Archive for the ‘Bible’ Category
Stephen Hawking’s new book A Grand Design allegedly debunking God (I haven’t read it, but I bet the evidence against God is scanty) has re-energized debates among Christians and non-believers about the relationship between faith and science, between scripture and evidence. In the wake of people like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and other notable evangelical atheists who want to convert Christians to science, Christians are in danger of forcing the choice between two extreme options–rejection of the truth of scripture in favor of science, or rejection of science in favor of a literal reading of scripture. Yet, Christian tradition provides us with a middle ground which allows us to see the Bible as the true word of God without interpreting every word in a strict, literal manner.
We are accustomed to thinking that the debate about the creation account in Genesis being a relatively modern debate between young earth creationists and those who accept evolution. In actuality, the early church was also perplexed as to how they were supposed to interpret the story recounting how God created in six days. The Antiochian school, to which John Chrysostom belonged, argued that the story should be interpreted literally as meaning that God actually created in six days. The Alexandrian school, characterized by figures like Origen and Jerome, argued that this story was an allegory, not a historical account of what happened. The Alexandrian school would eventually become the dominant model for scriptural interpretation in the Christian tradition, and St. Augustine would eventually write a treatise on the allegorical meaning of Genesis.
By the middle ages, it was well accepted that Christians should not stop at a literal account of scripture, but should probe for a deeper spiritual meaning. The study of scripture in the first university’s was guided by the quadriga, the four-fold sense of Scripture (See Aquinas’ Summa Ia, Q.1, art. 10). According to the quadriga (which is simply the Latin expression for a carriage drawn by four horses), scripture can be divided into two general senses: (1) the literal or historical which aims at getting at what is actually being said, and (2) the spiritual sense which aims at getting at how God is speaking in the text. The spiritual sense is divided into three more specific senses:
1. allegorical: the most important spiritual sense which examines how the passage in question points to or symbolizes Christ
2: moral or tropological: the way in which the scripture is providing guidance for Christian living
3. anagogical: the way in which the passage is pointing to the eschaton or the way in which the passage shed light on eternal life.
We can apply the quadriga to Genesis 22, recounting the disturbing story of Abraham’s almost-sacrifice of Isaac. According to the quradriga-method, we would want to start at the literal meaning of the story, that is, what is plainly being described. The literal meaning of the story is that Abraham hears the voice of God commanding him to sacrifice the son he loves, and he obeys. God, in God’s mercy, sends and angel to stop Abraham the moment before he draws Isaac’s blood. A ram in the thicket provides the flesh for sacrifice instead.
Although the literal meaning of the story is important, according to the quadriga, it would be dangerous to stop at the literal meaning. Rather, the spiritual sense of the passage must be pursued if the full truth of its meaning is to be discovered. Thus, we must ask what the allegorical, moral, and anagogical senses of the passage might be.
Allegorically, we might say that Isaac represents Christ, and Abraham represents God who sacrificed his only son. We might go even deeper and say that both Isaac and the ram represent Christ, the latter representing the man Jesus who actually was sacrificed and shed his blood on the cross, and Isaac representing the risen Christ who did not die. As Origen notes in his commentary on Genesis and Exodus, the allegorical lesson is that “Abraham offered to God his mortal so, who did not die, and God gave up his immortal Son who died for all of us.”
Morally, we might say that this passage teaches Christians to trust in God’s mercy,and to offer our lives up as a living sacrifice to God, in faith and hope that God will bring us to fullness of life. Anagogically, we might say that the passage points to the beatific vision where we will gaze at the “Lamb who was slain,” at Revelation 13:8 relates.
The important point is that the truth of this passage cannot be reached by stopping at the literal meaning. We might say the same about the creation story. If we stop at the literal meaning that God created in six days, we are doing an injustice to the truth of the text. We must delve deeper to understand the spiritual truth underneath the text. Perhaps we might say that the words God speaks in creating (“Let there be . . . “) allegorically represent the Word which was made flesh (John 1). We might say the six days allegorically represent salvation history in which God worked over time to call a people to Godself, ultimately culminating in the creation of the Man who is the epitome of creation, all of which is subject to Him. We might say that the moral or tropological meaning of the six-day creation account is that God, in Christ, has subjected all things under us, and that we are to thus govern creation accordingly. Anagogically, we might say that this passage points to the rest that we too will share in “on the seventh day” when we join God the Creator in eternal life.
In John 4:24, Jesus says, “God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and truth.” It is odd that Christians have thought they must stop at the literal meaning of the text in order to remain faithful to scripture. God is spirit, so surely God has placed a spiritual meaning in the “flesh” of the words. If we recover the quadriga, we find that the scientific “evidence” of people like Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Hawkings is no more a threat to our belief in the truth of Scripture than their arguments against God are a threat to our faith.
I just got finished reading Wayne Meeks’ The Moral World of the First Christians. The “moral world” which Meeks analyzes here is more of the “social world” of the early Christians, that is, the cultural context which helped shape their worldview and moral judgments. This social world was a complex one, rooted partially in Hebrew culture and religion, and partially in Hellenistic culture and religion.
Meeks is not concerned here with a careful delineation of the specific moral judgments of the early Christians. There is no mention of what members of the infant church thought of homosexuality, of abortion, of divorce. Rather, Meeks has something much more comprehensive in mind than figuring out what Christians thought of particular issues—he wants to figure out the worldview which framed any particular moral decision. In other words, he wants to know how the first Christians engaged in moral reasoning, not what their specific conclusions were. This is what he calls “looking at ethics from the bottom up,”
[According to ethic from the bottom up] it is a perfectly proper form of ethical directive to say, for example to a child, “We do not do that.” Probably the response from the child, and perhaps also from the professional ethicist, will be, “Why not?” Very often that is an important question to ask, but there are other occasions when it may be more productive to ask a different question: Who are “we”? The question “Why?” calls for an explanation; “Who?” invites understanding. . . . Most, perhaps all, of the writings that now make up the New Testament, and a great many of the other earliest Christian writings as well, had as their primary aim the shaping of the life of Christian communities. Arguments and rules, of course, had their place in those writings, but we fail to understand the force of the arguments and rules if we take them out of the contexts in which they stand. A much more comprehensive process was going on, by which participants in the new movement we call Christianity were discovering a new identity–learning to think of themselves as”the churches of God,” “the holy ones,””children of God,” “slaves of Christ,””brothers and sisters,” “those for whom Christ died,” and so on. “Practice” or custom” was not something added to that process of developing identity, but an integral part of it. The writers repeatedly urge all the Christians to “exhort,” “admonish,” and”encourage” on another. The aim of such moral conversation is, as Paul puts it in another place, “that you should behave in a manner worthy of the God who calls you”(1 Thess. 2:12) (11)
Hauerwas fans will find much to be lauded in this description of ethics, and Meeks explicitly mentions Hauerwas’ term “communities of character” as particularly apt for describing what he is trying to describe as “‘character’ suggest the essential dialectic between community and self. Groups as well as individuals have character. Character signifies identity, and it implies specifically moral identity. Character takes shape, moreover, within a social process.” (11)
So who was this early Christian community? Meeks places heavy emphasis on the prominence of the Hebrew influence. In his chapter on Israel, Meeks surveys later wisdom literature (Sirach), Qumran, Philo, and the Rabbinic tradition as providing much of the basis of the symbolic world that the first Christians occupied, with a special emphasis on the themes of purity, Torah, and a moral interpretation of history (i.e. God’s intimate involvement in the trajectory of history). The early Christians drew explicitly from the Hebrew Scriptures in a way that they did not with other literature of their social world (e.g. Homer or Plato).
However, Greece and Rome also provided much of the substance of the early Christians’ moral world, particularly the philosophical traditions of Stoicism, Epicureanism, Cynicism, and Platonism. It is from the Romans and Greeks that the first Christians learned to think of the polis, of the virtues, of ways of conceptualizing pleasure, of the legal process. Even for Christians who did not study the legal, literary, and philosophical traditions of Greece and Rome, their was a top-down transmission of the ideas of the academic elite to the masses.
In chapter 4, after surveying the great traditions of Greece, Rome, and Israel, Meeks compares the social forms of the early Christian communities with those of the surrounding cultures, first by comparing the early Christian communities to messianic Jewish sects, and second with household associations in the polis. In chapter 5, he turns to the “grammar of early Christian morals,” examining both canonical (1 Thess. and 1 Corinithians) and non-canonical sources (The Didache, Iraneus) in order to discern the “grammar of their sensibilities and their behavior, which of course includes the force of ideas” (125). The goal of this chapter is to show how the first Christians were “re-socialized” into a new distinctively Christian symbolic world.
What does this volume teach us? It teaches us that the ethics of the first Christians was not a deductive process of applying certain principles, rules, and norms to concrete issues. Rather, the ethics of the first Christians was an inductive process of first figuring out who they were, and then discerning what behavior was appropriate to that sort of identity. The parallels with contemporary virtue ethics should not go unnoticed, and MacIntyre’s useful summary of virtue ethics as asking three questions (Who am I? Who do I want to become? How do I get there?) definitely seems operative in Meeks’ understanding of ethics.
What is useful about such an approach for our contemporary world is that it allows us to see Christian ethics not as something fixed and unchanging, but rather a dynamic process of identity influencing behavior. Thus, to figure out what the “Christian” way to behave in our world today, Meeks would not advocate turning to the Scriptures for specific rules of conduct to apply:
We cannot every fully know the world of the early Christians; still less can we re-create it. to be sure, those movements in the history of Christendom which have sought to restore the church to its “primitive” purity, from the Montanists to the Campbellites, have released powerful currents of change. Yet what they in fact brought about was inevitably something unlike the past. there is no time machine. We must live in our own world, which is irreversibly different from the of the first Christians (162).
Moral concepts like “duty,” “virtue,” “sin,” and “purity,” had very different meanings for the first Christians than for Christians today because they occupied very different symbolic worlds than we do. We Christians today have formed our own synthesis from the influence of the various symbolic worlds we occupy (post-Enlightenment rationalism, humanism, scientific empericism). Thus, we must live with the messy understanding that what we deem sound Christian moral judgments regarding sexuality, political involvement, the economy, and the environment are largely syntheses of the moral worlds around us, influenced of course by the literary and living tradition of the Christian church. We must be willing to accept change, not because there is something inadequate about an earlier form of Christian ethics, but because that earlier form is not our own and can never be recovered. As Meeks concludes,
In the first generations of Christians, we see many people who have a kind of double vision. Two different kinds of symbolized universe overlap in their minds and in their social experience. . . . Somehow, they had to live in both, and it was not easy to find a way to do that. There were many disagreements, many alternative ways, some of which failed. From them everyone who craves a vision of a juster, kinder world, everyone caugt not merely between what is and what ought to be, but between conflicting certainties, disparate but impinging maps of what is, all may have something to learn” (162).
A couple of weeks ago, my husband gave a sermon on the end of the Book of Job. Briefly, Job is a righteous man who is rewarded in life with a big family, a fine home, lots of property and animals, and excellent health. When God brags about his servant Job’s righteousness to Satan, Satan challenges God saying that if Job did not have so many blessings, he would surely not be so righteous. Take away his blessings, challenges Satan, and God will discover that Job will curse his name.
So God accepts the challenge. Job eventually loses his wealth and possessions, his children, and even his health. Destitute and covered with boils, Job still does not curse God. He does, however, demand an explanation of God. Confident in his innocence, Job wants to know what reason God could have for sending such misfortune on him.
So God answers Job:
Then the LORD addressed Job out of the storm and said:
Who is this that obscures divine plans with words of ignorance?
Gird up your loins now, like a man; I will question you, and you tell me the answers! Where were you when I founded the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its size; do you know? Who stretched out the measuring line for it?
Into what were its pedestals sunk, and who laid the cornerstone,
While the morning stars sang in chorus and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
And who shut within doors the sea, when it burst forth from the womb;
When I made the clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling bands?
When I set limits for it and fastened the bar of its door,
And said: Thus far shall you come but no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stilled!
Have you ever in your lifetime commanded the morning and shown the dawn its place For taking hold of the ends of the earth, till the wicked are shaken from its surface?
God basically answers that He is sovereign, that He created the world, and that Job, as a mutable creature, has no right to question the wisdom of God. So Job repents in dust and ashes.
The book of Job is often used to talk about one of the major problems in modern theology which is the problem of the existence of evil and suffering in a world in light of the belief that God is both all-good and all-powerful. This is sometimes known as “theodicy” or as Harold Kushner posed the question in his very famous book on the subject, “Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?” In light of the conversations that my husband and I have been having since his sermon, I am going to do a series of blog posts on some of the issues raised by the modern theodicy question.
The reason I say that the theodicy question is a major problem for modern theology is that historically in Christian theology, the problem of evil does not really bring into question the goodness or omnipotence of God. Thomas Aquinas is actually not all that concerned with this question. In fact, he wrote an entire commentary on the Book of Job, which would seem like the perfect place to talk about theodicy. But even in discussing Job, the theodicy problem is not a central concern.
What is a central concern for Aquinas in his commentary on Job is the question of providence, which will be the subject of this post. By providence, I mean that God is in control of things, directing worldly events to their rightful conclusion.
The primary view that Aquinas wants to reject in his commentary on Job is that of fatalism or determinism. By fatalism, I mean the idea that God is somehow not personally involved in the lives of people, that people are subject to the vicissitudes of nature in a way that God is somehow indifferent to. This is the deist argument that God has taken a “hands-off” stance after the creation of the world.
In opposition to a fatalistic viewpoint, Aquinas explains that the way God’s providence works is through a hierarchy of causes. God who is the universal cause of all creation, ordained that the universe would be governed by a series of inferior or secondary causes. One simple example of this is that God made a universe in which small objects would be attracted to larger ones, which we call the force of gravity. By allowing such inferior causes to operate, God made a universe in which He does not have to be the direct cause of every stone falling to the ground.
In this way, Aquinas explains how God created a world which is infused with dignity because God has imparted causality, which God is ultimately responsible for, on creation. Thus, even though it is not necessary (that is, God could have ordained a universe in which gravity did not exist), we can know the outcome of certain contingent events like stones falling. We do not have to wonder about God’s will every time a stone falls to the ground, even if it strikes us on the head when it does. God has given us a secondary cause—the force of gravity—that is directly responsible for each stone’s earthly plummet.
So Aquinas strikes a balance between fatalism (or determinism) that says that God is in control of everything, and Divine indifference that says that God is hands off in dealing with the world. More importantly for the question of evil, Aquinas finds a way of maintaining God’s omnipotence (the idea that he is all powerful) without it therefore inevitable that God is responsible for evil.
Harold Kushner in his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People comes up with a similar conclusion to Aquinas that differs in one major way. Kushner claims that God cannot stop contingent events from happening. He has created a universe in which he is powerless to stop things like hurricanes or natural illnesses, and that this is actually a good thing. If God let himself control every little thing that happened on earth, then He would have an obligation to reach out and save good people from horrible deaths, and innocent people from suffering. Kushner writes:
Would this be a better world if certain people were immune to laws of nature because God favored them while the rest of us had to fend for ourselves? A world in which good people suffer from the same natural dangers that others do causes problems. But a world in which good people were immune to those laws would cause even more problems. (59)
Kushner’s interpretation of God’s hands-off attitude saving seemingly righteous people like Job has its appeal, but I think it is wrong to conclude that God must be powerless to stop contingent events. According to Aquinas, God’s universe in which God ordained not to be the direct cause of contingent events is indeed better, but this in no way detracts from his omnipotence. God could indeed have created a perfect world in which he was in control of everything and there was no secondary causation, no contingency, and hence, no suffering. Aquinas says that it was in God’s wisdom to ordain not to be responsible for all contingent events, and even in God’s wisdom to allow that there be defects in certain secondary causes (e.g. that the movement of the earth’s plates might result in a city being destroyed). God allows defects in secondary causes to exist because this contributes to the greater good of the whole:
Hence, corruption and defects in natural things are said to be contrary to some particular nature; yet they are in keeping with the plan of universal nature; inasmuch as the defect in one thing yields to the good of another, or even to the universal good: for the corruption of one is the generation of another, and through this it is that a species is kept in existence. Since God, then, provides universally for all being, it belongs to His providence to permit certain defects in particular effects, that the perfect good of the universe may not be hindered, for if all evil were prevented, much good would be absent from the universe. A lion would cease to live, if there were no slaying of animals (I, Q. 22, art. 2).
Human beings, as part of nature, are subject to these contingent events. Human beings get sick, they fall victim to disasters, they get rich and they get poor. Human beings get in the way of all these secondary causes that God has established like the movements of the stars, the change of the tides, and the replication of viruses.
But for Aquinas, this is not the end of the lesson on providence that the book of Job offers. Remember, Job questions God, and what does God do? He answers Job. From this, Aquinas draws two important conclusions about Divine Providence:
(1) God is a personal God
(2) God’s grace is utterly gratuitous
God does not leave Job alone in his time of need. He answers Job’s questions in his time of need. He provides him with grace to endure his trial. He does not make Job immune to the contingent events of nature, but he does help him deal with these contingencies. In the Christian tradition, this Divine Assistance is known as grace.
Furthermore, God’s answer to Job indicates that Job does not deserve this help. Job is in no position to demand anything from God. The chasm between him as a creature and the creator who created him out of nothing is too great. God’s answer to Job is a gift, just as Job’s life and every other good thing that he has is a gift. Job is in no position to demand from God anything; he is only in a position to ask and to accept.
This aligns well with what Kushner concludes regarding God’s involvement in the effect of evil on human beings. We writes, “God stands for justice, for fairness, for compassion. For me, the earthquake is not an “act of God.” The act of God is the courage of people to rebuild their lives after the earthquake, and the rush of others to help them in whatever way they can” (60).
Aquinas would quibble with Kushner slightly. The earthquake is indeed an “act of God,” but it is a contingent act of God, caused not directly by God but by God’s ordained secondary causes that move the earth’s plates. God is not the direct cause of the earthquake; he ordained the universe so that inferior causes (some of which we are aware of, others that we are not) would cause earthquakes. Ultimately, God made a universe in which earthquakes exist, but God did not cause an earthquake at a specific time and a specific place to punish or to reward the human beings that might fall victim to it. The earthquake, in other words, is not necessary.
But Kushner is right that the courage and strength that comes from the response to the earthquake is an act of God, that this is God gratuitously and personally involving His very self in the lives of His creatures. And this, says Aquinas, is the lesson of Job.
Human life is a fragile thing. The goodness of human life is dependent on (or threatened by) external circumstances such as wealth, health, beauty, talent, and simple luck. Since antiquity, people have pondered how to factor in the seeming necessity of external contingents into an ethical account of the “good life.” The Stoics were notorious for their conclusion that external contingents like health, wealth, friends, and family were not relevant factors in the formula for a good life. For the Stoics, all that mattered was virtue. If you were a virtuous person–that is, a courageous, temperate, just, and prudent person–you could lose your home, your friends and family, all your possessions, and even your health and still, if you kept your virtue, you would still be happy.
Although most of us probably feel that the Stoic response is somehow not really human, we can be sympathetic to what this school of philosophy was trying to achieve. Bad things happen to good people. Even in antiquity, this was a truism. In light of this, the task of ethics is to keep good people from turning into bad ones when disaster hits. The Stoics concluded that detachment from the need for external goods was the only way to stay good in a world full of badness. “Love only virtue,” was the Stoics’ rallying cry. If you loved only virtue, you could lose a child and remain unfazed. If you loved only virtue, you could get a cancer diagnosis and not be troubled. In the face of any adversity, you stayed stoic, and most importantly, virtuous.
The alternative to the Stoic conception of happiness and morality in light of the fragility of external goods is Aristotle’s way. Aristotle said that we need more than just a virtuous character to be happy. As humans, we need food and shelter, we need a certain degree of wealth and life success, we need good health, and we need relationships. No amount of virtue will create a happy life if we are missing any of these things.
The Stoic tendency shows up a lot in history, Christianity included. Christian morality is often caricatured as teaching the saints live an austere life, indifference to grief, joy, pleasure, or pain. I want to argue, however, that the Christian conception of happiness is much closer to the Aristotelian notion than the Stoic, namely, that we need certain external goods to be happy.
Enter Job. Job is a righteous man, and blessed by God. He has a big family, robust health, a huge estate with lots of animals, and quite a bit of wealth. Not only is he a happy guy, he’s virtuous as well.
But then he gets tested. He loses his animals, his children die, his home is destroyed, and eventually, even his health goes. Poor Job is sitting on the ash heap covered with boils and sores, and he is miserable. Not only is he miserable, but he wants answers from this alleged “good” God that has allowed him to suffer so.
And God gives an answer:
Then the LORD addressed Job out of the storm and said: Who is this that obscures divine plans with words of ignorance? Gird up your loins now, like a man; I will question you, and you tell me the answers! Where were you when I founded the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its size; do you know? Who stretched out the measuring line for it? Into what were its pedestals sunk, and who laid the cornerstone, while the morning stars sang in chorus and all the sons of God shouted for joy? (Job 38:1-7)
I heard my husband preach on this text this weekend, and he brought Job into dialogue with Paul in 2 Corinthians 6 who is not, unlike Job, complaining about his suffering, but actually boasting and rejoicing in it. My husband pointed out that there is a major difference between Job and Paul when they confront the contingency of external goods, and the terror that comes with losing them. The difference is that Job has something to lose, but Paul, as well as the other apostles, have already given everything up. They have left their homes and their families, and given up any hope of being rich. With nothing to lose, suffering does not present the same sort of problem for the disciples of Christ as it does for Job.
The moral lesson of the story, according to this sermon, was to be preemptive when it comes to losing the external goods that cause so much suffering by giving up these goods voluntarily. If you don’t want to be afraid of losing your money, give most of it away. If you don’t want to suffer badly when you lose your job, don’t get to attached to it.
That sounds nice in theory, but Paul’s boasting in his suffering and the disciples’ total renunciation of worldly goods is not the way most Christians live. And it sounds a little too Stoic for my taste. Plus, it is fine to talk about the renunciation of external goods like property and wealth, but what about external goods like relationships and health? Surely Christians are meant to have at least some attachment to these external goods. So how are Christians to make sense of external goods that the world offers, and which sometimes are cruelly taken away?
Thomas Aquinas is Aristotelian in his approach to the question of external goods. This means that he is not going to recommend detachment from externals, like the Stoics or some Christian interpretations of the command to “hate the world.” Instead of detachment, Aquinas recommends “ordered love.” External goods can be loved, but they have to be loved in the right way. This means that goods like a nice home, a reliable car, a big family, and a sound bill of health are all goods that we can and even should desire. We just may not desire these goods as ends in themselves. Ordered love prefers always the greatest good, which is God, to all other lesser goods.
We pervert the proper order of love when we either love lesser things inordinately, like loving someone loving their car so much that they go bankrupt in taking care of it, or we pervert the proper order of love when we don’t love greater goods enough. The greatest good being God, all other goods should be subordinated to Him. This means that it is disordered to love your friends so much that you skip worship to spend time with them. It is disordered to love our health so much you spend all of your money on gym memberships and supplements and health food, to the neglect of other financial pursuits like charity and tithing.
But what is important to note about this idea of ordered love is that according to Aquinas, Christians can still love the goods of this world, and be attached to them, and mourn them when they are lost. It is good and proper to mourn for a lost loved one, and it is appropriate to worry about losing your home and possessions during tight economic times. Aquinas recognizes that we need these things to be happy, that is, to lead full and flourishing human lives. Aquinas’ way is not a way of detachment, but rather of proper attachment. Aquinas recognizes that becoming a Christian disciple does not necessarily prevent you from becoming Job yourself, sitting on top of an ash heap and mourning the fact that you’ve lost everything against your will.
Life on this earth is full of contingents. Sometimes things work well for us. Sometimes, we get to marry the person of our dreams, land a dream apartment in a cool city, get a job that is not only a career but a vocation, and surround ourselves with friends and family that love and care for us. At other times, we may have to deal with the mess of losing our job, or having a spouse lose their job. We may have to face a debilitating illness or watch a loved one succumb to a terminal disease. We may lose our home to the force of nature, become victims of violence, or find that the love we once thought was strong has grown dim or even disappeared. A good ethical response to the fragility of life on this earth is not detachment from external goods, but rather, fostering the sort of attachment that allows you to desire and love and mourn properly, without losing your desire and love for the greatest good—the God who is the source of all good things.
We have already addressed how God is the sovereign Lord of life and death. We have also addressed how human beings are fearfully and wonderfully made, and that the human condition is characterized by the same frail, mysterious vulnerability of the pre-born in the womb. In light of both of these realizations, we have seen that the proper Christian response should be one of awe and humility. Reflecting on both God and our own human condition should always turn our eyes upward.
What gives us the power to turn our eyes upward to the merciful heavenly Father is Jesus Christ, who reveals to us the Father, and reveals to us the salvation from this human condition that the Father has provided for us, and who pours out his Spirit on us so that we have strength for the journey. John Calvin writes,
Since we have fallen from life into death, the whole knowledge of God the Creator that we have discussed would be useless unless faith also followed, setting forth for us God our Father in Christ. The natural order was that the frame of the universe should be the school in which we were to learn piety, and from it pass over to eternal life and perfect felicity. . . [But after man’s rebellion] even if God wills to manifest his fatherly favor to us in many ways, we cannot by contemplating the universe infer that he is Father. . . As all our senses have become perverted, we wickedly defraud God of his Glory. We must, for this reason come to Paul’s statement: ‘Since in the wisdom of God the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of preaching to save those who believe’” (II, vi.1).
What Calvin is saying here is if we were to only reflect on God and the human condition, we would either despair that we are separated from God, or try and become God’s ourselves. Only the “foolishness” of Jesus, the God-man, reveals to us what it truly means to be both God and human.
This is why we turn to Christ, to attempt to construct a Christological understanding of abortion to complement the numerous arguments that already exist. It is because we cannot know God’s will apart from Christ. Moreover, we cannot fully know what it means to be human apart from Christ. Science and philosophy may lead us to some understanding, and reflecting on the magnificent achievements of mankind in history may lead us to some awareness of our creation in the image of divinity, but apart from Jesus Christ, we cannot know who we humans truly are and what we have been called to be. As Paul says, we are not to be “conformed to this world, but transformed by the renewing of our minds, to discern what is the will of God–what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Scripture makes it clear that the life of Jesus Christ begins in the womb: The angel Gabriel tells Mary, “Behold, you shall conceive in you womb and bear a son.” When Mary goes to visit Elizabeth, the infant [John] leaps in her womb, and Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit, crying out to Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” The sovereign God, who the Psalmist declares to have knit him together in his mother’s womb, saw it fit to take human flesh, not initially in the form of a man, but first, in the dark and formless void of the womb.
The mistake that we make as Christians is that we try and compare Christ’s humanity with whatever definition of humanity we have created through human means. A Christological argument does not say, “life begins at conception, therefore Jesus’ life as a human must have begun at conception.” A Christological argument starts rather with Christ himself. The life of Christ shows us that God does not conform Himself to our human definitions and our human expectations in that Jesus was conceived in the womb of a virgin. The virginity of Mary is important, not because sex is bad, but because it reveals to us that human beings do not know through science or philosophy or any other human discipline how God works. Science cannot make sense of the incarnation, and likewise, science cannot ever fully reveal to us the meaning of our humanity. Calvin, again, puts it nicely:
As philosophers have fixed limits of the right and the honorable, hence they derive individual duties and the whole company of virtues, so Scripture is not without its own order in this matter, but holds to a most beautiful dispensation, and one much more certain than all the philosophical ones. The only difference is that [the philosophers] as they were ambitious men, diligently strove to attain an exquisite clarity of order to show the nimbleness of their wit. But the Spirit of God, because he taught without affectation, did not adhere so exactly or continuously to a methodical plan; yet when he lays one down anywhere he hints enough that it is not to be neglected by us (III, vi, 1).
In the womb of a virgin, where God saw fit to take flesh, we see the life of Christ begin. We do not know the exact point that matter and form came together to form the person of Jesus. Conception is a mystery. But what we do see is the response we are called to have when we reflect on this mystery. Mary says, “here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’”
I see great potential for Christian unity on the issue of abortion. However, I do not think this unity will be founded on natural law arguments or scientific explanations or talk about human rights. Those arguments have a place, but that place is to reveal to the world what Christians already know in Christ. That God is sovereign Lord, and “nothing will be impossible with God;” that human beings are His creation, made in His image and likeness. And that Jesus Christ shows us what that image and likeness is. And like Mary, with each mysterious new life, we as Christians are called to say, “The Lord has looked with favor on his lowly servant” because we know that “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Cor. 1:25).
There is a human tendency to worship the works of our hands, to see moral and political and social progress as a human achievement. We worship our heritage, we worship human leaders, we worship our ideals. What we forget is how frail we human beings are, how readily we fall into selfish, hurtful, and wicked ways, and how frequently the good we do and the good we intend is mixed with evil motives and evil consequences. There is a song by Rich Mullins called “We are Not as Strong as We Think We Are” which beautifully captures the tragic beauty of our human condition:
We are frail
We are fearfully and wonderfully made.
Forged in the fires of human passion
Choking on the fumes of selfish rage.
And with these our hells and our heavens,
So few inches apart,
We must be awfully small,
And not as strong as we think we are.
The United States is celebrating the election of the first black president. Truly, this is something we can rejoice in, that in this country, the color of a man’s skin does not keep him from the nation’s highest office. What was wonderful about Barack Obama’s inauguration speech was that his triumph was a qualified by the fact that this nation still has so much work to do, and so much collective guilt that we have to atone for, both for what we have done domestically and abroad. As we welcome President Obama, our own rejoicing must be limited at this realization–that we, collectively, still bear the guilt of so much inhumanity, and that this human success, as with all our human success, is one which is interwoven with so much evil. The past racism of this country, and the racism that still exists, reveal something about humanity that is very much relevant to the Christian response to abortion.
13% of American women are black, yet 35% of abortions are procured by black women. The majority of Planned Parenthood clinics are still located in neighborhoods constituted by predominantly black and Hispanic populations. Alveda King, Martin Luther King Jr.’s niece and outspoken opponent of abortion, has argued that racism and abortion are connected.
Abortion and racism are both symptoms of a fundamental human error. The error is thinking that when someone stands in the way of our wants, we can justify getting that person out of our lives. Abortion and racism stem from the same poisonous root, selfishness. We create the deceptions that the other person is less important, less worthy, less human. We are all fully human. When we face this truth, there is no justification for treating those who look different than us as lesser beings. If we simply treat other people the way we’d like to be treated, racism, abortion, and other forms of inhumanity will be things of the past.
The founder of Planned Parenthood herself was an outspoken advocate of eugenics, claiming that the sterilization of the ‘unfit’ would be the salvation of the American citizen. “The most serious charge that can be brought against modern ‘benevolence,’” Sanger argued in her work “The Function of Sterilization,” “is that it encourages the perpetuation of defectives, delinquents and dependents. These are the most dangerous elements in the world community, the most devastating curse on human progress and expression.”
Margaret Sanger thought that human beings could be divided into the fit and the unfit. This is the same mentality that exists behind racist agendas. What she and so many others fail to realize is that we are all unfit, that we are all frail, that we are all fearfully and wonderfully made, capable of amazing achievements and at the same time, terrifying horrors. We purchase peace with toilsome wars, we secure luxury by enslaving others, we expiate our sins by sending scapegoats out into the desert. Our triumphs and successes and victories never go without causalities.
One often hears the objection to the effort to outlaw abortion, “what about pregnancies that result from incest or rape or spousal abuse?” The assumption it is somehow inhuman to force an innocent woman to carry a child she is not responsible for. We assume it is better to terminate the pregnancy than to bring a child conceived in sin into the world. But we are all conceived in sin indicated by the fact that we bear our morality with us. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians:
We hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being given up to death for the sake of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you (4:7-12)
Rich Mullins puts it simpler: our heavens and our hells are always only inches apart.
What must keep in mind when we debate abortion is that we are always feeble and vulnerable and utterly dependent creatures. The child we see in the womb is our own reflection. To say that the child in the womb is liable to death is to condemn us all to death. No amount of inconvenience should lead us to treat any part of God’s creation, especially His frail, feeble image, with murderous contempt. And likewise, no amount of human mercy can change what abortion fundamentally is–a rebellious assertion of our will over God’s will. We, who are “dust and ashes,” cannot rely on our own plans, our own good intentions, and our own solutions. As Stanley Hauerwas writes, “We are able to have children because our hope is in God, who makes it possible to do the absurd thing of having children. In a world of such terrible injustice, in a world of such terrible misery, in a world that may well be about the killing of our children, having children is an extraordinary act of faith and hope. But as Christians we can have a hope in God that urges us to welcome children. When that happens, it is an extraordinary testimony of faith.”
Augustine writes in his Confessions, “Aware of our own infirmity we are moved to compassion to help the indigent, assisting them in the same ways as we would wish to be helped if we were in the same distress-and not only in easy ways, like ‘the grass bearing seed’ but with the protection and aid given with a resolute determination like ‘the tree bearing fruit.’ This means such kindness as rescuing a person suffering injustice from the hand of the powerful and providing the shelter of protection by the mighty force of just judgment” (285). Our acts of mercies, in other words, are always grounded in the realization that we need mercy, and the realization that “we are awfully small, and not as strong as we think we are.”
Today we solemnly note the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. This is largely a symbolic anniversary. Although much hype surrounds the 1971 Supreme Court decision, it simply guaranteed what individual states were already doing–giving women a right to have an abortion. If Roe v. Wade were revoked today, every state, in all likelihood, would re-institute that right on a state level.
Nevertheless, the symbolic importance of today remains. Abortion is legal and culturally acceptable. This country considers abortion a right. Abortion is also widespread. Today, approximately 3,700 women will have an abortion in the United States. This year, about 1.3 million abortions will occur.
There are lots of statistics one can refer to today. There are also many, many rational, secular, scientific conversations one could have, both in support of and in opposition to abortion. I have written about abortion in these terms before. But I want to do something different. I want to examine what a Christian response to abortion might look like, not according to the world’s standards, but according to the standards of faith and life in the church. My goal is not to contradict or downplay the importance of other arguments against abortion that are not explicitly Christian. I think that these arguments, based in natural law, in utility, or other standards of morality are necessary to fight abortion in the public square. However, I am troubled that the Christian response to abortion is divisive, that Christians claim they can follow the law of Christ and still support abortion. As part of this week of Christian unity, I want to examine how the theological resources in our shared Christian faith might formulate a unified, authoritative, and distinctively Christian response to abortion.
Due to length, I will divide my argument into three posts, modeled on the tripartite format of Thomas Aquinas‘ Summa Theologica. This first post will examine abortion from the perspective of the sovereignty of God; the second will examine abortion from a Christian anthropological perspective in light of the sovereignty of God; the third will posit a Christological argument against abortion.
I. God is sovereign Lord over life and death
We live in an era of rights. We are told that human beings have a right to life, to health, to happiness, to education, to our bodies, to property, to a nation. We also live in a culture that prioritizes control–control over our bodies, control over our lives, control over our destiny. Rights and control are what the world offers, but the Christian is called to recognize these as deceptions. Our faith demands that we recognize that we are not the ones in control over our lives, our plans, or our destiny. We are subject to the sovereign God, who is the Lord over life and death.
Scripture tells us over and over again that our lives are not our own. God tells Moses in Exodus, “Who gives one man speech and makes another deaf and dumb? Or who gives sight to one and makes another blind? Is it not I, the LORD?” (Exodus 4:11). The Song of Moses at the end of Deuteronomy is really an extended sermon on God’s sovereignty: “Learn then that I, I alone, am God, and there is no god besides me. It is I who bring both death and life, I who inflict wounds and heal them, and from my hand there is no rescue” (Deuteronomy 32:3). Hannah dedicates her son Samuel back to God, recognizing that he was not her own: “I prayed for this child, and the LORD granted my request. Now I in turn give him to the LORD; as long as he lives, he shall be dedicated to the LORD” (1 Samuel 1:27-28). The sovereignty of God is the overarching theme of the wisdom literature, emphasizing that the root of human wisdom is acknowledgment of God’s lordship: “The pronouncement of mortal man: ‘I am not god; I am not God that I should prevail‘” (Proverbs 30:1).
The New Testament also emphasizes the sovereignty of God. Jesus tells his disciples to not worry about what they will wear or what they will eat because God is the one who provides for his creation: “Your heavenly Father knows what you need. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you besides” (Mt. 6:32-33). Paul writes that God “gives life to the dead and calls into being what does not exist” (Romans 4:17). Paul attests that Christians must know that their lives are not their own: “Who indeed are you, a human being, to talk back to God? Will what is made say to its maker, ‘Why have you created me so?’ Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for a noble purpose and another for an ignoble one?” (Romans 9:20-21).
Against the wisdom of the world, which offers us the right to life, the Christian is called to respond that we belong to the LORD who gives and takes life, whose ways are inscrutable. To the world which tells us that our bodies are our own, the Christian is called to respond that our body “is a temple of the Holy Spirit, whom we have from God.” To the world that offers us freedom, the Christian is called to respond that we have been purchased at a price (1 Cor.6:20). To the world which offers us control over our destiny, the Christian is called to respond that “the world or life or death or the present or the future” belong to God, and we to Him (1 Corinthians 3:22).
Stanley Hauerwas says that as Christians, we are not to believe that we have a right to life, nor are we to think that life has any inherent dignity. We believe, instead, that life is a gracious gift from God. We believe that our life, and any life that comes from us, is a gift and a terrifying mystery. Our response to our own life, and the life around us should always be one of awe and hospitality and hope. God is sovereign, and we are his subjects. How are we to decide when life begins, who is to live, and who is to die? In his article entitled “Abortion Theologically Understood,” Hauerwas writes,
When you frame the abortion issue in sacredness-of-life language, you get into intractable debates about when life begins. Notice that is an issue for legalists. By that I mean the fundamental question becomes, How do you avoid doing the wrong thing? In contrast, the Christian approach is not one of deciding when has life begun, but hoping that it has. We hope that human life has begun! We are not the kind of people that ask, Does human life start at the blastocyst stage, or at implantation? Instead, we are the kind of people that hope life has started, because we are ready to believe the at this new life will enrich our community.
Hauerwas’ argument bears much in common with the earlier argument Karl Barth made against abortion in his chapter on the “The Protection of Life.” Barth writes, “human life has no absolute greatness or supreme value, that it is not a kind of second god, but that its proper protection must be guide, limited, and defined by the One who commands it, ie., by the One who is a real God, the supreme good, the Lord of Life” (398). Barth goes on to say that the Christian response to abortion is not merely legislative change (although that is a noble, and necessary goal), but also the cultivation of a whole new attitude: “the only thing which can help is the power of a wholly new and radical feeling of awe at the mystery of all human life as this is commanded by God as its Creator, Giver and Lord. Legal prohibitions and restrictions of a civil, moral and supposedly spiritual kind are obviously inadequate to instill this awe into man“ (418).
What both Hauerwas and Barth recognize is that a properly Christian response to abortion must begin and end with the sovereignty of God, the living God who is Lord over life and death. The Christian realizes that our lives are not our own, that God judges our hearts, our plans, and our acts, and he is the source and goal of our life, our love, and our power. To restrict life to a definition, to make distinctions about who lives and who dies, and even to assert that our life is a “right” is a usurpation of God’s sovereign power. We thus end this first of three installments with a supplication from Augustine: “This alone I know: without you it is evil for me, not only in external things but within my being, and all my abundance which is other than my God is mere indigence.”