Equipped for Every Good Work: The Use of Scripture in Bioethical Decision Making

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“At the same time that religious involvement in policy formation may seem unduly aggressive to some, from the perspectives of bioethics literature and medical practice or research, it often appears that theology brings little to bioethics which is even identifiably religious.”[1] Lisa Sowle Cahill penned the above words in response to the question, “Can theology have a role in public bioethical discourse?” She notes that, in an effort to broaden the audience base of public policy appeals, theologians and Christian ethicists alike avoid religious appeals within their bioethical arguments. This results in conclusions that have no uniquely theological foundation.[2] Though, I would argue that the struggle to incorporate theology in bioethical reasoning is not due only to a desire to be relevant in public discourse. Rather, for theology to inform bioethics well, Scripture’s position in this process must be understood. I would suggest that theology must form the bridge between an informed use of Scripture and normative ethics.[3] However, the front end of this bridge—the use of Scripture in this process—requires further clarification.

Indeed, many believing bioethicists have sought to clarify the relationship between Scripture and bioethics through the utilization of theology. David VanDrunen helpfully suggests that the doctrines of God’s sovereignty, divine providence, mankind as the imago Dei, and death in light of the resurrection of Christ should be the guiding principles to help us maneuver bioethical dilemmas.[4] Yet these are fairly broad theological concepts. What happens when differing ethical conclusions would seemingly honor the same doctrinal affirmation? Must bioethical reasoning rely only upon the broadest doctrinal assumptions? R. Dennis Macaleer explores how the New Testament can inform our bioethical principles and gives due attention to his own hermeneutical assumptions in the process.[5] Yet he then funnels his exegetical analysis through three theological themes (image of God, covenant responsibility, and healing)[6] along with principlism,[7] all of which can be reductionistic. This is not to say that theology should not form the connecting point between a biblical foundation and normative ethics; as previously stated, I think it must. Rather, any theology that informs our bioethics must also reflect the diversity and unity of theology within Scripture itself. Thus, we must give Scripture the breathing room to inform our theological thinking before we determine the theological thinking conducive to bioethical reasoning.

Allen Verhey seeks to do this, yet also notes the difficulty of utilizing Scripture in matters of medicine and technology. He cites four main cautions for implementing Scripture in bioethical reasoning. First, Verhey mentions the silence of Scripture on modern inventions. For instance, the book of Proverbs provides no wisdom on in vitro fertilization nor on physician-assisted suicide. Second, he acknowledges the eccentricities of Scripture, particularly when it comes to matters of medicine and healing. 2 Chronicles 16:12 reflects his concerns well, its narrator seemingly criticizing King Asa for pursuing physicians for a foot disease rather than seeking help from the Lord. Third, he notes the diversity of Scripture, citing the multiplicity of voices that can be found regarding sickness and healing. While sickness can be linked to guilt in certain contexts (e.g., 2 Sam 12:13–16), the book of Job turns this paradigm on its head. Fourth, the abuse of Scripture by its readers highlights the difficulty of approaching the biblical text without bias or without trying to prove one’s own previously determined conclusions. As an example of this, Verhey describes how the curse of pain in childbirth for Eve (Gen 3:16) has been used nefariously to deny women the use of pain-relieving medication throughout the birthing process.[8] Yet, even with these challenges in mind, Verhey does not deny the necessity of Scripture for the Christian community, including the Christian bioethics community. He states:

Granted, then, the problems of the silence and strangeness and diversity and abuse of Scripture, the real problem for the Christian community is not whether Scripture is somehow normative, but how it is, how Scripture is to be performed in bioethics, how it guides us through the new powers of medicine and through the ancient human events of giving birth, suffering, dying, and caring.[9]

Verhey’s own solution to the “problem” of Scripture emphasizes humility, especially when it comes to proposing methodologies for determining truth within the biblical text.[10] I echo his exhortation here, yet do not believe this negates the possibility of clarifying statements regarding both the ontology of Scripture and derivative methodological assumptions.

I recognize that I will not solve the “problem” of the use of Scripture in bioethics, but I seek to add my voice to the choir of faithful believers before me and to incite further conversation on the topic. In order to do this well, the present essay will build an ontology of Scripture based on the work of John Webster. How to determine meaning in the biblical text will be clarified through the lens of Kevin Vanhoozer. Further, the nature of biblical revelation will be explored in its state as contextualized and canonized. Finally, moral exemplar theory will be examined as it pertains to building an understanding of the transformation of the reader by an encounter with the living God in Scripture. I will end the essay by making some direct applications to the use of Scripture in bioethics. Note that I will be specifically approaching this exploration from a protestant lens.[11] Further, I will primarily be concerned with Scripture and theology as a foundation to metaethics and normative ethics. While bioethics is a field of applied ethics, such application must be born from “a combination of right thinking about and genuine love for God (metaethics)” and “good and right behavior properly ordered in us by God (normative ethics).”[12] It is only from this foundation that applied ethics, or “living life in the context of all life situations unto God” can be discerned through a critical exploration and explanation of one’s particular community and context.[13]

My thesis is that Scripture is primarily about being transformed through an encounter with the living God rather than acting as a conglomeration of proof texts by which we can affirm or deny arguments. Indeed, to treat Scripture as merely a source of proof-texts for bioethical decision making skips the necessary groundwork to be completed in metaethics and normative ethics alike. The apostle Paul affirms this broader function of Scripture, asserting that Scripture as breathed by God (2 Tim 3:16–17) denotes that it is inherently transformative, not merely imbuing within its readers cognitive knowledge regarding God and the world but shaping the mind through the provision of truth and right doctrine (teaching/didaskalian), a determining measure for conviction (rebuke/elegmon), the means of restoration (correction/epanorthosin), and an emphasis on the long-term pursuit of maturity (training/paideian). To encounter the life-infusing breath of God in the biblical text transforms the reader on the path of both moral uprightness and right relationality (righteousness/dikaiosune),[14] and to do so perfectly equips the reader for every good work, even those pertaining to modern bioethical issues.

An Ontology of Scripture and Biblical Meaning

In order to explore the how of Scripture in bioethical reasoning, I must first clarify the what of Scripture itself. This will require theological analysis up front, for one’s own theology regarding the nature of biblical revelation will dictate the interpretative process. I do so recognizing that, whether made explicit or not, we all come to the biblical text with certain theological presuppositions. Thus, let me state that I too hold to such key tenants of biblical orthodoxy as the authority of Scripture and its infallibility. While I will devote the majority of the space here to expound upon two aspects made less explicit in much interpretation—an ontology of Scripture and the nature of biblical meaning—I will also end this section with a brief excurses on the sufficiency of Scripture. I believe the articulations of the two theologians I utilize here best honor the biblical data and account for why we hold the Bible so dear as Christians—namely, because in it we encounter not merely propositional truth, but the living God himself.

John Webster’s Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch is a concise description of how biblical revelation can be revelatory of God himself. Indeed, if Scripture is about the revelation of the divine, then it must be first and foremost a matter of theology proper (God) and secondarily one of ecclesiology (Church). Webster writes:

Yet whilst “Holy Scripture” does refer to a composite reality (texts in relation to revelation and reception) there is a definite order to its elements. Most of all, both the texts and the processes surrounding their reception are subservient to the self-presentation of the triune God, of which the text is a servant and by which readers are accosted, as by a word of supreme dignity, legitimacy and effectiveness.[15]

Thus, the primary focus of an ontology of Scripture must be an explication of God’s self-revelation, rather than the reception of such a revelation by the Church.

Webster’s own delineation of an ontology of Scripture involves three key concepts: revelation, sanctification, and inspiration. Revelation is fundamentally about divine presence, where God reveals his own triune being freely: “such disclosure is itself an act of divine fellowship and reconciliation with his creation.[16] Thus, revelation and reconciliation are one and the same act. As Webster puts it:

For on the one hand, fellowship with God is communicative fellowship in which God is known; it is not a mere unconscious ontological participation in God. And, on the other hand, knowledge of God in his revelation is no mere cognitive affair: it is to know God and therefore to love and fear the God who appoints us to fellowship with himself, and not merely to entertain God as a mental object, however exalted.[17]

Sanctification, for Webster, is the celebration and utilization of “creaturely processes” in the formation of God’s self-revelation within creation’s history.[18] This moves the discussion away from a dualistic dichotomy between a historical-critical understanding of the biblical text involving the study of its historical origins, and a theological one.[19] Further, it ameliorates the debate between a divine author (inspiration) and a human one (naturalism), since “the biblical texts are creaturely realities set apart by the triune God to serve his self-presence.”[20] As I have explicated Webster’s three elements in order, notice that inspiration is last in his development. Indeed, this is intentional, since he views inspiration as merely derivative of the reality of God’s self-revelation through sanctification. In other words, rather than inspiration being the reason we can trust Scripture, “faith is ‘founded’ on Scripture not because of its formal property as inspired but because Scripture is the instrument of divine teaching which proceeds from God.”[21] Thus, inspiration is understood as a “being moved” by the continuous movement of the Spirit into “human communicative acts.”[22] Webster’s ontological explications are insightful, more work is needed to bridge the gap between such theological assertions and actual hermeneutical principles, hermeneutics being that branch of biblical and theological studies which focuses on interpretation.

While bioethics offers a challenging lens for the exploration of Scripture, the field of hermeneutics is plagued with issues of its own. Not least among these challenges is determining the nature of meaning in the biblical text. Whether it be the allegorical interpretation of the patristic period, the historical-critical approach that arose in the seventeenth century, or the modern movement towards textual deconstruction, the nature of biblical meaning, or even whether or not textual meaning exists, has shifted throughout history. Kevin Vanhoozer has expertly maneuvered this question throughout his many writings.

Just as Webster focuses on inspiration as sanctification that serves fellowship with God, Vanhoozer sees language as a “creaturely process” that has been designed to serve God’s relational purposes: “the design plan of language is to serve as the medium of covenantal relations with God, with others, with the world.”[23] By this covenantal discourse Vanhoozer conveys that language, being a mode of relationship with others, provides a speaker/author with both dignity and responsibility in the communicative act.[24] The term “communicative act” is important for Vanhoozer, as he sees meaning as a kind of doing.[25] Therefore, meaning must be an “embodied-enacted” intention, with an understanding of an author as a person. This requires that intention cannot be simply a state of the psyche, but it is communicative—what emerges in the text is the author’s intentional action. The act of writing embodies this communicative action for all time, preserving it within a stable structure.[26]

Vanhoozer’s focus on the action embedded in writing is grounded in his understanding of speech-act theory, a literary philosophical movement first proposed by John L. Austin.[27] Austin himself delineates three main kinds of speech acts. First, to say something at all is to do something. This act of speaking Austin classifies as a “locutionary act.”[28] Second, there is always a particular way in which we are using this locutionary act of speaking, and to this phenomenon he assigns the term “illocutionary act.” When we speak, we are doing so to ask a question, give a description, provide a promise, assert a warning, etc. Thus, whereas the locutionary act is to do something by saying something, the illocutionary act is to do something in saying something.[29] Finally, when we perform a locutionary act with a specific illocutionary force, we also intend to cause a certain effect. We seek to produce certain thoughts, feelings, or behavior in the recipient of our speech-act. To this reality Austin provides the label “perlocutionary act.” Thus, as an example of these three kinds of speech-acts, he manipulates the sentence “He said to me, ‘Shoot her.’” Embedded within these same words is the act of speaking these specific words (locution), the act of urging his recipient to shoot (illocution) and its intended effects: the recipient shoots (perlocution).[30] Vanhoozer applies Austin’s speech-act theory to written text, stating “texts are meaningful acts and acts of meaning.”[31] He defines meaning as such: “To be precise, meaning is a three-dimensional communicative action, with form and matter (propositional content), energy and trajectory (illocutionary force), and teleology or final purpose (perlocutionary effect).”[32]

However, Vanhoozer adds a fourth dimension to Austin’s speech-act theory: the interlocutionary act. By this, he refers to the inter-social aspect of communication, highlighting the fact that biblical revelation is both communication and communion.[33] He does so by building off of the assertions of Paul Ricoeur that writing embodies discourse.[34] This means that we not only understand texts as we understand the actions of authors,[35] but we must do so specifically in terms of their public communicative act embedded within the original historical reference.[36] Thus, there is a meaning in the biblical text, because “a human author at a particular place and time activated the linguistic resources that were to hand, put a socio-linguistic system in motion, and did something in order to make a difference in the social world.”[37] Vanhoozer further elaborates on this interlocutionary act by clarifying the distinction between intended meaning and extended meaning—what the author originally meant contextually and the extension of the effects of that speech act into differing circumstances and time.[38] Intended meaning is a matter of illocutionary acts and extended meaning one of perlocutions.[39] Thus, while intended meaning remains fixed, its effects can extend into our modern-day world of medicine and technology. However, one more aspect of meaning remains in our exploration of the nature of Scripture and its use in bioethical reasoning: What do we do with divine authorial intent in this intended meaning/extended meaning paradigm?

It is in his book First Theology that Vanhoozer most develops how meaning at the level of divine intent occurs. Vanhoozer rejects the notion that a dichotomy should exist between that which God speaks and that which God acts, stating: “Scripture is neither simply the recital of the acts of God nor merely a book of inert propositions. Scripture is rather composed of divine-human speech acts that, through what they say, accomplish several authoritative cognitive, spiritual and social functions.”[40] It is primarily through these speech acts that God is with his people.[41] His means of being with his people is Trinitarian communication. Thus, the Father speaks, providing the act of locution itself. Jesus, as the Logos, is the act or illocution of this divine speech act, displaying how the propositions themselves are to be taken. The Spirit manifests the perlocutionary force that both illumines and transforms the reader.[42] Thus, “what God does with language reveals God’s identity, just as our actions reveal who we are.”[43]

As a final point in my preliminary theological explication of an ontology of Scripture and the nature of biblical meaning, I must briefly delineate an understanding of the sufficiency of Scripture. Clarifying such a position is necessary because bioethics deals with matters of modern medicine and technology. Thus, if sufficiency denotes that Scripture is all that is needed to live out one’s faith, why does the Christian bioethicist struggle to find answers that have a direct correlation to their questions?

Kevin Vanhoozer opines that sufficiency necessitates that Scripture is minimally what is needed for salvation and godly maturity. However, he critiques a distorted understanding of Sola Scriptura, the reformation declaration of “Scripture alone,” that leads to the belief that Scripture is maximally the only source of knowledge necessary, especially when it is devoid of pastoral guidance, church tradition and the transformative power of the Holy Spirit.[44] He instead states that Scripture is a part of a larger “economy of light” whereby it is

the pattern by which God distributes the light of his knowledge, primarily through the biblical words that the Psalmist calls ‘a lamp to my feet and a light to my path’ (Ps 119:105) and, secondarily, through the lesser lights of church tradition, scholarly helps, and Bible teachers.[45]

Further, the extrabiblical tools of the bioethicist—such as science, experimentation, and the clarification of philosophical concepts—are not made obsolete by a proper understanding of sufficiency. Rather, “the Bible’s contribution to the academy lies not in providing bits of data but rather, and more importantly, in providing the overarching framework that enables us to interpret the data rightly, which is to say, in line with central Christian truth.”[46]

Thus, the faithful bioethicist need not rely upon Scripture alone to develop biblically informed positions on bioethical issues. Indeed, there are many questions that the biblical text will not be able to answer directly, and Vanhoozer cautions against merely inserting references into modern bioethical debates in his own exploration of the place for theology and Scripture in bioethics.[47] Instead,

Christians must indwell the strange new world of the biblical text to the point that they can almost spontaneously contextualize the main theodramatic action—the Father’s making all things new in Christ through the Spirit—as they proclaim and practice the gospel in new cultural scenes.[48]

With this understanding of the sufficiency of Scripture in tow, it is now helpful to turn to the “strange new world” of the biblical text and examine the manner in which truth is revealed in it.

The Nature of Biblical Revelation

Thus far, we have established that Scripture is the revelation of God himself whereby his triune speech acts are not merely the accounts of his works but are themselves the redemptive work of God in offering fellowship with himself through illumination and transformation. Such divine speech acts adopt and redeem creaturely processes, including those of the human language, so that both the human and divine authors also do things with words. Thus, the truth of Scripture is revealed not merely through words understood in isolation but through the redemption of the entirety of the speech acts of biblical authors. It is now essential to explore how such embodied writings are simultaneously contextualized and canonized.

That Scripture is contextualized points to what both Webster and Vanhoozer have termed the redemption of the mundane—God’s revelation through his own creation. However, this does not merely pertain to the inspiration of the biblical authors to write. Rather, this also means that the eternal and unchanging God revealed himself in time, to a particular historical people, adopting their particular modes of communication. It is the revelation of the God who is living, immanent, and omniscient, who breaks forth in human history with wisdom, speaking and acting according to the known needs of those on the immediate end of his covenantal discourse. Why is it important to our faith that the events of the Israelite exodus actually occurred or that Jesus was truly resurrected from the dead? Because we want to know who this God is, and in order to do so, we first need to know what this God is actually like. Does he redeem? Can he perform miracles? Does he make promises and keep them? To what does he call his people in response to their own culture and worldview? The historical encapsulation of God’s self-revelation pushes us to see God’s life in response to an encultured people: not romanticizing those historical-cultural circumstances but looking to how God also seeks to redeem our own. This reality holds important truths for how we are to approach Scripture now.

First, as Vanhoozer has pointed out, this means that we must pay attention not only to the locution of biblical authors but also to their illocutionary and perlocutionary acts. Their context and purpose in writing is central to understanding God’s self-revelation to modern readers. This requires paying due attention to such things as literary genre, historical circumstances, and cultural context. For instance, Verhey notes the difficulty of applying such passages as 2 Chronicles 16:12 and the Chronicler’s critique of King Asa’s pursuit of physicians. Yet, careful attention to the function of doctors in ancient Israel will elucidate the meaning of such a passage. Archeological evidence reveals the existence of physicians in Israel,[49] and other passages in the protestant canon mention their employment without admonition (e.g., Gen 50:2; Jer 8:22).[50] Further, Sirach, a deuterocanonical book, calls the doctor established by God, gifted with herbs from God’s creation, and given knowledge (38:1–4). However, it is also stated that God is the ultimate healer; both the doctor and the patient still being required to pray for healing and for a correct diagnosis (vv. 9, 14). According to Isabel Cranz, this differentiated the doctor from such figures as prophets and priests, who had a more direct communicative line with the divine.[51] Further, the patient is directed to flee wickedness and to offer a sacrifice before giving the doctor his place in the healing process (vv. 10–11). This reveals that the sin of King Asa was not pursuit of doctorly advice but neglecting repentance and a recognition of God as the healer of the physical, spiritual, and moral life.

As another example of this contextualization, modern readers must be nuanced in making ethical assertions based on biblical law. Such commands display God’s relational demands for a specific people within a particular context. As an obvious example, while the Old Testament includes laws permitting divorce (Deut 24:1–4), Jesus teaches that this was due to the hard heartedness of the people and is not reflecting of God’s creation moral ideals (Matt 19:8). However, one must also refrain from following in the footsteps of Karl Barth and rejecting the application of all biblical law for modern readers. Barth opined that no biblical law is universal—all ethical demands are placed upon the immediate receivers of the command alone.[52] Yet Oliver O’Donovan counters that Barth has confused the term “universal” with “general,” assuming that a universal command must necessarily be imprecise. Instead, “universal” is used for rules that apply to all cases of a certain class. Thus, for instance, the demand for fair treatment of slaves in Exodus 21:26 is universal for all who would have slaves in their household.[53]

How can this passage still inform a modern ethic? O’Donovan states that on the front end of this universal, which leads to the particular, there must also must be a general moral demand. For instance, if the particular command for Euodia and Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord (Phil 4:2–3) is to inform ethical thinking, then there must be a universal principle that it is loving for two Christ-followers to be at peace with one another, and this must be based on the general command to “love your neighbor.”[54] Thus, the universal demand for fair treatment of slaves should have particularly convicted King David, yet it still generally exhorts us to protect the dignity of all humankind (Gen 1:27; 9:4–6). Lest the audience think I refer merely to Old Testament law, let it be clear that we must be just as cautious in how we approach New Testament commands, recognizing the cultural and circumstantial contexts of such biblical authors as Paul. O’Donovan’s paradigm can be helpful for deciphering the particular, universal, and general applicability of biblical law for forming our ethical commitments now.

Another matter that reveals the contextualized nature of Scripture is the existence of passages that create historical or theological tension in conjunction. As previously mentioned, Verhey notes this in the various ways Scripture reflects theologically upon sickness. Such variation in theological reflection is not allocated to sickness alone but is expressed in a variety of issues. Indeed, the author of Psalms 1 and 2 asserts that the righteous will be like a flourishing tree and God’s anointed would be the downfall of the wicked. Yet Asaph wrestles with the prosperity of the iniquitous (Ps 73), and Ethan reflects upon the rejection of the anointed one (Ps 89). Proverbs promises security (1:33), a place in the land (2:21–22) and long days for the wise (3:1–2); the perverse will receive a curse, shame, and rejection (3:32–35). Yet, Job suffers both shame and sickness as a righteous follower of YHWH.

This tension between biblical texts is not unique to wisdom and poetic literature. It can be found in Old Testament law,[55] New Testament exhortation,[56] and narrative.[57] Such realities are what led Walter Brueggemann to contend that the Old Testament is a conglomeration of Israelite testimony and counter-testimony, with “an awareness that the elusive but dominating Subject of the Old Testament cannot be comprehended in any preconceived categories.”[58] James Dunn similarly states that a denial of the diversity of thought in the New Testament neglects the reality that “the gospel of Jesus is multiform as it addresses different situations; and that to insist on a single ‘authentic’ testimony to Jesus is to work against the gospel’s very capacity to speak differently to different people, and so to muzzle its voice.”[59] While I do not agree with all the conclusions of such authors, their exhortation to deal faithfully with both unity and diversity in the biblical text is well founded. My point in highlighting such diversity is to display that God’s self-revelation in Scripture is contextualized, offering more nuanced wisdom for our own contextualized lives now. However, this also means that ethicists must not only exegete the circumstances of the biblical text, but also our own modern context, in order to discern Scripture’s applicability—this hearkens back to Vanhoozer’s warning against merely imputing biblical references into current situations.

How do we deal with such contextualization in the development of sound theology? After we deal with seeming incongruences that can be rectified by differences in such things as genre, we turn next to the canonization of Scripture. While the contextualization of Scripture pushes us to find meaning in biblical passages based on the original historical circumstances, historical modes of communication, and original intent of the human authors, its canonization invites us to see the divine communicator who exists outside of time and directs all of creation according to his sovereignty and will. Vanhoozer states that it is at the canonical level that divine intent, beyond the original intent of the human author, emerges.[60] It is at the canonical level that the Word made flesh clarifies the will of the Father in Scripture (e.g., Matt 22:34–40). It is here that we see Christ as the fulfillment of Old Testament prediction and prophesy (e.g., Luke 24:44). Here the particularity or universality of a given command or circumstance can be illuminated—as it is pushed into dialogue with other biblical passages.

Through Scripture in conversation with Scripture, we wrestle with theological tension, witness the unchanging God condescend upon changing time, and become people not just of knowledge, but of wisdom—opening ourselves up to be accosted by theology that does not fit our preconceived biases. If Scripture is the key means by which we not only know the acts of God but also are transformed by an encounter with his life and redemptive work, then it cannot stand merely as a repository of proof texts that we mine to support whatever argument we bring to the text. It must be the means by which we are changed, not merely in knowledge, but also in mind and virtue. I do believe this occurs at the contextual level (i.e., exegesis of individual texts); however, I think it transpires primarily at the canonical level, where we cannot cling merely to those passages most comfortable to our individual intellectual and moral sensibilities.

I do not think this means merely funneling Scripture through the lens of systematic theology. While I eagerly affirm the goodness of this kind of work, before rushing to systematized categories that themselves stem from human reason, we must sit with Scripture in such a way that it can correct reason itself. C. H. Spurgeon illustrates this best as he preaches on Romans 10:20–21:

Two truths cannot be contradictory to each other. If, then, I find taught in one place that everything is fore-ordained, that is true; and if I find in another place that man is responsible for all his actions, that is true; and it is my folly that leads me to imagine that two truths can ever contradict each other. These two truths, I do not believe, can ever be welded into one upon any human anvil, but one they shall be in eternity: they are two lines that are so nearly parallel, that the mind that shall pursue them farthest, will never discover that they converge; but they do converge, and they will meet somewhere in eternity, close to the throne of God, whence all truth doth spring.[61]

Spurgeon’s claim cautions us against jumping too quickly to rigid assumptions regarding seemingly contradictory passages of Scripture; it further warns against clinging too tightly to our favored theological position. Instead, it beckons us to encounter God in both of these truths—to be transformed by God’s sovereignty and the truth of our own responsibility. This brings me to the final point in this exploration of the relationship between Scripture and bioethics: the transformation of the reader through the biblical text.

The Redemption of the Reader

Necessary in this exploration of the function of Scripture for bioethical discernment is an understanding of the place of the reader in relation to the Biblical text. This addresses Verhey’s concern regarding human sin and bias in the task of biblical interpretation. Indeed, Webster states that beyond the redemption of communication through the human author, “communicative fellowship cannot be healed on one side only; it must include the restoration of the human partner to a genuine participation in the knowledge of God.”[62] Webster therefore affirms the necessity of self-mortification and humility when reading the biblical text;[63] that “God counters pride by his self-revelation.”[64]

How does God’s self-revelation achieve this redemption? By the development of virtue through his self-presence as the ultimate moral exemplar. Virtue ethics is a branch of normative ethics that centralizes virtuous character, as opposed to doing what one ought to do (deontological ethics) or maximizing well-being (utilitarianism).[65] Exemplarism is a branch of virtue ethics that centers moral exemplars in the development of moral concepts. Linda Zagzebski, the leading voice in Exemplarist Virtue Theory, maintains that the theory merely seeks to explain what already occurs, noting that humans naturally decipher persons who are admirable and therefore worth imitating.[66] This means that “moral development is principally done by imitation,” and such imitation is driven by admiration.[67] Scripture itself affirms that God is to be viewed as a moral exemplar. “Be holy, for I am holy” is the foundational exhortation of Levitical law and is scattered throughout Scripture (Lev 11:44; Deut 23:14; 1 Pet 1:14–16). We are called to follow God’s example, especially as manifested in the life of Christ (Eph 5:1–2; 1 Pet 2:21; 1 John 2:3–6). We are also expected to follow the example of biblical figures like Paul as they seek to imitate Christ (1 Cor 11:1–2; Phil 3:17).

The means to imitate these exemplars can occur through story or personal experience, but personal relationship enables dialogue that unlocks not only what the exemplar is like—it enables deep understanding of who this exemplar is.[68] Indeed, admiration being the driving force, moral exemplars do not merely exemplify morality, but they make us desire to imitate it and put flesh on the process of getting there.[69] This displays why loving God is foremost in Scripture (Deut 6:4–7; Matt 22:37–40). I do not mean that such love should be reduced to its function in the development of morality. Rather, love of God is necessary to be truly transformed by an encounter with God’s life. Through our admiration of God, and seeking to know who he genuinely is, we go beyond mere knowledge of his abstract characteristics—we encounter a personal God with whom we are in relationship. This is why anthropomorphic and anthropopathic language is important in Scripture. While theological convictions on such things as impassibility are essential, we must not neglect the fact that God reveals himself as relational and emotional in Scripture.[70] Indeed, the psalmists do not stop to intellectualize how God can be angry and yet unchanging. Rather, they plead, weep, and rejoice before a God who they understand to be both. In other words, they encounter the life of God as relational and dynamic. They engage in an interpersonal dance with him whereby they themselves are transformed.

However, God’s self-revelation in Scripture is not merely the image to which we are to be conformed, nor the image that produces admiration. Rather, as was previously discussed, God’s covenantal discourse reveals his identity as triune. The Father speaks and divulges glimpses of God’s life that are true and yet not comprehensive, human language being unable to fully encapsulate perfection itself. The Son incarnates God’s self-revelation, revealing the image of redeemed humanity in relationship with God and clarifying the telos of biblical truth. The Spirit redeems the believer in relationship to this divine self-revelation and to the world, producing the virtues of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control” (Gal 5:22–23, NASB). Such produced virtue rightly orients the believer in relationship to God and others. It constructs in him the lens of love that should also shape his approach to the biblical text, with love of God and neighbor as the foundation of the Law and Prophets (Matt 22:34-40). Thus, God truly is the ultimate moral exemplar. He is not a distanced snapshot of righteousness, nor does he exist merely as a dialogue partner in the determination of individual morality; rather, he steps into the messy process of moral formation itself, producing virtue in his people beyond what they would be capable of producing on their own. Thus, the virtue that biblical revelation produces is cyclical: the revelation of God brings man to saving faith through Christ, enabling the transforming gift of the Spirit and galvanizing the believer towards greater faithfulness in the pursuit of knowing God through Scripture.

While I have primarily focused on God as an exemplar in this section, I do not want to neglect the Body of Christ in the building of virtue. As previously mentioned, Paul asserts that he is to act as a moral exemplar for the Corinthian churches insofar as he imitates the life of Christ. While discerning moral exemplars among the mere human persons in Scripture, along with our fellow Christian brothers and sisters, requires greater discernment, these figures do play a key part in the virtue-building process. Paul is not a moral paradigm because he held magical moral powers. Rather, he had an encounter with Christ that enabled him to be further along the imitation road than his Corinthian neighbors. Indeed, the simulation and incorporation of virtuous characteristics from our moral exemplars requires habitual imitation, leading to a reshaping of the neuroplastic brain and an eventual transformation of not merely characteristics but motives, emotions, and actions.[71] Such a process requires time and experience, things others may have in greater abundance. Also, the global Body of Christ offers us a necessary correction to our cultural lens, lest we think that Americanized Christianity contains the only true form of theology, biblical interpretation, and Christ imitation. Further, while what has been tradition within the Church is not to be accepted outright, we are offered a wealth of wisdom and moral exemplars in the lives of the faithful in Christ throughout the past centuries. Thus, the global and historical Church, in theology, motive, passions, and action, must play a part in our virtue-building process.

Application to Bioethical Reasoning

What does all this mean for bioethical reasoning? I assert that the primary purpose of Scripture is not to give us a guidebook of what we ought to do. Rather, it is first and foremost the self-revelation of God whereby we come to know what God is like and who God is. This divine self-communication is the means by which God enacts reconciliatory fellowship with himself. Yet, a person cannot approach this encounter with total autonomy. Rather, she must recognize that the means of transformation lie outside of herself, her admiration driving her to imitate what she should do based on the revelation of God. This cannot be merely a shallow imitation of action: the believer does not find what he ought to do in God’s conquest of the land of Canaan. Rather, the development of virtue in thought, motive, emotion, and action is borne out of a faithful response to God’s life, the Spirit producing the virtue which enables a deep understanding of who God is as he is revealed across the whole of Scripture, especially in the manifestation of the Christ. This enables nuanced and wisdom-bound ethical determinations even on those issues that Scripture does not discuss.

Thus, this reality suggests a hierarchy of virtue ethics above deontological ethics. This is not unlike John Kilner’s position that the Bible offers, first and foremost, an ethical worldview. He states:

the Bible offers something much more important and enduring than just specific answers to specific problems. It offers us resources for developing a way of thinking ethically—a way to approach all moral challenges, even those unprecedented.[72]

Kilner sees this biblical ethic as God centered, reality bound, and love impelled.[73] By this, he means that God, in the reliability of his character and the creation of firm truths within the realities of the universe,[74] is himself the standard by which we determine what love requires of us ethically.[75]

Such a hierarchy also addresses the concerns of Dennis Hollinger by offering a more balanced lens than both biblicism and ethical rigorism. By biblicism Hollinger means that “evangelical ethics has tended to draw the content and style of ethical reflection directly from biblical statements, particularly imperative ones.”[76] This results in an overemphasis on biblical commands, a neglect of the remainder of Scripture, and the Bible’s use to defend one’s argument on issues not related to the passage at hand.[77] With the lens of virtue ethics at the helm, Scripture does not primarily provide a rulebook for making bioethical decisions; it is not merely a repository of guidelines for normative human behavior, but it is the life-infused text of a normative God. This also necessarily critiques ethical rigorism, “the application of moral principles in an absolutistic, noncompromising manner.”[78] As was displayed through explication of Scripture as contextualized and canonized, the revelation of God in Scripture is highly complex, necessitating a lifetime of the pursuit of knowing God. Thus, in much the same way as we must approach a person in relationship, not reducing multifaceted people to our rigid assumptions regarding who we expect them to be, we must approach God as a personal being in relationship.

As I stated previously, my main goal in this essay is to deal with Scripture in relation to ethical questions at the level of metaethics and normative ethics so that a strong foundation is built upon which bioethics, as a kind of applied ethics, can be determined. However, lest I leave you with more questions than answers, allow me to provide at least some concrete suggestions for the use of Scripture in actual bioethical decision making. By these, individual bioethicists can dissect their own particular contexts in order to make connections between biblical revelation and bioethical decision making.

First, it is important to orient ourselves to the biblical text, seeking primarily to be transformed by it and requiring meditation upon the whole and humility in its application. The questions and aims we bring to Scripture will shape the answers we receive from it. This is why virtue ethics must be primary as an ethical lens. If we approach Scripture as a rulebook, looking for easy solutions to complex questions, we may come out with an answer that satisfies our immediate desire for clarity. However, we may also end up with a theologically malnourished base for such multifaceted experiences as Verhey’s explication of the ancient and modern events of “giving birth, suffering, dying and caring.” Further, if we primarily approach Scripture as a resource for proving or disproving points, we will likely find the passages necessary to prove our already-held, preconceived biases. However, will it be true? Will we be accosted as readers, knowing God better and understanding the world he created with greater nuance and wisdom? Thus, this displays the necessity to flip our expectations of the text. If we approach Scripture first as the means of being transformed and knowing the living God we will more readily be able to use Scripture as a guide in our particular bioethical application.

This requires devotion to continuous reading of the whole of Scripture. When the biblical authors speak of the use of God’s word in obedience and faithfulness, the focus is on the meditation of this material (e.g., Jos 1:8; Ps 1:1–2; 119:15). The most frequent Hebrew term for meditation in the Old Testament (hagah) denotes a kind of audible muttering to oneself; a musing and pondering. Thus, the practice of meditation was a continual recital to oneself, reflecting on the whole of God’s Torah (instruction). This allowed a reshaping and orientation towards a godly worldview, opening the door for discernment of obedience in individual circumstances. Thus, as we approach the biblical text as bioethicists, let us avoid both biblicism and ethical rigorism alike, musing on the whole of Scripture and muttering to ourselves the truths therein. By this, we can be transformed by the revelation of God himself, even in our bioethical reasoning.

Second, be generous with your use of tools in biblical application to bioethical issues while keeping Scripture itself as the determinative authoritative voice. As stated previously, God’s self-revelation through the biblical text is contextualized, requiring greater discernment regarding what God’s historically encapsulated self-revelation means for our modern world. This does not compromise the clarity of Scripture. Because Scripture is canonized, we have the means for contextualized truths to be in conversation with one another. However, it does mean that biblical interpretation will require more of us than pulling out isolated proof texts to cite in our exploration of bioethical issues. Indeed, as was discussed in the explication of the sufficiency of Scripture, such sufficiency does not denote that Scripture alone is all that is necessary to determine truth on all matters. The bioethicist should indeed make use of such extra-biblical resources as science, philosophy, ethics, etc., but she should also include such tools as literary knowledge of the Bible along with an understanding of its Israelite and Ancient Near Eastern context. This also naturally leads into my final point.

Third, interdisciplinary and collaborative work is ideal when using Scripture for bioethical decision making. When using the Bible in the discernment of specific bioethical issues, do so in a way that would put even the biblical and theological scholars to shame. Particularly when developing arguments with which other bioethicists will engage, recognize the weight of being a teacher in the field, and your own ability to stumble in your discernment and communication (Jam 3:1–18). Further, while I do think the trained bioethicist is able to use the tools of biblical and theological scholars to do their own interdisciplinary work, even better is the sharpening effect of two or three minds, especially when they come from different disciplines, contexts, or cultures. Elicit the help of the New Testament scholar and church historian to develop a strong theological foundation upon which you can be wise in all matters of making life, faking life, preserving life, and taking life. Seek the help of the global Church to better exegete your own particular context and to discern truths that can transcend time and circumstance. Through this, one also invites his own transformation through the moral exemplars found within Church history and the global church.


In conclusion, Scripture is an essential normative resource in the discernment of uniquely Christian bioethics. Because of its telos—the self-presentation of God that enacts reconciliation with and the redemption of mankind—one must be cautioned against interpretative practices that distort its purpose. However, this does not mean that Scripture is unable to speak into bioethical issues. Rather, what I caution against is a life unmarked by delight in the whole revelation of God in Scripture and by regular meditation upon it in the Christian life. As our minds are transformed by this divine self-disclosure, we will more truthfully, unbiasedly, and wisely apply the principles that Scripture offers the investigator of ethical truths. Further, if God is the ultimate moral exemplar, then our ethical reflections based on his self-revelation must be continuously subjected to critical engagement with our developing understanding of him and the world he created. The good news is that Scripture offers such a depth that no singular Christian ethicist will ever reach the ends of its wisdom. Yet, the God it reveals is eternally gracious, condescending to humankind in relationship and reconciliation even as we continually seek to muddle our way towards knowing him. By this gift, all are offered the means to be equipped for every good work.


[1] Lisa Sowle Cahill, “Can Theology Have a Role in ‘Public’ Bioethical Discourse?” The Hastings Center Report 20, no. 4 (1990): 10.

[2] Cahill, “Can Theology Have a Role in ‘Public’ Bioethical Discourse?” 10.

[3] Normative ethics is that branch of ethics concerned with the guidelines and norms developed from one’s underlying metaethical (the “whys” of ethics) framework and that leads to one’s applied ethics (a particular decision in a particular context). See Mark D. Leaderbach and Evan Lenow, Ethics as Worship: The Pursuit of Moral Discipleship (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 2021), 11–16.

[4] David VanDrunen, Bioethics and the Christian Life: A Guide to Making Difficult Decisions (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009), 39–67.

[5] R. Dennis Macaleer, The New Testament and Bioethics: Theology and Basic Bioethical Principles (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2014), 31–75.

[6] Macaleer, The New Testament and Bioethics, 76–147

[7] Macaleer, The New Testament and Bioethics, 148–207.

[8] Allen Verhey, Reading the Bible in the Strange World of Medicine (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 35–39.

[9] Verhey, Reading the Bible in the Strange World of Medicine, 40 (italics original).

[10] Verhey, Reading the Bible in the Strange World of Medicine, 42.

[11] Scott Rae and Paul Cox provide a helpful introduction to the three main religious lenses used in bioethical reasoning, that of Catholicism, Protestantism, and Jewish interpretation, in Bioethics: A Christian Approach in a Pluralistic Age (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999).

[12] Liederbach and Lenow, Ethics as Worship, 18 (emphasis original).

[13] Liederbach and Lenow, Ethics as Worship, 18 (emphasis original).

[14] It has been noted that dikaiosune is used for both active right behavior and yet also replaces covenantal terms such as tzedeq/tzedaqah/tzadiq, chesed, and ̉emeth in the Septuagint. See J. A. Zeisler, The Meaning of Righteousness in Paul: A Linguistic and Theological Enquiry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972), especially Chapter 3: “Later Judaism and the Septuagint” and Chapter 8: “Paul: Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians, Ephesians, the Pastorals, and Corinthians.”

[15] John Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 5.

[16] Webster, Holy Scripture, 11–15.

[17] Webster, Holy Scripture, 16 (emphasis original).

[18] Webster, Holy Scripture, 17.

[19] Webster, Holy Scripture, 18–20.

[20] Webster, Holy Scripture, 21–22.

[21] Webster, Holy Scripture, 32.

[22] Webster, Holy Scripture, 36–37.

[23] Kevin Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text? The Bible, the Reader and the Morality of Literary Knowledge (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2009), 206.

[24] Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text? 206.

[25] Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text? 22.

[26] Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text? 252–53. Vanhoozer also explores this reality of embodied-enacted intention in relation to the question of the culpability of the original author for misinterpretations of his/her original meaning. In other words, should the author of Chronicles be blamed for the radical reader who determines that all modern medicine is evil based on the text’s critique of King Asa in relation to the physicians of his day? Vanhoozer determines that, just as in law, a person is determined guilty based on whether or not they intended to cause the effect for which they are on trial; an author cannot be held responsible for unforeseen (or unintended) interpretations and effects of his communicative act. For the full discussion, see pages 254–55.

[27] Vanhoozer’s use of a literary philosophical theory points to the fact that speech-act theory applies to all acts of reading. While Webster states that reading Scripture must be a unique act involving “active passivity” (Webster, Holy Scripture, 71–72), this does negate the fact that this “active” part of reading should be done well, as would be appropriate for the redeemed act of reading itself. Thus, I do not see Webster and Vanhoozer’s positions contrary here.

[28] J. L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words: The William James Lectures Delivered at Harvard University in 1955, ed. J. O. Urmson (London: Oxford University Press, 1962), 94.

[29] Austin, How to Do Things with Words, 98–99.

[30] Austin, How to Do Things with Words, 101–2.

[31] Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text? 210.

[32] Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text? 218.

[33] Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text? 219.

[34] Vanhoozer, Is there a Meaning in This Text? 214.

[35] Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text? 221.

[36] Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text? 230.

[37] Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text? 234.

[38] Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text? 262. Note that Vanhoozer is basing his “intended meaning” and “extended meaning” off of E. D. Hirsch’s concept of “meaning” and “significance.” For Hirsch’s full discussion on these aspects of literary objectivity, see E. D. Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation (New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 1976).

[39] Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text? 259–61.

[40] Kevin Vanhoozer, First Theology: God, Scripture and Hermeneutics (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2002), 131.

[41] Vanhoozer, First Theology, 149.

[42] Vanhoozer, First Theology, 154–55.

[43] Vanhoozer, First Theology, 156.

[44] Kevin Vanhoozer, “The Sufficiency of Scripture: A Critical and Constructive Account,” Journal of Psychology and Theology 49, no. 3 (2021), 219, https://doi.org/10.1177/0091647121995836.

[45] Vanhoozer, “The Sufficiency of Scripture,” 228.

[46] Vanhoozer, “The Sufficiency of Scripture,” 229.

[47] Kevin Vanhoozer, “Wisdom from Theology,” in Why the Church Needs Bioethics: A Guide to Wise Engagement in Life’s Challenges, ed. John F. Kilner (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 114.

[48] Vanhoozer, “Wisdom from Theology,” 114.

[49] For instance, a seal impression was found dating to the seventh century B.C. that designates its original bearer as “healer.” See Nahman Avigad and Benjamin Sass, Corpus of West Semitic Stamp Seals (Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1997), no. 420.

[50] Isabel Cranz, “Advice for a Successful Doctor’s Visit: King Asa Meets Ben Sira,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 80, no. 2 (2018): 234.

[51] Cranz, “Advice for a Successful Doctor’s Visit,” 245–46.

[52] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. 3, pt. 4, ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance, trans. A. T. Mackay et. al. (London: T & T Clark, 1961), esp. § 52: “Ethics as a Task of the Doctrine of Creation.”

[53] Oliver M. T. O’Donovan, “The Possibility of a Biblical Ethic,” Theological Students Fellowship Bulletin 67 (1973): 17. Note also that slavery in ancient Israel was distinct from the egregious form of slavery which was forced upon African American peoples in the United States. Slavery for the Hebrews was a way to pay back debt and the indentured servant was to go free after six years, whether the debt was fully paid or not (Exod 21:2). Even foreign slaves were to be given rest on the Sabbath (Deut 5:14–15), partake in Israelite festivals (Deut 12:12), and were to be circumcised (Gen 17:12), all signs of their inclusion in the covenant community.

[54] O’Donovan, “The Possibility of a Biblical Ethic,” 18.

[55] For instance, in Exodus Moses anchors Sabbath rest in God’s own rest on the seventh day of creation (20:8–11), yet in Deuteronomy he does so in God’s redemption of the people from Egypt and therefore the need to be people who love others through the gift of rest (5:12–15).

[56] Paul provides instructions for women praying and prophesying in the church in 1 Corinthians 11:1–16 and then seems to exhort silence from women in the public assembly in 14:34–35.

[57] The order of creation events between Genesis 1 and 2 and the order of Jesus’ ministry events throughout the various gospel.

[58] Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1997), 117.

[59] James D. G. Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament: An Inquiry into the Character of Earliest Christianity, 3rd ed. (London: SCM Press, 2006), xv.

[60] Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text? 264.

[61] Charles H. Spurgeon, “Sovereign Grace and Man’s Responsibility,” preached August 1, 1958 from New Park Street.

[62] Webster, Holy Scripture, 70–71.

[63] Webster, Holy Scripture, 73–75.

[64] Webster, Holy Scripture, 77.

[65] Rosalind Hursthouse and Glen Pettigrove, “Virtue Ethics,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta and Uri Nodelman (Winter 2022), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2022/entries/ethics-virtue/.

[66] Linda Zagzebski, “Exemplarist Virtue Theory,” Metaphilosophy 41, no. 1/2 (2010): 51.

[67] Zagzebski, “Exemplarist Virtue Theory,” 51–52.

[68] Zagzebski, Exemplarist Moral Theory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 66–68.

[69] Zagzebski, Exemplarist Moral Theory, 129.

[70] Impassibility denotes that God will not change based on circumstances outside of himself, nor will he experience emotions. Rob Lister offers a helpful middle ground in the debate between passibility and impassibility in his book God is Impassible and Impassioned: Toward a Theology of Divine Emotion (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013).

[71] Tamim Khaliqi, “Can Virtue Be Taught? Neuroscience and Moral Formation,” Dignitas 28, no. 3–4 (2021): 6.

[72]John F. Kilner, Life on the Line: Ethics, Aging, Ending Patient’s Lives, and Allocating Vital Resources (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 14.

[73] Kilner, Life on the Line, 13–29.

[74] Kilner, Life on the Line, 53–54.

[75] Kilner, Life on the Line, 69.

[76] Dennis Hollinger, “Can Bioethics Be Evangelical?” The Journal of Religious Ethics 17, no. 2 (1989): 162.

[77] Hollinger, “Can Bioethics Be Evangelical?” 162–63.

[78] Hollinger, “Can Bioethics Be Evangelical?” 164.