The Guardian reports on the Churchads.net Christmas advertising poster, featuring an image of Jesus in vitro complete with obligatory halo. The paper's slant is that the ad is implicitly pro-life and is therefore, at least according the the spokesman of the National Secular Society, "politically motivated". Considering the recent controversial screening of the Marie Stopes advert offering abortion services, that's a bit rich. However, that's not my main point here. The Churchads poster reminds us that the virginal conception and birth of Christ has implications for bioethical issues such as abortion and embryonic stem cell research. But this needs to be handled with great care, with sensitivity to the witness of Scripture and awareness of the creedal heritage of the Church. The Guardian article cites the comments of John Smeaton of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children,
"The advert is saying that Jesus was alive as a person before he was born. They have a halo round his head and you don't have a halo around the head of a blob of jelly or a cluster of cells. This is not a cluster of cells but a human person and it just happens to be the God man Jesus. It is about the humanity of the unborn. That is a very, very powerful statement that will strike a chord with the general population."
I know what Smeaton is getting at, but his statement is theologically misleading. Jesus was not a human person either in the womb or after his birth. He was a divine person with a human nature, see here. In his book, God Incarnate: Explorations in Christology (reviewed) Oliver Crisp devotes a chapter to Christ and the Embryo.
Crisp reasons that if human life (in Christian theology this means ensouled human life, not just biological life) does not begin at conception, then Christ was not fully human from conception. If we hold that ensoulment happens some time after conception, then in Christ's case that would entail an interim Apollinarian account of the incarnation where the divine Logos albeit temporarily took the place of Jesus' human soul. Apollinarianism is a heresy, which rules out this version of the enfleshment of Christ.
Of course there is a difference between the humanity of Christ and the humanity of all other human beings. All other humans have a human nature and are human persons. The Son of God did not become a human person. That confuguration was the error of Nestorianism which was condemned by the Council of Chalcedon. Rather Christ is a divine person with a human nature. Yet just as the Son assumed an ensouled humanity from the moment of the conception of his human nature, so also all other human beings are conceived in an ensouled state. With humans apart from Christ that means all human beings are human persons from conception.
Stated with all the care and precision of Crisp's analytic theology, the virginal conception of Christ certainly has ethical implications for abortion, embryonic stem cell research and certain IVF treatments. Human beings are fully human from the moment of conception. Human life in the womb should therefore be cherished and cared for, not destroyed, even when babies suffer from disabilities. In 2009, 189,100 babies were aborted in the UK (see here). Recent news stories registered disgust that around 80 women a year opt to terminate their pregnancies after receiving IVF treatment. It seems that at least for some having a baby (or not) is just another consumer choice.
Now, I'm not overly keen on visual representations of Jesus. Did the embryonic Christ really have a halo? The image is something of a Christological cliche. But if the poster prompts people to reflect afresh on the value of human life in the womb in the light of the birth of Christ, then that's a good thing.
Oliver Crisp interviewed.