Theology and the Unborn Child

(Neil here). Today marks the March for Life. It occurs on the fifth day of this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. If you read the reflections in my previous post, you will see that the South African writers of the readings and reflections for this year’s Week suggest that we ask ourselves today, “Are the churches hampered by their divisions from hearing the cries of those who suffer?”

I would like to discuss a small part of a 2000 lecture before a Presbyterian pro-life group by the Reverend Thomas F. Torrance (and also see here), a former moderator of the Church of Scotland and surely one of the most distinguished theologians of the past century. Torrance tells us that we fully grasp the importance of the person and being of the unborn child when we see him or her in the light of Jesus Christ in the womb of the Virgin Mary. Torrance writes

[L]eading theologians in the early Church, followed by John Calvin at the Reformation, rightly traced the root of our redemption, not only to the death and resurrection of Christ, but to his very conception and birth of the Virgin Mary. It was because in Jesus the Creator Word of God was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary, that Christians came to regard the unborn fetus in a new light sanctified by the Lord Jesus as an embryonic person.

The unborn child is not unimportant because, when we think of our redemption – of God becoming “one of us and one with us,” we must actually begin by thinking of a particular unborn child “conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary.” As Torrance says of Jesus, “In becoming a human being for us, he also became an embryo for the sake of all embryos …”

Furthermore, Torrance tells us, whenever we think of God’s mercy, we must actually envision the love of a mother for her unborn child:

It is significant that the term “compassion,” so often ascribed to the Lord Jesus in the Gospels (and echoed by
St Paul), is a rendering in Greek of the Hebrew expression (rahamim) for womb. As Savior, the Lord Jesus bears toward all those in weakness, pain, and need, but in a divinely intensified degree, something like the visceral feeling which a mother has toward the babe in her womb.

This might sound like a sectarian argument, politically ineffective. But recognition of God’s “womb-love” can direct us to the possibility that the love of a mother for her unborn child is not something unimportant, something that can be “gotten over,” but a personalizing relation that actually constitutes the unborn child as a human person. This realization could, presumably, be admissible in the public sphere, even if we were often led to it theologically.

For, as Torrance writes:

First, the kind of interrelation discerned between the preborn child and his/her mother indicates the development already of what must be called personal relations. The unborn child is in parvo a personal being. The concept of person was not known in ancient culture, in the East or in the West, but comes from Christian theology. It derives from the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, one Being, three Persons. In him the divine Persons are who they are through their interrelations in being and act with one another. While that notion of “person” applied originally and strictly to the Triune nature of God, it came to be applied to creaturely human beings in such a way that the relations between human being constitute what they are as persons. Persons are what and who they are in the interpersonal relations of their One Being with each other. Unfortunately that concept of the persons and of the personal within dualist patterns of thought, ancient and modern, came to be defined in individualist and rationalist patterns of thought, and then in legal and psychological ways when its profound ontological significance became submerged. That is particularly evident in the romantic and subjectivist notion of “personality.” As a result, the personal became excluded from scientific thinking, so that even the personal participation of the scientifst’s mind, as Schrödinger and Polanyi lamented, was excluded from scientific thought, although it is actually through the mind of the scientists as person that all scientific research takes place and scientific knowledge is achieved.

There is another side, however, to the history of the person and the personal evident in the scientific work of James Clerk Maxwell. When faced with the problem of explaining the behavior of the electromagnetic field, he found that he could not do that in a mechanistic way. Then he took over the idea from Trinitarian theology that relations between persons belong to what persons actually are, and applied that dynamic interrelation to explain how particles of light are what they actually and dynamically are. And in doing so he advanced the epoch-making concept of the continuous electrodynamic field, which Einstein claimed brought about the greatest change in the rational structure of science, and on which his own and all subsequent science rests. Why, then should we not think of the personal being of the unborn child in that kind of dynamic and ontological way, in interrelation with his/her mother? If that kind of interrelational way of thinking was so effective in the scientific account of the behavior of inanimate light particles with one another in a continuous dynamic field, why should we not think of it as applying effectively to a deeper understanding of the interrelation of the body and soul and personal life of the fetus in relation to the mother?

It is surely now evident that it is through loving personalizing relation with the mother that the tiny personal being of the fetus is nourished, and its embryonic response to the mother, especially in recognition of her voice. Is that not after all what we read in the Gospel account of how the embryonic being of John the Baptist leaped in the womb of his mother Elizabeth when she was greeted by the Virgin Mary? I believe that through fuller understanding of the unborn child in the unity of body and soul, and in the personal relatedness of the child to the mother particularly, we can deepen and advance what we learn from the researches of medical scientists in our understanding of the personal life and behavior of the unborn child. In that event is not abortion an act of murder, and a grave sin against the Lord Jesus?

(I would leave you with Torrance’s eloquence, but I want to clearly say here that this post is not meant to pass judgment on anyone, nor to dismiss the concerns that could not be recognized in its relatively short length.)

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Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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One Response to Theology and the Unborn Child

  1. Pingback: Discuss Theology » Blog Archive » Most Recent blog post on Trinitarian theology

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