Acton Institute  [Printer-friendly version]
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

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

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

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

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 &

[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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