“Abortion” Article from the Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics

May 30th, 2019

Given the recent renewed attention to abortion, this might be a significant moment to look for an approach that is different from the standard fare. My own views, expressed in two books and several articles, represent what is sometimes called the “consistent life ethic.” The following brief article focuses specifically on a way to look at abortion through the lens of Scripture. I am grateful to Baker Academic for permission to reprint this article online.

Abortion

From Joel B. Green, Jacqueline E. Lapsley, Rebekah Miles, and Allen Verhey, eds., Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics, Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2011, 35­–37. Used by permission. (http://www.bakerpublishinggroup.com)

 

Induced abortion (as opposed to spontaneous abortion, or miscarriage) is the deliberate termination of a pregnancy through the destruction and/or removal of the embryo or fetus.

Because recent discussion of abortion, even in the church, has almost universally considered it a political issue addressed within the framework of rights, the first task of Christian ethics is to make the question a truly theological and ecclesial one (Bauerschmidt; Hauerwas), reframing it within the fundamental scriptural framework of covenant faithfulness, or discipleship. How should being a baptized community of faith, hope, and love in Christ shape the way Christians approach abortion?

Recent theological approaches to abortion are parallel to the three traditional theological perspectives on war, though they are major areas on a spectrum, not precisely fixed points. (1) The position that sometimes designates itself “pro-life” or “right-to-life” is similar to the pacifist position, arguing that abortion is (perhaps with rare exceptions) unethical. Unlike pacifism, however, this position sometimes depends on asserting the innocence of the embryo/fetus. (2) The “justifiable abortion” position, existing in various forms (e.g., Steffen), resembles the just-war tradition: abortion is tragic but justified in certain circumstances. The criteria can relate to the status of the fetus/embryo (e.g., deformity, nonviability, threat to the woman’s health) or to the situation of the pregnant woman (e.g. forced pregnancy; economic, emotional, or physical distress). Unlike just-war theory, the just-abortion argument usually recognizes the satisfaction of one criterion as sufficient rather than requiring the satisfaction of multiple criteria. (3) A third position—“pro-choice,” “procreative choice,” or “abortion rights” (e.g., Harrison)—is similar to the holy-war tradition in seeing the agent as sacred and capable of making a free, responsible decision without providing formal justification.

One cause of these various views is Scripture’s apparent silence on the issue. This can lead to certain erroneous or misguided claims: that abortion was unknown in antiquity; that Scripture should have no role in the abortion debate; that Jews and Christians cannot formulate a robust position on the issue; or that Scripture’s silence necessarily implies divine neutrality or approval, and that the faith community should follow suit.

The silence also leads people to look for texts to support their position. Abortion opponents often quote “choose life” (Deut. 30:19). They also appeal to texts about God’s creation and call in the womb (Ps. 139:13–14a; Isa. 44:1–2; Jer. 1:5) and about fetal activity (Luke 1:41, 44) to argue that Scripture considers the embryo/fetus to be God’s direct creation and indeed a human being. Those who disagree respond that, biblically, the embryo/fetus is akin to property that can be damaged (Exod. 21:22–23) and that human life does not begin until the first breath (Gen. 2:7). Each side accuses the other of prooftexting.

Some interpreters, recognizing the impasse created by appeals to such texts, have looked to broader scriptural themes for an implicit position on abortion or a framework for considering it. Abortion opponents have argued that scriptural themes such as creation as divine gift, the summons to welcome children, and the vision of shalom (part of a “consistent ethic of life”) validate their position. Supporters of abortion/choice have argued for the voluntary and relational character of covenants in the Bible and stressed divine grace and forgiveness for poor decisions. They have also appealed to stewardship of creation and to choice (“choose life”), the former accenting human responsibility, the latter human freedom and liberation.

Critics of stewardship as justification for abortion have argued, however, that biblical stewardship does not include the deliberate destruction of creation, especially of human, or even potentially human, life. And critics of human freedom as justification for abortion point out that scriptural freedom is not absolute, that what is chosen is crucial. Moreover, they contend, liberation in Scripture is freedom from false deities, ideologies, and values, and freedom for joyful, bonded, covenantal service to God and others.

One significant aspect of the discussion is the witness of early Judaism (e.g., Sibylline Oracles, Philo, Josephus) and early Christianity against abortion, despite its absence from the Scriptures that have come down to us. (Rabbinic literature would permit abortion to save the woman’s life.) Certain scriptural images and themes, including some noted above, shaped the symbolic world of Jews and then Christians; opposition to abortion, exposure, and infanticide became an ethical boundary marker for both groups in their pagan cultures. In explaining the biblical summons to love of neighbor, both Did. 2.2 and Barn. 19.5 (ca. 95–135) say, ““Thou shalt not murder a child by abortion.” Subsequent Christian writers echo the prohibition and treat the unborn as “the object of God’s care” (Athenagoras, Plea 35) (See Bonner; Gorman, Abortion.)

This historical witness demonstrates that Scripture can have a key role in the abortion debate even if exegesis alone, still less prooftexting, is insufficient. A hermeneutic is needed that recognizes the difficulty of the issue, expresses pastoral sensitivity, and preserves the basic requirements of covenant faithfulness. Recent work on metathemes in the Bible’s moral vision, individual and corporate baptismal identity, virtue ethics, narrative, and analogy may provide a way forward.

Richard Hays suggests that the NT’s central themes of cross, community, and new creation compel us to reframe abortion so that a problem pregnancy is not merely about an individual’s decision. Rather, it is an occasion for the church to act together in generous, Christlike, sacrificial love to embrace the pregnant woman and her child in utero with spiritual and tangible support. Believers constitute one body (1 Cor. 12)—indeed, a family—and are called to bear one another’s burdens (Rom. 12:5; Gal. 6:2). Such a view does not, however, eliminate personal responsibility, for the believer’s body is not his or her own but God’s, the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19–20). It is the locus and means of self-giving love for God and others (Rom. 6; 12:1–2).

Related to the communal and familial images is the overarching biblical motif of care for the needy (e.g. Matt. 25), including the widow and the orphan (Ps. 82:3–4; Jas. 1:27). The call to protect and provide for the vulnerable may be applied, by analogy, to the situation of both the woman and the developing child. Thus a text that numerous ethicists (e.g., Bauerschmidt; O’Donovan; Hays) have seen as significant for the church’s response to abortion is the parable of the good Samaritan. The attempt to identify the status of the other (“Who is my neighbor?”) may imply that the inquirer desires to define certain others in such a way that they are incapable of placing a moral demand on the inquirer. Jesus transforms the question about the identity of the neighbor into a summons to actually be a neighbor. Analogously, the contemporary question of the personhood (“neighbor-hood”) of the embryo/fetus should perhaps be reconstituted first of all as a question about the meaning of being a neighbor to the other(s) in need, both those already born and those not yet born. Furthermore, the parable suggests that when the question of identity or status is transformed, the summons to “go and do likewise” requires Jesus’ disciples to be engaged in creative and potentially costly forms of community and ministry, and thus to recognize the neighbor by being a neighbor.

The result is an ethic of cruciform hospitality practiced by those baptized into the master story of Christ (Bauerschmidt; Hays; Stallsworth). Although this approach may not resolve every difficult case, it suggests that the relationship between Scripture and abortion is fundamentally about what kind of community of faith, hope, and love is needed for women and children, seen and unseen, to be welcomed into that community and into the world.

See also Adoption; Birth Control; Body; Children; Family Planning; Infanticide; Procreation; Sanctity of Human Life

 

Bauerschmidt, F.  “Being Baptized:  Bodies and Abortion.”  Pages 250–62 in The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, ed. S. Hauerwas and S. Wells. Blackwell, 2004; Bonner, G. “Abortion and Early Christian Thought.” Pages 93–122 in Abortion and the Sanctity of Human Life, ed. J. Channer. Paternoster, 1985; Channer, J., ed. Abortion and the Sanctity of Human Life. Paternoster, 1985; Gorman, M. Abortion and the Early Church. Wipf and Stock, 1998; idem, “Scripture, History, and Authority in a Christian View of Abortion: A Response to Paul Simmons.” ChrBio 2 (1996): 83–96; Gorman, M., and A. Brooks. Holy Abortion? A Theological Critique of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. Wipf & Stock, 2003; Harrison, B. Our Right to Choose: Toward a New Ethic of Abortion. Beacon Press, 1983; Hauerwas, S. “Abortion: Why the Arguments Fail.” Pages 295–318 in Abortion: A Reader, ed. L. Steffen. Pilgrim Press, 1996; Hays, R. The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross and New Creation; A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics. HarperSanFrancisco, 1996, 444–61; John Paul II. The Gospel of Life. Random House, 1995; Johnston, G. Abortion from the Religious and Moral Perspective: An Annotated Bibliography. Prager, 2003; O’Donovan, O. “Again: Who Is a Person?” Pages 125–37 in Abortion and the Sanctity of Human Life, ed. J. Channer. Paternoster, 1985; Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. “Prayerfully Pro-Choice: Resources for Worship.” http://www.rcrc.org/pdf/Prayerfully.pdf; Schlossberg, T. and E. Achtemeier. Not My Own: Abortion and the Marks of the Church. Eerdmans, 1995; Simmons, P. “Biblical Authority and the Not-So Strange Silence of Scripture.” ChrBio 2 (1996): 66–82; Stallsworth, P., ed. The Church and Abortion. Abingdon, 1993; Steffen, L. Life/Choice: The Theory of Just Abortion. Wipf and Stock, 2000.

 

Michael J. Gorman

“Participation: Paul’s Vision of Life in Christ”

July 7th, 2018

My new Grove brooklet, “Participation: Paul’s Vision of Life in Christ,” is now available.

B 88 Participation: Paul’s Vision of Life in Christ

Romans 13 and Nonconformity: The Christian Community’s Obligation to Oppose Inhumane Laws and Practices

June 17th, 2018

[This is the text of a Facebook post from June 14, 2018.]

Thanks to Attorney General Jeff Sessions (explicitly) and Sarah Sanders (implicitly), Romans 13 (actually, only 13:1-7—and this point is important; see below) is in the news. This part of Paul’s letter to Roman Christians is being cited as justification for calling those who take the Bible as a moral guide to support and follow all U.S. immigration laws, policies, and practices. This text is especially being cited in support of separating parents and children at the U.S. border.

It would take a lot of space to fully critique their argument. But here, in a nutshell (ten short points), is why what is happening at the border is not only instinctively morally repelling, but also a misreading of Romans 13:

1. Various aspects of the meaning of Romans 13:1-7 are debated, but its main original intent was to say to the Roman Christians, “Pay your taxes” (Romans 13:7). The text is not a call to blind obedience to all authorities and laws.

2. Whatever Romans 13:1-7 means, it can only mean what it means in light of its context. That is, it cannot be ripped from its context in the letter to the Romans. But this is what Sessions and Sanders have done.

3. Whatever Romans 13:1-7 means, it cannot be understood in a way that contradicts its context.

4. The immediate context of Romans 13:1-7 is the entirety of Romans 12 and 13. In Romans 12 and 13, Paul sets out basic guidelines for the Christian communities in Rome, and for us.

5. Those guidelines begin with a call for *nonconformity to this age,* a radical transformation of attitudes and practices that is appropriate to those who have benefited from God’s mercy in Christ. This spirit of nonconformity and transformation is the prerequisite for knowing and doing God’s will. And it is the fundamental framework for everything that follows. See Romans 12:1-2.

6. After a discussion of various gifts in the body of Christ, Paul calls on the Christian community to practice a radical, genuine form of love that corresponds to the love they have received from God in Christ. This includes hating what is evil and practicing the good; showing hospitality to strangers; loving enemies; weeping with those who weep; associating with the lowly; blessing persecutors; not repaying evil for evil; practicing peace toward all; not seeking vengeance for harm done; and overcoming evil with good. See Romans 12:9-21. The call to this lifestyle is what immediately precedes Romans 13:1-7.

7. Immediately after Romans 13:1-7 is “the rest of the story”: what Romans 13 says as a whole. Here we find another radical call to neighbor-love and a call to avoid the works of darkness by putting on Christ. See Romans 13:8-14.

8. This context for Romans 13:1-7 means that the Christian community must not follow any authority or law that calls them to violate these basic Christian principles. Rather than being a blanket call to obedience, Romans 13:1-7—when read in context—actually supports Christian opposition to many laws and practices.

9. Sessions and Sanders have missed the point of “Romans 13.” If the practices and laws they are defending manifest the opposite of the basic Christian ethic described in Romans 12-13, it is the duty of Christians to oppose those inhumane practices and laws that they are justifying, in part, by their misuse of Scripture.

10. Christians must also be prepared to try to offer humane alternatives to the practices and laws they oppose.

Recent Lectures Online

August 29th, 2017

Some of my recent lectures are online as video and/or audio. Here are a few links:

 

  1. E. P. Wahl Lectures, Taylor Seminary, Edmonton, March 2016: four on Romans and mission
  2. Ekklesia Project 2017 Gathering, Chicago, Jul 2017: one on Paul and peace (scroll down)
  3. Didsbury Lectures, Nazarene Theological College, Manchester, Eng., October 2016: four on John and mission (scroll down)
  4. Payton Lectures, Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, CA, April 2016: two on John and mission

 

When Caution does not Suffice: Reflections on the Current Presidency

August 25th, 2017

This is a long follow-up to my Facebook post about Donald Trump and the Fiddler on the Roof (see the end of this piece).

When the President speaks with a teleprompter, that is not Donald Trump speaking. Donald Trump’s largely non-teleprompter “speech” Tuesday night (8/22/17)—despite his appeal to earlier remarks allegedly condemning racists and white supremacists—was once again implicitly racist and pro-Nazi, and explicitly supportive of illegal activity (that of the convicted sheriff), in addition to being mean-spirited toward anyone who questions or disagrees with anything he says or stands for, including a U.S. senator battling brain cancer.

Writing in today’s Washington Post (8/25/17), former longtime Republican senator John Danforth says this: “As has been true since our beginning, we Republicans are the party of Lincoln, the party of the Union. We believe in our founding principle [that of a united country]. We are proud of our illustrious history. We believe that we are an essential part of present-day American politics. Our country needs a responsibly conservative party. But our party has been corrupted by this hateful man, and it is now in peril. In honor of our past and in belief in our future, for the sake of our party and our nation, we Republicans must disassociate ourselves from Trump by expressing our opposition to his divisive tactics and by clearly and strongly insisting that he does not represent what it means to be a Republican” (emphasis added).

Mr. Danforth does not go far enough. Former Bush-speechwriter Michael Gerson, also in today’s Post, starts to go a bit further as he (like me above) calls out the real, non-teleprompter, Phoenix-side of Donald Trump: “Trump deserves a patent on the idea that political authenticity means spontaneity. So it was the real voice that we heard in Phoenix, attacking a man with brain cancer — Republican Sen. John McCain — without any wish for his recovery. The real voice defending a supporter who had been fired by CNN for writing ‘Sieg Heil’ on Twitter. The real voice making fun of a TV anchor’s height. The real voice again widening racial divisions by defending Confederate monuments as ‘our history and our heritage.’ (Instead of the royal ‘we,’ the white ‘we.’) It was the real voice expressing greater passion in criticizing journalists than white supremacists.”

Gerson’s next sentence is a stark but truthful one: “Trump dares us to take him at face value. His self-revelation comes unbidden, even involuntarily. And his transparency reveals a disordered personality” (emphasis added).

Gerson goes on to discuss some of Trump’s odd claims Tuesday night, then commenting as follows: “What if Trump really believes what he claims? Then he would be not deceptive, but deluded. A deluded man in charge of North Korean policy. A deluded man who could employ nuclear weapons at a moment’s notice (actually two to three minutes to order a launch)…. Trump is not merely acting unpresidential; he is erratic and grandiose” (emphasis added).

But even Gerson does not go far enough, concluding simply that “Trump’s version of reality appears to make another Republican legislative and political disaster inevitable. The unified control of House, Senate and presidency means little when the president lives in a reality of his own.”

Unfortunately, this cautious final paragraph is an anti-climactic, insufficient, and perhaps even illogical conclusion to the charge of presidential delusion and personality disorder. There is a time when caution is wise and prudent, a virtue. There is a time when caution becomes a vice. I don’t blame Gerson and Danforth for wanting to be prudent, but perhaps now prudence (in the sense of good judgment) requires something other than caution.

It seems to me, in light of the last two weeks, that many (and perhaps most) people in the U.S. now realize what some of us here and many around the world have thought all along but have been hesitant to say publicly: the current President is morally (and otherwise) unqualified for such an office. They—including Mr. Danforth and Mr. Gerson—intuitively know, in the words of the 25th Amendment, that he is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” If that is true, unless he repents (meaning both confession of sin and radical behavioral change—and that is the only adequate word for what he needs to do, yet it is nearly impossible for a deluded and disordered person), it now falls to those who have blindly supported him, those who have worked with him and do work with him, the cautious critics, etc., if they have any integrity, to call for and find the quickest way to effect his removal from office. For the sake of African Americans and Jews. For the sake of refugees and immigrants. For the sake of the Republican party. For the sake of this country. For the sake of East Asia. For the sake of the world.

I suspect that Mr. Danforth and Mr. Gerson feel similarly, but caution prevents them from saying implicitly what their critiques imply.

I have no delusions that the current Vice President should actually be President, but perhaps he would at least stop being a puppet for the man who is currently his boss. We can pray as much.

I do not say any of this lightly, and I obviously do not expect everyone to agree, but I would hope that people would at least take these thoughts seriously. (Feel free to discuss this in a civil manner here—but only in a civil manner.)

 

*Facebook post of 8/23/17: Early in Fiddler on the Roof, the rabbi is asked if there is a blessing for the czar. He wisely answers, “Yes: May God bless him and keep him—far away from us.” There might be a similar appropriate blessing for Donald Trump: “May God bless him and keep him—far away from us, and far away from the nuclear codes.”

Some Early Reviews of the 2nd Edition of Apostle of the Crucified Lord

May 5th, 2017

Some early reviews of the new edition have appeared online, by Nijay Gupta, Philip Long, and William Hemsworth. I am grateful for their appreciative words.

The blurbs for the book are also quite encouraging, though they are not new:

N. T. Wright
—University of St. Andrews
“Michael Gorman enviably combines simplicity of presentation with profound originality. The present work, enhanced in this new edition, is simultaneously an accessible textbook and an exposition of challenging new ideas which all Pauline scholars must take seriously. A book to draw in the beginner and to compel the expert into fresh reflection.”

Douglas A. Campbell
—Duke Divinity School
“Gorman’s learned, sustained, inclusive advocacy of participation as the center of Paul’s gospel is one of the key features of the modern scholarly landscape. This second edition of his balanced yet probing introduction to Paul’s thought is therefore profoundly welcome.”

Michael F. Bird
—Ridley College, Melbourne
“The best introduction to Paul and his letters just got better!”

Frank J. Matera
—Catholic University of America
“I have used Michael Gorman’s introduction to Paul with both undergraduate and graduate students. In my experience it is the best available introduction to Paul and his letters. Theological as well as historical and literary in its approach, it introduces students to what they need to know about Paul and his letters. The appearance of this revised and updated edition is good news for all who love and teach Paul.”

Susan Eastman
—Duke Divinity School
“In this accessible book written for a wide audience, Gorman charts a journey to the transformative heart of Paul’s gospel: the crucified and resurrected Messiah.”

Cities of Paul and John Study Tour: April 17-29, 2017

May 12th, 2016

Study Tour
The Cities of Paul and John
The Best of Turkey, Greece, and Rome

April 17-29, 2017

A once-in-a-lifetime and potentially life-changing experience!

Join me for my eighth (and possibly last) study tour to the cities of Paul and John. Participants may take the trip as a course for credit (graduate or undergraduate—reading and writing required) or just as an educational and spiritual adventure. Family members (18+) and friends are welcome.

Included: Roundtrip air from Washington, DC, including current air taxes and fuel surcharges (taxes and fuel charges are subject to change); 11 nights lodging at 4-star hotels; breakfast and dinner daily; full-time English-speaking tour escorts; air-conditioned deluxe motor coach; all guides, entrances, touring and transportation as appears on itinerary; baggage handling at hotels (one piece).

Not included: all lunches; drinks with meals; Turkey Visa (must purchase online prior to travel); tips to driver, guides, hotel staff (required; approx. $100-$120; collected at departure); optional travel insurance; fee for paying for trip by credit card (3-5%); transportation to and from airport (probably Dulles).

Highlights: Morning prayer en route to sites; great fellowship with an interesting, diverse group of people; expert guiding; Scripture reading and discussion of relevant texts on site; encounters with people from other cultures and their countries; pre-trip and in-trip recommended reading.

Finances: Approx. $4,500 as of May 12, 2016 (subject to final airline fares and taxes); cost is based on double occupancy (single-room supplement = approx. $600); deposit due late fall.

Tentative Itinerary as of May 12. 2016 (subject to minor changes)

Monday Day 1 Depart Washington DC

Tuesday Day 2 Arrive in Izmir (Smyrna); visit Smyrna agora; drive to Kusadasi (ON Kusadasi)

Wednesday Day 3 Ephesus: main site including terrace houses and St. Paul caves (ON Kusadasi)

Thursday Day 4 Ephesus: museum and Mary’s House; travel inland (ON Pamukkale)

Friday Day 5 Laodicea; Hierapolis (ON Pamukkale)

Saturday Day 6 Colossae; Sardis (ON Bergma)

Sunday Day 7 Pergamum (Acropolis and Asclepeion); fly Izmir-Athens (ON Athens)

Monday Day 8 Athens: Acropolis, Mars Hill, Forum, Archaeological Museum; panoramic drive (ON Athens)

Tuesday Day 9 Corinth, Acrocorinth, Isthmia, Cenchreae (ON Athens)

Wednesday Day 10 Fly Athens-Rome; Roman Forum and Colosseum (ON Rome)

Thursday, Day 11 Rome: St. John Lateran, Appian Way, Catacombs, and St. Paul Outside the Walls Basilica (ON Rome)

Friday, Day 12 Rome: Vatican (Museums and Sistine Chapel), St. Peter’s Basilica; walking tour of the old city; special farewell dinner (ON Rome)

Saturday, Day 13 Flight home

Further information and to get on the mailing list for updates
Prof. Michael J. Gorman: mgorman@stmarys.edu

“Reading John Missionally” Lectures Online

April 14th, 2016

My Fuller Theological Seminary Payton Lectures on “Reading John Missionally” from April 6-7 are now available in audio format at the Fuller web site.

Lectures at Moody Bible Institute and Fuller Seminary April 4, 6-7

March 29th, 2016

If you are in the Chicago area, I will be giving a lecture for the Moody Student Theological Society at the Moody Bible Institute next Monday, April 4 at 7:00 pm in room Sweeting 211. It is open to the public. The title of the lecture is “Salvation Through Crucifixion: Paul’s Theology of Participating in Christ.” But don’t worry too much–there will be plenty of resurrection in the talk.

I will also be giving the Payton Lectures at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California at 10:00 a.m. on Wednesday and Thursday, April 6-7. The theme is “Reading John Missionally.” The first lecture is titled “Missional Gospel, Missional Jesus: The Gospel of Abundant Life.” The second is “Abide and Go: John’s Missional Spirituality.”

All lectures are open to the public, but at Fuller you need to arrive early and register.

Participation in God’s Mission at Northeastern Seminary

March 15th, 2016

I will be at Northeastern Seminary in Chili, NY (Rochester) for their theology conference on Participation in God’s Mission this Friday and Saturday. If you are in the area, come by for the Friday night free lecture. The Saturday event has a fee, but there is a keynote from me and then some 40 choices for academic papers.

Friday evening’s 7:30 lecture is entitled “Paul, the Mission of God, and the Contemporary Church.”


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