BY: COURTNEY CAMPBELL, PhD
Dr. Campbell is professor and director, Program for Ethics, Science, and
the Environment, Department of Philosophy, Oregon State University, Corvallis,
James F. Drane, PhD, calls for a dialogue among the religious, research,
and policy communities concerning the ethics of technological innovation in
an Ethics of Technology," ). This essay explores some themes and questions
that Protestant Christianity might bring to such a dialogue.
The Theological Background: Four Strands of Protestant Thought
The influential theologians of the Protestant Reformation, such as Martin Luther
(1483-1546) and John Calvin (1509-1564), made a sharp distinction between God,
on one hand, and nature (including human nature), on the other. In their view,
all value is derived from the divine being. Human beings, having experienced
the dramatic and enduring consequences of the fall from divine grace, have been
divested of ultimate value and stand in need of redemption and reconciliation.
One result of this line of thought was, to borrow Max Weber's memorable phrase,
the "disenchantment of the world" — the loosening of nature's ancient hold on
human attitudes and actions.1 Nature could no longer evoke precisely
those sentiments of awe and reverence that Professor Drane deems essential for
the grounding of moral restraints on human manipulation of the world, including
technological innovation. During the Industrial Revolution, people came to see
nature as a realm open to the rationalized reductionism of science and technology.
Protestant theology had sought to return God to the fore of human consciousness.
Ironically, however, success in the manipulation of nature has instead tended
to make people skeptical about the existence of God.
Protestant thought does share Professor Drane's belief in the necessity of
a moral critique of biotechnology. Equating technology with "progress" — and both
with "good" — violates what Paul Tillich referred to as "the Protestant principle":
Avoid the human propensity to absolutize the relative.2 Nonetheless,
there is no such thing as a Protestant body of opinion on biotechnology. A range
of Protestant perspectives can be identified on almost any moral question of
consequence. Such moral pluralism is consistent with Protestantism's historical
emphasis on Christian liberty and freedom of conscience. Pluralism can also
be seen in Protestant approaches to biotechnology. Assessments span the spectrum,
from hostility to biotechnology as an arrogant intrusion upon God's created
order, on one hand, to a celebration of biotechnology as a beneficial means
of partnership with God in continuing creation, on the other.
Much of this ambivalence, caution, and pluralism is the result of the tension
that Protestantism sees in the biblical creation narrative. God gave humanity
dual mandates: to cultivate and care for the earth. The mandate
to care implies grateful acceptance for life and its possibilities; it endorses
the conservation and preservation of such gifts. The mandate to cultivate, however,
implies the use of human creativity to enhance the quality of human life and
to realize human possibilities. Care and cultivation can be understood as regulative
moral norms in the Protestant understanding of nature and its manipulation by
technology. Care and cultivation provide a moral structure for both justifying
and limiting biotechnology.
Protestantism has four basic views concerning humanity's relationship to nature.
One strand of Protestant thought emphasizes a noninterventionist, passive posture.
This view does not claim that nature, being intrinsically good, should be left
as a kind of sacred preserve of the divine glory. It sees nature, like all creation,
as fallen from its pristine Edenic state. But human beings, because of their
finitude and fallibility, are through technological interventions likely to
make matters worse rather than better. People are particularly limited with
respect to predicting, controlling, and assessing the outcomes of actions they
initiate. This is especially problematic in the realm of biotechnology because — as
Professor Drane astutely observes — prudence in such cases requires the adequate
assessment of innovations that are without precedent in human experience and
whose consequences will accrue over long periods of time. Prudence, in short,
requires seeing into the future, which is beyond human capability. When human
aspirations exceed human capabilities, they run the risk of the sin of pride
or hubris — of "playing God."
This strand of Protestant thought says that, in the general balance of care
and cultivation, special emphasis should be laid on the side of carefulness,
lest overreaching aspiration generate moral myopia. The mandate to care has
priority over the mandate to cultivate. Put another way, the moral imperative
is, first, to do no harm. Seeking the fruits of technological progress is morally
optional. This school of thought admonishes biotechnological researchers to
be cautious — even, perhaps, to discontinue some projects — to protect humanity
and the world from unforeseen consequences and slippery slopes.
If nonintervention may be said to represent one pole of Protestant thought
about biotechnology, the other pole is represented by anthropocentric domination,
which emphasizes the mandate to cultivate, even to the neglect of caring. In
addition, because it emphasizes humanity's distinctive status — creation in the
image of God — this school of thought believes that human beings should be the
primary beneficiaries of the cultivation of nature. Ontology, in this case,
implies moral superiority: Humans are not just the culmination of creation,
but also its measure and purpose. Thus this school believes that human beings
have divine permission to use the resources at their disposal, including the
natural resources of the earth and their own intellectual and creative potential,
to improve human welfare.
The anthropocentric domination school of thought shares with the nonintervention
school the view that the world and nature are fallen. But it differs from the
other in two important respects. In the anthropocentric domination perspective,
a fallen world invites improvement, perhaps even enhancement. This view supports
efforts to cultivate biotechnology to improve the quality of human life. It
transforms the world into a realm of what Professor Drane calls "conditional
necessity." Nature, when seen this way, can provide no normative guidance or
natural moral law with which humans should comply. Human finitude and fallibility
are less restraining than in the nonintervention view. And, indeed, the historical
record seems to bear out the value of a cultivation ethic. Humanity has — through
the sustained investigation, understanding, and manipulation of nature — made
dramatic improvements in its health and welfare, particularly over the past
century in medicine. The anthropocentric domination perspective expresses confidence
that biotechnological interventions will culminate in benefits rather than harm
and that accompanying risks will be controlled and minimized.
Anthropocentric domination thinking has been influential not just in Protestantism.
It has also provided a legitimating basis for the scientific and industrial
revolutions that have now brought most of nature under human mastery. But this
school of thought has also received sustained philosophical criticism. In a
very influential 1967 essay, Lynn White, Jr., laid the blame for the ecological
crisis precisely at the door of the anthropocentric domination school of Protestant
Christianity. In White's view, the school "not only established a dualism of
man and nature but also insisted that it is God's will that man exploit nature
for his proper ends."3 The anthropocentric domination perspective
commonly seems to be reflected in and perpetuated by contemporary innovations
There is little question but that this viewpoint is compatible with the biblical
injunction to humanity to cultivate the earth. But the mandate to cultivate
is not unlimited. It should be directed and constrained by the mandate to care,
with its emphasis on protection, preservation, and conservation. Moreover, cultivation
is also limited by the injunction to be responsible and accountable before God.
An anthropocentric account of human dominion may not be as faithful to Protestant
Scripture and teaching as other interpretations.4
A perspective that seeks a more balanced response to the mandates of care and
cultivation has historically been designated as stewardship or trusteeship.
A stewardship ethic can be found in the Protestant themes of authority, agency,
and accountability. According to this school, God gave humanity both authority
(or dominion) over nature and the moral freedom to make choices regarding the
use of natural resources. However, such choices should reflect a concern for
the common good, which, contrary to the view expressed in anthropocentric domination,
is not coextensive with what is good for human beings. Moreover, this dominion
is intrinsically connected to assuming accountability before God for the choices
made. As stewards of life and the earth, human beings have been entrusted with
the task of balancing the mandates of care and cultivation so that they may
render service to others and, ultimately, to God.
The stewardship perspective tries to maintain a responsible balance of the
dual mandates. This view both justifies biotechnological interventions, on the
grounds of improving the world and human welfare, and limits those interventions
when they overreach these goals. Responsible stewardship recognizes that both
benefits and harm can occur through human technologies, and that making decisions
about whether and when to use technology under the human conditions of finitude
and fallibility is complex and permeated by genuine ethical uncertainties and
dilemmas. Thus, although biotechnology can be justified, good reasons must be
offered in its support, and constraints must be acknowledged and adhered to.
This perspective sees in responsible stewardship a profound kinship between
humans, on one hand, and the earth and its creatures, on the other. Indeed,
as its adherents like to point out, the words "human" and "earth" share a common
etymological root: "humus." Human beings are thus "earth creatures," created
by God, to be sure, but of the dust of the earth. This commonality should bring
to people an awareness of interdependence, mutuality, and humility that would
preclude the attitude of conquest found in the anthropocentric domination perspective.
The stewardship perspective arguably expresses the most compelling Protestant
normative position, one consonant with Professor Drane's argument against a
technological imperative without moral limits. A steward is by definition grateful
for the munificence bestowed by the Creator and by past generations. This gratitude,
in turn, imposes certain expectations in both attitude and conduct on both the
steward and his or her descendants. The steward is accountable to God and to
the human community, and this accountability entails moral limits on technological
The stewardship perspective affirms that human beings are authorized agents
of God in the world, but the purposes for which the earth is to be cared for
and cultivated are by and large given by divine design. Human beings are entrusted
to select responsible means for the realization of these purposes. The partnership
perspective, by contrast, emphasizes a much more active and engaged role for
human beings in shaping these ultimate purposes.
The partnership view assumes that creation did not end at some point in prehistory
but is instead a dynamic, ongoing process in which human beings participate
as "created cocreators" with God. This view holds that human and bioecological
destiny are not predetermined but shaped contextually. In his book, The New
Genesis, the title of which symbolizes a sense of new beginnings, Ronald
Cole-Turner writes, "Human work, especially our technology, may be seen as a
partnership with God in the continuing work of creation. . . . [O]ur genetic
engineering has the potential for being an extension of the work of God."5
Although this perspective has appeared in Protestant thought only relatively
recently, it has received thoughtful exposition in the context of genetics and
ecology not only by Cole-Turner but also by such writers as Philip Hefner and
Ted Peters.6 The partnership perspective seems likely to be increasingly
influential in dialogues among representatives of the religious, scientific,
and biotechnological communities. Partnership models rely more heavily on scientific
views of cosmology than do their Protestant predecessors, which were largely
formulated within biblically shaped worldviews.
The British theologian Arthur Peacock has articulated the analogical and substantive
meaning of partnership in a way that highlights its differences from the stewardship
model. "It is," he writes, "as if man has the possibility of acting as a participant
in creation, as it were the leader of the orchestra in the performance which
is God's continuing composition. . . . [M]an now has, at his present stage of
intellectual, cultural, and social evolution, the opportunity of consciously
becoming co-creator and co-worker with God in his work on Earth,
and perhaps even a little beyond Earth."7
Indeed, Peacocke sees human beings as existing within a cosmos whose designs
and purposes are known neither by them nor by God. To him, in fact, people are
coexplorers with God. Such a perspective is certainly compatible with,
and provides theological justification for, biotechnology in its manifold applications.
Biotechnology, in this view, might be described as the lead violin in the great
orchestra that is creation.
Applying Biotechnology: Transgenics and Human Cloning
Protestant thinkers and communities have certainly welcomed many biotechnological
innovations, particularly those that improve human health (e.g., genetically
engineered human insulin). Such efforts to alleviate or cure disease are commonly
seen as divine creativity and redemption expressing itself through the imaginative
instrumentality of human beings. With very few exceptions, biotechnological
developments are not suspect in Protestant theology. Especially when viewed
from a partnership perspective, biotechnology can be theologically praiseworthy
and even morally required. Nonetheless, given their historical theological commitments,
Protestant thinkers do raise questions about biotechnology's purposes and the
control of its application.
Indeed, some scholars have suggested that "control" itself is fundamental
to the biotechnological enterprise, in the sense that it seeks to diminish human
vulnerability to the capriciousness of the natural world. At the same time,
some Protestant thinkers ask whether scientists conduct their research and biotechnological
applications with intellectual humility — with, that is, a sufficiently deep sense
of humanity's dependence on powers beyond its control. Or have these virtues
perhaps been effaced by scientists' tendency to emphasize human accomplishment
and mastery of nature?
The issue of human control is thus one that cuts across both substantive and
procedural questions. Two biotechnological innovations, transgenics and cloning,
illustrate a range of views among contemporary Protestant thinkers.
Protestantism does not generally grant plants and animals the theological and
moral status it grants human beings, but it does place them in the domain of
responsible human dominion. Some thinkers thus object to, or at least question,
the insertion of genes from one plant or animal species into those of another
species, the result being a transgenic organism. Transgenic biotechnology,
they say, violates the order of creation by manipulating genetic information
for purposes not intended in the origins of plant and animal life.
Other Protestant thinkers see the issue differently. Some note that Jesus,
portrayed in Scripture as a healer in nature, provides human beings with a model
to emulate as created cocreators. Cole-Turner, for example, invokes the healer
image in support of the genetic alteration of plants to enhance disease-resistance
traits. Human beings, he argues, can participate in the divine ordering by enhancing
the usefulness of plants (and also by reducing environmental damage).8
Theological argument about transgenic research may become more critical when
the research is done on animals rather than plants or microorganisms. Some Protestant
writers have cited the creation in the 1980s of transgenic pigs (a process involving
the human growth hormone gene) as an example of the moral risks implicit in
such research. The goal of the research was to develop pigs that, having greater
muscle mass and leaner fat content, would be more commercially desirable than
current breeds. Unfortunately, the transgenic pigs turned out to be excessively
hairy, arthritic, impotent, and lethargic. Theological critics argued that the
research had been conducted without ethical sensitivity to its possible harm
to the animals.
The stakes may become higher yet when transgenic research is applied to the
human genome. Many Protestant theologians are particularly concerned about the
integrity of the human genome, which they see as having a special status because
it was created in the image of God. Hence, according to one writer, "Genetic
information from any other organism which does or did not exist in the human
genome should not be placed within humans."9 However, this position
may be criticized by still other Protestants. First, a prohibition on mixing
genetic information from other species with that of humans would seem to suggest
that human distinctiveness is constituted by genetic differences, rather than
by the mysterious transcendence suggested by the concept of the "image of God."
In this view, preserving human genetic integrity appears bought at a price of
genetic essentialism and theological reductionism, or what one theologian criticizes
as the "gene myth."10 Second, such a position assumes that there
is something inviolable about genetic information, even though human beings
absorb the genetic information of "other organisms" every day in the food they
In any case, it is clear that, whether done on plants, animals, or humans,
transgenic biotechnology causes widely shared concern among Protestant writers.
The successful cloning of sheep and other mammals, which raises the prospect
of human cloning in the near future, has revealed — perhaps more clearly than
any other question in biotechnology — the pluralism of Protestant ethics. Protestant
theologians were invited to testify before the National Bioethics Advisory Commission
established by President Bill Clinton to recommend public policy on human cloning,
and Protestant scholars have begun to contribute to the emerging ethics literature
on the question.11
Still, cloning is not a new question within Protestantism. The Protestant
theologians Joseph Fletcher and Paul Ramsey participated in influential academic
and scientific forums in the 1960s and 1970s, when cloning was first proposed
as a scientific solution to many of the world's ills. Fletcher and Ramsey staked
out diametrically opposed positions. Fletcher saw cloning as an expansion of
human freedom (self-determination) and control over human reproduction. Ramsey
saw it as a moral boundary that medicine and society would cross only at the
risk of compromising humanity and its ability to perpetuate itself. In contemporary
Protestant faith communities, debates concerning cloning's theological meaning
have revolved around several contested themes.
The Sanctity of Life In arguing against human cloning, evangelical
Protestants appeal to the idea of the sanctity of human life. The process of
somatic cell nuclear transfer for the purpose of making a new human being, at
least as demonstrated in current animal studies, would, they say, inevitably
result in loss of human embryonic life. In addition, evangelical thinkers claim
that contemporary societal disregard of the sanctity of human life might lead
to a redefinition of humanity, in which, for instance, cloned people might be
treated as sources of spare organs and tissues for uncloned ones.
Parenthood Conservative and evangelical Protestants also object to
human cloning because they see it as breaking an intrinsic connection between
the unitive and procreative purposes of sexuality as embedded in the biblical
creation narrative. Sexuality is understood to be a divine gift with the twin
purposes of uniting partners through a physical expression of their love and
bringing offspring into the world. In this context, human cloning runs contrary
to the critical biological, emotional, and symbolic connections normally formed
between spouses and between parent and child.
In particular, some Protestants have followed Paul Ramsey in asserting that
the idea of children as "gifts" would be effaced by cloning because a child
resulting from that process would be, not a gift, but a project and projection
of the self.12 These critics fear that cloning might reduce much
of humanity to mere "raw material" out of which an artifice could be designed
and constructed in a human designer's image, rather than in the image of God.
Cloning, in this scenario, would result, not in humanity's enhancement, but
in the enhancement of some humans' power over others.
The Image of God Conservative and evangelical Protestant scholars maintain
that, as bearers of God's image, human beings possess a self-understanding that
distinguishes them from the rest of creation. On one hand, cloning risks devaluing
this status because it implies that genetics is the essence of personhood; on
the other hand, it risks overvaluing the clone because it replicates the valued
characteristics of a person.
By contrast, some mainstream Protestant theologians have argued that human
cloning can express the creative dimensions of the imago Dei,
insofar as those dimensions promote human dignity and welfare.13
Moreover, these writers argue, the Christian vocation of freedom warrants the
pursuit of scientific knowledge when it is coupled with the obligation of accountability
delineated above. Even though sin is an inescapable reality, Christians are
given permission to "sin bravely" in the pursuit of progress, these thinkers
say. Thus, if research on human cloning can establish a reasonable expectation
of benefits and ensure human dignity, then both research and eventually human
cloning seem warranted.
Character Is Key
Protestant thought can celebrate biotechnology because it promises to reveal
more about God's creation, making possible the application of that knowledge
toward human betterment and the betterment of life on this planet. At the same
time, Protestant thought urges caution concerning the biotechnological revolution,
lest the knowledge it reveals be abused. Cultivation must be constrained by
care. The powers likely to be unleashed by biotechnology must be acknowledged
as limited and beyond our capacity to fully control. But Protestant thought
has historically been concerned not simply with actions but also with what such
actions reflect or express about a person's moral character. In this respect,
the question Protestant theological ethics raises is: What kind of people do
we need to be in order to wield such powers for good rather than ill?
- M. Weber, "Science as a Vocation," in H. H. Gerth and C. W. Mills, eds.,
From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, Oxford University Press, New York,
1958, p. 155.
- P. Tillich, Theology of Culture, R. C. Kimball, ed., Oxford University
Press, New York, 1959, pp. 53-68.
- L. White, Jr., "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis," Science,
vol. 155, 1967, pp. 1,203-1,207.
- J. B. Cobb, Jr., "Biblical Responsibility for the Ecological Crisis," Second
Opinion, no. 18, 1992, pp. 11-21.
- R. Cole-Turner, The New Genesis: Theology and the Genetic Revolution,
Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 1993, pp. 100, 108.
- See P. Hefner, "The Evolution of the Created Co-Creator," in T. Peters,
ed., The Cosmos as Creation: Theology and Science in Consonance, Abingdon
Press, Nashville, TN, 1989; and T. Peters, Playing God? Genetic Discrimination
and Human Freedom, Routledge, New York, 1997.
- A. R. Peacocke, Creation and the World of Science, Clarendon Press,
Oxford, England, 1979.
- R. Cole-Turner, The New Genesis: Theology and the Genetic Revolution,
- K. P. Wise in R. D. Land, L. A. Moore, eds., Life at Risk: The Crises
in Medical Ethics, Broadman & Holman Publishers, Nashville, TN, 1995,
- T. Peters, Playing God? Genetic Discrimination and Human Freedom,
- See R. Cole-Turner, ed., "Human Cloning: Religious Responses, Westminster/John
Knox Press, Philadelphia, 1997.
- See G. Meilander, BioLaw II, 1997, pp. 114-118.
- C. S. Campbell, in National Bioethics Advisory Commission, Cloning Human
Beings, vol. 2, Rockville, MD, 1997, pp. D1-D64.
Copyright © 2002 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
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