Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Psalms Are Not Science – From the Daily Office – May 17, 2014

From Book of Psalms:

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works; that I know 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 beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Psalm 139:13-16 (NRSV) – May 17, 2014)

Human FetusLet me make one thing clear: I do not want to get into the abortion debate! I never want to get into the abortion debate!

Whether and when to end a pregnancy is a personal and painful decision, one which I believe is ultimately to be made by one person, the pregnant one. Others may offer her advice and counsel, but when it comes right down to it no one other than her has any business making the decision. Abortion should not be a debate; it should be a private, medical decision by one person.

But I find myself rather frequently pummeled by those who do want to get into the abortion debate, beaten over the head by one side or the other with their particular arguments — most often, I must admit, by the so-called “Pro-Life” side. As a Christian pastor, I get mail, emails, and phone calls from (mostly) the anti-abortionists encouraging me to support their current efforts to restrict access to medically supervised termination of pregnancy.

And nearly every piece of literature they provide includes somewhere the assertion that “human life begins at conception.” And very often that statement is coupled with a citation to this part of Psalm 138.

So let’s make another thing clear: the psalms are not science. The Psalter is poetry and metaphor; the purpose of the psalms is primarily to praise God and secondarily to teach God’s people that the Almighty is to be praised because of the intimacy with which God loves us. These verses simply do not mean that God creates the inmost parts or the unformed substance of every fetus in every womb; nor do they address the issue of when human life begins! Even taken literally, all that this psalm is saying is that God made plans for David; it has nothing to do with when David’s, or any, life began or begins.

That is, basically, what the entire abortion controversy boils down to: when does human life begin? When does a fertilized ovum become a human person? That is a question with so many dimensions — theological, legal, moral, scientific, medical, spiritual, and more — that I’m not sure I can count them!

What I notice about these verses today is that all they name are the physical parts of the body: inmost parts, frame, substance. The spiritual aspect of human life is not mentioned; there is no thought given here to the soul, the spirit, the breath.

In Jewish and Christian theology a human person is only a human person when there is unity of the physical body with the spirit. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew noun nephesh is often translated as “soul,” but it is most often found in combination with adjective hayyah, meaning “living” or “alive.” In combination, the two are rendered “living being” or “soul alive,” but perhaps the best translation is “person.” There is human personhood only when there is both physical body and living spirit.

So when do they come together? The technical theological term is ensoulment. To ask “When does human life begin?” is to ask when ensoulment occurs.

In Jewish tradition, a baby is not considered to be a human person until its head emerges from the birth canal. According to the Talmud, “the fetus is the thigh of its mother,” which means that it is not considered an independent person until after birth. Indeed, some medieval Jewish sages held a child was not a bar kayyama or “lasting being,” i.e., a viable human being, until a month after being born. Obviously, traditional Jewish law and medieval Jewish wisdom did not give Psalm 138 the meaning our contemporary “Pro-Lifers” give it.

Christian tradition has been all over the board on the question.

Some sects (Mormons, for example — and another debate I don’t want to get into is whether members of the Latter-Day Saints are Christians) believe that the soul pre-exists the body, that God has parented or created numerous “spirit children” who await physical bodies in this world.

Some of the earliest theologians, e.g., Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Gregory of Nyssa, taught that the egg and the sperm each carried a soul derived from the souls of the mother and the father, and that at conception these two proto-souls merged to form a new and distinct soul. This theory, called traducianism, is a direct and necessary development of the doctrine of Original Sin, which teaches that our sinful nature is passed from parent to child via concupiscence (sexual desire) and its (sinful?) satisfaction.

Interestingly, Augustine, who was responsible for much of the formulation of Original Sin, rejected traducianism; he favored what came to be known as Creationism, which is not the creationism which today does battle with evolutionary science.

Traducianism was rejected by the theologians of the Middle Ages — Thomas Aquinas, especially — and in favor of creationism. This view, based in part on Genesis 2:7 (“The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being”) and Hebrews 12:9 (which distinguishes between our “human parents” and God who is the “Father of spirits”), holds that while the body is formed gradually the soul is directly created by God and enters the body when it is ready to receive it (a determination made by God).

Creationism was the accepted teaching of the church from the Fifth Century on . . . until recent times. In fact, from the late Middle Ages until the end of the 19th Century, the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church (and the generally accepted position of most of Christianity) was that the soul enters the body of the fetus at the time of “quickening,” when the mother first feels movement.

So when does the soul enter the physical body? When does a fertilized ovum become a human person?

I don’t know.

Years ago I sat on a panel discussing abortion law and religion with an older colleague from the Eastern Orthodox tradition. He made this statement which I will never forget: “I would rather counsel a woman about legal abortion than bury a woman who’s resorted to an illegal one. And I’ve done both.” I have had to do the former, both before and after the procedure; that’s why I know so much (and so little) about this theology. Fortunately, unlike my colleague, I’ve not had to do the latter and I hope I never will.

I don’t know when “human life” begins, but I do know this: I do not want to get into the abortion debate, ever, even though I am often forced to. And I know this: abortion is a private, personal, and painful decision which is ultimately to be made by only one person, the pregnant one. And I know this: the psalms are not science.


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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.


  1. Bill Dilworth

    I just read an interesting passage in a book called (I think) A Dictionary of Greek Orthodoxy. The entry for abortion set forth the Church’s opposition to abortion, but then ended with something like “In practice, the Orthodox Church has tacitly allowed abortion for dangers to the mother’s life.” I thought it was an interesting example of flexibility.

  2. (the Rev'd Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton

    Thank you for this, Eric. As a woman, I read this psalm differently. As a woman who has been told directly and indirectly all my life that because of my gender I am the “weaker sex” and “inferior”, I read this psalm as an affirmation of my being. I have shared this psalm with women who are confronted by the terrible decision of termination of a pregnancy as affirmation that, whatever she decides, the God who created her will always love her. Indeed, read in that way, this psalm has allowed more than one woman I’ve counseled to make the right decision or herself and her family.

    It’s poetry, not science, but it is theology which has been hijacked for political purposes. Time to take it back and reclaim it as an affirmation of life – all life – including the intelligent life of women who are fully capable of making their own decisions and being loved by the same God who created them, no matter her decision.

  3. eric

    For a variety of reasons, Bill, I am opposed to abortion, and counsel against it and offer alternatives. But I am also very much in favor of abortion being legal, properly regulated by medical authorities, and available safely because I know that there are many who do not share my particular understandings of faith, ethics, morality, etc. One need not be “in favor of abortion” to oppose the position of the so-called “Pro-Lifers” to ban the termination of pregnancies or restrict a woman’s freedom of medical decision-making.

  4. eric

    Thank you, Elizabeth. I agree with you entirely!

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