The personhood of the unborn.
A critique of Millard J. Erickson’s soft stance on abortion.
If one is looking to critique the monumental task which Millard J. Erickson has undertaken with his work, Christian Theology, one need only note the author’s occasional inconclusiveness. Scattered throughout Erickson’s massive theological project are a few doctrinal discussions which will likely leave the reader wanting, as Erickson shies away from affirming anything conclusive. A prime example of this critical misstep is his brief discussion on the notion of personhood as it relates to the unborn (505–8). This particular topic is the penultimate subject in an entire five-chapter section which deals entirely with the doctrine of humanity.
As Erickson takes one through a depth of theological assumptions and assertions, he closes with a few words which assert that one’s race, sex, socio-economic status, age, or marital status have no bearing on whether or not one is fully human. Within this treatment comes Erickson’s excursion on the unborn, in which he begins by noting, rightly, that depending on how one understanding “personhood,” and its far-reaching implications, one can reach a conclusion that might have been previously unexpected. The veritable question of the hour, then, is whether or not a fetus is a person. If so, the practice of abortion is a heinous crime against a fellow human being that has been given a legal stamp of approval. If not, abortion is merely surgery to remove unthinking tissue.
Unlike Erickson, who concludes by saying, “It is highly likely that God regards a fetus as a person” (508), the Bible is irrevocably clear that knows, recognizes, and loves human beings from the moment of conception. “Before I formed you in the womb,” the Lord says of his prophet Jeremiah, “I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jer. 1:5). “You clothed me with skin and flesh,” Job likewise says, “and knit me together with bones and sinews” (Job 10:11). Most notably, one is reminded of the psalmist’s rhapsody of his own formation in his mother’s womb in Psalm 139:13–16: “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.”
These “inward parts” are indicative of the inmost faculties and desires and affections of a person. It is upon this deepest stroke of existence that God himself has emblazoned his likeness. As in the beginning, when the Triune God resolved to make man in his image and likeness (Gen. 1:26–27), that image and likeness was not subsequent element in the creation of man. Adam did not become a person at some other point after his initial creation. Rather, God brought him into being by forming him from the “dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life,” and at that moment, he “became a living creature” (Gen. 2:7).
Accordingly, Adam was never without the image and likeness of the God who created him. One’s humanness begins in the womb (Exod. 21:22–25; Job 3:3; Ps. 51:5; Matt. 1:20–21; Luke 1:30–31, 41–44; 2:16; Heb. 7:9–10). Personhood begins at conception. God sees the “unformed substance” of all human beings (Ps. 139:16). The divine value of one’s life, then, is an unequivocal verity even in utero. To be fair, Erickson does, indeed, overview a number of biblical passages which seem to support the personhood of the unborn. However, his flimsy conclusion leaves much to be desired.
Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2013).