How to Do a Bible Study on Abortion

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The Bible speaks in some way to anything you can think of, but it doesn’t speak explicitly to everything you can think of.

In other words, the Bible never uses the term “work ethic,” but it does tell us to do all to the glory of God (1 Cor 10:31). It doesn’t speak about insider trading or the use of DDT, but it does give general commands about cheating (Prov 10:9) and ruling wisely over creation (Gen 1:26–28).

God’s Word has something to say—in at least a general way—about every important issue there is, even if these issues are not mentioned by name.

The same goes for the controversial subject of abortion.

A concordance search for that term won’t show you a single result. But I can’t stop my Bible study because I got zero hits in my first search. As a Christian, I want to be sure sure I’m standing, finally, on the Bible rather than on a political party platform—not that the latter is wrong to have, only that it is not bedrock. It, too, must be resting on truth. So I’ve got to study.

How, in fact, do you go about studying a topic like abortion in the Bible?

Step 1: Make a list of relevant passages

When you first begin to study a topic not directly mentioned in Scripture, you may feel tempted to despair: “Where do I even start?”

I encourage you not to turn—not yet—to anything written by anyone else. Exercise your own biblical-theological mental muscles first. Exercise strengthens. What passages of Scripture come to your mind? Make a list.

  • Perhaps Genesis 1:26–28, “Let us make man in our image.”
  • Maybe Genesis 2:7, “Then the LORD God formed the man out of the dust from the ground and breathed the breath of life into his nostrils, and the man became a living being” (CSB).
  • If you’ve heard evangelical discussions of abortion before, you may think of Psalm 139: “You created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.”
  • One of the more obscure passages relevant to the discussion, and much debated, is Exodus 21:22–25:

When men get in a fight and hit a pregnant woman so that her children are born prematurely but there is no injury, the one who hit her must be fined as the woman’s husband demands from him, and he must pay according to judicial assessment. If there is an injury, then you must give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, bruise for bruise, wound for wound. (CSB)

Get your list together. (In Logos, you can form a passage list. Click “Documents,” then “Passage List,” then name it “Abortion.” Now right click on any Scripture passage to add it to the list.)

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Step 2: Observe, Interpret, and Apply Each Passage

Now take your list and Observe, Interpret, and Apply—the three Bible study steps discussed on this blog in the past and recommended by, among others, Duvall and Hays. I’ll focus on Exodus 21:22–25, the passage I just quoted. But good Bible study entails observing, interpreting, and applying all the passages on your topical list.

Observation

Faithful observation means making sure you understand the context of Exodus 21:22–25. Make sure you grasp where in Exodus the passage occurs (in “the book of the covenant,” a section of laws for Israel given after they receive the Ten Commandments). And make sure you grasp where in the history of redemption Exodus occurs. The New Testament tells us that certain Old Testament laws were fulfilled in Christ and are therefore no longer applicable. What authority does God mean for this particular legislation in Exodus to have today in non-Jewish nations? What moral truths does this paragraph reveal? A fairly standard evangelical viewpoint posits a “third use of the law,” or something close to it:

Even though the Old Testament law is not literally binding upon believers, we see principles and patterns and moral norms that still apply to us today since the Old Testament is the word of God. (Thomas R. Schreiner, 40 Questions about Christians and Biblical Law, [Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic & Professional, 2010], 99.)

But what moral norm—what reflection of God’s character—can we discern in a passage like Exodus 21:22–25? We’ll have to engage in some careful interpretation to find it.

Those are just a couple observation questions I asked myself. Ask your own, and be sure to jot down what you observe.

Interpretation

The first step in careful interpretation for me is almost always comparing English Bible translations. If you do that with this passage, you’ll immediately notice a major difference: does the woman envisaged “give birth prematurely” (NIV) or suffer a “miscarriage” (NRSV)?

There is a literal life and death difference between those translations. What is going on?

This is a classic example of why functional and formal Bible translations exist. Checking more formal/literal translations will show you what “raw data” the more functional/interpretive translations are working with—and why they feel the need to provide a more interpretive rendering.

The NLT’s footnote, for example, offers a literal translation of verse 22: “Hebrew reads so her children come out.” And this is precisely the way the ESV translates it. But this rendering leaves such huge ambiguity that it threatens to be misleading. Surely Moses knew the difference between a preemie and a stillbirth. So even the highly literal NASB picks an interpretation: “so that she gives birth prematurely.”

It may be tempting to reach for a commentary or journal article right now, and we’ll get there. But your next practical step, when Bible translators themselves disagree, is to look within the passage itself for indications that one translation may be better than another. But in this case there is a phrase following the contested one: “and there is no harm/injury”—if this refers to the woman, then we could be dealing with either a preemie or a stillbirth. If it refers to the child, it could only be a preemie.

So we have two major variables here: (1) are the “children” who “come out of” the mother dead or alive?, and (2) does the “harm” that follows come to the mother, the child(ren), or both? Translations answer question (1) both ways; they tend to leave question (2) ambiguous.

Application

Rarely will you be able to rule one interpretation of a passage completely out if reputable Bible versions have adopted it. Interpretation of Scripture doesn’t always yield 100% precision; you will sometimes ask the Bible questions it doesn’t answer to your complete satisfaction. (The Bible speaks in some way to anything you can think of, but it doesn’t speak explicitly to everything you can think of.)

But with interpretation stalled at the key point with regard to the abortion question, application isn’t yet possible. How can we use a text we don’t yet understand?

Step 3: Read Commentaries, Articles, and Dictionaries

When you’ve reached the limits of what you can do without help, it’s time to turn to commentaries, journal articles, dictionaries, and other resources. The Bible is sufficiently clear that every Christian can read it with profit—and is morally responsible for reading it rightly—but God has also given us teachers to help us understand it (Eph 4:11–14).

I used Logos Bible Software to find out what teachers I trust have to say about this passage and the topic of abortion in general. I typed “abortion” into my Go Box on the Logos desktop home page, and found plenty of help.

One resource in particular, a lengthy article in Bibliotheca Sacra written by medical doctor Robert N. Congdon, was excellent: “Exodus 21:22–25 and the Abortion DebateBibliotheca Sacra 146 (1989). It was scientifically, historically, and linguistically rigorous. (It’s also a great example of why I bought a Theological Journals bundle: some topics are too detailed for commentaries and not detailed enough for books or monographs.)

This and other articles raised interpretive issues I never would have thought to ask on my own. Here are some important questions that arose as I read through resources in my Logos library:

  • At the time Exodus 21 was written, what would be the most likely outcome of blunt force trauma on a pregnant woman? (Congdon says it would be a stillbirth, which would mean “no harm” refers to the mother.)
  • If the punishment for such a stillbirth was merely a fine, does this have implications for personhood and the value of individual human lives? (You’ll need to do this interpretive work yourself, but I found Congdon’s article especially helpful on this point. And here I must also mention the excellent work of Peter Williams on the issue of slavery in the OT.)
  • Does this passage completely eliminate the possibility that unborn children held a lesser status in the life of ancient Israel? (John Frame, somewhat surprisingly, says no.)

When you check commentaries and journal articles, you’ll be brought back through Observation, Interpretation (and occasionally some Application, particularly in articles). And sometimes, you’ll wind up with more questions than you started with. Don’t despair. God is permitted to require hard work; he is also permitted to provide less detail than you desire. But, generally speaking, work in good commentaries and articles will clarify your answers and your questions.

Step 4: Back to Application

After you interpret all the passages you listed in step one, your goal is to synthesize those interpretations into some sort of practical application. How do those passages complement one another to form a biblical view on abortion? Consider all the biblical data on the topic of abortion, put it together into a coherent theological package, and then love, trust, and obey.

Just based on my study of the passage we’ve been using as an example, I found myself nodding in agreement with Congdon who says, “In any interpretation Exodus 21:22–25 treats the destruction of the unborn child as an unjust and illegal action.” (Congdon, 147) Maximally, Exodus treats the killing of an unborn child as an offense punishable by death.

But don’t take my word for it. The whole point here is for you to do your own study on abortion, not just read mine. Before diving into the next Facebook scrum on this culture-dividing moral issue, put forth some effort to make certain you’re standing on the Word of God and not just a particular party platform.

mark ward
Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a Logos Pro. He is the author of multiple high school Bible textbooks, including Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption.

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