Academy of Fellows Consultation – Justice and Bioethics

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On November 1st and 2nd CBHD hosted the third consultation of the Center’s Academy of Fellows, continuing an initiative to advance collaborative scholarship among the Fellows through a weekend of presentations focused on a particular issues relevant to contemporary bioethical reflection. These consultations serve as constructive exercises of scholarship in action: its purpose first and foremost is to provide the fellows with the opportunity to collectively reflect on the issues presented, and to then engage in a charitable, but rigorous, manner with the presenters and each other in dialogue and interaction. The topic selected for this year was Justice and Bioethics, and the consultation served as a launching point for a working group focusing on the same topic. The working group will be dedicated to highlighting the best work and publications on justice as well as developing distinctly Christian perspectives on relevant bioethical issues.

In contemporary bioethics justice is agreed upon as a key principle. What precisely is meant by the concept, however, remains a debated issue, with widely divergent and competing definitions on offer. Similarly, within distinctly Christian scholarship there is no universally agreed upon definition, in spite of its prevalent use and its recognized importance for ethical reflection. Can an adequate and compelling definition of justice be developed? What grounds justice—is it something innate in humanity, or something extrinsic to them? Can the witness of Scripture and Christian theology shed any light on the question of what constitutes justice? To address these questions, this year’s consultation brought together scholars with expertise in the biblical texts and the Christian theological traditions to provide a foundation for further engagement.

The first presentation, “The Way of Justice in the Old Testament,” was presented by Dr. Willem VanGemeren, professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS). In his presentation, VanGemeren advanced an account of justice by means of “a hermeneutic of association;” that is, the recognition that the whole canon of Scripture undergirds any adequate interpretation of the concept of justice. The unifying theme of VanGemeren’s lecture was pointing to the irreducible complexity of the Old Testament concept of justice, while recognizing specific trajectories within the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings. Within the Torah, VanGemeren observed a trajectory that emphasized justice as the way of Yahweh, characteristic of his dealings with humanity in general and Israel in particular. Within the Prophets, a unique concern for retributive and restorative justice emerges, as God’s justice is meted out upon disobedient Israel. Within the Writings, more complex issues related to divine justice are raised: is God just? What about the problems of justice in the world?

Dr. VanGemeren concluded by outlining four characteristics of the Old Testament account of justice: 1) it is theological— intrinsically linked to God’s character, 2) it is royal—pertaining to God’s dominion, 3) it is sapiential—characterized by wisdom, and 4) it is eschatological—it will only be fully realized at the consummation of God’s kingdom. During the question and answer session, one CBHD Fellow noted that VanGemeren’s emphasis on the complex nature of justice in the Old Testament was particularly amenable to virtue approaches to ethics. Another raised the concern that the complexity of justice as it was presented resists clear definition, and may present difficulties for application of the concept to specific issues which bioethicists encounter, such as resource allocation and global justice issues.

Dr. Constantine Campbell, professor of New Testament also at TEDS, presented on “Justice in the New Testament” the following morning. Campbell began by pointing to the common distinction between retributive and distributive justice, and then moved to examining what he termed as five contours of justice in the New Testament: 1) the Old Testament inheritance of justice, 2) justice in the preaching of Jesus, 3) justice in the example of Jesus, 4) the justice of God in the Gospel, and 5) justice and Christian living. A key emphasis of Campbell’s lecture was the tension between affirming the importance of distributive justice, while affirming the goodness of forgoing distributive justice—of bearing injustice willingly for the sake of the Gospel. He pointed to the voluntary nature of forgoing our own rights—not the rights of others—in the name of following the example of Christ. God’s concern for justice remains central to the life of the church, but it is to be tempered by the example of Christ who suffered injustice. Campbell concluded by summarizing that our understanding of justice must be informed by the character of God, the example of Jesus, the centrality of the gospel, the certainty of future judgment, and submission to authorities.

The third presentation offered a number of theological reflections on justice by Dr. Vincent Bacote, associate professor of theology and director of the Center for Applied Christian Ethics at Wheaton College. Bacote outlined the ways in which Christian eschatology can shape bioethical engagement. Drawing on the thought of Abraham Kuyper, Bacote argued for a middle way between a triumphalist eschatology in which Christians “make the kingdom happen” and a futurist eschatology in which Christians simply await Christ to bring the kingdom some day.

The fourth presentation entitled “Christian Ethics & Justice: What Do We Owe the Sick?” was presented by CBHD Distinguished Fellow Dr. Dennis Hollinger, President of Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary and Colman M. Mockler Distinguished Professor of Christian Ethics. Hollinger began by unpacking two contrasting cases: ethical issues related to Mickey Mantle’s liver transplant, and, secondly, the plight of a single family of four encountering unavoidable astronomical medical bills. He then proceeded to unpack three accounts of justice: 1) meritorious justice—what is owed based on merit, 2) egalitarian justice—construed as equal access to goods, services, and opportunities, and 3) need justice—understood as based on a concrete need and often as a redress for past wrongs. Observing that these three accounts are often played off against each other, Hollinger offered biblical and theological support for all three, and concluded with a proposal that an adequate understanding of justice requires operating with different definitions for different spheres of activity. For example, grading papers should generally be based on merit, whereas hiring practices should be based on a general egalitarian model. For persons with a disability some form of need justice is required. This account attempts to do justice to the complexity inherent in discussions of justice, while recognizing that justice is always done in relation to other virtues and commitments.

The final session consisted of a discussion of the implications of Nicholas Wolterstorff’s recent works on justice for Christian bioethics, led by CBHD Fellow Dr. Bart Cusveller, professor in Nursing Ethics at Ede Christian University (Netherlands) Cusveller noted that there were a number of reasons why Wolterstorff’s work warrants engagement. First, Woltersorff makes an important connection between love and justice, often absent in other treatments. Continuing from the first point, the second is that, in contrast to one dominant stream of interpretation in Christian ethics, Wolterstorff offers an account of human rights grounded in God’s unconditional love of every human. Woltersorff is concerned that traditional Christian accounts that ground human worth solely in the imago Dei, which is then explained in functionalist terms of human capacities, ultimately unduly limit the human persons to those with those capacities. He argues that human rights are not the consequence of our obligations or interests, but as the consequence of a person having a certain worth, extrinsically bestowed on them by God. The final session concluded with a vigorous dialogue between Fellows surrounding the implications of Wolterstorff’s work, with a number of concerns being raised. It was noted that simply because the imago Dei is normally explained in terms of capacities, it does not follow that it is solely capacities, without some other ontological reality behind them. Questions then turned to whether or not some potency or capacity was in fact required for an adequate definition of a human person, a definition that avoids the twin errors of DNA essentialism and maximalist definitions of human persons.

Following the consultation, the working group, led by Dónal O’Mathúna, the chair of the Academy of Fellows, gathered to discuss the implications of these presentations for their future deliberations and research into the issues of justice and bioethics. In this respect, the consultation and the works which will follow it are illustrative of CBHD’s broader research agenda, committed to interacting with the academy and advancing Christian scholarship in bioethics.