Skip to comments.THE EARLY CHURCH AND ABORTION: THE WITNESS OF BASIL OF CAESAREA
Posted on 01/03/2006 9:37:03 AM PST by HarleyD
Central to the early Christian community was an ethic which, on the one hand, condemned violence and bloodshed and, on the other, vigorously upheld the sanctity of life. Such an ethic had, and still has, manifold ramifications. In the case of the early Christians, it led them not only to shun the violent pastimes of the Roman arena, but also to eschew participation in the militarism of the Roman state. Of great import with regard to our contemporary scene, this ethic led the early Church to articulate a clear position concerning the treatment of the unborn. In the following paper, the treatment of abortion by a key figure in the early Church, namely Basil of Caesarea (c.330-379 A.D.), is examined in the hope that it may help to set the current discussion of this issue in historical perspective.
Now, the New Testament nowhere explicitly condemns the practice of abortion, which is somewhat surprising in view of the fact that abortion was not at all uncommon in the Graeco-Roman world. Whatever the reason for this explicit silence, early Christian authors outside of the New Testament consistently saw, in the frequent recourse to abortion by women in the Graeco-Roman world, a violation of the Scriptural prohibition against murder. For instance, the second-century apologist, Athenagoras, answering the pagan accusation the Christians practiced cannibalism, (a charge which was rooted in a misunderstanding of the Lords Supper), declared:
What sense does it make to think of us as murderers when we say that women who practice abortion are murderers and will render account to God for abortion? The same man cannot regard that which is in the womb as a living being and for that reason an object of Gods concern and then murder it when it has come into the light.
Substantially, this was to be the position with regard to abortion which the Church would maintain throughout this early period. An excellent summation of this position is offered by Basil of Caesarea in a letter which he wrote to a close friend and co-worker, Amphilochius of Iconium. Basil is probably best known for the key role which he played in the articulation of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. His chief theological work, On the Holy Spirit (written in 375), marked a decisive step towards the resolution of the fourth-century controversy over the deity of the Spirit. Yet, he was also vitally interested in ethical questions, and his statement on the issue of abortion has been well described by Michael J. Gorman as one of the most profound theological and ethical statements on abortion that has come down to us from the early Church.
In the above-mentioned letter to Amphilochius, written in either 374 or 375, Basil is responding to a number of questions which Amphilochius had raised with regard to a variety of topics. To a question apparently about abortion, Basil makes this reply:
Basil begins by reiterating the position of Athenagoras: abortion is murder. In fact, Basil notes, it often results in two murders, since the woman seeking to have an abortion often dies in the endeavour. Moreover, he rejects any arbitrary attempt to distinguish between stages of fetal development. Basil clearly believes that a human soul is present in a developing fetus from the moment of conception, and he is thus concerned that the deliberate killing of any unborn be regarded as murder. As Gorman puts it, Basil dismisses as irrelevant all casuistic distinctions between the formed and unformed fetus. For him . . . all life . . . is sacred.
That Basil would take such a position is fascinating in view of the fact that the Greek translation of the Old Testament which he used, namely the Septuagint, contained a text which did, in fact, make a distinction between a completely formed fetus (one which possesses a human soul) and an unformed one (one which does not yet possess a human soul). The passage in question is Exodus 21:22-24. The Hebrew text of this passage as translated by the Authorized Version reads as follows:
If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall surely be punished, according as the womans husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.
The rendition of this verse in the Septuagint, however, differs significantly from the Hebrew text. For it renders this verse thus:
If two men fight and they strike a woman who is pregnant, and her child comes out while not yet fully formed, the one liable to punishment will be fined; whatever the womans husband imposes, he will give as is fitting. But if it is fully formed, he will give life for life.
The distinction made here between a formed and unformed fetus probably reflects the position of the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), who sought to distinguish between lawful and unlawful abortions on the basis of whether or not the human embryo was fully formed or not. Although the Greek translation of this text from Exodus does not have in view the intentional killing of an unborn child, there were some in Basils day who used this passage from the Septuagint to argue that abortion in the early stages of fetal development is not equivalent to murder. Basil implicitly rejects this argument by refusing to countenance the distinction drawn from Exodus 21:22-24 as it was translated in the Septuagint. Since Basil was committed to the inerrancy of the Scriptures, it may well be the case that he discerned that this inerrancy should not be extended to a translation.
Basils discussion of abortion is set firmly in a pastoral context, for he now proceeds to give advice on how to deal with those who have had abortions but are now repentant. He makes it clear that, while abortion is indeed a serious sin, it is not one that is unforgivable when there is repentance. He rejects the harsh ruling of the Spanish Council of Elvira (305/306 A.D.) that the woman who had procured an abortion could never be received back into the full fellowship of the Church while she was alive. Instead, he accepts the later ruling from the Council of Ancyra (314), which was composed of church leaders from the Roman provinces of Asia Minor and Syria. This Council prescribed a period of ten years before a woman who had had an abortion and was now repentant could be restored to communion. But Basil even goes beyond this somewhat legalistic approach to the sin of abortion. For him, what is important is not the amount of time spent in sorrowing for the sin committed, but the depth and sincerity of the repentance. Once again, to cite Gorman, Basil views sincere repentance as a valid sign of Gods grace and forgiveness. Moreover, unlike the rulings issued by the Councils of Elvira and Ancyra, Basil makes no mention of sexual sin in his condemnation of abortion. Basil regards abortion as a sin due to the fact that it involves the destruction of human life, not because it was often employed to conceal illicit sexual activity.
Basils advice with regard to abortion strikes a good balance between truth and mercy: he recognizes the heinousness of this sin in the eyes of God, but at the same time, he is cognizant that this sin is not beyond the pale of Gods forgiveness. In fact, his advice is only part of a much larger attitude towards the physically weak and infirm. Whereas the pagan Graeco-Roman world was extremely callous with regard to the value of human life, Basil, indeed the early Christian community as a whole, sought to demonstrate the compassion of the Lord Jesus for the weak and the defenseless. For instance, only a couple of years prior to the composition of this letter to Amphilochius, Basil had been instrumental in the founding of what would become the most famous hospital in the ancient world. The conception of this hospital appears to have been the direct result of Basils active involvement in a programme of relief for the victims of a very severe famine and drought during the winter of 368-369. From the pen of Gregory of Nazianzus, another of Basils close friends, comes the following description of Basils activity during this period of famine and drought:
He gathered together the victims of the famine, men and women, children, old people, sufferers of every age. Then he collected contributions of food of all sorts, anything that could be eaten. He provided great pots of pea soup and salted meat, the sort poor folk eat, and he imitated the service Christ gave when he girded himself with a towel and humbly washed his disciples feet. Working with his own servants as their equal, he served the poor both as to their bodies and their souls.
The stance taken by Basil with regard to abortion is yet another facet of the compassion and concern he exhibited on this occasion during the winter of 368-369 and at other times during his life. This stance emanated from a genuine concern for the life of the unborn child and, as such, remains both a model and a challenge for the Church at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
An article I found rather interesting.
"For as murder is once for all forbidden; so even the child in the womb..." (Tertullian, early Church Father - 3rd century).
"A woman who deliberately destroys a fetus is answerable for murder". (Saint Basil, 4th century).
Are you advocating that the laws of the United States be amended to reflect this? This was never the penalty back when abortion was illegal.
YIKES!!! I must have posted the wrong article. :O)
Seriously I thought this was an interesting discussion on abortion from a historical Church perspective.
We all have far more in common than not.
ABC's of cultural suicide ...
The Fathers are replete with condemnations of abortion, some in the most explicit and gory terms.
"Wherefore I beseech you, flee fornication . . . Why sow where the ground makes it its care to destroy the fruit? -- where there are many efforts at abortion? -- where there is murder before the birth? For even the harlot you do not let conntinue a mere harlot, but make her a murderess also. You see how drunkenness leads to prostitution, prostitution to adultery, adultery to murder; or rather to a something even worse than murder. For I have no name to give it, since it does not take off the thing born, but prevents its being born. Why then do thou abuse the gift of God, and fight with His laws, and follow after what is a curse as if a blessing, and make the chamber of procreation a chamber for murder, and arm the woman that was given for childbearing unto slaughter? For with a view to drawing more money by being agreeable and an object of longing to her lovers, even this she is not backward to do, so heaping upon thy head a great pile of fire. For even if the daring deed be hers, yet the causing of it is thine" +John Chrysostomos, Homily on Romans 24
"If, as may well happen, you give birth to a child, if it is a boy let it live; if it is a girl, expose it."
-Letter of one Hilarion to his wife, circa 1 BC.
Girls were victims of infanticide more often than boys, which also led to the pagans marrying the Christian women who weren't killed at birth. This phenomenon might repeat itself in India and China, countries which are both facing surplus male populations because of selective abortions.
**We all have far more in common than not.**
Amen to that!
Spiritual Adoption Prayer for the Unborn
Jesus, Mary, Joseph I love you very much.
I beg you to spare the life of the unborn child that I have spiritually adopted.
Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be.