Acton Institute, March 5, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: This author says the Bible reveals that God wants humans to genetically engineer plants, so applying the precautionary principle to genetically modified crops is a theological error.]

By Jordan J. Ballor

The public debate regarding genetically modified (GM) food has for the most part been driven by practical considerations. For those on the side of GM food, the economic and social benefits far outweigh any possible negative consequences (if there even are any). In this vein, Reason magazine science correspondent Ronald Bailey points out, "With biotech corn, U.S. farmers have saved an estimated $200 million by avoiding extra cultivation and reducing insecticide spraying. U.S. cotton farmers have saved a similar amount and avoided spraying 2 million pounds of insecticides by switching to biotech varieties."[1]

On the other side is a group which believes the possible threats posed by genetic engineering far outweigh the projected benefits. Representative of this position are Martin Teitel and Kimberly Wilson, who write, "Genetic engineering is an unasked-for technology dependent on new and inadequately controlled techniques, and it is a technology based on the release of organisms into the environment whose aggressive but dimly understood reproduction threatens the entire ecosystem."[2]

The limits of both these arguments are essentially the same: they argue primarily, if not solely on the basis of pragmatic concerns. While these arguments are attractive, especially to American common sense, they are not comprehensive nor adequate in and of themselves. Pragmatic considerations certainly have an important place in the discussion, but only one posterior to ethical and theological considerations.

The theological background of ethics is essential for this discussion, because religious groups have begun to weigh in on the issue and lend their moral credibility to the discussion. For example, the Ecumenical Consultative Working Group on Genetic Engineering in Agriculture, a coalition comprised of members from various "mainline" Christian denominations and para-church organizations, authored a study which concludes, "It has yet to be demonstrated that agricultural genetic engineering, as it exists in the current system, safeguards the common good, human dignity, the sacredness of life and stewardship."[3] The Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) has a working group which addresses the issue of GM foods. ICCR aims to make sure GM foods are highly regulated and wants to "ban the use of food crops to produce pharmaceutical or industrial enzymes and chemicals."[4] So far, the majority voice of religious communities has come out decidedly against GM foods.

The remainder of this essay will attempt to bring the focus back one or two steps to the theological foundations for any ethical decision about the activity of engaging in genetic modification. We will find that, in general, a biblical-theological framework provides some important general affirmations of the genetic engineering movement with regard to food. This theological framework will be explicitly Christian, although to a lesser or greater extent it may find some measure of acceptance within the broader Judeo-Christian tradition and beyond.

I will first address the general mandate in Genesis 1 to be creative and productive stewards, and then move on to address the effect of the Fall and the curse in Genesis 3. Some brief observations about the reality and implications of human salvation in Jesus Christ with an implicit eschatological perspective will follow. I will conclude after a short comment on the applicability of these conclusions to the issue of genetic engineering of humans.

Creation -- Genesis 1:26-30 (NIV)

26 Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground."

27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. 28 God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground."

These three verses form a complex and interrelated picture of the original state of humanity. Created in the image of God, human beings are placed in dominion over "all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground." In this way, v. 26 speaks to the placement of human beings as God's earthly representatives. Within the original Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) context of this passage, the language of "image-bearing" would have been immediately understandable. When a vassal or representative of the king spoke or acted with the authority of the king, he was said to "bear the image" of the king, a physical representation of the king and his authority. Verse 27 narrates the creation of human beings alluded to in the previous verse, and the placement as God's image-bearers, representatives of the divine King.

There are, of course, no rights or privileges without responsibility, so on the heels of the creation of human beings and their placement in dominion, we find the corresponding responsibilities and blessings laid out in v. 28. Verse 28 is most often understood in terms of "stewardship," and here again we run up against the political and social structure of the ANE. A steward was one who was in charge of a household or kingdom during the ruler's absence. Humans, in exercising their exalted place of stewardship, are to be productive and creative rulers of the earth. This is the norm of human existence and the standard to which we are called.

29 Then God said, "I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. 30 And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground - everything that has the breath of life in it -- I give every green plant for food." And it was so.

Verses 29 and 30 are not usually included in an examination of the previous three verses, but given the topic under discussion they could hardly be excluded. Indeed, we see here that the plants are originally given and intended to provide for the life of the rest of creation, especially those creatures with the "breath of life." The original purpose for plants was to be food for humans (and animals) and in this way to sustain life. This will become important as we deal with the implications of sin and the Fall on creation.

Fall -- Genesis 3:17-19 (NIV)

17 To Adam he said, "Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, 'You must not eat of it," "Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. 18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. 19 By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return."

Because of the sin of the first couple, we have here in these verses a portion of the curse for violation of God's command. The effect here primarily is pointed toward the earth and the ground, out of which the plants in Gen. 1:29-30 grow. Humans are bound to the earth and plantlife for their survival because of the relationship God sets up in Gen. 1:29-30, but because of the Fall this previously harmonious relationship is changed into opposition. After the Fall, plants no longer function in the way they were intended at creation. Now plants will only sustain human life through difficult labor. Humans must work to bring out the life-giving power of plants to sustain themselves. Luther, in his commentary on these verses of Genesis, writes that because of this curse, the earth "does not bring forth the good things it would have produced if man had not fallen.... It produces many harmful plants, which it would not have produced, such as darnel, wild oats, weeds, nettles, thorns, thistles. Add to these the poisons, the injurious vermin, and whatever else there is of this kind. All of these were brought in through sin."[5]

Redemption and Consummation

Luther also notes, along with Paul, that "the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God" (Romans 8:20-21 NIV).[6] Here we have a hint at the reversal of the curse on the human-earth relationship. Paul continues in this section to address the "firstfruits of the Spirit" which believers have received after the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Our task as believers is to bear witness to the saving work of Jesus Christ. This work has begun to reverse the effects of sin and the curse, first and especially in the lives of believers, but also through the grateful work of believers, who are seeking to live up to their calling as faithful stewards.

The original purpose of plants was to provide sustenance for life, as is illustrated in Gen. 1:29-30. With the redemptive work of Christ in view, Christians are called to, in some way at least, attempt to realize and bring out the goodness of the created world. Genetic modification of food can be a worthy human endeavor within the context of the created purpose of plant life to provide sustenance for human beings. It is interesting to note that many of the groups which oppose genetic modification of food also (rightly) decry the phenomenon of starvation in various parts of the world. As Ronald Bailey notes, "If the activists are successful in their war against green biotech, it's the world's poor who will suffer most. The International Food Policy Research Institute estimates that global food production must increase by 40 percent in the next 20 years to meet the goal of a better and more varied diet for a world population of some 8 billion people."

The creation needs to be cultivated in such a way as to support and sustain human life. To do so efficiently is prudent, and genetic modification of food, like irrigation channels, plows, and mechanized tractors, is yet another technology that attempts to bring out of the land in some small measure its created bounty. Genetic modification changes nature at a more minute level, but such changes aren't materially different than any of the other various environmental or technological modifications that farmers have been making use of for millennia.

Human Genetic Modification

There is sometimes a sort of negative visceral reaction to talk about genetic modification of any sort. This is due in large part to the fear of a reprisal of Nazi eugenics or some other sort of gene modification program which goes to the very center of who we are as human beings. It is at this point I would like to make a brief observation regarding the applicability of my above arguments to any form of gene modification of humans, cloning, or stem cell research. To put it bluntly: these arguments aren't applicable.

In the above discussion, I've been talking about the earth in general, but plants in particular. Of special note has been the created purpose of plants to provide for the sustenance of beings with the "breath of life." We have briefly touched on the doctrine of the image of God, or the imago Dei. It is this doctrine which I believe invalidates any facile application of arguments for genetic modification of plants to an argument for the genetic modification of humans. Quite simply, human beings, as God's image-bearers, are placed in a position of unique authority over creation, but also bear in themselves inherent dignity which places the worth of human beings as far greater than that of plants, or even animals. This doesn't devalue the rest of creation; but it rightly orders creation with humanity at its head. This inherent value of the human person is what Jesus points to when he states, "you are worth more than many sparrows" (Matthew 10:31 NIV). It must suffice here to say that a well-formed and comprehensive doctrine of the imago Dei precludes the argument from the purpose of plants to be applied in a similar fashion to human beings. This should at least partially assuage some of the fears of those who impulsively reject all arguments in favor of gene modification.


In the above sections I have briefly sketched out an overview of a biblical-theological framework from which to view the particular arguments in favor of and opposed to genetically modified foods. In general, we can observe that the default position in this regard should not be simply to maintain the status quo of a fallen creation. The ICCR argues on a misuse of the precautionary principle that no genetically modified food should be made available until long-term independent safety testing shows that it is safe for health and the environment. Instead, the default position should be in favor of innovations which have a realistic possibility of substantively increasing the fruitfulness of the earth, and the burden of proof should be to prove that it is unsafe.

We have also seen that gene modification has the possibility of working to reverse the effects of the curse in Gen. 3, which should temper the concerns of the Ecumenical Consultative Working Group on Genetic Engineering in Agriculture about "the common good, human dignity, the sacredness of life and stewardship." Concerns in these areas, informed by this theological framework, would in fact lead us to be in favor of gene modification for plants.

Does this mean that we should abandon all regulation of any sort and simply allow whatever is new and better to run free until devastating consequences become apparent? Absolutely not. The Fall affects human beings as well as the rest of creation, and even regenerate human beings are fallible and capable of horrible errors. What I'm arguing for instead is a dialogue informed by the theological realities of fallen creaturely existence and by which we can begin to measure some of the claims both for and against genetically modified foods. Only when the reality of the created purpose of food and humankind's role in making plant life fruitful is realized will the pragmatic discussion on genetically modified food be appropriately framed.

Jordan Ballor is the Associate Editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality

[1] Ronald Bailey, "Dr. Strangelunch," available at:

[2] Martin Teitel and Kimberly Wilson, "What the Future Holds," in Genetically Engineered Food: Changing the Nature of Nature (Rochester, Vermont: Park Street Press, 2001)

[3] "Faith-Based Conceptual Framework on Genetic Engineering in Agriculture," available at:

[4] "Goals and Objectives," available at:

[5] Martin Luther, Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 1-5, ed. J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald and H. T. Lehmann, vol. 1, Luther's Works (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 204.

[6] Cf. Luther, Lectures on Genesis, 204.

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