GMO GENIE: Part 2 – Did God really say, “Don’t!”

This series is my attempt to answer those who have used the Bible to demonstrate theological support for the creation of genetically modified organisms (GMO’s).   When considering the Biblically based arguments AGAINST the creation of GMO’s, it’s hard to know just where to begin because there are so many!

In this part of the series I will focus on the first book of the Bible where we read that God created the earth and all the animals and plants after their own “kind”…

And the earth brought forth grass, [and] herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed [was] in itself, after his kind: and God saw that [it was] good.” [Gen. 1:12- KJV]

And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, [it was] very good.”   [Gen. 1:31a]

We also read in the opening chapter of Genesis that God gave man “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”  [Gen. 1:29b] 

We have to agree on a few definitions before we can proceed with a discussion determining if scripture actually supports man’s creation of GMO’s or not. First, the term “create” as used in Genesis means to “bring into existence” while the term “dominion” is defined as having “authority; sovereignty; or ownership.”

It is God who created every plant of the field before it was in the earth, and every herb of the field before it grew…” [Gen. 2:5a]  And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.” [Gen. 2:15]

Merriam-Webster defines “stewardship” as: “the conducting, supervising, or managing of things; especially : the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care; i.e. the stewardship of natural resources.”

God’s direction for “dressing and keeping” the garden is where we (humans) derive our stewardship mandate.  There is simply no scriptural support found anywhere in the Bible that directs man to be a “creator” or a “co-creator” with God.  Man has been given dominion over the created world in regards only to “dressing and keeping” it.  The ability and desire to remake creation for our own purposes stems from our fallen nature, or the consequences we have suffered due to our disobedience in eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

In defending the theological framework laid out in an article written by Jordan Ballor in support of the principle of genetic engineering published in the April 10, 2013 edition of the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation Newsletter, Dr. Calvin Beisner acknowledges (but downplays) our God given “stewardship” mandate and focuses his argument instead on man’s “dominion” over nature.  Beisner points out that according to Genesis, the creatures themselves were not specifically prohibited from crossing the so-called “species barrier”, so therefore man is not prohibited, at least in principle, from utilizing methodologies that do just that.

Beisner writes:

“It now becomes apparent that the ‘species barrier’ is something read into the text, not arising from it. DID plants and animals reproduce after their kinds as created? Yes. Were they prohibited (either morally or causatively) from ever doing otherwise? Not so far as the text itself tells us.” [1]

According to Dr. Beisner, the word “kind” (miyn) as used in Genesis does not specifically refer to “species”, but instead may more accurately relate to a higher order of taxonomic classification.   My concordance offers this explanation of the word “kind” as used in Genesis:

“Groups of living organisms belong in the same created “kind” if they have descended from the same ancestral gene pool. This does not preclude new species because this represents a partitioning of the original gene pool. Information is lost or conserved—not gained. A new species could arise when a population is isolated and inbreeding occurs. By this definition a new species is not a new “kind” but a further partitioning of an existing “kind”.”

Dr. Beisner is technically correct that plants and animals are not prohibited from changes to their respective genomes.  In fact such changes are a natural part of the created order, or at least a natural part of a “fallen” order.  New species do in fact come into existence from time to time largely due to isolation and inbreeding, while other species or sub-species become extinct.

This all becomes a moot point as soon as we realize that the manufacturing of GMO’s is not about combining genes from closely related species to create hybrids, but entails mixing up the gene pool between higher taxonomic classifications.  Genetic information is removed from, or lost from particular genomes while new information is gained or added from vastly different lifeforms.

Beisner, and others of like mind, argue that scripture does not, in principle, prohibit man from using the tools he has cleverly invented or the knowledge he has acquired to manipulate genetic codes and/or create new organisms which incorporate genetic material from different “kinds.  Some of these same folks raise objections to the more disturbing or nefarious purposes of genetic modification programs.   While fooling around with the genes of plants and animals is considered morally acceptable in principle as long as it creates something useful or “good”, the manipulation of the human genome or the creation of animal/human chimeras is strictly off limits. This to me, reeks of hypocrisy and exposes a lack of understanding of what it means to live in a fallen world.

As I read scripture, God alone is referred to as the “creator”.  God alone created everything and declared it to be “very good”.   Man was directed to “dress and keep” that which God had already created.  Yet we have somehow decided that it is our God given right to manipulate everything around us any way that we see fit as long as we can rationalize the practice.   The argument about principle falls apart when we understand that in practice, taking the basic building blocks of life and rearranging them in crazy ways may not result in the betterment of creation or something “good”.   

Let’s just assume for the sake of argument, that man does indeed have the freedom to create new “kinds” of organisms, new mixed up life forms that do not and would never occur in nature without man’s ingenious ability to extract, manipulate, and add genetic information.    What if these new organisms, or chimeras, turn out to be inferior or incredibly harmful to some or all of the established “kinds” that God has created?  Who determines what is “good”?

Concern is growing over newly created GM wheat varieties that are designed to “turn off” the reproductive genes of insects.  Evidence has emerged that this new GM food crop may also turn off the ability of humans to reproduce.  Dr. Jack Heinemann from the University of Canterbury’s Centre for Integrated Research in Biosafety has studied the potential effects of these new GM wheat varieties and has drawn some startling conclusions:

“What we found is that the molecules created in this wheat, intended to silence wheat genes, can match human genes, and through ingestion, these molecules can enter human beings and potentially silence our genes. The findings are absolutely assured. There is no doubt that these matches exist.”

Professor Judy Carman of Flinders University shares Dr. Heinemann’s concerns:

“If this silences the same gene in us that it silences in the wheat—well, children who are born with this enzyme not working tend to die by the age of about five.”

Some say the creation of GMO’s that can reduce human population or lower fertility levels is great news. Others are worried about where this type of manipulation will end.  Whether this is an unforeseen consequence or an example of a nefarious purpose, either way it exposes the very real danger of creating new organisms in the laboratory and then either having them accidentally escape or purposefully unleashing them into the environment.

Getting back to Genesis, in chapter 3 we read where evil crept in and the “goodness” of the created order was corrupted.  You all know the story.  Because of the sin of disobedience, the environment surrounding man was cursed.  God decreed that man must now toil for his food and deal with “thorns and thistles” (weeds). [Gen. 3:17-19]

God forced man out of the garden of Eden and made him go to work, “to till the ground from whence he was taken”.  [Gen 3:23]  Ask any farmer, rancher or gardener how much work is involved in producing a crop.   Pests, weeds, predators, disease and unfavorable climactic conditions are all factors that make food production difficult.  Hard working folks welcome new methods and new means for making life easier or their labor more productive.

Even a cursory examination of history or comparative religion demonstrates that man has been seeking ways to “reverse the effects of the curse”, attain mastery over life, alter reality and/or affect creation, fulfill his own vision,  or become his own “god”.  So the question Christian believers must answer about GMO’s is this: Does their development help us care for creation and/or promote the Gospel message or do GMO’s have the potential to create a stumbling block for others?

Man has invented all sorts of tools and methodologies to protect himself or make life easier in an often inhospitable world.  We build dams and irrigation channels to bring water to arid lands and quench the thirst of urban dwellers.  We devise medicines and energy sources to make life more comfortable and extend our days.  But messing around with the very building blocks of life through genetic engineering goes far beyond our stewardship mandate of “dressing and keeping” everything God has created.

Consider for a moment the development of vaccines and antibiotics, both of which have saved countless lives over the past hundred and fifty years or so.  However, today we are seeing many unforeseen consequences of the overuse and misuse of antibiotics.  Viruses and bacteria have mutated into many types of “superbugs” that cannot be killed with any known treatment.  Instead of putting our trust in the Biblical teachings regarding quarantine, sanitation, proper nutrition, and healthy and obedient living, masses of people were fooled into relying on the ability of medicine and new technologies to keep them alive.  Even today, signs are posted everywhere telling people to follow the simple OT Biblical instructions to “wash your hands”.   Meanwhile, there are growing concerns over vaccine efficacy, allergic reactions, and potentially life altering and devastating side effects.

Responsible stewardship requires understanding the ecological, social, and economic impacts of our decisions.  To answer the theological question, “Is genetic engineering permissible?”  I would have to say it depends on how you define “genetic engineering”.  I define it is an act of arrogance and rebellion that says to God, “I don’t like the plants and crops you have created and given me. They are not so good. I’m going to fix them, make them better,  and by doing so I can reverse the effects of the curse.”

Granted, others may not see the creation of genetically modified organisms the way I do.  Time will tell if mankind is practicing behaviors and creating the conditions that will lead to an increase in God’s wrath or not.

“Before destruction the heart of man is haughty…  Proverbs 18:12a

“Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.”  Ecclesiastes 12:13

[1] Facebook discussion comment by Dr. Beisner April 12, 12:08 pm.

7 thoughts on “GMO GENIE: Part 2 – Did God really say, “Don’t!”

  1. From the larger article from which the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation Newsletter was taken, in the section titled “Redemption and Consummation”, Jordan Ballor cites Romans 8:20-21 claiming, to which Steve refers above, “[h]ere we have a hint at the reversal of the curse on the human-earth relationship”. To provide proper context, here’s is more of Ballor’s statement [bold added for emphasis]:

    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.

    By proof-texting these verses he misconstrues a key part of Paul’s overall meaning, and in so doing changes the timing of both the redemption of the earth, and the full redemption of mankind. Let’s put this in its proper Biblical context.

    18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

    22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. [Romans 8:18-25, NIV]

    Note in verse 18 “the glory that will be revealed in us”; this is yet future from the time of Paul’s writing. At what point will this glory be revealed? Verse 23 provides the answer: It will be upon “the redemption of our bodies”, which obviously occurs at, not at any time before, the eschaton, the end of all things. So, upon conversion Christians receive the “firstfruits of the Spirit, which is the Holy Spirit’s indwelling; however, it’s not until the consummation (Christ’s return) that we are fully adopted into “sonship” with the “redemption of our bodies”(v 23).

    Yet, in verse 19 we also see that creation is waiting for “the children of God to be revealed” in order for the liberation of creation in verse 21. This means that once Christ returns Christians will receive their glorified bodies [1 Cor 15:50-54], after which creation will be renewed. These verses indicate that humankind has nothing to do with the “reversal of the curse on the human-earth relationship”; it’s Christ Himself who provides for the redemption of the earth as He provides the full glorification/redemption of believers when He returns.

    Ballor is correct that “[o]ur task as believers is to bear witness to the saving work of Jesus Christ”, yet this has to do with the spreading of the Gospel message in order to bring salvation to the lost. But, he’s confused the salvation of humans with the ‘salvation’ of the earth. As Steve has noted, Ballor and Dr. Beisner are espousing that mankind take “dominion” over creation by becoming ‘creators’ or ‘co-creators’ via GMOs, rather than providing “stewardship” as we are commanded.

    This teaching that mankind can effect a “reversal of the curse on the human-earth relationship” smacks of the heretical Manifested Sons of God doctrine – a doctrine such that certain of mankind will receive their glorified, redeemed bodies this side of Christ’s returning – for its these very verses in Romans which are distorted in this false doctrine.

  2. I want to add this: Having read some of the Facebook exchanges I was a bit disturbed at a number of Dr. Beisner’s comments; but, not having an account on Facebook, I was unable to challenge his statements. I welcome comments from Dr. Beisner and/or Ballor on this forum in defense of my following and above criticisms.

    From the outset, let me state that I have had no formal theological training whatsoever; however, I’ve read a fair number of books on Christian theology, and have a fair number of books in my home library providing ready reference, if necessary (including Fee’s excellent commentary on First Corinthians and the Beale/Carson Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament which Beisner cited).

    I was initially disturbed by Beisner’s charge that Steve misunderstood Ballor as he was “reading him through eyes predisposed by a hermeneutic that differs significantly from his”. While this is undoubtedly true, I submit that as Gordon Fee states in his How To Read the Bible for All its Worth that “proper hermeneutics begins with solid exegesis” [2nd edition, 1993, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, p 25]. As shown in my previous comment, the hermeneutic applied in Ballor’s “theological framework” involved proof-texting and eisegesis (reading INTO the text), rather than exegesis (extracting meaning FROM the text).

    And, Beisner’s following comment I construe as patronizing, even though he claims it was not his intention. Perhaps it truly wasn’t intended as patronizing, but, I can’t help but think of those who preface statements with “I don’t want to be ‘ugly’, but…” and then proceed to say something ‘ugly’:

    I truly, truly don’t mean to be patronizing in saying this, but if you had to look up the word “hermeneutic,” might that suggest to you that although you might have a lot of expertise in some matters, you could stand to learn from some others about how to interpret (not just the Bible but) any literature?

    Not being acquainted with the word hermeneutic does not preclude an individual from actually holding to a consistent hermeneutical principal in their interpretation of any literary work. I saw this comment as a subtle ad hominem in order to undermine Steve’s position, a tactic I deem as both patently unfair and decidedly un-Christlike.

    I’ve recently become aware of a new sort of Biblical Criticism known as Ecological Criticism which seems to apply a hermeneutical approach such as the one espoused by Ballor and Beisner, as it also uses Genesis 1-3 and Romans 8:18-22 as base texts, as found in the so-called “Earth Bible” [cf. B. Byrne (2000) ‘Creation Groaning: An Earth Bible Reading of Romans 8.18-22’, in N.C. Habel, ed., Readings from the Perspective of Earth, Earth Bible, I. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 187-203, as cited in Paula Gooder Searching for Meaning: An Introduction to Interpreting the New Testament, Westminster John Knox, 2009, p 195]. Gooder, in her critique of “Ecological Criticism” states

    …Ecological critics…may choose either to challenge traditional interpretations of the text and propose readings that are more ecologically friendly (as Byrne has done…) or to read the text against the grain [love the unintended pun!] and to challenge its presuppositions (as for example Habel, 2000, 76-82)…It is unlikely that we will ever reach a stage in which the Bible can be demonstrated to be ‘eco friendly’…[T]here are numerous passages which disrupt assumptions of human domination of creation to such an extent as to challenge our attitudes and relationships to the non-human created order…. [Gooder, p 198; emphasis added].

  3. I need to make a correction. In the 3rd paragraph of the first comment, the words “full redemption of mankind” should be “the full redemption of Christians“. The rest of the content makes my position clear; however, I didn’t wish to leave this as is. I’m certainly no universalist!

  4. Daniel

    Its interesting the co-creator and steward distinction in your blog article. Its the first time I came across that approach. I think it is good to realise that the principle of producing GMO crops also affects various other areas of agriculture like pesticide use. I think the first rule of medicine is to do no harm. I believe many a harm is done using GMO crops and other conventional approaches to agriculture. If this is so then how can it be right in Gods eyes do continue doing it if you know it hurts your neighbor?

    I heard about a conventional veg or fruit farmer that have their own little veg garden and fruit trees from which they eat. He said that he would not give the convectional food they grow to their families. How can one make a living this way and still say that he loves his neighbour? Something worth thinking about.

    “So what does man do in his ultimate wisdom? He depletes the soils so that he grows sick crops so he poisons the insects that should clear out the sick crops. He eats those sick crops and then has to have drugs and the same kinds of poisons in order to keep nature’s garbage collectors from also clearing him out. It is a perfect system, and if you understand how all these things connect you can then do something about them.”
    Arden Anderson

    Not having read the whole thread not sure you covered the herbicide that gm crops are heavily dependent upon. Glyphosate that are supposed to be the safest pesticide heavily used in GM crop farming:

    Glyphosate’s Suppression of Cytochrome P450 Enzymes and Amino Acid Biosynthesis by the Gut Microbiome: Pathways to Modern Diseases

    Quite a devastating talk here worth listening to about the dangers of conventional agriculture in which it goes into some detail of glyphosate. Thankfully there is some hope in the end. The speaker is interestingly from amish background and started his own business in eco agriculture. He used to be a conventional farmer but gave it up for eco agriculture after repeated yield disappointments.

  5. Daniel

    Regarding patents and intellectual property in GM crops I find attorney Dan Ravicher worth listening to here.

    Dan points out an interesting thing if you dont have the time to listen:
    When wanting their seeds to be approved for selling as regular food the first thing Monsanto say is that there is absolutely no difference between their corn and regular corn. No safety tests, labeling, regulation etc needed.
    At the other-side of Washington at the Patent office they say we cant grant you a patent for this as there is no difference between your seed and regular seed. Monsanto then say that it is not at all the same, that they invented this technology radically different etc.

    I think there is a place for patents but then it need to be something worthy of patenting.

  6. Interesting take on the patents Daniel, thanks. Re pesticide coated seeds, the debate is ongoing and getting hot and heavy about whether or not they are linked to Bee CCD, or human health issues. Lots of big money in play. I believe the evidence is mounting that increased pesticide use and/or GM crops do contribute to significant and potentially catastrophic problems. Dr. Beisner and Cornwall Alliance are of the opinion that pesticides, herbicides, and now GMO’s, create great benefits that far out weigh any health or environmental concerns which they say, once they are identified, can be dealt with or corrected after the fact.

    Besides the growing body of evidence of harm, what needs to be addressed here is the so-called “theological basis” for the “principle” of genetic engineering. The Cornwall Alliance’s pro GM argument relies on man’s “dominion over nature”. Much of Jordan Ballor’s theological argument in favor of GMO’s is derived from a skewed reading of specific Bible verses, as Craig pointed out in his comments.

    I will have more to say on this in Part III. Thanks for joining in this discussion. It will get much more interesting when Dr. Beisner shows up, which he has promised me he will do after he has completed a major writing project.

  7. From the Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics is the following:

    From Article III

    WE AFFIRM that the Person and work of Jesus Christ are the central focus of the entire Bible.

    WE DENY that any method of interpretation which rejects or obscures the Christ-centeredness of Scripture is correct.

    An anthropocentric hermeneutic is not valid.

    From Article IX:

    The Denial notes that the meaning of a passage is not derived from or dictated by the interpreter. Rather, meaning comes from the author who wrote it. Thus the reader’s understanding has no hermeneutically definitive role. Readers must listen to the meaning of a text and not attempt to legislate it. Of course, the meaning listened to should be applied to the reader’s life. But the need or desire for specific application should not color the interpretation of a passage.

    Like the Fee statement above, proper exegesis should precede any hermeneutic.

    From Article XIX:

    WE AFFIRM that any preunderstandings which the interpreter brings to Scripture should be in harmony with scriptural teaching and subject to correction by it.

    WE DENY that Scripture should be required to fit alien preunderstandings, inconsistent with itself, such as naturalism, evolutionism, scientism, secular humanism, and relativism.

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