Abortion and the era of the early Church Councils

by Luke Wayne

The Bible teaches that all human life is sacred and made in the image of God, and to take an innocent human life is therefore not only a heinous crime against man but also a blasphemous sin against God. The Bible defines unborn children as living humans worthy of those protections and therefore provides the ethical foundation for the complete rejection of the practice of human abortion.1 Defenders of abortion insist that modern Christians are reading the politics of today back into the text. A survey of ancient Jewish and Christian literature, however, easily demonstrates that those who held the Scriptures sacred 2,000 years ago were led to reject abortion just as Christians who take the Bible seriously are led to reject it today.2

It is also worth noting that documents from the era of the earliest church councils help us to further demonstrate that this understanding of the Scriptures was not merely the view of a handful of early Christians but rather represented a broad consensus among the ancient churches. The Bible is the sole infallible rule of faith in the Christian life, and we do not reject abortion merely because an ancient council decreed it, but the documents surrounding these councils gives us a window into how those Scriptures were jointly understood by large numbers of diverse Christian churches across the ancient world. They have their biases just as we have ours and their views can be checked against the ultimate authority of Scripture just as ours can. But when the broad consensus of the ancient churches arrive at the same conclusions from those Scriptures that we are arriving at today, at the very least it certainly proves that it is not modern politics producing those conclusions.

At the dawn of the 4th Century, even prior to the famous Council of Nicea, a large number of church leaders gathered in the city of Ancyra to discuss several pressing issues. While not a central topic of discussion in the council, one of their decrees stated:

"Concerning women who commit fornication, and destroy that which they have conceived, or who are employed in making drugs for abortion, a former decree excluded them until the hour of death, and to this some have assented.  Nevertheless, being desirous to use somewhat greater lenity, we have ordained that they fulfill ten years [of penance], according to the prescribed degrees," (The Council of Ancyra, Canon 21).

It is instructive to note that this declaration mentions an even earlier decree, obviously well known at the time, that was even harsher on abortion and with which some still agreed. While softening the punishment somewhat, the offender was required to spend ten years in continued penitence before their excommunication for committing abortion would be lifted. This can hardly be called a softening stance on the seriousness of the sin of abortion. Ancyra was a regional council, but the full ecumenical Council of Calcedon declared:

"We have judged it right that the canons of the Holy Fathers made in every synod even until now, should remain in force," (The Council of Chalcedon, Canon 1).

Canon 2 of the 5th-Century Council of Trullo explicitly lists Ancyra among the synods whose cannons were thus affirmed. Those gathered at Trullo also affirmed the Canons of Basil, the 4th-Century Bishop of Caesarea, which include:

"The woman who purposely destroys her unborn child is guilty of murder. With us there is no nice inquiry as to its being formed or unformed," (Basil, Letter to Amphilochius Concerning the Canons, Canon 2).

And the Council of Trullo itself declared:

"Those who give drugs for procuring abortion, and those who receive poisons to kill the fetus, are subjected to the penalty of murder," (The Council of Trullo, Canon 91).

Interestingly, those at Trullo wanted to give their full stamp of approval on a document known as the "Apostolic Constitutions," but said that they could not because heretics had produced their own versions of the document introducing impure teachings. Indeed, at least one manuscript of the Constitutions that survives today is believed by some scholars to be an Aryan version. This is fascinating because all forms of the Apostolic Constitutions contain the command:

"Thou shall not slay thy child by causing abortion, nor kill that which is begotten; for everything that is shaped, and has received a soul from God, if it be slain, shall be avenged, as being unjustly destroyed.” (Apostolic Constitutions, Book 7, Section 1:3).

This provides evidence that both sides, even the heretics, in the controversies addressed by the 4th-Century Councils agreed on the evil of abortion. In fact, while these so-called "Apostolic" Constitutions are really a 4th-Century production, this particular quote from the Constitutions goes back much earlier in church history. The core command, "Thou shall not slay thy child by causing abortion, nor kill that which is begotten," is found verbatim in not just one but two of the most ancient Christian documents we possess outside the New Testament itself.3 For two separate documents in the very early 2nd century to both quote this command, the command itself must originate among the churches of the first century. Thus, while the Apostles themselves did not write anything found in the so-called "Apostolic" Constitutions, this particular prohibition against abortion as murder does indeed go back to the time of New Testament Christianity, and there is no evidence that anyone claiming the title of "Christian" in the centuries that followed ever questioned this central tenant of biblical ethics. Not even members of heretical offshoots. When the above-mentioned councils spoke to the issues of abortion, it was always related to debates over how severe the punishment for abortion should be, never to whether or not abortion is sinful.

The central theologians of the churches represented by these early councils also unanimously affirmed the value of prenatal human life and the wickedness of voluntarily taking such a life. For example, Ambrose of Milan bemoans abortion as the destruction of life and as a great evil unique to man which not even the beasts commit.4 Augustine affirmed that an unborn child is a living person that dies when aborted, even early in the pregnancy when the child is not fully formed.5 Jerome testifies that:

"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," (Jerome, Letter 22, Section 13).

While John Chrysostom cried:

"Why then bring disgrace upon all these? 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 thou dost not let continue a mere harlot, but makest her a murderess also. You see how drunkenness leads to whoredom, whoredom 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 prevent its being born. Why then dost 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?" (John Chrysostom, Homilies on Romans, Homily 24).

Indeed, one cannot find a single professing Christian source in the ancient world or, in fact, at any time before the modern era that would defend the practice of human abortion. The sanctity of every human life, including those still in the womb, is an essential element of Christian ethics and always has been. This is because Christian opposition to abortion is not a mere tradition that developed over the history of the church. It is a necessary conclusion of the ultimate authority of Scripture itself. If the Bible is the word of God and defines our moral values, we will reject prenatal infanticide and stand up for the millions of children, made in God's image, who are dying by this practice.

Inside the Bible

Genesis says
Genesis 1:26-27, "Then God said, 'Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.' God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them."

Genesis 9:6, "Whoever sheds man’s blood, By man his blood shall be shed, For in the image of God He made man. As for you, be fruitful and multiply; Populate the earth abundantly and multiply in it."

The Psalmist said
Psalm 127:3-5, "Behold, children are a gift of the Lord, The fruit of the womb is a reward. 4 Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, So are the children of one’s youth. How blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them; They will not be ashamed When they speak with their enemies in the gate."

Job said
Job 31:15, "Did not He who made me in the womb make him, And the same one fashion us in the womb?"


Inside CARM

Why is Abortion Wrong?
Self- defense is justified because an antagonist is breaking the law (burglary, robbery, assault, etc.,), and we can use force to protect ourselves and our property.  War is the legal declaration of hostilities towards another nation.  Execution is the legal taking of life against someone who has committed a crime or crimes worthy of execution.  In each case, the antagonists are dealt with for the wrongs they have committed. However, the baby in the womb has done no wrong, yet it is executed.  It is executed but has broken no law!  What crime has been committed?  What law have they broken in their existence?  None. Yet they are killed.

Does human life begin at our first breath?
Human life begins long before we take our first breath. The Bible is clear that a human person is already alive while in the womb. Some people, however, misunderstand Genesis to teach that all human life begins at the first breath.

Does Exodus 21:22-25 justify abortion?
The evidence of language, context, and history all point together to the fact that this passage upholds the value of unborn human life and provides grounds to condemn abortion.