Our journey through The Moral Vision of the New Testament continues as Richard Hays devotes a series of chapters to the New Testament’s witness regarding specific, controversial issues. (If you’ve gotten behind in the reading or you’re just joining us, see the reading schedule here.)
We began with the question of Christians using violence in the defense of justice. Then, we looked Hays’ treatment of divorce and remarriage, homosexuality, and ethnic division and treatment of Jews.
Today, we look at abortion by asking Hays’ question: How shall we live faithfully under the gospel with regard to our treatment of the issues of pregnancy, abortion, and childbearing?
Hays doesn’t see any texts that speak directly to abortion. One may point out the sixth commandment prohibiting murder, but this begs the question: Is abortion murder? Though no texts speak to abortion directly, the Bible consistently portrays a symbolic world in which God is active in unborn life (see, for example, Psalm 139).
Synthesis: Abortion in Canonical Context
Because there are no texts that speak to abortion directly, there is no synthesis possible. “The canon is unified in silence.” A general survey of pregnancy and childbearing, however, reveals that children are a great blessing from God. Childlessness is portrayed as a terrible affliction.
Hays concludes: “It is significant that the canon – thought it does not address abortion specifically – portrays a world in which abortion would be not so much immoral as unthinkable or unintelligible.”
Hermeneutics: Responding to the New Testament’s Silence on Abortion
The Bible contains no rules or principles that speak directly to abortion. Instead, Hays suggests we place the issue within the symbolic world of the Scriptures. God is the creator and author of life, and we are stewards who bear life in trust. Abortion “presumptuously assumes authority to dispose of life that does not belong to us.”
Within the Bible’s symbolic world, Hays discovers several paradigms that help in our interpretation:
- The Good Samaritan: The point of the parable is that we are called to become neighbors to those who are helpless. Jesus’ story challenges the lawyer’s attempt to circumscribe our moral concern by defining the other as being outside our scope. “To define the unborn child as a nonperson is to narrow the scope of moral concern, whereas Jesus calls upon us to widen it by showing mercy and actively intervening on behalf of the helpless.”
- Jerusalem Community: The church should assume responsibility for taking care of the needy. “The church’s confusion on the issue of abortion is symptom of its more fundamental unfaithfulness to the economic imperatives of the gospel.” Hays quotes Hauerwas: “Abortion often is the coercive method men use to free themselves from responsibility to women.”
- Imitation of Christ: “We should act in service to welcome children, both born and unborn, even when to do so is obviously difficult and may cause serious hardship.”
Other Authorities: The Christian tradition is consistent in its opposition to abortion. Hays lists a number of arguments from reason in favor of abortion, but concludes that none of them measure up to the biblical witness. Experience is less important because the claims and counterclaims are inconclusive.
Hays concludes that the New Testament forbids the presumption that leads us to the human decision to terminate life. He opens the door for certain circumstances that may justify abortion as a tragic necessity for Christians (rape or incest). But his focus is on strengthening the church so we can share the burden and take responsibility.
Living the Text: The Church As Community of Life
- We cannot coerce moral consensus in a post-Christian culture. It is futile to seek to compel the state to enforce Christian teaching against abortion.
- The church must be a counter-community of witness. God’s people show the world another way.
- The church must embody its commitment to receiving life as a gift from God.
Some Personal Considerations: Hays is helpful in putting forth a Christian vision for welcoming life, and he is right that the symbolic world of the Bible sees abortion as unthinkable. The reality of infanticide, gendercide, and abortion on demand are signs of how far the world is from the life-affirming vision of both the Old and New Testaments.
That said, I found this chapter to be a rather weak explanation of why the church is pro-life, for two reasons. First, his statements against the idea that the Bible teaches the sacredness of human life are exaggerated. I understand his concern to keep the biblical witness from being subsumed under the Western rubric of “human rights,” but surely we can see a connection from the Christian vision of life to the preserving of human life.
Secondly, Hays appears to contradict some of his own conclusions. We are to have a strong presumption against terminating human life, he writes on one page, and then offers extenuating circumstances surrounding a human’s conception (rape and incest) as potentially justifying abortion. He says that the church must embrace the gift of life as precious, but that it is pointless to influence the state to enact protective measures for the preciousness of human life. This begs the question: If the church sees the gift of life as precious, why should it not influence the state to protect such life?
Overall, I appreciate Hays’ ecclesiologically focused solution to the abortion problem. He is right that abortion among Christians is a failure of the church not merely the individual Christian. My disappointment is that the chapter doesn’t make abortion unthinkable in the same way the Scriptures do.