Does Capacity Define Dignity? A Response to Norman Metzler

— by John T. Pless

The January 2019 issue of The Day Star Journal carried an article by the Rev. Dr. Norman Metzler, a professor of theology (emeritus) at Concordia University, Portland, under the title “Sanctity of Life: the Complexities of the Abortion Issue.” In this article, Prof. Metzler moves rather quickly from “problem pregnancies” to an argument to keep abortions “legal and therefore medically safe and responsible” (p. 1). While there is much in Metzler’s article that needs to be critiqued, I wish to dwell on a single assumption rooted in a deeply flawed anthropology. Metzler’s argument assumes that dignity is not a gift bestowed on the human being but a status that is achieved at some later stage of biological development.

Metzler argues that because so many zygotes fail to implant and many more “self-abort or miscarry within the first 4-5 weeks of pregnancy,” we cannot reasonably assert at this early stage of development that a human person is present or destroyed. At best, he argues, we are dealing only with “a miniscule portion of potential life” (p. 2). Thus the Portland professor says, “it is misleading (if not emotionally manipulative) for antiabortionists to refer to abortion as taking the life of a ‘child’ or of a ‘person,’ equivalent, for example, to murdering a two-year old” (p. 3). He summarily dismisses biblical references such as the unborn John the Baptist leaping in Elizabeth’s womb or the Prophet Jeremiah being know by the Lord before his birth as “poetic utterances” which do not “reflect an awareness of modern medical and moral complexities in the current abortion discussion” (p.3).

The chilling assumption that undergirds Metzler’s argument is that human life is only worth protection once it has acquired certain capacities. Metzler’s anthropology is antithetical to Luther’s confession of the First Article in the Small Catechism that God has made me and He has done this “only out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me.” 

Dignity is not a status to be acquired, rather it is given. The German Lutheran theologian, Oswald Bayer, wrote an article, “Self-Creation? On the Dignity of Human Beings” (see Modern Theology, April 2004, pp. 274-290). Countering the claim of the Princeton ethicist, Peter Singer, that the crucial moral question is not when life begins but when this life reaches a point at which it merits protection, Bayer notes that the embryo does not develop into a person but develops as a person. In truth, Metzler’s position is different from that of Singer only in degrees. It is substantially the same argument differing only to the degree that Metzler assumes the involvement of God while Singer does not.

Bayer’s careful theological work is of service in deconstructing the unbiblical anthropology in Metzler’s article. Bayer writes “The dignity of any human being lies in the indissoluble intertwining of element and instituting word. It is attributed to him or her–bestowed, given on loan–by the One who promises and gives himself unconditionally to humankind: namely, God. Thus, my dignity as a human being is attributed to me ‘without any worthiness on my part’ ” (“Self-Creation? On the Dignity of Human Beings, p. 279).  Bayer further explains this catechetical truth in a more recent article, “Being in the Image of God” (Lutheran Quarterly, XXVII, 2013, pp. 76-88): “Because this dignity is bestowed by God, it disallows every human requirement. In this absolute gratuity lies the decisive viewpoint for the formation of ethical judgment; human life is recognized (pre-socially) and to be recognized (socially) as unconditional, without having to justify itself through specific properties, merits, or self-acquired ‘dignities.’” (p. 81). 

Metzler begins with the assumption that there are problem pregnancies that may be ended by abortion. For Metzler this a simple conclusion built on the assumption that the developing life in the womb cannot be identified as a person. Personhood, for Metzler, consists in the presence of certain functions or capacities. By way of contrast, Bayer follows the logic of the Small Catechism in confessing that the unborn possess dignity not as a reward for survival but as a categorical gift from the beginning without any worth or merit on their part. We champion the “sanctity of life” because this sanctity is a gift freely given by our Triune Creator.


Dr. John T. Pless teaches at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN.

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