Notes From The Didache On The Early Christian View Of Abortion

One of the more difficult and fascinating texts in the collection of texts known as the Apostolic Fathers is the Teaching of the Lord to the Gentiles by the Twelve Apostles usually known as a the Didache (Διδαχὴ). It is difficult because there are genuine questions as to its original location. Some scholars place it in Alexandria others in Syria. It has been dated from 70 AD to 300 AD. The internal evidence indicates to me that it is probably a Syrian text. It was known to fathers by the mid-2nd century so it seems as if could not be dated much after 150 AD. The situation envisioned by the document fits the early 2nd century better than the 1st century.

The Didache is in two or three parts. The first part draws heavily from the gospels and follows the “two-ways” ethical tradition of Proverbs and the Psalms. It quotes and elaborates subtly upon the Sermon on the Mount, which elaborations (e.g., substituting “fasting” for blessing one’s enemies) seem to locate it more in the 2nd century than the first. The second part of the work is a fairly detailed account of the early Christian practice of baptism (by effusion) and the Lord’s Supper. The Didache knows nothing of transubstantiation or a memorial eucharistic sacrifice. The third part is a brief apocalyptic section. Naturally, there is much discussion among scholars about the source criticism and how to relate the three aspects of the document to each other.

Yesterday, in class, as we worked through chapter 2 I was struck by this portion of 2:2: “You shall not murder a child in destruction nor shall you kill one just born” (οὐ φονεύσεις τέκνον ἐν φθορᾷ οὐδὲ γεννηθέντα ἀποκτενεῖς). Michael Holmes, in his excellent edition of the Apostolic Fathers (3rd edition) translates these clauses, “you shall not abort a child or commit infanticide.” This seems perfect. Lately, however, I’ve been comparing that edition with the revised Loeb edition of the Apostolic Fathers translated by Bart Ehrman, who translates the same clauses, “do not abort a foetus or kill a child that is born.” I was struck by Ehrman’s choice of foetus, which is Latin for “unborn infant” or “unborn child” instead of “child.” Holmes and Ehrman agree that the Didache intends to forbid abortion. The contrast between the “τέκνον (child) in destruction” with that one that has been brought to delivery (γεννηθέντα) seems clear enough.

This passage should give pause to those self-identified Christians who glibly announce that they are pro-choice. The Didache was not indifferent about abortion nor does it hesitate to list abortion (and infanticide) with other gross violations of the natural and moral law: murder, adultery, pederasty, sexual immorality, magic and sorcery, coveting, perjury, greed, and conspiracies (2:1–7). The pagans were known to try to induce abortions, which the Didache prohibits. It is hard to imagine the author of the Didache announcing that he is personally opposed to abortion but supported it as a matter of public policy any more than they would say the same about murder of adults, pederasty, and the like.

The moral rigor of the Didache is also in contrast to the way some late-modern Christians speak about sexual ethics generally. The Didache unequivocally condemns sexual immorality. Again, it is hard to imagine the Didache countenancing the nomenclature, “gay Christian.” This much seems clear from the blanket condemnation of sexual immorality in 3:3.

I am impressed again this term with the emphasis the Apostolic Fathers (e.g., 1 Clement, Ignatius, and Didache) place on what we might call orthodox Christian ethics. In some of the authors, e.g., Didache, ethical exhortation is not well grounded in the gospel but in others, e.g.,Polycarp, Barnabas, and Ad Digonetum, it is. Still, it has been a persistent question: why such a strong emphasis on ethics among the early Christian writers? Part of the answer is that much was outside their control but their behavior was within their control. Another part of the answer is that one way the Christians distinguished themselves from the surrounding pagan culture was to adhere strictly to the biblical moral teaching. Reports from some of their pagan interrogators (e.g., Pliny the Younger) suggest that they really were regarded as morally blameless before the watching world. Thus, Justin Martyr invited scrutiny from the pagan authorities because he was confident that they would find nothing illegal or blameworthy among the Christians.

As the late-modern West descends into neo-Paganism, we can learn something about how to negotiate our new environment from our older brothers and sisters who endured it in the 2nd century AD.

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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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4 comments

  1. It’s something I have been rethinking in part due to the servile behavior of the pro-life movement in the US to one party. It’s much easier also since there is no pro-life presidential candidate (at least the main 4 that get attention), and the issue’s absence in their debates has been informative.

    I am also intrigued by the thinking found in the minority report of the OPC on abortion, pro-choice NAPARC people, and the story of C. Everett Coop. When Dr. Coop died, the people at the White Horse Inn released an interview with him where he declared quite clearly, as a Presbyterian, that the view he had adopted was the Roman Catholic view on abortion. So I must eventually do some research on the history of abortion within the Reformed tradition; I grew up among people whose view was basically in agreement with the RC view (including non-abortive birth control). The absolute rejection of abortion from conception onward has always been the view I have known all Christians to uphold (with some slight disagreement on it’s legitimate use), until I encountered both mainline and confessional Reformed saying that a pro-choice political stance is allowable.

    • Alberto,

      There are significant differences between the Reformed and Roman understanding of contraception (the prevention of conception) and abortion.

      The OPC reports were done in the early 70s, before people had a lot of opportunity to think through the issues. It was more common in the 60s than it was in the 80s for Reformed folk to be “pro-choice” or even pro-abortion. My sense is that there was a sort of leakiness in our theological anthropology (doctrine of humanity) of the same sort that allowed some of us to justify slavery. Once confronted with the reality of abortion—as I was in the late 80s when I finally watched Bernard Nathanson’s film—most of us changed our minds.

      I would hope that no one under some version of the 2K banner would blithely advocate a pro-choice position any more than they would advocate a pro-chattel-slavery position. Humans conceive and give birth to humans. They have a natural right to life. Does a Christian have liberty to advocate for the state to permit murder? If so, it isn’t obvious.

      I do believe in Christian liberty and that there are a range of cultural-political views tolerable under the rubric of what I would rather speak of as God’s twofold kingdom (to use Calvin’s nomenclature). It seems unwise for us to speak about “the Christian view of fiscal policy” and the like but on something as fundamental as the image of God and legally innocent human life, liberty seems more circumscribed.

  2. Those are two important points about how common it was among Reformed to be pro-choice or even pro-abortion (a necessary distinction), and how not everyone changed their minds.

    An actual elder mentioned his pro-choice stance to me (I’m not giving his name or church affiliation), and from what I can see he is free to do so. I wasn’t interested in arguing with him; I found out because he sure seemed directed towards a pro-choice position, and he confirmed it by stating he didn’t want women to get an abortion under life-threatening conditions. So whatever personal views people (including elders) have about abortion, if there is no agreed judgment that carries disciplinary force, it is a matter of Christian liberty.

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