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.
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 Gen 2:7. 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 mention, far less discuss, 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. … The biblical word ‘soul’ (Gn 2:7) includes the body. We have bodies and are souls, rather than the other way round. 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, and contradicts biblical teaching at Ecc 12:7 and Jam 2:26.
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, once stated – 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 – I mention this text just for completeness, and I note in passing that implantation takes place in the womb but fertilisation takes place in the fallopian tubes.
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. I was deeply involved in this debate as Clerk of the Religion and Morals Committee of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland. I organised a nationwide Petition to Parliament in support of Enoch Powell’s Bill. The debate in the 1980s was between the human embryo being “a potential human being” (the secularist polemic) or “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.
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© Donald Boyd 2011, published at http://www.donaldboyd.org/2011/07/02/conception-is-not-fertilisation/
31 Mar 2014: see the Comments below for the readiness of people to discuss issues amongst themselves rather than ask the relevant person for an answer. People often did this with Jesus Mat 16:7, Mk 1:27, Mk 9:34, Mk 10:26, Lk 22:23, Jn 6:52, Jn 7:35 and Jn 16:17. It would have been much easier and better for them simply to have addressed their questions to Jesus Himself. Christians have still to learn this lesson and often gossip among themselves rather than ask the relevant person for an answer.
14 Oct 2017: ‘the great and the good’ are still debating the subject. BBC Radio 4’s The Moral Maze had a special programme marking 50 years of the Abortion Act and struggled over the subject of when human life begins, and as usual no-one came up with the biblical definition of conception, although Giles Fraser came close to it.
“Half a century and nine million abortions on”, Britain has voted to leave the European Union because of the influx of immigrants to take up the jobs that these unborn children could have filled.
16 Oct 2017: click here for what was missing from The Moral Maze debate, and from most broadcast debates on abortion.
3 Jun 2019: the June 2019 issue of the Free Church Witness p. 12 carries an article by Callum Webster of The Christian Institute on ‘The Sanctity of Life and Abortion’. It defines conception as “when the sperm fertilises the ovum [egg].” I have yet to see any biblical or medical justification for such a statement. Isa 7:14 should make it clear to Christians that conception is not fertilisation.