How the Commandments Define Civil Society (and What This Means for Abortion)

How the Commandments Define Civil Society (and What This Means for Abortion) May 15, 2018

The always-interesting Peter Leithart, a fellow Patheos blogger, discusses Systematic Theology, II: The Works of God (2001) by the late Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson. one of a series of posts on the Ten Commandments.  Leithart doesn’t always agree with him, nor would we more conservative Lutherans, Jenson being of the ELCA variety.

However, I was struck by a quotation from Jenson in which he explains how the Commandments not only summarize the Natural Law, but define the foundations of any civil society.  And then, contrary to the official teaching of the ELCA, Jenson applies the principle to show the evil of abortion!

Quoted and discussed by Peter Leithart, Abortion and the Horde:

 “The commandments state minimum conditions: no society can subsist in which the generations turn against each other; in which vendetta has not been replaced by public organs of judgment and punishment; in which the forms by which sexuality is socialized, whatever these may be, are flouted; in which property, however defined, is not defended; in which false testimony is allowed to pervert judgment; or in which greed is an accepted motive of action. Indeed, even the commandments of the first table have a kind of negative and so general application: no society can long subsist that violates its own religion” (Systematic Theology II, p. 87)

And then Jenson makes a penetrating pro-life application:

 “A society in which an unborn child can legally be killed on the sole decision of the pregnant person cannot be “a people” even by the least rigorous of Augustine’s definitions; it can only be a horde.”  (Systematic Theology II, pp. 87-88).

Why is that? Because “Thou shalt not kill” marks “the decisive break between precivil and civilized society: the replacement of vendetta by courts and their officers. The decision that someone rightly must die is no longer to be made by interested parties and is instead to be made by maximally disinterested communal organs.” Thus, “if unborn children are members of the human community, then allowing abortions to be performed on decision of the most interested party is a relapse to pure barbarism” (Systematic Theology II, p. 88).

The invocation of the “woman’s right to choose” whether her child lives or is aborted is thus equivalent to the primitive vendetta cultures, which give the wronged individual the “right to revenge.”  In advanced, civil societies, a lawbreaker is not punished by the victim’s own initiative but through an objective, unbiased–that is, “disinterested”–process of legal authorities applying the law.  Unborn children do not have recourse to that process.  Rather, they are subject to their mother’s subjective and biased decision, regardless of the child’s objective personhood.

Thus, abortion is a “relapse to pure barbarism.”  A society that permits abortion no longer has a civil society.  It is only a “horde.”

I would add that our violation of the other commandments is additional testimony to our “relapse to pure barbarism.”  Our generations do turn against each other.  We have replaced respect for “public organs of judgment and punishment” with the tribal vendettas of social media.  We flout the forms by which sexuality is socialized.  Property is often not defended.  False testimony does pervert judgment.  Greed is an accepted motive of action.  Our society violates its own religion.

Welcome to the horde.


Photo:  A Zombie Horde, by Martin SoulStealer from London, England (The Horde) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


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