Heidelberg 105–107: You Shall Not Murder (2)

Planned-ParenthoodWe are considering the 6th commandment: you shall not murder. Since 1973 no fewer than 50 million human beings have lost their lives due to abortion. That’s not an exaggerated number. Even Politifact agrees. 50 million people is more than the population of CA, WY, NE, KS combined. Imagine four American states utterly vacant. Since 1973 Americans have killed as many people as were killed during World War II. It is a widespread practice. It is legal but is it right? Is it murder, a violation of the 6th commandment, a violation of the moral law? Sometimes, when concerns are expressed about abortion, it is made to seem as if it is some fundamentalist crusade or Fascist operation to squash freedom. Well, one need not be a fundamentalist Christian to oppose abortion. Throughout human history even pagans have made it illegal.

Ancient Pagans
According to J. Ryan Davidson, summarizing the work of several others:

The Middle Assyrian Laws, which date as far back as the early 11th century BC, specifically addressed abortion.

He adds:

Originally, the Roman republic legally allowed abortion. However, that stance may have changed around Cicero’s time because the empire needed more citizens (Kapparis, Abortion, 197).

Ancient Christians
So the pagans both prohibited and permitted abortion. In the Christian tradition, however, the testimony has been fairly consistent.

The Letter to Diognetus (Ad Diognetum), from the middle of the 2nd century, ch. 5 says of the Christians, “They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not cast away their foetuses.” That expression, “cast away their foetuses” is ambiguous. Some have taken it to refer to abortion, others to leaving a child out to die of exposure. Even if it refers to the latter, it seems odd that this early Christian would oppose infanticide, the murder of infants, post-partum, but permit it in utero. That the author used foetus (fetus) may suggest that he was thinking of an unborn child but it is also without question that the pagan Romans left on the stoop unwanted children, who were often picked up and made into slaves.

Note that, in the discussion of abortion the noun fetus is often used. It is the Latin term often used for a pre-born infant. In our culture, however, we use it to dehumanize the infant. Remember, foetus or fetus is just Latin for infant. It does not mean “sub-human entity residing in the womb.”

If  Ad Diognetum is ambiguous there is plenty of unambiguous testimony among the Fathers. In the Didache, a church order from the early 2nd century, earlier than the treatise To Diognetus, abortion is described as a violation of God’s law.

And the second commandment of the Teaching; You shall not commit murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not commit pederasty, you shall not commit fornication, you shall not steal, you shall not practice magic, you shall not practice witchcraft, you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born. You shall not covet the things of your neighbor, you shall not swear, you shall not bear false witness, you shall not speak evil, you shall bear no grudge. You shall not be double-minded nor double-tongued, for to be double-tongued is a snare of death (chapter 2).

The Didache is clear. It distinguished between children that are unborn and children that are born. It taught that it is murder to kill a child at either point. Here the Christian view of humanity distinguished itself from the pagan Roman view.

The 3rd century father, Tertullian, the father of Latin theology, wrote in his Apology, ch. 9:

In our case, murder being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the fœtus in the womb, while as yet the human being derives blood from other parts of the body for its sustenance. To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man-killing; nor does it matter whether you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to the birth.

Notice that he explicitly described abortion as murder.

Athenagoras, a Christian apologist, writing in the late 2nd century (c. 177) distinguished between the behavior of the Christians and that of the pagans:

And when we say that those women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder, and will have to give an account to God for the abortion, on what principle should we commit murder? For it does not belong to the same person to regard the very fœtus in the womb as a created being, and therefore an object of God’s care, and when it has passed into life, to kill it; and not to expose an infant, because those who expose them are chargeable with child-murder, and on the other hand, when it has been reared to destroy it. But we are in all things always alike and the same, submitting ourselves to reason, and not ruling over it.

The consensus position of the fathers was re-affirmed in the early medieval church by the Council of Trullo (692), in Constantinople. Canon 91 says:

THOSE who give drugs for procuring abortion, and those who receive poisons to kill the fœtus, are subjected to the penalty of murder.

The ancient epitome of canon 91 elaborates on this moral teaching to the same effect but added that abortion is a sin not only because it murders an infant human in utero, in the womb, but also because it jeopardizes the woman, whose life is also sacred.

The history of Christian teaching about abortion has been clear but it does seem that, sometime in the modern period, we lost our bearings. It’s not entirely clear how but the truth is that most churches and Christians seem to have been caught flat-footed by Roe v Wade and Doe v Bolton in 1973. It took some time before we were able to recover the historic Christian view. One reason for that flatfootedness may have been our fuzziness about another issue.

Let me ask you a question: what do you think about British and American businessmen sailing to the West Coast of Africa stealing people by the millions and enslaving them to work on plantations in America? What? You say, you are against that? Okay. Many Americans, many of whom regarded themselves as devout Christians got into the habit of saying that some people are not as fully human as others. It was not a big step from denying the humanity of Africans to denying the humanity of infants in the womb.

There were ostensibly Christian people who supported eugenics, the theory and practice of weeding out allegedly “inferior” people. The founder of Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger was not only a racist—she spoke to a rally of the Ku Klux Klan—but she was a pioneer in the field of eugenics, i.e., the attempt to purify the genetic pool of the human race to produce superior people. If that sounds familiar to you, it should. It was a theory of the Nazi party in Germany. They declared the Aryan race to be superior and they proceeded to attempt to wipe out all the other allegedly inferior races. That is why there was a holocaust in which more than 6 million people were murdered during WWII.

The first argument used to justify the stealing and enslavement of Africans was to deny that they were fully human. The slavers knew that, if they conceded that Africans were fully and truly human, bearers of the image of God as we all are, it would be much more difficult to justify stealing and enslaving them. There is a strong corollary to the argument made in defense of abortion. Pro-abortionists deny the humanity of the pre-born infant and sometimes they even deny that the infant human post-partum. One politician has said that the infant is not human until he leaves the hospital. Peter Singer denies the humanity of children to age 4.

Every argument that seeks to justify abortion seeks to deny the humanity of infants in the womb. Walk into a Planned Parenthood clinic, sit down and try to have a polite, civil conversation with them about abortion. Ask them why they think it is right to perform abortions in women who are otherwise healthy, whose lives are not in immanent danger, and the answer will be that it is a woman’s choice to end a pregnancy.

Is it a woman’s choice to fly to Africa, steal some people, and enslave them? No, you say? Why not? Because Africans are humans created in the image of God and they have a natural right to live in peace and freedom. Why are not infants in utero (in the womb) humans? The abortionist says that they are humans when we want to keep them and they are sub-human when we do not. Do you see the incoherence of that view? In what other case does the humanity of another depend on the decision of another person? Yes, it is true that humans are conceived and grow inside of a woman but that doesn’t make them a mere appendage to be removed at will. What is conceived within a human is human. It does not become human. It cannot lose its humanity.

With the development of imaging technology and now with the release of the videos from the Center for Medical Progress there can be no serious doubt that the pro-choice slogan “my body, my choice” is without merit. It is not “my body” that is being dismembered and sold for parts to vendors. It is not a mere mere “fetal tissue” that has a brain, a heart, lungs, arms, and legs, all of which (and more) are being harvested from pre-born infants. These are the parts of the body of another, very small, defenseless human being. Yes, the infant is dependent upon the mother for sustenance but so are many senior citizens and disabled persons. We do not deny their humanity.

The Biblical Case
Genesis 1:27 says:

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

Adam and Eve were humans bearing the image of God from the moment they were created. When Adam and Eve conceived and gave birth to Cain and Abel, they gave conceived and gave birth to human beings. We begin as tiny little humans and we develop. We are never anything less than human at any point. We know that as a matter of science and logic. What else could humans conceive but humans? Each human conceived has his own DNA. This is not rocket science. The denial of the humanity of other humans is the essence of what is known as “special pleading.” The same folk who would admit without hesitation that what other species conceive is that species will turn about and deny that humans conceive other humans. That is nothing but special pleading and it is incoherent and contrary to fact.

We know that from Genesis 9 that humans were created in the image of God. As we saw last time, even after the fall, humans retain the image in the broad sense.

And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the heavens, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea. Into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image (Genesis 9:1–6) ESV).

Genesis 9 clearly distinguishes between human and non-human life. We are free to kill and eat animals and plants because they are not human. Anyone who takes another human life unjustly is subject to capital punishment for a capital crime. Genesis 9 links the image of God to human flesh and blood. The image is not something that sets in gradually over time. Humans are image bearers. It is true that image is in us but it is also true that we are the image. That is one reason why there will be a bodily resurrection, because the body is an essential part of who we are.

There are other passages we could consider. The Psalmist (139:14) says that we are fearfully and wonderfully made, that we were knit together in the womb. It never occurred to the psalmist that human beings conceive something subhuman that becomes human. John the Baptist leapt in his mother’s womb. That’s a human behavior.

The notion that we may confer and remove humanity from people is sociopathic. That is what sociopaths, mass murderers do. They are able to murder people and sleep well at night because they do not see others as valuable, as sacred, as human. When we do that, we are thinking and acting like sociopaths.

If you were born after 1973, after Roe v Wade and Doe v Bolton you might think that the way things are is the way they’ve always been. Please don’t think that. The idea that we may kill another human being at any point within the womb or even as the infant is emerging from the womb is a relative novelty. Even ancient pagans knew it was wrong. None of them would have permitted a physician to stab an infant in the back of the neck as it emerged but that is what we permit under the guise of “liberation” and “choice.” What happened in the Gosnell Case in Philadelphia was neither a freak nor an accident. It was the logical outcome of the systematic denial of humanity to infants.

If you are surprised that medical practitioners are performing partial-birth abortions  it may because the popular media frequently misrepresents what happened in 1973. According to Clark Forsyth and other scholars, these two cases (Roe and Doe) make it possible to end the life of an unborn child at any time, for any reason. Because these decisions have been the law of the land for more than 40 years, it has become psychologically easier to accept the status quo, the way things are, as normal. Given the number of women who’ve had abortions, it is likely that you know someone whose had one. Perhaps you have had one.

What now? Christians ought to be defenders of the weak and defenseless. Unborn humans are quintessentially weak and defenseless image bearers. They are our neighbors. Maybe the most effective thing we can do is to seek to turn the tide not by protesting or shouting but by persuading our neighbors, friends, and co-workers of the humanity of infants in the womb. This might not be easy because there are millions of people who need to justify, in their minds, that what they did was right. That was the genius of the Roe v Wade and Doe v Bolton cases. Ask Roe and Bolton today if the truth was told in 1973. You might be surprised. We were sold a bill of goods and millions of people are implicated in it and the temptation is to defend the status quo.

Here we can learn from the how the West reacted to the holocaust. Most of us came to admit that the holocaust was made possible because of lies about Jews, gypsies, Africans, and others. We accepted responsibility for looking the other way and we pledged, “never again.” Just because we made a mistake in 1973 does not mean that we are forever stuck with it. We ended slavery. We admitted that we were wrong. We ended “separate but equal” (Brown v Board, 1954). We admitted that we were wrong. We can end abortion on demand but it will only come when we each and all admit that human beings conceive, bear, and give birth to humans and that humans are inherently worthy of protection as bearers of the divine image.

What about those who have had them? Abortion is a sin but it is not the unforgivable sin. Men and women who have been involved in abortion, in whatever way, can be forgiven for the sake of Christ. Jesus forgives sinners. Acknowledge your sin, repent (turn away from it heartily), trust Christ for your righteousness, accept his forgiveness freely given. Remember, he forgave his murderers. He forgives all sinners who turn to him in true faith.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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