Argument by scriptural authority and the fight over abortion rights

Consider the classic children’s song that goes something like this:

Jesus loves me this I know
For the bible tells me so
Little ones to him belong
They are weak but he is strong

This is an example of an “argument by scriptural authority.” These arguments are less concerned with persuasion than with justification; i.e. you won’t change someone’s mind with such an argument, but it does lay out why a person holds a particular point of view.

Argument by scriptural authority is potentially dangerous and must be used very carefully. It blocks productive dialog between secular and religious communities. Once a believer finds a scriptural basis for a point of view, that point of view becomes static and unchangeable. Any further discussion is off-limits and violates deeply held religious truth.

I submit that this practice is not only dangerous, but it misses a fundamental characteristic of religious scripture. Scripture makes heavy use of symbolism and is often deliberately vague; thereby gaining the flexibility needed to apply to a wider scope.

I understand that there are cases where scripture is crystal clear. For example, John 3:16 is one of the most famous verses in the Bible since it spells-out with little ambiguity the fundamental core of Christianity:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.

You can debate the meaning of “not perish” or “everlasting life,” but these are theological details; i.e. “angels dancing on the head of a pin.” God loved the world and offered Jesus as a path to salvation to any who choose to believe. If there is a better one sentence summary of Christianity, I’d love to see it.

Much of what you find in the Bible, however, is open to interpretation. This is not a failing of the scriptures. If scriptures tried to address specific details of every issue connected to past or future lives, they’d inevitably fail or be so long as to be unusable. Language that is vague in the specifics while exposing a deeper truth is language that can adapt as civilizations change and humanity evolves.

There is perhaps no better example of this than an exploration of abortion in the Bible. Opposition to abortion has become a fundamental point of faith for large blocks of the evangelical Christian community. Politicians looking for wedge issues to lock down voters to “their” side, have used the abortion issue; inflaming emotions and turning this into a violent clash between opposing camps.

On one side are the secular humanists opposed to government control over a woman’s reproductive system. On the other side, the religious community fighting to save unborn babies (which is an oxymoron since a baby by definition has been born). The Supreme Court in Roe vs. Wade produced the compromise position that has become the law of the land. Viability of a fetus, should it be removed from the womb, defines a line prior to which abortion is freely permitted and after which abortion can be regulated.

That compromise, however, has been rejected by many religious people based in part on their reference to scriptural authority. The claim is made that the Bible states a fetus is a human being with a soul and this happens at conception; that is, a zygote (fertilized egg) should have the rights of a post-partum fetus (a baby). The verses commonly used to support this view are Psalm 139:13-16:

13 For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.

Another verse commonly raised comes from Jerimiah 1:5 where God is speaking directly to Jeremiah:

5 Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.

These passages are vague about the status of a fetus let alone a zygote. One of the few points of agreement between the religions of Abraham is that God lives outside the normal human experience of time. Past, present and future are accessible to God; hence why He appears to us as omniscient. All these verses are saying is that the hand of God guides what transpires on earth and since God is omniscient, He knows what a zygote will become as it moves through life. This does not say that a zygote has a soul and should be accorded the rights of a baby.

If a person held to the view of zygote-as-baby, however, and if that person were looking for scriptural authority to back that point of view, these verses could be interpreted to serve that end. At which point, a personal perspective becomes religious truth. The bible, in essence, is used as a mirror of the views a reader brings to the scriptures. And then that religious truth can be used to demand/justify a wide range of fixed behaviors even if those behaviors viewed from the outside would be horrible.

Remember, scriptural authority has not only been used to justify banning abortion. The bible supports slavery (Titus 2:9, Ephesians 6:5), segregation (Deuteronomy 32:8), genocide (Joshua 10:40, 1 Samuel 15:-3) and all manner of behaviors we’d widely condemn today.

We can of course turn this around. If I want to support a pro-choice attitude I can find scriptures to back it up. One point from the secular humanist community is that an honest mind embraces mystery and doesn’t feel the need to pretend knowledge where none exists. I don’t’ know what a soul is let alone if it exists or when it enters a fetus. And the bible supports me in this point of view (Ecclesiastes 11:5 … English Standard version):

As you do not know the way the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything.

I have often said that the bible doesn’t mention abortion. I am wrong. The bible not only mentions abortion, in at least one case abortion is demanded by law. Consider Numbers chapter 5 which discusses what should be done if a man suspects his wife of adultery.

24 He shall make the woman drink the bitter water that brings a curse, and this water that brings a curse and causes bitter suffering will enter her. 25 The priest is to take from her hands the grain offering for jealousy, wave it before the Lord and bring it to the altar. 26 The priest is then to take a handful of the grain offering as a memorial offering and burn it on the altar; after that, he is to have the woman drink the water. 27 If she has made herself impure and been unfaithful to her husband, this will be the result: When she is made to drink the water that brings a curse and causes bitter suffering, it will enter her, her abdomen will swell and her womb will miscarry, and she will become a curse.

Does a fetus have the same worth and hence rights as the mother? The bible doesn’t think so (Exodus 21:22-25, King James Version).

22 If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman’s husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. 23 And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, 24 Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

This last case is instructive for the larger point I am trying to make. Some translations state that a miscarriage occurs, while others offer some version of the “fruit departs from her”. And it is not clear if the statement “mischief follow” refers to the mother or the fetus. A legitimate interpretation, however, and one I can use to support my pro-choice sensibilities is that since we are talking about a miscarriage, the only party that can be impacted by “mischief” is the mother. Hence, the penalty is death if the mother dies and a fine if you’ve only destroyed a fetus. I can mold the interpretation to fit the result I am seeking.

Just to be clear, I am NOT constructing these pro-choice arguments to convince anyone that the Bible is fundamentally pro-choice. I can read into the bible an anti-abortion or pro-choice perspective depending on the outcome I want to achieve. That is the point I am trying to make. And hopefully, this serves as a good demonstration of my central thesis; that argument by appeal to scriptural authority is dangerous.

When such an argument makes the church unwelcome to half the population (as it does with abortion rights where a May 2015 Gallup poll showed 50% of the U.S. population pro-choice and 46% anti-abortion) , Christians should think carefully about the wisdom behind making such arguments. This is a point often made in the teachings of Jesus. Remember his scorn for the religious authorities of his age? Jesus repeatedly clashed with Pharisees and Scribes who tried to use “argument by scriptural authority” against him. Hence, such arguments are not only dangerous, they may run counter to the teachings of Jesus. But that is a complex topic that must wait for a later essay.