Essay Review


Toward Responsible Christian Stewardship

Richard H. Bube*

Stanford University
Stanford, California 94305

 From Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 47 (December 1995): 264.

ON BEHALF OF GOD: A Christian Ethic for Biology by Bruce R. Reichenbach and V. Elving Anderson. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995. 348 pages, bibliography, index. Paperback.

This book is part of a series "Studies in a Christian World View" that focuses on the relationship of Christianity to the various academic disciplines, in this case to the science of biology. The two authors, well equipped by training and experience to deal with the multiplicity of issues involved in the topic of a Christian ethic for biology, have collaborated to produce a rich and challenging overview of many of the most challenging ethical issues encountered in today's world.

Bruce R. Reichenbach is Professor of Philosophy at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, and V. Elving Anderson is Professor Emeritus of Genetics at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. After an introductory discussion of science as a human way of knowing, they develop an ethic of stewardship based on the biblical commands to fill, rule over, and care for creation. They then apply this ethic to the major ethical issues relating to the biological sciences: the environment, reproductive technology, and genetic engineering. Next they explore the ethics of the process of knowing itself and how this relates to doing, and consider a variety of issues involving brains, genes, moral responsibility, and human sexuality. The general thrust of the book is to provide the framework within which responsible Christian stewardship can be lived out, and to provide insights into the most critical questions and typical answers given by others to date. The reader is then "sent forth" not usually with the final answers to critical issues, but with the background and understanding to seek those answers while avoiding naive or mistaken approaches. "Our solutions," the authors write, "are not meant to be dogmatic; rather, they are intended to stimulate further discussion."

The authors recognize the difficulty in defining their ethical choices in a simple and straightforward way from the Bible itself.

 It is often difficult, if not impossible, to find explicit statements regarding many of the moral problems we face. This applies, though not uniquely, to biological ethics....the Bible never explicitly considers the ethics of many biological issues, such as abortion, in vitro fertilization, genetic engineering, use of pesticides, tropical deforestation, species preservation, fetal and animal research, genetic variability or the basis for alcoholism, schizophrenia or sexual orientation. require the moral judgment to be explicitly biblical introduces the danger of making the biblical authors say something they really did not say about a topic they never addressed.

The authors attempt to build a Christian paradigm from biblical guidelines to arrive at ethical decisions. The ethical paradigm used to express concerns in the subsequent discussion is drawn from three commands found in the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2: (1) to fill, interpreted primarily qualitatively, rather than quantitatively, with the implication that we have the obligation to "improve where possible both the environment and the human condition;" (2) to rule over: as God's representatives we have the obligation to gain "both knowledge and control over the earth and its inhabitants;" (3) to care for: those things ruled over on behalf of God. One key aspect of this paradigm is that "it provides a basis for moral standing....Something is good because God, who is the ground of values, values it."

At the conclusion of the discussion on environmental ethics, the authors emphasize that ethics concerning the environment cannot be separated from ethics in other aspects of human life. Their conclusion is that "Conservation of the tropical forests must include measures to control human population growth, to find family-sustaining jobs for the disenfranchised rural poor, and to curb the developed world's exploitation of the developing world's resources." Any environmental ethic must tie into "a broader ethic that considers social, economic, political and spiritual problems and obligations."

After a careful analysis of the issues involved in assisted reproduction, the authors conclude that there "seems to be no general human right to bear or father children that creates in others the obligation to fulfill that right," that "to consciously and intentionally undertake a pregnancy, knowing that there will only be one parent there, is questionable morally," and that selective implantation, involving indirect killing of unused fertilized ova, is not to be viewed as equivalent to abortion. Their consideration of surrogate leads to the conclusion "not that surrogacy is immoral or that it ought to be prohibited outright, but all other human actions, it is fraught with dangers and complications." In their discussion of abortion, they make use of the concept of a pre-embryo and conclude that "a pre-embryo is a long way from being a human person." They follow with the clear statement, "This suggests that we should abandon the painful search for a clear point of discontinuity and instead adopt a developmental or gradualist view, according to which the respect due to the pre-embryo, embryo, or fetus is appropriate to its stage of development." The experimental use of pre-embryos for seeking solutions to human problems is judged acceptable if the pre-embryos were not generated specifically for this purpose alone.

After a careful consideration of the various aspects of the human genome project, the authors point out two critical misperceptions: (1) that genetic therapy will resolve all human medical and behavioral problems, and (2) that mapping the human genome will remove individual responsibility for human behavior. After a perceptive chapter on "Knowing and Doing," the authors return to consider "Brains, Genes and Moral Responsibility." They discuss the genetic basis for alcoholism and schizophrenia, the general validity of the self-excusing claim that my genes and my environment made me do it, and a careful analysis of the different models proposed for reconciling the perspectives of free agency necessary for moral responsibility and those of the scientific disciplines emphasizing the biological causes.

Finally the authors consider the issues related to sexuality and remind us of a fundamental conclusion recently gained: "sexual identity lies on a continuum shaped much like a barbell." They then explore the implications for topics such as the purposes of sexuality, population control, singleness, and the basis for sexual orientation. Concerning the issue of homosexuality they conclude that persons are not morally responsible for their genetic predisposition to a particular sexual orientation, but are responsible about how they live this orientation out. This discussion then leads to one on the nature of sexually transmitted diseases and a variety of issues involving AIDS.

This book provides an excellent foundation for further exploration of these issues by Christians. It is a valuable contribution to the ongoing efforts to understand what authentic stewardship requires of human beings.