Maybe, Maybe Not: Reflecting on Roe 40 Years Later

Forty years ago today the Supreme Court handed down it’s decision in the landmark case of Roe v. Wade making abortion-on-demand a constitutionally guaranteed right in every state. I’ve always been pro-life (my parents left me no choice), but I’ve never before read the Court’s decision in this all-important case. So, yesterday I decided to learn for myself just what it said. The Court’s opinion was written by Justice Harry A. Blackmun. The entirety of the document is quite interesting; some of it struck me as naive, though I’m certain it was not; one aspect was shocking. 

It appears that the State of Texas made the argument that, “apart from the Fourteenth Amendment, life begins at conception and is present throughout pregnancy and that therefore the State has a compelling interest in protecting that life from and after conception.” Writing on behalf of the majority, Blackmun simply responded, “We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man’s knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer.” This, in my view, is stunning. Allow me to explain why.
Some time ago, I heard John Piper draw an analogy between abortion and hunting. If you go into the woods, he said, and you see something moving but can’t quite tell what it is, you don’t shoot. It could be the animal you are after, but it could be a person. It could even be your hunting buddy. The potential exists that this movement could be a human being. And if that potential exists, then you don’t shoot your weapon at the movement. If you did, and it turned out to be a person, then you would face the criminal charges of manslaughter or perhaps even murder. The point, Piper said, is that if the potential exists that you are destroying a human life, then you do not shoot your weapon. Likewise, when it comes to abortion, if we don’t know whether the preborn should be considered human beings, even if we conclude they are potential persons, then we should not abort them. If the potential is there that this is a person, you don’t fire your weapon. 
Two problems with the Court’s reasoning should be clear. First, by finding in favor of Roe and overturning every state statute outlawing abortion, the Supreme Court effectively did precisely what it said it need not do. The written decision may have remained explicitly agnostic with regard to the beginning of life, but by legalizing abortion and denying legal protection to the preborn the Court implied that they are not alive. They are not persons. Second, the Court did not give due weight to the possibility that there may be life there, at least in potential. The Court simply said that it did not know and did not care. If the Court were to walk into the woods and see movement behind a tree, expect a barrage of more than fifty million shells to be unleashed. “Wait,” you urge, “might that movement be caused by a human being?” The Court simply responds, “Maybe, but maybe not. No one really knows, after all. So, fire away.”
Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono /

In Praise of Gadflies

Given that today is Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, I decided it appropriate to read something by this great man who courageously battled for civil rights and desegregation. So, I pulled a book off the shelf containing many and various documents of great importance in American history, including King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” As I read through the letter I was struck by many things, not least his nuanced self-understanding not only as an advocate of civil rights but as one who endeavored to save our society from the violent expression of repressed emotions by creating nonviolent outlets for the justified discontent of African-Americans. King is certainly to be admired and there are many things worthy of mention in his famous prison epistle. I thought I would point to a few of those worthy sentences, though they might not be the most commonly cited excerpt of the letter. King writes: 

Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.

Every battle against injustice must have its gadflies, even if they do not conceive of themselves in precisely those terms. I’m grateful today to live in a society that has reaped the benefits of Dr. King’s work. I’m grateful that he understood his task and did not shy away from it, despite the pain and danger. May we all be likewise faithful. 

Reflections on Four Views on the Apostle Paul (@Zondervan)

The first book I’ve read this new year is a review of copy of Four Views on the Apostle Paul. This book is a recent addition to Zondervan’s Counterpoints series and is intended to introduce readers to some of the major issues current in Pauline studies. These “views” books are always fun because they tackle controversial  topics head on and usually often contain substantive and helpful interchange between the contributors who all get the opportunity to respond to one another’s views. I don’t intend to provide a full-on review in this post, but I do want to call attention to a few interesting features of this book exploring them somewhat more fully than I was able to in the review (for reasons of space, you know).
  • The first is the interesting and somewhat surprising extent to which the contributors engaged in debate over which letters are authentically Pauline. Thomas Schreiner (Reformed view) and Luke Timothy Johnson (Catholic view) both base their readings of Paul on all thirteen letters that bear his name. Douglas Campbell (Post-New Perspective view) and Mark Nanos (Jewish view) only make use of the undisputed letters, and Campbell really works primarily and more narrowly with Romans 5-8. As a result, there was a fair bit of interchange over which sources to use. Schreiner and Johnson critiqued Campbell and Nanos for neglecting half the sources, while the latter two expressed their concerns that the former two were willing to use those hotly contested pastorals along with both Ephesians and Colossians. It is typically said that there is a consensus among scholars with regard to which letters can be used as sources for Paul’s authentic theology, and, as a result, arguments are based on these “undisputed” letters, because those who work with the others leave themselves open to the charge that they are basing an argument about Paul on letters he didn’t write. My question is this: if there is such strong consensus, why does this issue get so much debate time in Four Views on the Apostle Paul? Now, admittedly, it doesn’t follow that because two out of four contributors to this book hold to Pauline authorship of all thirteen letters that there is no true consensus among scholars. The editors could have knowingly picked two out of a small minority who held the view represented by Schreiner and Johnson. However, this wasn’t the only publication in 2012 that raised this issue. At the end of the year, Paul Foster published an article in the Journal for the Study of the New Testament in which he argued that the consensus concerning which letters Paul did not write is “crumbling”. He specifically argued that the arguments against Pauline authorship of 2 Thessalonians are irrelevant and inconclusive. And the essay includes a survey detailing the diversity of thought among scholars as to the authorship of the disputed letters. More and more scholars are arguing that Paul wrote Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians, while others, beyond Schreiner and Johnson, argue for the authenticity of all thirteen. At the end of the article, Foster published the results of an informal survey he conducted at the 2011 meeting of the British New Testament Society in which the respondents had the opportunity to answer “yes”, “no”, or “undecided” to the question of whether Paul wrote each epistle. Here are the combined percentages for the so-called disputed letters of those answering “yes” or “undecided”: Ephesians, 61%; Colossians, 89%; 2 Thessalonians, 68%; 1 Timothy, 44%; 2 Timothy, 46%; and Titus, 42%. Now the British New Testament Society may not be representative of all New Testament scholars, but the results are nevertheless very interesting, and they lead me to suppose that, while we may have a consensus that Paul wrote at least seven letters, there is less and less consensus over the lack of authenticity of of the remaining six.
  • The second issue is the more problematic aspect of Four Views on the Apostle Paul that it included no essay setting forth the so-called New Perspective on Paul (NPP). I usually aim to evaluate a book on what it does say rather than what it doesn’t, but in this case I believe an exception is warranted. Whether or not one holds a NPP view, no one can deny its significance for contemporary Pauline scholarship. The NPP came up repeatedly in this book; the contributors interacted with it rather extensively. As indicated above, one of the chapters was even labeled a “Post-New Perspective” view. and several times it was suggested that we must move beyond the NPP. Well, what is this thing we must move beyond? These “views” books are introductory by nature, and many readers will be newcomers to the serious study of Paul, yet this major perspective has been left out. Indeed, given that the NPP is a critique of the Reformed view set forth by Schreiner, and that Campbell’s Post-New Perspective is a critique of the NPP, the book leaves you with that feeling like you’ve bitten into an Oreo cookie only to discover that the creamy middle has been left out. 
  • Third and finally, I’ll briefly say that I while I enjoyed the essay by Luke Timothy Johnson, I found it a rather curious chapter in that it was titled “A Catholic Perspective”, yet there was little to nothing in it that was distinctively Roman Catholic. Johnson hints at this at the beginning of the chapter, and Schreiner notes in his response that Johnson “didn’t emphasize Catholic distinctives” (97). So, if you’re looking for a reading of Paul that defends a Tridentine view of justification, you won’t find it here. 
Allow me to conclude by saying these two points of critique are no reason to pass over this book. It most assuredly has much to commend it. I enjoyed it very much and found it to be quite the page-turner as I was eager to discover how each respondent would set forth their own views and evaluate the essays of the other contributors. This book will give you a basic and accessible introduction to some important issues in Paul, and for these reasons I commend it.