When Does The Person Begin?




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"Each One of Us is an Icon of the Beginning"

Scripture

This discussion of the Scriptural evidence of our beginnings will fall into two parts: the first is a collection of some of the texts relevant to the beginning of human life, which on the whole follow the order of their appearance in the canon of Scripture; and the second begins with what seems to be the particularly helpful text: 'Your eyes beheld my unformed substance' (Ps 139: 16)

Biblical texts on the beginning of human life

The structure of the Priestly account of creation is almost a pattern of like giving forth to like.  In the first instance creation receives existence, just as God exists: 'In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth' (Gn 1: 1).  For in a logical inquiry the first thing that we need to establish is whether or not something exists416; and it is on the basis of knowing that something exists that one can then inquire as to what kind of thing exists.  This suggests that it is God the Creator-Father who gives existence to things.

Secondly, 'God created the heavens and the earth earth' in such a way that they do not live in the sense of having the breath of life itself and yet seem, as I argued before, to exist at the point of an absolute beginning.  But creation does not simply exist: it exists in the presence of the 'Spirit of God': a Spirit of God which moves over the face of the waters (Gn 1: 2).  Thus, taking into account an alternative translation which says 'there was darkness over the deep, with a divine wind sweeping over the waters' (NJB417 Gn 1: 1), one can almost see the connection between the moving Spirit of God, as a kind of principle of movement as it is itself in motion, and the thing created which is then set in motion by this activity of the Spirit of God, just as a wind moves the waters over which it moves.  Thus one is brought to consider the mystery of the Holy Spirit.

Pope John Paul II, in his Encyclical Letter On The Holy Spirit In The Life Of The Church And The World, otherwise known as Dominum Et Vivificantem, says the Holy Spirit is "the Lord, the giver of life"418: a life that is an animation of things419: a causing of things to move.  Thus, in the beginning, the Spirit of God causes creation both to move and to move in the direction of God; and, therefore, the Spirit of God is both uniquely involved in the animation of creation in general and of the person in particular (cf. Lk 1: 35; and 4: 1).  The Pope says elsewhere: 'In the Bible, the primary function of the spirit is not to give understanding, but to give movement; not to shed light, but to impart dynamism'420.

Finally, the first word of God is spoken after creation itself is brought into existence, just as the Son manifests the Father; and the first word of God is: "Let there be light"; and what is the natural power of light to reveals things the sign of if not the reality which is the existence of Christ in the world (cf Jn 9: 5)421.

However, this trace of the Blessed Trinity, as St. Thomas Aquinas422 calls it, is not to be confused with the conscious intentionality of the human authors of Scripture - except in so far as it expresses their diverse attempts to communicate the full extent of the mystery of God.  In other words, while it is not supposed that these authors knew of the existence of the Blessed Trinity, yet it can be supposed that the very fact that their writing is written through with the trace of this truth is precisely because of their attempt to communicate the full complexity of the reality of God's work of creation: a work both expressive of God as a whole and of each member of the Blessed Trinity in particular.

The relevance of this to the question of our beginning is that it brings to light the parallel significance of the animation of creation by the Holy Spirit and the animation of the soul by the body423.  Thus, referring back to the general principle that the opening of the book of Genesis proceeds by way of the pattern of like giving forth to like, one can see that the soul stands in relation to the body like the Divine - wind is to the waters of creation: as a mover of the body, just as the wind moves over the water and moves the water it moves over.  Furthermore, from the point of view of the scriptural author, it is this pattern of like giving forth to like which prepares the reader for the perception that man, male and female, is created in the image of God.  Finally, the idea that it is the breath of God which is particularly responsible for the man becoming 'a living being' (Gn 2: 7), is an idea that could be said to be a particularly fundamental perception of the different authors of Scripture.




References
416 SuTh, Pt I, Qu 2, art 2, page 12.    Back
417 The New Jerusalem Bible, general editor Henry Wansbrough, (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1985).  Abbrev NJB.  Where I am comparing translations I will give the initials of the other translation in the biblical reference.    Back
418 Pope John Paul II, Dominum Et Vivificantem, 1986, translation by the Vatican Polyglot Press, (London: CTS [Do 573], 1986,) art 1 page 3.  Abbrev DEV.    Back
419 Cf. DEV, art 66, page 135.    Back
420 Pope John Paul II on The Meaning of "Spirit" in the Old Testament, General audience of January 3, 1990, page 152 of Vol III of A Catechesis on The Creed, The Spirit Giver of Life and Love, (Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 1996).  Abbrev TC, Vol III etc    Back
421 Cf.also Dei Verbum, art 2, page 751 of VCII.    Back
422 ST, Pt I, Qu 45, art 7, page 87. Cf. FEF, Vol III, The Trinity, extract 1673, page 78.    Back
423 Cf also Lumen Gentium, art 7, page 356 of VCII.    Back

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