Commentary on social and moral issues of the day

The Embryo and the Bible

Fr. John Breck

  • Print this page
  • Email this page
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Bookmark and Share

The ancient Hebrews understood that we are created in the image and likeness of God.

Christian anthropology is firmly grounded in the Old Testament understanding of the origin and destiny of the human person. It makes its greatest departure from Hebrew teaching with its proclamation of Christ's resurrection and ascension. These momentous events provide the conditions for the general resurrection of humankind "at the last day," and for the glorification or deification of those who dwell "in Christ."

The ancient Hebrews nevertheless understood that we are created "in the image and likeness of God" (Gen 1:26-27). Our life-breath is the Breath of God Himself (Gen 2:7). This divine "inspiration," identified by the Church Fathers as either the soul or the Spirit of God, animates human life from its beginning, that is, from what we would call fertilization or conception. Therefore, the psalmist can declare: "They hands have made and fashioned me' (Ps 118/119:73), and "thou didst form my inward parts, thou didst knit me together in my mother's womb" (Ps 138/139:13). Job reminds God that His hands have fashioned him "from clay" and "knit [him] together with bones and sinews" (10:8-11). God creates the "heart" of all persons and animates them with His own life-breath (Isa 33/34:15; Ps 32:15, etc.).

The Septuagint or Greek translations of Exodus 21:22 makes a distinction between the "formed" and "unformed" fetus (we might say, between the fetus and the embryo). Yet both live by virtue of God's indwelling Breath or Spirit. And they do so from the moment of creation, that is, from fertilization.

New Testament authors took up these basic notions and developed them into a distinctively Christian view of the human person. If Rebecca's twins could struggle with one another in their mother's womb (Gen 25:21ff), John the Baptizer could, from his own mother's womb, recognize and rejoice in the presence of Jesus, borne in the womb of Mary (Lk 1:44). These are not "fetuses"; they are conscious, sentient human beings who relate to one another as persons.

A great many other passages from Hebrew and Christian Scriptures could be cited to make the point that God animates His human creatures from the beginning of their existence and sustains them throughout the period of their earthly life. One of the most interesting is found in the Wisdom of Solomon 15:11. Here the author speaks of those who fail "to now the One who formed them and inspired them with active souls and breathed a living spirit into them." For those who do know God, Christian witnesses will later affirm, that inspiration or in-breathing of the life principle is the necessary condition for achieving their ultimate purpose. If God creates the soul together with the body, as Christian tradition affirms, it is so that the human person might participate from the very beginning in God's own life.

For the sake of convenience--and perhaps also to camouflage what really happens in an abortion--we make a distinction between "embryo," "fetus" and "child."

From a Biblical perspective, these distinctions or divisions in the human growth process are artificial. There is complete continuity from one stage to the next. The act of creation itself produces a living, "ensouled" human being, a bearer of the divine Image, whose entire existence is given for one fundamental purpose: to grow in holiness from conception, through maturity and physical death, to full participation in the very life of God.

"As for man," St. Irenaeus declared, "it was necessary for him to be created; then having been created, to grow; and having grown, to become an adult; and having become an adult, to multiply; and having multiplied, to become strong; and having become strong, to be glorified; and having been glorified, to behold the Lord" (Against Heresies IV.38).

The Very Rev. John Breck was Professor of New Testament and Ethics at St. Vladimir's Seminary from 1984-1996. He is presently Professor of Biblical Interpretation and Ethics at St. Sergius Theological Institute, Paris, France and with his wife Lynn he directs the St. Silouan Retreat near Charleston, SC. This article is reprinted with permission of the author.

Copyright 2001-2018 OrthodoxyToday.org. All rights reserved. Any reproduction of this article is subject to the policy of the individual copyright holder. Follow copyright link for details.
Copyright 2001-2018 OrthodoxyToday.org. All rights reserved. Any reproduction of this article is subject to the policy of the individual copyright holder. See OrthodoxyToday.org for details.

Article link: