Perfecting the Imperfectible

Gregory E. Reynolds

In response to the question, Can scientists actually alter human nature? Ken Myers warned that human nature cannot be altered, but great damage can be done in trying.

Performance-enhancing drugs, like steroids, are excellent examples of the danger inherent in seeking to redesign or enhance human nature. Such temporary enhancements prove costly in terms of future physical health and present ethical integrity. Granted, much in human nature requires cultivation and development, such as virtues, intelligence, and natural gifts. What remains fixed is often referred to as the givenness of human nature. I like this word because it refers not only to the unalterable, but positively emphasizes the divine origin of that unchangeable aspect of human nature referred to by theologians as the imago dei. The givenness of human nature cannot be denied, however much it may be ignored.

In the present historical situation (referred to as a "state" by older theologians like Thomas Boston[1]) there are two dimensions to the givenness of human nature: what God created us to be, and our fallenness in the First Adam. Our essential humanity as God's creatures is what Scripture and our Confession refer to as the image of God (imago dei). But the intrusion of sin and death has altered human nature in a profound way. It is only as we understand our humanity in covenant with our Creator in each of the interrelated four states of man that we may properly understand human nature in the present.[2] It is especially the fallenness, or mortality, of our humanity that is tacitly denied by many of those in the vanguard of biotechnology.

Everyone, from conservative columnist George Will to University of Chicago evolutionist Professor Jerry Coyne, misses the reality of the curse and original sin by asserting that the design of things doesn't appear to be very intelligent, riddled with disease and unspeakable natural disasters as it is. They have missed what Nathaniel Hawthorne profoundly understood in his story "The Birthmark." Autonomous rationalism makes Frankenstein in seeking the perfection of the human apart from the knowledge of the Creator and Redeemer of humanity. Our fallenness, or imperfection, invites such a quest, but only in the gospel is the quest properly fulfilled.

Church officers need to explore and understand the new and burgeoning field of biotechnology from the perspective of historic Christianity, in order to help distinguish between its promises and perils, especially as the various technologies present possibilities of therapy and enhancement in human life.

The meaning of the human is one of the most important issues of our day. What does it mean to be a human being? Is our nature subject to change or even redesign? As Christians we know better. We are "fearfully and wonderfully made." So says Psalm 139:14. This verse teaches us that we are created, "made" creatures of God the Creator, and made in his image. We have been designed by him to cultivate our humanity in his service and for his glory. That is our true happiness and enjoyment. As "fearfully" made, we are meant to live in relationship with, and in worshipful reverence of, God. This is only possible as he condescends to live in covenantal relationship with us. Since the fall of Adam, this becomes a reality through his gift in establishing the covenant of grace through the Second Adam, Jesus Christ. Finally we are "wonderfully" made in God's image. We are mysterious beings because we are God's creation, and especially because we uniquely reflect and relate to him. We are incomprehensible in a finite way even as he is infinitely. Our spiritual and physical nature cannot be fully understood by us. Only in relationship to God can we have a proper understanding of who we are. Even then, only he comprehends us fully. Modern rationalistic, materialistic science believes precisely the opposite in rebellion against the true knowledge of God. The response to the discovery of the human genome system is a classic example of modern man's hubris. It is widely believed that we can unlock the code to human nature, which is assumed to be reducible to material reality, and ultimately solve all human problems, which are assumed to be rooted in physical reality, including death.

Apart from the admitted difficulties of dealing with the particular ethical and spiritual questions that biotechnology raises for the church and its officers, the present milieu offers a unique opportunity to present the only real solution to the problems of sin and death—the gospel of the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ. Church officers must not lose sight of this in the face of the overwhelming cultural consensus that is rooted in our technological conceit. Philosophical materialism is as old as the Stoics and Epicureans to whom Paul preached in Athens (Acts 17:16-34).

One day the now imperfectible will be perfected in the eschatological glory of the Lamb. There is no more stirring, glorious, and practical message than this.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away." And he who was seated on the throne said, "Behold, I am making all things new." Also he said, "Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true." And he said to me, "It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. (Rev. 21:1-7)

The excellence and humanity of this message must be protected and promoted in our ministries as people look for the guiding wisdom of church officers in answering the difficult questions posed by biotechnology.

It is also incumbent upon us to appreciate and appropriate advances in medicine and biotechnology to the degree that they have a therapeutic, rather than a transformational, goal. This is God's merciful provision to alleviate human suffering in a fallen world. This is the prudential heritage of our Puritan forefathers, who were enthusiastic supporters of advances in science and medicine. There is often a fine line between seeking the alleviation of pain and seeking a pain-free life. The latter seeks to deny the reality of mortality and its cause—sin.

A good place to begin consideration of these difficult questions is a Report by the President's Council on Bioethics. The rest of this editorial will review that book.

THE MEANING OF THE HUMAN: A Review of Beyond Therapy

Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness. A Report by the President's Council on Bioethics. Forward by Leon Kass, M.D., chairman. New York: ReganBooks, HarperCollins, 2003, xxi + 328 pages, $14.95 (free upon request), paper.

Leon Kass and the President's Council on Bioethics (I shall refer to the author as Kass, although some other members of the committee wrote various portions of the book) are disturbed by the lack of public discussion about the subject of biotechnology. You will never read a more compelling government report. Many of Kass's colleagues have objected strenuously to his introduction of ethical questions into the discussion about biotechnology.

Such discussion is complex and thus requires arduous intellectual work. We are not trained as a culture to engage in such discussion. We are tempted by the immediacy of the electronic media to think such discussion unnecessary, since the benefits of biotechnology—similar to the benefits of electronic media—seem so obvious. If we have the technology, then we may, and even ought to, use it. In the face of this naïve, and often pernicious, culture-wide opinion, Kass courageously asserts that the book is "not a research paper but an ethical inquiry" (xx).

The Contents

This is an essential book because it raises the right questions and gives a detailed account of actual and potential biotechnologies and how they intersect with several major areas of concern.

The introduction "Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness" lays out the general terrain and purposes of the book. Then four major areas of biotechnological experimentation are explored: "Better Children," "Superior Performance," "Ageless Bodies," and "Happy Souls." In each chapter, technologies related to these subjects are discussed in some detail, benefits and liabilities are explored, and conclusions are drawn. "General Reflections" sums up the observations and concerns common to the four areas.

The thematic phrase "beyond therapy" makes a critical distinction between the ordinary "healing" task of medicine and the quest to move beyond this task with "enhancement." Kass acknowledges the ambiguity of these terms, but insists that they are a good starting place. While Kass et al. show appreciation for the many benefits of the new technologies, I would sum up the tone of the book as "cautiously pessimistic"—a tone I recommend to sessions and diaconates considering these matters. This should be our attitude toward all of our inventions—none of which is neutral—all of which are extensions of our humanity and have the potential to affect us for better or worse.

Truth to tell, not everyone who has considered these prospects is worried. On the contrary, some celebrate the perfection-seeking direction in which biotechnology may be taking us. Indeed, some scientists and biotechnologists have not been shy about prophesying a better-than-currently-human world to come, available with the aid of genetic engineering, nanotechnologies, and psychotropic drugs. "At this unique moment in the history of technical achievement," declares a recent report of the National Science Foundation, "improvement of human performance becomes possible," and such improvement, if pursued with vigor, "could achieve a golden age that would be a turning point for human productivity and quality of life."[3] "Future humans—whoever or whatever they may be—will look back on our era as a challenging, difficult, traumatic moment," writes a scientist observing present trends. "They will likely see it as a strange and primitive time when people lived only seventy or eighty years, died of awful diseases, and conceived their children outside a laboratory by a random, unpredictable meeting of sperm and egg."[4] James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, put the matter as a simple question: "If we could make better human beings by knowing how to add genes, why shouldn't we?"[5]

Yet the very insouciance of some of these predictions and the confidence that the changes they endorse will make for a better world actually serve to increase public unease. Not everyone cheers a summons to a "post-human" future. Not everyone likes the idea of "remaking Eden" or of "man playing God." Not everyone agrees that this prophesied new world will be better than our own. Some suspect it could rather resemble the humanly diminished world portrayed in Aldous Huxley's novel Brave New World, whose technologically enhanced inhabitants live cheerfully, without disappointment or regret, "enjoying" flat, empty lives devoid of love and longing, filled with only trivial pursuits and shallow attachments. (6-7)

What is Biotechnology?

"Biotechnology" is the technology that enables human beings more and more to control life in plants, animals, and humans (1-2). Human potential rather than the technologies per se should be the central focus of concern. The meaning and goals are not given by the technologies but by the inventors and users. "The benefits from biomedical progress are clear and powerful. The hazards are less well appreciated, precisely because they are attached to an enterprise we all cherish and support and to goals nearly all of us desire. All the more reason to try to articulate the human goods that we seek to defend and the possible threats they may face" (24).

Kass raises the problem and prospect of redefining the human. Redefining the human is an Enlightenment project. Technology is the means of perfecting human nature by altering it. Seventeenth-century French philosopher René Descartes, sounding like his older contemporary Francis Bacon, asserted that the new science will make us "like masters and owners of nature" (11).

Strengths of the Book

  1. Many of the right questions and the elements of the debate are carefully articulated in the book. "What is the good life? What is the good community?" (11) How is human happiness and perfection achieved? (22)
  2. The available and possible technologies and their uses in the various professions and in culture are described in informative detail.
  3. The discussion is framed by understanding the proper relationship between technology and the human, or the "primacy of human aspirations."
  4. The book identifies the dangerous tendency of biotechnological enhancement to alter and redefine human aspirations.

Weaknesses of the Book (Many assumptions are only hinted at; remember, it is a government report)

  1. There is no account of the historic fall. Thus, the anthropology of the book assumes that the life cycle beginning with birth and ending in death is "natural" or "given."
  2. There is no detailed definition of man and his nature. Thus, there is no substantial alternative to the tabula raza of the Enlightenment—the idea that man's mind is a blank slate, emphasizing nurture at the expense of nature.

Building on the Book—Areas of Christian Concern in the Debate

  1. Beginning with a biblical theological anthropology, man needs to be defined as the imago dei. His value and nature are inextricably tied up with the human relationship with the Creator God.
  2. Man's spiritual and moral nature, as a finite replica of God's character, needs to be understood as an important aspect of the "boundaries of human life."
  3. The uniqueness of each person in terms of gifts and abilities forms an important God-given boundary.
  4. The mysterious interconnection of body and soul, physical and spiritual, must be understood to counteract the materialist reduction of some modern science.
  5. The historic fall, along with the consequent state of "sin and misery," needs to be understood as an important aspect of the "boundaries of human life."
  6. Human aspirations need to be defined in terms of those boundaries stated above: the imago dei; individual uniqueness; and the fall into the estate of sin and misery, defining our present mortality.
  7. Human aspirations need to be considered in terms of the autonomous tendency of fallen human nature (original sin) and the original purpose of man to glorify God and enjoy him forever. Kass observes, "What's at issue is not the crude old power to kill the creature made in God's image but the attractive science-based power to remake ourselves after images of our own devising" (11).
  8. Human happiness and perfection are wholesome aspirations when defined by God in his Word; but they are only achieved through the redeeming power of the Second Adam, the Lord Jesus Christ.

As officers we must help foster a degree of contentment in our present imperfection "until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ..." (Eph. 4:13). Only God in Christ can perfect the imperfectible.


[1] See Thomas Boston, Human Nature in its Fourfold State (1720).

[2] Classic Reformed theology is exemplified by the four states enumerated by Thomas Boston in Human Nature in its Fourfold State. They are: 1) the state of innocence (Eden) 2) the state of nature (sin) 3) the state of grace 4) the eternal state. Danny Olinger has wisely suggested that the confusion or elimination of these four states is the root of all bad theology.

[3] Citing National Science Foundation, Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance: Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information Technology and Cognitive Science, Arlington, Virginia: National Science Foundation, 2003, p. 6.

[4] Citing Stock, G., Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002, p. 200. A similar opinion has been voiced by Lee Silver: "[W]e're going to be able to manipulate and control the genes that we give to our children. It's just over the horizon.... All of these new technologies are going to change humankind as we know it." ("Frontline" interview, www.pbs.org.) See also Silver, L., Remaking Eden: Cloning and Beyond in a Brave New World, New York: Avon, 1998. Silver's enthusiasm for the post-human future is diluted only by his fear that not everyone will have equal access to its enhancing benefits. For an examination and critique of these views, see Fukuyama, F., Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2002.

[5] Citing James D. Watson, quoted in Wheeler, T., "Miracle Molecule, 50 Years On," Baltimore Sun, 4 February 2003, p. 8A. At a symposium in Toronto in October 2002, Watson went further in his support of enhancement: "Going for perfection was something I always thought you should do. You always want the perfect girl." (Abraham, C., "Gene Pioneer Urges Human Perfection," Toronto Globe and Mail, 26 October 2002.) The article further quotes Watson's response to the charge that he wants to use genetics "to produce pretty babies or perfect people": "What's wrong with that?" he countered. "It's as if there's something wrong with enhancements."

Ordained Servant, April 2008.

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Ordained Servant: April 2008

Defining Humanity

Also in this issue

A Christian Anthropology for Contemporary Bioethics

Defining the Human: Personal Identity in Theological Perspective: A Review Article

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