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The Sanctity of Life Versus the Sanctity of Law

By P. Andrew Sandlin
Published May 1, 2008

While they often do not possess a carefully articulated and principled theological approach to their opposition to abortion, the evangelicals have apparently picked up by osmosis the Roman Catholic idea of the repudiation of abortion on the grounds of “sanctity of life.” According to this theory, we deduce abortion is wrong because the church historically has opposed it and because “abortion of the human fetus [is] murder of the innocent.” 1 Man was created in God’s image and abortion has little “regard for the dignity and rights of the individual which is basic to the entire Judeo-Christian theology and tradition.” 2 The Roman Catholic view specifically founds its opposition to abortion on the abstract “right to life,” and even justified inasmuch as it is spelled out in the American Declaration of Independence.3 This appeal seems to imply a connection with the natural law theory pervasive among the Founders and, of course, endorsed by one of the principal doctors of the Roman church, Thomas Aquinas.

Grounded as it is in natural law theory, the pro-life position appeals to a supposed objective neutrality among humanity that, if it sees the issue aright, would, it is assumed, logically oppose abortion. It does not-cannot-employing Roman Catholic rationale take the depravity of mankind and the harmful effects of that depravity on man’s moral views seriously.4 Christians who support the pro-life position must recognize that in giving the unregenerate individual the opportunity to adjudicate on the issue of abortion on the basis of natural law, they are compromising the message of Scripture which depicts the unconverted as spiritually dead and unable to so adjudicate. And this is only the tip of the iceberg.

It is time for the evangelicals to rethink and, I assert, revise their commitment to the opposition to abortion by a “pro-life” rationale, which, I am convinced, is theologically defective and practically deleterious.

1. The “pro-life” position shifts the opposition to abortion from specifically Biblical to non-Biblical grounds. Abortion is opposed because it is a violation not of the law of God,5 but of the value of human life. The locus of objection is transferred from the propositional revelation of God to the value-estimate of humanity. It is anthropocentric (man-centered) rather than theocentric (God-centered) and therefore idolatrous. According to the pro-life position, abortion is opposed fundamentally because of the havoc it wreaks on humanity, not because of the havoc it wreaks on the law of God. If we oppose abortion primarily because of our high regard for humanity, it is hard to perceive how we can criticize supporters of homosexuality and opponents of capital punishment who employ the value of human life as the rationale for their misguided causes. More importantly, if we oppose abortion primarily because of our high regard for humanity, we come dangerously close to committing the sin of idolatry, the worship of man and his temporal life.

Losing the war by denying sola Scriptura

2. The “pro-life” position opens wide the door to other antinomian views and policies that in the log run will undermine opposition to abortion. In the case of Romanism, the activism opposing abortion must ultimately be subject to the ex cathedra pronouncements of the Pontiff; and if the Roman church were to alter her position on abortion, it would be difficult for consistent anti-abortionists within her bosom not to alter their activism, devoted as the Roman Church is to the subordination of Scripture to tradition. Similarly, formerly fervent activists of charismatic orientation have been paralyzed and muted by the specious “prophecies” of noted charismatic leaders, who declare God has revealed to them by direct revelation that Christian activism is dangerous. Devoted as many charismatics are to the validity of “advanced prophetic revelation,” they are paralized by such “revelations.” It is critical to note that in both cases Christian opposition to abortion may suffer immeasurably when authority for that opposition is redirected from the objective revelation of God in Scripture to some subjective standard, be it human tradition or be it experience. Similarly, it provides no bulwark against evangelicals like Ron Sider who, employing the rhetoric of pro-life, support “Christian” varieties of both socialism and feminism,6 or those who oppose capital punishment on precisely pro-life grounds.

3. The Protestant or evangelical “pro-life” position cannot survive indefinitely because its lack of sound Biblical theology and social theory cannot generate a sustained activism. For example, most of the evangelical wing of the pro-life movement is premillennial, while most of the Roman wing is amillennial. Neither of these eschatological views harmonizes with a long-term theory and strategy of Christian activism for each espouses a philosophy of history antithetical to the advancement of the Christian faith in the social and political spheres.7 The endorsement of postmillennialism, however, the view that the kingdom of God in all spheres of life is destined to advance in time and history by means of the operation of the Spirit of God, the preaching of the word of God, and the faithfulness of the church of God, provides the framework and impetus on which to ground a potent social theory. Postmillennialism cannot, nonetheless, provide the content for that social theory, but neither is modern evangelicalism equipped with a workable social theory, because its uniformly dispensational ethics either denies the need for such a theory, or abandons the applicability in the present age of those portions of Scripture (most notably the Old Testament law) that serve a blueprint for a Christian social theory. If evangelicals were to embrace some form of theonomy,8 however, they would have at their disposal a concrete pattern on which to develop a sound and potent social theory that includes a rationale for a principled opposition to, and alternative for, abortion. As it stands, the pro-life sector of evangelicalism is floundering because its eschatology cannot sustain its enthusiasm, and its social theory cannot inform its program.

The solution to this problem is the adoption of a principled, objective, explicitly Biblical approach-a pro-law approach-like that found in the Reformed faith. Indeed, it is difficult to envision an explicitly Biblical approach to the issue of abortion that is not in some way Reformed or influenced by Reformed tenets. In any case, if the evangelical anti-abortionists hope to expect sustained, eventual success, they must replace their “pro-life” position with “pro-law.”



1 Thomas J. O’Donnell, “A Traditional Catholic’s View,” in ed., Patricia Beattie Jung and Thomas A. Shannon, Abortion and Catholicism: The American Debate (New York: Crossroad, 1988), 44.
2 ibid., 47.
3 ibid.
4 Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1967 ed.).
5 R. J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law (no location: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1973), 263-269.
6 Ronald J. Sider, Completely Pro-Life (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1987).
7 Gary North, Millennialism and Social Theory (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1990).
8 Greg L. Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1984 ed.).


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