A Review of Mitchell and Riley’s ‘Christian Bioethics’

C.S. Lewis wrote, “If you do not listen to Theology, that will not mean that you no ideas about God. It will mean that you have a lot of wrong ones.” I agree, and in doing so want to bring the study of ethics in under the umbrella of theology, as ethics must be understood as the demonstration of our theology.  It should be obvious then that the Christian derives his/her ethic from the Scriptures, the same place where we glean our theology. But what could the Bible possibly have to say about bioethics, or ethics related to issues we would commonly associate with the medical practice, complicated, perhaps, by the massive technological improvements of the last 2 centuries? In reality, quite a bit.

Christian Bioethics

I am grateful for B&H Publishing Group and to Professor C. Ben Mitchell and Dr. D. Joy Riley for their contributions in a new book simply titled, “Christian Bioethics”. The book, written in a valuable format capturing the dialogue of these 2 great thinkers as they navigate the difficult waters of the modern bioethical debates. But in addition to the dialogue, each chapter ends with some concluding remarks, designed to sum up the positions discussed. Along with an introduction, the book covers 3 broad categories: Taking Life, Making Life, and Faking Life with chapters touching upon a number of subjects including physician-assisted suicide, abortion, organ transplant, and cloning.

I was thrilled to see how quickly, in the chapter on the sanctity of human life, the emphasis given to the imago Dei argument, as this is such powerful tool in the Christian’s arsenal.  Allow me, if I may, to be critical of the content in two places. The first is in the area of physician-assisted suicide and the second regarding organ transplant. Regarding the first, the authors do an excellent job of discussing the doctor’s role as well as medicine’s role in pain managment and come down clearly on the side of being anti-physician-assisted suicide. And perhaps my criticism would better be directed at ethics in general, but of the suicides we see in Scripture, and I count 4, a claim can be made that there is an element of nobility in the suicides. I am counting Samson’s, Saul’s, Saul’s armor bearer, and Judas. The closest scenario would be with Saul and his armor bearer, where Saul, when given the choice of being tortured by the enemy of Israel or killed quickly by his armor bearer, chose the latter. And I sympathize with his choice. In our own day we saw this play out. Who could forget the images of people jumping to their death from the World Trade Centers on 9/11? Given the choice between  burning alive in jet fuel, they chose to jump to their death. Did they mock God in doing so? Though not identical, can we fault them for their “pain management” strategy? Which of us wouldn’t have contemplated the same decision had we been there that morning? Does this apply to the death bed in a hospital? Is it noble to say “enough” and ask for the quick, painless death of a morphine OD (see the book’s intro) verses the crippling/painful degeneration of a cancer battle? I’m not sure the Scriptures are as clear as the authors would have us believe. My second concern relates to compensation for organ transplant. The author’s summarily reject compensating those that chose to donate their organs, stating that the poor would be “coerced” by the financial gain. First, I think “persuaded” would be a more accurate term than “coerced” and second, I disagree that the poor would be disproportionately harmed by such a shift in policy. As it is now, the rich can fly to other countries to get the needed organs, thus being able to engage in free market solutions seems to benefit the poor and middle class more than hurt. And I certainly don’t think that the Scriptures forbid the compensation of those that would willfully donate their organs.

That being said, this book is solid. I highly recommend it for students and teachers alike, for philosophy and/or theology fans, for pastors and those occupying the pews. The bigger picture here is this: we need to be more intentional how we critically address issues of ethics, allowing the Word of God to serve as the axiom for all that we believe regarding our behavior. This book is a great contribution to that end, an easy recommendation.

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