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The Sanctity of Life in the Heidelberg Catechism: The Sixth Commandment

In his comments on the sixth commandment, “You shall not murder,” John Calvin writes, “The purport of this commandment is that since the Lord has bound the whole human race by a kind of unity, the safety of all ought to be considered as entrusted to each.” As creatures made in God’s image, we are called to do whatever is required to “defend the life of our neighbor; to promote whatever tends to his tranquility, to be vigilant in warding off harm, and, when danger comes, to assist in removing it” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.8.39).

It calls us to do everything in our power to protect and preserve human life.

Calvin’s explanation highlights what the Christian tradition has often referred to as the commitment of “solidarity.” The sixth commandment, according to Christian teaching, does not merely prohibit outright violence. It calls us to do everything in our power to protect and preserve human life. Calvin puts it quite strongly: “if you do not according to your means and opportunity study to defend his safety, by that inhumanity you violate the law” (2.8.40). Note Calvin’s use of the word study. This is not simply a casual obligation. Unless we study and work, as individuals and collectively, to do all that we can to ensure the safety of our neighbors, we are guilty of inhumanity.

Unless we study and work, as individuals and collectively, to do all that we can to ensure the safety of our neighbors, we are guilty of inhumanity.

The Heidelberg Catechism teaches the same interpretation of the sixth commandment in Lord’s Day 40. The prohibition of murder not only means that I am not to “belittle, insult, hate, or kill my neighbor – not by my thoughts, my words, my look or gesture, and certainly not by actual deeds.” It also requires that I love my neighbor as myself, being “patient, peace-loving, gentle, merciful, and friendly to him,” and that I “protect him from harm as much as [I] can.” I am neither to harm or “recklessly endanger” a person made in the image of God.

In short, the catechism calls us not merely to be reactive against threats to the sanctity of life. We must be proactive in fostering the conditions necessary for life. We do this only when we stand in solidarity with one another in love, mercy, and friendship.

The Heidelberg Catechism makes it quite clear that these obligations do not merely fall upon human beings as individuals. On the contrary, government is armed with the sword for this very purpose: “Prevention of murder.” It is striking that the catechism does not merely say – as some Christians have said – that government is given the sword to punish those guilty of murder. It calls the government to use its power to prevent murder from happening in the first place. Government, too, is called to be proactive, not merely reactive. Indeed, protecting and promoting the sanctity of human life is the primary reason why we have coercive government at all.

Catholic theologians have described Christian teaching as protecting the sanctity of life as a “seamless garment” from conception to the grave. Protestant ethicists have emphasized the need for Christians to hold to a “consistent ethic of life.” This has several important implications.

  1. First, Christians need to stand in opposition to all practices that destroy human life at the margins, including euthanasia (the deliberate killing of those who are aging or suffering from illness or disability), abortion (the deliberate killing of the unborn), and forms of birth control that potentially work as abortifacients (i.e., contraceptives that do not merely prevent pregnancy, but that can terminate a pregnancy after conception, as is the case, for instance, with the morning-after pill, and potentially with the daily birth control pill).

  2. Second, Christians should oppose all uses of government force, whether by police or the military – or even by individuals relying on various forms of government authorization such as “stand your ground” laws – that are recklessly violent or that needlessly endanger innocent human life. One way of doing this is to promote adherence to a vigorous understanding of the Christian just war tradition, which places careful limits on the use of violence by soldiers and police officers.

  3. Third, Christians owe protection and sustenance to all those fleeing poverty, violence, or other dangers, whether foreign refugees, abused children, battered women, mistreated prisoners, or the exploited poor.

  4. Fourth, Christians should seek to alleviate conditions of severe poverty, unemployment, and overpopulation that inevitably breed violence, both in urban and rural areas. Part of what it means to stand for the sanctity of life from the cradle to the grave is to seek to alleviate the brutalization of poverty wherever we find it by promoting education, employment, and decent housing.

  5. Fifth, Christians should promote health care as a right of all people made in God’s image. Protecting the body from harm requires providing medical care where it is necessary, regardless of whether or not a suffering individual can afford it.

  6. Sixth, Christians must promote education, practices, and reasonable standards that help to secure the safety of all people from dangers such as pollution, natural disasters, accidents, violence, and whatever else threatens human life.

Of course, we must acknowledge that Christians and other people of good will disagree widely about the best means of advancing many of these goals. Christians disagree in particular about the responsibilities of various levels and branches of government, or about the extent to which particular policies that are well intentioned might have unintended consequences that are destructive of the sanctity of life.

Christians are bound, as individuals and in society, to protect, preserve and promote life at every stage and in every condition.

Such disagreements within the bounds of reasonableness and Christian teaching are to be expected. But they should not blind us to the basic principles of Christian teaching about the sanctity of human life or about government’s basic responsibility to protect such life. Christians are bound, as individuals and in society, to protect, preserve and promote life at every stage and in every condition. The gospel of life does not permit us to dismiss anyone as being beyond the bounds of our obligations of neighbor-love (Luke 10:25-37). As Jesus warned us, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” (Matthew 25:45).

Editor's note: Like most Protestant churches, the CRC does not condemn birth control when it does not function as an abortifacient: Synod 2003 agreed that a married couple's decision about whether or not to use birth control is a private, disputable matter. You can read the full position statement here

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