Herman C. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
Last time we considered the significance of the doctrine of Scripture concerning Christ in our discussion of what is meant by person. Because Christ was like us in all things, an analogy is present between this truth and the truth concerning any child conceived in the womb of its mother.
That a child is born is a great wonder, and is surely beyond our understanding. But the fact nevertheless remains that not just simply a body is formed in the womb of its mother, but a human nature of both body and soul, and therefore a person. This is true from the very moment of conception. It is utterly inconceivable to imagine that a mere body is formed through conception, and that somewhere along the line a soul is added so that the fetus becomes a rational and moral creature, and therefore a person. When does this happen if not at conception? When does this take place if not at the moment when God forms in the womb a new human creature? That that fetus is a blob of cells for a given period of time and then, either gradually or all at once, there is united to it a soul, is incredible. It did not happen that way with the Lord, Who was, you remember, like us in all things, except our sin.
And this is a truth which is born out by the whole testimony of Scripture.
The fact that man was created by God in God’s image supports this truth. Colossians 3:10 and Ephesians 4:24 teach us that the image of God consists in true knowledge of God, righteousness, and holiness. But it is very clear that only man can be God’s image bearer. Not an oak tree, or a rose bush, or a Holstein cow, or Brittany spaniel can be an image bearer. None of these creatures can know God, be righteous before Him, and walk in holiness. The reason is that none of these creatures are rational and moral creatures, i.e., formed with a mind and will. But man is different. He possesses a soul; he has a mind and will. He can be image-bearer of God.
It is true that man lost the image through the fall of Adam and Eve into sin. But man did not lose his rationality and morality. He remains a man, though he has only small glimmerings of these original powers. For this reason, he can (and does) bear the image of Satan in his lost state. And he can, by the power of renewal worked by the Holy Spirit, be restored to the image of God in Christ.
It is a wholly arbitrary and man-invented theory to say that a fetus possesses this capability to be image bearer only at a certain point in its development, or perhaps at the moment of birth. Scripture knows nothing of all this human philosophy used to support wicked murder. A fetus is capable of being an image bearer of God from the moment of conception on. In fact, the church has always believed that, in the line of the covenant, the elect children of the covenant, even though miscarried through spontaneous miscarriages, are saved. This would be impossible unless they were also renewed according to the image of Christ. And if they are capable of bearing God’s image (or the devil’s for that matter), they are rational and moral from conception; and if rational and moral, they are persons.
There are other texts in Scripture which speak of fetuses as persons and apply activities to fetuses which can only be the activities of persons. David speaks of himself as a person when God formed him in the womb of his mother: “For thou hast possessed my reins: thou hast covered me in my mother’s womb. I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvelous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well. My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect ; and in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them” (Ps. 139:13-16). Bather offhandedly, Jones dismisses this passage as irrelevant; but the fact remains that with the constant use of the first personal pronoun, David refers to himself emphatically as a person as God formed him in a wonderful and marvelous way in his mother’s womb. God did not form a glob of cells with “potential personhood”; God did not form a mass of material which would become a person some day; God formed the Psalmist, a person, a man with mind and will, a creature marvelously and wondrously made, one whom it would have been murder to kill from the moment of conception on.
A striking passage is also found in Jeremiah 1:5 where God says to the youthful prophet, “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.” Known of God from all eternity, sanctified by God while still in the womb, Jeremiah was called to the holy office of prophet in Judah. God did not sanctify a blob of tissue with potentials for personhood; God sanctified Jeremiah, known of God eternally, qualified spiritually for his office by God’s work. Jeremiah was Jeremiah, a person, a man with body and soul, a prophet on whom God laid His hand from the time when Jeremiah was in the womb of his mother.
Something similar to this is found in the striking way in which Mary was met at the door of her cousin Elisabeth’s home in Hebron. “And it came to pass, that, when. Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost: and she spake out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For, lo, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy” (Luke 1:41-44). Jones also dismisses this in a rather cavalier fashion: “I am not inclined to follow those who argue that John the Baptist, as a fetus, was filled with the Holy Spirit, nor that John’s joy was prompted by thetwo-week-old zygote of Jesus” (p. 174). Nevertheless, the whole narrative cannot be dismissed that easily. The following elements are important: 1) Elisabeth did not know that Mary was the mother of Christ, and certainly did not know that the child Jesus had been conceived in Mary’s womb except by the leap of her baby within her. John’s leap informed Elisabeth of these facts, nothing else. 2) Elisabeth herself interpreted this leap as a leap of joy and did this under the influence of the Holy Spirit. And joy is an emotion which only a person can experience and express. John was emphatically a person. 3) This was the beginning of John’s work of announcing the coming of Christ, a work to which he was called and which began prior to his birth. He was especially called to prepare the way for Christ and announce Christ’s arrival. He did this in Elisabeth’s womb to his own mother. Only a person is capable of that.
Another striking passage is Psalm 51:5: “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.” Notice: 1) that the Psalmist speaks here of the fact that he was a person already at the moment of conception. His mother did not conceive a blob of tissue, but conceived the Psalmist. 2) Then already he was a sinner; and it ought to be evident that only a person can be a sinner. Emphatically this refers to the very moment of conception.
All the philosophies of men and all the speculation about when a potential person actually becomes a person fall by the way before the clear and unequivocal testimony of Scripture.
We readily admit that the formation of a child in the womb of its mother is a profound mystery. No medical advance of any kind is going to tear away the veil of mystery which hides the wonder of conception and birth. But let it be remembered that the Scriptures teach that, while natural processes are used, Godforms a child at the moment of conception, God formed David and Jeremiah. God gave conception, by a miracle, to Elisabeth. And only God can, at the moment of conception, so form a child that it has not only a body but a soul, not only ears and eyes, but a mind and will, not only stomach and heart, but the powers of thinking and desiring; only God can form a person.
To kill a fetus is to commit murder. Induced abortion is murder, cold-blooded murder. And nothing can ever change that.
Two points must yet be considered, points which stand related to our subject. The first is the question whether induced abortion is ever to be approved. Many pro-life people believe that abortion is permissible when a pregnancy is the result of rape or incest. Is this true? While Davis points out that such things are extremely rare, we agree with him when he writes: “As a matter of simple justice, it is the rapist who should be punished, not the innocent child conceived as a result of the rape. . . . It is true that the woman has suffered an injustice; but abortion would represent a further injustice, this time against the unborn child. ‘Two wrongs do not make a right’ ” (p. 155).
Yet, for the most part, the church of Christ through the ages has permitted abortion when a pregnancy threatens a mother’s life. With this also we agree. Of course, the case must be clear that the mother’s life would indeed be gravely endangered by a pregnancy gone to full term. And with advances in medical technology, the instances of this are relatively rare. Nevertheless, one faces a unique situation in such a case. It is not now simply a question of abortion, but a question of losing a life—either the life of the unborn child or the life of a wife and mother. And while our judgment is in such matters always imperfect, the child of God can only weigh the relative value of one life over against another; and certainly the life of a wife and mother is, at that moment, of greater importance than the life of a child. One person’s life must be sacrificed for the sake of another person’s life. This is an extremely hard position to be in, but God sometimes places His people in such positions. Something analogous to this takes place when a parent, at the loss of his own life, rescues his son from imminent death.
The second point which needs briefly to be discussed is the question of whether or not a Christian can, in good conscience before God, join modern right-to-life or pro-life movements. Opportunities are almost always present for the Christian to do this, and he faces the choice of whether he should involve himself in such activities.
It seems elementary that the Christian must certainly make his voice heard as loudly as he possibly can in protest against this great evil. This is surely part of his witness to the cause of God in the midst of a world of sin. He is remiss in his calling if he fails to do this. If he chooses to join with other Christians to sound loudly the truth of God’s Word, surely no one can ever criticize him for doing this.
Nevertheless, there are other factors which must be considered in answering the question of whether he should join one of the movements in this country dedicated to the eradication of abortion. Perhaps this can best be illustrated by a personal story. Some years ago I received a call from the National Right To Life Headquarters in Washington, D.C. to participate in the work of presenting a petition to the then president Carter in which a protest was to be lodged against the growing evil of abortion. I told the caller that I would be happy to do this, provided that the Committee gave me the right to express my opposition to abortion on Biblical grounds only, and not on the humanistic grounds which were so often used by right-to-life people. The answer was, “We will think about it and let you know.” But I never heard from them again. The point is that the Christian stands on the basis of God’s Word and on that basis only. Nothing can move him from that. There he must stand, come what may. If that is in any way compromised; he cannot participate in such movements.
Secondly, it is simply a fact that the movements to rid the country of abortion, as good as the cause may be in itself, are movements which are determined to use might and force to attain their objectives. They are interested in petitions with millions of signatures, in lobbying in the halls of state and national legislatures, in rounding up votes, in pressuring courts, in picketing abortion clinics, in the might of coercion and political power. This is contrary to Christian principles. The words of God to Zechariah the prophet echo down through history: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the Lord of hosts” (Zech. 4:6). The Christian may never resort to force or coercion to gain his ends. He may never make use of the carnal weapons of carnal warfare. He may never put his trust in “chariots and horses.” He is called only “to remember the name of the Lord his God” (Ps. 20:7. See also Ps. 33:17-20).
All this is closely connected with the notion that this present evil world can somehow be transformed into a kind of Paradise, a heaven here below. This is the fond but illusory dream of the postmillennialists. And with this dream they think it not wrong to resort to the use of carnal and earthly weapons, for their heaven is carnal and earthly. But the child of God knows: 1) that only the power of the gospel can change the wicked hearts of men; 2) that we must look to that city which hath foundations, whose Builder and Maker is God, for the full deliverance from this evil world. His weapons are the weapons of the blessed gospel of Jesus Christ. And that gospel will always save the church, though it be a remnant according to the election of grace, a hut in a garden of cucumbers, a besieged city (Is. 1:8, 9).