Briefly Noted: On Infanticide and the Imago Dei

God help us. In a recent edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education Tom Bartlett makes us aware of two prominent Australian bioethicists who promote infanticide. In his article, “Champions of Infanticide? 2 Bioethicists Find the Question is More than Academic” (March 16, 2012: A3-4) Bartlett examines a recent paper by bioethicists Alberto Giubilini (University of Melbourne) and Francesca Minerva (Monash University) in which they argue that “it would be morally permissible to kill a newborn if that newborn might be an ‘unbearable burden'” (A3).

Now, this argument is not new. Peter Singer (Princeton University) has made such an argument before about severely disabled infants. But, Giubilini and Minerva “were talking about perfectly healthy newborns that for some reason-financial, psychological, whatever-would pose a problem for their parents or society” (A3). Thus, the authors claim, their deaths would be “morally irrelevant.” In the midst of rampant backlash (duh), even death threats on the authors, the editor of the journal has written a defense of the paper claiming academic freedom and quality, and finding more fault in the “online invective” directed at the authors.

In response to Giubilini’s and Minerva’s degenerate point, I agree with Arthur Caplan, bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, who offers a sane counterpoint: “When you publish you have the freedom to write anything you want. But if you’re going to write about the virtues of cannibalism, you can expect a pretty heated response” (A4).

What would allow a culture to somehow justify infanticide and other morally reprehensible acts that go against our most deeply ingrained instincts to protect others who cannot protect themselves? I am not sure of Giubilinia’s and Minerva’s religious commitments, but I do think that the Christian doctrine of humanity (created in the image and likeness of God) is the only perspective from which we can rightly understand humanity as a whole. Toward that end, I’ve reproduced part of an article I wrote years ago for JBMW (12:1, Spring 2007). That article dealt with atheism and its inability to ascribe to humanity its proper dignity and humility, and its inability to stem the tide of infanticide and other evils. Although Giubilinia’s and Minerva’s religious commitment may not be to atheism, a similar line of reasoning would apply to their religious commitments, whatever they may be:

The problem with atheism, as with other worldviews, is that it is not able to account for the unique nature, capacities, and ends of human existence. Inevitably, it tends toward either an enthronement or a denigration of humanity, unable to strike a proper balance.

At times, atheists tend toward the enthronement of humanity. This might seem an obvious move; if one chooses not to worship God on His throne, the next best thing would be to enthrone oneself. This can be seen in Humanist Manifesto II, which states that, “At the present juncture of history, commitment to all humankind is the highest commitment of which we are capable.”

At other times (or ironically, at the same time), atheists denigrate humanity. The glittering example of this is, of course, Peter Singer, of Princeton University’s Center for Human Values. Singer, like Nietzsche and others, realizes what a radical revisioning of mankind must take place. For him this means that we cannot base our ethics on the imago Dei or argue that our immortal soul distinguishes us from the animals. “By 2040,” he writes, “it may be that only a rump of hard-core, know-nothing religious fundamentalists will defend the view that every human life, from conception to death, is sacrosanct.”[1]

For Singer, the moral status of a human being is defined, not by his being created in the image of God, but by his consciousness and ability to function. Those humans who are most conscious and functional have more worth and moral status that those who are less conscious and functional. Healthy teenagers and middle-aged folks, then, are worth more than babies and old people, and certainly more than the mentally and physically handicapped.

For this reason, certain non-human animals have higher moral status than certain human animals. A donkey or a dog will often have superior consciousness and function than a defective human baby. It is for this reason that he believes one might find instances when infanticide is acceptable; sometimes, he thinks, it would be more wrong to take the life of an animal than to take the life of a defective baby.[2]

Furthermore, since Singer does not hold to the imago Dei, which gives a clear line of delineation between humans and animals, he has no problem suggesting that inter-species sexual activity is sometimes acceptable. In some instances, sex between a man and an animal might be mutually satisfying and, therefore, not problematic. He hurries to say, however, that with small animals such as chickens or ferrets, sexual activity might be painful for the animal and would therefore be problematic.[3]

Singer’s re-definition of humanity finds company even in popular culture. Take, for example, the movie Bicentennial Man (1999). In this movie Robin Williams is a robot who is on a two-century journey toward becoming “human.” At one point in the movie, he begins to use the word “I,” signifying that he has now become self-conscious. He is now every bit as “conscious” as human beings, and the implication, it seems, is that he has therefore achieved humanness.

Then, in conclusion:

Worldviews other than Christian theism, whether atheism, pantheism, or Islamic monotheism, cannot make proper sense of mankind-they will tend either toward the enthronement or the denigration of humanity. The imago Dei is essential for understanding humanity. It makes sense of who we are; indeed, it renders coherent the socio-cultural activities that surround us and pervade our lives. As we image forth God through our capacities for spirituality, morality, rationality, relationality, and imagination, we are able to live distinctively human lives. Our work in the sciences is possible because of our ability to reason. In the arts, we may participate because of our imaginative and creative capacities. In the public square, we may hold forth because God made us not only rational but relational beings.

As theologians, this robust Christian anthropology is our foundation; an understanding of the essence of humanity is what allows us to think through closely associated issues such as biblical manhood and womanhood. And for our broader American audience, an apprehension of the imago Dei and its implications will likewise enable them to comprehend our exposition of biblical teaching on gender roles and related issues.

Bartlett’s article, therefore, serves to remind us of the uphill battle Christians face in a society that is increasingly post-Christian, and of the deleterious consequences for a humane view of humanity.

[1] Peter Singer, “The Sanctity of Life,” in Foreign Policy (Sept/Oct 2005) 40.

[2] Ibid., “Sanctity of Life or Quality of Life,” Pediatrics (July 1983) 129. Also, in Practical Ethics (New York: Cambridge University, 1979), he argues that membership in the human species is irrelevant to moral status.

[3] Singer’s most famous treatment of bestiality, or as he calls it zoophilia, is “Heavy Petting,” published at, on March 12, 2001. Lest one think that Singer is an obscure radical with no real influence, it should be noted that he is often called one of the most influential philosophers alive. In fact, his Practical Ethics is the most successful philosophy text ever published by Cambridge University Press.

Theology & Practice of Mission: An Interview with Bruce Ashford

Recently, our own Bruce Ashford published an edited volume, Theology and Practice of Mission (B&H, 2011), which embodies the Great Commission resurgence we are seeking here at SEBTS and in the broader SBC. In the post below, I’ve interviewed Bruce about the book, its unique format structured around the biblical narrative, and its unique collection of authors (missionaries, theologians, church planters, pastors, and missiologists). Below are the seven questions I asked him, followed by his responses.

First of all, tell our readers a little bit about yourself.

I serve as the Dean of the College at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, where I also serve as Associate Professor of Theology & Culture and Senior Fellow at the Bush Center for Faith & Culture. I am also a Fellow in Theology at the Paideia Center for Public Theology.

Over the years, I have served as a pastor, an evangelist, and a church planter. At present, I have the great privilege of being one of the directional elders at The Summit Church, where we have a vision to plant 1,000 churches in the next 30 years.

I am married about 51 feet over my head to Lauren, who is mother to our two beautiful little girls, Riley and Anna.

OK, now tell us why you put together this book, Theology and Practice of Mission?

Together with 18 other contributors, we wanted to put together a unique book that we hoped would accomplish four things: (1) address this thing we call “mission,” in light of current debates; (2) to do so in a theologically-driven manner, rather than a pragmatically- or social science-driven manner; (3) to do so w/ contributors who are both theologically- and missionally- credible, many of whom are younger voices who have not yet been heard, and (4) to contribute to the Great Commission Resurgence arising out of the SBC, and other similar missional movements in the broader evangelical world.

In my mind, the uniqueness of this volume lies in its unique attention to the biblical narrative, and in the unique backgrounds of its authors. Would you focus in on those aspects?

All of the essays are built around the creation-fall-redemption-restoration rubric, and around a few common themes (e.g. the need for a theologically-driven missiology). Each chapter is written in conversation with that narrative. The first chapter launches our discussion of mission by telling that narrative so that it can be a framework for the rest of the book. The other chapters flow directly from it. For example, the chapters on Islam, Postmodernism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Animism give a blow-by-blow exposition of the ways in which these worldview-religion complexes fail in light of that narrative.

As for the authors, they are a wickedly savvy collection of theologians, church planters, pastors, and missionaries. The reader will notice that several of the names are pseudonyms, in light of the fact that those authors work in security sensitive areas around the world. In fact, most of our authors live and work in the Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia, the Pacific Rim, and Africa. Other contributors are church planters, pastors, and professors here in the USA. For example our USA-based contributors include J. D. Greear (pastor of The Summit Church and author of Gospel), Danny Akin (President of SEBTS and editor of A Theology for the Church), Sean Cordell (founding pastor of Treasuring Christ Church), George Robinson (professor at SEBTS and author of Striking the Match), Zane Pratt (Dean of the Billy Graham School at Southern Seminary), David Sills (professor at Southern), and Keith Whitfield (a brilliant polymath who works for Ed Stetzer and teaches at New College Franklin).

What did these authors write about? In other words, give us a concise overview of the chapters and the topics that are covered.

This book is about mission. It is about the church’s call to live as a witness to Christ, drawing the nations into worship him. This mission, as we see it, does not begin in Matthew 28 or in the book of Acts, but rather all the way at the beginning of the biblical narrative.

Part One, “God’s Mission,” argues that any discussion of the church’s mission must start with a discussion of God’s mission to glorify himself by redeeming his image-bearers and restoring his good creation. Our first chapter tells the “story of mission” by unfolding the biblical narrative in four plot movements-Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration. The second chapter, “The Triune God,” investigates what it means to say that God is the agent of missions, arguing that God’s nature is both the foundation and the pattern for the church’s mission to the nations.

Part Two, “The Church’s Mission,” treats the church’s mission in light of God’s mission. The church’s mission is to glorify him by participating in the redemption of his image-bearers, and by living as a sign of his kingdom and of the restoration of all things. The church’s mission is framed by God’s mission, seen upon the backdrop of God’s mission, and understood in light of God’s mission. This part of the book includes chapters on core doctrines related to the church’s mission (humanity, salvation, and the church) and on hot-button issues related to the church’s mission (evangelism, social responsibility, culture, and lifestyle).

Part Three, “The Church’s Mission to the Nations,” exposes the comprehensive reach of God’s mission, a reach that extends to all tribes, tongues, peoples, and nations. Although the church’s mission to the nations has often been relegated to international missions, we now are recognizing that those who minister in the United States often must cross cultures and sub-cultures and overcome linguistic barriers in our efforts to proclaim the gospel. This part of the book includes chapters on the OT and NT in relation to “the nations,” on the church’s mission in relation to hot-button topics (unreached people groups, discipleship, church planting, and suffering), and on the church’s mission in relation to various belief systems (Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Animists, and Postmoderns.)

Part Four, “Concluding Challenges,” consists of two chapters. The first concluding challenge, “A Theologically-Driven Missiology,” challenges evangelicals to craft a truly theological paradigm for missiology, particularly in relation to some of today’s contested missiological issues. The second concluding challenge, “A Challenge for our Churches,” encourages our churches and mission agencies to do whatever it takes to build a powerfully biblical and culturally strategic mission strategy for the 21st century.

Your book covers a great deal of topics. Why the breadth?

We cover a lot of topics because we think the church’s mission is comprehensive. We are called to glorify God and bear witness to him by participating in the redemption of his image-bearers, and by living as a sign of his kingdom and of the restoration of all things. When the church gathers, we do so through teaching, fellowship, worship, and witness in word and deed. When the church scatters, we also bear witness in word and deed, but do so in every realm of society and culture. The fact is that sin has ravaged every square inch of the fabric of society and culture, and therefore every square inch ought to be brought under submission to the Lordship of Christ.

There is a great struggle between the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness, Christ and Satan, and between truth and error. This great struggle manifests itself in different ways in human history, and right now it manifests itself in the challenges posed by modernism, postmodernism, Southern fried moralism, Islam, Eastern religions, etc. Christians should resist this totalitarian assault on spiritual, moral, social, cultural, and political life. We should fight it tooth and nail, not only from the pulpit, but in the university, business, arts, sciences, public square, etc., and we should resist it in an openly and robustly Christian manner. I see this as part of the church’s mission.

The longest section of the book is the section on the church’s mission to the nations. Why the priority?

Revelation 5 is perhaps the most breathtaking and powerful vision in all of Scripture, and it serves as the climax of a major thread that runs throughout the Scriptures-God’s determination to make himself known to the nations so that they may worship him. In this vision that God gives to John, all of heaven bursts forth into praise of the Lamb who was slain. Among those represented are worshipers from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation. This is the vision that drives us-that our Lord will be worshiped from all corners of the globe.

And yet there are almost 2 billion people who have little or no knowledge of Christ. In many corners of the globe there are no churches, no Bibles, and no Christians to bear witness. I repeat, there are hundreds of millions, upwards of 2 billion people, who could leave their homes and search for days and months, and never find a church, a Bible, or a Christian.

Our great privilege and responsibility is to bequeath to them the treasure that was given to us-the faith once for all delivered to the saints. I hope that the recent movement towards church planting and revitalization leads toward an equally powerful movement to take the gospel to every corner of the earth until there is a church within walking distance of every house on this planet.

You also write about the church’s mission in our American context. What are some things that you address in the book?

Yes, I think our churches in here in the US are realizing that ministry in our home-context is a lot more like international missions than we once thought. Let me mention four things our SBC churches can do, and which many of our churches are already doing:

  • 1. Confront the brutal facts about our racially monolithic legacy: Our convention built its legacy on reaching white people. But we’ve got to do whatever it takes to change this legacy. The gospel demands that we do so. God the Father sacrificed his son to reach the diverse peoples and tribes, and to bring them into gospel unity. As the USA becomes increasingly diverse, our all-white churches increasingly appear as a contradiction to the gospel. If we are not careful, public perception will be along these lines, “If you want racial integration and unity, rely on the US government. But if you want all-white gatherings that are bizarre anomalies in a diverse culture, go to a SBC church.”
  • 2. Confront the challenge of reaching the dizzying variety of sub-cultures that our churches must deal with. We must take our USA contexts as seriously as international missionaries take theirs. This means that we take the time to learn a little bit about the lives of the people around us. We learn what they believe, how they live, what music shapes their lives and emotions, etc. In our sermons we avoid tribal language, we-them language, sentimental pompous pep talks, and talking as if unbelievers are not present.
  • 3. Equip our people to bring all of their lives under the lordship of Christ, using every facet as leverage for the gospel. We want to equip our people do view their workplace and their leisure pursuits as arenas that are ordained by God, ordered by God, and are arenas in which we can work out the implications of the gospel.
  • 4. Encourage one another to reach the cities, the suburbs, and the rural and remote areas of our country, rather than just one or two of those.
  • 5. Focus on church planting, church revitalization, and cooperation.

The Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization

Mirabile Dictu. The long-awaited Blackwell Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization finally has been published. The Encyclopedia is a new four-volume hardback reference work on the history and impact of Christianity. Edited by George Thomas Kurian (President of the Encyclopedia Society), The Encyclopedia includes over 1,400 entries on Christianity and its historical, social, and cultural effect on the world. Entries are divided into seven classes: core articles are wide-ranging articles that define a field and include commentary, historical background, and reviews of the literature; chronological histories survey the expansion of Christianity by century; global, regional, and territorial essays examine the ethnic, national and regional peculiarities of Christianity; denominational and confessional entries cover the main denominational families of Christianity in the world; biographies trace the key figures in shaping Christianity; interpretive essays expound on the key issues, events, places, concepts and ides that have driven Christian civilization; and breakout entries which expand upon the topics noted in core entries.

And, thank you for having been about to ask. Yours truly did contribute several essays to the Encyclopedia, including those on Hans Frei, Stanley Hauerwas, George Lindbeck, James McClendon, David Tracy, and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

The Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization looks to be an essential reference tool for scholars, students, pastors, and others, on the historical and sociocultural significance of Christianity. Understanding one’s place in the world helps one better reach the world for Christ. This work will forward that endeavor.serm