The church (here considered as the visible church) has had many embarrassing moments down through history, but a few are still remembered well and tossed up to us by our detractors. One of these was the Galileo affair, in which the seventeenth-century church insisted that it was a matter of clear biblical teaching that the earth was the unmoving center of not only the solar system but of the entire observable heavens. The doctors of the church were able to find many verses in the Bible that spoke of the sun’s rising and moving across the sky, even of its stopping once and moving backwards, and of the earth’s immovability. They could find no verses even suggesting that the earth was moving. Furthermore, Ptolemy’s earth-centered (geocentric) mathematical system for predicting the exact position and movements of the planets was actually more accurate than the emerging Copernican system, so even the accuracy required by science was on the side of the geocentrists. To the church fathers, both science and scripture taught that the Earth was at the center, and everything else revolved about it in circles within circles. Problem was, they were wrong.
As I think about the issues pressing upon us by the advent of genetic and reproductive technologies, I find myself turning to the scriptures with this unfortunate stand in mind. We want to determine what the scriptures say about the nature of man and about when human life begins, just as our forefathers sought to find out how the universe worked. We must be careful not to make the same mistakes they did.
To my mind, the geocentrism fiasco suggests that we must be particularly wary of two hermeneutical practices: 1) taking the words of the Bible literally except in clearly non-literal contexts and 2) reasoning from the original Biblical writer’s understanding of his own words. These days, in Reformed circles at least, we feel pretty safe from errors arising from the first principle, as we believe we can tell what is literal and what is not. (Of course, so did the 17th century church…) And we positively love the second principle, applying modern linguistic and cultural historical discoveries back into our understanding of the Old Testament in particular. We are busy searching the rabbinic writings and long-buried scrolls for insight into the ancient Hebrew mind, so that we can better interpret scripture. I smell danger in both principles.
The geocentric interpreters of the Bible were right about two things: 1) The Bible does literally say that the sun moves, and that the earth shall not be moved. Furthermore, 2) the original writers themselves believed that the sun moved, and that the earth was still. All the passages that we no longer identify as literal, all those passages about the sun rising, were not understood as figures of speech at the time they were written. We understand them so now because of our science, because, eventually, the Copernican idea was able to explain the observed world better than the Ptolemaic. The church made whatever adjustments were necessary in its theology, and found that the word of God still made sense. In fact, Psalm 8’s question, “What is man that thou considerest him?” is even more poignant in a universe containing billions of galaxies. The church did take a serious hit, however, in its reputation as a repository of truth and knowledge. The harm to the church came not by the discovery that certain verses in the scripture were not literally correct, but by its own insistence that it knew things it did not know. We have clearly set ourselves up for the same fiasco today through the agitations of the young-earth creationists and the Left-Behind series.
So in considering beginning-of-life issues we must be careful not to repeat these errors. We must not insist upon ideas that are not required by the Biblical text, and we must not simply rest in explanations based upon the ancient writers’ understanding. The ancient writer might have understood one thing, while God intended us to understand something more. We accept this already in most of the so-called Messianic verses in the Old Testament; the Psalmist meant A, but pointed to B in a way unknown to him. I believe strongly in both the historical sovereignty of God and in his self-revelation being progressive, so I cannot simply rest in some ancient Hebrew’s understanding of an issue. The world, God’s world in every way, has moved on, and we know more now than they did then. Both Paul and Moses “saw” God in some manner, but Paul knew more about him.