“You Shall Not Murder”: Johannes Brenz on the Killing of Children

Abortion–which is a euphemism for “killing one’s own offspring”–has been in the news again, and with it the usual moral confusions, including among Christians. Thus one learns that one must support a litany of government services if one is really to be “pro-life.”

This is, of course, diversionary nonsense. Some of the proposals for social services may be good and virtuous; for that matter, all of them may be. But the one thing that they all have in common beyond a doubt or a dispute is that none of them is to the point. There is only one relevant moral and legal question–no more, no fewer, only one–that has anything to do with the issue at hand: Does one have the moral and legal right to kill one’s own offspring? Everything else is a distraction until that one question is answered.

The moral and legal question is easy to answer, because it is a simple matter of the Fifth Commandment, “You shall not murder.” At his point, one is apt to hear the facile objection that one may impose one’s religious opinions on others who do not share that opinion. But that is absurd. The commandment not to murder is not Jewish, or Christian, or Muslim; it is natural and universal. Was Cain innocent of the murder of Abel because he had no tablets of stone? Was Romulus innocent of the murder of Remus? Was Medea innocent of the murder of her children? Obviously not. The “That’s religious!” objection, too, turns out to be a deflection from the point under investigation.

As is so often the case, the Christian of our morally muddled age can be helped by looking to the clarity of moral philosophers and theologians from the past. To that end, I append below my translation of a passage from the Exodus commentary of the W├╝rttemberg theologian Johannes Brenz on Pharaoh’s order to the midwives to kill the male children of the Hebrews.

It applies, mutatis mutandis, to our situation as well. For the Fifth Commandment (which, again, is a cipher for the natural and universal moral law) prohibits the murder of one’s neighbor. Therefore, the magistrate may neither command nor permit one to murder one’s neighbor. But one’s offspring is one’s closest neighbor. Therefore, the magistrate may neither command one to murder one’s offspring (as the Chinese government has long done) nor permit one to murder one’s neighbor (as the government of the United States has long done).

Johannes Brenz on Pharaoh’s Order to Kill the Hebrew Boys

However, whether the king commanded [that the male children be killed] via a public edict or via a secret order [to the midwives], certainly to rage with violence against infants was an act of vulgar cruelty on the part of those princes who were seized with fear of losing their kingdom and majesty. Thus did Astyages rage with violence against Cyrus and Amulius against Romulus and Remus. Athaliah, the mother of Ahaziah, did so against the royal seed. Herod did so against the infants of Bethlehem and other boys.

But the more vulgar this cruelty was, the greater was its ungodliness as well. For, although the magistrate has the power lawfully to kill robbers and rebels, he nevertheless does not have the power lawlessly to kill whomever he likes.

And the commandment of God “You shall not kill” must be understood as speaking not only about not killing adults, but also about not slaughtering infants. If you kill the latter, you are a crueler murderer in the sight of God by the degree to which that age is more innocent and more vulnerable to injustice before men.

Certain authors write that the mercy of the lion is so great that, even when it roars, it nevertheless spares infants, nor does it rage with violence against them, except because of the greatest hunger. For that reason, those who slaughter infants must be judged not only to have cast off human feeling, but even to surpass the most monstrous wild beasts in their savagery.

And when Sacred Scripture testifies that God has given angels to infants as their guardians, it signifies with no obscurity at all that Satan plots against the safety of infants in particular. Therefore, those who rage with violence against infants must be said no longer to be men, but rather to be living and, so to speak, incarnate devils.

Update: I made a couple of slight edits to the original post.

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