Monday, December 3, 2012

Monday musing: Is the biblical pro-life message ancient or modern?

Blogger Jonathan Dudley started something when he wrote "When Evangelicals Were Pro-Choice" (for CNN) and "How Evangelicals Decided that Life Begins at Conception" (for the Huffington Post).

His contention is that "what conservative Christians now say is the Bible’s clear teaching on [abortion] was not a widespread interpretation until the late 20th century." For proof, he cites individuals and groups who agreed with the legalization of abortion in some, if not all, circumstances in the late 60s and early 70s.

Dudley explains the migration to the current pro-life view as evangelicals falling under the influence of powerful leaders of the "Religious Right," such as Jerry Falwell. Christians should, in his view, "consider the possibility that they aren’t submitting to the dictates of a timeless biblical truth, but instead, to the goals of a well-organized political initiative only a little more than 30 years old."
Why does it matter that what evangelical leaders say is "the biblical view on abortion" was not a widespread interpretation until about 30 years ago? For one thing, it's harder to argue the Bible clearly teaches something when the overwhelming majority of its past interpreters didn't read the Bible that way. For another, it illustrates that evangelical leaders are happy to defend creative reinterpretations of the Bible when it fits with a socially conservative worldview -- even while objecting to new interpretations of the Bible on, say, homosexuality, precisely because they are new. And for another, by looking at the history of how today's "biblical view on abortion" arose, one can begin to see the worldview that made it possible. In the process, it becomes apparent it is that unacknowledged worldview, and not the Bible, that evangelical opponents of abortion are actually defending.
Several Christian writers generated helpful responses: Mark Galli of Christianity Today (here and here), John Stonestreet of Breakpoint, and Albert Mohler. I'd like to add a few points to the discussion:
  • InterVarsity may have published (and then rescinded under pressure) a 1984 book that said abortion was legitimate in some instances, but it had already published Michael Gorman's Abortion and the Early Church in 1982. This book built the case that from its earliest days, the church opposed abortion.
  • Regular Baptists, from which Life Matters Worldwide sprang, were solidly pro-life from the beginning. In 1971, two years before the Roe v. Wade decision, the GARBC (which would call themselves "fundamentalists" rather than "evangelicals)" acknowledged that "the sanctity of human life is well documented in Scriptures" and resolved to "go on record as being thoroughly opposed to abortion on demand."
  • Diverse methods for interpreting Scripture -- in the past or today -- better explain why there's diversity in Christendom on abortion. Your stance on this issue has more to do with where you land on the errancy/inerrancy spectrum than anything else. Those who approach the Bible with a non-literal hermeneutic are the ones who come up with novel interpretations (concerning homosexuality, for instance), while we who take God's word literally have always maintained it's a sin. 
The same is true of abortion. Taking God's word at face value and employing grammatical-historical methods of interpretation, we are satisfied with statements about the personality of unborn humans as found in Genesis 16:11-12 and 25:22-24, Psalm 139:13-16, Jeremiah 1:5, Hosea 12:2-3, Luke 1:15 and 41, and Galatians 1:15-16. 
  • What hindered many Christians from early involvement in the pro-life movement was not lack of biblical support, but hesitancy to join the political fray. What increased the comfort-level with the pro-life movement for many evangelicals (and brought them into the political arena by the backdoor) were hands-on ministries such as pregnancy care centers that sprang up in the 1980s. PCCs gave them opportunities to prevent abortions by offering alternatives. They could serve families in their communities, reach out to women who'd already had abortions, and share the Gospel.  
Over time, our understanding has grown about just how pervasive the sanctity of human life ethic is in Scripture, and what we are called to do about it. More than a few proof-texts, it's a theme from Genesis to Revelation.

Every age has been confronted by challenges that require Christians to go to work "rightly dividing the word of truth." If, as Peter says, "His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness," then we are equipped to handle questions that didn't necessarily arise in the 1st century -- or the 3rd, or the 13th.

No, the word "abortion" never appears in the Bible, but if you study topics such as violence or the murder of innocent people, you'll find those are the domain of wicked people. Furthermore, the treatment of widows and orphans as well as all poor people is also tied to the sanctity of human life. Thus, if you make a move to strike someone, or abandon a hungry person to her own devices, you're placing them at risk of death -- their blood would be on your hands.

Abortion is nothing if it is not violent; it is the ultimate injustice. The pregnant mother and her unborn child must not be abandoned. We are learning what to do when it comes to this issue.

Postscript 12/6/12: Here's a pertinent article by Phil Cooke that appeared on a Huffington Post blog -- How Christianity Lost Its Voice in Today's Media Driven World

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