Christian Scholars Review (Fall, 1971) 42-58.
Copyright © 1971 by Christian Scholars Review. Cited with permission.
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 (
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.
(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),
Cerling: Abortion and Contraception 43
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
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
THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE CHRISTIAN POSITION
ON CONTRACEPTION AND ABORTION6
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
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 "
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,
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 (
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
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
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,
The Apostolic Fathers, trans. and ed.
J. B. Lightfoot (
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
THE OLD TESTAMENT
AND THE PROBLEMS OF CONTRACEPTION AND ABORTION
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
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 (
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
imagine how contraception and abortion could become problems. They may
have been rejected without even being seriously considered.
PURPOSE OF MARRIAGE
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-
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
(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.
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
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,
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
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.
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
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 (
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.
THE NEW TESTAMENT
AND THE PROBLEMS OF CONTRACEPTION AND ABORTION
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
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
Papyrus, Ebers Papyrus, Ramasseum Papyrus IV,
55 Noonan, Contraception .... p. 45.
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
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
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
ABORTION CONSIDERED THEOLOGICALLY64
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.
"Introduction," The Morality of
Abortion, ed. J. T. Noonan, Jr. (
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
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
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
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
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.
This material is cited with gracious permission from:
David A. Hoekema (Publisher)
Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at: firstname.lastname@example.org