may indeed share the name of soul, but is not really soul, but a certain vital energy associated with the appellation of soul.”[5]

“[W]e suppose the human germ to possess the potentiality of its nature, sown with it at the first start of its existence, and that it is unfolded and manifested by a natural sequence as it proceeds to its perfect state, not employing anything external to itself as a stepping-stone to perfection, but itself advancing its own self in due course to the perfect state . . .”[6]

According to Gregory, the potentiality of our nature is there at conception. Its actual perfection or completeness involve the capacity for rationality and relationship which comes later in the pregnancy.

Although Gregory of Nyssa and the scriptures indicate a gradual becoming in the womb from potential to completed human being, there is no doubt that God is actively and intimately involved in the life from the beginning. And even before (Jeremiah 1:5). Even if we accept that it is not possible “to style the unformed embryo a human being”, we are still talking about something sacred, worthy of care, and not to be denigrated, or interfered with lightly.

Also sacred and worthy of care is the woman in whose womb new life is developing. Her life and well-being are also worthy of consideration. The life that is being knit in her womb is being knit partly from the material and resources of her own life and body. More on that in the next post.

We have looked at the scriptures and tradition. But neither is written from the perspective of modern science. Next, we will look at the biology of pregnancy and the development of life from conception to birth. What might we learn from our contemporary scientific understanding in conversation with scripture and tradition?

[1] Ott, Sandra. “Aristotle Among the Basques: The ‘Cheese Analogy’ of Conception.” Man 14, no. 4 (1979): 699–711.

[2] Hildegard of Bingen: Scivias, Mother Columba Hart, Translator, (Paulist Press, 1990) p. 107-129

[3] Gregory of Nyssa, On the Making of Man, VIII.4 ( See also, Oelze Anselm, Animal Rationality, BRILL (2018), pp. 28-35, Chapter 5, ‘Animal Souls and Sensory Cognition’ (

[4] Gregory of Nyssa, On the Holy Spirit, Against the Macedonians (

[6] Gregory of Nyssa, On the Making of Man, XXIX.3 (


Part 8: Biology of Pregnancy and the Development of Life


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

Part 2: Context

Part 3: Old Testament

Part 4: New Testament

Part 5: Tradition

Part 6: Tradition, continued

1 comment:

  1. More good and sound reasoning...thank you Bishop Matt