by C Michael PattonMay 24th, 2007 151 Comments
Recent polls indicate that the majority of Americans are pro-choice with regards to abortion. This is interesting considering that similar polls tell us that the majority of Americans identify themselves as Christians. This begs the question, Can a Christian support abortion?
Without getting into any of the medical details of or even physiological reasons for abortions (for I am not a physician or a physiologist), I would like to deal with the issue from a purely theological standpoint. Where one stands on abortion, I submit, has more to do with one’s theology than they realize.
Can a Christian support abortion? The answer is “yes,” if their theology allows them to do so. The issue comes down to one’s beliefs concerning the creation of the soul. The theological issues of abortion are not spoken of or understood much today, yet the implications are significant. The question that one must ask with regards to this issue is this: When does the soul/spirit (immaterialÂ aspect;Â henceforth soul)Â join with the physical (the material aspect) of a person? This is often referred to as a debate about the constitution of man. If the soulÂ is part of the physical bodyÂ from conception, then abortion is out of the question. The person is a complete person, material and immaterial, from the beginning and has not only divine recognition, but a divine mandate for life. Any premature cessation of this life by an outside agent would amount to murder. But if there is a time when the physical “fetus” is without an immaterial aspect, then, during this time, the fetus is not a person, but simply an extension of the mother’s physical nature. The question is, when does the body receive the soul?
There are two positions that have been represented prominently throughout church history and it is with these two I would like to wrestle.
1. Creationism: The belief that the soul is created directly by God and “inserted” into or united with the body which in turn is created indirectly by God through the parents. In other words, the soul is created immediately by God, while the body is created mediately by man. This position has significant support in contemporary and historic theology.Â Noteworthy adherents to this position include Wayne Grudem, Charles Hodge, Louis Berkholf, John Calvin, and enjoys the support of most Roman Catholics. The basic defense for this position is that God, the father of all spirits (Heb. 12:9), is the only agent that can create an immaterial entity. Kind gives forth to kind. Man is physical and can only birth physical. Therefore, God must have created the soul directly, outside of the mediating agency of man.
2. Traducianism: (from the Latin tradux meaning “inheritance or transmission”) The belief that while God is the ultimate creator of all things, He uses secondary causes to bring them into existence. If God ceased from creation after the sixth day and no longer is creating ex nihilo (out of nothing), then all creation since the sixth day is initiated mediately through secondary causes, including the soul. To put the matter plainly, parents are just as involved in the creation of the soul as they are the body. God does not use special process for the creation of the soul. The basic defense of this position is focused on the negative implications of the creationist position. If God creates the souls directly, without the mediating support of humanity, how does one explain the sinfulness of the soul. If people are born with a fallen sinful nature (Ps. 51:5), how did the soul become corrupt? Did God create a sinful soul and place it in a sinful body? Can God create something impure? Traducianist are quick to charge the creationist with making God directlyÂ responsible for sin. The traducianist does not elevate the value of the soul above that of the body.Â Therefore, a traducianist believes that theÂ soul/spirit is created in and with the body. Their is not two acts, but one.Â Â Traducianism is not without it support. Noteworthy traducianist are Tertullian, Martian Luther, Jonathan Edward, and Millard Erickson.
Now, back to the topic of abortion. Theologically speaking, it is impossible for there to be a Christian traducianist who supports abortion. Why? Because the traducianist’s theology precludes a necessary belief that a person is complete from the moment of conception. ThereÂ can never beÂ a time when the child is without a soul. The parents provide the soul at the same time and in the same way as they provide the body.
A creationist, on the other hand, may support abortion. Why? Because no one can say with any amount of certainty when the body is united with the soul. Is it at conception? Implantation? During the first, second, or third trimester? At birth? Or even sometime after birth like the age of accountability?Â This leaves a slight crack in the door theologically. A deferment to ignoranceÂ is usually the best recourse for the creationist, not knowing when the soul is united to the body. While this deferment may suggest that the best stance for the creationist concerning the abortion issue is one of non-support, this does not necessitate this position. One can be a Christian creationist and support abortion based upon a relianceÂ in the findings of the medical community. If the medical community can provide further information that leans in favor of a stance that a fetus is not really a person based upon issues of psychological response along with physiological issues dealing with the parasitic nature of the fetus, then the creationist may lean in favor of a pro-choice stance on the issue.
I don’t want people to get the wrong idea, so I am going to say something as clearly as I can: Our stance concerning the issue of abortion is not our guide with regards to this theological issue. In other words, we do not choose the position that best fits with our agenda one way or another. We must seek to find the truth, not defend our preconceptions. If creationism is the best option in dealing with the biblicalÂ evidence, then that is where we go. We then let the scientific community deal with the issue of abortion, providing answersÂ about when life begins. But if the traducian position provides better answers, then we go there, letting its theological implications provide us with a proper response to the issue of abortion.
I am a traducianist. Not because I seek a solid theological stand against abortions, but because I believe that it is the best option that deals most comprehensively with the biblical data and a systematic Christian worldview. I believe that the creationist view (which is the most prominent and popular among laity) assumes an implicitly unchristian stance concerning the relationship of the body and the soul. There is no reason to say that the soul is of special nature, having to be created directly by God.
This line of thinking (that the soul must be created directly by God) evidences more of a Gnostic worldview than it does a Christian worldview. Gnosticism was a first-century Greek philosophy that crept into Christianity here and there, and still plagues our thinking at the most fundamental level. The Gnostics were dualists, believing that all things material were essentially evil, while all things spiritual were essentially good. For a Gnostic, the ultimate goal was for one to escape the confinement of the material body, finding fulfillment in the spiritual existence. But the Christian worldview is just the opposite. Christianity affirms the essential goodness of all creation, even though it has been infected with sin. Our goal is not to escape the physical world, but to sanctify it. God declared all things good at creation. All that was involved in this declaration was the physical world, including man’s physical nature. When man sinned, God did not cast aside His original intent opting for a “plan B,” but immediately began the process of redeeming the world that He created. When people die, there is an unnatural breach in their personhood, separating the immaterial from the material, but this does not suggest that the immaterial soul is somehow better or more highly favored in God’s eyes than the body. In fact, the consummation of redemption comes at the resurrection of the body, when the soul is reunited with the physical body and the new heavens and new earth (material) are created.
This Gnostic disdain for the physicality has unfortunately found its way into Christianity in many ways. In the early Church sexÂ was seen as a necessary evil rather than a beautiful creation of God. Monasticism was highly valued thinking that the pleasures of this world were all evil. People have seen culture and government as evil because they are part of this world. The Bible is seen as a book of God to the neglect of the contribution of man (this has had great repercussions hermeneutically). Finally, I believe the Church has devalued the body and elevated the soul, believing that while man can create the body, only God can create the soul. There is no reason for this. They are both equally miraculous.
I believe that the traducianist theory answers the questions of anthropology better than the creationist viewpoint. While their are many good Christians, contemporary and throughout church history, who have held to the creationist view, I believe that they are wrong. Having said this, I believe that when it comes to abortion, while one’s theology may allow them to support it, I believe that this theology is not only wrong, but evidences more of a Gnostic worldview than a Christian worldview. The body and the soul cannot be dichotomized in such a way. The parents create both the body and the soul at the same time as mediate agents of God.
In short, I believe the issue of abortion is a theological issue. Sadly, I believe, this understanding escapes the forefront of the debate because so many in the church today have relegated theology to a seat of irrelevance and impracticality.
To hearÂ more aboutÂ this issue, listenÂ or watch The Theology Program session 4 of Humanity and Sin.
- The Thing Itself – Consequences of the Abortion Debate
- Emergers on Abortion: Where Do You Stand?
- A Primer on the Christian Understanding of Capital Punishment
- Would Christ have died had he not been killed? (2)
- Is Birth Control Sin?