Answers to Chapter Seven

by David Crabtree


David Crabtree has provided the following answers to the study questions from chapter seven of The Language of God.

Question #1

Who asked this? I hate this kind of question! It is so much work to make explicit all the principles and values that go into any significant moral issue that I throw up my hands before I start. But since I asked the question, I will give it the ole college try. I will talk briefly about some of the issues involved (issues which are probably already familiar to you) and then list a few of the principles and values that emerge from my discussion.

God made man a moral being. This means that he made us capable of making meaningful choices. Many of those choices, in the abstract, are morally neutral. If someone is having trouble with their adenoids, it is not inherently immoral to have them removed nor is it inherently immoral to not have them removed. A person is free to make the best possible decision based on the information available as to which would be the wiser choice. Therefore if a fetus were the moral equivalent of adenoids abortion would be this kind of choice. But a fetus is not the same as an organ of the body-it is a human life.

When does life begin? We customarily think in terms of life beginning at birth. We count our age from the day we come out of our mother’s womb. But modern medicine has shown how arbitrary this is. A child can be taken by C-section or by induced labor before the time of natural birth and the child is in no way qualitatively different from the child that has gone full term. So are we to believe that the child that is still in the mother’s womb at nine months is less of a human being than the one that was taken by C-section a week earlier? I think not.

Then when does life begin? The next place at which a qualitative change takes place is at conception. Neither egg nor sperm are capable of independent existence and development. But once conception takes place, the normal course of development is for the fertilized egg to grow into a fully developed human being. It, therefore, seems most reasonable to consider the time of conception to be the time at which a human being’s life begins.

If this is correct, then the fetus is a human life. If it is a human life, then its life should be valued and respected as much as the life of any other human being. To abort a fetus is to kill a human being. To kill another human being in the absence of any higher good is evil.

It has been argued that preventing an unwanted child from coming into the world is one of those higher goods. In a sense, this seems self-evident. It is reasoned that an unwanted child will not be loved by his parents and will suffer psychological pain if not physical pain as a result. Would it not be better never to have lived than to live a life of misery and pain? Does this not involve less pain?

This line of thinking has two flaws. First, we cannot know that an unwanted child will suffer a life of pain and misery. The course of one’s life is not made known to us in advance. Everyone’s life has its fair share of unexpected twists and turns. Just because a child is unwanted in the womb does not mean that the child will remain unwanted after birth. The unwantedness may be a temporary attitude on the part of the parents that dissipates as soon as the child is born. Or it may be years before the parents change their minds. But in either case, the unwantedness may go away. It is, of course possible that the parents will never change their minds. But maybe someone else will step into the life of the child and love him as a parent should-a grandparent, an aunt or uncle, a neighbor. It is possible that no one will ever love the child. But this could happen to a wanted child. A child that is eagerly anticipated can, over time, for any number of reasons, fall into disfavor in the eyes of the parents. My point is this-it is by no means certain that an unwanted child will necessarily face a life of greater misery and pain than a wanted child.

This is made all the more confused by an attitude that is very wide spread in our culture-love is a feeling over which one has no control. From this perspective a child toward whom a parent has no feelings of love is seen as unfortunate, but out of the power of anyone to change. In fact, love has little to do with feelings; it is a decision. The love that parents have for a child is a moral requirement to put the interests of the child before one’s own it is not, in essence, a feeling. While it may be true that we cannot turn our passions on and off at will, we do have control over our actions. Therefore to love a child is a choice a parent makes. For a parent to not love his child is not unfortunate; it is wrong. Therefore to terminate the life of a fetus is to choose to kill one’s child rather than to carry out one’s responsibility to love and care for the life of a child that God has entrusted to him. And this choice has the greatest influence on the quality of the child’s life, and it must be made by the same ones who are making the decision as to whether the child will live or not.

The second flaw is that a life is not be considered good on the basis of whether or not the person did or did not suffer misery and pain. A good life is one that results in wisdom and spiritual maturity. The means by which one develops wisdom and becomes spiritually mature always involves pain and misery. How a person responds to the misery and suffering is the critical issue. This is something that is completely beyond the ability of human wisdom to predict. Therefore there are no solid grounds to claim that taking the life of an unwanted child is a greater good that justifies the killing of an unborn child.

When I said that a good life is one in which a person grows in wisdom and spiritual maturity, I did not mean to imply that this requires normal mental abilities such that unborn children diagnosed to have mental disabilities may be aborted. As human beings we were created in the image of God. I believe this to mean we were created to be moral beings capable of reflecting the moral character of God. In order for us to be moral beings God made us capable of exercising a measure of reason. So rationality is a distinctive of mankind. But just because a person is defective with respect to rationality, this does not mean he is no longer a human being, no longer capable of reflecting the moral character of God. We do not know how a mentally challenged child thinks about reality, how he interacts with God. But he was made in the image of God just as much as anyone else and deserves no less respect and love than anyone else. Therefore any claim that those children who are diagnosed to be mentally handicapped should be aborted is ludicrous.

In sum then, here are just a few of the principles that come to bear on the issue of abortion.

1. People have choices with respect to their bodies; surgery is within the bounds of such choices.

2. Life begins at conception- where else?

3. Life is to be respected as valuable

4. Love is a decision not an emotion

5. Parents are responsible to love and care for their own children

6. Taking seriously one’s responsibility to love and care for one’s child is a means by which one can grow in wisdom and spiritual maturity

7. The purpose of life is to grow in wisdom and spiritual maturity

8. Pain and misery are tools God uses to help us grow in wisdom and spiritual maturity

9. People are not allowed to take the lives of other people in the absence of a greater good.

Question #2

The Council at Jerusalem gathered to resolve a very important issue that had arisen with respect to the content of the gospel message. Some had argued that, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses you cannot be saved.” Paul and Barnabas, on the other hand, argued that salvation did not hinge upon circumcision. Gentiles did not have to observe the Law of Moses in order to be saved.

Peter sided with Paul and Barnabas in this debate. He made a speech recorded in Acts 15 in support of their position. Peter reminded those present that he had been singled out by God to be the first to present the word of the gospel to the Gentiles. This is apparently a reference to the incident in which God led Peter to speak to Cornelius, a Roman centurion and Gentile (recorded in Acts 10). Peter had always been a very careful observer of the Mosaic Law. Now God was about to ask Peter to do something, namely go to the house of a Gentile, that was clearly a violation of that law. In preparation for this God gave Peter a vision. In the vision Peter saw all kinds of non-kosher animals being lowered in a sheet-like fabric. Peter, who was feeling very hungry at the time, was told by God to “kill and eat.” Peter objected saying that he had never eaten unclean meat and would not now. God responded saying, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.” At this point Peter was perplexed as to what this vision meant. When messengers from Cornelius came to the house and asked for Peter, the Spirit spoke to Peter telling him to go with the men. The next day Peter went with the servants of Cornelius to Caesarea, where Cornelius was living. There Peter presented the gospel message to a number of Gentiles whom Cornelius had gathered for the occasion. Peter had pointed out that it was unlawful for a Jew to visit a Gentile, but that he had come without fear because God had shown him that he “should not call any man unholy or unclean.” In other words, God had made Cornelius, a Gentile, clean. This meant that since Cornelius was not a Jew and yet had been made clean, the cleanness of a person is not dependent on observance of the Mosaic law. A person is made clean when, through faith, his heart is cleansed by God. And with respect to this there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile-Cornelius and his friends received the Holy Spirit just as surely as did Peter and the apostles, accompanied by the same testifying signs. Therefore salvation is always a gift and nothing other than a gift; Jews and Gentiles both receive it according to God’s good pleasure without strings. Consequently, Gentiles need do nothing more to qualify for salvation, let alone observe the Mosaic Law, which even Jews have not been able to do.

The following principles can be found in the thinking exhibited by Peter:

1. Salvation is a gift from God

2. Salvation is not based on anything the person does

3. The Mosaic Law does not bring and does not enhance salvation

4. The distinction between Jew and Gentile does not have anything to do with one’s standing before God

5. Peter’s experience with Cornelius was not a one time exception but representative of a host of Gentiles

James agrees with Peter, but his argument takes a different tack. Whereas Peter had referred to his experience as support for his position, James refers to Scripture. James accepts the experience Peter had with Cornelius as proof that Cornelius did indeed accept the Holy Spirit. This was reinforced by the testimony of Barnabas and Paul in relating the various signs that other Gentiles had received the Holy Spirit. James quotes from the book of Amos to show that this was not just a temporary phenomenon, but a lasting part of God’s plan from the very beginning. God had announced in Amos that the temple in Jerusalem would be restored so that all of mankind, not just Jews, could seek God. So it has always been God’s intention that Gentiles would turn to him, and that they do so without ceasing to be Gentiles. James concludes that no obstacles ought to be placed in their way that would hinder this process. Therefore he proposes that, in deference to Jewish sensibilities inculcated in Jews from birth, all Gentiles who become believers have the courtesy to refrain from a pagan religious practice which is particularly offensive to Jews-eating meat sacrificed to idols-and adhere to a few Jewish religious practices, violations of which were particularly repugnant to Jews-refraining from eating animals that have been killed by strangling, eating blood, and following the strict requirements of Jewish law regarding marriage to relatives (Lev. 18:6-18). James argued that none of these requirements is particularly onerous and must have felt that if Gentiles would graciously consent to follow them this would go a long way toward soothing relations between Jewish believers and Gentile believers.

Here is a short list of some of the principles that bear on James’ thinking:

1) Good relations between believers is good

2) Forgoing permissible behavior for the sake of others is good

3) Scripture speaks authoritatively with respect to how we should see the world.

Question #3

a. From our discussion of the Council in Jerusalem in the previous answer it is clear that the Apostles concluded that God did not require that believers follow Jewish religious practices. One of the most distinctive of those practices and the one that was central to the debate at the council was that of circumcision. Therefore it makes sense that Paul would not compel Titus, who was a Gentile believer to be circumcised. Circumcision holds no significance with respect to one’s standing with God. From this perspective it should make no difference whatever whether one is circumcised or not. But there are other considerations. Even though a believer may be at liberty to do or not do something, he must take into account the impact of his action on those around him. In I Corinthians (8:1-13) Paul argues that believers are free to eat or not eat of meat sacrificed to idols. “But food will not commend us to God; we are neither the worse if we do not eat, nor the better if we do eat.” However, even if I understand this, another believer who sees me eating may mistake my exercise of liberty for an act of conviction-thinking that I believe that by doing this I will gain the favor of the gods. If this is the case, I ought to forgo my liberty and refrain from eating meat sacrificed to idols, because the risk of having my action misunderstood is too great. The circumcision of Titus presents a similar problem. In this case the opponents of Paul were of the belief that circumcision is a requirement for all believers. Paul has argued that it contributes nothing to our salvation and is therefore neither here nor there. So when Paul went to Jerusalem, with Titus accompanying him, to make sure that he and those of reputation (the apostles) were teaching the same gospel, he found that they had the same understanding. However, the apostles apparently judged that it would be wise if Paul had Titus circumcised nonetheless, probably in order to prevent this from being a stumbling block for Jewish believers. But Paul judged just the opposite-it would be better for Titus to not be circumcised. By not being circumcised, Titus is making a clear statement of his firm belief that circumcision contributes nothing to one’s salvation.

In the case of Timothy, Paul had just the opposite opinion as to what he should do. Timothy was a young believer who was the son of a Jewish woman and a Greek man. Paul had him circumcised “because of the Jews who were in those parts.” Once again Paul is taking into consideration how this action will influence those around. In this case the audience he has in mind is again the Jews, but these are Jews living in the area of Lystra. Here, far away from Jerusalem, the issues are presumably different. It could be that Paul wanted Timothy to be fully accepted as a Jew in order to be more effective in his ministry to Jews. Another possibility is that Paul wanted to demonstrate to the Jews living in those parts that one need not cease to be a Jew in order to be a Christian. In either case, it was Paul’s judgment that, although circumcision in and of itself means nothing, Timothy’s circumcision would communicate a more constructive message to the surrounding people than not getting circumcised.

b. The principle that lies behind Paul’s decision in the instance of Titus and Timothy is the same. We are free with respect to religious practices; they are of no consequence. The important issue is how do I use that liberty wisely? I ought to do that which will be most constructive in the lives of those around me. If they are at risk of putting faith in religious practices, and my obedience to religious practices would encourage them in that direction, I ought not do it. If this is not a risk and offending the religious scruples of those around me would harm relationships, I ought to conform to those religious scruples.

Copyright February 2002 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

David Crabtree