Continuing a new series of posts (a modification and serialisation of one of my MA-level essays) thinking through a Christian response to suicide, today we reach our third post. Following an introductory post, and yesterday’s post about suicide and the biblical material, today I wanted to share a bit about how suicide has been engaged with by the Christian tradition. I hope it is helpful.
iii. Tradition and Text Part 2 – Church History, etc.
Like the biblical authors, the Early Church was well aware of suicide, and the Church Fathers occasionally addressed the issue. When considering the approach of the early church to suicide, care must be taken with regard to the related but distinct, generally speaking, issue of martyrdom. Droge and Tabor note that ‘Clement of Alexandria had distinguished between genuine martyrdom and a mere killing of oneself’ (1992, 167), and this distinction is important. Martyrdom aside, then, there is a generally negative attitude towards suicide, which finds its most forceful expression in Augustine, who is to dominate Western discussion for centuries on this topic. It is from Augustine’s influential discussion of suicide in the light of martyrdom that sets the scene for later (and, in some cases, contemporary) discussion.
Recognizing the pre-eminence of Augustine in general, and his influence on this topic, Blazquez argues that ‘Christian moral teaching on suicide reached its culmination in the teaching of St Augustine’ (1985, 63), and he focused on this at various points in his work. Interestingly, Augustine appears to briefly consider one reason for suicide, which is ‘to prevent one’s falling into sin’ (City of God, Book I, ch. 27) but he goes on to re-affirm the view that ‘it is wicked to kill oneself’ (City of God, Book I, ch. 27). In a consideration of martyrdom, Augustine offers a discussion of Samson, conscience, and obedience to God in the intriguingly title ‘That In Certain Peculiar Cases The Examples Of The Saints Are Not To Be Followed’ (City of God, Book 1, ch. 26). Augustine is arguing that the examples of the saints are not to be a general rule, and defers to the sovereignty of God, with particularly reference to the story of Abraham, in order to advance the principle for general consumption which he has bequeathed to the Christian tradition, ‘this we affirm, this we maintain, this we every way pronounce to be right, that no man ought to inflict on himself voluntary death’(City of God, I, ch. 26). It is this position that is at the core of the majority of Christian tradition and teaching, and part of the legacy, for good or for ill, of Augustine.
For the Roman Catholic tradition especially, and the Christian tradition generally, the opinions and deep thinking of Thomas Aquinas have been incredibly influential. His thought is ultimately reflected in official Roman Catholic teaching, and is thus both influential and enduringly relevant to the present discussion. As Pretzel notes, ‘several church councils from 533 AD. then condemned suicide, and St Thomas Aquinas reaffirmed the Augustinian view’ (1990, 1234). Aquinas should be seen, in the tradition begun by Augustine, as noting that ‘the Bible relates certain cases of direct suicide… but in no way indicates approval of them’ (1985, 65). To take Aquinas at his own word, then, requires delving deep into the Summa Theological, and noting that he gives authority to Augustine (STh., II-II q.64 a.5, De Civ. Dei. i. 20) and offers a condemnation regarding suicide with some interesting nuance. Firstly, Aquinas observes that suicide ‘is always a mortal sin, as being contrary to the natural law and to charity’ (STh., II-II q.64 a.5). It is worth noting that this has to do with Aquinas’ understanding of the natural law, but his emphasis preceding this point is regarding the continued integrity/existence of a being would tally with the role of the pastoral agent to help the pastored individual through a difficult time. Secondly, Aquinas notes that ‘by killing himself he injures the community’(STh., II-II q.64 a.5), which is certainly resonant for pastoral engagement with the topic of suicide. Thirdly, Aquinas references an idea which links to the sovereignty of God, and states that human life ‘belongs to God alone to pronounce sentence’ (STh., II-II q.64 a.5), with reference to Deuteronomy 32:39, and the notion that life is a gift, this latter being an idea picked up elsewhere in relation to this topic. Overall, then, Aquinas’ contribution on this topic is to affirm and expand upon Augustine’s prohibition, with the helpful noting of issues of community and God’s sovereignty over human life as a gift. It should also be observed that Aquinas places suicide in the category of ‘mortal sin’, that is to say, that it is unforgivable, and for our purposes we shall move on to Calvin in order to consider this idea.
The Reformation brought little genuinely new to the table regarding theological and pastoral engagement with suicide, though the emphasis of John Calvin (in particular) on the Sovereignty of God offers a constructive twist for our purposes. It is important to note that nowhere does Calvin explicitly pronounce on suicide, emphasising in line with Jesus in Matt. 12:31 that there is only one unforgivable sin, that ‘blasphemy against the Spirit is a token of reprobation’(2009, XVI, 76). On the death of Judas, Calvin comments that ‘though they are their own executioners… they do not in any respect alleviate or diminish the severity of the wrath of God’ (2009, XVII, 271), which can arguably be seen to emphasise the disjunction between the initial effects of human action and the ultimate effects of divine action. Regarding the sixth commandment, Calvin observes that ‘the Lord has bound mankind together by a certain unity; hence each man ought to concern himself with the safety of all‘ (2006, Inst. II. viii.39,404) , which echoes the concern seen in Aquinas for the wider community of humankind. Calvin goes on to see the commandment as resting in the general principle not to ‘violate the image of God’ (2006, Inst. II. viii. 40, 405), obedience to which is a principle that Calvin identifies as being part of the will of God. In the passages examined, Calvin does not major on the sovereignty of God, and provides little pastoral direction for considering the topic of suicide.
When considering the pastoral dimension of a topic it is vital to consider approaches and contributions, beyond biblical studies, systematic theology, and church history. Sociology can be a fertile conversation partner, and one particularly influential consideration of the topic of suicide comes from Emile Durkheim, whose careful examination (1968) of suicide rates in Catholic and Protestant populations stands out as an important example of sociology that can be interpreted theologically. This study is eponymously titled ‘Suicide: A Study in Sociology’, and provides us with the aforementioned definition of suicide that serves this present discussion. Of Durkheim, Baudry notes that among his most helpful contributions to the topic – Durkheim’s study is sociological rather than theological – is that he ‘distinguishes three main types of suicide… egotistical… altruistic’ (1985, 14-15) and also ‘fatalistic suicide’, the fourth type categorised… which he hardly analysed in full’ (1985, 16). Baudry helpfully identifies the contribution of Durkheim in observing the nuance and different kinds of suicide, expanding on the Early Church distinction between martyrdom and self-murder. Kearl also references the relational awareness of the Durkheimian perspectives, noting that ‘instances of self-destruction have come to be understood as the result of imbalances in the relations between individuals and their social system’ (1989, 142). This is demonstrably the case in the biblical accounts, and also would appear to ring true in modern pastoral settings.
In more modern theology, Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer stand out as particularly firm or clear voices on this topic. Coming first, and commented upon by Barth later, is Bonhoeffer, who writes on this topic in his large and wide-ranging ‘Ethics’. Bonhoeffer notes, though it is arguably disputable, that the practice of choosing to ‘voluntarily bring death upon themselves’ (2009, 196) is unique to human beings. With this in mind, Bonhoeffer’s notion of suicide/self murder as ‘the ultimate and extreme self-justification of the human being as human’ (2009, 198) makes rather more sense. However, Bonhoeffer does not radically depart from the Christian tradition, noting that ‘before God, self justification, and therefore self-murder, is the epitome of sin’ (2009, 198-9). One of the reasons that Bonhoeffer gives for his position is the recognition that ‘there is a God above us’ (2009, 199). Whilst holding this essentially traditional position, we must note that Bonhoeffer’s treatment of the topic does provide the modern reader with pastoral resources. Regarding the biblical text, Bonhoeffer writes of suicide that ‘instead of prohibiting it the Bible wants to call the despairing to repentance and grace’ (2009, 200). Furthermore, perhaps with an implicit recognition of his context, Bonhoeffer goes on to conclude that ‘the temptation to self-murder cannot be resisted by the right to life, but by the grace that one may continue living under God’s forgiveness’ (2009, 203). For Bonhoeffer’s treatment, it is vital to continue to recognize the traditional perspective, but to do so in such a way that the graceful rule and reign of God is emphasized over and against the despair of the individual. This is instructive for present day pastoral care, perhaps, with the implication that an invitation to hope and life will be far more helpful than further condemnation.
Karl Barth addresses the topic of suicide primarily in his Church Dogmatics, (III.4), and has an especial emphasis on freedom, sin, and, as is typical for Barthian ethics, the centrality of Christ. Barth consistently affirms that life is loaned to the human by God (2010, CD. III.4, 394, 401, 404, 405) and there is a focused naming of God as ‘The Creator, Giver and Lord of Life’ (2010, CD. III.4, 404). This is a lead in to a classic Barthian treatment, where the event of the incarnation is put centre stage;
‘God… said Yes to man. It [suicide] is impossible and excluded in virtue of the Gospel in which this divine Yes offers superior opposition to every human No. Nothing else can make suicide impossible. But the Gospel as it comes from the lips of God does so irresistibly’ (2009, CD. III.4, 409)
In this section, Barth emphasizes the gracious, essentially overpowering, sovereignty of God in grace towards human beings as being his fundamental objection to suicide. This is grounded in the events of the death and resurrection of Jesus (2009, CD. III.4, 409), which is a central theme in Barth’s theology. His bold notion of suicide as impossibility, however, grates with the pastoral reality that it happens, and so we must read Barth carefully here. It is not enough to merely state that such a thing is impossible, when pastoring someone for whom it is a possibility, part of their story, or in their experience! Fortunately, however, Barth goes on to consider different kinds of death, and touches on assisted suicide and euthanasia. It is worth noting that as he closes this section on self-murder by identifying murder, of any kind, as ‘a wicked usurpation of God’s sovereign right over life and death’ (2009, CD. II. 4, 423). Barth has, throughout this section, a firm emphasis on the goodness of God and his ‘Yes’ contrasted with every human ‘No’. It is this, as a positive and emphatic declaration of the good sovereignty of God, which Barth bequeathes to pastoral practitioners considering the topic of suicide.
In the fourth part of this essay/series, we will explore what the doctrine of the Sovereignty of God might offer the sensitive issue of suicide.
Bibliography for this section:
Augustine, The City of God, (Penguin, London)
Aquinas, Summa Theologica (References inline)
Barth, K. (2010). Church Dogmatics: Vol. III The Doctrine of Creation part 4, (Hendrickson, Peabody)
Baudry, P. (1985). New and Old Factors in Suicide, p. 3-12 in Eds., Pohier, J. and Mieth, D. (T&T Clark, Edinburgh)
Blazquez, N. (1985). The Church’s Traditional Moral Teaching on Suicide, p. 63-75 in Eds., Pohier, J. and Mieth, D. (T&T Clark, Edinburgh)
Bonhoeffer, D. (2009). Ethics, (Fortress Press, Minneapolis)
Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, (References inline)
Eds., Droge, A. J., and Tabor, J. D. (1992). A Noble Death: Suicide and Martyrdom among Christians and Jews in Antiquity, (HarperCollins, New York)
Durkheim, E. (1968). Suicide: A Study in Sociology, (Routledge, London)
Kearl, M. C. (1989). A Sociology of Death and Dying, (Oxford University Press, Oxford)
Pretzel, P. W. (1990). Suicide (Ethical Issues), Suicide (Pastoral Care), p. 1233-1235 in ed. Hunter, R. J. Dictionary of Pastoral Care and Counselling, (Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1990)