Abortion, Murder, and the Early Church

The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 10 vols.   -              Edited By: Alexander Roberts      In the ancient Roman Empire human life was generally not highly valued.  Some Greco-Roman religions involved child sacrifice, shedding of blood, and other inhumane acts.  Roman citizens typically didn’t speak out against the brutal killing methods displayed in the arenas – in fact, people flocked to see humans mercilessly slay each other or be torn apart and eaten by ferocious animals.  Some people even practiced different forms of abortion; for example “exposing” was aborting an infant by letting him die in some “off-the-beaten path” place.

Tertullian (d. 22o AD) discussed this inhumanity as he defended the Christian faith in his treatise called Apology.  One thing he mentioned was the fact that there were rumors of Christians acting inhumanely (i.e. killing and eating children).   If this was true, he argued, why does the Roman Empire punish Christians for doing things that are acceptable in broader society?  However, it was not true, and Tertullian noted that it was terribly unjust, unfair, and even contrary to Roman law to punish Christians with no concrete evidence of these rumored crimes.

The truth, Tertullian said, is that Christians value human life far more than others in society.   All murder is forbidden in the Christian religion:

“In our case, murder being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the fetus in the womb, while as yet the human being derives blood from other parts of the body for its sustenance.  To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man-killing; nor does it matter whether you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to the birth.  That is a man which is going to be one; you have the fruit already in its seed” (ch. IX).

Later, Tertullian explained how Christians love one another, their neighbors, and even their enemies.  (And as we saw a few days ago, Christians even pray for and honor Caesar.)  The rumors are false, he said; Christians are good for society in that they value human life far more than others around them.  Rather than do harm, Christians do good.  Therefore, Tertullian asserted, the Roman Empire should neither punish Christians or outlaw Christianity.

Tertullian, Apology, found in the Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 3.

rev shane lems
hammond, WI
covenant presbyterian church (OPC)

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