The Early Christian Tradition
Remarks from Rob Arner at the Warminster March for Life, November 2, 2019, at the Warminster Planned Parenthood center where they do abortions. Slightly edited.
It’s wonderful to be with you this afternoon for the first of what will hopefully be an annual event at this facility, until such a time when the hearts of our culture have been opened to love and this event is no longer necessary. A little about me – I’m a theology and ethics professor and director of admissions and financial aid at Reformed Episcopal Seminary in Montgomery County, and I also teach religion at Temple University. I have a strong, loving wife Lori and three terrific kids, 10, 7, and 5 years old. I am also on the board of the Consistent Life Network.
My message for you today comes out of the Christian tradition. You may have heard people in the media saying Catholics and other Christians have hitched our pro-life convictions to a specific political agenda. That we’re being made use of by certain politicians for cynical political gain, or that our beliefs about the sacredness of human life are only concerned with the unborn. Some say about us, “You’re not pro-life, you’re only pro-birth,” as if our concern for the lives of the innocent and vulnerable stop at the moment of birth.
But I want to tell you, the Christian roots of the pro-life movement are far, far older than Roe v. Wade in 1973. They are far broader than only caring for the lives of the unborn, and they are far, far deeper than partisan politics of the left or the right can ever truly comprehend.
No, my friends, Christians are pro-life because the Bible tells us from the very first chapter that we’re made in the image and likeness of God. Every person, male and female, of every race, nation, social class, level of ability, or stage of development, is a genetically unique and irreplaceable being of fathomless value. This is the pro-life message of the Christian tradition, and it’s our call to proclaim it boldly in all places where human life is threatened or demeaned.
I want to share with you some of the voices of ancient Christianity, some of the first Christian writings from after the time of the apostles that demonstrate that the church has stood up for the weak and vulnerable, including the unborn, during all eras of its history, not just the modern one. While it’s true the Bible itself doesn’t address abortion directly, other influential early Christian writings from the first three centuries of the church’s existence most certainly do.
I want to help bring those voices to life for you for two reasons:
- To show conclusively that Christians have always been pro-life, and
- To help you better understand your own pro-life convictions with the help of those in the tradition who have gone before us.
Setting the Scene
The ancient Roman Empire, out of which Christianity emerged, was not a culture that valued life. The emperors routinely executed their rivals and political prisoners by crucifixion or beheading. Likewise, when a Roman citizen wanted to watch a sporting event, they didn’t go down to Citizens Bank Park to watch the Phillies play baseball like we might. Instead, they would go down to the Coliseum and watch a gladiator match. This was essentially two slaves who were forced to fight to the death while the audience cheered. That was what passed for “sports” in ancient Rome.
Likewise, both prenatal abortions and postnatal infanticide and exposures of unwanted or “defective” children were widely practiced in ancient Greece and Rome. Although apparently more widely practiced among the rich, abortion was a cultural practice that transcended socio-economic status. Wealthy families aborted pregnancies because of concerns about dividing their estate among too many offspring, while poor families aborted out of fear of being unable to support large families.
Particularly among the upper classes, women would also seek abortions out of concern for the preservation of their sex appeal and “youthful beauty.” Many times, abortions were also practiced to conceal evidence of adultery. The emperor Domitian had an affair with his niece Julia, and ordered her to abort the pregnancy to hide it, a procedure which resulted in the young woman’s death.
Roman families would also take babies who had been born alive, and if there was something “wrong” with the baby – it appeared deformed, or was the “wrong” gender, they would leave the baby on a mountainside to die. This practice was known as the “exposure” of infants. One distinctive practice that set the early Christians apart from their pagan neighbors was that the Christians would routinely patrol the areas where babies were known to have been left. If they found the babies alive, they’d take them in and adopt them.
Early Christian Writers and Pro-Life Convictions
In the Didache, an early Christian discipleship manual from the late 1st or early 2nd century, the moral formation section is known as the “Two Ways,” – a “Way of Life” and a “Way of Death.” Under the “Way of Life”, the teaching on abortion is simple and unequivocal: “You shall not murder a child by [means of] abortion [φθορᾷ, phthora], nor kill one who has been born.” Later, the Didache lists those who belong to the “Way of Death,” among whom we find, “murderers of children, who abort the mold of God” (Did. 5.2).
A version of the “Two Ways” section of the Didache is also present in the Epistle of Barnabas, from around the year 100, which reiterates the command against abortion, but puts it in a different context: “You shall love your neighbor more than your own life. You shall not slay the child by abortion [phthora]. You shall not kill what has been born” (Ep. Barn. 19.5). In this version, “the fetus is seen not as part of its mother, but as a neighbor” (Gorman, 49). Thus deliberate killing of the fetus or born child is seen as a gross violation of the neighbor, whom the Christian is obligated to love.
The great Latin apologist Tertullian, writing around AD 197, discussed abortion at length, refuting the pagan rumors that Christians kill and eat children in their Eucharistic feasts. Noting the common nature of abortions and exposures among pagan society, Tertullian throws the charge of child-murder back in the faces of his accusers and points out that they are the real child-killers. He concludes, observing the impossibility of Christians eating children because
with us, murder is forbidden once for all. We are not permitted to destroy even the fetus in the womb, as long as blood is still being drawn to form a human being. To prevent the birth of a child is a quicker way to murder. It makes no difference whether one destroys a soul already born or interferes with its coming to birth. It is a human being and one who is to be a man, for the whole fruit is already present in the seed. (Tertullian, Apol. 9:6-8)
The two great theologians from Alexandria in Egypt, Clement and Origen, each commented briefly on abortion in their weighty theological books. Clement’s very long Paedogogus references abortion in the context of a discussion on marriage. He addresses the destructive effects of abortion on the human psyche, commenting that “women who resort to some sort of deadly abortion drug kill not only the embryo but, along with it, human kindness [philanthrōpia]” (Paed. 126.96.36.199). His concern is both for the child and for the psyche of those who procure abortions. In his judgment, abortions can lead to a callousness of the heart that impedes the Christian imperative to love one’s neighbor. Later, in the apologetic Against Celsus, Origen explains that the Christian God “certainly requires us to bring up the offspring and not to destroy the children given by providence” (Origen, Cels. 8.55). He views children as divine gifts and blessings, the destruction of which is an affront to God, the giver of life.
I think you can now see that the early Christian opposition to abortion is clear and unequivocal from the time of the Didache onward. Abortion is seen as an issue of violence and is condemned by most writers as a failure of neighbor love and as murder. Concern for the fetus as a creature of value distinguishes Christian attitudes from those of Greek and Roman moralists. In seeing abortion as fundamentally an act of killing a human being, early Christianity opposed it in the context of what Gorman calls a “consistent pro-life ethic” (Gorman, 90). The same writers who condemned abortion also condemned Christian participation in bloodshed in any form.
Lactantius, a Christian writing from the first decade of the 4th century concludes a wide-ranging discussion of Roman bloodshed, covering infanticide, killing in war, the death penalty, and the gladiatorial matches, with this summary statement: ”Therefore, in this command of God, no exception whatsoever must be made. It is always wrong to kill a man whom God has intended to be a sacrosanct creature” (Inst. 6.20). Within this overall teaching prohibiting all bloodshed, the early Christian condemnation of abortion becomes a subset of a total ethic that valued all people as God’s creation, and prohibited their slaying by those whose lives had been touched by Christ.
So you see, my friends, the early Christian reverence for human life is as old as the faith itself. We’re a people who defend the needy and vulnerable, because that’s the kind of God our God is. It’s written into the deepest logic, history, and tradition of the Christian church. In our name of “Christian,” we share the name of Christ, the crucified Messiah, who poured his life out for the life of the world. It’s in his name that we take our stand for justice in this world, and it’s following in his steps that we lay our own lives down for others.
For more of our blog posts from Rob Arner, see:
Dorothy Day and the Consistent Life Ethic: Rejecting Conventional Political Paradigms