Everyone has a moral standard. Everyone has a moral position on abortion, capital punishment, orphanhood, plastic surgery, etc. But while everyone could tell you what their moral position is they cannot necessarily tell you why that is their moral position. Morals tell us what we will and will not do, but ethics tell us why we will and will not do those things. Ethics are the science (or reasons) behind our morals and morals are our ethics in practice. Most people do not think far enough into the ethics behind their morals. Unfortunately, Christians do the same thing. Many don’t bother to examine the why questions and others don’t know how.
As science continues to bring new discoveries from the laboratory to the clinic, new medical therapies offer promise for many, yet along with those advancements come a whole host of ethical dilemmas that Christians must face – both medical professional and patient alike. To help believers chart through the myriad of ethical decisions they will need to make in the current bioethics world, D. Joy Riley, MD, and C. Ben Mitchell, PhD, have teamed up to bring us Christian Bioethics: A Guide for Pastors, Health Care Professionals, and Families (B&H, 2015). This is the fourth book in the B&H Studies in Christian Ethics series. What is great about this book is that we have both a theologian and medical doctor in dialogue working through the issues. This professional balance offers a more well-rounded and holistic picture of how to think through the various situations.
Mitchell and Riley divide the book under three categories of bioethical issues: (1) taking life, (2) making life, and (3) remaking/faking life. Each chapter introduces the issue at hand with a real case. The issues each case raises are largely addressed throughout the chapter by means of a dialogue between the two authors. Far from making the discussion juvenile, the question and answering back and forth provides a deep conversational feel to the book that draws the reader in more to what is being said. It makes the book really hard to put down.
There are several things that stand out in this book. First, readers will be fascinated by the medical history that the authors discuss. Many people outside of the medical field may be surprised to know that most doctors, upon graduation, have never read the Hippocratic Oath, even though often they are still asked to repeat it at graduation (p. 16-17). Other intriguing historical facts include the following: the first abortion law was enacted in Connecticut in 1821 (p. 51); the first organ to be transplanted was a kidney in 1954 (p. 132); the first successful cloned sheep was Dolly in 1997 (p. 151); the first human “avatar” is hoped to be completed by 2045 under the work of the Russian 2045 Movement (p. 169).
The history of medical progress positions us to view what is happening today as a result of a long line of previous advancements. When we trace the history of life saving therapies we realize that we have advanced in the last 10 years much further than we did in the last 50 or more. The more we advance the faster we advance and are able to respond to the needs/demands of the medical field.
Second, readers will see that there is a Christian way to practice and think about medicine and ethics. Such an approach to bioethics starts with the doctrine that God made man in his image (Gen. 1:17). Since all of human life bears God’s image then all stages of human life are to be treated with dignity and respect. Whether it is life that begins at the moment of conception in the womb (chapter 3) or it is life at its end (chapter 4), all of life has value. This especially comes to light when discussing the sanctity of human life and the issue of abortion. If what is in the womb is a human life then it is to be treated as any human (whether in womb or out of the womb) is treated. Further, the authors help us to see how this truth applies to how we think about reproductive technologies such as the ever controversial in vitro fertilization (IVF) (chapter 5). How one views the ontology of a person will influence how one treats a human.
Third, the authors serve the reader well as they clearly articulate good theology and apply it to the many bio-ethical discussions they pursue. Mitchell urges readers to see the Bible, in relation to making ethical decisions, “as a canonical revelation of God’s commands and Christian virtues” (p. 31). The Bible is the beginning of the Christian’s inquiry into any ethical discussion. We are asking ourselves, “What does God say about this?” Also, since God created the world and our bodies, Christians need to be at the forefront of understanding ourselves and the world He has created us to live in. In addition to knowing the “book of the world” (nature), the authors encourage Christians to know “the book of self” (p. 37). That is, in order to make good ethical medical decisions, it is not enough to ask doctors and medical professionals but we are responsible to know the human body in general and our own bodies in particular. It is the faithful study of the Word of God and the world of God that enables us to make ethical decisions. “Christians have nothing to fear from truthful science, and science has nothing to fear from faithful biblical interpretation” (p. 41).
Mitchell and Riley have served the church well with this guide for how to think through the intersection between theology and bioethics. They help us to navigate through the thick theological and medical discussions inherent in the life and death decisions we will all be faced with at one time or another. They do not sugarcoat the issues. While disease, suffering, pain, and death are not supposed to be, they are a part of the world we live in. They remind us of our humanity and fragility. Though as creatures we inherently have limitations, these things bring us even more of them. Mitchell and Riley have charted a path through these limitations that serve as a faithful and responsible way to think about them.
About the authors
D. Joy Riley is executive director of The Tennessee Center for Bioethics and Culture. Board certified in internal medicine, her writing and lecture topics include medical ethics, organ transplantation ethics, stem cell research, genetics, and assisted reproductive technologies.
Ben Mitchell is Graves Professor of Moral Philosophy at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee, and an ordained minister with pastoral experience. He received his Master of Divinity degree at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and his PhD in Philosophy with a concentration in Medical Ethics at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
Craig Hurst received his BA in Church Ministries from Clearwater Christian College and his MA in theology at Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary in Lansdale, PA. He currently lives outside of Grand Rapids, MI and attends Grace Community Church, where he serves as a volunteer youth worker (along with his wife), and teaches some elective classes. He blogs at Theology for the Road.