For the Silent Voices: The True Starting Point

Author Lance Phelps - 10 minute read

The Next Step: What Defines Personhood?

The issue of personhood is as old as humans themselves. From the earliest stages of more rigorous philosophical thought we have been trying to understand this issue. Aristotle taught that personhood came onto the human animal in gradual stages. While Hippocrates (yes the Hippocratic Oath was named after this guy) taught that personhood begins at the moment of fertilization. So, what makes you a person? Assuming that you are, in fact, a person and not a robot parsing this article for advertising data? But why are robots not considered persons? As we discussed in the last article the issue of personhood is paramount. If you are a person then you deserve the rights that are due to a person. Of course the concept of rights being due to a person is a more modern idea from a worldwide perspective. Yet the roots for this idea are found within Christian thinking and early forms of this idea sprouted within the Christian community from its beginnings.

Naturalism and Personhood

Up until recently our culture has based it’s ideas about personhood on a more Christian-like ethic. I say “Christian-Like” because of the pervasive influence of cultural Christianity (those who are “christian” in name only yet they do confess many of the truths of the Christian faith) on modern western culture. But as we have progressed in this modern culture another philosophical system has begun to supplant the old: Secular Naturalism.

The issue is that secular naturalism seeks to explain everything from purely natural means. There can be no personal creator god who made all things. So for this reason secular naturalism tends to be overwhelmingly atheistic. As our culture moves to a more consistent expression of secular naturalism the basis for any real ethic, for morality, simply evaporates. As we saw in the last article you cannot get ought from is (no matter how much philosophical slight of hand Sam Harris tries to pull). The only logical basis for a moral ethic is a creator God who also establishes a certain ethic. But once all things are reduced to natural processes, such as natural selection, why be “good”? And what is this “good” that everyone goes on about anyways? The only rational “good” that can be legitimately deduced from secular naturalism is that of power. In this system might really does make right. Timothy Keller has the word here:

“Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov sarcastically summarized the ethical reasoning of secular humanism like this: ‘Man descended from apes, therefore we must love one another.’ The second clause does not follow from the first. If it was natural for the strong to eat the weak in the past, why aren’t people allowed to do it now? . . . Given the secular view of the universe, the conclusion of love or social justice is no more logical than the conclusion to hate or destroy.” - Keller, Making Sense of God

This has a major effect on our current topic: if ethics is reduced to might makes right, and therefore rights are logically only granted to the strong man, personhood can only logically be granted to the strongman. Friedrich Nietzsche recognized this. But the reality of this conclusion has not been admitted by many other secular philosophers. In short: Naturalism means that there can be no such thing as a durable idea of personhood. The world in chaotic violence is the only true world.

Personhood and the Bible

Can this actually be the truth? Not even close. The only philosopher (who was also SO much more than that) that actually died and rose again has set the record straight. Jesus Christ declares that he is the way the truth and the life. We need not be wallowing in our chaotic world of violence any longer. We can breath a sigh of relief.

Right off the bat in the old testament we are told that we are created in God’s image. And that this give us the right to life. Who is this God? He is the great I AM, the triune creator of all, personal, sovereign, almighty, he is the holy King of kings. This is the God in whose image mankind has been created. At the core, our personhood stems from Gods hand. No mere man can take it away from us. Are you a slave during the time of the Atlantic slave trade? You are a person who is presently having his or her rights unjustly usurped. Are you a Jew during the holocaust? Your rights that have been given to you based upon your image bearing status are being trampled by an evil regime. Are you a baby who has been ripped from your mothers womb? Your right to life has been violated.

The Bible is replete with verses that lead to the unavoidable conclusion that a baby, from the moment that God begins to knit that new person together, is a person. We see this in the Psalms as David declares: “You knitted me together in my mother’s womb.” R. C. Sproul offers helpful commentary. “The psalmist credits God for fashioning him in the womb. He also uses the term me to refer to himself before he was born. It is noteworthy that the Hebrew word translated as "unformed substance" is the Hebrew word for "embryo," and this is the only instance of that word in the Bible.”

We see that babies are protected in the old covenant law, David declares that from the beginning he was “in sin” (nonpersons cannot be in sin), John leaps for joy at the presence of Jesus in the womb, but most of all God has made us in his image. I think Sproul has it right:

“The Bible clearly indicates that unborn babies are considered living human beings before they are born. The weight of the biblical evidence is that life begins at conception.” - R. C. Sproul – Abortion


From this we can see that the world cannot offer us the truth. We saw that personhood must be defined in biblical terms if is to make any sense at all. And if we trust in God and his word to inform us about personhood we must come to the conclusion that personhood begins when God begins his knitting work.

Oh and robots are not made in God’s image so they are not persons.

In the next article we will begin to interact with arguments posed by the pro-choice movement.