A Theology of Motherhood

A Theology of Motherhood

I have read Tom Ascol’s treatment of the discussion surrounding the supposed overthrow of Roe v. Wade and the implications that has for the future of abortion in the United States. His treatment is sensitive, fittingly nuanced, biblically sound, pastoral, legally aware, clear, and fraternal in areas of disagreement among pro-life Christians. He points out that one area of disagreement among those who are pro-life is the degree, if any, of culpability on the part of the mother. This article was prompted in a positive way by his. My desire is to focus on the theology of responsible motherhood in the critical months from conception to birth.

When an abortion occurs, is there culpability? Every Christian should say, “Yes.” Upon whom does this culpability fall? Certainly it falls on the one whose profession puts himself, or herself, in the position of terminating the person who has been conceived. With just as much certainty, a biblical theology would point to both parents as culpable, in varying degrees depending on circumstances. In particular, however, caring for life from the moment of conception falls on the woman whose body has been designed by God both to conceive, carry, nourish, bring to term and give birth to the person conceived. This article will argue that this is an absolute ethical responsibility derived from God’s purpose and mandate at creation, continued after the fall (even in difficulties), reinforced by the reality of the incarnation, analogically emphasized by the doctrine of the new birth, and planted in the heart as an ineradicable element of conscience and knowledge of God.

When God created mankind in the persons of Adam and Eve, he clearly stated that created humanity, arising from his power and purpose, was male and female (Genesis 1:27; 5:1, 2). Denial of these two genders in their respective roles is a denial of the wisdom and prerogative of God in creation, particularly his design for mankind.  Perversion of the very precise and purposeful order of creation is viewed throughout Scripture as sinful and an evidence of human perversity in rebellion against the knowledge of God and knowledge embedded within the conscience. This purposeful, God-established distinction, is obvious from the very phenomena of creation (Romans 1:20, 24-25, 26-27). Violations of the distinctions are described as exchanging “natural relations for those that are contrary to nature” (Romans 1:26). “Contrary to nature” means contrary to the designed purpose given at creation. In this sense, all actions contrary to nature, even as contrary to moral law, are sins. Redemption and justification forgive transgressions and cleanse from sinful corruption that include these kinds of perversions (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). If they were not sin and worthy of condemnation, then there would be no need of the grace of justification in light of them.

The first commandment that the man and woman received as a couple, after God made the woman from the very bone and flesh of the man, was “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 2:21-25 and 1:28). This places on the couple, and particularly on the woman the stewardship from God himself to populate the world with image-bearers through procreation. The woman has a particular stewardship to do all that she can to bring to completion the fruitfulness of her womb; a pregnant woman has a specific commission from God issued at creation that will be in force as long as the earth stands. A conceived child is not her property nor her prerogative but is a stewardship from the Creator. The involvement of her body does not give her sovereignty over the life of the child but presents her with a solemn responsibility for protection of that life. This responsibility descends on her from above derived from a command and creation ordinance from God. The claim that a woman has a right over her own body is, in this particular case, clearly false for her body was given by God, designed by him peculiarly for this purpose. Like the unnatural in sexual involvements, both the desire and the action of attack on life in the womb is unnatural, contrary to the created nature of the woman and the life concerned, and is thus unlawful, sinful, and any perpetrator is culpable.

A pregnant woman has a specific commission from God issued at creation that will be in force as long as the earth stands. A conceived child is not her property nor her prerogative but is a stewardship from the Creator.

After the fall, the first judgment issued was in the form of a prophecy of redemption. This prophecy involved the woman giving birth to one who would crush the serpent’s head. The gravity of such a pregnancy is intensified in that the one to be born in order to defeat the serpent is called “her seed” or “her offspring.” The woman will have a child that is not from the seed implanted by a human male. Its true humanity comes from her alone. Her seed and her body will give rise to what Isaiah prophesied, “A virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (7:14). This cryptic language from Genesis and extended by Isaiah was not fully understood (Well, it has never been fully understood!) until Mary heard the announcement, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you: and for that reason the holy being conceived in you will be called, Son of God” (Luke 1:35). The Angel then told Joseph, after he had discovered that Mary was indeed pregnant, “The one conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.” The woman’s body was created for the purpose of bringing into the world the Messiah, mysteriously God and man in one person so that Elizabeth could say, “And how has it happened to me that the mother of my Lord would come to me?” (Luke 1:43). She said this less than one month after conception—Mary was mother and the child was Lord. In this light Paul taught, “The woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through the childbearing—if they are continuing in faith and love and holiness with self-control” (1 Timothy 2:15). Though the pain of childbirth is a curse of the fall, it is in the context of that pain that salvation comes—the childbearing. Paul refers here to the specific childbearing mentioned in Genesis 3:15 as the seed that would undo the work of Satan immediately followed by the promise of pain in that, and in all, childbearing (3:16). Every childbearing is a reminder both of original sin and the promise of redemption. The termination of the childbearing nurses a sinful prejudice against purposeful creation, the justness of the curse, and the mystery of redemption. The woman was given the assignment of bringing into the world its, and her, Savior. The Savior covenanted to be “born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, in order that we might receive the placement as sons” (Galatians 4:4, 5). These realities connected with the bearing and birthing of children are primordially immutable absolutes, an attack upon which is a moral challenge to the covenantal integrity of the triune God.

The Baptist Faith and Message affirmation that “Children, from the moment of conception, are a blessing and heritage from the Lord” reflects the biblical teaching concerning conception. David testified that he was “shapen in iniquity” and “in sin” at the point of conception (Psalm 51:5), that is, corrupt morally through his connection with Adam. His being was of moral stature from conception. At the moment of the conception of the Christ, he was of moral stature, “the holy thing conceived,” (Luke 1:35) and was seen as a person, the Lord, (Luke 1:43). Also, through the marvel and mystery of the union of Christ’s two natures in one person, we know that from the moment that the Holy Spirit came on Mary, the human nature had personhood, for in that event the power of the Most High also overshadowed her. The Son of God eternally-generated by the Most High, by that dynamic of generation, became one in person with the seed of the woman impregnated by the operation of the Holy Spirit. Abortion is nothing less that the taking of human life. It is an unnatural and unlawful act of aggression against the wise purpose of God both for the child and for the woman’s body. Those who violate this purpose are culpable.

The analogy to new birth gives another level of clarity and sobriety of the unified responsibility for life from conception to birth. Jesus said, “You must be born again” and apart from the new birth one can neither see nor enter the kingdom of God (John 3:1-8). Birth is the natural consequence of begetting. “Enosh lived ninety years and begot Cainan” (Genesis 5:9). “Noah begot three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth” (Genesis 6:10). The male planted the seed—begot—for these children and the entire process from that time of conception to their birth is collapsed into a single event. Peter presented the new birth in this way when he wrote, “who according to his abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3). In the analogy between the operation of human corruption and the operation of divine truth, James traces the effect of corruption from conception to birth: “Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death” (James 1:15). The merciful work of the Lord in the new birth is described in these terms. “Of his own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures” (James 1:18). The point is, that the movement from begottenness to birth is seen as a unit. The one naturally gives rise to the other and it is God’s intent, as seen in his own action of regeneration, that nothing interrupt that connection.

Abortion is an unnatural and unlawful act of aggression against the wise purpose of God both for the child and for the woman’s body.

These moral realities are written on the heart. Both by observation of form and anatomy and by divine mandate, Adam and Eve knew their assigned places from the first consciousness of creation (Genesis 1:26-28; 2:20-25). Sabbath and fitting sexuality, representative of both tables of the law, were present in the earliest conscious experience. This knowledge does not leave the conscience.  In spite of the most precipitous decline into perfect lawlessness and aggressively flagrant abuse of fitness according to God’s purpose, Paul can write, “who knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are deserving of death, not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them” (Romans 1:32). When Paul wrote of a “conscience seared with a hot iron” (1 Timothy 4:2), he is not referring to the loss of consciousness of right and wrong but to an aggressive and callous preference for one’s personal views over the God-centered propositions of implied rightness in creation and stated in Scripture. The point here is that no person is without a witness to the preeminent value of conceived life and our responsibility to nurture and protect it. One cannot argue that some women simply do not know what they are doing when they seek an abortion.

The implications of this doctrine first relate to the church and then to society. We can hope for no progress in society without an unequivocal conviction on the part of the church concerning both life at conception and parental, particularly female, stewardship of that life. We cannot present a theology that diminishes human responsibility for honoring with obedience God’s creation purpose, redemptive necessity, the new birth, and the law written on the heart. Those involved in an abortion should understand that this is not a neutral act in which some parties are innocent—except rarely—but each is culpable for the taking of human life. If the church is not convinced of this, we never will function as leaven to stop the rampant hideousness of abortion.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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