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Thursday, 5 July 2018

Three Great Ironies of Restorationism




Restorationism, otherwise known as primitivism, is an ideology that "involves the attempt to recover some important belief or practice from the time of pure beginnings that believers are convinced has been lost, defiled, or corrupted."1 In a Christian context, restorationism rests on two main premises: (1) that the earliest period of the Church represents a golden age, an ideal to be replicated; (2) that following this earliest period the Church was defiled by a great apostasy (usually dated soon after the apostles died, at the beginning of the second century).

Christian restorationists have generally regarded the Roman Catholic Church, together with some or all Protestant denominations, as perpetuating the great apostasy and thus beyond hope of reform. For this reason they have tended to dissociate themselves from established Christianity, opting for a fresh start, a new religious community composed of people with a shared vision for recreating primitive Christianity and an agreed blueprint for reconstructing the long-lost beliefs, practices, and/or spirituality.

While elements of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation—especially the Radical Reformation—could be called 'restorationist' with some justification, restorationism really came into its own three centuries later in the "New World" of the United States, a nation built on the value of liberty, including religious liberty. Rapidly growing literacy rates and the onset of the Industrial Revolution meant that more people than ever before had both the ability and the time to read the Bible and other religious literature and to form and disseminate their own personal theological views. Early nineteenth-century America was also in the midst of the Second Great Awakening, a period of intense religious fervour, and so a talented religious orator or writer could attract a considerable following. The nineteenth century was also a time of great optimism about the progress and potential of the human race, as well as of the American nation with its rapid industrial development and ever-extending frontiers. These socioeconomic factors converged to make nineteenth-century America an unparalleled breeding ground for restorationist movements, many of which survive today as denominations and sects.

The best-known American restorationist movement was the Stone-Campbell Movement, which was actually a merger of two movements led respectively by Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell (the latter building on a theological foundation laid by his father, Thomas Campbell). Several contemporary religious groups have their roots in this movement, including the Disciples of Christ, Churches of Christ, and the Christadelphians (the sect in which I was raised).2 Other notable restorationist movements of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America include the Latter Day Saints movement (a.k.a. the Mormons), the Bible Students movement (from which arose Jehovah's Witnesses), the Adventist movement (from which arose Seventh Day Adventists), and the Pentecostal movement (with its many resulting denominations and sects). All of these movements, and many other lesser-known ones, began from the historical premises mentioned above: an idealised primitive church that had subsequently been defiled by a great apostasy and thus needed to be restored.

In this article, I want to offer a brief and broad critique of restorationism. In particular, I wish to point out three ironies in restorationist movements: (1) the irony of many conflicting restorations; (2) the irony of anti-sectarian sects and anti-denominational denominations; and (3) the irony of anti-traditionalist tradition.


Despite beginning from a common premise about the need to restore primitive Christianity due to a subsequent apostasy, restorationists have differed widely on both the methods and results of the restoration. All the restorationists proclaimed to the world that they had restored authentic Christianity in its simple purity, but they could not agree among themselves over what this simple purity should look like. In the words of Martin Marty, "They bade others come into their clearing but soon fell out with each other and fought over the boundaries and definitions of their exempla."3

For the Latter Day Saints, new revelation was required; for the Pentecostals, a "latter rain," i.e. a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The Stone-Campbell movement and the Christadelphians, however, did not claim any special divine gift but believed that interpreting the Bible using common sense would enable believers to reconstruct the unadulterated beliefs and practices of the apostolic age. Perhaps more significantly than their methodological differences were the differences in results, i.e. the doctrines and practices that each restorationist movement arrived at in "restoring" primitive Christianity. These differences boiled down to hermeneutics, i.e. methods of biblical interpretation. Let us, by way of illustration, consider Alexander Campbell's monumental effort to restore primitive Christianity through common-sense biblical interpretation. As Bill J. Humble explains, Campbell's life's work was to determine in practical terms what it meant to restore the primitive church. He was "an iconoclastic, pragmatic restorer whose task was to apply the restoration principle to the practical questions of faith and life."4 Campbell's efforts are on display in a series of thirty articles he wrote from 1825-1829 entitled A Restoration of the Ancient Order of Things, in his periodical Christian Baptist. Campbell's articles explored various subjects, such as creeds, church organisation and discipline, worship and hymnody, the Spirit, requirements for membership, the Lord's Supper, etc. One of the pressing hermeneutical problems that he acknowledged was
the question of determining which practices of the primitive church are important for today. What does the New Testament bind on all ages? And what may be dismissed as the culture of an ancient world?5
Specific problems that Campbell or later restorationists wrestled with here included trine immersion, foot-washing, greeting with a holy kiss, sharing all goods in common, the charismatic Spirit gifts, and the simplicity of ancient life (i.e. the absence of modern technological innovations). All of the restorationist movements displayed selectivity, restoring some primitive practices but leaving others "un-restored".

A broader problem than selectively restoring ancient practices was that of disagreement over what the primitive church believed and practiced, and also how to handle such disagreements. The main idea was to restore the essential doctrines of the primitive church and permit difference of opinion on non-essential matters, but where was the line to be drawn between essential and non-essential? Restorationists disagreed with one another on doctrines as fundamental as the Trinity, and many others besides. Campbell's own movement faced ongoing controversy over the issue of infant baptism. Campbell himself "believed, after 1812, that immersion of believers was the only valid form of the ordinance,"6 and his movement contained many former Baptists who shared this position. However, Campbell believed that his movement was destined to reunite the Christians of various Protestant denominations under a common banner. In his optimism he began a new periodical called The Millennial Harbinger (implying that the Millennium itself was dawning through the restoration movement).7 Yet "to require believers' baptism as an essential ordinance would seriously impede his efforts toward unity,"8 since his ecumenical vision included denominations that practiced infant baptism. 

Campbell made some theological qualifications that allowed him, "in effect, to hold to the necessity and to the non-necessity of believers' baptism at one and the same time" and supplemented this with "a great deal of theological double-talk concerning baptism".9 As Hughes observes, baptism was a flash-point in a conflict, within Campbell's mind and within his movement, between two competing ideals: that of radical restorationism (restoring primitive Christianity—as Campbell understood it—without compromise) and that of ecumenical unity (ending denominationalism and uniting all Christians, or at least all Protestants, under a common denominator of belief and practice). As time went on, Campbell "increasingly lost faith" in the power of his restorationist movement "to produce ecclesiastical and societal unity," even as he showed greater willingness to compromise radical restorationism for the sake of unity.10

Disagreements over doctrine and practice, and disagreements over how fundamental these disagreements were, caused numerous schisms not only between restorationist movements but within them. Thus, each of the major nineteenth-century restorationist movements listed above has several descendants each claiming to be the legitimate heir of the parent movement, or the true restoration of primitive Christianity.

A convinced restorationist who surveys the landscape of restorationist movements must conclude that all such movements besides his or her own have been misguided and mistaken. This calls to mind the line from the great American humorist Mark Twain: "The easy confidence with which I know another man's religion is folly teaches me to suspect that my own is also." How can one be sure that one's own restorationist movement has succeeded when one is equally sure that all others have failed? Of course, in the age of postmodernism some will prefer to concede that all religious movements (including all restorationist movements) contain much subjectivity, that all—including one's own—have some merit and some demerit. However, such a position differs so radically from the ideals of the founder of any restorationist movement that it calls into question the reason for the movement's existence, and the reason for any person to continue to belong to that movement. If, for example, I am not convinced that the Christadelphians are uniquely the restoration of primitive Christianity, then what justification can I give for the Christadelphian movement to continue to exist, or for myself to continue to identify as a Christadelphian? Inertia, sentimentality, and lack of a better option are all poor reasons to belong to a religious movement.

Thus, the first great irony of restorationism is that it proffers a vision for restoring the purity and simplicity of primitive Christianity—but in reality restorationists have produced many accounts of what restored Christianity should look like, and their witness does not agree.


Wacker writes that primitivist movements are characterised by "an antistructuralist impulse: a determination to destroy the arbitrary conventions of denominational Christianity in order to replace them with a new order of primal simplicity and purity".11 When Alexander Campbell began his periodical The Millennial Harbinger in 1830, he declared it to be "devoted to the destruction of Sectarianism".12 Yet he was aware of a risk: "While endeavoring to abolish the old sects, let us be cautious that we form not a new one".13 As history would show, this is precisely what happened: Campbell's movement ultimately became just another established denomination, which later broke into several denominations.

Campbell's critical awareness that by opposing sectarianism one might end up only adding to it seems to have escaped his erstwhile protégé, John Thomas, who broke away from Campbell's movement to found his own (which became the Christadelphians). Thomas wrote of his disgust with "sectarianism" and with all "the sects," which are characterised by dissent and heterogeneity.14 In his earlier writings (before the final break with Campbell) he declared his resolute intention to maintain his "independence of all religious sects in America," opting instead for the "spirit of liberty."15 In a pre-Christadelphian periodical, he declared that he would "advocate no sectarian formula of faith," disavowing any "favor or affection of any sect, save that of the 'Nazarines' [i.e. the primitive church]".16 Again, he wrote to Campbell that he "labours for no denomination; it is for the truth as he believes it, independent of all sects or parties...The party he belongs to is a church of Christ...[who] worship God in spirit and in truth according to His word, and not according to the dogmas of this or that reformation or denomination."17 By the end of his life, after having founded a movement called the Christadelphians, Thomas straightforwardly identified his movement with the primitive church, i.e. "'the sect everywhere spoken against' [Acts 28:22], in the first century, newly revived". He contrasted this "newly-revived sect of antiquity," the Christadelphians, with "the sects of the apostasy," namely all other churches, within which "there is no salvation."18 These statements were made, ironically enough, in the context of laying out the Christadelphians' sectarian formula of faith in 24 propositions. Thomas apparently thought that he could escape the charge of sectarianism by dogmatically asserting that his sect was identical with the true church, while all others were apostate. However, such dogmatism is a feature of most, if not all, sects!

Every restorationist movement, while claiming to be unique and incomparable to other "sects" and "denominations," perhaps even claiming that they would abolish the phenomenon of sects and denominations, eventually congealed into one more sect or denomination among many. Marty states the irony succinctly: "They did not want to see denominationalism thrive and ended up creating new denominations".19 Hughes incisively observes that all the restorationist movements represented in his book "began their careers with a strong restorationist emphasis, but virtually all have now abandoned their restorationist moorings for a modern project that renders the restoration vision essentially powerless",20 i.e. by becoming part of the religious furniture, just another established denomination or sect.


Wacker defines primitivism (a term more or less synonymous with restorationism) as "any effort to deny history, or to deny the contingencies of historical existence, by returning to the time before time, to the golden age that preceded the corruptions of life in history".21 Similarly, Hill states that restorationism is concerned with the normative primitive Christian period and the present time; "It repudiates all intervening history, rarely as fact, but as holding any theological significance...such-Christianity-as-there-was is ignored (at best) in the practice of authentic church life and sometimes branded as a centuries-long aberration."22 Hughes states that "Without question, a profound 'sense of historylessness' often characterizes self-proclaimed restorationist or primitivist movements" and that this historylessness often engenders "illusions of innocence,"23 and "a rationalized self-reliance, set free from the constraints of history".24 Restorationism thus involves a "naïve attempt to avoid the power of history and culture."25

A major issue distinguishing restorationists not only from Catholics and Orthodox but from most other Protestants is "the extent of history's jurisdiction."26 For restorationists, church history between the time of the apostles and the contemporary restoration has no jurisdiction, no normative value. It is either ignored or used as a cautionary tale of all that can go wrong. Restorationists give no deference to post-biblical Christian tradition. It is not "our" history and tradition; its personalities are not "our" forefathers. They can safely be ignored or repudiated, and no debt of gratitude is owed to them.

This anti-traditionalist, historyless perspective of restorationist movements contains a great irony.27 As restorationist movements come of age, they rapidly develop their own history and tradition that the movement deems to be important and to some extent normative. Thus, for example, one finds "traditionally minded" Christadelphians exhorting one another to adhere to the teachings of their "pioneers" and to seek the "old paths"—paths that are barely 150 years old! Histories, often idealised, unscholarly and uncritical, are written of the movement's origins and founders, painting the age of restoration and the subsequent development of the movement as instructive and inspiring, even as they ignore or belittle many previous centuries of Christian history. By closely studying any restorationist movement, one could identify numerous examples of traditionalism relative to the movement's own history.

In short, the "historylessness" and aversion to tradition that characterises restorationist movements is not sustainable. It inevitably gives way to a history and a tradition that is confined to the post-restoration era. As Marty aptly puts it, "They did not want to be fallen into history, but they made history and became part of its stream."28 They were anti-traditionalist until they had their own tradition to maintain.


There is no denying that restorationism has a certain allure. It is the allure of a fresh start, of freedom from the baggage and messiness of church history. Unfortunately, it is a deceptive allure. I may think, whether out of self-reliance or misguided reliance on God, that I can start from scratch and work out the pure, unadulterated doctrines and practices of primitive Christianity for once and for all. However, many others have thought they could do so, and disagreed in their methods and results. Am I wiser, more diligent, more pious or more gifted than all of them? Disillusioned with the many dissenting sects and denominations on the Christian landscape, I may say, "Away with them all!", but if my solution is to start a new movement that restores the simplicity of primitive Christianity, it will inevitably become yet another sect or denomination with its own idiosyncrasies. Confronted with the complexity, messiness, and even horrors of Christian tradition and history, I may say, "Away with it all, give me only the Bible and its history!", but if my solution is to start a new movement, it will soon develop its own history and tradition, and may well repeat some of the mistakes of the previous Christian history that it has disowned.

Catholicism is an alternative to restorationism that I have found to be compelling. It is unique among Christian movements in that it does not trace its origins back to a schism with a parent movement; it traces its origins directly back to the apostles, both via unbroken history and via apostolic succession.29 It also has a uniquely objective claim to being the custodian and guardian of Christian doctrine, through its continued exercise of the prime ministerial office that Christ bestowed on Peter. Admittedly, it has a checkered history. However, I have written previously on why this is an asset and not a liability. 

Finally, there is great capacity for restoration and reform within the Catholic Church. St. Francis of Assisi in 1206 heard Christ telling him to rebuild His Church, which He said was in ruins. The Church also introduced many reforms that acknowledged merit in the some of the criticism brought against her by the Reformers of the sixteenth century. More recently, commentators on the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) use the term "reform" frequently with reference to changes that were enacted there. The difference between this kind of restoration and "restorationism" is that Catholic restoration is not sectarian or schismatic. It does not start from scratch; it respects what has gone before and what is, and introduces necessary changes while preserving essential continuity. If one thinks of the Church as a dilapidated old manor house, the Catholic model is to undertake a painstaking restoration project, while the restorationist model is to tear it down and start fresh. Easier, yes, and therefore tempting; but the result will not be half as beautiful, and something priceless will have been lost.

Footnotes

  • 1 Richard T. Hughes, ed. The Primitive Church in the Modern World (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995), x-xi.
  • 2 It should be noted that the founders of some of these restorationist movements were immigrants from Great Britain, such as Alexander Campbell and John Thomas (founder of Christadelphians), and their movements were active on both sides of the Atlantic. There were also restorationist movements that were primarily British phenomena, such as the Plymouth Brethren.
  • 3 Martin E. Marty, "Primitivism and Modernization: Assessing the Relationship," in The Primitive Church in the Modern World, 7.
  • 4 Bill J. Humble, "The Restoration Ideal in the Churches of Christ," in The American Quest for the Primitive Church (ed. Richard T. Hughes; Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 223.
  • 5 Humble, "Restoration Ideal," 226.
  • 6 Richard T. Hughes, "From Primitive Church to Civil Religion: The Millennial Odyssey of Alexander Campbell," Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 44 (1976): 94.
  • 7 Humble, "Restoration Ideal," 224-25.
  • 8 Hughes, "From Primitive Church to Civil Religion," 94.
  • 9 Hughes, "From Primitive Church to Civil Religion," 94-95.
  • 10 Hughes, "From Primitive Church to Civil Religion," 95-96.
  • 11 Grant Wacker, "Playing for Keeps: The Primitivist Impulse in Early Pentecostalism," in The American Quest for the Primitive Church, 209-210.
  • 12 Quoted in Hughes, "From Primitive Church to Civil Religion," 88.
  • 13 Quoted in Humble, "Restoration Ideal," 226-27.
  • 14 Quoted in Robert Roberts, Dr. Thomas: His Life and Work (London: Christadelphian Book Depot, 1873), 77; cf. John Thomas, Elpis Israel, 4th edn (Adelaide: Logos Publications, 1866/2000), 98, 352; cf. Peter Hemingray, John Thomas: His Friends and His Faith, 2nd edn (Christadelphian Tidings, 2008), 331.
  • 15 Quoted in Roberts, Dr. Thomas, 77.
  • 16 Quoted in Hemingray, John Thomas, 94.
  • 17 Quoted in Roberts, Dr. Thomas, 82.
  • 18 Quoted in Hemingray, John Thomas, 335-38.
  • 19 Marty, "Primivitism and Modernization," 7.
  • 20 Hughes, The Primitive Church in the Modern World, xiii-xiv.
  • 21 Wacker, "Playing for Keeps," 197.
  • 22 Samuel S. Hill, Jr., "Comparing Three Approaches to Restorationism: A Response," in The American Quest for the Primitive Church, 233-34.
  • 23 Hughes, The Primitive Church in the Modern World, x.
  • 24 Hughes, "Introduction," in The American Quest for the Primitive Church, 12.
  • 25 Hughes, The Primitive Church in the Modern World, x.
  • 26 Hughes, "Introduction," in The American Quest for the Primitive Church, 5.
  • 27 There is actually a second great irony, namely that restorationist movements are, in fact, heavily indebted to the very post-biblical Christian history and tradition that they repudiate. For instance, most restorationist movements have uncritically assumed a particular biblical canon, which was only cemented by the fourth century A.D. (and revised slightly by the Reformers in the sixteenth century). Furthermore, restorationists use the text of the New Testament as their primary resource for restoring primitive Christianity. However, they have no texts from the apostolic era but only later manuscripts, copied by scribes and monks from the "apostate" era. Similarly, most restorationist movements have assumed, as their starting point, pre-existing Protestant positions on doctrinal issues such as the Lord's Supper (a purely symbolic view) and church polity (usually, but not always, a decentralised, congregational structure). Yet restorationists did not for this reason regard earlier Protestants as their forefathers, but repudiated them along with Catholics.
  • 28 Marty, "Primivitism and Modernization," 7.
  • 29 The Eastern Orthodox Church can at least plausibly make the same claim, since it is as old as the Roman Catholic Church, and which of the two is the parent movement depends on the disputed issue of papal authority that precipitated the Great Schism of 1054. However, none of the Protestant movements can plausibly claim to trace their origins directly back to the apostles.

Friday, 22 June 2018

We Have an Altar: The Call to Eucharistic Worship in Hebrews 13:9-16


Hebrews 13:10 reads, "We have an altar from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat" (NABRE). The purpose of this article is to argue that this verse, understood in context, functions as a call to Eucharistic worship, i.e. to partake of the Lord's Supper. Here is the statement within its immediate context:
9 Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teaching. It is good to have our hearts strengthened by grace and not by foods, which do not benefit those who live by them. 10 We have an altar from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat. 11 The bodies of the animals whose blood the high priest brings into the sanctuary as a sin offering are burned outside the camp. 12 Therefore, Jesus also suffered outside the gate, to consecrate the people by his own blood. 13 Let us then go to him outside the camp, bearing the reproach that he bore. 14 For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the one that is to come. 15 Through him [then] let us continually offer God a sacrifice of praise, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have; God is pleased by sacrifices of that kind. (Hebrews 13:9-16 NABRE)
One leading New Testament scholar, Helmut Koester, began his study of Hebrews 13:9-14 by calling it "among the most difficult passages of the entire New Testament."1 Another scholar, James W. Thompson, described this as "one of the most complex passages in Hebrews, if not in the entire New Testament," one containing "many exegetical enigmas".2 We should therefore adopt a measure of humility as we attempt to understand the significance of the Christian "altar," which as Thompson noted is one of the areas of scholarly debate.

The central contention of this article is that the "altar" mentioned in Heb. 13:10 refers to the Eucharistic table. In fact, it is my belief that Hebrews 13:9-16 is a call to Eucharistic worship. I would paraphrase the broad sweep of this call as follows:
We would not be strengthened by mere "foods" but by "grace"—heavenly, life-giving grace. How can we access this grace? "We have an altar" that gives us the "right to eat" the "body" of our sin-offering, Jesus, whose blood was brought into the heavenly sanctuary (to which we have access through him). "Let us go to him," in liturgical procession. Where? "Outside the camp," where he suffered—to Golgotha, to the foot of the cross, to our altar; "let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God" in the liturgy. Then, let us go forth and "do good and share what we have," bringing the life and goodness we have received to the world.
Now, I would not suggest that this Eucharistic reading of the passage is obvious, or uncontroversial. While "many commentators" have concluded that the "altar" of Heb. 13:10 is the Eucharistic table,3 many others have opposed this interpretation. The New American Bible (Revised Edition), a Catholic translation, states in a footnote on Heb. 13:10 that the altar "does not refer to the Eucharist, which is never mentioned in Hebrews, but to the sacrifice of Christ." Making the same point in greater detail is Baptist theologian Thomas R. Schreiner:
Clearly the author isn’t thinking of a literal altar. The altar where sacrifices were offered points to a better altar where Christ was sacrificed to atone for sins. The author doesn’t think of a literal altar in heaven, for the imagery shouldn’t be pressed to suggest that there is a literal altar in the heavenly sanctuary. Hebrews never mentions a heavenly altar…Those who attend to the earthly tabernacle have no ‘right to eat’ from the altar of Christ, for they are ‘behind the times’ and are still attending to the old altar. Believers, on the other hand, ‘eat’ from this better altar. He refers to Christ’s sacrifice here, the nature of which was explicated previously in the letter. The ‘eating’ again isn’t literal. It is a colorful way of describing the grace believers enjoy through the sacrifice of Christ.4
Norman H. Young calls it "misleading to relate the altar [of Heb. 13:10] to the heavenly sanctuary" and "equally perverse to attempt to find the Eucharist in this reference to an altar".5 In the face of such stringent opposition, we have our work cut out for us in attempting to show that there is an allusion to the Eucharist here.


Before considering arguments for a Eucharistic interpretation of Heb. 13:10, let us consider some arguments against. One argument is that the Eucharist plays no other role in the Letter to the Hebrews. This is a valid point, but it is not decisive. It can be reasonably inferred, on the evidence of the Gospels' Last Supper narratives, as well as John 6, 1 Corinthians 10-11, and the Didache (a first-century church manual that is not in the biblical canon) that the Eucharist was a central part of the spiritual life of early Christian communities, so that an early Christian writer could allude to it abruptly and without explanation.6 Moreover, the last chapter of Hebrews touches on a number of complex theological issues in somewhat rapid-fire fashion, so a passing but rich allusion to the Eucharist would not be out of place.7

A second argument against a Eucharistic interpretation is Schreiner's observation that "Hebrews never mentions a heavenly altar." This is an argument from silence, but it is conceivable that the writer of Hebrews envisions the heavenly "holy places...the true tent" (Heb. 8:1-2) as restricted to the tabernacle proper and not the courtyard that contained the altar.8 The altar on which Jesus offered himself could be understood as the cross of Calvary, whereupon Jesus entered with his blood into the heavenly sanctuary (Heb. 9:11-12). However, an identification of the "true" altar with the cross in no way conflicts with a Eucharistic interpretation, particularly if the Eucharist is understood as a memorial and an extension of the sacrifice of Jesus.

A third argument against a Eucharistic interpretation is Schreiner's claim that the altar of Hebrews 13:10, as well as the "eating" mentioned there, are "not literal" but are colourful ways of describing the sacrifice of Christ and the grace it conveys to believers. This insistence on a "non-literal" interpretation seems to cloud an important distinction between the transcendent and the symbolic. For the author of Hebrews, the various features of the Levitical cult are but shadows of a greater, transcendent reality. The heavenly tabernacle is not non-literal but super-literal, more real than its earthly counterpart. The same goes for the transcendent high priest, Jesus. That talk of a transcendent "tabernacle" and "altar" is in some sense analogical does not mean they are mere abstractions. As for non-literal "eating," if the altar symbolises Christ's sacrifice then it seems needlessly oblique to describe the associated grace in terms of eating from the altar. Surely a more natural extension of the metaphor would express the right to approach the altar: compare Hebrews 4:15-16, which emphasises that Christians have the right to "draw near to the throne of grace," and 10:19, which emphasises "confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus". The specific emphasis on the right to "eat" from the altar requires us to seek a connection to a Christian form of religious "eating"—of which the Eucharist is the obvious example.9



From a reader-response perspective, a Catholic or Orthodox Christian today who encounters the words "We have an altar" is likely to picture the Eucharistic altar in the sanctuary at their local church. If such an altar was a typical feature in the house churches known to the author and recipients of Hebrews—admittedly a big "if"—then the declaration "We have an altar" might intentionally draw the readers' attention to these physical altars as the locus of their access to Christ's sacrifice via the Eucharist.

From a historical point of view this argument remains somewhat speculative in that we have no archaeological evidence of what first-century Christian house churches looked like. However, one of the two earliest house churches that has been excavated, from Megiddo and generally dated to the third century A.D., had a worship room described thus:
In the centre of the floor stand two raised stones, which probably served as the base for the podium of the Eucharistic table referred to in one of the inscriptions.10
The floor of the Megiddo house church with Eucharistic table base and inscription

The inscription mentioned is on a floor mosaic in the same room, and reads, "The God-loving Akeptous has offered the table to God Jesus Christ as a memorial." Granted, this church dates from long after Hebrews was written, but it is, after the Dura-Europos house church in Syria, the oldest church that has been excavated. We should thus at least allow the possibility that the earliest readers of Hebrews worshipped in a house church in which an altar-like Eucharistic table featured prominently.


Koester remarks that the Greek formulation of the words translated "We have an altar" is stylistically formal and "reflects the style of credal statements."11 In his view, this is more likely a literary device than a quotation from a creed.12 Nevertheless, the stylistic formality suggests that this declaration is intended to bear great significance and thus merits close study. Since Hebrews nowhere else refers to a Christian altar of sacrifice,13 we may look to other early Christian literature for evidence that the Eucharistic table was understood as an altar.

1 Corinthians

In 1 Corinthians 10:21, Paul refers to the Eucharist as partaking of "the table of the Lord" (trapeza kyriou). This phrase trapeza kyriou occurs in only one passage in the Greek Scriptures known to Paul, the Septuagint, where it refers to the altar of the Levitical cult (Mal. 1:7-12).14 Moreover, Paul has just drawn a parallel between participation in the "altar" by eating the sacrifices in "Israel according to the flesh" (1 Cor. 10:18) and Christian participation in the body and blood of Christ by partaking of "the table of the Lord."15

Didache

The Didache  describes the Eucharist as an "offering" and a "sacrifice" (14.1-2). This makes it plausible that, in keeping with such cultic language, the unmentioned place where this "sacrifice" was offered took place was regarded as an altar.

1 Clement

The first-century letter 1 Clement is particularly relevant to this study due to its conceptual similarity to Hebrews. These are the only two first-century Christian documents that describe Jesus as a "high priest" (1 Clem. 36.1; 61.3; 64.1). 1 Clement 36.2-5 contains numerous striking parallels to Hebrews 1, implying either the author's direct knowledge of Hebrews or the use of common traditional material by both authors. Both authors' theologies are deeply influenced by Hellenistic Judaism and the Septuagint and both authors quote from or paraphrase the Wisdom of Solomon, a Jewish text that was received into the Christian biblical canon (as is evident already in the late-second-century Muratorian Fragment). Undoubtedly, Hebrews and 1 Clement represent a similar early Christian theological milieu.

Edmund W. Fisher concludes in a detailed study of 1 Clement 7.4 ("We should gaze intently on the blood of Christ") that "The church united in its liturgy sees the blood-of-Christ poured out in the eucharist."16 The letter uses similar cultic language for both Levitical and Christian worship in close proximity. In chapters 40-41, the author stresses the importance of keeping the Master's commandments "in an orderly way and at appointed times," "keeping to our special assignments with a good conscience, not violating the established rule of his ministry" (1 Clem. 40.1; 41.1). These instructions are interspersed with references to the Levitical cult, where the writer emphasises that "the sacrificial offerings and liturgical rites" were performed "according to set times and hours," with God having "set forth both where and through whom he wished them to be performed" (1 Clem. 40.2-3). The writer subsequently goes into greater detail on the "where" aspect, observing that the Levitical sacrifices "are not offered everywhere...but in Jerusalem alone," and even there not "in just any place, but before the sanctuary on the altar" (1 Clem. 41.2). The author does not elaborate on the Christian analogue to this "where" aspect (he is more concerned with the "whom"), but he does refer to the bishops as "offering the gifts," which elsewhere in 1 Clement—as well as in Hebrews—is equivalent to offering sacrifices.17 This "offering" of "the gifts" most likely refers to the Eucharist.18 That it matters to the author "where" the offerings take place (otherwise there was no need to emphasise the altar as the necessary locus of Levitical offerings) suggests that there is a place analogous to the Levitical altar where the Eucharist should be offered—in other words, a Christian altar. This can reasonably be inferred even though the author does not mention such a place explicitly, due to his focus being on the "whom" aspect of Christian worship (which was contested in the Corinthian church, giving rise to his letter).

The Letters of Ignatius

The most striking references to a Eucharistic altar in the Apostolic Fathers are in the letters of Ignatius (early second century). In his Letter to the Philadelphians, the bishop of Antioch writes:
And so be eager to celebrate just one eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ and one cup that brings the unity of his blood, and one altar, as there is one bishop together with the presbytery and the deacons, my fellow slaves. Thus, whatever you do, do according to God. (Ign. Phld. 4.4)
Here, Ignatius unmistakably identifies the Eucharist with a Christian altar. That is not all: another passage where Ignatius mentions the Eucharistic altar contains striking parallels to Hebrews 13:9-10:
9 Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teaching. It is good to have our hearts strengthened by grace and not by foods, which do not benefit those who live by them. 10 We have an altar from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat.  (Heb. 13:9-10)
7.2 Let all of you run together as to one temple of God, as to one altar, to one Jesus Christ, who came forth from one Father and remained with the One and returned to the One. 8.1 Do not be deceived by strange doctrines or antiquated myths, since they are worthless. For if we continue to live in accordance with Judaism, we admit that we have not received grace. (Magnesians 7.2-8.1)19
In both passages, a Christian "altar" associated with "grace" is contrasted with a warning against strange doctrines associated with continued observance of the Jewish law. This parallel seems too striking to be coincidental. However, since there is little evidence that Ignatius knew or used Hebrews,20  it seems likely that Hebrews and Ignatius drew on common traditional material. Ceteris paribus, that Ignatius understood the grace-conveying Christian "altar" in Eucharistic terms makes it likely that the writer of Hebrews did too.


There appear to be several nuanced ways in this passage by which the author of Hebrews compares the Levitical altar and the Christian altar. We should bear in mind that already under the Levitical cult, the altar is a sacred place: "There, at the altar, I will meet the Israelites; hence it will be made sacred by my glory" (Ex. 29:43). The immediate purpose of the altar was of course to have animal sacrifices offered upon it. However, the main interest of the author of Hebrews here is in what happens to the sacrificed animal after it is offered. The Torah mentions numerous ordinances concerning consumption of the meat of animal sacrifices (or bread made from grain offerings), which was "holy" food (Lev. 6:17-18; 10:12-13; 21:6; 22:1-12). Depending on the type of offering, there are stipulations as to who can and cannot eat the meat, what parts of the animal they can and cannot eat, when they can and cannot eat it, and where they can and cannot eat it. There were certain persons who were forbidden from eating such holy food (e.g., foreigners, or priests in a state of uncleanness—see Lev. 22).

In Hebrews 13:11, the writer observes that the meat of Levitical sin offerings could not be eaten by anyone but had to be burned outside the camp (Lev. 4:12, 4:21, 6:11, 8:17, 9:11, 16:27-28). Scholars regard this stipulation concerning the Day of Atonement sin offering (Leviticus 16) as particularly relevant,21 given the prior comparison of Christ's sacrifice with this ritual in Hebrews (9:7-12; 9:25-28). However, whereas Leviticus refers to the animals themselves or their "hide" and "flesh" being burned,22 Hebrews refers to "the bodies (Greek: sōmata) of the animals." What is remarkable about this is that Leviticus LXX never uses the word "body" (sōma) for the flesh or carcass of a sacrificed animal. Leviticus uses sōma only for human bodies, and in the Day of Atonement regulations the word is used for body of the high priest as well as the body of the person who goes outside the camp to burn (or release, in the case of the "scapegoat") the animal (Lev. 16:24-28). In Hebrews, Jesus is the high priest, the person who goes outside the camp, and the one whose "body" was specially prepared by God as the once-for-all sin offering (Heb. 10:5, 10). Thus, by stating that the "bodies" of the Levitical sin offerings could not be eaten, the writer is drawing our attention to the "body" of Jesus, our definitive sin offering, which can be eaten from the Christian altar in the Eucharist. The word "body" has powerful Eucharistic connotations, playing a central role in the early Eucharistic liturgy as preserved by Paul (1 Cor. 10:16, 11:24-29) and the Synoptic Gospels (Mark 14:22 par.). Thus, the writer's decision to use this word in his discussion of Levitical sin offerings signals his Eucharistic understanding of the Christian "altar." The other key word in the Eucharistic liturgy is, of course, "blood," and this aspect of the sin offering (both Levitical and Christ's) is also emphasised in Heb. 13:11-12.

Against this background, the following comparisons seem to be implicit in Heb. 13:9-13. (1) Under Levitical worship, the bodies of the sin offerings offered on the altar could not be eaten, but had to be burned outside the camp. Christ, our sin offering, also suffered outside the camp, but his body can be eaten, in the Eucharist. Thus Christians—all Christians ("we")—have a "right to eat" from their altar that not even the priests ("those who serve the tabernacle," cf. Heb. 7:13; 8:5) had under the Levitical religion. (2) In cases where the holy food from the Levitical altars could be eaten, it was still only natural food and thus of no eternal benefit. By contrast, the food from the Christian altar conveys "grace," i.e. brings eternal benefit. (3) The Jewish Christians addressed in Hebrews may be "outside the camp," marginalised from mainstream Jewish worship and suffering persecution, but this brings solidarity with Jesus, who likewise suffered "outside the gate" (of Jerusalem). Collectively, this is a powerful argument for sticking with Christianity and not reverting to non-Christian, mainstream Jewish religion, which seems to be a primary thrust of Hebrews.


The reading suggested above finds further support in other early Christian literature that make points similar to those in Hebrews 13:9-10 while discussing the Eucharist. We have already noted the striking parallel between Hebrews 13:9-10 and Ignatius, Magnesians 7.2-8.1. We now note some texts that highlight (a) the exclusivity of Christian access to the Eucharist (just as Hebrews states that those serving the tabernacle "have no right to eat" of the Christian altar), and (b) the contrast between ordinary food and Eucharistic food (just as Hebrews contrasts "foods" that "do not benefit" with the "grace" of the Christian "altar").

The exclusivity of access to holy food features in the Didache, a first-century church manual (roughly contemporaneous with Hebrews), which stipulates, "But let no one eat or drink from your thanksgiving meal [Greek: eucharistias] unless they have been baptized in the name of the Lord. For also the Lord has said about this, 'Do not give what is holy to the dogs.'" (Did. 9.5). Paul warns Christians against eating Eucharistic food in an unworthy manner (1 Cor. 11:27), just as the Torah warns against eating flesh from sacrifices while unclean (Lev. 7:20-21; 22:3-7).

The contrast between holy, grace-bearing Eucharistic food (which brings eternal life) and ordinary food (which has no eternal benefit) also features in multiple other texts. At the close of the Didache's Eucharistic liturgy, the following thanksgiving is offered: "You, O Master Almighty, created all things for the sake of your name, and gave both food and drink to humans for their refreshment, that they might give you thanks. And you graciously provided us with spiritual food and drink, and eternal life through your child" (Did. 10.3). More famously, in John chapter 6 Jesus repeatedly contrasts the manna in the wilderness (itself angelic food: Ps. 78:25; Wis. 16:10), whose eaters still die (John 6:49) with the "true bread from heaven," namely his flesh, of which "Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever" (John 6:58).


My own conviction is that Hebrews 13:9-16 functions as a call to Eucharistic worship in the face of temptations that the readers faced to return (or turn) to non-Christian Jewish forms of worship. Probably few Christians today yearn for Levitical religion, but there are other temptations that can draw us away from the Eucharist: apathy, or forms of Christian worship that neglect the Eucharist. Thus, the writer of Hebrews' emphatic statement, "We have an altar" is as important today as it was to his original readers.

My prayer is that the reader may be moved by the beautiful words of Hebrews 13:9-16 to heed this call, or at least to reflect on whether there might be more significance to the table of the Lord than previously supposed.

Footnotes

  • 1 Helmut Koester, "'Outside the Camp': Hebrews 13:9-14," The Harvard Theological Review, 55 (1962): 299.
  • 2 James W. Thompson, "Outside the Camp: A study of Heb 13:9-14," The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 40 (1978): 53.
  • 3 L. Paul Trudinger, "The Gospel Meaning of the Secular: Reflections on Hebrews 13:10-13," Evangelical Quarterly, 54 (1982): 236. Trudinger himself rejects this position.
  • 4 Thomas R. Schreiner, Commentary on Hebrews (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2015), 420.
  • 5 Norman H. Young, "‘Bearing his reproach’ (Heb 13.9–14)," New Testament Studies, 48 (2002): 248-49.
  • 6 This can be seen in other instances in early Christian literature. "Your love feasts" in Jude 12 undoubtedly alludes to the Eucharist, despite the lack of explanation or prior reference to the Eucharist in this short letter. The letters of Ignatius of Antioch (early second century) contain several oblique references to the Eucharist as "the altar." Consider Magnesians 7.2 ("You should all run together, as into one temple of God, as upon one altar, upon one Jesus Christ") and Romans 2.2 ("But grant me nothing more than to be poured out as a libation to God while there is still an altar at hand"). Indeed, these references are so oblique that it might be doubted whether they refer to the Eucharist, were it not for Philadelphians 4.4 (discussed below), which makes clear Ignatius's Eucharistic understanding of the "altar." Note: translations from the Apostolic Fathers, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from Bart D. Ehrman, The Apostolic Fathers, 2 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003).
  • 7 Thompson notes that Hebrews 13:9-14 in particular contains "an extraordinary number of references that seem to stand alone in Hebrews, and are thus difficult to interpret in the context of the rest of the epistle" (Thompson, "Outside the Camp," 53).
  • 8 The Book of Revelation envisions a heavenly altar but this corresponds to the golden altar of incense within the tabernacle, not the altar of sacrifice in the courtyard.
  • 9 In both places where Paul mentions the Levitical practice of eating the sacrificial meat, he has a specific reason for stressing the "eating". In 1 Cor. 9:13 he uses it as an argument for the right of Christian ministers to earn a living through their service (since the Levitical priests literally earned their bread and meat through their offerings), and in 1 Cor. 10:18 he mentions the practice specifically to draw a parallel with the Eucharist—precisely as I argue the writer of Hebrews is doing in Heb. 13:10.
  • 10 Edward Adams, "The Ancient Church at Megiddo: The Discovery and an Assessment of its Significance," The Expository Times, 120 (2008): 64-65.
  • 11 Koester, "Outside the Camp," 312.
  • 12 Compare the similar formulation in Hebrews 8:1: "We have such a high priest..."
  • 13 There is a passing reference to the Levitical altar of sacrifice in Hebrews 7:13. The golden altar of incense, which is distinct from the altar of sacrifice, is mentioned in Hebrews 9:4.
  • 14 Similarly, Ezekiel 41:22 LXX refers to the altar in the temple vision as "the table which is before the face of the Lord," while Ezekiel 44:16 foretells that in the future temple the Levitical priests "shall enter into my sanctuary, and these shall approach my table, to minister to me" (i.e., "to offer sacrifice to me, the fat and the blood," v. 15). Elsewhere in the OT, the "table" associated with the Levitical cult is always the table of the showbread, but this is never called the "table of the Lord."
  • 15 The reference to "Israel according to the flesh" in 1 Cor. 10:18 implies that Paul understands the Church as "Israel according to the Spirit" (cf. Gal. 6:16). The kata sarka/pneuma (according to flesh/spirit) contrast is prominent in Paul's letters—especially relevant to 1 Cor. 10:18 is Gal. 4:29, which allegorically identifies unbelieving Israel, enslaved by the law, with Ishmael ("he who was born according to the flesh") and the Church, freed from slavery, with Isaac ("he who was born according to the spirit"). This flesh/Spirit Israelological parallel strengthens the implicit parallel between eating the sacrifices of the Levitical altar and eating the Eucharistic food from the table of the Lord.
  • 16 Edmund W. Fisher, "'Let us look upon the Blood-of-Christ' (1 Clement 7:4)," Vigiliae Christianae, 34 (1980): 234.
  • 17 In 1 Clem. 4.1-2, Abel is said to have offered "a sacrifice from the firstborn of the sheep and from their fat," which is then referred to as "his gifts," showing that "gifts" and "sacrifices" are synonymous terms for this author. 1 Clement also calls Jesus "the high priest of our offerings" (36.1). The same is true in Hebrews, which refers thrice to "gifts and sacrifices" (5:1; 8:3; 9:9).
  • 18 R. P. C. Hanson states, "it is obvious that τά δῶρα refers to the bread and wine in the eucharist, and that the presbyters are thought of as presenting them to God in the eucharist for him to bless them" ("Eucharistic Offering in the Pre-Nicene Fathers," Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy: Archaeology, Culture, History, Literature, 76 (1976): 79.).
  • 19 Trans. Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 155.
  • 20 The classic work The New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers places the relationship between Hebrews and Ignatius in its "D" category, meaning that the book "may possibly be referred to, but...the evidence appeared too uncertain to allow any reliance to be placed upon it" (A Committee of the Oxford Society of Historical Theology, The New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1905], iii.)
  • 21 Trudinger argues that the author of Hebrews "is making as much a comparison as a contrast between the Christian and Jewish altars," by specifying "the particular kind of sacrificial altar" he is speaking of to be an "'Atonement Day' sacrifice," which under the Torah the priest had no right to eat. ("Gospel Meaning of the Secular," 236).
  • 22 "The calf," Lev. 4:12, 21; "the offering," 6:11; "the calf, and his hide, and his flesh, and his dung," 8:17; "the flesh and the hide," 9:11; "the calf...and the goat...even their skins and their flesh and their dung," 16:27.

Saturday, 9 June 2018

Taking a Gamble On Church Leadership: What We Learn From the Early Church

This is a guest post by Matthew Farrar.

To the modern reader, perhaps one of the strangest parts of the pre-Pentecost narrative in Acts 1 is the selection of Judas’ replacement, Matthias, a figure nowhere else mentioned in the New Testament. Having narrowed the decision for Judas’ replacement down to two (Joseph called “Barsabbas” and Matthias), the decision is made by a combination of prayer–which agrees well with most Christian sensibilities–and the more dubious practice of casting lots. Indeed, despite early precedent, I am aware of no current Christian tradition in which Church leadership is decided by the practice of coin flips or shooting dice. So why, when the Church was literally in its infancy, was this all-important decision decided by means of what we would consider gambling? And why does the author of Acts1 include this story at all, given that Matthias plays no further role in the Acts narrative?

Let Another Take His Office

Perhaps the first question for us to consider is what exactly was being replaced. From the immediate context, it seems clear that he is being inducted into “the Twelve”, which had temporarily become the unofficial “Eleven”. This point in itself is significant for a number of reasons.

First, we note that the Twelve were chosen by Christ Himself (John 6:70). By way of contrast, we here (Acts 1:15-22) see Peter lay out the case that the assembly has an imperative to replace Judas. We must therefore ask the question, “If the authority to appoint the Twelve rested with Christ Himself, on what authority did Peter presume to be able to appoint a new Apostle?” For Catholics, the answer is clear: Christ effectively made Peter His viceroy (Matt. 16:19). Thus, Peter–of himself and not by an electoral process–assumes the authority to appoint a new Apostle, though he does not reserve the process of selection to himself.

Second, in quoting Psalm 69 (“Let his homestead be made desolate, and let no one dwell in it” (NASB), Peter makes clear that the legacy of Judas himself is ended, but in quoting Psalm 109 (“Let another man take his office”) shows that Judas occupied an office that was to continue beyond the life of the office holder. By extension, the other Apostles occupied this same office. The question then must be asked, “Did the Apostles see their offices as continuing beyond their natural life?” While the Bible itself offers little in the way of answer to this question directly, the late-first-century First Epistle of Clement (1 Clement)2 answers this question definitively:
1 So too our apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that strife would arise over the office of the bishop. 2 For this reason, since they understood perfectly well in advance what would happen, they appointed those we have already mentioned; and afterwards they added a codicil, to the effect that if these should die, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry. (1 Clement 44.1-2)3
From this quotation, it is not clear whose office it is that would continue by succession. However, the quotation in Acts 1:20 is from the Septuagint, and the Greek word in the psalm rendered “office” is episkopē, the same root word for the office of the New Testament overseer, or (traditionally) bishop, episkopos.4 Thus, the office of Judas–which was that of an Apostle–and the office of episkopos are at the very least, intricately linked.

However, what was the nature of the office of Judas? It is one thing to give the office a name, but that doesn’t tell us what the actual office entailed. As it happens, the method of selecting Matthias gives us a clue.
Decision By Lot

When the notion of decision by lot is floated out for consideration, my mind immediately goes to two places, both with negative connotations. The first is Jonah, who is identified by casting lots as the cause of a storm (Jonah 1:7-8). In this instance, pagan superstition appears to have been the instigating factor in the practice, since the text identifies the sailors as “each crying to his god” (Jonah 1:5). Not exactly a “go-to” reference for choosing Church leaders! The second place is at the crucifixion of the Lord, when the soldiers cast lots for ownership of his garments (Matt. 27:35, John 19:23-24). So example number two is an example of pagan Roman soldiers acting in an especially callous manner. Again, not a model to follow for guidance on Church leadership.

However, there is a third place where the casting of lots is used to make sacred decisions, and in fact, pertaining to an office. In 1 Chronicles 24, we find that the offices of the priesthood were decided by casting lots. We also see the use of lots in the assignment of particular priestly duties in the New Testament, where “according to the custom of the priestly office, he [Zacharias] was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense” (Luke 1:9). Thus, at the dawn of the early Church, it was common practice to cast lots as a means of making sacred decisions in the Jewish ministerial priesthood. Thus, the Apostles’ decision to use the casting of lots in the selection of Judas’ successor–which at first appears bizarre and arbitrary–suggests that the Apostles saw their office as that of a new order of ministerial priests, an office for which the casting of lots had significant precedent.

Conclusion

The narrative in Acts 1 give us insights into the early structure of the Church. In a definitive way, we see Peter exercising authority to appoint new Apostles, an authority that had previously rested only with Christ. Second, we see that the Twelve were particular persons who occupied offices that were not unique to their persons (i.e. Judas died; his office remained). Finally, the decision to choose Matthias over Barsabbas by the casting of lots is indicative of the priestly nature of the office being filled.

As a former Protestant, I can appreciate that the notion of the Pope–the successor of Peter–and the existence of a ministerial priesthood remain two significant barriers to Christian unity, with the paucity of Biblical support for these offices being cited as a reason for their rejection. My prayer is that this brief post might help close that gap, if only a little, so that we might all be one.


Footnotes

  • 1 Widely believed to be Luke.
  • 2 1 Clement is believed by many to have been written around the time of the persecution of Domitian (d. A.D. 96), and is thus possibly contemporary with Revelation. It thus represents a very early understanding of Church offices. The letter's content also has noticeable parallels with the canonical Epistle to the Hebrews, suggesting a similar date and setting.
  • 3 Trans. Bart D. Ehrman, The Apostolic Fathers, 2 vols. (Loeb Classical Library; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 1:113).
  • 4 The word episkopē also occurs in 1 Clem. 44.1, where it is translated "bishop" above.

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Give Me Liberty And Give Me Death: A Response to Kyle Tucker on the "Fundamental Right" to Physician-Assisted Suicide

1. Introduction

2. Societal-Legal Problems with Kyle’s View
 2.1. None of the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association or the American Psychiatric Association endorse Kyle’s position. This undermines the credibility of Kyle’s claim that a fundamental right to PAS is “self-evident.”
 2.2. The U.S. Constitution does not state or imply a right to PAS, as SCOTUS has ruled in two unanimous judgments that direct contradict Kyle’s claims. This further undermines the credibility of Kyle’s claim that a fundamental right to PAS is “self-evident.”
 2.3. SCOTUS has signalled that the PAS issue is to be left to the States to be decided democratically. This undermines Kyle’s claim that it would be tyrannical for a State to prohibit PAS (unless democracy itself is tyranny).
 2.4. The U.S. Constitution guarantees the right of private citizens and government officials to   be guided by their religious convictions in   forming their political positions and voting decisions.
 2.5. The First Amendment’s Establishment Clause is no impediment to laws prohibiting PAS, since such laws clearly pass the Lemon Test.
 2.6. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. is a shining example in American history of a private citizen extending his Christian religious values into the political sphere with positive results.

3. Moral-Theological Problems with Kyle’s View
 3.1. Kyle uncharitably portrays religious opponents of PAS as indifferent to suffering. Nothing could be further from the truth.
 3.2. Kyle’s position assumes that liberty is a more fundamental right than life itself—a self-contradictory notion, since life is a necessary condition for liberty.  
 3.3. Kyle focuses exclusively on the consequences of legalising PAS for the individual sufferer who requests it, showing no awareness of broader or longer-term societal consequences such as “slippery slope” effects and stigmatisation of people who have low “quality of life”.
 3.4. Catholic moral teaching on end-of-life issues is genuinely pro-life and  sensitive to suffering.
 3.5. The Bible has little to say directly about suicide, but one should beware of arguments from silence claiming that God therefore leaves this moral issue up to individual judgment.  Besides, the Bible does equate assisted suicide with murder in 2 Samuel 1.
 3.6. There are numerous biblical principles that weigh against a "right" to commit PAS, including (1) the dignity of human life as created in God's image, (2) God's sovereignty over life and death, (3) God's ownership of each human person, (4) the commandment to love oneself, (5) the practice of godly people of deferring to God even when death seems desirable, (6) death as an enemy and not a friend, and (7) the mystery that suffering is meaningful.

4. Conclusion: A Culture of Life and a Culture of Death


1. Introduction

Recently I engaged in an exchange of views on Facebook with Kyle Tucker on the subject of physician-assisted suicide (PAS) or what Kyle calls “the fundamental right to end our lives under medical supervision when pain or insufficient quality of life render living insufferable”. The discussion broadened to include the place—or lack thereof—of “religious values” in political discourse. In what follows I offer further commentary directed to Kyle and whomever else considers these issues to be as important as I do. In the first part of my response I will focus on the societal-legal side of the issue (in the context of American constitutional democracy) and in the second part I will focus on the moral-theological side of the issue from a Christian—specifically Catholic—perspective.

I have known Kyle personally for many years. He is a Christadelphian living in the United States, while I was raised as a Christadelphian in Canada, regularly attending Christadelphian functions and visiting family in the United States. I had the pleasure of sitting under Kyle’s teaching in youth sessions at Christadelphian Bible Schools, and later benefited from the spiritual “Thought for the Week” that he used to send out to an email list. Subsequently I left the Christadelphians, becoming an Evangelical and now a Roman Catholic. (Anyone interested in reading about my personal spiritual journey may do so here.) Even as I grew increasingly disenchanted with Christadelphian theology, I continued to regard Kyle as bringing a helpful reformative perspective to the Christadelphian community—for instance, being more outward-looking (where an insular mentality sometimes prevails), and teaching a doctrine of the kingdom of God that incorporated both its present and future aspects (where Christadelphians have traditionally denied or minimised its present aspect). I have always looked up to Kyle as a man of principle and leadership (and an all-around nice guy). In view of this, Kyle’s comments on Facebook the other day struck me as out-of-character. At points in the dialogue I felt as though I were interacting, not with a lay Christian teacher, but with a secular humanist ideologue.

Kyle’s OP, posted to Facebook as a status update, read as follows:
We are allowed to give end of life directives (e.g. DNR) why not end of quality of life directives? It is bizarre to me that we don't have the fundamental right to end our lives under medical supervision when pain or insufficient quality of life render living insufferable. Why, for example, can't I put in place measures today in the event of say Alzheimer's Disease? We're kinder to pets than humans.
Make no mistake about the radicality of Kyle's proposal: the scope of the “fundamental right” that he asserts goes beyond anything that is currently legal in the United States, including in states that have passed legislation permitting PAS.1

I initially misinterpreted the scope of Kyle’s comment. Knowing that he is a Christadelphian, and that Christadelphians eschew participation in politics (the most widely used Christadelphian statement of faith states, “We reject the doctrine – that we are at liberty to take part in politics”) I assumed that Kyle was making a theological statement directed at fellow Christadelphians or at least fellow Christians. However, his ensuing comments clarified that he was making a political statement directed at anyone and everyone. I will leave Kyle and his fellow Christadelphians to decide whether making public political statements is consistent with the Christadelphian doctrine of non-participation in politics. My concern is rather with the substance of Kyle’s post and his ensuing comments about the imposition of “religious values.” I bear Kyle no ill will and hope that my attack on his ideas will not be construed as an attack on him personally.

Because I initially interpreted Kyle’s OP as a theological statement, my initial comment asked whether his position was not contrary to the fundamental Christian value of enduring suffering patiently. Kyle’s response—which made it clear that his statement was politically oriented—was, “Should Christians dictate to everyone the right to determine whether they want to live in insufferable pain? Should anyone’s personal religious values determine another person’s choice in this matter?” Ensuing comments revealed Kyle's opposition to Christians who impose their "personal religious values" concerning PAS on others, which he views as symptomatic of a larger problem in the U.S., namely that Christians “wish to impose their morality on others”. According to Kyle, for religiously motivated people to politically oppose PAS is both immoral and unconstitutional. It is “immoral,” he declared, “to use religion to promote a policy which increases human suffering while not allowing that person [i.e. the suffering PAS candidate] any say in the matter.” It is unconstitutional, he maintained, “When people seek to impose religion through law which contradicts another’s religious conviction”.

Kyle apparently sides with those who envision religion as an essentially private affair that should be kept out of politics: “you should be able to practice your Christian virtue as a Christian but it is inappropriate to extend such a painful philosophy into the political sphere where now everyone must follow this.” It is legitimate for Christians to “fight for their right to practice their religion,” but not for Christians to “impose their religion on others even if it involves the suffering of others”.

Kyle stepped up his rhetoric when he declared that “the fundamental right to end one’s life” is “self-evident,” and that to deny this right would be “tyranny.” Kyle explained why this is tyrannical: “If your religion or politics forces me against my will to follow a practice I don’t agree with for no crime or misdeed and I suffer horribly as a result, that is the very definition of tyranny.” (This statement, of course, begs the question, since it assumes that PAS is “no crime or misdeed”—the very issue under debate!)

Kyle characterises the logic of “religious values” politics, which is “the very definition of tyranny,” thus:
1. I know better than you what is right for you. 
2. I have the power to impose my will on you. 
3. If you suffer horribly as a result, too bad.
His own stance on assisted suicide, which he regards as self-evidently correct, he expressed thus: “I prefer the simpler method of allowing me to make those calls regarding me and you make those calls regarding you.” His position thus makes self-determination the paramount value and dismisses the possibility that the People may have legitimate reasons (or even a moral obligation) to "impose" a prohibition on PAS.

In what follows, I will argue for a number of propositions in response to Kyle’s position on PAS and religious values in the political sphere, focusing first on secular legal aspects and then on moral-theological aspects. I must preface my remarks on the U.S. Constitution by acknowledging that I have no formal training in law and that I am not American. I do not think this disqualifies me from offering opinions on what is or is not constitutional (as Kyle also did), but I don’t claim to be an authority on the matter.



The American Medical Association is opposed to physician-assisted suicide, opining that “permitting physicians to engage in assisted suicide would ultimately cause more harm than good” and that “Physician-assisted suicide is fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer, would be difficult or impossible to control, and would pose serious societal risks.” In fact, this ethical stance is not new to the medical profession, but is found in the Hippocratic Oath, which pronounces “twin strictures against abortion and euthanasia in uncompromising language”.2:
I will use treatment to help the sick according to my ability and judgment, but never with a view to injury and wrongdoing. Neither will I administer a poison to anybody when asked to do so, nor will I suggest such a course. Similarly, I will not give to a woman a pessary to cause abortion. I will keep pure and holy both my life and my art.3
The American Psychological Association “takes a position that neither endorses nor opposes assisted dying at this time.” The American Psychiatric Association, “in concert with the American Medical Association’s position on Medical Euthanasia, holds that a psychiatrist should not prescribe or administer any intervention to a non-terminally ill person for the purpose of causing death.”4
Bearing in mind that Kyle implicitly advocates for access to PAS for non-terminally ill persons (e.g., Alzheimer’s patients), what he calls a “self-evident” “fundamental right” is opposed by both the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association and is not endorsed by the American Psychological Association. Can he really maintain that a practice that lacks the endorsement of such distinguished organs of the medical fraternity is self-evidently a fundamental right?


In two 1997 cases (Vacco v. Quill5; Washington v. Glucksberg), the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) was asked to strike down state laws prohibiting assisted suicide in New York and Washington on the grounds that these laws violate the Fourteenth Amendment. In both cases SCOTUS upheld these prohibitions in unanimous 9-0 decisions. In view of the assumption of Kyle’s OP that there is an essential equivalence between DNR provisions and PAS, it is noteworthy that this argument was offered to the Court in Vacco v. Quill and that the Court rejected it, stating that “The distinction between letting a patient die and making that patient die is important, rational, and well-established: It comports with fundamental legal principles of causation…and intent…”6

In Washington v. Glucksberg, the petitioners held that the liberties protected by the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause include “a personal choice by a mentally competent, terminally ill adult to commit physician-assisted suicide.” They thus argued that Washington, by banning assisted suicide, was depriving people of a constitutionally protected liberty. The Court, again in a unanimous decision, ruled that Washington’s law prohibiting assisted suicide did not violate the Due Process Clause, because “the asserted ‘right’ to assistance in committing suicide is not a fundamental liberty interest protected by the Due Process Clause.” Once again, SCOTUS unanimously contradicted Kyle’s claim that PAS is a fundamental right, despite Kyle holding that such a right is “self-evident.” SCOTUS has, of course, not been averse in recent decades to "finding" dubious fundamental rights in the Constitution that conflict with traditional Christian morality (Roe v. Wade, 1973; Obergefell v. Hodges, 2015), so Kyle can hardly claim that the SCOTUS judgments on PAS reflect religious tyranny.


The 1997 SCOTUS judgments upholding state PAS laws did not rule that PAS is unconstitutional, only that it is not a liberty protected by the constitution. At the time, Oregon had already legalised PAS through its so-called Death with Dignity Act of 1994. This law would be effectively upheld by SCOTUS in a 2006 judgment (Gonzalez v. Oregon) by a 6-3 margin.7

SCOTUS’s overriding concern in this case was that the authority to prohibit or permit PAS be left to the States to decide through democratic processes. SCOTUS had held in 1997 that 
Throughout the Nation, Americans are engaged in an earnest and profound debate about the morality, legality, and practicality of physician-assisted suicide. Our holding permits this debate to continue, as it should in a democratic society.
In Gonzalez v. Oregon the judgment of the Court again referred the PAS issue to the States, rescinding the Attorney General’s attempt “to effect a radical shift of authority from the States to the Federal Government to define general standards of medical practice in every locality.”8

If the States have the authority to decide whether to permit or prohibit PAS democratically (which in practice normally happens through ballot measures [referenda], the most direct form of democracy), how can it be tyranny when a State democratically decides to enact or preserve laws prohibiting PAS? Kyle construes this as “I have the power to impose my will on you,” but this is clearly not the case. The people have the power to impose their collective will on the people, and yes, individual persons must abide by the laws of their State. What Kyle calls tyranny is nothing other than a democratic society in which the rule of law is respected.

Kyle’s other objection to the PAS issue being decided democratically is what he regards as the inappropriate intrusion of “religious values” into the political sphere, which he considers unconstitutional. It is nothing of the kind.


The two provisions in the U.S. Constitution that explicitly concern religion are in the First Amendment, which reads:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; of the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.9
The first clause, known as the Establishment Clause, places restrictions concerning religion on Congress (which in judicial interpretation has been broadened to mean any governmental organ), and not on “the people.” The Constitution places no restriction on the people’s right to freely exercise their religion; it explicitly protects this right in the next clause, the Free Exercise Clause. Now, the Free Exercise Clause is not absolute. SCOTUS precedents have placed constraints on it so that it cannot be used to justify all manner of otherwise unlawful practices on the grounds of religious obligation. However, the First Amendment in no way stipulates what ideological resources—religious or otherwise—people may or may not use to form their political consciences. To compel the people to keep their religious values private and personal and conform their politics to some secular ideological orthodoxy is to do violence to the First Amendment and impose precisely the kind of tyranny that Kyle claims he wants to avoid.

As for elected officials, they have the same religious freedoms as other citizens. Indeed, the Sixth Article of the U.S. Constitution stipulates that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” To bar elected officials from being influenced by their religious convictions in their politics would blatantly impose a religious test.


Since 1971, the Establishment Clause has generally been interpreted under the “Lemon Test” (from Lemon v. Kurtzman, 1971), which stipulates that a law does not violate the Establishment Clause provided that it meets three conditions:
First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose; second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion; finally, the statute must not foster an excessive government entanglement with religion.
As far as I know, no significant legal challenge to State PAS prohibitions has even been mounted on the grounds that they violate the Establishment Clause.10 Such prohibitions obviously do not violate the Lemon Test. In terms of secular legislative purpose, SCOTUS itself, in its Opinion in the unanimous Washington v. Glucksberg judgment, identified no less than six State interests (i.e., secular legislative purposes) in laws prohibiting PAS:
The court identified and discussed six state interests: (1) preserving life; (2) preventing suicide; (3) avoiding the involvement of third parties and use of arbitrary, unfair, or undue influence; (4) protecting family members and loved ones; (5) protecting the integrity of the medical profession; and (6) avoiding future movement toward euthanasia and other abuses.
Kyle maintains that bans on PAS are unconstitutional because they “seek to impose religion through law which contradicts another’s religious conviction”. This is equivalent to claiming that PAS bans violate the second condition of the Lemon Test by advancing or inhibiting religion. However, a law banning PAS in no way advances, much less “imposes,” religion; it simply prohibits a particular activity that proponents and opponents all agree is secular (proponents classify PAS as medical treatment; opponents classify it as a kind of homicide). It would be ludicrous to claim that a law violates the Establishment Clause because it contradicts some people’s religious convictions, or because it is consistent with some people’s religious convictions. If the Lemon Test were applied in this way, very few laws would pass it! More to the point, state laws permitting PAS would be equally unconstitutional, since they too contradict some people’s religious convictions.


In our Facebook exchange, I asked Kyle whether he thought it was inappropriate for Dietrich Bonhoeffer to draw on his Christian convictions in opposing the Nazi euthanasia program. Kyle responded only that he was not very familiar with Bonhoeffer but was against Nazism. If Kyle is prepared to read up on Bonhoeffer, the question still stands. However, let us also consider an exemplary figure from American history: the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Through his leadership in the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. King was instrumental in the racial desegregation of the southern states. But did Dr. King bracket out his Christian religious convictions when trying to influence public policy? Quite the opposite. Dr. King’s 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail, considered a key primary text of the Civil Rights era, was a letter from one clergyman to other clergymen, remonstrating with them about the moral, legal and theological justness of his political activities. Dr. King believed it was not merely appropriate but imperative for Christians to use their convictions to influence public policy. He pointed out how Christians had in the past “transformed the mores of society” and so put an end to “such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contest.” He lamented that the contemporary church is “so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound,” imprisoned by “the paralyzing chains of conformity”.11

Consider further Dr. King’s historic I Have a Dream speech. Delivered in the nation’s capital during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, its aims were overtly political, yet much of its language was religious. Rev. King cited several biblical passages and concluded by envisioning “that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’” By offering this vision to America, was Dr. King engaging in what Kyle considers tyranny—seeking to impose religious values on the non-religious? Or was he harnessing the intrinsic goodness of those values to overthrow tyranny?

Dr. King’s view on the role of religion in politics is captured by his classic statement on the church as the conscience of the state:
The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.
Dr. King has it exactly right. At its best, the church through history has been an agent for positive change by speaking truth to power with prophetic zeal. Regrettably, there have been times in history when the church behaved more like the master of the State. There have also been times when the church behaved more like the servant of the State, allowing herself to be silenced or even used to further ungodly political agendas. It is arguably this servile role into which much of the American church has retreated as right-wing propagandists use the romantic image of a Christian nation to peddle a gun-loving, anti-immigrant agenda that has no part with Christian morality. However, Kyle’s vision of a church that enjoys religious freedom in private, keeps out of the political sphere and preaches self-determination and moral relativism is equally servile (this time subject to a postmodern secularist-humanist agenda) and equally destructive of the church’s prophetic zeal.


We have established that PAS is not a self-evident fundamental right in an American constitutional framework, but rather a constitutionally ambiguous issue that the Courts have signalled is to be decided through democratic processes. We have noted that some major secular voices (e.g., American Medical Association and American Psychiatric Association) have weighed in against Kyle’s view, refuting any notion that opposition to PAS is solely on religious grounds. We have further established that, constitutionally speaking, religious people have every right to involve their religious values in the democratic process of political discourse. It is now time to hear a religious perspective on PAS. This perspective is mine, but more importantly it reflects the teaching of the Catholic Church.


Kyle depicts religious opponents of PAS as wishing to “impose their religion on others even if it involves the suffering of others,” and as saying to those whom it wishes to deny access to PAS, “If you suffer horribly as a result [of our religious imposition], too bad.” In other words, religious opponents of PAS are basically indifferent to the suffering of people who do not share their stance against PAS. In the case of my own religious affiliation, and probably most others, this is a manifestly inaccurate portrayal.

According to The Catholic Association, the Catholic Church “founded the modern-day hospital system, manages approximately one-fourth of the world’s healthcare facilities, and is the largest non-governmental provider of healthcare worldwide and in the United States.” As of January 2018, the Catholic health ministry comprised “more than 600 hospitals and 1,600 long-term care and other health facilities in all 50 states”. When the Catholic Church addresses ethical questions concerning care for the suffering and terminally ill, she does so with a vast wealth of experience on which to draw.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has issued Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services. The directive specifically concerning patients who request euthanasia reads,
Catholic health care institutions may never condone or participate in euthanasia or assisted suicide in any way. Dying patients who request euthanasia should receive loving care, psychological and spiritual support, and appropriate remedies for pain and other symptoms so that they can live with dignity until the time of natural death.
This differs starkly from Kyle’s depiction of the attitude of religious opponents of PAS, namely, “If you suffer horribly…too bad.”


Kyle implicitly makes self-determination and putting an end to suffering (or low quality of life) among the highest goods in his value system. These goods both operate at the individual level, and Kyle shows little interest in the effects of PAS at the macro, societal level. 

There are, of course, many laws that restrict individual liberty—that “impose” on people, sometimes against their will and with adverse effects upon them. The State wants to tax my income; it does not ask me whether I agree for my income to be taxed, or of what goods I may be deprived by paying the tax. The State imposes this on me because it judges taxing me to be in the common interest, to serve a good greater than my personal liberty. Sometimes the State imposes rules on me that are primarily designed to serve my personal interest. By requiring me to wear a seatbelt or a motorcycle helmet, and fining me if I refuse, the State declares, “I know better than you what is right for you.” Clearly, then, self-determination is not an absolute good but is subject to the common welfare of society, including the welfare of each "self" within that society.

Kyle’s pro-PAS stance assumes that the right to self-determination extends as far as the right to self-destruction, at least under certain “insufferable” circumstances. This implies that the right to liberty trumps the right to life.12 Kyle offers no argument why liberty is a more fundamental right than life itself—he always returns to his claim that his position is "self-evident." Yet life is a necessary condition for liberty and death deprives a person of all earthly liberty. Therefore, the liberty to deprive oneself of life is nothing other than the liberty to deprive oneself of liberty—a contradiction in terms.13 14 A law that permits PAS safeguards one liberty—a self-contradictory one at that—at the expense of all others, whereas a law that prohibits PAS safeguards all liberties at the expense of one.15


We mentioned earlier that SCOTUS has identified six State interests in prohibiting PAS:
(1) preserving life; (2) preventing suicide; (3) avoiding the involvement of third parties and use of arbitrary, unfair, or undue influence; (4) protecting family members and loved ones; (5) protecting the integrity of the medical profession; and (6) avoiding future movement toward euthanasia and other abuses.
The interests in preserving life and preventing suicide are self-evident. On protecting the integrity of the medical profession, one may refer to commentary on the American Medical Association’s and American Psychiatric Association’s respective positions on PAS. I would like to focus briefly, however, on protection of the vulnerable and avoiding future movement toward euthanasia and other abuses.

Kyle’s position advocates for restricted voluntary PAS based on two value judgments. The first value judgment is a high view of self-determination: a person’s right to control (including to kill) one’s own body. For Kyle, self-determination is not absolute, because he would restrict access to voluntary PAS to those with low quality of life (as measured by pain or lack of cognitive function). This restriction implies Kyle’s second (unstated) value judgment: that the worth of human life is proportional to quality of life. Consider two people who wish to access PAS. One is experiencing severe, irreversible pain and the other is physically and cognitively healthy (has high quality of life). Kyle apparently wishes to grant the first person’s death wish but not the second person’s. Why does Kyle want to protect the second person’s life, overruling the person’s own self-determination, but not the first person’s? It can only be that, in Kyle’s view, the second person’s life is intrinsically worthy of protection (because of its higher quality) while the first person’s life is not (because of its lower quality). In the words of Pope St. John Paul II:
How is it still possible to speak of the dignity of every human person when the killing of the weakest and most innocent is permitted? In the name of what justice is the most unjust of discriminations practised: some individuals are held to be deserving of defence and others are denied that dignity? (Evangelium Vitae 19)
A fundamental moral principle is that all human persons are equal in dignity and worth and thus all human life equally worthy of protection. A sliding scale in which the value of human life is proportional to quality of life is grossly immoral. Thus, if access to PAS is to be granted on the grounds of self-determination, it must be granted to everyone equally. Yet any reasonable person would consider it horrific to allow physically and cognitively healthy people to access PAS—e.g., a 47-year old father of three whose wife has just left him, or a 19-year old girl who has just been “slut-shamed” on social media, or a convicted murderer who has been sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. If we would deny PAS to such people, we must deny it to everyone.

The graph below shows the risk of a “slippery slope” in two directions once voluntary PAS is permitted under restrictive conditions such as those currently stipulated in Oregon and other states (the patient must be terminally ill in the judgment of two physicians). Some will advocate moving the graph to the right, i.e. making voluntary PAS more widely available on the grounds of self-determination and equality. If some have access to PAS, why not others? Who are you to tell me that your condition is insufferable and mine is not, just because yours is terminal? Who are you to tell me that physical pain is insufferable and psychological or emotional pain is not? Dutch euthanasia laws require that the patient and physician agree that the patient is experiencing unbearable suffering without prospect of improvement and that there is no reasonable alternative to euthanasia. However, the onward march of self-determination means that it is finally up to the patient to decide whether suffering is bearable, and whether an alternative to euthanasia is reasonable. As Dutch ethicist and euthanasia Evaluation Committee member Gover Hartogh explains,
The patient suffers unbearably when he says he suffers unbearably and an alternative is not a reasonable alternative if the patient rejects it. In fact, these requirements then add little to the requirement of a voluntary and thoughtful request.
The Slippery Slope from Restricted Voluntary PAS toward Involuntary PAS and Unrestricted Voluntary PAS
As mentioned previously, Kyle is already further along the horizontal axis than any U.S. law, since he supports the right to PAS for non-terminal patients. It is difficult to see how he could argue successfully against unrestricted voluntary PAS given the stand he has taken for self-determination.16

The other slippery slope concerns the movement from voluntary to involuntary PAS. Here, too, Kyle is already further up the curve than any U.S. law: he advocates for people to be able to give consent for PAS in advance, e.g. in case of dementia. This means he endorses the idea that a person can be killed who cannot at the time consent to this—already a serious compromise to the “voluntariness” of PAS which leads to scenarios such as the following from the Netherlands:
In 2016, there were three reports of euthanasia of deep-demented persons who could not confirm their death wish. One of the three was identified as having been done without due care; her advance request could be interpreted in different ways. The execution was also done without due care; the doctor had first put a sedative in her coffee. When the patient was lying drowsily on her bed and was about to be given a high dose, she got up with fear in her eyes and had to be held down by family members. The doctor stated that she had continued the procedure very consciously.
If a cognitively impaired person can be killed on the basis of prior written consent, what about, say, a cognitively impaired young child, or a person who becomes cognitively impaired unexpectedly? Could the parents consent to PAS on the child’s behalf? (This is already an accepted, though nominally illegal, practice in the Netherlands under the Groningen Protocol.) Could a next-of-kin consent to PAS on behalf of an unexpectedly cognitively impaired person? The view that the value of human life is proportional to quality of life makes such possibilities worthy of consideration, because the persons in question are regarded as typical PAS cases, and it is not that they refuse PAS, it is only that they are incapable of consenting to it.

Aside from explicitly involuntary PAS there is the issue of “voluntary” PAS of vulnerable persons under social or psychological pressure. Such pressure could be exerted by relatives, health care workers or the media who convey the message that PAS is the right thing to do for people with a certain condition or quality of life. People who express reluctance to request PAS could be made to feel like a burden on their families, on healthcare infrastructure or on society. Relatives and health care workers could add to the pressure by neglecting the patient’s needs, driven by the conscious or unconscious assumption that the patient’s life is unworthy of preservation. One Canadian ALS patient was explicit that his decision to request PAS was motivated by poor care:
It’s not the illness that’s killing him, Rolland said in a series of emails with the Montreal Gazette. He’s tired of fighting for compassionate care. “The people here don’t understand ALS and can’t look after me. It is unbearable.”
As SCOTUS stated in its Washington v. Glucksberg judgment:
We have recognized, however, the real risk of subtle coercion and undue influence in end-of-life situations. Cruzan, 497 U. S., at 281. Similarly, the New York Task Force warned that "[l]egalizing physician-assisted suicide would pose profound risks to many individuals who are ill and vulnerable .... The risk of harm is greatest for the many individuals in our society whose autonomy and well-being are already compromised by poverty, lack of access to good medical care, advanced age, or membership in a stigmatized social group." …If physician-assisted suicide were permitted, many might resort to it to spare their families the substantial financial burden of end-of-life health-care costs. 
The State's interest here goes beyond protecting the vulnerable from coercion; it extends to protecting disabled and terminally ill people from prejudice, negative and inaccurate stereotypes, and "societal indifference." 49 F. 3d, at 592. The State's assisted-suicide ban reflects and reinforces its policy that the lives of terminally ill, disabled, and elderly people must be no less valued than the lives of the young and healthy, and that a seriously disabled person's suicidal impulses should be interpreted and treated the same way as anyone else's.
The weight of this social pressure would only increase as PAS became more common and move from “socially acceptable” to “socially normative” for people with long-term, incurable illnesses. The very euphemism “Death with Dignity” given to PAS suggests that terminally ill people who do not request PAS are dying without dignity. It follows that PAS is a way for the terminally ill to rescue their compromised dignity, making it comparable to "honour suicide" practices (e.g., seppuku in feudal Japan).

SCOTUS recognised in Washington v. Glucksberg that evidence from the Netherlands added weight to slippery slope arguments against PAS.17 Even a staunch advocate of euthanasia in the Netherlands who calls himself a fighter for self-determination says he is “now worried about the rate at which euthanasia is performed on demented and chronic psychiatric patients” and warns that the checks and balances within the Dutch euthanasia law are being “eroded.”


A non-negotiable, fundamental premise of Catholic moral theology is the dignity of the human person as the image-bearer of God (Gen. 1:26-27). Because of this intrinsic dignity, human life is always sacred and worthy of protection, care and support. Hence Catholicism is thoroughly pro-life. It is not merely for the life of the powerful and the healthy but of the most vulnerable human persons: the unborn, the physically or mentally disabled, the terminally ill, the poor, the immigrant, the convicted murderer, etc. For this reason, Catholic teaching holds that the commandment “You shall not kill” (Ex. 20:12) means that “no one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being” (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC] 2258). “Those whose lives are diminished or weakened deserve special respect.” Thus, “an act or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his Creator” (CCC 2276-77). Suicide likewise “is gravely contrary to the just love of self,” “offends love of neighbour because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations” and “is contrary to love for the living God” (CCC 2281).

The Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith made a Declaration on Euthanasia in 1980 that declared that voluntary or involuntary euthanasia is a "violation of the divine law, an offense against the dignity of the human person, a crime against life, and an attack on humanity." This position was reaffirmed by Pope St. John Paul II in 1995, who stated it to be "based upon the natural law and upon the written word of God, and...transmitted by the Church's Tradition and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium" (Evangelium Vitae 65).

This stringent opposition to PAS does not mean that the Catholic Church is insensitive or indifferent to suffering. We have already noted that the Catholic Church is one of the world’s foremost providers of care to the sick and dying. We can add that Catholic teaching is sufficiently nuanced to allow for compassionate care to the terminally ill, based on the legitimate distinction between causing death and yielding to death. Hence, the Catechism states that one is not obligated to undergo “medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome”; “Here one does not will to cause death; one’s inability to impede it is merely accepted” (CCC 2278). Catholic teaching endorses as morally acceptable “The use of painkillers to alleviate the sufferings of the dying, even at the risk of shortening their days” provided that “death is not willed as either an end or a means”, and also encourages “Palliative care” as “a special form of disinterested charity” (CCC 2279). Catholic opposition to PAS must be viewed in the context of the Church’s preaching and practice in the area of compassion for the sick and suffering.18

Nor does the Catholic Church take a judgmental stance concerning those who commit suicide or agree to be euthanised; the Church acknowledges that circumstances may reduce or completely eliminate their guilt and entrusts such persons to the mercy of God.19


For Catholics, the judgment of the Church’s Magisterium (Teaching Office) against PAS decides the matter. Following the ancient example of the apostles and elders (Acts 16:4), the Church has “handed on for observance” to all local churches “the decisions reached” by her authoritative teachers. This will be of little consequence to Kyle and others who do not recognise the authority of the Catholic Church. It will be useful to consider the biblical basis of the Church’s position, especially for the benefit of those who employ a Sola Scriptura epistemology.

The Bible does not directly discuss physician-assisted suicide, or even medical ethics. There are, however, two biblical references to assisted suicide, both involving Saul. The severely wounded Saul asks his armour-bearer to kill him; the armour-bearer refuses, whereupon both Saul and the armour-bearer then kill themselves. An Amalekite later claims to have killed Saul at Saul’s request. The Amalekite portrays his action as justified because Saul had requested it due to his “great suffering” and because he saw that Saul “could not survive his wound” (2 Sam. 1:9-10). David judged the man guilty of capital murder, of having “put to death the LORD’s anointed” (2 Sam. 1:16). It is therefore difficult to avoid the conclusion that the special circumstances of assisted suicide—the victim having requested it, the victim being in great suffering or in a terminal condition—do not mitigate the guilt of a murderer under the divine law.20

The Bible has little to say about suicide in general, and most of what it does say is in the form of narrative rather than commandments, statutes or precepts. Narratives of people committing suicide (e.g., Abimelech, Samson, Saul, Ahithophel, Zimri, Judas) do not provide clear guidance as to how God views such actions. However, rabbinic interpretation has placed the deaths of Samson and Saul in the category of Kiddush Hashem rather than suicide,21 while regarding suicide as forbidden by Gen. 9:5.22 

The lack of clear biblical teaching on suicide, however, presents a problem for Sola Scriptura epistemology. If the Bible is our only authority, and the Bible is silent, what are we to do? One might make an argument from silence that God does not have a position on PAS; the individual has freedom of conscience on this issue. This argument plays right to the biases of those who advocate “self-determination.” It is also fundamentally illogical—there are many behaviours that the Bible does not discuss (e.g., masturbation, plagiarism) or appears to tolerate (e.g., polygamy, slavery), but it would be very poor theology to argue on that basis that God is unconcerned with them or that they are morally neutral. There is a very real risk of misjudging God’s will in such areas and becoming
Those who call evil good, and good evil,
who change darkness to light, and light into darkness,
who change bitter to sweet, and sweet into bitter! (Isa. 5:20)
Other Sola Scriptura proponents may therefore want to dig deeper and infer God’s will concerning PAS from other relevant moral principles in Scripture. This approach is wiser but still problematic, since different people have different opinions on which passages are most relevant and on what these passages mean.

A further problem is specific to Christadelphians. As a religious group with no hierarchical or democratic structures capable of legislating on behalf of the group, there can and will never be any “Christadelphian position” on PAS (or other contemporary moral debates). There might be a position held by the majority of Christadelphians (though this would be difficult to ascertain), but this would not confer any formal legitimacy within the community. Consequently, even if the Christadelphians were inclined to exercise “prophetic zeal” à la Martin Luther King on moral issues such as PAS and euthanasia, they have no capacity for collective action. On an issue like PAS, there will inevitably be strongly held, diametrically opposed views. These opposing views will either lead to schism (fracturing the community) or will be mutually tolerated as legitimate differences of opinion, scuttling any possibility of a collective voice on the issue.


Several biblical principles weigh against a “right” to commit PAS, over and above the narrative of 2 Samuel 1. First and foremost is the dignity of human life, mentioned above. This principle is implicit in humanity’s status as God’s image-bearers (Gen. 1:26-27; 9:5-6; Jas 3:9), in God’s hatred of hands that shed innocent blood (Prov. 6:17) and in Jesus’ teaching that “Even the hairs of your head have all been counted…You are worth more than many sparrows” (Luke 12:7). Life is never worthless or meaningless.

Second is God’s sovereignty, as Creator and Judge, over life and death: “It is I who bring both death and life, I who inflict wounds and heal them” (Deut. 32:39); “The LORD puts to death and gives life, casts down to Sheol and brings up again” (1 Sam. 2:6). “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord!” (Job 1:21). “In his hand is the soul of every living thing, and the life breath of all mortal flesh” (Job 12:10). “For you have dominion over life and death; you lead down to the gates of Hades and lead back” (Wis. 16:13).

Third, as a corollary of the above two principles, is that a person’s life belongs ultimately to God and not to the person: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been purchased at a price. Therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:19-20). The same passage speaks of the possibility of sinning against oneself through sexual immorality. If “the immoral person sins against his own body” (1 Cor. 6:18), how much more the self-destructive person?

Fourth is the principle of self-love. What Jesus called the second greatest commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Lev. 19:18; Matt. 22:39), implies that one must love oneself. Paul makes the same presumption in commanding that “husbands should love their wives as their own bodies…For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it, even as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body” (Eph. 5:28-29). To hate and destroy our own bodies is to reject the principle of self-love and indeed to do violence to the spiritual reality of being part of the body that Christ nourishes.

Fifth is the principle of deferring to God in suffering. There are godly people in the Bible who expressed a death wish in times of intense suffering (emotional or physical). However, they expressed it not by acting on it but by appealing to God as the owner of all life. Thus Moses (Num. 11:14-15), Elijah (1 Ki. 19:4), Job (Job 6:8) and Jonah (Jon. 4:3) all appeal to God to kill them, but offer no hint of an intention to kill themselves. In Job’s case he rejects “foolish” advice from his wife to take action to cause his own death (“Curse God and die”), which earns him the narrator’s approval (Job 2:9-10). Jeremiah expresses extreme despair and a death wish (Jer. 10:19-21; 20:14-18), but remains unwilling to abandon God (Jer. 20:9) and rejects self-determination: “I know, O LORD, that no one chooses their way, nor determines their course nor directs their own step” (Jer. 10:23).

Sixth is the principle that death is an enemy, not a friend. To commit PAS is to make an alliance with death, to embrace it as a friend in order to escape from suffering, while at the same time bracketing out any question of postmortem judgment or punishment. However, Scripture is clear that Death is not a friend but an enemy (1 Cor. 15:26), an inimical power through which sin reigns (Rom. 5:21). While acknowledging that Protestants have dropped the Book of Wisdom from the canon,23 its warnings on this point are relevant:
Do not court death by your erring way of life, nor draw to yourselves destruction by the works of your hands. Because God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living… It was the wicked who with hands and words invited death, considered it a friend, and pined for it, and made a covenant with it, Because they deserve to be allied with it. (Wis. 1:12-16)24
Seventh and last is the principle that suffering is meaningful—what Pope St. John Paul II called "the mystery of suffering." James teaches that “the testing of your faith produces perseverance” and that “Blessed is the man who perseveres in temptation (or, ‘trial’)” (Jas 1:2, 12). The writer of Hebrews exhorts his readers to “Endure your trials as ‘discipline’… At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it” (Heb. 12:7, 11). Suffering is a prominent theme in 1 Peter, where we read “if you are patient when you suffer for doing what is good, this is a grace before God” (1 Pet. 2:19) and “those who suffer in accord with God’s will hand their souls over to a faithful creator as they do good” (1 Pet. 4:19). “Suffering for doing what is good” surely applies to those who, in reverence for the dignity of their humanity and God’s ownership of their lives, refuse to request PAS. 

In my Facebook dialogue with Kyle, another participant, Dave Burke, distinguished between “Suffering patiently,” which “is a Christian virtue,” and “suffering needlessly,” which “is not.” This false dichotomy reflects a profound misunderstanding of the story of Job, the biblical sufferer par excellence. As already mentioned, Job suffered so severely that he longed for death. His suffering seemed needless to him, and when God finally answered his demands for an explanation, the answer only highlighted God’s sovereignty without explaining why Job’s suffering was necessary. Nevertheless, God rewarded Job for patiently enduring this apparently needless suffering in deference to God’s sovereign will (Job 42:7-10; cf. Jas 5:11). A terminally ill person may seem to suffer needlessly, but the story of Job tells us that there is no such thing as suffering needlessly. If we persevere in seemingly unnecessary suffering through faith in God’s sovereign yet mysterious wisdom, this is a virtue.


In his historic 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”), Pope St. John Paul II exhorted all the members of the Church to be “the people of life and for life,” and to “work to ensure that justice and solidarity will increase and that a new culture of human life will be affirmed, for the building of an authentic civilization of truth and love.” In contrast to this positive vision, the pope warned of the emergence of a “culture of death” and a “conspiracy against life” that rests on “an idea of society excessively concerned with efficiency” and which therefore looks down upon persons with a low quality of life as “useless” (Evangelium Vitae 12). 

As an example of this culture of death, the pope singled out the attitude toward “the incurably ill and the dying”. The reasoning that the pope identified as contributing to the spread of euthanasia included "misguided pity at the sight of the patient's suffering," "the utilitarian motive of avoiding costs which bring no return and which weigh heavily on society," "a cultural climate which fails to perceive any meaning or value in suffering," and "a certain Promethean attitude which leads people to think that they can control life and death by taking the decisions about them into their own hands" (Evangelium Vitae 15).

It is abundantly clear from Kyle’s comments that, whatever his exact motives, he has bought into (sold out to?) this “culture of death” to the point that he is actively, publicly promoting it. This would be regrettable coming from a secular humanist, but it is downright disturbing coming from one who claims to instruct others in the “word of life.” My advice to Kyle and any other person who advocates a right to PAS would be to reflect deeply on whether such a right truly coheres with the dignity, equality and genuine liberty of all human persons. My advice to Kyle and any other professing Christian who advocates a right to PAS would be to reflect deeply on moral theology, taking seriously the danger of “calling good evil and evil good.”25

Footnotes

  • 1 States that permit PAS do so only for terminally ill patients (those deemed by medical professionals to have less than six months to live). Kyle makes no mention of a terminal diagnosis; “pain or insufficient quality of life” is the operative criterion, and he specifically mentions Alzheimer’s Disease as a suitable example, presumably aware that Alzheimer’s patients can live with the disease for years.
  • 2 Paul J. Carrick, Medical Ethics in the Ancient World (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2001), 214; similarly, Ian Dowbiggin, A Concise History of Euthanasia: Life, Death, God, and Medicine (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), 11.
  • 3 "The Physician’s Oath," in Hippocrates, trans. W. H. S. Jones (Loeb Classical Library; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1923), 298.
  • 4 This does not imply that the American Psychiatric Association endorses PAS for terminally ill patients; it appears to oppose this as well (by citing the AMA’s position approvingly) but restricts its own explicit opposition to PAS to non-terminally ill patients to focus its statement on those who are those at greatest risk of being euthanised on psychiatric grounds.
  • 5 In Vacco v. Quill, opponents of New York’s ban on assisted suicide argued for an essential equivalence between ending or refusing lifesaving medical treatment and assisted suicide. They therefore argued that, since refusing lifesaving medical treatment is legal, banning assisted suicide violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. SCOTUS’s unanimous 9-0 judgment was that “New York's prohibition on assisting suicide does not violate the Equal Protection Clause.” The Court opined that “The New York statutes outlawing assisted suicide neither infringe fundamental rights nor involve suspect classifications.”
  • 6 Full quotation: "The distinction between letting a patient die and making that patient die is important, logical, rational, and well established: It comports with fundamental legal principles of causation…and intent…and has been widely recognized and endorsed in the medical profession, the state courts, and the overwhelming majority of state legislatures, which, like New York's, have permitted the former while prohibiting the latter. The Court therefore disagrees with respondents' claim that the distinction is 'arbitrary' and 'irrational.'"
  • 7 This case was not primarily concerned with the legality of the Death with Dignity Act itself, which protects physicians from criminal and civil liability for prescribing lethal drugs to terminally ill patients under specific circumstances. Rather, the case was concerned with the legality of a 2001 directive from U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft that had declared that the prescriptions written under the Death with Dignity Act did not serve a “legitimate medical purpose” as required by regulations attached to the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA). This directive of the Attorney General had effectively side-lined the Death with Dignity Act since, while physicians prescribing lethal drugs in terms of this law could not be prosecuted under Oregon law, they could now lose their medical licenses or face federal felony charges under the CSA. The Court found, using a highly technical argument involving issues such as Chevron Deference and parroting regulations, “that the statutory phrase ‘legitimate medical purpose’ is a generality, susceptible to more precise definition and open to varying constructions, and thus ambiguous in the relevant sense.” It ruled that the U.S. Attorney General did not have the authority to assign to it the specific meaning he gave it, and therefore negated his directive, thereby removing the federal impediment to the exercise of the right to PAS under Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act. In his dissenting opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia stated—very sensibly, in my opinion—that “the Directive’s construction of ‘legitimate medical purpose’ is a perfectly valid agency interpretation of its own regulation; and if not that, a perfectly valid agency interpretation of the statute”, and that “Even if the Directive were entitled to no deference whatever, the most reasonable interpretation of the Regulation and of the statute would produce the same result. Virtually every relevant source of authoritative meaning confirms that the phrase “legitimate medical purpose” does not include intentionally assisting suicide... If the term ‘legitimate medical purpose’ has any meaning, it surely excludes the prescription of drugs to produce death.”
  • 8 Note that while SCOTUS has not allowed the federal government to block implementation of PAS under State laws, the federal government has restricted federal funds from being used for PAS under the Federal Assisted Suicide Funding Restriction Act signed into law by President Clinton in 1997.
  • 9 Notice that the First Amendment groups the freedom of religion clauses together in the same sentence with the fundamental political freedoms (speech, the press, assembly, petition for redress). The Constitution’s authors appear to have assumed that religious freedom and political freedom are interrelated. This is foreign to Kyle’s assumption that religious values are to be exercised in private and not extended into the political sphere.
  • 10 As already discussed, unsuccessful legal challenges to these laws in the 1990s focused on the Fourteenth Amendment.
  • 11 “There was a time when the Church was very powerful. It was during that period when the early Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the Church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Wherever the early Christians entered a town the power structure got disturbed and immediately sought to convict them for being ‘disturbers of the peace’ and ‘outside agitators.’ But they went on with the conviction that they were ‘a colony of heaven’, and had to obey God rather than man. They were small in number but big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be ‘astronomically intimidated.’ They brought to an end such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contest. Things are different now. The contemporary church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are. But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If the church of today does not capture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century… I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom.” (Letter from a Birmingham Jail)
  • 12 Note however that life is named prior to and distinct from liberty in the list of rights that are protected in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments’ Due Process Clauses.
  • 13 For this reason, a strong prima facie argument could be made that suicide is unconstitutional, since the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments protect a person’s life and liberty against deprivation without due process of law. As Pope St. John Paul II commented concerning the legalisation of euthanasia in democratic societies, “what we have here is only the tragic caricature of legality; the democratic ideal, which is only truly such when it acknowledges and safeguards the dignity of every human person, is betrayed in its very foundations” (Evangelium Vitae 20).
  • 14 It is worth observing, as Kyle did in the discussion, that suicide and attempted suicide are not criminal acts in most Western countries, including the United States. The decriminalisation of suicide in the United States (and elsewhere) does not reflect a shift toward a more positive view of suicide as a liberty that must be protected. It is still viewed as a social disaster that should be prevented, which is why governments engage in suicide prevention programmes. Rather, the decriminalisation of suicide is mainly explained by “the belief that most suicides were caused by mental illness,” for which reason “the legal focus on suicide and its prevention has shifted from degradation and imprisonment to psychiatric treatment; from criminal prohibition to civil commitment” (Kate E. Bloch, “The Role of Law in Suicide Prevention: Beyond Civil Commitment. A Bystander Duty to Report Suicide Threats,” Stanford Law Review 39 [1987]: 933). Similarly, concerning the Suicide Act that decriminalised suicide in the U.K. in 1961, Sheila Moore writes, “far from the decriminalisation being a relinquishing of state control over a deviant behaviour, the Suicide Act – which was a government, not a Private Member’s Bill – stands as an unusually explicit example of a transfer of responsibility for control of a deviant behaviour from criminal justice to medical jurisdiction in the interests of establishing more effective control” (The Decriminalisation of Suicide [Ph.D Thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science, 2000]). Thus, the decriminalisation of suicide does not imply that States no longer regard suicide as a societal ill, a threat to life and liberty. It only implies a shift in strategies for preventing and handling suicide cases.
  • 15 Furthermore, surely all would agree that capital punishment is a more severe penalty than life imprisonment. This implies that losing one’s life is a greater deprivation than losing one’s liberty, which can only mean that life is a higher good than liberty.
  • 16 In the Netherlands, a so-called “tired of living” law granting unrestricted voluntary PAS is currently being debated for older persons without a medical condition.
  • 17 "The case for the slippery slope is fairly made out here...there is a plausible case that the right claimed would not be readily containable by reference to facts about the mind that are matters of difficult judgment, or by gatekeepers who are subject to temptation, noble or not."
  • 18 In contrast, the “mercy” of those who practice euthanasia was rightly called by Pope St. John Paul II a "misguided pity at the sight of a patient's suffering" (Evangelium Vitae 15) and "a disturbing ‘perversion’ of mercy" (Evangelium Vitae 66).
  • 19 "It may happen that, by reason of prolonged and barely tolerable pain, for deeply personal or other reasons, people may be led to believe that they can legitimately ask for death or obtain it for others. Although in these cases the guilt of the individual may be reduced or completely absent, nevertheless the error of judgment into which the conscience falls, perhaps in good faith, does not change the nature of this act of killing, which will always be in itself something to be rejected" (Declaration on Euthanasia). "Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide...We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives" (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2282-83).
  • 20 I can think of two ways that one could try to avoid this conclusion. The first way would be to claim that this is David’s human judgment, not God’s. This claim flies in the face of the context of this judgment within the Deuteronomistic history. David has been anointed by Samuel and “from that day on, the spirit of the LORD rushed upon” him (1 Sam. 16:13). The office of king, for which David had been anointed and given the Holy Spirit, includes judgment (2 Sam. 12:1; 15:2-6; 1 Ki. 3:9). Couple this with the consistently negative portrayal of Amalekites (1 Sam. 15:18-20; 1 Sam. 30) and David’s previous statements about the dignity of the life of the LORD’s anointed (1 Sam. 24:7-11; 26:9-11, 16, 23) and there is little doubt that the work portrays David’s judgment as just. The second way would be to argue that it was only Saul’s status as “the LORD’s Anointed” that made the reported deed immoral. Yet while it is clear that David considered the action to be especially egregious because of the victim’s status as the LORD’s Anointed (indeed, an act of desecration, 2 Sam. 1:14), this argument is theologically indefensible—it cannot be that euthanasia is immoral when it concerns a divinely appointed king and moral otherwise. Indeed, in a certain sense all God’s people are his anointed, or at least are worthy of the same divine protection as the LORD’s anointed (Ps. 28:8; 105:15; Hab. 3:13; 2 Cor. 1:21; 1 John 2:20, 27). The sick may receive a special anointing from the Church (Jas 5:14), and so anyone who puts to death a sick person, even at the person’s request, even to relieve the person’s suffering, is effectively guilty of “desecrating the LORD’s anointed.”
  • 21 Rabbinic interpretation classifies the deaths of Samson, Saul and Saul’s armour-bearer as “examples of Kiddush Hashem” that “therefore, do not fall into the category of actual suicide” (Devora K. Wohlgelernter, “Death Wish in the Bible,” Tradition 19 [1981]: 131). Kiddush Hashem refers to an act intended to defend the sanctity of the Sacred Name against desecration; this principle has been widely applied to Jews who died in the Nazi Holocaust. See further discussion in a rabbinic ruling concerning suicide here.
  • 22 The rabbinic midrash Genesis Rabbah 4 prohibited suicide on the grounds of Gen. 9:5, where it read “And surely your blood of your lives will I require” to include “one who strangles himself” (Gen. Rab. 34.13; trans. H. Freedman & Maurice Simon, Midrash Rabbah: Translated into English with Notes, Glossary and Indices, 10 vols. [London: Soncino, 1939], 1:278). The same text explicitly states that this principle did not apply to Saul’s death, or to those who were willing to be martyred for God, such as Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah (Dan. 3). The Mishnah, at Pirkei Avot 4.22, states, "And do not let your [evil] impulse assure you that the netherworld is a place of refuge for you; because against your will you were created, and against your will you were born, and against your will you live, and against your will you die, and against your will you are destined to give account and reckoning before the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He." A recent rabbinic ruling prohibiting suicide states that this passage "sets the tone for the prohibition of suicide that is an important theme in later literature."
  • 23 This despite the fact that the earliest extant Christian canon, the Muratorian Fragment (generally dated to the late second century) includes the Book of Wisdom.
  • 24 This passage is not discussing literal suicide. It is poetically describing those who sinned and thus brought death upon themselves as having made friends with death. However, if such language can be applied figuratively to those who engage in any kind of grave sin, how much more to those who actually consider death a friend, pine for it and invite it?
  • 25 It might be pointed out that the term "euthanasia" quite literally involves calling evil good, since the word's etymological meaning is "good death," whereas death is not good but evil, a power of the devil (Heb. 2:14).