Co-Creator or Priestly Steward

Protagonists in current debates on biotechnology are conscious of the fact that technology has brought mixed blessings. How one should determine the appropriateness and limits of applying technology for human betterment is difficult precisely because the terms of reference used in the debate – like well-being, freedom, dignity and human nature – are essentially contestable. Some clarifications of these terms is necessary before we can determine the limits of applying biotechnology for the perfecting of man.

Co-Creator or Priestly Steward

Theological Perspectives on Biotechnology and the Perfectibility of Man

Ng Kam Weng

Related article: Creation Care and Renewal

This paper attempts to uncover the hidden warrants and moral assumptions utilized by theologians who support the case for biotechnology and genetic engineering. The concept of man as co-creator, which underlies these theologians’ positive reception of biotechnology, will be critiqued in the light of recent philosophical history of human agency and biblical teaching on the stewardship of creation.

* This paper was published in Beyond Determination and Reductionism: Genetic Science and the Person ed. Mark LYChan & Roland Chia. Adelaide: Australian Theological Forum 2003.


“Then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them” Genesis 11:6
Man is neither angel nor beast. When he tries to live like an angel he acts like a beast – Pascal

Protagonists in current debates on biotechnology are conscious of the fact that technology has brought mixed blessings. How one should determine the appropriateness and limits of applying technology for human betterment is difficult precisely because the terms of reference used in the debate – like well-being, freedom, dignity and human nature – are essentially contestable. Some clarifications of these terms is necessary before we can determine the limits of applying biotechnology for the perfecting of man.

This paper attempts to uncover the hidden warrants and moral assumptions utilized by theologians who support the case for biotechnology and genetic engineering. The concept of man as co-creator, which underlies these theologians’ positive reception of biotechnology, will be critiqued in the light of recent philosophical history of human agency and biblical teaching on the stewardship of creation.


Concept of Man as Co-creator

Philip Hefner’s definition of the concept of the created co-creator found in his book The Human Factor offers a helpful starting point for our discussion. The co-creator emerges from the evolutionary process. In recent times, the co-creator itself becomes conscious of its role as God’s instrument and agent in the evolutionary process. Human beings, by virtue of this endowed creativity, have the ability and responsibility to shape creation according to the future plans of God. “Human beings are God’s created co-creators whose purpose is to be the agency, acting in freedom, to birth the future that is most wholesome for the nature that birthed us. . . . Exercising this agency is said to be the will for humans.”[1]

Hefner asserts that awareness of our status as co-creator will promote a sense of responsibility within the natural ecosystem. Human abuse of the ecosystem arises if we are unaware that our values and morality grow out of our genetic evolutionary roots and if we are unwilling to accept the constraint nature imposes on human freedom. On the other hand, our decisions and actions critically influence the survival of the global ecosystem.

This creature not only creates its meanings, grounded in its experiences of the world, of course, but it has adapted so successfully to its global ecosystem that it has been able to impose an overlay upon the pre-and nonhuman world of nature, such that those systems are thoroughly conditioned by human cultural inputs. . . . The point is that nature should function, in large part, as Homo sapiens desire it to function, so as to become in fact the world that the created co-creator believes is most desirable for its existence.[2]

But does not the idea of co-creator betray signs of hubris and Promethean ambition? It brings to mind the creativity and freedom of the builders of the Tower of Babel. Hefner assures his readers that human arrogance will be avoided if we recognize that we are merely created as co-creators and that “we did not evolve ourselves to this point; rather the evolutionary process – under God’s rule, I am arguing – evolved us as co-creators.” In other words, we attain such status not on account of our own inherent potential, but rather we enjoy it as a gift from God himself.

Hefner elaborates the biocultural evolution of the co-creator concept diagrammatically as follows:[3]




For Ted Peters, the concept of co-creator illuminates the imago Dei which legitimizes active human contribution to the world’s future. “To say that we are created reminds us that we are dependent creatures. We depend for our very existence on our cosmic and biological prehistory. Yet we are also creators. Each human being is an open system, so to speak. We use our personal freedom and cultural power to alter the course of historical events. Theologically speaking, we participate with God in the ongoing creative advance.”[4]

Humans, through their creativity, share in God’s redemption of history through ‘future-giving’. Human beings endeavor to work creatively in the present because they are able to link its significance with a projected vision of a redeemed future. It is precisely because of the ability of the co-creator that genetic technology should be seen as a visionary and benevolent act of human creativity.

It is granted that Hefner and Peters anticipate and answer their critics by qualifying their concept, i.e. in defining man to be a created co-creator. Still, one cannot help but wonder if the concept remains too anthropocentric, notwithstanding the qualifier. Indeed, one wonders if the concept suggests that biotechnology, as a creative innovation of the co-creator, must be invariably good and in harmony with God’s good purpose for humanity and creation. The similarity of terms between co-creator and Creator also surely aligns too closely our action with divine purpose. One may be forgiven for holding evolutionary optimism during the late 19th century, but surely such confidence has been shattered by the complicity of science and technology for the brutality of wars and the devastation of our environment in the 20th century.

It should be noted that the normal usage of the word ‘creation’ denotes God’s special action in bringing the cosmos into existence out of absolute nothingness, or to bring order out of primeval chaos. Creation as such testifies to the transcendence and sovereignty of God. It is therefore natural for theologians to weaken the doctrine of the sovereignty of God in order to make room for the concept of co-creator. For example, Arthur Peacocke, advocates the concept of a limited God. “He allowed his inherent omnipotence and omniscience to be modified, restricted and curtailed by the very open-endedness that he has bestowed upon creation” [5] Peacocke likens God to an improvising music composer unfolding the full potential of creation, with man as his co-creator and co-explorer. “It is as if man has the possibility of acting as a participant in creation, as it were the leader of the orchestra of creation in the performance which is God’s continuing composition.”[6]

However, the careless use of the term co-creator will blur the boundaries between the divine and the human. Without clear boundaries one can imagine how the concept of co-creator will suggest that there be no limit to the application of biotechnology for the perfectibility of man. In this regard, the four limitations found in the Chalcedonian formula remain surprisingly relevant – that the relation between human nature and divine nature should be described as without confusion, without change, without division, without separation. It is necessary to distinguish between the actions of fallen humanity that is leading the world towards an ecological and eschatological crisis from God’s actions to bring in the new creation.

How we assess the concept of man as co-creator also depends on whether we view human actions – exemplified by cultural and technological achievements – as contributing significantly to the new creation. Hendrikus Berkhof points to the biblical images that suggest a tension between continuities (Rev. 21:24, 26 indicate that the cultural treasures of the nations are brought in) and discontinuities (Rev. 21:2 indicates that the new Jerusalem will descend out of heaven). Emphasizing discontinuities suggests that our cultural and technological achievements provide the scaffolding for the coming structure, scaffolding that will be torn down. In contrast, emphasizing continuities (and hence a place for the co-creator) suggests that human actions provide building materials for the new creation. Berkhof urges modesty in likening our actions to “witness”, “sign” and “likeness” since our actions are merely preparatory and what we achieve is “a distant foretaste of the fullness of life and the world God has in store for us.”[7]

From Conforming to God’s Image to Human Agency

Ted Peters assures us that the concept of co-creator is consistent with the image of God in us. But the fact is the same term, ‘image of God’ acquires different emphases when transposed into different moral frameworks. In traditional theology, realization of the full image of God suggests conformity to the image of the eternal God. But with the rise of modern philosophy the emphasis has shifted to one of human agency rather than conformity.

Pre-modern philosophical thinkers focused on gaining insight into the nature of fundamental reality to ensure that human response is one that conforms and harmonises with nature/reality around us. For example, Malebranche held that the good of man lies not so much in action as in the insightful contemplation of truth, especially theological truths that comes from come from revelation of God. One notes the philosopher’s confidence that analysis of this revelation will bring clarity that will inform human response. Hence, the best of human thinking is participation in the divine thought.

“Man is made for the adoration of God in the wisdom of His conduct; let us try to lose ourselves in the contemplation of His depths. The human spirit can be in no better state, than when adoring in silence the divine perfection.”[8] In other words, man does not achieve fulfillment by maximizing his inherent nature. Human fulfillment comes through grace.

But later developments – springing from the Romantic period – suggest a different understanding of human fulfillment even though philosophers and poets continued to use the concept of the image of God. The god with whom man strove to identify was an immanent god rather than a transcendent God. “The identification of god with nature encouraged the conception of deity as mobile, actively engaged in endless self-transformation . . .. A god who was nature shares nature’s everchanging face as well as her everlasting laws.”[9]

Indeed, for Friedrich Schiller, human ‘tendency to divinity’ comes not from conformity to the image of God but through the exercise of the active power of the human mind to impose form on the given materials of sensation. The challenge to man is to make his life in the world as aesthetically satisfying as possible: “All that is in him he must externalize, all that is external he must shape. Both tasks, when thought of as carried out to the highest degree, lead back to the concept of the deity. . . .” In other words, successful human action becomes the measure of his divinity.

As stated earlier, an accentuation on human creativity and freedom can lead to the dilution of divine transcendence and sovereignty. C. S. Peirce, the father of pragmatism, suggests the idea of the universe as evolving in the direction of ‘concrete reasonableness’. In this evolving universe, the scientists’ advancement of the rational scientific enterprise represents an advancement of God’s will by lending God a hand in making the world more reasonable.

William James follows Peirce’s lead by arguing that truth is not so much a copy of the divine as it is the fruit of autonomous human action to meet diverse and changing human needs. Autonomous and diverse action springs from the loss of ethical direction from the absolute so that humans must now rely on their own finite experience. However, he remains optimistic that cumulative knowledge will eventually solve the problems of life.

Edward Craig cites James, “In our cognitive as well as in our active life we are creative . . . the world stands really malleable, waiting to receive its final touches at our hands . . . Man engenders truths upon it.”[10] The conclusion is that humanity is willing to let finite experience, with all its immanent satisfactions and dissatisfactions, be self-supporting even if it means negotiating a dangerous abyss.

However, our recent experience of technological society casts doubts on the adequacy of such evolutionary pragmatism. As Craig warns us,

But the risks inherent in the humanistic philosophy, the metaphysical vision of the autonomous agent in the void, do not just lie in its close connections with the urge to technological progress that may then run amok. Quite apart from the instability of the world which it might easily encourage, it is psychologically unstable in itself. It is the philosophy of the confident man, or as its opponent would very likely have it, the over-confident man. Should that confidence flag it offers no secure consolation. The image of the void, from being a symbol of the limitless liberty of the agent, becomes a menacing abyss waiting to engulf all his purposes and reduce him to a nullity.[11]

Theologians who optimistically offer the concept of co-creator to legitimize human freedom and agency to help nature find its fulfillment should take a salutary lesson from the trajectory of modern philosophy – which moves from conformity to divine reality to human agency in the dark – when they realize that post-modern fragmentation or Nietzchean nihilism are crouching at the door of modern pragmatic philosophy.

Completed Creation as a Framework for Action

My hesitation to adopt the concept of man as co-creator also springs from my understanding of a completed creation as a vital pre-requisite to preserve the integrity of the praxis of freedom and the freedom of praxis. That is to say, human action is significant if morality is viewed as man’s participation and harmony with created order. Oliver O’Donovan argues,

Creation is the given totality of order which forms the presupposition of historical existence. ‘Created order’ is that which is not negotiable within the course of history . . .. It defines the scope of our freedom and the limits of our fears . . .. Within such a world, in which ‘the Lord reigns’, we are free to act and can have the confidence that God will act. Because created order is given, because it is secure, we dare to be certain that God will vindicate it in history.[12]

In other words, creation, as a completed design, provides a comprehensive framework for meaningful action. Creation orders provide the criteria for the ethical judgment of human action.

Without transcendence, creation is merely a transient context for human action and all values become immanent. If everything is in process and therefore imperfect then we can no longer differentiate between the order of creation structures and the disorder of sin. “With creation cut loose from its beginnings and treated merely as another name for history, the beginnings are left without positive characterization; they are merely the unfinishedness from which the end calls us forward. And with sin no longer defined against the criterion of a good natural order, and with only the future as its judge, evil has no definite characterization either.”[13]

The blurring of human and divine action leads to a facile identification of human intention with God’s redemptive rule. If history is the platform for evolutionary enhancement, if good is a product of human co-action, then we will be strongly tempted to resort to intervention and manipulation for the purpose of social engineering of human society. If values are immanent then human co-creators determine their own ‘eschatological’ categories which legitimize rather than critique the social project of the ruling elite. History gives ample examples of devastating consequences that result when powerful ruling elites, acting with supreme self-confidence, try to realize the full possibilities of human history. In effect, they baptize their social projects with the name of the Kingdom of God. The way to hell has been paved with good human intentions.

The cure for such optimistic blunders is to accept the limitation of human action in history. Indeed, the telos for human kind is not so much a human achievement as it is a gift of grace. That is to say, God remains sovereign at work in bringing history forward by doing something ‘really new’. Herein lies the Christian remedy for the disastrous burden of history.

Such a view of history as driven by divine action is consistent with the Christian doctrine of the Sabbath. The Sabbath, after all, presupposes the completeness of creation and that what remains is for us to enter that Sabbath rest which has been waiting for us all this time, as it were, unoccupied (Hebrews 4:3-11). In the felicitous words of Oliver O’Donovan, “Historical fulfillment means our entry into a completeness which is already present in the universe. Our Sabbath rest is, as it were, a catching up with God.”[14]

Priestly Stewardship

The doctrine of the Sabbath emphasizes thankfulness for and prudential care of creation rather than creative action. This leads to the concept of priestly stewardship. That is to say, priestly stewardship celebrates the anticipation of our entry into the Sabbath to come and delivers us from the burden of driving history forward.


Scripture affirms that God’s kingship extends over all of creation, e.g. Psalm 29 – God enthroned over all creation, nature following his commands. Cf. also Psalms 96, 47, 103:22 and 145. Within this acknowledged divine kingship stewardship is defined by the three commands of filling, subduing and caring (Genesis 1:28 and 2:15 and Psalm 8).
DeWitt further elaborates the contours of biblical stewardship:
1. The ‘Earth-keeping principle’: Imaging God’s dominion. Just as the Creator keeps and sustains humanity; so humanity must keep and sustain the Creator’s creation.
2. The ‘Sabbath principle’: People, land and creatures must not be relentlessly pressured. Creation must be allowed to recover from human use of its resources.
3. The ‘fruitfulness principle’: The richness of creation is to be enjoyed, not destroyed.
4. The ‘fulfilment and limits principle’: Contentment accepts that there are limits set to humanity’s role within creation, with boundaries set in place which must be respected.


In contrast with Francis Bacon’s theme of mastery over nature and the view that nature has value only if it is useful for human ends, priestly stewardship stresses human responsibility and care for nature. Nature exists not only for human benefit; it has intrinsic value since it serves as an arena through which the glory of God is declared. From this perspective, human obedience to God will bring blessings to the earth, but the lust for power and temptation to act out of short-term interests will bring ecological disaster.

We must also be mindful of Romans 8:18-25, with its assessment of nature as subjected to frustration, in bondage to decay and waiting in eager expectation for its liberation. C. F. D. Moule explains “as long as man refuses to play the part assigned him by God, so long the entire world of nature is frustrated and dislocated. It is only when man is fitting into his proper position as a son in relation to God his Father that the dislocation in the whole of nature will be reduced.”[16]

Priestly stewardship provides the middle ground between secular exploitation of nature and nature-mysticism. It accepts the responsibility to cherish and care for creation while remaining mindful of the possibility that we can abuse power to mar and destroy God’s creation. But several questions and dilemmas arise: Stewards may improve the condition of the estate, but what change is permitted? What is permitted and what is obligated in this change? Do we change ourselves in the process? What risks may we take and change for what purpose? What are the boundaries of change?

One helpful starting point in resolving these issues comes from the Evangelical Declaration of Environment Care (1994) which says that “the role of human stewards is not to improve nature but to preserve and protect it. Given human fallenness, human intervention will result in abuse and destruction of nature.” Stewardship, after all, implies receiving and caring for what is given and complying with the parameters set by the owner who has entrusted his property into our care. Based on this view, we are limited to using what is already available.

One may argue that a sense of stewardship discourages or even forbids genetic manipulation of creatures. But supporters of genetic engineering will protest that this is an unnecessary limitation of the role of stewardship. After all, are not stewards also expected to maximize the potential of whatever is entrusted to them? One readily appeals to the parable of the good steward who multiplies his talents.

Perhaps we may allow for some measure of creativity in the role of stewards. But any creative venture requires that what we create be offered as an acceptable worship before the Creator. Such a perception helps humans to adopt a more cautious and circumspect attitude towards what we intend to create and the manner in which we implement our creative products, since priestly stewards carry out their tasks as responsible agents in communion with the Creator. A sense of priestly stewardship should encourage restraints. In contrast, those who see themselves as agents of co-creation face the temptation of hubris.

Stewardship reminds us that God’s world, however fallen, remains good and that we must discharge our stewardship in a network of ecological interdependence. Intervening in the name of co-creatorship would amount to ‘playing God’, a term first wittily deployed in Paul Ramsey’s aphorism, “Men ought not to play God before they learn to be men, and after they have learned to be men they will not play God.” “To play God is to appropriate to ourselves functions and tasks that properly belong to God, to change what should not be changed.”

Vulnerability to temptation to ‘play God’ arises when humans act as if they know clearly the knowledge of good and evil. In contrast, a theology of priestly stewardship recognizes the ambiguities of our knowledge enterprise and our motives for intervention into nature. An acknowledgement of priestly stewardship does not preclude creative duties, but such duties should recognize the boundaries of human intervention and the ambiguities of the consequences of human action. We shall proceed to explore and define how such boundaries take shape in the enterprise of biotechnology.

Limits to Biotechnology

Biotechnology allures us with the possibility of improving or perfecting our human nature. To be sure, what constitutes ‘perfecting’ will remain a matter of debate. Resolution of the debate becomes more difficult when we cannot even agree on what constitutes human perfectibility. [17]

But the genetic scientist is not troubled by the inability to solve the debate on human perfection. As we have noted, for modern pragmatic philosophy, we do not need to have clarity about human ideals as a copy of the eternal. The very pragmatism of biotechnology assumes that cumulative change will bring at least substantial improvement of the human nature, which certainly would include enhancing a sense of happiness and the prolongation of life. It is often the case of balancing ends and means, pros and cons.

The contribution of theology, hopefully, is to provide criteria to decide between hierarchy and competition between possible goods that may arise from biotechnology. Priestly stewardship of creation, and therefore biotechnology, may include the following guidelines to regulate the biotechnology enterprise.

1. Biotechnology must not tempt us to evade taking responsibility for our lives and for the choices we make

What if human traits and behavior are determined by selfish genes? What if such behavior could be changed chemically, albeit temporarily? What more if changes could be achieved permanently by genetic manipulation? If that be the case, the greatest resources should be allocated towards finding genetic means to achieve such changes. We will then witness the fulfillment of Herbert Spencer’s prophecy that “Progress . . . is not an accident but a necessity.” The prophecy becomes most relevant especially in the light of recent advances in neuropharmacology.

Securing a sense of happiness is sufficient for satisfying our hedonistic instinct for the moment. Biotechnologists are excited that the first generation of neuro-pharmacological drugs such as Prozac (serotonin) can elevate our sense of happiness and self-esteem. Such innocuous desires, however, mask the danger of escapism that is poignantly depicted by Aldous Huxley in his book Brave New World. In this brave new world, life or rather, one’s moods have been fitted to chosen activities or the requirements of social institutions. Happiness comes because there is nothing left to struggle against. Comfort and happiness are mass-produced and made to order. But surely, life is more than just an absence of troubles? Indeed, such a life would be bereft of depth and meaning precisely because humans are encouraged to avoid making hard decisions and therefore taking responsibility for all aspects of living.

2. Biotechnology must not submit the individual to social planning

We are reminded of earlier social Darwinists who assume that if human nature is changeable then it must be changed to ensure successful adaptability for the flourishing of the human specie. John Passmore aptly sums up such an attitude exemplified by Alfred Wallace, “Men will no longer permit themselves to be ruled by their passions, once they have discovered that ‘it was only required of them to develop capacities of their higher nature, in order to convert this earth. . . . Paradise then, lies within men’s reach . . . each and every man will by the development of his higher faculties enter into it, if not here and now, at least within the history of the this earth.” This being the case, then surely the state must intervene to develop (or rather, manipulate) the human faculties so that its citizens completely fit the requirements of society. For Wallace, such a fit (or rather conformity) will bring an end to evil and immorality.

Secular policy planners are aware of the dangers of human manipulation and have relied on the following criteria to guide their choices: 1) Patient autonomy – patients simply able to determine their own destiny without being subject to controlling constraints imposed by others; 2) Beneficience or non-maleficience – doing of good and the active promotion of good, kindness and charity.

Whether this provides an adequate framework to guide our use of biotechnology remains to be seen. But there seems to be inseparability between genetic manipulations and eugenics. We can anticipate the following scenario arising from biotechnological developments: parents will initiate genetic diagnosis and screening of pre-implanted embryos to avoid potential genetic defects and to ensure implanted embryos possess the preferred set of genes. The ultimate goal can only be to secure a designer baby with high IQ and superior physique and psychological tendencies. What are all these if not eugenics? At worst, we have the scenario of a society built on tailor-designed humans manufactured to the needs of social planners. At best, society will drift into unequal social classes since parents with wealth and influence will have access to genetically enhanced fertilized eggs for qualities like intelligence, athletic ability and good looks. The rich perpetuates themselves as the superior super race which Lee Silver describes as the “gene-enriched” or GenRich people. Those left out are permanently stuck in a second grade humanity. More disturbingly, Lee Silver envisages a time to come when the genetic difference between the GenRich and normal people reaches a stage where they can no longer breed with one another.[18] Biotechnology in this scenario has certainly violated the boundaries of human identity.

It should be emphasized that viewing social interactions in biological terms opens us to the temptation to resign passively to a biologically determined life situation, or to absolve ourselves of our shortcomings. The outcome will only be the perpetuation of the hegemony of the ruling elite over the underclass. C. S. Lewis in the Abolition of Man notes that advances in eugenics have effectively led to the rule of a few hundred men over the masses. “There neither is nor can be any simple increase of power on Man’s side. Each new power won by man is a power over man as well. Each advance leaves him weaker as well as stronger. In every victory, besides being the general who triumphs, he is also the prisoner who follows the triumphal car.”[19]

3) Biotechnology must not undermine the sense of human nature that grounds human dignity

Francis Fukuyama is helpful on this point. He begins by rejecting modern Kantian philosophy which assumes that morality could not be the product of natural desires. For Kant, acting morally entails acting against natural desires and reason alone dictates what is right.[20] Building on the earlier insight of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, Fukuyama argues instead that morality must be built upon and extended to what nature has provided us and that there is no necessary conflict between what is naturally pleasurable and what is right. Modern Kantian ethics may try to build a morality based on overcoming nature. By human nature is here meant “the sum of the behaviors and characteristics that are typical of the human species, arising from genetic rather than environmental factors.” But Fukuyama rebuts this by quoting Horace who noted that even if you throw ‘Nature’ out with a pitchfork, “it always comes running back.” Questions of right and wrong need not necessarily contravene our gut feelings.

Designer drugs like Prozac and Ritalin have the effect of modifying and muting human diversity, sometimes for valuable therapeutic reasons, sometimes not. Still for Fukuyama, it is a mistake to abandon notions of human dignity and human rights based on our sense of innate human nature since “Human nature is what gives us a moral sense, provides us with the social skills to live in society, and serves as a ground for more sophisticated philosophical discussions of rights, justice and morality.”[21]

Fukuyama stresses that human beings possess an inherent moral status by virtue of possessing “essential human quality”, a mysterious Factor X that distinguishes us from animals. Fukuyama elaborates,

Factor X cannot be reduced to the possession of moral choice, or reason, or language, or sociability, or sentience, or emotions, or consciousness, or any other quality that has been put forth as a ground for human dignity. It is all these qualities coming together in a human whole that make up factor X. Every member of the human species possesses genetic endowment that allows him or her to become a whole human being, an endowment that distinguishes a human in essence from other types of creatures.[22]

But the cumulative changes in our genes arising from biotechnology may eventually erode this Factor X that forms the basis of human dignity. He doubts if this future ‘post-human nature’ can provide the basis for a just and equitable human order. Fukuyama concludes, “What is ultimately at stake with biotechnology is not just some utilitarian cost-benefit calculus concerning future medical technologies, but the very grounding of the human moral sense, which has been a constant ever since there were human beings.”

Still, Fukuyama is not calling for a ban on biotechnology. Instead he urges that we must ensure that biotechnology is regulated by institutions that will authorize technological advances that promote human flourishing, and prohibit technologies that pose a threat to human dignity and well-being. Political communities must protect the values they hold most dear, and it is that freedom that we need to exercise with regard to the biotechnological revolution today.

Regardless of this commitment, policing technology requires exceptional discernment and political will, especially when new technology promises unprecedented benefits. The reality is that we cannot treat technologies merely as tools that one picks and chooses. There are “forms of life” in which human and inanimate objects are configured in a definite network of relationships. For example, factory workers at assembly lines are inhumanly subjected to an inhumane routine, migration to the suburbia leads to new patterns of work and family relationships and computer and information technology (ICQ) redefine communication patterns among youths.

Langdon Winner argues, “At present our society persists in designing a great many technical artifacts in ways that make people feel passive, superfluous, stupid, and incapable of initiating action. Such systems bear the cultural embryos of tomorrow’s citizenry. For as we invent new technical systems, we also invent the kind of people who will use them and be affected by them. The structures and textures of future social and political life can be seen in the blueprints of technologies now on the drawing board.”[23]

Critics have always been sensitive to how technology threatens us with the spectre of the abolition of man, when humans are treated as an object or instrument. But the experience of industrial technology only foreshadows greater dehumanization that will occur with new advancements in biotechnology. Leon Kass points to the extent to which scientists and humanists are prepared to diminish the status of human beings in order to justify the biotechnological enterprise in the statement issued in 1997 by the International Academy of Humanism. They contrast their view with those of major world religions that invest dignity, uniqueness and sacredness on human beings.

As far as the scientific enterprise can determine. . . human capabilities appear to differ in degree, not in kind, from those found among the higher animals. Humanity’s rich repertoire of thoughts, feelings, aspirations and hopes seems to arise from electrochemical brain processes, not from an immaterial soul that operates in ways no instrument can discover. . . . views of human nature rooted in humanity’s tribal past ought not to be our primary criterion for making moral decisions about cloning. . . . The potential benefits of cloning may be so immense that it would be a tragedy if ancient theological scruples should lead to a Luddite rejection of cloning.[24]

4) Biotechnology must not subject humans to experimentation

Theologians who anticipate that there will be effective moral restraints on genetic research do well to recognize that technology today has attained a ‘life of its own’, that it is the momentum of technology that drives science rather than the other way round (Jacque Ellul). We do well to listen to the testimony of Robert Oppenheimer on his experience of the irresistible momentum of technology when developing the atomic bomb.

It is my judgment in these things that when you see something that is technically sweet you go ahead and do it and you argue about what to do about it only after you have had your technical success. That is the way with the atomic bomb. I do not think anybody opposed making it; there were some debates about what to do with it after it was made.[25]

Technological enthusiasm becomes even more irresistible if it becomes a means of self-control and self-transcendence for humanity. As O’Donovan argues, “Our need to expose is motivated by our need to get control of ourselves; we take our biology from being that which we live; to be that which we observe, and to be that which we conquer. This is the way of human self-transcendence that is proposed to us within a liberal scientific culture.”[26]

Critics are alarmed by the perception that researchers are interested in experimentation with embryos because it enables them to overcome the problem of analyzing humans. Adult human beings elude objective investigation since there is an inevitable interaction between the researcher and the human who is subject to observation.

In contrast, the embryo is humanity in a form that allows us to pin it down as a scientific object. We can distance ourselves from it since at this stage the personality has not yet attained a reflexive quality of later maturity that interrupts our observation of it. Genetic research in this regard is exploiting the vulnerability of embryos and submitting them to scientific manipulation with the goal of acquiring objective knowledge that transcends human relations.

It is not surprising that our instinctive response (revulsion) to genetic research on human embryos stems from the sense that such experimentation violates humanity, albeit an embryonic at this stage. Perhaps we should hear afresh Kant’s declaration, that “humanity itself is a dignity; for a man cannot be used merely as a means to an end by any man . . . but must always be used at the same time as an end.”

Concluding Remarks

It would be cavalier to deny that biotechnology can be a channel of human creativity with the potential to heal and restore the brokenness of creation. As such, preventing research in biotechnology may amount to the abdication of our responsibility. Surely the advocacy of co-creatorship was to encourage us to take responsibility for the tremendous opportunities to secure good for our fellowmen. Furthermore, Hefner and Peters do caution against the unrestrained optimism about human creativity placed on biotechnology. Biotechnology is after all, a human endeavor and is therefore tainted by sin. Unfortunately, their advocacy of man being co-creator as justification for further development in biotechnology – that includes cloning – may betray an optimism that brushes aside caution.

It is always salutary to be reminded of the ambiguities of all human ventures given our human condition. Such ambiguities also extend to our quest for human perfection that is surely the primary motivation for advocates of biotechnological research. It is fitting to refer to Paul Tillich’s counsel to help us gain a proper perspective on the possibilities and limits of biotechnology as a means to secure human perfection.

The image of perfection is the man who, in the battlefield between the divine and the demonic, prevails against the demonic, though fragmentarily and in anticipation. This is the experience in which the image of perfection under the impact of the Spiritual Presence transcends the humanistic ideal of perfection. It is not a negative attitude to human potentialities that produces the contrast but the awareness of the undecided struggle between the divine and the demonic in every man, which in humanism is replaced by the ideal of harmonious self-actualization.[27]

Relying on biotechnology in our quest for human perfection is both reductionistic and inadequate precisely because the basic problem of and hence, the ultimate adequate answer to the fallen human condition lies in the spiritual rather than the material.


[1] Philip Hefner, The Human Factor, Fortress 1993, p. 27.

[2] Ibid., pp. 277-278.

[3] Ibid., p. 198.

[4] Ted Peters, God, the World’s Future (Fortress 1992), p. 134.

[5] Arthur Peacocke, Theology for a Scientific Age Fortress 1993, p. 121.

[6] Arthur Peacocke, Creation and the World of Science (OUP 1979), pp. 305-306. Peacocke’s limitation of divine omniscience views man as a free and co-operating agent. His view differs from classical theism’s concept of “concurrence” between God (the primary cause) and man (the secondary cause). Note however the term ‘secondary cause’ does not mean that such actions are insignificant. It merely emphasizes that the secondary human agent is dependent on the omniscient and omnipotent God and functions as his instrument. See David Burrell, Freedom and Creation in Three Traditions (Uni. Notre Dame Press, 1993), pp.97-101.

[7] Hendrikus Berkhof. Christian Faith (Eerdmans 1979), p. 539.

[8] Edward Craig, The Mind of God and the Works of Man (OUP, 1987), p. 65.

[9] Ibid., p. 226.

[10] Ibid., p. 262-263.

[11] Ibid., p, 271.

[12] Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and the Moral Order (IVP 1984), pp. 60-61.

[13] Ibid., p. 63.

[14] Ibid., p, 62.

[15] R. J. Berry ed., Caring for Creation (IVP 2000), p. 87.

[16] Quoted in Berry, p. 179-180.

[17] See John Passmore on The Perfectibility of Man (Duckworth, 1970), p. 27 for eight definitions of human perfectibility.

[18] Lee Silver, The Remaking of Eden, Avon1998.

[19] C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, Fontana 1978, 0. 36

[20] Francis Fukuyama, Our Post-Human Future (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), 2002, p. 119.

[21] Ibid., p. 101.

[22] Ibid., pp. 170-171.

[23] Morton Winston and Ralph Edelbach ed., Society, Ethics and Technology (Wordsworth 1999), p. 99.

[24] Commentary September 1999.

[25] Quoted in Jonathan Glover, Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century (Yale UP 1999), p. 103.

[26] Oliver O’Donovan, Begotten, Not Made? (OUP, 1984), p. 62.

[27] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol.2. (University Chicago 1963), p. 241.