The following is Part 6 of an open letter to Colonel Vaughn Doner and a critique of his 2012 book, Christian Jihad: Neo-Fundamentalists and the Polarization of America. Throughout the series, I address Colonel Doner in the second person, “you.” This book review is part of a series examining Christian Postmodernism.
The Church Fathers had no problem with applying scripture to the abortion issue in the ancient Roman culture.
“Thou shalt not slay the child by procuring abortion; nor, again, shalt thou destroy it after it is born.”
– Epistle of Barnabas 19, c. AD 70-130.
Dear Colonel Doner,
I understand that this “distrust of certainties” has become a pervasive feature of our culture. However, I am perplexed by the following statement from your book:
Evangelicals’ penchant for applying the literal sense to contemporary issues didn’t come into vogue until the opening decade of the sixteenth century with Martin Luther.
Taking two of the most obvious social issues as an example, homosexual rights and abortion, is it true that ancient and medieval Christians did not think to apply biblical law to these “contemporary issues”? If it were, we would not see the following statements among the Church Fathers.
You shall not be a corrupter of boys, nor like unto such (Epistle of Barnabas, c. AD 70-130).
Some polluted themselves by lying with males. The Greeks, O King, follow debased practices in intercourse with males, or with mothers, sisters, and daughters. Yet, they, in turn impute their monstrous impurity to the Christians (Aristides, Apology, AD 125).
Oh, if placed on that lofty watch-tower, you could gaze into the secret places—if you could open the closed doors of sleeping chambers and recall their dark recesses to the perception of sight—you would behold things done by immodest persons which no chaste eye could look upon; you would see what even to see is a crime; you would see what people embruted with the madness of vice deny that they have done, and yet hasten to do—men with frenzied lusts rushing upon men, doing things which afford no gratification even to those who do them (Cyprian of Carthage, Letters, AD 250).
He who is guilty of unseemliness with males will be under discipline for the same time as adulterers (Basil the Great, Letters, AD 367).
All of these affections [in Rom. 1:26-27] . . . were vile, but chiefly the mad lust after males; for the soul is more the sufferer in sins, and more dishonored than the body in diseases (John Chrysostom, Homilies on Romans, AD 391).
Infanticide Through Abortion
Although the Bible does not mention the topic of abortion, it defines when life begins and prohibits the monstrous practice of infant sacrifice to pagan gods. Therefore, the Church Fathers had no problem in applying “You shall not murder” to abortion.
The second commandment of the teaching: You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not seduce boys. You shall not commit fornication. You shall not steal. You shall not practice magic. You shall not use potions. You shall not procure [an] abortion, nor destroy a newborn child (Didache 2:1,2, c. AD 70-130).
The way of light, then, is as follows. If anyone desires to travel to the appointed place, he must be zealous in his works. The knowledge, therefore, which is given to us for the purpose of walking in this way, is the following…. Thou shalt not slay the child by procuring abortion; nor, again, shalt thou destroy it after it is born (Epistle of Barnabas 19, c. AD 70-130).
What man of sound mind, therefore, will affirm, while such is our character, that we are murderers?… [W]hen we say that those women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder, and will have to give an account to God for the abortion, on what principle should we commit murder? For it does not belong to the same person to regard the very fetus in the womb as a created being, and therefore an object of God’s care, and when it has passed into life, to kill it; and not to expose an infant, because those who expose them are chargeable with child-murder, and on the other hand, when it has been reared to destroy it (Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians 35, AD 177).
In our case, a murder being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the fetus in the womb, while as yet the human being derives blood from the other parts of the body for its sustenance. To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man-killing; nor does it matter whether you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to birth. That is a man which is going to be one; you have the fruit already in its seed (Tertullian, Apology 9:8, AD 197).
Among surgeons’ tools there is a certain instrument, which is formed with a nicely-adjusted flexible frame for opening the uterus first of all and keeping it open; it is further furnished with an annular blade, by means of which the limbs [of the child] within the womb are dissected with anxious but unfaltering care; its last appendage being a blunted or covered hook, wherewith the entire fetus is extracted by a violent delivery. There is also [another instrument in the shape of] a copper needle or spike, by which the actual death is managed in this furtive robbery of life: They give it, from its infanticide function, the name of embruosphaktes, [meaning] “the slayer of the infant,” which of course was alive…. [The doctors who performed abortions] all knew well enough that a living being had been conceived, and [they] pitied this most luckless infant state, which had first to be put to death, to escape being tortured alive (Tertullian, The Soul 25, AD 210).
Now we allow that life begins with conception because we contend that the soul also begins from conception; life taking its commencement at the same moment and place that the soul does…. The law of Moses, indeed, punishes with due penalties the man who shall cause abortion [Ex. 21:22–24] (Tertullian, The Soul 25, AD 210).
There are some [pagan] women who, by drinking medical preparations, extinguish the source of the future man in their very bowels and thus commit a parricide before they bring forth. And these things assuredly come down from the teaching of your [false] gods…. To us [Christians] it is not lawful either to see or hear of homicide (Minucius Felix, Octavius 30, AD 226).
Women who were reputed to be believers began to take drugs to render themselves sterile, and to bind themselves tightly so as to expel what was being conceived, since they would not, on account of relatives and excess wealth, want to have a child by a slave or by any insignificant person. See, then, into what great impiety that lawless one has proceeded, by teaching adultery and murder at the same time! (Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies, AD 228).
He that kills another with a sword, or hurls an axe at his own wife and kills her, is guilty of willful murder; not he who throws a stone at a dog, and unintentionally kills a man, or who corrects one with a rod, or scourge, in order to reform him, or who kills a man in his own defense, when he only designed to hurt him. But the man, or woman, is a murderer that gives a philtrum, if the man that takes it dies upon it; so are they who take medicines to procure abortion; and so are they who kill on the highway, and rapparees (Basil the Great, Canon 8).
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 continue a mere harlot, but make her a murderess also. (Basil the Great, Homilies on Romans 24, AD 391).
I cannot bring myself to speak of the many virgins who daily fall and are lost to the bosom of the Church, their mother…. Some go so far as to take potions, that they may insure barrenness, and thus murder human beings almost before their conception. Some, when they find themselves with child through their sin, use drugs to procure abortion, and when, as often happens, they die with their offspring, they enter the lower world laden with the guilt not only of adultery against Christ but also of suicide and child murder (Basil the Great, Letters 22:13, AD 396).
You shall not slay your child by causing abortion, nor kill that which is begotten…. (Apostolic Constitutions 7:3, AD 400).
Now you might object that this is not what you mean by “applying the literal sense to contemporary issues,” but in the Greco-Roman culture, homosexuality, rampant abortion and infanticide were contemporary “social issues” of the day. What is interesting here is not that these were early sermons against social sin, but that some of these works were addressed to Roman officials and even Emperors trying to show the supremacy of biblical law and the virtue of Christian ethics as compared to pagan society. In many cases, the early Christians were martyred by pagan Roman officials for taking these stances. In any case, there was no “uncertainty” among the Church Fathers on the same two issues that vex the Church today. They sounded a clear trumpet and we ought to be certain about doing the same.
The Effects of Biblical “Literalism”
Of course, there is a big difference in objecting to Christians advocating biblical ethics in society, and objecting to those times when Christians misinterpret God’s Word in order to uphold evil. You use the issue of slavery as an example. Of course, we both agree that the Christians who used the Bible to justify slavery were woefully wrong. But one of the odd points of your argument is that you also seem to fault the “literalism” of Christians who used the Bible to end slavery. These anti-slavery advocates made the moral judgment that southern chattel slavery was based on kidnapping, generational bondage and disrespect for human life. Therefore, it was a great sin.
Even if you disagree that these “literalists” could wrest an anti-slavery interpretation from the very scriptures that allow for some forms of slavery, you cannot make the argument that any nation except those with a Christian culture led the way in outlawing slavery. Slavery was a plague as old as the human race and yet it was judged as a violation of God’s moral law. Interestingly, Iceland was the first nation to abolish slavery in 1117, less than 20 years after Christianity began to be peacefully adopted around the year 999. Slavery was dealt a final deathblow by Christian societies of the 18th and 19th centuries. Today, slavery is illegal in all nations of the world. Mauritania was the last nation to abolish it in 1981.
The same principle holds true for a host of other social evils. You commend these reform efforts in your book naming the oppression of women, infanticide, slavery and segregation as moral evils that were vanquished by the Church armed with the “sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God” (Ephesians 6:17).
While it is true that non-Christians have sometimes joined in these reform efforts, as Benjamin Franklin did when he donated a portion of his fortune to George Whitefield’s orphanages because he saw that it was “good for the country,” my challenge to you is to name some great moral reforms that have been initiated by pagan or secular societies that did not know the Bible. Of course, the secularists will mention homosexual rights and elective abortion as “advances” in civilization, but these are simply reversals of biblical morality and a perversion of true reform. Secular and pagan reform can only advance by calling evil “good” and good “evil.” Reform rooted in relativistic morality debases the culture by dehumanizing the individual.