On Abortion, It's the Bible of Ambiguity
By MICHAEL LUO. NY Times: November 13, 2005; Ideas & Trends
FLIP to the back of any of the fancy, leather-bound Bibles that are so common in evangelical churches these days, and chances are there is an index. Called a concordance, it offers a list of specific words mentioned in the Bible and where they are referenced in the text.
There a reader can find, for example, how many times Jesus talked about the poor (at least a dozen), or what the Apostle Paul wrote about grace (a lot). But those who turn to their concordance for guidance about abortion will not find the word at all.
"I can't take you to text that says, 'Don't commit abortion,' " said Michael J. Gorman, a professor of New Testament and early church history and dean of the Ecumenical Institute of Theology at St. Mary's Seminary and University, located in Baltimore. "It just doesn't exist."
Does that mean the Bible has nothing to offer on the issue? Mr. Gorman, who calls himself an evangelical, cites the early church's opposition to abortion and broader themes that suffuse the Scriptures, rather than specific verses: "There's an impetus in the Bible toward the protection of the innocent, protection for the weak, respect for life, respect for God's creation."
For evangelicals, who are defined in large part by their reliance on the Bible, the question of how the Scriptures should be interpreted is crucial. Catholics depend more heavily on the church's moral teachings, which are often drawn not from the Bible but what they call, "natural law," the innate sense of morality that they believe is written on people's hearts and can be divined by human reason.
But evangelicals - or at least the members of the vocal religious right who have dominated the issue over the last two decades or so - use the words of the Bible to make their case. And in many ways, what the Bible actually says, and according to whom, is where the battle over abortion begins.
One anti-abortion group, Michigan Christians for Life, for instance, sells bumper stickers emblazoned with "Deuteronomy 30:19."
The verse reads: "This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to His voice, and hold fast to Him."
But some evangelical scholars say the passage has nothing to do with abortion. Instead, it is an exhortation to Israelites, who fled Egypt and are wandering in the desert, to obey God's word, the way to true life, said John Goldingay, a professor of Old Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary, outside of Los Angeles.
"It's saying to Israel, choosing life means choosing the way of life, choosing to obey God's word, which has been revealed over the last 30 chapters," Mr. Goldingay said.
Like many professors at evangelical seminaries today, Mr. Goldingay teaches his students to pay attention to the genre of the biblical passage they are studying before interpreting specific verses. Some passages in the Bible are written as poetry, full of metaphoric language and imagery, and were never meant to be taken literally, he said. Others, especially in the Old Testament, are written as history and detail God's relationship with his chosen people, the Israelites, and need to be read as such.
"We're always trying to work out legal implications from them, as if they were a legal kind of text, like interpreting a constitutional document," Mr. Goldingay said. "The problem is that wasn't what they were designed to do."
But other evangelical scholars, at seminaries that read the Bible more literally, disagree. "Just because it's not primarily about abortion doesn't mean we shouldn't draw anything from it," said Craig V. Mitchell, assistant professor of Christian ethics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Forth Worth, Tex.
He pointed to a passage in the Book of Psalms, often cited by anti-abortion groups. The verses, from Psalm 139, read: "For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well."
To many evangelicals who oppose abortion, the verses speak directly to when life begins - at the moment of conception.
"I'd summarize Psalm 139 as suggesting that in the womb, from the very first point of conception, it's God at work," said Scott B. Rae, a professor of Christian ethics at Talbot School of Theology and Biola University, an evangelical school outside of Los Angeles.
But, again, other evangelical Bible scholars differ. In this case, the writer of Psalms, which is essentially a collection of songs, is using poetic imagery to celebrate God's special relationship with his chosen people, the Israelites, and his promise to be with them for a thousand generations, said Willem A. VanGemeren, a professor of Old Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, an evangelical seminary outside of Chicago.
"The issue is not so much of when the moment of conception is, or the beginning of life, but rather they cannot see life apart from their relationship with the Lord," Mr. VanGemeren said.
For their part, some abortion rights supporters frequently turn to a passage in Exodus 21 that sets out guidelines for the Israelites on how to resolve a dispute in which a pregnant woman intervenes between two men fighting and is struck: "If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman's husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise."
Abortion rights activists argue that the passage shows the fetus is assigned a lower value than the woman, because if a premature birth occurs, they say, the baby dies. Then, the punishment is only a fine, compared to "life for life, eye for eye" if the woman is killed.
"You can't make everything of that passage," said Paul D. Simmons, an ethics professor at University of Louisville, who once taught at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. "What you can establish is there's a clear distinction between a fetus and a woman."
But Mr. VanGemeren, of Trinity, said that conclusion is shaky, arguing the passage remains shrouded in ambiguity.
"We don't quite understand what exactly happens to that child," he said.
According to Mr. VanGemeren and many other evangelical Bible scholars, no single passage in the Bible clearly supports the anti-abortion stance, but they argue that the broad narrative of the Bible, with its themes of creation, God's blessing on life and humanity bearing the image of God, speak against abortion.
"Of course, nothing addresses abortion directly," Mr. VanGemeren said, "but the biblical inference as accepted over the centuries is a witness that cannot be ignored."
Interpreting the Bible, as difficult as it is, becomes only more so, when theologians are asked how abortion should be legislated, if it should be legislated at all.
Some scholars spoke in absolutes, others cited exceptions. Still others waxed eloquent about the need to turn society away from its individualistic ethos and the need to pay equal attention to other biblical priorities.
In the end, as it turns out, it is a complicated business, bringing a complicated Bible into a complicated world.