As I write this review, stories fill the news about whether Planned Parenthood harvested and sold organs from aborted babies. We live in a world of complex, difficult, and often horrifying bioethical choices. The wonders of science and medicine have not only enhanced life, they have also brought stark challenges. VanDrunen’s book seeks to address some of the bioethical dilemmas Christians face. This book “explores how ordinary Christians, in the midst of the lives that they are called to live in Christ, may come to better understanding of how to respond to the bioethical questions that confront them, their families, and their fellow believers in the church” (13).
VanDrunen provides an accurate and helpful summary of his book (17-18). It is composed of three parts. Part 1 lays the groundwork. It presents some of the different bioethical viewpoints that Christians and non-Christians encounter in the field. He believes, “Christians will not be prepared to make morally responsible bioethical decisions in their personal lives if they are ignorant of relevant theological truths” (17). Therefore he spends the second chapter of his book discussing pertinent doctrines. Chapter 3 is a discussion of the Christian virtues he feels are especially relevant to bioethical matters. Part 2 deals with beginning of life issues. The three chapters begin with marriage and procreation, move to assisted reproduction and then conclude with a discussion of the value of unborn human life. Finally, part 3 deals with end of life issues. The first two chapters in this section begin with the Christian view of death, and then discuss matters of suicide, euthanasia and the distinction between killing and letting die. The section concludes with a chapter about whether it is ever moral to forego treatment.
The structure and logic of the book are apparent and easy to follow. VanDrunen lays out his points very methodically. Each part of the book has a clear and concise summary at its head, as does each chapter. Readers will appreciate the helpful definitions and distinctions that he offers throughout his work. Examples include: the five approaches to bioethics that exist in the field (24-29); his brief definition of love as “the giving of oneself for the good of another” (81); his discussion of the link between sex and procreation (105); the difference between responding to a tragic situation and creating one (135); his review of recent debates on person-hood (148); and his examination of what other people offer beyond fertilization for the start of human existence (158-165).
Van Drunen’s approach to bioethics from a theological perspective is the greatest strength of the book. His regular reminders that theology informs the way we live are very much in order. Perhaps the most worthwhile point Van Drunen makes is that bioethical situations are not discrete questions to be considered independently. He proposes that “such questions should not be considered in the abstract, apart from a person’s broader moral life” (14). Thus he proposes to “explore not only what is the right thing to do when confronted with such a difficult bioethical decision, but also what sorts of virtues we should cultivate in order to be prepared to make such choices well” (15). In his discussions of various bioethical situations he makes a point of highlighting various Christian virtues that may be of significance. Examples include a discussion on infertility and Christian virtue (124-127), and an extended examination of the ties between death and the virtues of faith, hope, and love (175-184). One also appreciates his wonderful paragraph about the means of grace that concludes, “In short, there is no more fundamental way to prepare for death than to grow in faith, and there is no better way to grow in faith than to hear the Word proclaimed weekly, to recall the grace of our baptism, and to participate in the Lord’s Supper frequently” (177).
VanDrunen’s Reformed theological perspective is also the greatest negative of the book. A Lutheran will disagree with his use of the sovereignty of God as the starting point for his discussion (39-45). His understanding of the image of God is more of a problem, however, since he bases many of his conclusions in later chapters on it. While he does tie the image of God to righteousness and holiness, he goes on to define it as including the fact that “we are rational and intelligent creatures” (46); “pursuing an active and productive life of benevolent dominion over the earth” (47); and he even suggests that “both body and soul bear the image of God” (51). His most problematic view of the image of God is that it is a corporate thing—that we possess it as social creatures. “The human race as a whole, as a multitude of people with a wide variety of abilities and skills, is a much richer manifestation of the image of God than any one human being could ever be” (50). Also, “Redeemed image bearers constitute a community and display the likeness of Christ only in communion with one another” (50). In his discussion of how to deal with people in a persistent vegetative state, this view seems to be behind his conclusion, “That the shorter life is a morally sound choice because it recognizes that this shorter life does not have to endure treatment that serves to prohibit conscious communion with Christ” (237).
A pastor who frequently counsels members about reproductive and end of life issues or who wishes to be prepared to do so will find much that is valuable in this volume, even though there will be some noticeable issues.
David VanDrunen teaches at Westminster Seminary California. He is an ordained minister and licensed attorney.