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     In this essay, C. E. Cerling, Jr., a United Methodist clergyman,

     re-examines abortion and contraception in the light of biblical



      Abortion and Contraception in Scripture


                                            C. E. Cerling


          THE PURPOSE of this paper is the examination of the biblical

teaching relating to the problems of abortion and contraception. This exam-

ination it is hoped will provide a necessary foundation for discussions of the

problems in the ethical realm, particularly the problem of whether abortion

is equivalent to murder. Before one can consider the problems in terms of

specific situations it is necessary to establish general principles that can be

applied to all situations.1 By focusing attention on the problems of overpopula-

tion, poverty, and other matters relating to these problems, one moves from the

area of theology to situation-dominated ethics.2

          Is it fair to ask of documents as old as the Bible questions concerning

abortion and contraception, questions that appear to have such modern origins?

The questions are fair, because they are not really questions unique to the

present age. Noonan,3 who gives the most thorough discussion of the early

Church's attitude toward contraception as it developed historically,4 devotes


   1 Helmut Thielicke, The Ethics of Sex, trans. J. W. Doberstein (New York: Harper and

Row Publishers, 1964), p. 232 states that ethical principles may even present situations

where a principle is more important than a life. But he also affirms the importance of

difficult cases to test one's ethic (p. 199).

    2 J. W. Montgomery, "How to Decide the Birth Control Issue," Christianity Today X

(March 4, 1966), 9. William E. Hulme, "A Theological Approach to Birth Control," Pastoral

Psychology XI (April, 1960), 26-7. It should also be added that these secondary considera-

tions may force re-examination of one's original position because of factors not considered

in scripture because not applicable to the biblical mileau.

    3 J. T. Noonan, Jr. Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theolo-

gians and Canonists (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965), chapter one.

    4 Noonan writes from the Catholic perspective, but since much of the teaching of the

Church is the teaching of the Catholic Church during the early years of development,

treatment from the Catholic perspective is valid. See also Lloyd Kalland, "Views and

Positions of the Christian Church--An Historical Review," Birth Control and the Christian,

eds. Walter 0. Spitzer and Carlyle L. Saylor (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 1969),


much of his first chapter to a discussion of methods of contraception and

abortion in the ancient world. Whole treatises were written on the topics in

cultures having intimate contact with the children of Israel.5

          A paper on the biblical teaching on birth control automatically excludes any

discussion of birth control for the unmarried. The Bible never entertains the idea

that sexual intercourse apart from the marital relationship is justified (Ex.

20:14; I Cor. 6:13-20). For this reason the morality of birth control for the

unmarried is like the question of whether a bank robber should use a Ford or a

Plymouth as his getaway car. The more important question is whether he should

ever rob a bank. The question of birth control for the unmarried is also a

question of protection in sin, a question never raised.

          The question of abortion for the unmarried poses a different problem.

Abortion for those involved in pregnancies induced by rape or forced incest and

those women whose health would be endangered or who may produce a

genetically damaged child should be considered under the sections dealing

generally with abortion. This discussion, though, will also not consider the

problems involved in the pregnancies of women who have co-operated in illicit

intercourse, except for cases covered by the problems stated above. Unmarried

women involved in illicit intercourse are not a subject for this study for the same

reasons as given in the preceding paragraph concerning contraception and the





          One cannot discuss the biblical teaching on contraception without consid-

ering at the same time the teaching of the Church and its development.7

Traditional teaching needs to be understood in the light of scripture (sometimes

misunderstood), the philosophical climate, the religious climate, and current

medicinal practices.8 For example, Paul writes in Romans 1:26-7 of "unnatural


   5 See below pp. 48-49.

   6 Noonan, Contraception .... ch. one, on whose work this section is based, treats the

development of the Catholic Church's teaching from the dawn of the Church age until the

modern era.

In this paper the patristic material is examined first because it shows the source of many

present day attitudes. We can also see how and to what the fathers reacted in forming their

teaching to see if our teaching should be formed through the interaction of scripture and

ideas similar to those of the fathers.

     Since the I.U.D.'s status as contraceptive or abortifacient is still being debated, further

medical research needs to establish where it should be included.

   7 Generalizations about the Church do not indicate that the author thinks all churchmen

agreed on a given position. What is assumed is that the majority of people writing on a topic

agreed on a basic core of teaching that can be fairly called the teaching of the Church.

    8 Noonan, ch. two.




44                          Christian Scholar's Review


acts." The early Church fathers thought that "natural" was the obvious function

of an act; they thought the function of sexual relations that is most natural is

the procreation of children.9 This view is now considered a misinterpretation,

but it was used to develop the view of sex that dominated the Church for almost

two thousand years.

          Current medical practice also affected the development of early Church

teaching. Contraception and abortion were treated together because of the

difficulty of differentiating them in the early stages of pregnancy.10 Many of

the contraceptive methods used were powerful enough to cause an abortion in

the early stages of pregnancy. By combining this difficulty with the known fact

that abortion and contraception were frequently connected with the work of

magicians,11 it is easier to understand why the Church condemned such prac-


An interpretative principle that one can occasionally see operating in the

Church also played a part in the development of the early Church's teaching; this

is the principle of maximization. Maximization occurs when a weak or easily

misunderstood passage is explained and used as the basis for a strong stand on a

controversial subject. The interpretation of Genesis 38 (Onanism) is an example.

A passage that is not clear was used to condemn contraception.12

The patristic age generally had a pessimistic view of marriage.13 It would

appear that the Church fathers took I Corinthians 7 to heart without the

corrective of Ephesians 5. This low view of marriage, combined with the above

interpretation of Romans 1:26-7, resulted in a view of sex that was purely

functional; therefore intercourse is frequently condemned if it is primarily for

pleasure. Since the act is functional, and contraception would interfere with that

function, one would only use contraception if one wanted to engage in sex

relations for pleasure--something strongly condemned. And if pleasure were not

one's intention, covetousness could be the only other reason for prohibiting

children, because limiting the size of one's family would be economically

advantageous, and covetousness is also wrong.

Abortion was equated with murder very early in the patristic period. In its

explanation of the "Two Ways" the Didache represents abortion as murder along


   9 Ibid., pp. 74-5. This view was held even through the 19th century. Herschel Wilson

Yates, Jr. "American Protestantism and Birth Control," (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation,

Harvard University, 1968), ch. three.

    10 Noonan, p. 17.

    11 Ibid., p. 17.

    12 Other passages used in this way are Romans 1:26-7 and I Thess. 4:4. An example more

familiar to most people would be the maximization that has taken place in the Roman

Catholic Church with regard to Jesus' statement to Peter at Caesarea Philippi. This passage is

weak and easily misunderstood as support for papal infallability, but it is used to justify it.

    13 Derrick Sherwin Bailey, Sexual Relation in Christian Thought (New York: Harper and

Brothers, 1959), p. 24.


Cerling: Abortion and Contraception                45


with the exposure of infants.14 This is readily understandable if one reads the

septuagint translation (really rewording) or the Hebrew of Exodus 21:22-2315

where accidental abortion is punished by the death penalty. Naturally, if

accidental abortion deserves death, then intentional abortion should deserve no

lesser punishment.

The Jewish understanding of the purpose of intercourse may also have

influenced the Church fathers. The Halakah consistently interprets Genesis 1:28

as a command to have children.16 A functional understanding of intercourse is

also seen in Philo, who expressly condemns intercourse that is not specifically

for procreation.17 With such an attitude current in rabbinic and Philonic

Judaism it is not surprising that the Church fathers (Clement, Justin, Origen,

Chrysostom, Ambrose, and Jerome to name a few) similarly viewed intercourse.

Noonan, speaking of the development of the early Church's understanding

of the purpose of intercourse, writes:


The construction was not a purely theological enterprise. It was not undertaken in a

vacuum, removed from other religious, philosophical, and social strivings. The state of

medical knowledge was one factor in the development of theory on marital intercourse.

The predominant institutional modifications of monogamous marriage in Roman society, namely, slave concubinage and easy divorce, affected the values which Christians would

stress in marriage. Contemporary Jewish thought and contemporary Stoic thought formed

other patterns limiting the impact of the Gospels. Gnostic speculation created a current to

which Christians reacted.

Within the intellectual and social context of the Roman Empire, the vital acts of

selection, discrimination, emphasis, and application of the Biblical texts were performed.

In this collaboration between the Christian community and the written word, under the

pressures generated by Roman life, the teaching on contraception took place.18


Stoicism influenced the Christian view by eliminating emotion as a legiti-

mate part of life.19 The rationale for intercourse then, almost by necessity,


   14 "Didache," The Apostolic Fathers, trans. and ed. J. B. Lightfoot (Grand Rapids: Baker

Book House, 1956), p. 124.

   15 Exodus 21:22-3 reads in the RSV, "When men strive together, and hurt a woman with

child, so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no harm follows, the one who hurt her shall be

fined, according as the woman's husband shall lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges

determine. If any harm follows (replaced in the LXX by-'But if it be formed ... ') then

you shall give life for life."

   16 Raphael Loewe, The Position of Women in Judaism (London: S.P.C.K., 1966), pp.


   17 Philo, De Josepho, 9.43 and De Abrahamo 137.

   18 Noonan, pp. 45-6. Yates attempts to show similar influences in the early 20th century

that helped change attitudes toward contraception.

   19 Noonan, pp. 46-8. This influence is directly tracable in extant writings of both the

Church fathers and certain Stoic writers. Seneca writes that "All love of another's wife is

shameful; so too, too much love of your own. A wise man ought to love his wife with

judgment, not affection. Let him control his impulses and not be borne headlong into

copulation. Nothing is fouler than to love a wife like an adulteress. Certainly those who say


46                          Christian Scholar's Review


became procreation rather than love or pleasure. At the same time the influence

of Gnosticism caused another reaction. Reacting to the licentiousness of some

Gnostics and the asceticism of others, the fathers took a middle ground. By

combining reaction and the overvaluation of virginity, intercourse became under-

stood as simply a procreative act.20

Preceding the fourth century there is no clear-cut condemnation of contra-

ception in any official manner, although there are less clear references.21 The

view that came to dominate in the Church was formed by Augustine in reaction

to the Manichees and as a result of incidents in his personal life.22 Along with

his theology, his view became for a while the teaching of the whole Church. No

official change in the attitude of the Church in any of its major branches took

place until a Lambeth conference of the Church of England in the early 1930s

declared contraception acceptable under certain limited conditions.23





It is difficult to deal with the problems of abortion and contraception in the

Old Testament because of the nature of Old Testament culture. The children of

Israel considered children a blessing and sterility a curse:24


     Grandchildren are the crown of the aged, and the glory of sons is their fathers (Prov.


Lo, sons are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward. Like arrows in

the hand of a warrior are the sons of one's youth. Happy is the man who has his quiver full

of them! He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate (Psalm


Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive

shoots around your table. Lo, thus shall the man be blessed who fears the Lord (Psalm


... and Sarai said to Abram, ‘Behold now, the Lord has prevented me from bearing

children; ...’ (Genesis 16:2).



that they unite themselves to wives to produce children for the sake of the state and the

human race ought, at any rate, to imitate the beasts, and when their wife's belly swells not

destroy the offspring. Let them show themselves to their wives not as lovers, but as

husbands." (Seneca, Fragments, ed. Friedrich G. Haase (Leipzig, 1897), no. 84. See also

Jerome, Against Jovinian 1.49).

   20 Noonan, pp. 56-72.

   21 Ibid., pp. 73, 95.

   22 Ibid., ch. four.

   23 Bailey, p. 257.

   24 Might the fact that there is no word for bachelor in the Old Testament be an indication

(although not proof) of the value placed on marriage and its attendant relationships in Old

Testament times? Lucien LeGrand, The Biblical Doctrine of Virginity (New Y6rk: Sheed

and Ward, 1963), p. 29.


Cerling:  Abortion and Contraception               47



     Jacob's anger was kindled against Rachel, and he said, ‘Am I in the place of God who

has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?’ (Genesis 30:2).

... and although he loved Hannah, he would give Hannah only one portion, because the

Lord had closed her womb (I Sam. 1:5).


Children are a means of perpetuating the family name and the covenant

people.25 With attitudes such as these being common in Israel, it is difficult to

imagine how contraception and abortion could become problems. They may

have been rejected without even being seriously considered.



      Much of the discussion surrounding the problem of contraception deals with

the creative intent for marriage. Was marriage created by God for the purpose of

the procreation and education of children or was the purpose of marriage

companionship? Genesis 1:28 and 2:18 seem to conflict at this point. It has

generally been the teaching of the Catholic Church that the primary purpose for

marriage and intercourse is the procreation and education of children. Until the

early years of this century Protestantism generally concurred in this opinion.

Now almost all Protestants would say that companionship is more important

than procreation.26 Piper writes, "Although the Biblical writers are aware of the

intimate connection between sex and propagation sex is not regarded primarily

as a means for procreation of children. The reason that woman was created is

that God saw that it was not good for the man to be alone (Gen. 2:18)."27 He

then goes on to state that Genesis 1:28 is not to be taken as a command, but as a

blessing given to the original couple.28 Piper rightly states that "All that the

Bible has to say concerning sexual life is incomprehensible if we try to under-

stand it as based on the will to propogate."29 The intent of the Creator then

appears to have been companionship, sex being an important subordinate cre-

ative intent.30


    25 Piper, p. 33.

    26 Thielicke, pp. 204-5 states that procreation is a secondary reason for marriage. If the

primary purpose, companionship, will be destroyed by the exercise of the secondary

purpose, then the secondary purpose may be ignored.

    27 Piper, p. 30.

    28 Ibid., pp. 32-3.

    29 Ibid., p. 32.

    30 Charles Edward Cerling, Jr., "A Wife's Submission in Marriage, (Unpublished master's

dissertation, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 1968), pp. 11-13. See also James Patrick

Lyons, The Essential Structure of Marriage (Washington: Catholic University Press of

America, 1950), pp. 18-19. Erhardt Paul Weber, "A Christian Theology of Marriage,"

(Unpublished Th.D. dissertation, Chicago Lutheran Theological Seminary, 1961), pp. 35-8.

Ebbie C. Smith, "The One-flesh Concept of Marriage; A Biblical Study," (Unpublished

Th.D. dissertation, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1961), pp. 15-39. Piper, p.



48                          Christian Scholar's Review


Genesis 1:28 does pose a problem. This verse, usually understood as a

command, seems to suggest that all couples should have three or more children.

(For two to multiply they have to become three.) But is this verse a command?

It is imperative in mood, but this mood is used for blessings along with the

indicative.31 There are eight other places in Genesis32 where the introductory

formula, "blessed ... and said . . . " is used with the imperative. Therefore it

would appear that Genesis 1:28 is a blessing rather than a command; but it

would also appear from this verse that the Creator intended that each couple

should produce children.33 The blessing suggests one of the major purposes of

marriage, although procreation is not the purpose of marriage. If it were, the

marriage of the sterile and aged would probably have been condemned.



     Leviticus 15:18 may have a bearing on the question of contraception.

Waltke interprets the verse to mean that ejaculation without procreative intent is

acceptable.34 If this passage refers to coitus interruptus his interpretation is

sound. Although the author agrees with Waltke35 other interpretations are

possible. The passage may be referring to sperm that runs from or does not fully

enter the vagina and therefore soils either garments or skins. It may also refer to

a nocturnal emission while one is sleeping with his wife, since akhabh will bear

either the rendering "sleep" or "intercourse."

The single most misunderstood passage on the whole topic of contraception

is Genesis 38. What was the sin of Onan for which he was killed by God? The

traditional interpretation of the Church has been that Onan was condemned for

coitus interruptus. No modern commentator supports this view. One must go to

19th century works to find support for such a position.36  Onan's sin is variously


    31 W. J. Harrelson, "Blessings and Cursings," The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, I,

(New York: Abingdon Press, 1962), 446.

    32 9:1; 14:19; 24:60; 28:1; 35:9; 48:3; 48:15; 1:22 (slightly different).

    33 See also Genesis 9:1, 7. Arguing from the meaning of Gen. 1:28 (although this is not

directly stated) Kenneth R. Kantzer, "The Origin of the Soul as Related to the Abortion

Question," Birth Control and the Christian, eds. Walter O. Spitzer and Carlyle L. Saylor

(Wheaton: Tyndale, 1969), 553, argues that abortion is wrong because it goes contrary to

the intent of the Creator as here revealed. If what he says is true, it is equally an argument

against birth control, which also frustrates the intent of the Creator for a short period of


    34 Waltke, p. 19.

    35 Waltke errs in including vv. 16-7. The discussion should be limited to v. 18, since vv.

16-7 refer only to nocturnal emissions. The inclusion of vv. 16-7 clouds the issue under


    36 C. F. Keil, and F. Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, I, trans.

James Martin (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., n.d.), 340.


Cerling:  Abortion and Contraception                         49


explained as mockery of the responsibilities of levirate marriage,37 to a simple

statement that he was condemned not for contraception but for an act (unde-

fined) which God condemned.38 Even the article in the New Catholic Encyclo-

pedia states that Onan's sin is unclear.39 The only fact on which all commenta-

tors now agree is that Onan was not punished for practicing contraception per


Except for the practice of coitus interruptus and anal intercourse most

moderns would assume that few, if any, other contraceptive means were

known.40 Noonan gives many examples of methods of contraception found in

the ancient world.41 In particular he refers to Egypt where the children of Israel

spent some 400 years. Although the means range from the exotic (a willow bark

potion mixed with the burned testicles of a castrated ass) to quite simple devices

(a swab of wool coated with honey inserted into the vagina), some must have

been effective in at least moderate degrees. Some of these means (particularly

potions) have been tested on rats in modern medical laboratories and found to

be effective in inducing temporary sterility. The effectiveness of the methods

used is also demonstrated by occasional complaints in official sources that the

poor are having more children than the wealthy and educated because the poor

are not using contraceptive means. (Sounds rather modern!) From all this one

can conclude that the Israelities knew of various means of contraception.

Whether they used them is a question that will be treated below.

There are no passages in the Old Testament that treat contraception explic-

itly. A few passages bear indirectly on the topic and may provide some under-

standing of how the problem was faced. Continence might appear to be a natural

form of contraception, but Exodus 21:10 shows that regular intercourse is a

duty of marriage even if one has more than one wife, which would suggest that

continence would be wrong.42 Furthermore, the prohibition of intercourse

during menstruation (Lev. 15:19-28; 20:18) would work as a reverse contra-

ception. Because one would not have intercourse for seven days after the onset

(possibly completion) of menstruation, by the time one could have intercourse

again pregnancy would be more likely to occur. Not only would one be closer to

the fertile period, but there would be a large accumulation of semen from the

period of abstinence. Castration, whether voluntary or involuntary, was grounds


   37 Waltke, p. 19.

   38 J. T. Noonan, Jr. "Authority, Usury, and Contraception," Cross Currents XVI (Winter,

1966), 57.

   39 J. D. Fearon, "Onanism," (New York, 1967), p. 696.

   40 Waltke, p. 9, errs in assuming no mechanical contraceptives.

   41 Noonan, Contraception .... ch. one.

   42 Waltke, p. 16.


50                          Christian Scholar's Review


for excommunication from the religious community (Dt. 23:1), which would

eliminate a rather gross form of contraception.43

      Alongside of these negative indications are other more positive indications of

the Old Testament attitude toward contraception. If Leviticus 15:18 refers to

coitus interruptus44 then one form of contraception was practiced without the

express condemnation of scripture. In various places in the Old Testament sex

crimes of various sorts are condemned, but contraception is never listed as one

of those crimes.45

In summary one can say that contraception was either never an issue with

the children of Israel because of their high regard for children, or it was an

accepted practice not considered worth mentioning. On the basis of our knowl-

edge of the methods of contraception used in the ancient world one would be

inclined to conclude that Israelites not only knew of contraceptive means, but

considered them so normal that no mention is ever made of the topic. At the

same time one must add the proviso that with the Israelite attitude toward

children, people must have had very strong reasons for using them when they




One faces the same problem in dealing with abortion that one faces in

dealing with contraception: no passages deal with the topic directly. The only

passage that is assumed by some to treat of abortion is Exodus 21:22-24.46

Arguing from the meaning of the word yeledh Keil states that the passage deals

with a child, and has nothing to do with an abortion.47 Other commentators

treat the passage as dealing only with a special instance of involuntary abortion

that was induced by a second party.48

Waltke argues from this passage (Ex. 21:22-24) in comparison with Leviti-

cus 24:18 that a fetus is not a person.49 Since the death penalty is demanded


    43 This passage should not force one to conclude that sterilization is wrong. (Waltke, p.

22.) There is a great deal of difference between sterilization and castration.

    44 Above p. 49.

    45 Lev. ch. 18; 20:18; 15:16-33; Ez. 18:6; Dr. 27:20-23.

    46 Viktor Aptowitzer, "Observations on the Criminal Law of the Jews," Jewish Quarterly

Review XV (1924), 65ff, shows how this passage is used in Jewish thought to support both

a "murder" theory of abortion and a rather lax approach. The differences appear to be

based on the version of scripture used. The MT supports the lax position; the LXX supports

the "murder" theory. This may have a bearing on the Church's position as it developed

through the use of the LXX.

    47 C. F. Keil, and F. Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, II, trans.

James Martin (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., n.d.), 134-5.

    48 U. Cassuto, Genesis (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1960), pp. 275-6.

    49 Waltke, pp. 10-11.


Cerling:  Abortion and Contraception               51


for murder, and only a fine is paid if the fetus dies without injury to the mother,

the fetus is not considered human. He also states that the use of nephesh in the

second part of the passage shows that the mother is a person while the fetus is

not. But the fact that a fetal death is not punished by another fetal death also

shows that the fetus was highly regarded.50

Other passages may also have a positive, although indirect, bearing on the

topic. In Leviticus 20:11-21 all sexual crimes punishable by death are listed--no

mention is made of abortion. In Leviticus 18:21; 20:2 child-killing is condemned

in connection with the worship of Moloch. Abortion is not mentioned here

either, although it could be argued that it has no bearing here. Other passages

(Lev. 15:16-33; ch. 18; Dt. 27:20-3) dealing with sexual behavior make no

mention of abortion.

An Assyrian law states concerning the problem of abortion:51


(If a seignior) struck a(nother) seignior's (wife) and caused her to have (a miscarriage),

they shall treat (the wife of the seignior), who caused the (other) seignior's wife to (have a

miscarriage), as he treated her; he shall compensate for her fetus with a life. However if

that woman died, they shall put the seignior to death; he shall compensate for her fetus

with a life. But, when that woman's husband has no son, if someone struck her so that she

had a miscarriage, they shall put the striker to death; even if her fetus is a girl, he shall

compensate with a life.


Waltke argues from this law that the death penalty is required in Assyria for

inducing an abortion by striking a woman.52 That is true, if the woman also

dies, but the quotation may suggest that the death of the fetus only calls for the

death of another fetus unless the man has no heir.

Considering the general attitude of the Church through its history toward

the problem of abortion that it is equivalent to murder, the failure of the Old

Testament to mention it either explicitly or implicitly is significant. Again, it

may never have been a problem in a country that desired children as strongly as

the Israelites appear to have,53 but if others did it, which we know from


    50 Ibid., p. 12. J. W. Montgomery, "The Christian View of the Fetus," Birth Control and

the Christian, eds. Walter 0. Spitzer and Carlyle L. Saylor (Wheaton: Tyndale House Pub.,

1969), pp. 88-9 argues that Ex. 21:22-24 does not distinguish the life of the mother from

the life of the child in meting out punishment. The injury may be to either mother or child,

and if either is injured, punishment equivalent to the injury should follow. Waltke gives an

adequate answer to this interpretation when he says that it is possible, but improbable, and

rejected by most translations and many commentators. (p. 23, note.)

    51 Pritchard, p. 184.

    52 Waltke, pp. 11-12.

    53 Kantzer, p. 553, states that abortion is never condemned because of the high value

placed on offspring. But even in a culture where almost all hold such a value, some will not,

and a response would have been made to them.


52                          Christian Scholar's Review


Egyptian writings,54 Israelites must have been aware of the problem. If that is

true, then silence (although a notoriously weak argument) would appear to

suggest acceptance of abortion as legitimate.





As in the Old Testament, abortion and contraception are never explicitly

mentioned in the New Testament.55 But this does not mean that the authors

were ignorant of the problems. It has been shown above that abortive and

contraceptive means have been known from ancient times. Not only is that true,

but both the Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas (although probably dependent

on Didache) condemn abortion. The issue was live, but the New Testament is


In a significant article on the New Testament understanding of marriage

Montgomery argues that marriage is not simply a means of legalizing procreation

nor is mutual love the end of marriage. Christian marital love is meaningful as a

reflection of Christ's love for the Church. Since intercourse is the natural result

of marital love and children the result of intercourse, contraception needs to be

justified in every case.56 He then goes on to show various reasons that would

justify the use of contraceptives. The whole of his argument turns on the idea of

marriage as a reflection of the relationship of Christ to His Church.57 The Old

Testament purpose of marriage as companionship is superceded by a greater

concept for the Christian, the concept of marriage as an image or analogy of the

relationship of Christ to His Church. The analogical relationship then determines

what is right and wrong within a marriage. Self-sacrificing love,58 such as Christ

had for the Church, would at times demand contraception.59


    54 Kahun Papyrus, Ebers Papyrus, Ramasseum Papyrus IV, Berlin Papyrus, Carlsber


    55 Noonan, Contraception .... p. 45.

    56 Montgomery, "How to Decide ... ", pp. 8-10.

    57 Cerling, ch. three. The nature of marriage as an analogy of the relationship of Christ to

the Church is extensively discussed in its Biblical setting.

    58 The foremost example of such love in action would be in a situation where a pregnancy

would impose hazards to the mother's health, either physical or mental. A second example

would relate to the quality of life between the parents to whom the child would be born.

(Quality refers to more than simple economics, although they play a part.) This could

include a desire to postpone children for any of a variety of reasons in order that the

relationship of husband and wife would be deepened rather than destroyed or hindered by a

pregnancy. If the love of Ephesians 5 is to be revealed, a pregnancy should be a means of

growth for the couple. If a pregnancy would appear to do otherwise, it should be prevented.

     59 Below, p. 54, it will be shown why this same principle is insufficient by itself to justify

an abortion.


Cerling:  Abortion and Contraception               53


First Corinthians 7:1-7 gives one element of the New Testament attitude

toward marital intercourse. As in the Old Testament, regular marital intercourse

is a right and obligation of the spouses to each other. The Roman Catholic

Church teaches that continence is the most natural means of preventing births.

This passage suggests, contrary to Catholic teaching, that continence is not

natural, since it violates a basic purpose for marriage. That purpose as stated in I

Corinthians 7:2 is that marriage is a prophylactic against immorality. Continence

may only be for short periods of time, by mutual agreement, for the sake of

prayer. Therefore continence would not be an acceptable method of preventing

births, because regular marital intercourse is a right and obligation of the


A few passages that are occasionally brought to bear on this topic are worth

mentioning. First Thessalonians 4:4, which refers to a man possessing his vessel

in honor, is thought, and has been thought in history, to refer to having only

natural means of intercourse with one's wife.60 Although the verse may be

interpreted in that way, even if it is true, the reference is so general as to have

almost no meaning to the modern reader. Is anal or oral intercourse being

condemned or is the reference generally to contraception? The broadness of this

statement makes its helpfulness nil.

Matthew 19:10-12 is sometimes thought to suggest that people castrate

themselves for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Again, if this interpretation is

true, and that is questionable,61 it would have no bearing on the contraceptive

question because of Paul's injunction in I Corinthians 7 to regular marital

intercourse. Self-castration could only be for single people.

Because of the association of contraception and abortion with magicians,

Noonan suggests that the Greek pharmakeia (magic or medicine) may refer to

medicine in Galatians 5:20; Revelation 9:21; 21:8,15; 18:23, but he then goes

on to state that although it may, there is little basis for thinking that it does.62


    60 Robert P. Meye, "New Testament Texts Bearing on the Problem of the Control of

Human Reproduction," Birth Control and the Christian, eds. Walter O. Spitzer and Carlyle

L. Saylor (Wheaton: Tyndale House Pub., 1969), pp. 35-6.

    61 Q. Quesnell, "Made Themselves Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven," Catholic

Biblical Quarterly, XXX (July, 1968), 335-58.

     62 Noonan, Contraception.... p. 44. In a later publication on abortion Noonan, "An

Almost Absolute Value in History," The Morality of Abortion, ed. J. T. Noonan, Jr.

(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970), p. 23, he changes his position. As justification

for the change he leans heavily on the attitude of the early church fathers in condemning

abortion. The only problem with his argument is that it can be turned either to support or

condemn abortion. The condemnation of the early church fathers can suggest that they

reflect the thinking of the apostles, or one can argue that their strong condemnations arose

out of the necessity of condemning something they thought was a great evil apart from

scriptural support, and therefore had to use exceptionally strong language, comparing

abortion to murder. One also wonders how Luke would have felt as Paul condemned



54                          Christian Scholar's Review


In summary, the New Testament has even less to say directly or indirectly

on the topics of abortion and contraception, but the principles derived from

Ephesians 5 give guidelines suggesting that contraception may be acceptable. If a

fetus is neither a person nor an emerging entity of high value, the same passage

may justify abortion. The complete silence of both the New and Old Testaments

in explicit references to these topics suggests a permissive attitude toward both

contraception and abortion.63



Only one case in the whole of scripture mentions the problem of abortion,

and that case has a very limited scope. From this it might be assumed that

abortion is permissible under any circumstances. But Thielicke and Piper both

raise the same argument against abortion:65 Children are a gift of God; therefore

abortion is wrong.

Before considering Thielicke's argument it is well to give consideration to

the motivation of one seeking an abortion as this has a bearing on the legitimacy

of abortion. The Old Testament attitude is that children are a blessing given to

parents by God; therefore to reject a child is to reject a gift of God. Therefore

even if abortions are considered acceptable, one must have serious reasons to

justify an abortion. Many abortions are for selfish reasons. The motives are

related to economic limitations, limitations on one's time, unwillingness to

accept the responsibility for rearing another child--because these are selfish

motives, abortion should be condemned in these instances.66

      But even after the proper motivation exists serious questions must be raised:

Is abortion murder? The Bible does not teach directly when a fetus becomes a

child.67 O'Donnel states categorically that abortion is murder,68 taking the


    63 This conclusion is reached recognizing the weaknesses of any argument from silence.

    64 Paul Ramsey, "References Points in Deciding About Abortion," The Morality of

Abortion, ed. J. T. Noonan, Jr. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970), pp. 64-100,

makes some important points concerning arguments for abortion. (1) All arguments for

abortion must take into account the question of when the fertilized ovum becomes a human

being. (2) Arguments for abortion must not also be arguments for infanticide by logical

extension. Under this point he mentions that birth is hardly a line of demarcation for

modern medicine. The time when fertilized ova will be placed in artificial wombs is not

remote. "There are no theoretical limits on man's scientific ability to push back the time of

viability and to treat the patient in utero as a man alive." (87) (3) One must also distinguish

between killing and allowing to die, which is very important for point #2.

    65 Piper, p. 148. Thielicke, pp. 277, 279.

    66 Rousas J. Rushdoony, "Abortion," The Encyclopedia of Christianity, I, ed. Edwin

Palmer (Wilmington: The National Foundation for Christian Education, 1964), 21.

    67 P. K. Jewett, "The Relation of the Soul to the Fetus," Birth Control and the Christian,

eds. Walter O. Spitzer and Carlyle L. Saylor (Wheaton: Tyndale House Pub., 1969), p. 62.

    68 O'Donnel, p. 28.


Cerling:  Abortion and Contraception               55


traditional position of both the Catholic and Protestant churches. Thielicke

raises the problem of when a fetus becomes a human being and then dismisses it

as mere casuistry.69 He takes the position that a child is a gift of God and as

such to reject a child is to reject God. On that ground he states that abortion is


To bring the matter into sharp focus Thielicke treats the problem of a

woman who will die if her pregnancy is not terminated. In this discussion he

gives the most enlightened treatment of the topic available from a biblical or

theological perspective. Although he rejects abortion because a child is a gift of

God, he still accepts the "murder" theory of abortion. He asks the question if

killing a person is ever right. We kill people when we sentence a person to death

for a crime. We kill people when we engage in a just war. Therefore killing is

sometimes right. Arguing further he asks whether suicide is ever right, for a

mother who would not terminate a pregnancy that would kill her is committing

suicide. He then shows that under certain circumstances suicide is right. We

honor a mother who is killed saving her infant from death. We honor a father

who saves his family by giving his life. Suicide is sometimes right and even

honorable. He finally asks, if a mother does not hesitate to save the life of her

child by giving her life, why does she hesitate in giving her life to save her fetus?

He concludes by stating that one can only do what he thinks right in this ticklish

situation realizing that we serve a God who will forgive if we are wrong.70

Thielicke leaves one on the horns of a dilemma, but his approach is basically

good, and shows the difficulty everyone faces with this one extreme question.71

An important objection needs to be raised in relation to Thielicke's ap-

proach. He equates murder and killing. This faulty equation has led to innumber-

able arguments about taking human life. Exodus 20:13 prohibits murder, but

there are circumstances that justify killing another person (self-defense, justice,

war). Therefore if abortion is murder,72 one must take the position of the

Roman Catholic Church that abortion is never justifiable as a direct act no

matter how serious the danger to the mother nor what the circumstances of her



    69 Thielicke, pp. 227-8.

    70 Ibid., 232-247.

    71 Noonan, "Introduction," The Morality of Abortion, ed. J. T. Noonan, Jr. (Cambridge:

Harvard University Press, 1970), makes the point that modern medicine has almost eliminat-

ed the extreme problems mentioned most often as justification for abortion. These prob-

lems are (1) the life of the mother versus the life of the child; (2) pregnancy resulting from

forced intercourse because of the common practice of performing a disinfecting procedure

to the vagina and uterus during immediate medical treatment; (3) severe genetic malforma-


    72 Kantzer, p. 553, suggests that if abortion were murder Ex. 21:22-24 would demand the

death penalty for the one inducing an abortion.


56                          Christian Scholar's Review


Psalm 127:3 states "Lo, sons are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the

womb a reward" (RSV). On the strength of this statement alone one could argue

that God is directly involved in every pregnancy. When this statement is

combined with Old Testament comments about God's involvement in childless-

ness and pregnancy in old age, one is impressed by the fact that the children of

Israel saw the hand of God involved in fertility or sterilty. Therefore one must

ask, "Are children a gift of God, or were children so important to the Israelite

society and their view of the world so theologically oriented that they consider-

ed children a direct gift from God?" When one adds to this the mystery

surrounding procreation before the advent of modern medicine,73 one is placed

in a difficult position. No one who reads the Old Testament will deny that the

children of Israel thought that children were a direct gift from God. The

question one must ask is this: "Is this part of the teaching of the Old Testament

or is it simply a part of the culture of the Old Testament, such as levirate

marriage?" The only argument offerable is weak. If children were a direct gift

from God, one would expect to find the explicit condemnation of abortion in

the Bible. At the same time one is greatly impressed with the pervasiveness of

this view in the Old Testament, and its pervasiveness may be a stronger argument

than the argument from silence given above.74

The conclusion of Montgomery that abortion can only be justified as the

lesser of two evils is a common position.75 It also can lead to the introduction

of factors that are more subjective than rational. In the case of rape or incest is

the psychological health of the mother more valuable than the life of the fetus?

Even if one places a higher value on the mother's mental health, there is little

evidence that a rape- or incest-generated pregnancy and birth will do more

permanent and severe psychological damage than the simple fact of the forced

intercourse itself. Serious personal crises forced on a person by factors beyond

control may be beneficial or detrimental. (This is not to suggest the need for

such crises, but to suggest that crisis counseling may have greater long range

benefits than abortion--we just do not know.) How can one weigh the life of a

fetus against an unknown and presently unmeasurable psychological danger?

If abortion is justified as the lesser of two evils, it may only be justified as

such by one whose position is that the fetus is not fully human. If a person


    73 Maurice Bear Gordon, "Medicine Among the Ancient Hebrews," Isis XXXIII (Dec.,

1941), 465, writes, "Since the Israelites realized that intercourse was necessary for but did

not invariably lead to pregnancy, they felt that successful fertilization was in the hands of

God." This inference goes beyond the data, but it is interesting.

    74 Those dealing with the problem of abortion usually treat the problem by asking one of

two questions: (1) When does a fetus become a human being? (2) Is a child a gift of God?

By treating these questions separately one gives the impression that they are not related.

The questions can and should be examined in combination as well as separately. The

resulting question is, "At what point in its development, if he is, does a child become a gift

of God?"

     75 Montgomery, "The Christian View....,” pp. 83-6.


Cerling:  Abortion and Contraception               57


considers the fetus human while claiming that abortion may be justified as the

lesser of two evils he places himself in an untenable position. Justification of

abortion under these circumstances logically leads to justification for infanticide

and euthanasia of the senile or terminally ill. If a fetus can be killed as the lesser

of two evils, badly deformed or severely retarded newborns could also be killed.

And they could be killed with greater justification because their defectiveness is

certain; whereas the defectiveness of a fetus is often uncertain. The same

reasoning applies to the senile and those whose life can be saved only at great

cost to their personality.

There are four positions on the question of when a fetus becomes a human.

The first is represented by traducianism where it is thought that a fetus is a

person from the moment of conception. The second is represented by creation-

ism that teaches that the fetus becomes a person when God gives it a soul. (This

occurs anywhere from conception to viability.) The third position is concerned

with the problem of viability.76 A fetus becomes a person when it would be

viable outside the mother's womb. The final position is the view that a fetus is

an emerging entity, immeasurably valuable from the moment of conception and

becoming increasingly valuable as it approaches birth.77 These positions are

integral to larger theological systems and derived more by deduction from other

propositions than from direct exposition of scripture. One is on far safer ground

when one contends that scripture does not give any information on when a fetus

becomes a human being. The greatest direct support from scripture appears to be

the application of Exodus 21:22-24 to the fourth position. No position stands

on solid ground, but if degrees of solidity are accepted, the fourth position

stands on ground that is least shaky.



The Bible says nothing directly and almost nothing indirectly on the

problems of contraception and abortion. One cannot emphasize this strongly

enough. If decisions are to be made on these questions they must be made by


    76 Viability as a term of distinction is becoming increasingly meaningless. Even considered

from the viewpoint of primitive societies, the newborn infant is not viable until he attains a

fair degree of maturity. Until the infant becomes a child or even an older youth, he is not

viable without a great deal of parental care. Modern medicine, which can save the life of

previously hopeless premature infants, makes the use of viability as a term of distinction

almost meaningless. When medical science reaches the point where it can place a fertilized

ovum in an artificial womb, this term will have lost all meaning.

    77 This is the position described by Kantzer in "The Origin of the Soul as Related to the

Abortion Question," Birth Control and the Christian, eds. Walter 0 Spitzer and Carlyle L.

Saylor, (Wheaton: Tyndale House Pub., 1969). Here he also states "The exact moment or

point in development at which a fetus becomes fully human, we cannot determine for this

lies in the freedom of God." (p. 557)


58                          Christian Scholar's Review


deduction from statements relating to the purpose(s) of marriage, the place of

children in marriage, and the value of fetal life.

The purpose of Christian marriage given in Ephesians 5 suggests that

marital love could involve contraception under certain justifiable conditions. But

contraception designed to prevent conception through the whole course of a

marriage would go contrary to the intent of the Creator as revealed in his blessing

to the first couple (Gen. 1:28).

With regard to abortion, if children are a gift of God, abortion would appear

to be unjustifiable except under the most extreme conditions. If one does not

accept the "gift-of-God" idea, one must then answer the question as to when a

fetus becomes a human being. That a child is a gift from God appears to the

author to have the support of the Old Testament. It would also appear that the

fetus is an emerging entity, immeasurably valuable at conception and becoming

increasingly valuable as the date of its birth approaches.






David A. Hoekema (Publisher)
Christian Scholar's Review
Calvin College

3201 Burton Street SE,

Grand Rapids, MI 49546




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