Abortion and the Voice of Scripture

By Blackburn, William Ross | The Human Life Review, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Abortion and the Voice of Scripture


Blackburn, William Ross, The Human Life Review


Does Scripture speak to the matter of abortion? If so, how? I want to approach the question by responding to Professor Richard Hays' essay on abortion, the final chapter of his book The Moral Vision of the New Testament.11 take this approach for two reasons. First, in his reading of Scripture, Hays arrives at a "pro-choice" position.2 While Hays speaks of abortion as a grave matter, and offers insight concerning how the Christian church might deal with crisis pregnancies without resorting to abortion, he ultimately concludes that Scripture is silent on the matter. Accordingly, Hays writes "it is perhaps inevitable that Christians will in good conscience reach different conclusions."3 The following critique of Hays' essay will seek to demonstrate that, far from being silent, Scripture speaks distinctly on behalf of unborn children and their mothers (and fathers).

The second reason for addressing Hays' work concerns his stature. Hays is an internationally recognized author and holds a chair in New Testament at Duke University. Furthermore, Moral Vision is perhaps the most widely read book on New Testament ethics in America today. The back cover displays the superlative praise of some impressive thinkers: N.T. Wright, Stanley Hauerwas, Leander Keck, William Klassen, and Ellen Charry. While a warm recommendation of a book does not necessarily entail complete agreement with all contained therein, such recommendations do, of course, affect its public reception. The fact that Christianity Today named Hays' book one of the 100 best and most enduring books of the twentieth century likewise reflects its contemporary importance.4 And, as we know, ideas have practical, not simply theoretical, consequences. Given Hays' stature and respect in the academic community and among communities of faith, his voice carries weight, and therefore must be addressed. Furthermore, I assume that Hays' makes his argument concerning Scripture as well as it can be made, which likewise commends the effort to engage him.

The following will begin by summarizing Hays' argument, and move toward an analysis of why, despite several helpful insights, Hays misses Scripture's teaching on abortion. In so doing, it will seek to demonstrate how Scripture speaks about abortion, both in condemning abortion and in offering practical instruction concerning how to counsel women in crisis pregnancy and those who have undergone abortion.

Hays' Treatment of Scripture and Abortion

Hays frames his argument through a personal experience of a Christian couple, whom he calls Bill and Jennifer-in their mid-forties, with children almost grown. Jennifer discovers she is pregnant. Having decided to carry the unexpected child to birth, the couple finds out that the child has Down's Syndrome. Hays uses this example to focus his discussion: "Can the New Testament provide any guidance on this agonizing decision?"5

Before interacting with the texts, Hays makes two comments concerning his approach. First, he locates his discussion within the Christian community. His primary concern is not to instruct the world, but to ask the question, "How shall we as people who belong to Jesus Christ live faithfully under the gospel with regard to our treatment of the issues of pregnancy, abortion, and childbearing?"6 second, Hays speaks of the church's need not to "get trapped by the way the world defines the issue" but "to frame its moral reflection within the categories offered to us by Scripture."7 In order to hear Scripture's witness, we must hear it speak in its own terms and categories.

Hays begins with a statement of the difficulty of the task, citing abortion as "a major ethical issue not addressed explicitly by any New Testament texts at all."8 He briefly surveys texts commonly used in the abortion discussion, showing why each "prooftext" has either limited or no relevance to the issue at hand.9 He finds some cursory help in the Old Testament. For Hays, Exodus 21:22-25 offers some help in understanding the status of the fetus: When a pregnant woman is injured in a fight between others, the punishment is greater in the instance of her death than it is in the instance of a miscarriage. …

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