younger than the happy meal? evangelicals, abortion and ahistoricism

An interesting and revealing article appeared on a Patheos blog some days ago claiming that the current and standard Evangelical view on abortion, that human life unquestioningly begins at conception, can in fact be traced to a point no less recently than 30 years ago.

In his post, entitled The ‘biblical view’ that’s younger than the Happy Meal, Fred Clark shows quite convincingly that the contemporary black-and-white approach to abortion, an approach that has been taken for granted by many as simply biblical, was not in fact the view of conservative Evangelicals 30 years ago.

One of notable Evangelicals includes Normal Geisler (Trinity Evangelical Seminary, Dallas Seminary and Southern Evangelical Seminar) who, in his 1971 book Ethics: Alternatives and Issues, argued that, “The embryo is not fully human — it is an undeveloped person.” His view changed radically in subsequent years.

Clark also points to a 1979 Christianity Today article, edited by Harold Lindsell (whom Clark calls a “champion of ‘inerrancy’ and author of The Battle for the Bible“), in which a unnamed Dallas Seminary professor labelled the Catholic position on abortion “unbiblical” and wrote:

God does not regard the fetus as a soul, no matter how far gestation has progressed. The Law plainly exacts: “If a man kills any human life he will be put to death” (Lev. 24:17). But according to Exodus 21:22-24, the destruction of the fetus is not a capital offense. … Clearly, then, in contrast to the mother, the fetus is not reckoned as a soul.

This was considered by Evangelicals an orthodox position. How things have changed.

I should make clear right now that I am refusing to offer a personal view on the issue of abortion in this post. If anyone is wishing to judge me based on my view, you can stop reading right now since ou won’t get it – abortion per se is not my interest here.

The problem with the abortion debate is the utter ahistoricism inherent in much of the rhetoric – most people are not willing to examine nor even acknowledge the historical antecedents of their own views. This results in a basic historical ignorance and the mistaken view that one’s perspective is somehow directly derived from the Bible without need of reference to 2000 years of subsequent history and cultural trajectories.

This ahistoricism extends, unfortunately but predictably, into distortion and unbalance. In and of itself the constant implication that a particular view of abortion is a defining mark of Evangelical, nay, Christian, theology is quite disturbing. So too is the division caused by the issue – I know of no human being who views abortion as a moral good; rather the debate is when, if at all, abortion might be necessary.

I constantly find myself aghast at the incomprehensibility of the conservative/fundamentalist obsession with abortion and homosexuality, particularly when the biblical material on these issues is so sparse (arguably absent in the case of the former). In contrast I find myself more horrified by the lack of concern for more pressing global issues such as poverty, greed, violence and environmental stewardship, especially considering the weight of biblical precedent for such foci (in the case of poverty there are over 2000 references in the Bible, demonstrating at the very least a comprehensive concern).

By all means, oppose abortion if that if your conviction, but one cannot use the moniker “pro-life” unless one is genuinely and consistently pro-life across the board!

How did we arrive at this situation where the dominant conservative approach to the intersection of Bible and culture is so unbalanced toward, statistically speaking, minor issues? I’m sure the answer is highly complex, and I do not imagine I can even begin to answer it here.

Needless to say that the stereotypical conservative hermeneutic has become so ahistorical, selective and propositional that it has failed to discern the “big picture” of the biblical narrative, preferring to focus on narrow issues of morality. Moreover it seems that this hermeneutic has become the slave of a socio-politically conservative agenda.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that the primary proponents of this agenda are those that experience little in the way of social marginalisation. Consequently they are unable to stand against many forms of actual injustice that affect them directly. Moreover, given that their legacy is definitive global chaos in the form of issues such as poverty, environmental destruction and corporate greed, it is unlikely that their hermeneutic will make space to confront such urgent issues.

Since such people are, historically speaking, not generally female or homosexual, is it any wonder that the inner-desire for righteous antagonism finds its resting place in issues that focus on women and gays – the very people they are not? These issues become the perfect social evil to rail about self-righteously.

No need for suffering in the name of justice, for incarnation. No need to be legitimately pro-life across all aspects of life. All that is required is the theological equivalent of a sniper rifle.

Sadly the Bible is cooped by this agenda, and history is blindly assumed to be on side. After all, what we believe now has always been the case, right?


Posted on February 24, 2012, in Hermeneutics, Theology and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Very good food for thought Matt

  2. I can certainly see where you are coming from on this issue, but I have two points. Firstly; surely history does not determine whether a view or idea is objectively true or not. Thought patterns within a culture constantly change. You only have to look at society’s views on women, indigenous people, slavery etc to see that the way people though 50 or 100 years ago is now considered massively ignorant in some areas. The fact that evangelical opposition to abortion may be a new phenomenon surely by itself, doesn’t diminish it’s efficacy (whichever way you see the issue).

    My second point, is that you may call it a minor issue, but the truth of the matter is – whatever your view – there are millions of babies/foetus’ that die every year because of it. Surely any practice that causes the death of so many so easily, should be carefully examined and debated. In my opinion, it is right that the church has a strong stance on this issue, just as the church should have had a firm stance on slavery, and womens’ rights much earlier than it did.

    I am not saying in any way that the issue of abortion should trump other current issues, but I just think we should care about this particular issue, as well as caring about other forms of social injustice.

    • Hi Rob, good to hear from you.

      In regard to your first point I 100% agree. The legitimacy of the position is, at its core, not reliant on history. However the claims of orthodoxy do rely on history. As I alluded to, the current conservative position is essentially a Catholic position, though the view that life begins at conception is relatively recent. The standard Evangelical position was, for a long time, markedly different; that is to say, the current postion has not always been seen as orthodox in Evangelicalism.

      Like you say, none of this is to make a substantive statement about anti-abortion arguments, only to say the way they are often argued (as self-evidently true) is historically ignorant. Moreover such arguments are inconsistent when the proponents support war or capital punishment (mainly in the US), or when they are apathetic toward environmental destruction and global poverty – being pro-life is about more than abortion.

      Like I said, I’m not weighing in on the abortion debate, only commenting on how we engage it. Indeed I did mention that no one I’ve ever heard of has claimed it is a moral good…

  3. Very true, if the argument is supported by claims of orthodoxy, I agree that it becomes shaky ground. I also agree that there is a lot of inconsistency in belief (I think that is rife generally throughout society on a wide range of issues). People on both sides of the issue arguing for causes that inherently conflict. It would be great – as you say – for people, especially Christians to adopt a whole world view rather than selectively picking out certain issues to hold opinions on.

    I think that is certainly a challenge though, I know it is for me at least!

    • And also to me. The challenge is an ongoing struggle which none of us will completely master. Some of the biggest heroes of the faith, both ancient and modern, were complete failures in important aspects of their lives. This is both sobering and comforting.

  4. Matt, thinking off the top of my head here but do you think there is validity in saying that many of the issues that many Christians have strong beliefs on and speak openly about (namely the ones you mentioned and could I add sexual purity, sex before marriage, alcohol/drug abuse) are ones in which you are able to take a ‘moral high ground’ approach with? I am saying this in the sense that for many of these issues it is somewhat easy to judge another person and perhaps look down and condemn them. Perhaps we sometimes find ourselves more preoccupied and indeed more satisfied with judging and condemning rather than engaging with issues which are difficult and it could be said that many/most of us are guilty of (materialism, consumerism and neglect of the poor)?

    I think that the issues of poverty and greed are ones which require us to take a good look at ourselves because we easily could be (and are) guilty of failing to do our part. Issues like you mentioned in the post (abortion, homosexuality etc), are perhaps more “you’ve done it/are impacted by it or you haven’t” kind of issues.

    Please hear me, I am not saying that issues of sexual purity, homosexuality and abortion are not complex or untidy issues to deal with, it’s just that it is (perhaps) easier to take a higher moral ground and judge others on these issues than it is on issues of poverty and social justice.

    • Jono,

      I think you are definitely onto something there. I don’t hear you in any way saying that sexual purity, abortion or sexuality aren’t important issues, but just that it is easier to engage them from a distance and thus with a judgemental eye.

      On the other hand it can also be the case that condemning people for a certain moral failure is really a foil for one’s own guilt in lapsing in that very same moral area! For example some televangelists and ministers who have railed against sexual impurity, homosexuality or pornography have themselves been involved in those things.

      I have a friend who half-jokingly, half-seriously, argues that the obsession of so many manly-men Christians with denouncing homosexuality is actually a foil. I laugh and wonder at the same time.

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