Ordinarily, I do not take the time to respond to virtue-signaling public pronouncements from progressive universities and woke academic departments. But today I am making an exception. Below I quote verbatim and in full a statement made by the Dean of Yale Divinity School, Gregory E. Sterling on behalf of YDS. I feel compelled to reflect on the statement for three reasons: (1) I know Sterling and his work in biblical studies. And I was surprised to hear these views coming from him. (2) Many of my undergraduate students have, after graduating from the university where I teach, attended YDS and other elite seminaries and divinity schools. Some studied under Sterling himself at another university. YDS presents itself as a place with an institutional culture, in Sterling’s words, of “appropriately and adequately applying biblical principles and knowledge to critical issues of the day.” In other words, my Christian students get the impression that the YDS takes the Bible seriously as a religious and moral authority. (3) Whereas the Dean’s press release reads like a typical a virtue-signaling pronouncement about public policy, it also makes a theological argument that I find egregiously misleading. In paragraph four Sterling (an expert biblical scholar) says, “There is no biblical basis for the ban on abortion.” I will focus much of my analysis and criticism here.
There so much I’d like to say about this Statement. Every line is carefully crafted and every word artfully chosen with a certain audience in mind. But I must limit myself to some comments on a few rhetorical stratagems found in paragraphs 2-3 and deal briefly with the substantive argument in paragraph 4, where the Statement makes a foray into theology. I have numbered the paragraphs for easy reference and bolded significant words and phrases. The Sterling/YDS press release reads as follows:
Statement by Dean Sterling on today’s Supreme Court decision
Yale Divinity School Dean made the following statement today.
1. Today the Supreme Court overturned five decades of federal protection for abortion that sprang from the Roe v. Wade decision. The Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision returns the issue to states, which undoubtedly will come to reflect the political divide of our country.
2. The decision culminates a decades-long effort by those who identify as pro-life. But is this decision pro-life or pro a particular ideology? Will those who lobbied for it now lobby for expanded medical support for the women who carry babies to term? Will they lobby for benefits for the unwanted children who are born? Will they lobby for the support of poor people who will not be able to care for additional children? To be pro-life means far more than to oppose abortion.
3. There are millions of American women who feel violated by today’s decision. They understand that this is not only a decision about abortion, but about women’s rights. The decision is a step backward for human rights. Does it portend the reversal of other rights—as some have already suggested? Is the elimination or suppression of individual freedoms pro-life?
4. The pro-life stance is often linked to Christianity and there are many people who are genuine in their faith who will support the Supreme Court’s decision, including members of the YDS community. It is, however, a more complex issue than some acknowledge. There is no biblical basis for the ban on abortion. The only text that deals directly with a fetus is Exodus 21:22–25, and it makes a distinction between the penalty levied on someone who causes a pregnant woman to miscarry versus an injury to the woman herself. The former results in a fine; the latter in the lex talionis (an eye for an eye etc.). In other words, it distinguishes between a fetus and a human being. Simplistic appeals to the biblical traditions are just that, simplistic. Christianity is supportive of human life, but we must work through our traditions with care. It is not at all clear that today’s decision reflects a text like Exodus 21:22–25.
5. This decision will not heal our country. It will only exacerbate the divide that already exists. May we find ways to promote life, not political agendas. May we find ways to discuss our differences, not build higher walls.
In paragraph #2, the Statement speaks of those who “identify as pro-life.” Clearly, by referring to the opponents of abortion in this way the Statement insinuates that they are not really and truly advocates of God-created human life in its fullness. Then follows a series of four rhetorical questions that place in doubt the sincerity of pro-life advocates. The paragraph concludes with this assertion: “To be pro-life means far more than to oppose abortion.” Perhaps it does…but why imply that pro-life advocates do not know this and do not care for children unless they are still in the womb? What is the point of the argument in this paragraph? Is it supposed to justify abortion?
No. It seems to have another purpose. Its effect is to subvert the pro-life movement’s claim to possess the moral high ground. The first rhetorical question in the paragraph makes this clear: “But is this decision pro-life or pro a particular ideology?” This question insinuates that pro-life justices and their supporters may have cynically adopted pro-life rhetoric to advance a hidden agenda of a less noble pedigree. The use of the word “ideology” is revealing. This highly loaded term seems here to mean a system of ideals with the appearance of reasonableness and moral rectitude but in reality a sanctimonious sham concocted to cover selfish and irrational interests. Additionally, the author by accusing others of nurturing a sinister ideology implicitly claims to be innocent of the same sin (Matt 7:3).
Paragraph #3 deals with the subjects of “rights” and “freedoms.” According to Sterling, the decision by the Supreme Court of the United States to return the issue of abortion to the legislative process is “a step backward for human rights.” Two things strike me about this claim. (1) When someone uses the phrase “a step backward” we ought to perk up our ears. Progressives think they know which direction history is supposed to move and in what moral progress consists—toward greater and greater liberation from all limits on pursuing individual happiness. As stated here it is simply question begging, virtue signaling, and preaching to the choir.
(2) It implies that the right to abort a child is a human right. Why a human right? What is a human right anyway? A human right is a right inherent in being a human being. Before the modern era such a right was called a “natural” right—as opposed to a legislated or constitutional right. But modern progressives don’t believe in natural rights because they don’t believe in natural law, which is the only reasonable foundation for natural rights. And of course the ideas of natural rights and natural law imply a moral lawgiver and Creator of nature. Such ideas are anathema to progressives. Ignoring the question of the grounding of human rights, Sterling classifies the right to abortion as a right given with our humanity. As a human right it is unalienable by the legislative process and, therefore, ought not to be returned to the legislative arena.
The irony here is that the most basic human right conceivable is the right to life. No other right can take precedence over this one because if you are not alive you have access to no other goods. Is a preborn human baby a human being? If so, he or she possesses all the rights inherent in being human. In contrast, the freedom for a woman to abort her unborn child cannot be a basic human right because not all humans can make use of this right. If it is a right, it must be derived from other more basic rights, natural or legislated. Hence the Statement’s appeal to human rights turns out to support a position opposite to the one it intended to defend. If human rights exist at all—a presupposition necessary for the efficacy of Sterling’s argument—preborn human beings most certainly possess them. For the concept of human rights makes no sense at all unless they are acquired by nature and not by law. And the human right to life trumps every other right.
In a point of clarification, this document uses the term “human being” in two different senses. When the Statement speaks of the human rights of women, being human is an ontological or natural status. Only in this way are these rights exempt from legislative reversal. However when Sterling speaks of preborn babies, he determines the humanity of a being according to its legal status. In this move he shifts from appealing to human rights to appealing to legislated rights. However the argument that restricting abortion violates human rights will not work unless being human is an ontological status. And if being human is an ontological or natural status, preborn human beings also possess human rights. The modern legal distinction between being a fetus and being a human being is a legal fiction, false in truth but useful in law. By definition, however, all human rights are possessed by all human beings.
The paragraph ends with this question: “Is the elimination or suppression of individual freedoms pro-life?” The expected answer to this rhetorical question is “No.” But the question is ambiguous in the extreme. Is any and every imaginable freedom under consideration? Or are only certain freedoms meant? In any case, the implicit argument in the question is viciously circular. For it assumes that the “freedom” being suppressed is a legitimate freedom or right—human or legislated. But that is precisely the question being debated with respect to abortion. Additionally, the meaning of “pro-life” in this question is being distorted to mean something like “pro-happiness.” Though it may not promote happiness in the short run, lawfully suppressing the action of destroying innocent life is clearly defending life. The rhetorical question in its present ambiguous form implies that any restriction on “individual freedom” is anti-life. This assertion is manifestly false.
Paragraph #4 seeks to delegitimize appeals to the Bible and Christian ethics in the debate over the legal status of abortion. Sterling does not venture to construct a case for the Bible’s support or condemnation of abortion. His objective is wholly negative, that is, to create doubt about the Bible’s usefulness in the pro-life argument. It is important to emphasize that Sterling does not directly address the ethical and moral question about abortion. He carefully limits himself to the legal/political dimension.
Paragraph #4 begins with the assertion, “The pro-life stance is often linked to Christianity.” Sterling speaks here as if the “linking” between Christian ethics and the question of abortion is something artificial, an arbitrary connection that one makes for reasons not inherent in Christianity or in the desire to protect preborn human lives. Clearly, Sterling wishes to weaken or break that “linkage.” Why? Two possible reasons come to mind. (1) Many people wish to support abortion but do not wish to renounce Christianity completely. Breaking the link would make this position possible. I assume Sterling also falls into this category. (2) The Bible and Christianity are still respected in our culture by many people who do not practice Christianity and don’t know the Bible or Christian doctrine very well. If Sterling can delink the Bible and abortion he can deprive the opponents of abortion of a potent weapon in the debate.
The notion that the Bible has nothing to say about the morality of taking the lives of preborn human beings when it otherwise takes an interest in every dimension of life—sex, marriage, divorce, drunkenness, greed, anger, and so on—is completely absurd on the face of it. How could someone who knows the Bible as well as the Dean of YDS maintain such an implausible thesis? Perhaps an extra-biblical ideology is at work?
The most controversial assertion in the YDS statement is the following: “There is no biblical basis for the ban on abortion.” This claim asserts bluntly the “delinking” of Christianity and the question of abortion. The first thing to notice is that this declaration is not an ethical claim—not directly anyway—but a legal/political claim. When Sterling says that the Bible does not support a “ban” on abortion, it seems that he is speaking of a legislated, secular law and not of a moral obligation. In other words this sentence asserts that the Bible (and Christian ethics based on the Bible) does not demand that abortion be made illegal and punishable. In this assertion delinking the Bible with abortion bans, Sterling does not explicitly offer an opinion on the moral status of abortion.
Almost everyone in our society recognizes that it is impractical for legislators to make illegal every act they believe to be immoral. The assertion that the Bible does not support a ban on abortion is wholly negative, designed to defeat or make doubtful pro-life arguments from the Bible. As worded, Sterling’s delinking statement leaves open the possibility that Sterling considers abortion to be an immoral act that must nevertheless be permitted legally for practical reasons. But he makes another statement later in the paragraph that seems to imply that abortion is permitted morally.
As one piece of evidence for the Bible’s lack of support for the pro-life argument, Sterling reflects briefly on Exodus 21:22-25, which is the only place in the Bible that deals with anything like abortion:
22 “When men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no harm follows, the one who hurt her shall be fined, according as the woman’s husband shall lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. 23 If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (RSV).
This text prescribes the penalty for injuring a pregnant woman in such a way as to cause her to have a miscarriage. The penalty for causing the loss of the baby is a fine, not the death penalty as would be required in the murder of a person already born. In commenting on this text, Sterling asserts that this text “distinguishes between a fetus and a human being.” With this interpretation, Sterling goes beyond his prior negative claim that the Bible does not support an abortion ban. His comment seems to imply that the text’s distinction between a fetus and a human being even supports the moral permissibility of abortion. But, as I will show, Sterling’s interpretation is questionable.
Old Testament ethical texts are set in the social world of the Ancient Near East and are notoriously difficult to understand. We are constantly tempted to judge OT ethics by modern progressive standards. I don’t have the space or expertise to engage at the level required for a full discussion. But even the casual reader can see that the text won’t support Sterling’s disengagement (or support) theory.
(1) This text is set in an extensive section of case law concerning personal injuries of different types (Ex 21:12-27). The section prescribes different penalties depending on the nature of the injury and the intentions of the guilty party. Interestingly, different penalties are imposed for the same injury depending on the social position of the injured party. Consider the case of the master and his slaves (Ex 21:20-21, RSV):
20 “When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished. 21 But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be punished; for the slave is his money.
Like these ancient laws, modern jurisprudence of personal injury also takes into account the severity of the injury and the intentions of the perpetrator in determining the penalty. But unlike ancient near eastern law, modern jurisprudence does not (in theory anyway) take into account the social status of the victim in determining guilt or penalty. Here is my point: in this section on personal injury—which includes the text dealing with the penalty for causing a miscarriage—possessing a different social status, though meriting a different standing before the law, does not deprive one of human status. Neither the slave nor the pre-born child—what Sterling calls the “fetus”—receive justice from the law equal to that given to a free adult person. But inequality before the law does not in the Old Testament imply that the slave or the pre-born child are understood to be something other than human. The Bible does not draw this inference—Sterling is wrong here. He reads a modern legal invention back into the Bible.
(2) The text in Exodus 21:22-25 does not deal with an intentional act of causing the death of a baby. It is an accident consequent on a fight among others. The woman is a bystander injured by the disputants. The miscarriage is not caused by the woman or with her consent. Hence we do not know what penalty would have been imposed for an intentional act by the mother or by someone else that results in the preborn baby’s death. There are no laws in the Bible covering intentional abortion. Ancient Jews and Christians held new life to be so precious that an intentional act causing a miscarriage was unthinkable.
(3) In this text (Exodus 21:22-25) the unborn child is treated as valuable. That is clear, and causing a miscarriage even unintentionally through negligence is punishable. Sterling’s conclusion from this text that the child is a “fetus and not a human being” does not follow and, more egregiously, as I pointed out above, this assertion reads a modern legal distinction back into the Bible, a cold and dehumanizing one at that.
Christianity and the Morality of Abortion
Let’s leave aside the legal question and concentrate on the moral question. In supporting his argument that “There is no biblical basis for the ban on abortion” Sterling employs an interpretative strategy that every beginning graduate student in theological studies learns to avoid. It cannot be that the dean of an elite divinity school, himself an expert in biblical studies, doesn’t know better. But I doubt his audience will call him out for it because most of them agree with his conclusion and the rest are afraid to object. It’s the kind of legalistic reasoning that Jesus criticized the Pharisees for employing to escape their obligation to honor their fathers and mothers (Mark 7:10-12).
Because the Bible does not specify in so many words every particular act, method, place, and time we are forbidden to do something, these interpreters conclude we are free do as we please with this silence. Instead of seeking God’s will in all sincerity and giving their all to be faithful to Christ in every situation legalists seek to justify as biblically permissible pursuing their own desires by sophistry and legal nitpicking. Elite biblical scholars know better, and I have found that when they begin to talk this way to the public—instead of in their scholarly accent—they are disingenuously using the proof text method of “ignorant” people against them.
Christianity’s ethical demands cannot be reduced to a list of commands and cases. The law and the prophets, Jesus and his apostles, teach us what sort of person to become. We are told that we do not possess the right to life and death over other human beings. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves. We are told that our bodies are not our own. The body is for the Lord’s service (1 Cor 6:19-20). People who know and love Jesus, who have listened to his teaching, who have practiced his ways, and who have been transformed into his image don’t have to ask whether or not they should welcome their human child into the world or kill it before it sees the light of day. They know the answer. They are not looking for an escape clause.
In the second movie of the Lord of the Rings series “The Two Towers,” when Tree Beard the leader of the Ents saw the devastation Saruman Lord of Isengard had visited on Fangorn Forest, he exclaimed angrily, “A Wizard ought to know better!” When I look at the statement from YDS I think to myself, “A dean of a divinity school ought to know better.”