In a Just World

photo of Dr. Richard Land

Subject: Dr. Richard Land Interviewer: Alison Rostankowski
Transcripts: Pat Hammerlund

The segments included in this interview* were recorded August 2001, as part of In a Just World a documentary on world religions, family planning, contraception, and abortion.. The documentary is a co-production of The Duncan Entertainment Group with WTTW-Chicago. Dr. Land formerly worked as a professor and academic dean of Criswell College. He is now President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

(* This transcript has been edited due to length.)

Speaking in general terms or specifically about the Bible, how do you interpret its perspectives on family planning and contraception?
We as Southern Baptists have historically taken the position that has been identified historically with the Protestant Reformation and that is that the primary reason that God created us as males and females and blessed us with the gift of gender, is the way our confession puts it, is that it's not good for man to be alone, and so he made a help-mate and the two complete each other. And they find completeness and an intimacy and being known with each other that they don't find in any other relationship that we have as human beings. And that's the primary reason that God created us as sexual beings. So, it is perfectly permissible morally for a husband and a wife to engage in sexual activity, for that knowing and being known. As the book of Genesis puts it, "The husband and the wife became one flesh and they were both naked and unashamed." So we would argue that you do not have to be open to and accepting of conception every time that you engage in sexual intercourse. As long as you're not using contraception to preclude having children altogether, because the Bible does say to be fruitful and multiply. So we believe it would be contrary to God's design for a couple to voluntarily choose to be childless, unless there was some compelling health reason. But in terms of regulating the number of children and how far apart they are, we would leave that as a moral decision for the couple, as long as they used means of birth control that prevented conception from taking place. We would be opposed to couples using means of birth control that allows conception to take place and then causes spontaneous abortions. Some birth control pills, some oral contraceptives, prevent conception from taking place. Other oral contraceptives work by allowing conception to take place, but then preventing the fertilized egg from implanting itself and continuing to grow. We would be opposed to the latter kind, and not opposed to the former.

What do you feel is the general Christian idea regarding the point that determines when a fetus becomes a person?
The Old Testament is very clear that God is involved whenever conception takes place. God um, is involved in the shaping and the forming of the fetus in the womb. In Jeremiah chapter 1, in verse 5, Jeremiah says that God said to him, "Jeremiah before you were in your mother's womb, I knew you; and while you were in your mother's womb, I sanctified you and made you a prophet to the nations." And then in Psalm 139, the psalmist says in verses 13-16, literally if you look at the Hebrew verbs, he says that God knitted him and embroidered him together in his mother's womb. And that all of his parts were written in God's book before any of them came to be. And then in Psalm 51, King David in the midst of his penitence over his sin with Bathsheba, says that he was conceived in sin. Now, if you look at that in the Hebrew text in which it is written, it is not saying that there was something sinful about his mother and father's sexual relationship. What he's saying is that at the moment of his conception, he had a sinned nature. Now, we as Christians and Orthodox Jews understand that to mean that only a human being who has a soul and a spirit can possess a sinned nature. So that life beings at conception. Protestantism feels that it is going back beyond Catholicism and reclaiming an earlier Christian and a Judeo-Christian position on abortion. It is certainly a historical fact that when Christianity left Palestine and moved into the Greater Roman Empire, in the first and second century AD, it encountered a civilization where infanticide was very common and abortion as well. And when the Christian faith came into the Roman Empire, it took an uncompromising stand against this. The diddikai, which, of course, is the collection of the teaching of the post-apostolic fathers, the first and second generation after the apostles, says that abortion is the taking of life in the womb and is not to be countenanced as a practice by Christians. And this is, was and remained the position of both, Catholic and Protestant Christianity, uh well into the twentieth century. You know, Deitritch Von Hoffer says, "the taking of the nascent life in the womb is a horrible thing." Calvin and Luther both denounced it as among the most heinous of crimes. It's only been in the twentieth century that you've had widespread departure on the part of many Protestant groups from what had been a pretty clear and consistent position in Christianity for most of the first two thousand years, both Catholic and Protestant.

Since there is no passage in the Bible that says, thou shall not abort, how can you be certain that those passages you do use are a condemnation of abortion?
WelI, it seems to me, and I think it would seem to most Christians, that if you look at what the Bible says about God's valuing of life, from before conception onward, that taking that life, that he's been involved in conceiving, that he's been involved in shaping and forming, that he has the parts of that person already written in his book. And if you'd like to take a New Testament text, Ephesians Chapter 2 verses 8, 9,and 10, "For by grace are you saved through faith and that not of yourselves it is the gift of God not of any works lest any man should boast." And then verse 10 says, "For we are his workmanship created in Christ Jesus unto good works that God has before ordained that we should walk therein." Now when you start unpacking the King James language, what it means is God has a plan and a purpose for every one of our lives. To come to know Jesus as our savior and then to walk in footprints, in the footsteps, in the pathway that he has already preordained that we should walk therein. I believe God has a plan and a purpose for my life and it was a plan and a purpose for my life that God had before I was ever conceived. That, just like he said to Jeremiah, he would say about me, before you were in your mother's womb I knew you. And I believe he would say the same thing about you God has a plan and a purpose for every human life, God never created a nobody.

How would you respond to those who wonder if you can ever read the sacred text of the Bible without making the human mistake of interpreting it?
Well I think that you can't completely avoid it, but one of the ways you minimize your subjectivity is that you put yourself under the authority of scripture, rather than putting yourself in authority over scripture. For far too many people, in the Christian tradition, in the twentieth century, they have adopted what some have called Dalmatian theology. The Bible is inspired in spots, and we're of course, inspired to spot which spots. And of course, those spots are the spots that we agree with. You know, I've had people say to me, well after all, the apostle Paul was just expressing his first century prejudices, against homosexuals and against women. And my response to that is quite simply, you know, when you start going through the Bible and you start trying to eliminate all of the things that you perceive as first century prejudices or fifth century BC prejudices all that you end up with are the parts of the Bible that agree with your twenty first century prejudices.

Why do you believe that we should have legislation that prohibits abortion? Why shouldn't we keep it as an individual decision?
Well, let me use an historical analogy. I find historical analogies to be helpful in helping people to understand things. One of the things that I discovered in doing research, was that in the 1850's, I came across letters to the editor and editorials in newspapers and prominent magazines that said things like this: "Well I'm personally opposed to slavery. I would never own slaves. But who am I to try to impose my morality on a slave owner." Well, the fault with that logic of course, is that the slave owner was imposing his immorality on the slaves, by keeping the slave in involuntary servitude. Well the answer came back, "But slaves aren't people, the Supreme Court said so." And sadly, in 1857 in the Dredd Scott decision, the Supreme Court of the United States said that slaves were not people. They were property and could be disposed of at the will of their owner; that they had no rights under the law. Well, the Supreme Court was wrong. And the Supreme Court was wrong again in 1973 when it said that unborn babies at least until they reached um the third trimester had no rights as human beings that their mothers or society were bound to recognize. When an abortion takes place, a human being dies. I would be opposed to making adultery illegal. I think that I have the right to preach against it as a Christian pastor, and I do and shall. But I don't think that I ought to get the law to go arrest people who engage in sexual activities outside of marriage. But when a baby is conceived, then I believe society has to represent the rights of that unborn child. That unborn child is a human being, that unborn child deserves the protections of the law. And you know if we didn't have laws against slavery, some people would still own slaves. If we didn't have laws against segregation, we would still have a largely segregated country. If something is wrong and it involves a human being that cannot protect himself or herself, then I believe we as a society have a right if we have enough people who agree, to make that activity illegal.