Review: Holy People, Holy Lives: Law and Gospel in Bioethics

Title of Work:

Holy People, Holy Lives: Law and Gospel in Bioethics

Author of Work:

Richard C. Eyer


Pastor Nathaniel Biebert

Page Number:

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Holy People, Holy Lives: Law and Gospel in Bioethics, by Richard C. Eyer. St. Louis: CPH, 2000. 167 pages.

SS.22.Bioethics.LgAt the time this book was written, Richard Eyer was serving “as assistant professor of philosophy at Concordia University in Mequon, Wisconsin” (back cover) and had “more than thirty years background in ministry as parish pastor, hospital chaplain, and…college professor” (8). He retired in 2002, but is still listed as an (emeritus) staff member of Concordia, Mequon. His other books include Pastoral Care Under the Cross and Devotions of Hope.

In his book Holy People, Holy Lives, Eyer addresses issues in bioethics, which he defines as “the ethics of making choices available to us as a result of breakthroughs in medical technology: genetic engineering, in vitro fertilization, artificial insemination, surrogate motherhood, cloning, abortion, infanticide, the withholding or withdrawing of treatment in illness, physician-assisted suicide, and euthanasia” (7). Eyer sums up his book and states its purpose in his introduction: “I must warn you that I am not writing a ‘how-to’ manual with specific instructions or rules to follow in determining right from wrong [in the realm of bioethics]. Surely God has set limits beyond which we may not go, but the Christian ethic is more than knowing our limits. … [I]t is my aim to present the Gospel as the grace of God that shapes our ethic as Christians” (8).

Eyer sets the stage for fulfilling his aim by first discussing how people typically approach ethical decisions today and outlining historical approaches to ethics, from Plato to the present Postmodern Era. In chapter 3, he introduces a main concept that dominates the rest of his book, namely that, in order to avoid the pitfalls of humanity’s natural approaches to ethics, “ethics needs a story to give it purpose and meaning” (37; emphasis mine). He then introduces and summarizes the story—God’s story, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and he stresses how the creeds retell this story succinctly and how the liturgy highlights its most important features.

It is here, in the transition from this story to applications in the realm of bioethics, that Eyer’s book takes a decided turn for the worse. In addition to lacking a clear progression of thought, it is filled with confusing statements, principles, and applications of Scripture.

Take this example: “The Bible does not define the holiness of God” (51). Or this one: “[Death] is the abrupt interruption of a relationship with God. Where that interruption is not repaired by God’s grace, through faith in Jesus Christ, that interruption becomes final” (94). Or this: “Marriage as the one flesh union of husband and wife is a reflection of our oneness with God in Christ, so that what we do to one another in marriage, we do to God” (109). Or this: “Jesus said, ‘A tree is recognized by its fruit’ (Matthew 12:33), and again, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart’ (Matthew 5:8). Indeed, the tree is known by its fruit—but not always. We do not challenge the words of Jesus here, but we qualify them the way Jesus did when He also said, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart’ ” (49-50).

What Eyer is getting at with that last quotation is certainly less than clear until pages 63-65 when he discusses the use of the Law in ethics. After discussing the Law’s use as curb and mirror, he continues:

There is a third use of the word Law that is more controversial among Christians. It seems to justify the use of the Law to address, not the limits God has set but the self-transformation of the person as person. By this way of thinking the Law can do more than merely control outward behavior; it can serve as guide to change the heart as well. If this is true, then it is hard to see why the Gospel is necessary…

This third use of the Law is considered, by some, to be beneficial as a guide causing Christians to behave more as God expects of them. But the Law is not beneficial as a motive for change of behavior, and the use of the law as a guide is deceptively misleading. In the use of the Law as guide, the Christian attempts to change his moral being through the guidance of the Law.

The Law as guide seems to be a kinder, gentler form of the Law as curb and mirror. (65)

Eyer persists in this view throughout the remainder of the book. Sad to say, Eyer thus leads us to see how a rejection of the third use of the Law leads to a perversion of the function of the Gospel, essentially turning it into Law. Eyer writes, “The Christian’s ethic is to live by faith in Christ even as Christ lives in us. Our ethic is to repent daily and believe the Gospel” (69). “[T]he celebration of the Gospel…is ultimately the Christians [sic] ethic” (77). “The Gospel of Jesus Christ is our ethic” (100). “[The Gospel] opens up to the eyes of faith the deeper significance of Christ for our understanding of how to live in faithfulness until the end” (76). At one point Eyer even explicitly defines the gospel as “the announcement that God did not defer to the Law which only curbs outward actions and inwardly only shows us our Sin” (89).

This viewpoint also influences his outline when he is actually discussing bioethical issues. He concludes sections on each issue in the same way. Instead of making judgments motivated by the Gospel and informed by the Law, he tries to let the Gospel do the moral instructing. For example, concluding his chapter on “End-of-Life Decision-Making,” Eyer writes, “The Gospel addresses our sin so that we Christians do not need to grasp at suicide or euthanasia. The Gospel is the good news that, although we are all helpless and without control over our lives before God, this is not bad. We need not fear either death or God” (100). Note how the Law as guide is hinted at implicitly, but not stated explicitly.

Eyer’s stance on and approach to God’s Law are shocking on two accounts. First, he clearly does not fully understand what it means when Christians say that the Law serves as a guide. (This reviewer has never before heard Law as guide explained in such a way that the Law is credited with the ability to change a person’s heart.) Secondly, it is difficult to understand how Eyer could have been ordained as a Lutheran pastor, solemnly promising before God to teach in accord with the Lutheran Confessions, and then not only flatly reject Article VI of the Formula of Concord in one of his writings, but also have that writing published by a Confessional Lutheran publishing house.

One gets the impression that Eyer’s book would have been a lot clearer and easier to write if he were simply able to say, “Here’s what God wants you to do as his blood-bought children.” Because of his approach, the reader is sometimes left wondering, “Okay, so what does God want me to do?” Actually, if you read his chapters carefully enough, you can usually find what God wants you to do, but it involves taking the Law that Eyer has presented only as mirror and applying it yourself, to yourself, as guide.

One will find happy inconsistencies—examples of Eyer using the Law as guide unconsciously. For example, just before his concluding paragraphs in his chapter on “Procreation,” he writes, “There may be some reproductive technologies that do not violate the one flesh union of marriage such as artificial insemination between husband and wife or the use of fertility drugs to enhance ovulation or viability of the husband’s sperm. Yet the danger in reproductive technologies is always that conception takes on a higher priority than the marriage itself” (126). Elsewhere he not only uses the Law as guide, but in the same breath also quotes a passage where Jesus does so too (133). The second last page of the book proper probably has Eyer’s finest usage of the Law as guide, when he declares forcefully, “Christians will always remember that having the capacity to do something does not mean we ought to do it” (140)—an application to so many areas of morality besides the one under discussion.

Once the reader has “figured out” Eyer, his final chapters can be useful. He does a good job presenting information (although some of it is outdated by now) and pointing out the flaws and inconsistencies in the world’s approaches to these difficult issues. For example, in talking about human embryo research, he quotes an ethicist who asked, “Are human embryos so special that not even lifesaving medical benefits can offset the moral costs?” Eyer deftly notes that the ethicist is acknowledging that there is indeed a moral cost to such research, but that he is nevertheless considering the morality “expendable” (137).

Even here, however, it is hard not to be distracted by the fact that Eyer fails to cite his source, as he does consistently throughout the book, using only sporadic endnotes with no identifiable method to their usage.

Perhaps the most useful and readable portion of the book is the appendix, “The Path Of Medical Ethics” (143-163). His tracing of ethics in the Postmodern Era (149-158) and his section on the evolution and breakdown of the American Medical Association’s code of ethics (159-160) are particularly interesting and enlightening. In talking about the Human Genome Project, Eyer ironically ends the entire book with the third use of the law: “We are not our own masters and our lives are not to do with as we please” (163).

Eyer definitely followed his aim, but what the reader discovers is that he could have and should have taken a more direct route to his target. This reviewer would hesitate to recommend this book in good conscience to anyone. However, not being particularly proficient in the literature of this field, he has no alternative to recommend in its place. He hopes that “The Issues” page, accessible from, provides links to articles that address these issues more clearly, directly, and biblically than Eyer has done in this book.