The Witness of the Early Church

John C. Rankin

[excerpted from First the Gospel, Then Politics …, 1999, Vol. 2, not published]

It was a natural conclusion for the early church to be unified in its opposition to the practice of human abortion in the Greco-Roman culture. The church was likewise united in opposition infanticide, the practice of infant exposure, as they rescued as many of these abandoned children as possible. And in fact, female infanticide in the Roman Empire was the rule far more than male infanticide, not unlike the abortion of girls being far greater than the abortion of boys today in China and India, as male chauvinism takes its ugly toll.

In the early church writings that opposed abortion, the consistent appeal was for the sake of the humanity of the unborn, consistent with the order of creation. This witness was maintained with integrity even by some church fathers who became misogynist (women-hating) in their writings, due to gnostic influences, where on the one hand they served, but on the other hand they forsook the order of creation.

The earliest post-biblical documents of the church are the Epistle of Barnabas and the Didache, both of which said an explicit no to human abortion. The Didache divided itself into two parts. The first dealt with the “two ways” (one to life and one to death) as a catechism to young converts, and the second with church organization. In the first part it said “no” to the practice of human abortion, which at that time was usually attempted by drugs meant to expel the fetus. The success rate of these drugs was not great, and many women died in the process. The word used for such an abortifacient drug in the Didache comes from the Greek term pharmakeia, from which we get the English word “pharmaceuticals.” Its primary meaning refers to “sorcery” and “magic arts” in its six New Testament uses.

The idea of drugs interfacing with sorcery was the common assumption in many pagan societies, where the witch doctor or sorcerer was also the medicine man. The mystery Greek cults would go into drug induced trances in their orgies, de facto inviting a demonic presence – the opposite of the self-control, a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:23). Thus, the word for abortifacient drugs was pharmakeia in the pagan Greek culture, which the Didache then prohibited. In the Bible’s opposition to the triad of sorcery, sacred prostitution and child sacrifice, anything related to pharmakeia was thus opposed – and human abortion was in the middle of this context.

Early church fathers such as Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian explicitly opposed human abortion, and Athenagoras, in his opposition to human abortion, described the fetus as a “living being,” which in the Greek is equivalent to the Hebrew nephesh hayyah from Genesis 2:7 (the biblical definition of human personhood) Once again, this affirms the order of creation, and that the nature of nephesh and the image of God belongs to the unborn.

The witness of the church continued in explicit statements for the humanity of the unborn and against human abortion by such well known leaders as Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Donne, Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer – as well as in denominational structures such as the Presbyterian convention of 1869. The witness of the church before the mid-twentieth century was virtually uninterrupted in its affirmation of the humanity of the unborn and thus in its opposition to human abortion. It has only changed in the meantime, among those who have simultaneously forfeited belief in the biblical foundation of the order of creation, and hence, embraced the syncretistic/pagan reversal of sex, choice, life, /God paradigm.