For an explanation of the title “Friday Night Frozen Dinner and an Intellectual,” see here.
A couple weeks ago I posted a review of “Holiness and Human Nature” by Leon and Mildred Chambers. This book dealt with learning to discern between sin (an intentional violation of the known will of God) and infirmities (physical or emotional limitations found in all persons as a result of the Fall.) Infirmities are not sins, but can lead to sin. The element in sin that makes it sin is intent; the person deliberately rebels against God’s holy standards. The person’s behavior resulting from infirmities is not necessarily intentional rebellion against God, but can lead to sin if the person refuses to overcome these infirmities by the help of the Holy Spirit. “Holiness and Human Nature” is written from a Wesleyan theological perspective and its authors consider the overcoming of infirmities to be a vital element of sanctification. I decided to explore further by reading a paper concerning the relationship between genetic factors and sin and sanctification. This past New Year’s Eve, which was a Friday, before consuming an entire pizza slightly larger than a personal pan pizza (something I have never done before), I read an eleven page paper entitled “Possible Influence of Genetic Factors on Sin, Sanctification, and Theology” by Burton Webb, Professor of Biology at Indiana Wesleyan University, and Keith Drury, an Associate Professor of Religion at the same institution. This is how I spent my New Years Eve. I am one exciting guy.
Dr. Webb makes it clear that he is not a scientific reductionist; he does not believe genetics is the sole explanation for all human behavior. He affirms that humans possess free will and are responsible moral agents. He also believes that the Holy Spirit can transform anyone no matter what their genetic make up consists of. Yet he is aware of the fact that genetics is more of a factor in our choices and behaviors than we have previously realized. This awareness causes Dr. Webb to ask whether our genetic makeup causes us to sin. Do our genes carry material that influences us to violate the laws of God? Dr. Webb points us to studies that have linked genetic factors to certain addictive behaviors the Church has labeled as sinful. He cites one study conducted at the Indiana University School of Medicine that compared the genomic DNA of 2310 persons from families of alcoholics to 1238 persons from control families. This study demonstrated significant correlations between alcoholism and at least three clusters of genes: GABA receptors, ADH genes and the gene for the muscarinic acetylcholine receptor, M2. A mutation in a GABA receptor gene called a GABRA2 gene can cause an individual to be at significant risk of becoming an alcoholic. Some studies link genetic factors to the commission of crimes. Webb cites a study comparing crime rates of individuals with Huntington’s disease to unaffected relatives and those within the rest of the population. Those who carry the gene for Huntington’s disease were several times more likely to commit violent crime, seven times more likely to be arrested for drunk driving and twice as likely to commit any of the crimes that were studied. Schizophrenia, a mental disorder resulting from genetic make up, has also been found to be a factor in criminal behavior. Webb also mentions that certain genetic factors could be linked to homosexuality. While Webb acknowledges that none of these findings justify sweeping conclusions, Webb does see a pattern emerging from them: some sinful behavior may be rooted in specific genetic make ups.
Do these scientific findings mean that we are genetically programmed to sin? Can genetic factors predestine us to sin? Webb seems to indicate that the answer to this question need not be yes. He points out that the presence of a gene sequence is not the only factor that determines a trait. It is the EXPRESSION of that gene sequence that is most important in determining a trait. Webb identifies a concept not widely known outside of the field of biology called epigenetic change. The structure of a DNA molecule can undergo physical change due to interaction with the physical environment. Webb points to a study done on macaques. Macaques carrying a mutation in a specific serotonin transporter were more likely to experience anxiety and engage in antisocial behavior when raised with peers carrying similar mutations. When macaques with this same mutation were placed with family groups that reinforced good social skills and behavior, both their behavior and their DNA changed. In other words, nurture altered nature in a significant way. Webb states that there is a human orthologue (a term from genetics referring to one of two or more homologous gene sequences found in different species) to the macques gene. This leads Webb to ask whether epigenetic change in gene expression or gene regulation could be explained by the interaction of the body and spirit. Could God intervene to save a person from genetic predispositions by altering their genetic make up? Webb defers to Keith Drury concerning the theological aspects of this subject.
The opening paragraph of this article asks three theological questions these scientific findings raise. To what extent are persons culpable for sins that may be rooted in their genetic make up? Should the Church redefine its teachings on sin in light of these recent discoveries? Could genetic manipulation usher in “genetic sanctification?” The following is my contribution.
It may be true that the Church will have to explore the physical roots of human behavior to a greater extent in explaining the origins of particular sins. This exploration will lead to the question whether certain individuals are morally culpable for their behavior. If sin is the intentional violation of the known law of God, can behavior that has its roots in genetic predispositions be labeled as sin? From its beginnings, the Church has recognized that some people have no control over their actions and therefore are not culpable for their acts that in another person would be sin. Nemesius, an early Christian writer, describes involuntary acts in which blame does not attach to the persons who commit them:
“Involuntary acts are either those done under constraint or those done unknowingly. In the case of the former, the origination of the deed lies outside the doer. For the cause that constrains us to do such a deed is something alien to us, and is not ourselves. Therefore, what defines a constrained voluntary act, originating outside the doer, is that the person constrained contributed no impulse of his own towards it. The source of the impulse is therefore said to be the effective cause of the act.” (From Classical Pastoral Care, vol. 3, Pastoral Counsel, edited by Thomas Oden.)
Those who would state that the Church has to rewrite its theology of sin in light of recent genetic research are overstating the case. The Church’s theology of sin has always acknowledged that there are some cases where some people are not responsible for their actions and therefore, are not guilty of sin. It would be more accurate to state that the Church’s theology of sin is able to accommodate new discoveries concerning the relationship betweens Man’s physical make up and personal behavior. The Church is capable of adapting its theology to new data without having to jettison what it has taught concerning sin for centuries. While recognizing genetic factors do play a part in a person’s ability to act as a morally responsible agent, no scientific discoveries now or in the future require the Church to abandon its belief that what makes a sin sin is the voluntary nature of the act.
If we develop the capacity to altar behavior through genetic manipulation, can we bring about “genetic sanctification?” This is a question Keith Drury asks. The Church has always believed in physical healing. When someone seeks medical treatment and is cured, Christians generally praise God rather than medical science. Christians state that God has worked through medical science to heal the person. Why shouldn’t God be able to sanctify a person through genetic alteration? I would reply that genetic alterations resulting in behavior change would not result in sanctification. Genetic alteration would make a person capable of becoming a responsible moral agent, able to understand right and wrong and able to make choices whether to engage in or abstain from sin. Increased responsibility before God would be the result. If we love God, we will obey His commandments. Yet enhanced ability to obey is not the same as actual obedience. We must still choose to obey God’s commandments. Other motivations within our hearts may cause us to disobey; we may choose behavior that previously we had no choice but to engage in. Love focused upon God is not programable by genetic manipulation. If it were, then the relationship between human beings and God would not be a true mutual relationship motivated by love on both sides. Motivation is still an integral factor in sanctified behavior, even among those whose genetic make up is altered. If good behavior brought about by genetic alteration was involuntary, then we can not truthfully claim that sanctification has occurred because the good behavior was as involuntary as the previous bad behavior.
This post is of course does not cover Drury’s part of the article in sufficient depth. Some Christians may be uncomfortable making inquiries along these lines. But the Church must not find itself in a position of not being intellectually capable of honest, informed dialogue concerning the relationship between sin, sanctification and genetic make up. The greatest intellectual challenge to the Christian faith today comes from the field of neuroscience. (See my previous article here.) Many involved in this branch of science believe that DNA explains everything concerning human beings, including religious belief. Even some theistic evolutionists, such as Tim Keller, promote the idea that belief in God is rooted in our genetic make up. Neuroscientists would have us believe that we are nothing but pre-programmed robots. If Christians fail to grapple with the issue of genetic make up and its relationship with human behavior, then it will be as unprepared as the 19th century Church was to oppose the challenge to the Christian faith posed by Evolution.
The article by Burton Webb and Keith Drury originally appeared at Didache:Faithful Teaching, an online theological journal from the Nazarene Church.