Conception is not fertilisation

When does human life begin? by Dr John R Ling, June 2011, The Christian Institute.  45 pp booklet.

The blurb states: “When does human life begin? It is a fundamental and decisive question because your answer reveals your understanding of the nature and status of the human embryo. It also shapes your stance on the big bioethical issues of the day such as abortion, cloning and embryonic stem cell research. There are many voices sowing confusion, but the Bible is unmistakably clear that human life begins at conception. In this booklet, John Ling provides a wide-ranging explanation of biblical truth, the historical Christian perspective and evidence from modern science to support this position.”

The aim of the booklet is to highlight the biblical teaching that the child in the womb is a human person with potential and not simply a potential human person pp. 14, 26. It serves a useful purpose to show that abortion is unbiblical, however its answer to the question in its title is unsatisfactory.

Unsatisfactory confusion

Whereas there are many useful points made in this book, the book does not clear up confusion at the point where clarity is most needed. Indeed it only adds confusion. On p. 5 Ling asks: “When does human life begin? It is certainly a big question. It therefore demands a careful answer. Yet people are often dreadfully confused about the beginning of human life – how strange it is that we can be so unsure about when and how we began.” On p. 6 it says: “human life begins at the earliest time point, namely, conception. Conception and fertilisation are synonyms for what happens on day one.” It goes on: “This is when a man’s sperm fertilises a woman’s ovum. As a result of this irreversible event, a new, genetically unique, single-celled entity, technically known as a zygote, is created. This is the beginning of human life.” It continues: “But how can we be sure, beyond any doubt, that conception is the correct answer? Although there is much supporting evidence from the biological and medical sciences and from other sources, such as philosophy and history, the Christian will, above all, be interested in what the Bible has to say. The primary purpose of this booklet is to explain just that.” So we await with interest Dr Ling’s biblical analysis. On p. 7 he promises: “what follows is not an attempt at simplistic ‘proof-texting’ but rather the exegesis, albeit briefly, of several key passages.” Sadly, this claim is too high. This booklet simply addresses the subject dogmatically and emotionally, but not exegetically.

No exegesis where it matters

Although Dr Ling shows that the Bible teaches the personality of the child in the womb, at no point does the book even try to exegete the Scriptural teaching on conception.  I did this exhaustively in the 1980s and I came to the conclusion that the teaching of both the Old and New Testaments is that the biblical meaning and use of the word “conception” refers to implantation in the womb. The Evangelical Times published my conclusion at that time, and I have read no exegesis in the intervening decades to contradict this conclusion.

Dr Ling blames the British Council of Churches for “an entirely novel way of thinking about the early days of human life to say that pregnancy did not begin until implantation”, however it is not a novel way of thinking and it did not begin with the British Council of Churches.

Dr Ling relies on definitions from dictionaries rather than exegesis of the Bible for his definition of conception pp. 31-32.   He is selective in his choice of dictionaries. Current medical dictionaries disagree with Dr Ling and they do not make fertilisation and conception the same thing. Rather the current medical definition of conception is implantation, which agrees with biblical exegesis. However Dr Ling asserts: “‘Conception’ and ‘fertilisation’ are the same – let no-one drive a wedge between them.” p. 32.

Dr Ling argues against conception being implantation and he downplays it: “implantation is essential to the continuing growth and development of the embryo, but it marks neither the beginning nor the end of anything.”  Exegetical study of Scripture would have yielded a different opinion.

Unorthodox relationship between soul and body

This book is unsatisfactory in dealing with the soul.  “Human life is a continuum from fertilisation until natural death. Neither the Bible nor biology knows of any stage or event that is so definitive that it can be said, “Before this, I was not, now I am”. In other words, there is a demonstrable continuity throughout each human life.”  p. 13.  This is palpably wrong. The most important discontinuous event is ensoulment – when God breathes the human soul into the body.  Dr Ling gets round this as he appears to believe that the human soul is present from fertilisation p. 40, although it is puzzling why he does not plainly say so in so many words. It may be because of his doctrine of the soul. The whole thesis of the booklet is based upon this thought that soul and body are present from fertilisation, but there is no biblical nor indeed any proof of it. It is simply dogmatically asserted.

However, there are multitudes of fertilised human eggs which disappear every month in a woman’s menstrual flow. Do all these have souls?  Dr Ling simply responds: “very little evidence has been produced to support the claim that many embryos are lost before implantation.”  This does not address the question.  Further, he does not even consider the fact that the hormonal effect of breast-feeding is that the mother does not ovulate as readily, nor is the lining of the womb as conducive to receiving a fertilised human egg, which appears to be a divinely-created form of hormonal contraception to discourage implantation until the previous child is weaned Hosea 1:8.  As children were weaned after several years in biblical times, I disagree with Dr Ling’s lame conclusion: “Those who use this argument cannot be confident in what they claim.”

When a fertilised egg divides into identical twins or triplets, were there two or three souls in that one egg waiting to take their place in their respective embryos?  There is no biblical exegesis in this booklet about when the soul enters the body.   In response to the twinning issue, Dr Ling asks “if twinning does occur at a time subsequent to fertilisation, why does that matter?”  He quotes Dr Peter Saunders: ““There are clearly two embryos with two destinies in the embryo which twins.”  But what is Dr Saunders view of the body and soul?  Dr Saunders’ article which Dr Ling quotes says: “ It is true that some Christians have said that human beings can be divided into body and soul but this is based on the ancient Greek idea of body and soul being separate entities; a notion which finds no support in the Bible.  Biblical principles affirm therefore that the soul and the body begin life together – and given that the body begins with fertilisation it must follow logically that the soul does also.”  This is not biblical exegesis but assertion masquerading as reasoning.  It is based upon the gratuitous assumption that the soul is present from the moment of fertilisation, based upon an unorthodox understanding of the relationship between the body and the soul, with no biblical exegesis at all.

Conception is not fertilisation

The most obvious biblical refutation of Dr Ling’s assertion that conception and fertilisation are the same thing is to point out that the humanity of the Lord Jesus Christ was not created by fertilisation – however He was conceived.   Conception and fertilisation are not the same thing.

The next thing to notice is that the consistent biblical idea of ‘conceive/conception’ is that the mother conceives the child Gen 4:1,17; et passim.  Obvious – but completely overlooked by Dr Ling and in most discussions of the subject.  Conception is a comment about the mother’s state, not about the stage of embryo development.  Conception is to be with child, to be pregnant 2Samuel 11:5. To equate fertilisation with conception is to confuse two completely different issues.  Thus we can say that the Lord Jesus Christ was ‘conceived’ by His mother Mary, but no egg was fertilised.

Elizabeth conceived John the Baptist Lk 1:24,36 and Mary conceived Jesus Lk 1:31; 2:21.  The Greek word sullambano means “to take hold of, seize, capture, catch’.  Various Hebrew and Greek words are translated ‘conceive’ but exegesis and analysis shows that the general idea is that the womb ‘takes hold of’ the blastocyst (the technical term for development at the stage of implantation) so that the mother is “with child” or becomes pregnant.  Shortly after this she becomes aware that she is with child.  By this stage, God has breathed the human soul into the conceived child.  The obvious ‘discontinuous’ events which makes the difference are implantation sullambano and ensoulment Gen 2:7.

“Behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb” Lk 1:31 – implantation takes place in the womb but fertilisation takes place in the fallopian tubes.

Biblical exegesis of ‘conception’ is the crying need of the hour and Dr Ling has not supplied it.

Historical review

In the 1980s Enoch Powell, M.P., brought forward a Bill to outlaw experimentation on the human embryo.  This important subject is not even mentioned on his Wikipedia page at the time of writing this blogpost.  The debate in the 1980s was between the human embryo being “a potential human being” (the humanist polemic) and a human being with potential (the Christian polemic).   Powell’s Bill was introduced at a time when the mood in the House of Commons was in favour of protecting, and against experimentation on, human embryos.  The experimentation lobby managed to stall for time and to sideline Powell’s Bill, and the ensuing debate was lost because of this faulty traducian theology promoted by the pro-life camp.  This continues to be the focus of attack in the medical press: Can a cell have a soul? John Burn, BMJ2008;336:1132 doi:10.1136/bmj.39581.436875.94

It will not help the Christian cause to keep peddling this unbiblical, traducian, theology.  It lost us the debate in the 1980s and it will not win the debate in the 21st century.

This post may be reproduced if the following is included:
© Donald Boyd 2011, published at http://www.donaldboyd.org

13 thoughts on “Conception is not fertilisation

  1. Alastair Manderson

    Thanks for this review Donald. I am one of these folks that hand a lot of credibility to the Christian Institute despite the massive shortcomings they have in certain areas. The way this book would damage the Virgin birth of our Lord…it is amazing it was published.

    With that said, I don’t know Dr Ling and would wonder how solid he is on other matters?

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    1. Donald

      A discussion took place on the puritanboard.com in 2011. The discussion missed the point that Dr Ling promised us biblical exegesis in no uncertain terms and gave us none. Some contributors understood the issues and others simply quoted non-biblical authorities; no-one added to the biblical exegesis that I have already done on the subject. Some asked questions that could have been easily answered if they asked these questions here, but they did not ask their questions of the one person who could have answered them.

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  3. Richard Tallach

    Dear Donald,

    What do you see as the ethical implications – if any – of your view expressed here, of fertilisation, conception and ensoulment?

    Richard (Tallach)

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  4. Donald

    Good to hear from you Richard,

    It’s not simply my view but the biblical view.

    It may indeed have ethical implications for some Christians, if it challenges their thoughts to change their view.

    As for me, my biblical exegesis regularly challenges my views, which I have to change in the light of what Scripture says. This should be normal for the godly – it is part of sanctification.

    Some people’s views never change, which suggests that they don’t submit their thoughts to Scripture – “bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” 2Cor 10:5.

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  6. ch

    Very interesting and thought-provoking post.

    Is the biblical conception of “womb” identical with the scientific definition of “womb”?

    What if “womb” in Scripture refers to the entire female reproductive tract?

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    1. Donald

      Thanks ch,

      My reference to the womb in Lk 1:31 was not used to prove anything, but it was simply an additional comment to inform non-medical people and to help them visualise the process. I wondered whether to include it as it could become a side-issue to the main argument.

      You ask: Is the biblical conception of “womb” identical with the scientific definition of “womb”? No, it is not. The word “womb” is a translation of several different Hebrew and Greek words. This shows a translator’s difficulty in establishing ancient definitions – the same applies to the names of animals and plants. Besides, the understanding of ancient civilisations developed over time, and the meaning and use of words can change over thousands of years, including using words figuratively as in “the womb of the morning” Ps 110:3.

      A current study of all the Hebrew and Greek words translated “womb” in the Bible demonstrates that only a minority of these Hebrew and Greek words are applied specifically to what we now call the womb, and even these cannot be proven to be exactly equivalent to our modern scientific definition of the womb.

      You ask: What if “womb” in Scripture refers to the entire female reproductive tract? My Hebrew and Greek word study demonstrates that the words translated ‘womb’ in both the Old Testament and the New Testament are not specific to the modern medical concept of the uterus or gravid (pregnant) uterus. These words are generally used of the internal organs: the pregnant womb, stomach, abdomen and figuratively of the heart and of things or organs ‘within’ or internally.

      You are correct to suggest that we cannot assume identical understanding between ancient and modern medicine, but we need to consider that Lk 1:31 is spoken by the angel and recorded by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, so it does not depend upon ancient knowledge. The Greek word used here often refers to the womb, but not exclusively so Tit 1:12. However, both the angel and the Holy Spirit know that conception takes place in the womb, and this is therefore an appropriate translation.

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  7. Murdo

    Interesting post. Am I right in saying that the “morning after” pill is designed to prevent the fertilised egg from being implanted in the womb? If that is the case, would you say it is a legitimate form of contraception?

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    1. Donald

      Murdo,

      Morning-after pills are hormonal and have several functions – primarily preventing the ovaries from releasing an egg (ovulation), possibly preventing fertilisation, and altering the lining of the womb so that a fertilised egg cannot implant there (which is disputed). In effect, the aim is to prevent ovulation; if that fails or is too late, it prevents fertilisation; if that fails or is too late, it prevents implantation. If implantation has already taken place, it claims not to cause abortions, but we don’t know completely how some of the new pills work.

      It all depends upon the timing of taking the pill(s) compared to the timing of ovulation. They are not 100% effective, and they are not so good at preventing ectopic pregnancy which develops in the fallopian tube and not in the womb. An ectopic pregnancy tends to suggest that the prevention of implantation is not a primary mode of action. An ectopic pregnancy is dangerous to the mother and cannot be saved by our current technology. It is also possible that an ectopic pregnancy implanted abnormally because the fertilised egg was itself abnormal.

      You ask: “If that is the case, would you say it is a legitimate form of contraception?” It is not “designed to prevent” implantation. We have no proof that preventing implantation is the primary mode of action. Current science suggests that morning-after pills act primarily to prevent ovulation. If ovulation and fertilisation has already taken place, it is possible that they prevent implantation although there is debate about this.

      If it is the case, then we need to consider that breast-feeding releases similar hormones and is a mild contraceptive with the same effect as the morning-after pill. The difference is that 1. the dose of hormone in the pills is much higher in order to be effective and 2. breast-feeding is on-going and so its primary effect is probably to prevent ovulation rather than preventing implantation. This is ‘contraceptive’ as current definitions include the prevention of ovulation, fertilisation and implantation.

      In the Bible mothers tended to breast-feed and did not wean their children till they were a few years old, and this tended to delay the next pregnancy. However, just as the morning-after pill is not 100%, breast-feeding is even less so, and many mothers conceive another child while breast-feeding.

      The medical and theological debate arises because Roman Catholic pressure has resulted in many people defining conception as identical to fertilisation, which has spilled over into the pro-life camp. The subsequent confusion has resulted in the coining of new terms, because conception means different things to different people. It reminds me of the confusion in theological debate because of different definitions. So, in this debate, it is important to have accurate biblical exegesis. The book under review made the lofty claim that it would do so, but it did not even begin to exegete Scripture on the subject.

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