Ethical Method in Christian Bioethics: Mapping the Terrain

Issues: 

Bioethical--and especially biotechnological--developments are both so urgent and have come so quickly upon us that there has been little time for Christian bioethicists to reflect upon or develop a coherent methodological approach. However, our answers to particular questions--e.g., what should we think and say about nanotechnology or germ-line genetic intervention or cryopreservation or any other issue--demand reflection on a prior methodological question: How should a Christian go about discerning a reliable answer to such ethical questions? I would here like to offer a very preliminary analysis of patterns of ethical methodology among Christians weighing in on contemporary biotechnology debates.

Obviously, the question of method comes into play every time a scholar undertakes any intellectual project. Unfortunately, fixation on disputes about method often mars academia, at times making it impossible for scholars ever to take a substantive stance about anything. Especially because I have always understood my work as an ethicist to be in service to the church, I have avoided extensive methodological tangles whenever I can. The people in the pew do not care as much about the ethical method that is used as they do about the normative moral guidance that is offered on the issues of the day. Contemporary biotechnology concerns, however, raise methodological issues that cannot responsibly be avoided. When we fail to do such methodological reflection, but pronounce in an ad hoc fashion on biotech issues anyway, the flimsiness of our thinking is quickly revealed.1 This is no mere professional faux pas but instead a damaging setback for Christians speaking in the public arena on the most critical issues of our time. It will quickly marginalize our voices in a public ethical conversation that we may only have one chance to participate in before some of these issues are decided.

Evangelical Bioethics and the Use of Scripture

The question of bioethical methodology is especially acute for those working within the conservative Protestant branch of the Christian community. The typical evangelical way of approaching a moral question is to turn to the Bible for direct citations relevant to the issue at hand. If we want to know what to think about war, marriage, homosexuality, drinking, suicide, or economic ethics, we turn to the Bible for moral commands that address these issues. Millions of evangelicals attempt to direct their steps in precisely this manner.

Much of the time, when we turn to the Bible in this way we are blessed with all of the insight that we need. We find that the Bible offers more than enough direction about what we must think and do--the problem in such cases is not in knowingGod's will, but in reshaping our hearts and habits that we might obey it.

But the issue is much more complex when it comes to issues that the Bible does not directly address. How are we to discern God's moral will about stem cell research? Or cloning? Or cybernetics? Or the mapping of the human genome? Or gene patenting? These scientific discoveries and technological applications are not--and could not have been--addressed in the Bible because they are new innovations in human life. In such cases, what does it mean to take a biblical perspective on these issues, or to develop biblical moral norms? What should Bible-oriented Christians and Christian scholars do when they run into moral issues that the Bible does not and cannot address with clear moral injunctions?

This is a question that has occupied the attention of a number of biblical scholars and Christian ethicists in recent decades. An entire sub-literature in these two overlapping fields has developed in order to explore the broad question of how the Bible should be interpreted by Christians in shaping the moral life, and the more narrow issue of how to employ the Scriptures in relation to moral challenges not addressed in Scripture.2 As far as I can determine in my review of Christian bioethical literature so far, the "Bible and ethics" discussion of the past 25 years or so remains largely unknown among bioethicists. It is not difficult to understand why this is so, given the difficulty of keeping up with developments within bioethics proper. However, this lack of awareness has perhaps contributed to certain weaknesses in the bioethics offered by evangelical Christians to this point. I have observed the following patterns:

Some try to retain the reflexive pattern of applying biblical injunctions by appealing to biblical texts that are dubiously interpreted as speaking directly to the issue at hand. One example of this tendency is seen with regard to the issue of abortion. It would certainly be a welcome thing if the Bible contained the kind of explicit ban on abortion that is found in the Didache. But alas there is none to be found. Therefore, most evangelicals build an anti-abortion case by citing texts such as Psalm 22: 9-10, 51:5, 139:13-16; Jeremiah 1:5; and Luke 1:41-44. These passages celebrate the very origins of life in the womb and acknowledge life as a divine creation. They affirm the awesome goodness of God and God's creation. They indicate that God has a purpose for every human life and makes plans for his people even before they are born. These texts are certainly relevant to abortion; however, they do not address the issue directly, a fact routinely pointed out by those who reject the pro-life position. Working from these citations is probably not the best way to make the case against abortion.3 By extension, the problem is all the more acute when Scripture is stretched to apply to issues even more remote from biblical times, such as genetic engineering and cloning.

Either because the effort to apply biblical texts to issues about which the Bible is silent is deemed not to work, or as a supplement to such efforts, evangelicals sometimes deal with this problem by importing some other way of resolving the moral issue, often without acknowledging having done so. On issues such as abortion or homosexuality, for example, conservative Protestants will sometimes employ the natural law tradition to buttress their biblical claims. This is a rich and fruitful tradition that offers considerable resources for contemporary Christian bioethics. But it is also a complex tradition, which has found its home in the Roman Catholic Church rather than within Protestantism, which historically has tended to view it with suspicion. It is methodologically incoherent to graft the conclusions drawn from Catholic natural law theory into evangelical ethical arguments, especially if stripped of the philosophical, theological, and ecclesiological context within which natural law theory generally functions.4

But even this move is better than what sometimes occurs. Lacking clear biblical authorities, and abandoning alternative ethical methods, Christians may actually arrive at their positions through gut instinct, political loyalties, self-interest, or some other altogether dubious basis for a Christian moral conviction. We just "know" the right position on an issue because it is the way "our kind of people," or our employers, or our opinion leaders, or our instincts, direct us. Everyone must acknowledge the power of such factors in their decision-making, but we certainly cannot settle for this assortment of factors as an ethical methodology.

Difficulties with deriving moral norms directly from biblical texts actually reveal a vulnerability in evangelical ethical method that transcends bioethical issues and that has been noticed by observers outside of our tradition for many years. Any Christian moral tradition that hopes to remain at all relevant to contemporary society must devise a way of addressing a whole range of moral issues that the Bible does not directly mention. Lacking such, we are vulnerable to the misuse of Scripture and/or the importation of alien methods, ideologies, or influences to fill the gap. More radically, a failure to find a way to address the gap between "then" and "now" may lead some thoughtful evangelicals to finally reject the validity of a biblically-oriented approach to morality in favor of models drawn from other Christian or non-Christian moral traditions. Rather than creating or exhausting this vulnerability, the field of bioethics has simply revealed it with acute clarity. Thus, to sharpen our approach to bioethical methodology will not only help improve our bioethics but also our general ethical method--and our everyday moral decision-making.

The Turn to Principles and Theological Motifs

My preliminary survey of substantive bioethical reflection from inside the Christian community (and sometimes from religiously committed thinkers in other faith-traditions) reveals that the methodological challenge I have sketched is being met more adequately through a turn to moral principles and a rendering of broader theological motifs grounded in particular ways of reading central scriptural narratives.

The lack of direct biblical moral injunctions requires those who are interested in what Scripture says to read the Bible in a different way. Rather than looking for what is not there, scholars are forced back from the moral injunction level to other types of scriptural moral resources. Let me illustrate what I mean by adapting a chart concerning ethical methodology that appears in the book Kingdom Ethics, a book that I co-authored with Glen Stassen of Fuller Seminary.5

Each human being makes moral judgments regularly. Deciding what I/we should do about X, right now, requires a moral judgment in a particular case or situation. Unless we make all of our moral judgments idiosyncratically, however, particular decisions are usually rooted in some structure of moral norms. Moving one level down to rules, we find one element of this structure. A moral rule is a concrete action-guide that applies not just to one immediate case but to all relevantly similar cases. It tells us concretely what to do or not to do. "You shall not lie." "You shall not commit adultery." "You shall not murder." One increasingly pressing need in the bioethics community is to discern whether moral rules related to biotechnology can be developed. If so, we will then have a basis for judgments that we should make about particular biotech applications in individual life or in society.6

But rules themselves are not freestanding. While legalists often function as if rules provide their own warrant, underneath sound moral rules are broader moral principles. Though the distinction between rules and principles is not always easy to draw, principles are one level more general and deeper than rules: they do not tell us concretely and specifically what to do. They provide a basis for the rules that we do develop, and any well-founded rule spells out direct applications of more general principles. So the rule against lying to a patient is grounded in principles such as respect for persons, for patient autonomy, and for truthfulness itself. Rules against adultery are grounded in respect for marital covenants and for the sanctity of the institution of the family. Rules against killing are grounded in respect for human life and bodily integrity, among other principles.

There is yet a deeper level, which I refer to as the "basic convictions" level. It is quite popular in evangelical circles today to label this the "worldview" level. Whatever it is called, it has to do with our most fundamental beliefs about ultimate matters and/or our fundamental basis for making moral decisions. When framed theologically, these are the answers we give to such fundamental questions as where we come from, who we are, what is wrong with us, how what is wrong can be addressed (if it can), and where we and the world are going. In other words, here we have doctrines of creation, humanity, sin, salvation, ethics, and eschatology. General ethical theories include utilitarianism, Kantian deontology, virtue theory, natural law theory, and others. Sometimes such theories have themselves been explicitly grounded in some kind of theological approach; other times they have been presented on a stand-alone basis.

If it is possible to identify a rock-bottom foundation for all moral reasoning, it is found here. To the extent that moral rules and principles are rationally grounded and coherently related to one's life and worldview, they seem to work in the way I am outlining. Basic worldview/theological convictions or general ethical theories generate key moral principles, which then lead to concrete moral rules, and finally to judgments in immediate situations and particular cases. Or, working with the same model but from the other direction, one could say that particular judgments can reveal a person's functioning moral rules. These rules, when examined, often give evidence of a set of principles that undergird them.7 And these principles are ultimately grounded in a person's foundational convictions or worldview, whether consciously articulated or not.

The Bible itself gives evidence of this four-level structure of moral norms. It contains numerous particular judgments, often embedded in historical narratives or commentary upon them. It offers a raft of moral commands and rules of varying strength, most frequently in Old Testament legal materials but in the New Testament as well. Sifting through these moral rules and commands, one can sometimes find statements of overarching moral principles, such as justice and neighbor-love (cf. Mt. 22:36-40). And in the scriptures, all moral norms for God's people are ultimately grounded in the character and will of a good and sovereign God.

The task I set for myself in this paper was to begin to discover how Christians (especially evangelical or "biblical" Christians) should go about discerning reliable answers to the moral questions raised by biotechnology, by offering a preliminary analysis of patterns of ethical methodology among Christians weighing in on contemporary biotechnology debates. I find that while some Christians are attempting the impossible by "applying" biblical moral injunctions to contemporary issues not addressed by them, more sophisticated thinkers are doing what must be done if one would bring an ancient sacred text to bear on brand-new moral problems: pushing deeper to the level of moral principle, and beyond that to foundational biblical motifs that for centuries have shaped the way believers understand God, the world, and the human condition. The ultimate kinds of questions and challenges humanity is facing today are perhaps inevitably evoking in biblically literate scholars a return to Christianity's ultimate primordial texts. It is perhaps, then, not such a disadvantage that biotechnology issues cannot be found in any biblical lexicon or word study book, as this silence forces us back to a profound wrestling with the most fundamental moral and theological affirmations of biblical faith.


1 A point very nicely made by Nigel Cameron early in the development of a renewed Christian bioethics. See "The Christian Stake in Bioethics," in John F. Kilner et al.eds., Bioethics and the Future of Medicine (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), ch. 1.

2 Some of the key works, in the order of their publication: David H. Kelsey, The Uses of Scripture in Recent Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975); Thomas W. Ogletree, The Use of the Bible in Christian Ethics (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983); Robert K. Johnston, ed., The Use of the Bible in Theology: Evangelical Options(Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1985); Bruce C. Birch and Larry L. Rasmussen, Bible and Ethics in the Christian Life, rev. ed. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1989); Stephen E. Fowl and L. Gregory Jones, Reading in Communion: Scripture and Ethics in Christian Life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991); Luke Timothy Johnson,Scripture and Discernment: Decision Making in the Church (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996); Jeffrey S. Siker, Scripture and Ethics: Twentieth Century Portraits (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997); Paul Jersild, Spirit Ethics: Scripture and the Moral Life (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000)--here the author includes a chapter on genetic ethics to test his method; Charles H. Cosgrove, Appealing to Scripture in Moral Debate: Five Hermeneutical Rules (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002).

3 This claim is explored further, and (we hope) a sound biblical argument against abortion offered, in Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2003), ch. 10. For a somewhat different view, see Francis J. Beckwith, Politically Correct Death: Answering Arguments for Abortion Rights (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993).

4 I am not claiming that Protestants cannot employ natural law theory with theological/ethical integrity, or that it is an approach that somehow belongs to the Catholic tradition alone. Catholics themselves make no such claim. My argument is simply that evangelical Protestants, in particular, tend to be unschooled in natural law theory and therefore must be cautious in importing its conclusions--especially if they are unwilling to accept its premises. For a broad discussion and defense of natural law, see J. Budziszewski, Written on the Heart: The Case for Natural Law (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1997).

5 Kingdom Ethics, ch. 5.

6 Beauchamp and Childress rightly point out that such rules take a variety of forms: they can be substantive, authority, or procedure rules (Principles, pp. 13-14). They can also specify standard and accepted practices that embody any or all of these types of moral rules.

7 "Inductivist" moral theorists argue that judgments in particular cases do not reveal already functioning moral rules and broader principles, but instead that such rules and principles are actually derivative generalizations from insights gained in struggling with particularly important cases. See Principles, pp. 391-397. While I believe that both sources of moral insight are significant, I am unwilling to weaken the role of actual principles and rules too much, either at a normative level or a metaethical one.