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This blog site will feature essays, columns and musings that deal with the intersection of Christianity and journalism and the American Songbook.

Survey of Bioethical Issues (book review: Christianity Today)

Issues of Life and Death, by Norman Anderson
Christianity Today
1977

In 1969 Spitzer and Saylor published a collection of articles entitled Birth Control and the Christian (Tyndale) in an attempt to focus evangelical attention on that particular area of ethics. Although that collection served as an instigator of evangelical opinion in bioethics, it has several current weaknesses for today’s reader. Most importantly, it was pre-Roe v. Wade (U.S. Supreme Court abortion decision in 1973), a fact that now makes some of the contributions less than relevant. Also, since it was evangelicalism’s first broad attempt to cover an area in bioethics, several of the articles were not up to high standards of scholarship.

All this is simply to say that there is no one book that evangelicals can use to help guide their thinking in the area of bioethics. Norman Anderson has attempted to fill that void with his latest, Issues of Life and Death. This outstanding British legal scholar has given us such fine works as Morality, Law and Grace: Christianity and Comparative Religion: and Christianity: The Witness of History. His little booklet, “The Evidence for the Resurrection,” is one of the prime tools used in college evangelism in Britain.

Anderson has now turned his weighty capabilities to bioethics in a one-volume survey covering the full gamut of human life—inception of life to prolongation of life to termination of life. As he moves along these stages (in a series of lectures) he touches upon such diverse subjects as artificial insemination, genetic engineering, birth control, sterilization, abortion, when and under what circumstances is a human life terminated, organ transplantation, suicide, war, capital punishment, self-defense, revolution, and even civil disobedience. Needless to say, in a 130-page book only the most cursory treatment is given. However, the ultimate value of his book is that some treatment is given. There are, though, several unfortunate weaknesses.

In his initial chapter, “The Sanctity of Human Life,” Anderson gives a brief survey of some of the leading British humanist positions on the value of human life. This is a contribution worth the price of the book. He rightly concludes: “To the humanist man may be regarded as the apex of the evolutionary process, while to the Christian the fundamental fact is that man was created, by whatever means, ‘in the image’ and ‘after the likeness’ of God. To the humanist, again, the exciting point has been reached at which man can consciously take a part in furthering his own evolution, while to the Christian some of the undreamed of possibilities — actual or potential — which are being explored today by medical research may be regarded as an opportunity for man to fulfill, in a new and more intelligent way, the divine command to ‘fill the earth and subdue it.'”

When he moves to genetic engineering the author explains what he believes to be the foremost principle for Christian consideration in this complex area of the life sciences: “the fact [is] that ‘nature’ as we know it, can provide us with no adequate criterion, for the ‘whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now.'” Anderson rightly says “no criterion.” because “nature has been affected by cosmic sin.” The criterion must be derived from God’s revealed will. Anderson fails to make plain that God’s will is preeminently discerned through the Scriptures. A little exegesis here would have helped immeasurably. A further weakness of the chapter is that lawyer Anderson relies too heavily on a secular secondary scientist source (Our Future Inheritance: Choice or Chance? by Alan Jones and Walter Bodmer) for much of his material.

In the chapter on birth control the author erroneously discusses “abortion,” but then in today’s climate that is understandable, though not very helpful. (Perhaps it’s the influence of the above-mentioned pro-abortion book.) This part of the book I found to be entirely unsatisfactory and inconsistent with the tightly reasoned biblicism we have come to expect from Anderson’s eminent legal mind. He concludes with what has become an all too familiar Christian cop-out. “The only answer I can give at this point is that we must grapple with the problem before God earnestly and responsibly — but with the scales weighted, I think, always in favor of reverence for human life.” One misses in this chapter the articulate and anguished evangelical plea for the unborn of Harold O. J. Brown.

In his chapter on the prolongation of life Anderson uses the inexcusable term “monster” to refer to a human baby that is grotesquely misshapen at birth. He defines a monster as “one born with no proper brain or so grossly deformed as not to be human in any meaningful sense of that term.” One need only talk briefly with such Christian physicians as C. Everett Koop of Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia to see how foolish that is. When the author discusses mongoloids his rationale for not letting them die at birth is socially derived: “mongols are frequently very affectionate, arouse a corresponding love in their parents, and exercise a humanizing influence on those who care for them.” Whatever happened to Romans 9:20 or Isaiah 29:16 when one approaches the physical formation of the human body and mind? A positive contribution of this chapter is the clear thinking of Gordon Dunstan of King’s College, London, upon which Anderson draws.

Finally, Anderson comes to his chapter on termination of life and it is in this section that we find some of the best exegesis of the book. He discusses capital punishment, and with the help of Derek Kidney he exegetes Genesis 4. Anderson is, of course, on more familiar ground here and it shows as he brings more Scripture to bear on the topics under view. He has a helpful segment on “just revolution” as he intertwines First Kings and Judges into his basic position that the Old Testament supports the concept of a “just revolution” as it supports the concept of a “just war.” This chapter is vintage Anderson as he takes on the positions of Ellul, Cleage, Shaull, Carmichael, Colin Morris, and Maillard, and like the first chapter, it represents the best of the book.

Norm Anderson’s little book is an attempt to fill a gap in evangelical ethical literature for a one-volume compendium of bioethical opinion and scholarship. The attempt largely fails due to a lack of application of Second Corinthians 10:5. And there is simply very little new scholarship evident in the book. Most of it is a rehash of previously published work.

One must still look to Koop’s The Right to Live: The Right to Die, or Cliff Bajema’s The Meaning of Personhood for a unified evangelical approach to even a few issues in the field of bioethics. Ethics classes in Christian colleges around the country are still waiting for a good textbook.

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