Jesus commanded that we are to “love the Lord your God…with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). It is a command that can be joyfully obeyed especially when done together with other Jesus followers. That is what “The Exchange with Pastor Josh” is all about. The questions and insights that are shared are not from Pastor Josh but rather emerge from a group of Jesus followers discussing and interacting with one another. I have tried to faithfully capture the insights and flow of the conversation here so that others can be inspired to “love the Lord your God…with all your mind” as well. My acknowledgement and gratitude goes to the group of Jesus followers gathered for The Exchange on April 14, 2001. The Lord and you know who you are.
Soli Deo Gloria
Question: How do we biblically wrestle with ethical issues? Specifically, is it wrong to receive a vaccination developed from aborted fetal cells?
Is there a way to biblically wrestle with ethical issues that are not specifically addressed in the Bible? In his book The Moral Vision of the New Testament (2013), Richard Hays develops a model for bringing the New Testament to bear as an “ethical witness” in the life of Christians today. Hays’ background as Professor Emeritus of New Testament at Duke Divinity School equips him to survey the breadth of the New Testament and to offer a disciplined approach to this important issue. Hays proposes a four step process that includes the following: description, synthesis, hermeneutics, and pragmatics.
First, description is the process of surveying the text of the Bible carefully and allowing individual texts to speak as they are presented without initially attempting to harmonize potentially conflicting teachings. With the issue of vaccines developed using fetal tissues, there are no specific passages to consider. One may rightly include the Apostle Paul’s advice to Timothy to “use a little wine because of your stomach and frequent illnesses” as an affirmation of medical intervention (1 Timothy 5:23). However, the ethics of medical intervention is too broad a subject to apply directly here. There are no passages that speak directly. Does that mean that we must appeal to reason or experience? Hays answers, “no.”
The second step in the process of biblical ethical discernment, synthesis, anticipates teaching in the New Testament that may appear contradictory on the surface. Hays offers the example of Jesus’ demand that His disciples “give up all your possessions” (Luke 14:33) and Paul’s more moderate teaching of generosity in 2 Corinthians 8-9. Synthesis allows a “moral coherence” that arises from the New Testament itself to guide our response to issues addressed differently in different parts of the Bible (Hays, 189). The synthesis of the moral vision in the New Testament that Hays proposes is guided by three images or metaphors that are consistent across the different New Testament writings. Those images are community, cross, and new creation (Hays, 193). For Hays, the images serve as a way to guide our reflection of the different ways passages might relate to one another, as well as to shape how we are to relate to those passages. This is an important and helpful insight. However, since there are no passages to synthesize, Hays’ metaphors cannot be rightly brought to bear on this issue.
The third step in the process is labeled “hermeneutics” by which Hays means “bringing the texts to bear upon our own situation” (Hays, 462). This is done by considering the rules, principles, paradigms (narratives), and symbols (world view) that are present in the biblical text and how they apply in our particular context. Here, the Bible provides ample consideration of the issue at hand. With respect to “symbols” or the world view which gives shape to the Bible, the character of God as creator and author of life is an obvious starting point. Psalm 139:13-16 notably affirms God’s creative work and personal knowledge of human life even in the womb. This perspective provides an umbrella of dignity and worth that covers human life at all stages of development and should color judgments made about how to handle both pre and post-natal life. In addition, God is portrayed consistently as the just judge to whom all creation, but especially humans, must give account (Ecclesiastes 3:17; Romans 2:16; Revelation 20:11-15). This perspective implies that no one will ultimately escape responsibility for their actions. Both the one who chooses to receive a vaccine and the one who refuses to receive a vaccine will stand before the same judge and must give account for how that decision comports with “loving your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31).
With respect to paradigms or narratives, a variety of biblical accounts could prove fruitful for considering how to act in this particular situation. The story of Noah (Genesis 5:32-9:29) provides a picture of human technology being developed under God’s leadership for the purpose of preserving life on earth in the face of naturally occurring calamity. This paradigm or narrative could be read as encouragement for further research and development not merely for selfish gain or improvement of quality of life but for the more noble purpose of protecting and preserving life. Also, Jesus’ repeated healings on the Sabbath demonstrate in narrative the priority of restoring life and health even when doing so would violate cultural and religious norms (Mark 1:29-31; 3:1-6; John 9:1-16; Luke 13:10-17; 14:1-6; John 5:1-18). These paradigms illustrating the priority of preserving life should not be held in isolation from other important paradigms in the Bible including the creation of humanity “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:26-28). Universal human dignity and the sanctity of life provide conceptual buffers that keep us from treating individual humans as mere instruments for the “greater good” of other humans. When the medical community restricts its use of human tissue to tissue knowingly and willingly donated, they are illustrating the balance of these two paradigms. While we must be careful of extrapolating prescriptions or rules from stories in the Bible, they do illustrate principles that can guide decision making.
Some of these principles are explicit and are often well known and frequently appealed to in ethical reflection. For example, Jesus offers loving your neighbor as yourself as a guiding principle in human relationships (Mark 12:31). This principle can be applied in at least two ways on the subject at hand. First, we should do nothing that would cause harm to additional unborn babies. If it were shown that abortions were occurring in order to perform medical research such as vaccine development, then participating in the vaccine would be ethically wrong. However, that is not the case with the existing COVID-19 vaccines.
Second, we should do nothing that would endanger the life of another person. Unless there are other personal and/or medical factors to consider (see Mohler’s discussion of what some of those factors could be), then receiving a vaccination can be considered an act of loving your neighbor as yourself in that it can prevent the unknowing transmission of a disease to others who may be vulnerable. Note carefully that this is a principle not a rule. This is not a prescription of what every Christian must do but rather a judgment about what would be permissible and wise for a Christian to do under the guidance of the Bible.
The final category to consider are rules found in the New Testament governing the behavior of Christians. There is no rule on this subject as the technology did not exist at the time of the writing of the New Testament.
The last step that Hays proposes is the pragmatic step by which he means how a particular community of Christians lives in light of wrestling with a biblical ethic. If the world view and principles are not actually put into practice, then it is not a complete exercise in biblical ethical reasoning. We must be doers of the word not just hearers (James 1:22). The Christian community living in light of a world created by God should take the opportunity presented by a new awareness of vaccine production procedures to advocate strongly and clearly for the ending of abortion and the continued restriction of utilization of human tissue in research without consent. The recognition of God as judge and the principle of loving our neighbor should strike against cavalier rejection of vaccines as well as the condemnation of those who, for various conscience reasons, object to vaccination. In addition, the historic commitment of Christians to the Bible as the authoritative ethical standard should push Christians back to the Bible and to one another. As we wrestle with the various world view implications of the Bible as well as narratives and principles found there, our ethical muscles will be strengthened and our daily lives challenged to live under the authority of God’s Word.