Bioethics and the Incarnation

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During this Christmas season, as believers celebrate the Messiah’s birth, it is worth looking afresh at the problem of bioethics. This problem will not disappear any time soon and it only promises to grow in urgency as well as intensity. Consider the following observations. Debates on stem cell research continue to flourish in the public square. Conscientious researchers have wrestled with different options for ethical embryonic stem cell research—including the parthenote, morula, organ transplant, altered nuclear transfer (ANT), and Oocyte Assisted Reprogramming (OAR) options. With the legalization of euthanasia in the Netherlands, the incidence of involuntary euthanasia has predictably increased; the lives of incapacitated men and women are sacrificed on the altar of utilitarian medicine. Meanwhile, there are some who do not see bioethics as a significant task, the entire discipline dismissed as too much ado about nothing. In snapshot, these examples bring home the difficulty of the bioethical task, the sinfulness of its subjects (human beings), and the important question of legitimacy. On the difficulty: Bioethics can be difficult because modern medicine raises medical options that increase exponentially the number of attendant ethical issues. More technology begets more ethical conundrums. On the sinfulness: Men and women are morally tarnished, sinful, living this side of our fall from Eden. The discipline of ethics, its practitioners (read: each one of us), and its many contexts are all implicated in the conspiracy and messiness of sin. Besides, why should anyone care about bioethics? Is this something society should lose any sleep over? These latter questions raise the specter of legitimacy and meaningfulness in bioethics.

On this matter of legitimacy, our limited concern here, most of us intuitively know there is something significant about human beings qua human beings. Despite Peter Singer’s accusation of “speciesism,” the consensus on this issue has not shifted radically. Human beings matter. It is good and right to take care of the poor and the weak and the oppressed. Murder is wrong. Racism violates fundamental biological and moral truths about our fellow man and woman. Human beings matter. The most compelling ground for this intuition is the image of God (imago Dei). The Jewish and Christian Scriptures teach that human beings are made in the divine image. The imprint of the Creator is scattered all over humanity. It is true that this image traditionally has been understood in primarily three ways. The ontological view emphasizes human rationality and moral self-awareness. The functional view emphasizes our role as representatives of God with the task of exercising stewardship over God’s creation (the so-called cultural mandate). The relational view emphasizes that male and female together comprise the imago Dei. Although recent work in ancient Near Eastern studies seem to affirm the functional view of the image, Graham Cole suggests that the “text itself (Gen. 1:27) does not privilege clearly any one of them, each view can be articulated in a fashion consistent with the biblical testimony and which illuminates the text.”[1] In summary, then, bioethics is a legitimate project because human beings matter; they bear the image of the living God.

This doctrine of the image of God has a noble accomplice in the birth of the Messiah. The astonishing event known as the incarnation reveals the following—God the Son, the second member of the Trinity, came in our midst. “The Word became flesh.” As profoundly depicted in John 1:1-14 and Philippians 2:5-8, the creator of all things, the glorious God of the heavens, became a man. God and humanity met miraculously in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. This historical datum is at once the subject of sundry theological tomes, the source of deep conceptual mysteries, and the wellspring of prayerful worship. It is a pivotal moment in the great drama that began with Adam and Eve, continuing with the experience of the nation Israel, and climaxing in the advent of her Messiah and God, Jesus. The incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus gives answer to the deep riddle of the human condition. There is a plenitude of life-giving truth here. Those who drink from these wells will never thirst.

But we can probe the incarnation further—it sanctifies the task of bioethics. The incarnation gives the task of bioethics meaning and legitimacy. The Word became flesh. It follows that protection of human dignity is necessary, and even important. Why? It is of no small significance that this Jewish messiah did not manifest himself as a hawk or an antelope. The God who created all things did not take on the form of an angel or an inanimate object. He became a man. In this miraculous act he thus sanctified all men and women, every human being. In incorporating the full humanity of Jesus into the intra-trinitarian life of God, that same God thus “dignified” humanity forever. To say this is, of course, to leave unresolved the vexing questions of how best to preserve this human dignity (therein lie many lively debates, commissions, and editorials). That was alluded to earlier; bioethics is a difficult task worked out by sinful people in a fallen world. Human dignity is nevertheless a sacred thing. The Incarnation speaks to this in an eloquent way (as does, incidentally, his death and resurrection).

All of this suggests, perhaps, an even tighter connection between the image of God and the incarnation. According to Paul’s letter to the Colossians, Jesus himself is the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15). In a way that no other human being has ever done, or ever will do, Jesus shows forth what God is really like. On one level, this is absolutely unsurprising for he is God. The incarnation offers us the image of God par excellence. When we want to see what God is like, we need to look at Jesus the God-man. It is therefore in Jesus himself that we find the basis of human dignity; he is the incarnation and infallible image of God. In the nexus of these two profound doctrines we find legitimacy in one of the burdens of bioethics—preserving human dignity. The recent focus on human dignity by the President’s Council on Bioethics is thus a salutary development.[2] As a new year unravels, the incarnation can help all of us renew our commitment to the dignity of the human person. The fate of bioethics, and all of medicine, ultimately rests on this broad commitment.


[1] Graham Cole, “Christianity as a Relational Religion,” in Jubilee Manifesto, ed. Michael Schluter and John Ashcroft (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2005), 42.

[2] For more on this, see the Staff Working Paper by Adam Schulman, “Bioethics and Human Dignity” (December 2005),