Culture,  Theology/Bible

Richard Hays’ Ambiguity on Abortion

Richard HaysIn the most recent issue of Touchstone magazine, W. Ross Blackburn takes on Richard Hays’ ambiguous stance on abortion. (Blackburn’s article is not available online, and that is why you must get a subscription to Touchstone magazine as soon as humanly possible!)

Richard Hays’ The Moral Vision of the New Testament is widely regarded as the most influential book on New Testament ethics today. It has been proclaimed by Christianity Today as one of the most enduring books of the twentieth century, an eminent work of “evangelical scholarship.”

Yet many evangelicals might be surprised to learn that Richard Hays’ position on abortion is somewhat left of the evangelical mainstream. Even though he generally has a preference against abortion (except in cases of rape, incest, and situations where the life of the mother is at stake), he nevertheless concludes that Christians can in good conscience reach different conclusions about the moral status of abortion.

Blackburn gives a thorough and devastating critique of Hays’ exegesis and logic. I won’t rehearse the whole argument here, but I will give a few excerpts. Blackburn writes,

“Hays’s central contention that Scripture is essentially silent on the subject of abortion depends upon his insistence that the Scriptures be read according to the modern categories of fetus and child. The terms of the discussion are everything” (p. 40).

Blackburn shows that the modern distinction between a child and a fetus is completely foreign to scripture. Hays uses this distinction and thereby eisegetically foists a category onto the biblical text that would not have occurred to the texts’ authors.

Blackburn chastises Hays for his ambiguous counsel to a couple contemplating the abortion of their unborn child with Down’s Syndrome:

“In the closing pages of his chapter, Hays explains that Bill and Jennifer ultimately decided to take the life of their handicapped child. It is of course, not surprising that the couple went ahead with the abortion, particularly when a distinguished New Testament scholar tells them that the New Testament provides no direct guidance. That itself is worth noting. . .

“It is one thing to acknowledge the difficulty of Bill and Jennifer’s situation. It is quite another to imply that choosing to kill their child is a legitimate Christian option. . . To query, as Hays does, whether abortion might be a ‘necessary choice’ in this circumstance is a betrayal of the gospel, even as Hays himself expresses it” (pp. 41-43).

The substance of this article backs up the provocative excerpts I have provided here. Go read the rest of Blackburn’s article. It is well worth it.

W. Ross Blackburn, “The Silent Witness Speaks: Abortion & Richard Hays’s Moral Ambiguity” in Touchstone (January/February 2007): 38-43.


  • Kris Weinschenker

    I too have an ‘ambigious’ stance on abortion. The zealotry displayed by some pro-lifers seems to fly in the face of Luke 18:16. Many in the Church fail to accept the responsibility inherent with talking a woman out an abortion. Like ‘modern’ medicine they treat the symptoms and NOT the cause.

    You won’t here me say this often (if at all) but I actually agree with Hillary Clinton’s statement…abortion should be safe, legal, and rare.

  • jeff miller

    Well you just motivated me to read Hays’ “Moral Vision” Ch. 18 on Abortion. The set-up material with the story of “Bill and Jennifer” is toublesome. Further into the Chapter I was convinced Hays was going to come out of this very well. He didn’t.

    In my judgment, Hays would do well to resubmit his thinking to the scriptural observations he is making.

    With some editing I would recommend this chapter as very helpful and encouraging.
    Many of Hays’ thoughts from page 446 to 455 are on target; don’t you think?
    It would seem that some unambiguous sharing of those thoughts with “Bill and Jennifer” could have saved them of any “agonizing” decision making, and more importantly sharing those thoughts could have been very much a part of pointing “Bill and Jennifer” toward the faith of Jesus Christ.

  • jeff miller

    By the way Blackburn is misleading when he says:
    “Hays’s central contention that Scripture is essentially silent on the subject of abortion depends upon his insistence that the Scriptures be read according to the modern categories of fetus and child.”

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