Augustines Options

As Gregory of Nyssa profoundly influenced the development of Greek Christianity and thus of the subsequent Orthodox Churches, so Augustine (354—430) deeply shaped Western or Latin Christianity, which at the Reformation (beginning about 1520) became Catholicism and Protestantism. Augustine, whose influence can scarcely be exaggerated, accepted the distinction between the formed and unformed fetus. In addition he tended to be more dualistic in his thinking, and he therefore accepted greater discontinuity between soul and body than did Gregory or other Eastern theologians.

Although Augustine was not generally indecisive on theological and moral matters, he remained undecided throughout his life on the question of the origin of the human soul and the way it is joined with the human body. One possibility (called creationism) is that God creates the soul at around the time of conception or somewhat later and joins it to the developing body. By allowing separate origins for the soul and the body, this view makes possible the idea that for a time, the body develops without a human soul being present, something Gregory flatly rejected. The other possibility that Augustine considered (called traducianism) is that soul and body come into existence together, that is to say, at conception, when both are transmitted together from one generation to the next. Tertullian accepted traducianism, and perhaps for that reason, other Western theologians see it as degrading the soul by making it material rather than spiritual in substance.

Both Augustine's indecision and his speculations remain influential in Western Christianity. Concerning the pastoral question of whether the results of miscarriage or abortion will share in the general human destiny of immortality, Augustine wrote in the Enchiridion:

... with respect to the resurrection of the body ... comes the question about abortive fetuses, which are indeed "born" in the mother's womb, but are never so that they could be "reborn." For, if we say that there is a resurrection for them, then we can agree that at least as much is true of fetuses that are fully formed. But, with regard to undeveloped fetuses, who would not more readily think that they perish, like seeds that did not germinate?

Here Augustine accepts the distinction between formed and unformed and uses it in the ultimate theological context— the question of what is human in the resurrection. He also uses it to clarify his opposition to abortion. For him, destroying the formed fetus is murder, whereas destroying the unformed fetus is a lesser offense.

When it comes to the deeper theoretical question of the beginning of human life, Augustine admits his uncertainty in the Enchiridion:

On this score, a corollary question may be most carefully discussed by the most learned men, and still I do not know that any man can answer it, namely: When does a human being begin to live in the womb? Is there some form of hidden life, not yet apparent in the motions of a living thing? To deny, for example, that those fetuses ever lived at all which are cut away limb by limb and cast out of the wombs of pregnant women, lest the mothers die also if the fetuses were left there dead, would seem much too rash. (23:86)

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