Intersections

Is the Old Testament Relevant to Our MedTech World?

by: 
Michael Cox, PhD

“When I was growing up, the idea of re-engineering human DNA was a staple of science fiction. Now, it’s a reality.”[1] Our brave new world is here, thanks to a new gene editing technology called CRISPR. (And it’s cheap! Maybe you qualify for a free CRISPR kit? Google it.) The potential applications of the technology are myriad.

What’s a Christian to do in our brave new world where we can conceivably choose to alter the genes of our children? In a world where we can edit out “genes for cancer, heart disease or arthritis,” we can also edit in eye color, athletic ability, or intelligence.[2]

The Bible is not much help. It does not address this issue. The biblical authors and audiences had no conception of a world in which DNA exists—much less tweaking a protein in order to alter some basic characteristic of a person. 

This problem comes at us from two directions. First, our own ethical conundrums open such possibilities as these to ethical inquiry. That we can do these things does not mean that we should. I will not address our own ethical horizon in this piece. Rather, I hope to open a dialogue discussing the usefulness and/or limits of the Bible for engaging how we ought to live in a MedTech age. This second problem, the limits of the Bible, is one that Bible-believing Christians often do not take seriously enough.

Glimpses of a Strange Land

The problem with the Bible, if one can describe it as such, is that it only offers glimpses of a strange land, which is also the title of Cyril Rodd’s book on Old Testament ethics.[3] Throughout this book, Rodd plays the tour guide, leading his readers to the top of a tower that overlooks this landscape of Old Testament ethics. Along the spiral staircase, windows provide vantage points from which the land may be surveyed.[4] However, according to Rodd, the perspective afforded by the tower’s slit windows provide little knowledge of the landscape. We are simply unable to reconstruct the ethics before us with any level of certainty.

This leaves us with a question: What is the usefulness of the Old Testament—two-thirds of the Christian Bible—for living faithfully in a MedTech world if we cannot even assess its own ethical vision?

It’s Not That Strange

Rodd argues that the Old Testament is so distant that we cannot know its ethics because we cannot observe the behavior of those who lived in Old Testament times. He assumes that actual behavior is the only way to “get at” ethics. This is certainly faulty insofar as a document might be aspirational of one’s ethics—even if not perfectly appropriated in real-life. The Old Testament is surely full of both ethical ideals as well as failures to meet such ideals. In fact, it uses these failures to illustrate the ideals.

Deuteronomy is a particularly keen example at this point. Throughout the book, Moses recounts Israel’s unfaithfulness all while exhorting the people with a choice between life and death. This choice is easily seen throughout the book and climaxes in 30:11–20.[5]

See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. … This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life … . (Deut 30:15–16, 19–20)

 

Moses presents people with an ethical ideal of a full and abundant life. People only need to do what God wants of them. This ideal is in contrast with the very real potential to choose death. In short, a document may present an ethical ideal (and non-ideal) without describing actual behavior. Deuteronomy presents itself as a book with this purpose.

But It Is Strange, Nonetheless

These observations may weaken the foundation of Rodd’s tower. But, I suggest that we should not try to topple it altogether as liberal-biblical-scholarly hoo-ha.

After all, the Bible is strange—and all the more so because of our own social and cultural distance from it. When reading the Bible, we must always be aware that we are foreigners in a strange land. It was written in a different time. It was written in a language that we do not speak. It addresses many issues which we do not encounter. And it does not address many of the particular issues that we do encounter directly.

But, believing that it is also written for our benefit, we cannot go as far as Rodd would take us. We must, after all, read the Bible. Yet even when we are written into the book—as we are in Deuteronomy, “those who are not with us this day” (29:15)—we are written in from the perspective of the original culture and language.

Our contemporary MedTech world would have been inconceivable to the Bible’s authors. Our MedTech problems are not their problems. Christians in a MedTech world do not have a choice as to whether we use the Bible, but we do have a choice as to how we use it. Great care must be taken, then, in appropriating this foreign text as our authoritative text. This care, I suggest, must include careful attention to the world of the Bible—including the conceptions of God as understood by its authors and audiences. Only then can we make the move to our world—and the possible worlds that MedTech opens for us.

In future posts I plan to explore an ethical hermeneutic whereby, with great care, we might appropriate the Bible’s own theological ethical vision onto our MedTech ethical horizon. For now, however, I’d like to pose a question I’ve been asking myself for some time: Are bioethical issues distant from the church because they are distant from the Bible? Or to ask the same question somewhat crassly: Are we too busy reading our Bibles to read our culture?



[1] Noah Smith, “Gene Editing Needs to Be Available to Everyone,” Bloomberg View, January 25, 2018, https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2018-01-25/gene-editing-needs-to... (accessed March 16, 2018).

[2] Smith, “Gene Editing.”

[3] Cyril S. Rodd, Glimpses of a Strange Land: Studies in Old Testament Ethics (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2001).

[4] See pages 3-4 for Rodd’s description of this metaphor and rejection of an overall scheme.

[5] Even if we concede that the historical Moses is not largely behind Deuteronomy (which I am not willing to do), this does not weaken the case that I make here. My point is that Deuteronomy as a self-contained document presents its reader with a choice. Moreover, it holds out an ethical ideal while being ever mindful of the shortcomings-past and potential-of this audience in maintaining this ethical ideal. At the very least, “Moses” is a character—namely, the speaker—in this narrative.