Abortion and the Protestant Reformers

by Luke Wayne
1/14/2019

While prenatal infanticide, or "abortion," is not directly mentioned in Scripture, the Bible lays out a consistent ethic by which the earliest Christians (and their Jewish predecessors and contemporaries) universally condemned the practice of intentionally taking a human life in the womb. Later on, during the era of the great church councils where Christians debated a number of central issues, the fact that abortion is a great sin was still unanimously agreed upon by all parties. Throughout the early centuries, anyone of any religious persuasion who claimed to follow the Bible saw abortion as murder. But what about when we arrive at the Protestant Reformation? When the reformers began to re-examine Christian practice in light of the Scriptures alone and challenge any human traditions not warranted by the sacred word of God, did they find a reason to question the long-standing position that abortion is immoral? No, they did not, They stood in full solidarity with the traditional opposition to abortion. They did so because it was clearly the biblical position on the matter!

The Argument From Silence

Many pro-abortion advocates will try to argue that the reformers were at most indifferent and perhaps even tacitly in favor of abortion because they wrote so little on the subject. This is, first of all, a classic example of the logical fallacy of an "argument from silence" (or the claim that, if someone doesn't explicitly state a certain opinion, it must mean that they disagree with said opinion). Second of all, the reformers relative silence on the subject is actually better explained by their full agreement with traditional opposition to abortion! The reformers wrote most often on the areas with which they disagreed with the other leaders of their day. They wrote frequently and at great length about indulgences, the veneration of saints, the papacy, transubstantiation, and like matters exactly because they saw clear biblical reasons to oppose those later unscriptural innovations which were popular in their day. They likewise wrote a great deal in favor of things like the supreme authority of Scripture, justification by grace alone through faith alone, the sovereignty of God, etc. precisely because the Roman Catholic teachings of the day had come to deny or contradict these vital truths. It is true that some Protestants wrote in defense of practices on which Roman Catholics would have substantially agreed with them (for example, infant baptism) but this was only because more radical Protestants had challenged these practices. On the issue of abortion, no one claiming the name of Christ and looking at all to the Bible would have ever thought for a second to defend abortion, so there was no reason to spend time and ink writing long treatises on the subject. They generally only commented on abortion in passing when a biblical passage they were preaching on or a legal issue they were addressing required such a comment. This is just what one would expect. What is important, though, is that whenever they did comment on the matter, they were quite decisively opposed to abortion, and always on biblical grounds. Thus, we need not argue from silence as do those who promote abortion: the reformers did, indeed, publish clear opposition to abortion based on the careful reading of Scripture.

The Words of the Reformers

Perhaps the most prominent and influential among the reformers were Martin Luther, the man credited with first launching the Reformation, and John Calvin, the great systematic theologian at Geneva. Both condemned abortion in no uncertain terms. Luther, for example, when teaching through the book of Genesis, was commenting on Abraham's second wife and the many children she bore him for whom he provided even as he sent them away to avoid conflicts over Isaac's unique covenantal inheritance (Genesis 24:1-4). In his sermon, Luther dealt with the obligations of fatherhood, marriage, and child-rearing, and made the important comment: 

"How great, therefore, the wickedness of human nature is! How many girls there are who prevent conception and kill and expel tender fetuses, although procreation is the work of God,"1

Abortion is here presented as plain evidence of the great extent to which human sinfulness will go. Elsewhere, though also while teaching on Genesis, Luther was commenting on the sin of Judah's son Onan who "spilled his seed on the ground," (Genesis 38:9) to avoid conceiving children. Luther commented here that:

"Surely at such a time the order of nature established by God in procreation should be followed."2

Thus, to Luther, once one engaged in the act of sex, it was a sin against the purpose and plan of God to even prevent the conception of a child, much less to kill a child after their life in the womb had begun! Drawing on this latter aspect of Luther's teaching, Lutheran theologians in later centuries saw the modern objection that the unborn child is not really a "person" yet as not only untrue but actually irrelevant! Note, for example, the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the famous 20th-century Lutheran theologian who died a martyr in Germany for opposing the Nazi regime:

"Destruction of the embryo in the mother's womb is a violation of the right to live which God has bestowed on this nascent life. To raise the question of whether we are here concerned already with a human being or not is merely to confuse the issue. The simple fact is that God certainly intended to create a human being and that this nascent human being has been deliberately deprived of his life. An that is nothing but murder."3

When John Calvin came on the scene, he didn't simply "toe the party line," as it were, and parrot what any Protestant had said before him. He was quite willing to disagree with Luther when a contextual reading of Scripture compelled him to do so. Yet, on the morality of abortion, there was no disagreement. In his commentary on the Law of Moses, a careful consideration of Exodus 21:22 led Calvin to write:

"The fetus, though enclosed in the womb of its mother, is already a human being, and it is an almost monstrous crime to rob it of the life which it has not yet begun to enjoy. If it seems more horrible to kill a man in his own house than in a field, because a man’s house is his place of most secure refuge, it ought surely to be deemed more atrocious to destroy a fetus in the womb before it has come to light."4

Likewise, when Martin Bucer, a key reformer in Strausberg, was commenting on the legal grounds for divorce, he argued that one could divorce if one's spouse had committed what ought to be a capital crime. If such a spouse were justly executed for their crime, their death would dissolve the marriage. Thus, Bucer reasoned, upon committing the act, they had forfeited not only their life but also their marriage. Bucer thus contended that, even if the state did not choose to impose the death penalty, the spouse was still justified in legally dissolving the marriage as if the death had occurred.5 What is important for our purposes here is not the accuracy of Bucer's legal argument. What is important is that, when considering such crimes which bring a bloodguilt worthy of death (and thus also, for Bucer, of divorce), Bucer listed abortion right alongside murder and treason.6 He also described abortion as:

"so profoundly contrary to the divine institution of marriage that by it the nuptial agreement is totally dissolved."7

It thus becomes clear that the unanimous view of the reformers was that biblical ethics forbid abortion as the unjust ending of a human life and an affront to God's purposes in life, marriage, and sexuality.

Conclusion

The reformers were not inspired. We do not have to believe something just because Luther or Calvin said it. What is important here, however, is the reason that Luther and Calvin said it. They believed what they did about abortion, not because it fit usefully into their social, political, or religious agendas. Such comments had no pragmatic utility to advance the reformation or strengthen their positions. Nor did they believe it out of a blind commitment to the traditions of their day. They openly challenged such traditions when they found them to be unbiblical. That's what made them reformers! No, the reasons they opposed abortion is that, as they worked through the Scriptures and sought to apply them throughout life, they found compelling reasons to believe that abortion is murder. The Bible is the sole infallible rule of faith for the Christian, and the reformers looked to the Bible and found that prenatal infanticide is both a crime and a sin. Every generation of Christians before them said the same thing, and so does the honest reader of Scripture today.

  • 1. Martin Luther, Lectures on Genesis (Concordia Publishing House, 1986) 304
  • 2. ibid, 21
  • 3. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (Touchtone, 1995) 174
  • 4. John Calvin, Harmony of the Law - Volume 3, Commentary on Exodus 21:22
  • 5. H.J. Selderhuis, Marriage and Divorce in the Thought of Martin Bucer (Thomas Jefferson University Press, 1999) 310-311
  • 6. ibid, 310
  • 7. ibid, 311