But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace… (Galatians 1:15).
The Collect for last Sunday is as follows:
O God, from whom all good proceeds: Grant that by your inspiration we may think those things that are right, and by your merciful guiding may do them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
It is a prayer of great wisdom, for what we think determines what we do. We need the merciful guidance of God.
In the Galatians lesson above, Paul defends his apostleship by claiming that “[God] had set me apart before I was born.” Now, to be both clear and obvious, Paul is not arguing for the humanity of the unborn child here. Abortion is nowhere in his view. So when people object to such a text being used as a prooftext that concerns abortion, in some measure they are right. For instance, Richard Hays, when referring Elizabeth telling Mary “the child in my womb leapt for joy” (Luke 1:44), contends that using this text to speak of the personhood of the fetus “should not be dignified with the label ‘exegesis,’” for “the phrase ‘the child in my womb’ implies an attitude toward the unborn that is very different from speaking clinically of the fetus.” Technically, he is correct.
And yet he entirely misses the point. The Bible never speaks of the unborn, or anyone for that matter, clinically. And that tells us something profound. In our culture, we ask questions that the Bible never asks, and make assumptions that the Bible never makes. For instance, we ask the question “when does life begin?” How do you suppose that Paul might answer that question, having been set apart from before his birth? Or Jeremiah, who heard God say that “before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you” (Jeremiah 1:5). Or David, who prayed “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” (Psalm 139:16).
When does life begin? When did it begin for Paul, for Jeremiah, for David, for you? Of course there is a moment of conception. And of course there is a moment of death. And those who defend the vulnerable are right to say that people deserve protection from the moment of conception to natural death. In the end, that is all that man can do. But if we engage the question “when does life begin?” as if we arrive at the truth of what life is by recognizing that DNA is complete from the moment of conception, then we will never speak with clarity about life and why life is important. And this is true not just for making a case in the public square, but also for a frightened woman carrying an unplanned (by her) baby. It is one thing to hear that the life she carries is a life because it has all the genetic information. It is quite another to hear that the Lord knows her child, even before we began numbering his days. And that word is all the more powerful if spoken by someone who knows and loves her.
The question “when does life begin?” is a question not intended to clarify, but to confuse, and ultimately to justify eliminating the smallest among us. We are therefore not surprised it is not asked in the Bible. As the Collect above reminds us, we need the merciful guidance of the Lord that we would think rightly, not conformed to the questions of this world, but transformed by the renewal of our minds.