Science in Christian Perspective
THE BIBLE AS GENETIC CODE:
A HELPFUL ANALOGY
Departments of Applied Mathematics and Mechanical Engineering
University of Manitoba Winnipeg, Canada R3T 2N2
From: PSCF 38 (March
What does the Bible do in the church? This novel question is given one of its possible answers in this communication by using the notion of genetic coding. Genetic codes, whose unravelling has lately raised both hopes and fears of biological possibilities, are codes in a special sense;' that is, the sequences of amino acids in the famous double helix of DNA are codes in the sense of Morse code. It might be simpler to speak of the genetic alphabet, whose sequences "spell out" the differences among genes, an analogy offered in the 1970 edition of The Encyclopedia of the Biological Sciences (art. Genetics). The term code, however, seems rapidly to have become fixed in biological use. In order to exploit this notion in looking at the Bible, it is vital to examine a biological analogy that is part of the Bible itself. In terms of this analogy between the Church and a biological population, the genetic role of the Bible will be introduced. My exploitation of this notion will be limited to reflections on how this view relates to the study of the Bible and how genetic mutations can be interpreted in the analogy. Finally, one of the limitations of the analogy will be mentioned. A second Biblical biological analogy, to which some of the same reflections are relevant, is noted in an appendix.
The primary Biblical biological analogy is the notion of a people with a common ancestor, which is used of the Jews throughout the Old Testament and, less naturally, of Christians in the New. Paul is stating no more than the truth when he writes (Rom. 9:8) "that it is not physical descent that decides who are the children of God; it is only the children of the promise who will count as the true descendants." Conversely one could become a Jew. The "people" of the Jews were only analogous to a people with a common ancestor. The Gospel of Matthew contains the clear suggestion that the people of Israel are not indispensable to the purposes of God (Matt. 8:11 and 21:43). And other texts indicate either that Christians have been grafted onto the old Israel (Acts 15:14-18, quoting LXX Amos 9:11-12, and Eph. 2:19) or have replaced the old Israel (Rom. 9:25, quoting Hos. 2:25; Col. 3:12; Gal. 3:7 and 29; and pre-eminently I Pet. 2:9) though it is not completely clear in every case which of the two relations to the old Israel is meant. In this notion there is much that is organic and much that is being lost by the use of "people" for "persons." The idea of Christians as a people, with all of its Old Testament overtones of Israel as the descendants of Israel (Jacob), has been made use of not so much by the New Testament writers as by Christian readers of the Old Testament. Nevertheless, it is well established as a standard, Biblically based, view of the Church.
Thinking then of the Church as the spiritual descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Israel), we can treat the question, what does the Bible do in the Church? As I have just said we, as Christians, are descendants in an extraordinary way, "born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:13). New birth in baptism is not the only way in which each one's incorporation into the people of God differs from the development of an individual in a family tree. A substantial part of what a person is like is determined by a genetic code that is itself physically embodied in a fundamental part-if not the fundamental part-of one's two original cells. The people of God need genetic material too, and I suggest that the genetic code of the Church is physically embodied in the Bible. Christians are incorporated into the people of God, and they live their life in that people. It is essential that each of us belongs to the people and not be just visiting aliens. This characteristic is not provided in a natural physical way. The Bible, as a genetic code, is what keeps us true-to-type. If we did not have the Bible, but merely tried to be Christians by imitating our predecessors, the making of Christians, not only by adult conversion but even by upbringing, would be comparable in fidelity to passing on a rumor.
This way of looking at the Bible says something about the study of it. If we remove the genetic material from a cell, then we have a number of chemicals that can be and are studied using standard chemical techniques. This gives us information that we would otherwise not have, with its own unique value. On the other hand, genetic material can be studied without removing it, and then molecular biology is able to do things and learn things that transcend chemistry, as literary studies transcend grammar, without reducing the value of the chemical studies. The Bible can be removed from the lectern 2 and studied in a variety of ways-by literary critics, by textual critics, by anthropologists, by historiansin the standard ways appropriate to such studies. These give us information that we would otherwise not have, some of it with value for us as Christians and some of it with other value. On the other hand, the Bible can be left, as I have put it metaphorically, on the lectern and studied as the physical embodiment of the central core of the tradition that includes sacraments, creeds, hymns-all the manifestations of the faith and order of the Church surrounding the lectern. The understanding of the Bible left on the lectern transcends what anthropologists, historians, and literary critics as such can say about it, because it is then being understood in its function rather than abstracted. One might say that even the higher criticism is not high enough even if it is critical enough. But this does not at all devalue the labors of, for example, textual critics any more than molecular biology is likely to replace analytical chemistry. It just gives us a perspective, a needed perspective (cf. E. L. Mascall, 1977).
Another consequence of the removal of the Bible from the lectern with its interpretative surroundings is that it then can be used, like the hypothetical wayward genes which have caused so much excitement, to produce non-Christians. It is my understanding that the Jehovah's Witnesses use the Christian Bible but wrench it from its traditional context. Still fulfilling formally -the same role, it is acting as the genetic material for a rather different religion, just as, for that matter, Jews might regard the role of what we call the Old Testament in the Christian Church. These examples serve to illustrate the crucial importance of the impact of extra-Biblical environment on the Bible's functioning.
A reflection that illustrates the usefulness of the geneticcode view of the Bible's function and also the fact that it is only the core of the genetic material is the interpretation of mutations. The differences among Monophysites, Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Anglicans and the range of Protestants do not center on their Bibles, although they do differ rather unimportantly. In spite of the common core these groups manage to reproduce true-to-type within their different clans, as one might call them. Nevertheless because of the common core they all manage to recognize one another as parts of the people of God and to communicate with one another in a wide variety of ecumenical contexts, although only within the context of this century (cf. the amazing convergence represented by the document Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry). One of the most serious obstacles to the furtherance of this process is the substantial collection of documentary material produced by Roman Catholics between the Councils of Trent and Vatican 11 and accorded by them and only by them a status that in practice if not in theory competes with Scripture. Without these documents, a kind of interbreeding could more readily take place-as it has among some Protestant groups-quietly erasing distinctions residing outside the common core. These quasi-scriptural documents could be viewed as a mutant expansion of the common core, but that analogy should be kept to the actual addition of non-interpretative material by, for example, Joseph Smith or Mary Baker Eddy. The addition of what is meant to have a scriptural authority tends to produce new religions like Mormonism or Christian Science, a new species which cannot interbreed with that from which it sprang.
A feature of the Bible-based reproduction of Christians that I want to note is based on one of the differences from natural reproduction. Most members of species are reproduced and do not know it. We know and care that we have the code, a visible link with the apostolic Church and the old Israel. It matters to me that this code was evolved over a considerable period of time as the religion of Israel was converted through the agency of such men as Jeremiah into the inter-testamental basis for the Gospel. The New Testament is the coding of what Christianity adds because it evolved with Christianity as God created them both together. There is no chicken and egg problem about the Church and the New Testament. Both the formation of the community and of the texts were inspired by God-it was the same inspiration. We talk about the inspiration of St. Paul's epistles because they are what we have available, not because we doubt the inspiration of the writer of the word of God or of the readers that recognized it as the word of God. The view that the community's consensus was expressed in the New Testament and that the writings of the New Testament helped to form that consensus is my way of putting, in the terms of this communication, some ideas of the late Karl Rahner. For me they fit well with the biological analogy and apply equally well to the Old and New Testaments. I can see no justification for separating the inspiration of the writer and the inspiration of the writer's text, or even any clear reason for doing so (cf. I. H. Marshall, 1982). 1 want to conclude by remarking that I hope the biological members of the ASA will forgive the above musings of a mathematician. They will of course see ways that I do not see in which the Bible functions genetically and see more clearly than I other ways in which the analogy breaks down. That it breaks down is obvious; all analogies do. But it seems to me that understanding something is primarily an appreciation of its analogies. And so in offering the above analogy I make no apology for its limitations, regretting only my inability to explore them more effectively. In particular, if the Bible functions as the matter of the genetic process in the Church, what in the Church corresponds to what is called epigenesis in biology?
Perhaps a place to look for part of the answer to this question is the other biological analogy to which the Bible as genetic code is relevant: Paul's doctrine that the Church is the resurrection body of Christ (e.g., I Cor. 12:27). The late J. A. T. Robinson, long before his Honest to God notoriety, explored this doctrine as a Biblical scholar in his little book The Body. As he points out, we are completely familiar with the idea of a body corporate and are probably unaware of how novel the idea of such a body of Christ was to Paul's readers. Paul does not, note, ever refer to a body of Christians as we might to a body of marchers. This is a very physical notion indeed, and a vivid metaphor that has paled with time. Paul says that we are "limbs" (/AgM7) of that body, which is usually translated "members," bringing our thoughts back to a body corporate (Epb. 5:30) like a club or company. That is certainly not Paul's intention; Robinson points out' that the graphic "description of Christians as 'joints' and 'ligaments' actually occurs in Col. 2:19; cf. Eph. 4:16. Professor C. H. Dodd' suggests 'organs' as the modern equivalent of piXn." The force of Paul's metaphor is sapped also by the obvious fact that there are now so many Christians; even a millipede does not really have a thousand feet. If we are going to feel the force of Paul's striking imagery, we are almost forced to think of ourselves as "cells" rather than members or even organs, the smallest parts of a body that we can identify with, fortunately endowed with a certain amount of functional differentiation, and reproduced true-to-type through their body's genetic code.
2. In speaking of the Bible "on the lectern," I amusing a spatial metaphor to symbolize all the actual uses of the Bible by the Church, definitely including its private study by Christiaus.3. Robinson, 1952, p. 51n.
Gray, P., ed., 1970, The Encyclopedia of the Biological Sciences, 2nd ed., New York and London: Van Nostrand Reinhold.
Marshall, 1. H., 1982, Biblical Inspiration, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans.
Mascall, E. L., 1977, Theology and the Gospel of Christ, London: SPCK. Robinson, J. A. T., 1952, The Body, London: SCM Press.---,1963, Honest to God, London: SCM Press.
World Council of Churches, 1982, Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (Faith and Order Paper No. 111), Geneva: WCC.