What the Bible Doesn’t Say
Abortion-choice advocates with the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and Planned Parenthood Federation of America contend that the Bible is silent on abortion, and that none of the Scriptures traditionally cited by pro-life advocates establishes the humanity of the unborn. “One thing the Bible does not say is ‘Thou shalt not abort,’” writes Roy Bowen Ward, professor emeritus of comparative religion at Miami University of Ohio.1 His advice to pro-life Jews and Christians is simple: speak where the Bible speaks, and be silent where it is silent.
Reverend Mark Bigelow, member of Planned Parenthood’s Clergy Advisory Board, writes, “Even as a minister I am careful what I presume Jesus would do if he were alive today, but one thing I know from the Bible is that Jesus was not against women having a choice in continuing a pregnancy. He never said a word about abortion (nor did anyone else in the Bible) even though abortion was available and in use in his time.”2
Paul D. Simmons, former professor of Christian ethics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, finds the Bible’s silence on abortion “profound,” and he remarks that not once does the subject appear in the apostle Paul’s lists of prohibited actions.3 We can sum up the thinking of all three men this way: If the Bible doesn’t explicitly condemn abortion, pro-life advocates shouldn’t either. We should trust each woman to decide the issue according to her own personal faith.
Suppose we grant that Ward, Bigelow, and Simmons are correct: Scripture is silent on abortion. Let’s further suppose that none of the specific passages cited by pro-life advocates (Ps. 51:5, Ps. 139:13–15, and Luke 1:41–44, to name a few) demonstrates conclusively that the unborn are human. What follows? Are we to conclude from the alleged silence of Scripture that women have a God-given right to abort?
Does Silence Equal Permission?
Abortion advocates are correct that the Bible does not specifically mention abortion. But what’s the best explanation for its silence?
The hidden and undefended premise in the argument advanced by Ward, Bigelow, and Simmons is that whatever the Bible doesn’t condemn, it condones. It’s easy to see why this premise is flawed. The Bible does not expressly condemn many things, including racial discrimination against Black people, killing abortion doctors for fun, and lynching homosexuals—yet few people would proclaim any of these acts to be morally justified. To the contrary, we know they’re wrong by inference. For example, Scripture tells us it’s wrong to treat human beings unjustly. Lynching homosexuals treats human beings unjustly. Therefore, we know that Scripture condemns this activity even though the topic of lynching is never addressed.
What’s the Real Issue?
In the nineteenth century, racists argued from the alleged silence of Scripture that Black people were not human. Some went so far as to deny that Black people had souls.4 Again, this was hardly persuasive. While Scripture does not mention each specific race and nationality, it does teach that all humans have value because they bear the image of their Creator and were made to have fellowship with him (Gen.1:26; Gal.3:28; Col. 3:10–11; James 3:9). Thus, we are never to take human life without justification (Ex. 23:7). The inference from these biblical truths is clear: if Black people are human beings, they’re made in God’s image, and we should not treat them unjustly. No further proof from Scripture is necessary.
The same is true with the unborn. If embryos and fetuses are human beings, commands that forbid the unjust taking of human life apply to them just as much as to other humans. Appealing to the Bible’s alleged silence on abortion misses the point entirely.
When abortion advocates argue their case from the silence of Scripture, I simply ask, “Are you saying that whenever the Bible does not specifically condemn something, it condones it?” When they say no (and they must), I reply, “Then what is your point?”5
A Better Explanation
There are good reasons to suppose that the alleged silence of Scripture does not mean that the biblical writers condoned abortion, but that prohibitions against it were largely unnecessary. We should remember that the Bible as a whole is not a comprehensive code of ethics but the story of God’s redemption of his people. The biblical writers, under guidance from the Holy Spirit, selectively discuss subjects relevant to their intended audiences while leaving many other topics unstated. The bottom line: if the Hebrews of the Old Testament and the Christians of the New were not inclined to abort their unborn offspring, there’s little reason for Scripture to address the matter. Looked at objectively, the biblical and cultural evidence suggests they were not inclined to consider abortion, even though it was practiced in surrounding cultures.
Turning first to the Hebrew worldview of the Old Testament, we discover the following:
Humans have intrinsic value in virtue of the kind of thing they are—creatures made in the image of God. Hence, the shedding of innocent blood is strictly forbidden (Gen. 1:26; 9:6, Ex. 23:7; Prov. 6:16–17).
Children were seldom seen as unwanted or as a nuisance (unless they turn wicked) but as gifts from God, the highest possible blessing (Gen.17:6; 33:5; Pss. 113:9; Ps. 127:3–5).
Immortality was expressed through one’s descendants. God promises Abraham to make of him a great nation, and that promise is passed on to Isaac, Jacob, and so on. “Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, / the fruit of the womb a reward,” writes the psalmist (127:3; see also Gen. 48:16). Indeed, the very hope of the nation was tied to the belief that the seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob would multiply and flourish. Biblical scholar N. T. Wright says,
To perpetuate not only the nation but one’s own individual family line was thus a sacred responsibility, requiring special customs and laws to safeguard it. Continuance of the family line was not simply a matter of keeping a family name alive. It was part of the way in which God’s promises, for Israel and perhaps even the whole world, would be fulfilled.6
- It therefore comes as no surprise that sterility and barrenness were a curse, a source of great shame and sorrow. Hence, Peninnah’s harsh ridicule of Hannah, the prophet Samuel’s mother, because of Hannah’s initial barrenness (1 Sam. 1:6; see also Gen. 20:17–18; Gen. 30:1, 22–23). Likewise, to see one’s own offspring suffer premature death was perhaps the greatest parental disaster imaginable.
Appealing to the Bible’s alleged silence on abortion misses the point entirely.
Germain Grisez sums things up nicely: among a Hebrew people who saw children as a gift and barrenness as a curse, it was virtually unthinkable that any woman from that culture would desire an abortion.7 Hence, the Old Testament’s silence on abortion suggests that prohibitions against it were largely unnecessary, not that the practice was tacitly approved.
Ward disputes this conclusion, noting that it was common for authors of both Testaments to condemn the practices of neighboring nations, “such as idol worship, sacred prostitution, and the like, yet they did not choose to condemn abortion.” And abortion was a common practice in those surrounding cultures.8
Ward’s rejoinder, however, is not persuasive. Unlike abortion, idolatrous practices were not restricted to foreign cultures but were pervasive among God’s own people. It’s odd that Ward overlooks this. Indeed, Israel and Judah were taken captive on numerous occasions precisely because of their persistent idolatry (Ps. 106:35–43; Jer. 1:16; 2:23; Ezek. 6:1–10). So it’s no surprise that the biblical writers mention this sin.
Moreover, the Bible also doesn’t mention female infanticide, one of the most heinous practices of the surrounding ancient world. Does it follow that female infanticide is morally justified? Again, the question is not whether abortion was practiced in the ancient world by neighboring cultures (it was), but whether it was practiced by the people whom the biblical authors specifically address—in this case the Hebrew culture of that day.
In short, Ward fails to interpret the Old Testament within its own intellectual and cultural framework. His contention that the absence of a direct prohibition meant that women have a God-given right to kill their offspring would be utterly foreign to ancient Hebrew culture.
Why Is the New Testament Silent?
Michael Gorman writes that the first Christians, including all but one of the New Testament authors, were Jewish Christians with an essentially Jewish morality.9 So if a Jewish consensus against abortion existed at the time, the early Christians most certainly would have shared that consensus. As Gorman points out, early Judaism was in fact quite firmly opposed to abortion. Jewish documents from the period condemn the practice unequivocally, demonstrating a clear anti-abortion consensus among first-century Jews:10
The Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides (written between 50 BC and AD 50): “A woman should not destroy the unborn babe in her belly, nor after its birth throw it before the dogs and vultures.”
The Sibylline Oracles includes among the wicked those who “produce abortions and unlawfully cast their offspring away.” Also condemned are sorcerers who dispense abortifacients.
First Enoch (first or second century BC) says that an evil angel taught humans how to “smash the embryo in the womb.
Josephus (first-century Jewish historian) wrote, “The law orders all the offspring be brought up, and forbids women either to cause abortion or to make away with the fetus.” A woman who did so was considered to have committed infanticide because she destroyed a “soul,” and hence diminished the race.
These texts, writes Gorman, “bear witness to the general Jewish and Jewish-Christian attitude of the first and second centuries, thus confirming that the earliest Christians shared the anti-abortion position of their Jewish forebears.”11
Finally, we should remember that theology of the New Testament is primarily task theology written to address specific issues in specific churches. For example, Paul is largely silent on the historical career of Christ (with one notable exception, in 1 Cor. 15), but this doesn’t mean he questioned the facts of Jesus’s earthly ministry. Rather, a discussion of those facts never became necessary. To cite New Testament scholar George Eldon Ladd, “We may say that we owe whatever understanding we have of Paul’s thought to the ‘accidents of history’ which required him to deal with various problems, doctrinal and practical, in the life of the churches.”12
The best explanation, then, for the New Testament’s silence on abortion is not that its authors condoned the practice but that a discussion of the issue was unnecessary. As Gorman points out, there was no deviation from the norm inherited from Judaism. Unlike the surrounding pagan cultures, the early Christians to whom the New Testament was written were simply not tempted to kill their children before or after birth.
The exegetical and philosophical considerations we’ve examined show that the theological case for elective abortion is seriously flawed. Nothing in the Hebrew culture of the Old Testament supports the practice. And given the consensus against abortion by early Jewish Christians, there is no reason to suppose that the New Testament authors approved of it either.
- Roy Bowen Ward, “Is the Fetus a Person?,” Mission Journal (January 1986).
- Mark Bigelow, letter to Bill O’Reilly of Fox News, November 22 2002, cited in Jeff Johnson, “Christ Was Pro-Abortion?,” CNS News, December 4, 2002.
- Paul D. Simmons, “Personhood, the Bible, and the Abortion Debate,” The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, http://library.mibckerala.org/lms_frame/eBook/Personhood%20and %20the%20abortion.pdf.
- Josiah Priest, Bible Defense of Slavery: Origin, Fortunes and History of the Negro Race, 5th ed. (Glasgow, KY: W. S. Brown, 1852), 33.
- I’m indebted to Gregory Koukl for this excellent question. See his “Tactics in Defending the Faith” series at Stand to Reason, www.str.org
- N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 99–100.
- Germain Grisez, Abortion: The Myths, the Realities, and the Arguments (New York: Corpus Books, 1970), 123–27.
- Ward, “Is the Fetus a Person?”
- Michael Gorman, “Why Is the New Testament Silent about Abortion?,” Christianity Today, January 11, 1993.
- The following sources are cited in Gorman, “Why Is the New Testament Silent?”
- Gorman, “Why Is the New Testament Silent?”
- George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 377–78.
This article is adapted from The Case for Life: Equipping Christians to Engage the Culture by Scott Klusendorf.
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