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Christian Bioethics

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Bioethics and Sin

Jean-Francois Collange

To cite this article: Jean-Francois Collange (2005) Bioethics and Sin, Christian Bioethics, 11:2,

To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/13803600500203871

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Christian Bioethics, 11:175–182, 2005
Copyright © 2005 Taylor & Francis Inc.
ISSN: 1380-3603 print
DOI: 10.1080/13803600500203871

Bioethics and Sin

Christian Bioethics Vol. 11, No. 02, July 2005: pp. 0–0

Bioethics and Collange
Jean-Francois Sin

Department of Theology, Université Marc Bloch, Strasbourg, France

On the basis of a historical reconstruction of the stages through

which the Christian notion of sin took shape in Protestantism, the
significance of this term for modern bioethics is derived from its
opposition to a holiness of God and his creatures, which in turn
translates into the secular moral concept of dignity. This dignity
imposes obligations to respect and to relationships that are sustained
by faithfulness and trust. In being based on the gratuitousness of
God’s grace, such relationships preclude attempts at instrumental-
ization, denial of singularity, and subjection to market forces.
Accordingly, reproductive cloning as well as exposing medicine to
economical considerations can be classified as sinful. The differ-
ence between sinful acts and humans’ sinful state furthermore
permits to address the problems of evil and misfortune in the
world, and to acknowledge humans’ responsibility for the threats
to humanity entailed by those ills. While the Christian faith relies
on God’s mercy, it also imposes the task of following Christ by
fighting against evil and misfortune.
Keywords: dignity, gratuitousness of grace, holiness, human sin-
gularity, reproductive cloning, the medical market


During the last thirty years, the relationship between medicine, biology, and
ethics has developed quite significantly, giving rise even to a new disci-
pline, bioethics. Whole works have been devoted to what should be permit-
ted or prohibited in this area. The concept of “sin,” however, is patently
absent in these discussions. One has to count this as evidence for the pro-
found secularization, even laicization, of our life-world, of the technology

Address correspondence to Jean-François Collange, Université Marc Bloch, 22 rue René,

Descartes, 67084, Strasbourg, France. E-mail: Epal.directoire@protestants.org

176 Jean-Francois Collange

developed for it, and of the ethical principles which that technology
invokes. These principles are developed quite independently of any reli-
gious concerns and of any notion of sin, grace, or forgiveness. Nevertheless,
from a theological point of view the question is well worth posing: Does the
category of sin have a place in bioethics or does it not? But immediately
another question arises: What exactly are we to understand by “sin”?


One can understand “sin” as a fault (Fr. original: faute) committed against
the godhead. This fault concerns an action or a specific incident, which is
thought to “hurt” or “offend” God’s holiness and his eminent dignity. Tradi-
tionally, this offense is seen to express itself through the symbol of an act
that renders a man unclean and hurts sainthood, and which can be ritually
cleansed (Ricoeur, 1960). As suggested by Psalm 51, “Have mercy upon me,
oh God. . . wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity and cleanse me from
my sin . . . purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean; wash me and I shall
be whiter than snow.” In this context, sin is still seen in connection with a
possible atonement or penitence, which effaces or compensates for the
transgression and which leads to God’s pardon and re-establishment of the
good order, which had been disrupted by the fault.
Considered at first as a significant transgression of a “taboo,” which
presupposes the affirmation of an order, whether social or cosmic, the sinful
act gradually came to be understood (especially in the wake of the Israelite
prophets, and then after the completion of the Torah) no longer as a trans-
gression of a specific and arbitrary prohibition, but as a moral fault, which
violated the principle of justice which ought to govern relations between
humans. But even here, sin is linked with a specific act, for which the list of
the Ten Commandments provides an overall framework.
The Apostle Paul went one step further. For him, sin is not merely a
moral fault, but it concerns the whole of humanity, which finds itself
entirely under the reign of sin (Romans 1: 18–32). “Sin” thus characterizes
humanity as separated from God, and therefore unable by itself to live in a
healthy and holy manner. Here it is exclusively God’s mercy as manifested
in Jesus Christ that is able to reconcile God with man and to reestablish a
proper order of religion and social life. This generalized state of sinfulness
is seen to express itself further through a certain number of moral perver-
sions, and the quoted passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans offers an
exemplary account of this.
This tension between the two poles of the particular sinful act and the
general state of the sinner, which from now on was perceived to exist
within the reality of sin, became theoretically conceptualized in theology, in
particular in the tradition following Saint Augustine. This latter author in fact
Bioethics and Sin 177

distinguishes between “original sin” (a state which marks the human condi-
tion in its entirety) and the “sinful act,” which actualizes the potentialities of
that state in which each human finds himself at birth (Beatrice in Sitzler-
Osing, 2001 p.392). Thus, in the life of believers only the second aspect of
the reality of sinfulness is considered, that is, sin only insofar as it relates to
daily action.
This approach is generally supported by the practical orientation of
humans by the practice of aural confession, which requires an inventory of
“sins” the priest is entitled to pardon or, once the belief in purgatory is
accepted, to sell off against “good works” offered by the sinners. It is this
understanding that motivated the Reform of the sixteenth century. In radi-
cally denying the idea of “merits” through which man was thought to be
able to “buy back” his faults, Luther returned to the Pauline position: Sin is
what characterizes the human condition in its entirety, and in its placement
vis-à-vis God (coram deo); only grace as received through faith can efface
it. It is thus God’s grace and man’s faith, which open up the path to a new
life before God, in the midst of and in togetherness with the brothers and
sisters who are equally blessed with forgiveness and saved, sola gratia and
sola fide.
Today, in a pluralistic and secularized world, the concept of sin (apart
from narrowly theological and church contexts) has just about vanished,
especially in the vocabulary and conceptual resources of bioethics. Does
one have to conclude that the reality that corresponds to that concept has
vanished as well? Undoubtedly, this is not the case. But one must be very
clear about what one might still wish to understand by that term.
In fact, today just as yesterday, one cannot understand sin but by con-
fronting it with it’s opposite, holiness. The latter concerns in a primary sense
God, as well as humans, who are called to live in the face of God, with Him
and with one another. “Holiness” here refers to the eminent dignity of the
Lord and of his creatures “created after His image and likeness” (Genesis
1:26). This dignity, which is sustained through the essential relatedness link-
ing humans to one another, calls for respect and good faith, and enjoins us
to live in openness and mutual trust. Besides, respect and faith-trust are
compatible only as based on a still more fundamental value: grace or the
graciousness of the gift (Fr. original: “gratuité”).2 It is this value, which in a
fundamental manner places dignity, whether human or divine, outside of
economic considerations, or market forces and outside of attempts at self-
serving “instrumentalization” of the other through the engagement of
power, money, or any other from of deceitful pressure. This is certainly the
fundamental intuition of the Gospel and of the Reformation. God is grace:
one cannot “buy” grace exactly because holiness has no price. And if this
holds for Him, it holds in the same way for the dignity of each human
being; this too must be kept out of the market. Thus, at the very bottom of
sin lies the attempt to “reify” or “objectify” God or the other, reducing them
178 Jean-Francois Collange

to things rather than addressing them as persons, considering them to be

simple elements in a mechanical device (whether technical or economical),
which one can manipulate at will and for one’s exclusive profit. Taking up
the terminology of Emmanuel Lévinas, sin consists in not respecting “the
eminence of the face of the other” (Lévinas, 1982, p. 83).3



Biblical man is essentially characterized as a being in relations. His “holi-

ness,” or again his dignity of having been “created in the image of God,”
presents itself as the fruit of his relationship to God and to His overflowing
love. This constitutive being-in-relation is moreover reflected in the fact that
the human being is created “doubly.” As a sexual being, “male and female,”
man possesses a specific character, which the second creation story develops
in great detail (Genesis 2:16–24).
Thus, it is being-in-relation, which opens and links all together to the
O/other in a mutual respect, in confidence and fidelity. This is why, in his
faith/trust, man is called to live coram deo, as under the eyes of God. The
same holds for the interhuman relationship. Originally, humans were called
to live in openness and mutual trust. This is what the creation story indi-
cates in metaphorical language, when it specifies that Adam and Eve, one in
the eye of the other, were “nude, and they did not feel shame.” It is this
experience, which, both on the spiritual and the carnal level, reveals itself
as truly profound. It is a profoundness which cannot be reduced to the
mere sexual union, but unfolds in the respect of the O/other’s liberty, in the
interchange of communications, and in love.
For bioethics, this implies that each act that inscribes itself into this
respectful exchange can be considered “good” (Genesis 1:27). By contrast,
each process which aims at changing the autonomy and singularity of
another person, at manipulating or “instrumentalizing,” must be rejected.
This is indicated in its own way by Genesis 3:1, where one sees the tempter
presenting in a perverted form as “good” the undertaking of rendering one-
self similar to another (in this case God), thus truly constituting sin par
The same therefore surely holds for reproductive cloning, which aims
at making it possible for people (without engaging or accepting the media-
tion of the other sex, or without sharing with the other sex) to procure
another “self.” Surely, one can argue that such an attempt to assimilate
another to oneself is bound to fail anyway. Each human being, after all, is
inescapably singular— at least through his history and his education. Even
“identical” twins have particular personalities and fates, etc. All this is true.
Nevertheless, one must question the motives which push towards having
Bioethics and Sin 179

recourse for an eventual reproduction to a possible technique of reproduc-

tive cloning. Surely there is a hidden “narcissus complex” underneath,
where an individual is entirely captured by the illusion of a self-reproduction
through his own image. Of course, the end of Narcissus and of narcissism
gets unequivocally denounced by the myth itself: the result is not life, but
death (Kahn, 1998; Lecourt, 1999; McLaren, 2002). The biblical account goes
in the same direction: the desire to “instrumentalize” the other and to render
him like oneself as much as possible must proceed from a lack of confi-
dence and faith, and must, therefore, be denounced as sin.



In the human world, it seldom happens that one can isolate a pure act. Ulti-
mately human actions are always caught up in a network of complex
causes, effects, and consequences. This also holds for money and bioethics.
Medical acts generally are designed to help people who are impaired in
their health or in their dignity, and are rendered fragile and vulnerable.
Their coming to the aid of patients derives from the most elementary soli-
darity. If that vulnerability can be remedied through biological technology,
nothing can be more normal and more worthy of praise. If the labor and the
investments engaged for such help are remunerated at their just price, there
is no reason for criticism. But if there are exorbitant profits or even, in cer-
tain cases, confirmed abuses, then this deserves to be vigorously
denounced. Here one has all reason to speak about sin, about proceedings
that fundamentally contradict those laws of mercy which require that one
offer others the goods and services indispensable for their life, survival, and
The situation in many poor countries, in which access to certain necessary
medicines is difficult and sometimes even impossible, offers a tragic exam-
ple. Surely, an angelic behavior is not required here. However, concern
about the preservation of one’s monopoly position in the deliverance of
public health services, the lack of good will, and the indifference of markets
to doubtful cost-effectiveness calculations cannot count as serious excuses
for a scandalous state of affairs.
The same applies, if in certain countries one tolerates organ traffic, or
even organizes the sale of organs.4 The two essential principles of bioethics,
the inviolability of the human body and its nonproperty character, must be
considered as contemporary and juridical translations of the grace carried in
God’s enjoinder towards mercy.
The human being must be kept out of commerce and out of the play of
market forces, if it is not to reduce itself (or be reduced) to nothing but an
object, as opposed to being treated as a person. Now, to consider the other
180 Jean-Francois Collange

as a thing, and not fundamentally as a person, is to violate the second ver-

sion of Kant’s categorical imperative, which claims one should “act in such
a way that treats humanity in one’s person and in all human beings as an
end, and never simply as a means” (Kant, 1979, p. 150).
In a still more subtle fashion, similar commitments are borne out if one
creates (or attempts to create) false needs, or, at least, needs of a question-
able usefulness, as when one establishes blood banks for oneself in the
hope of securing supply for one’s eventual later need.5 The creation of such
banks elicits utopian dreams and disguises merely economic goals under
the pretext of rendering a service for the child. At the same time, the exist-
ence of such banks destroys the real social solidarity which guides the suc-
cessful functioning of bone marrow transplantation. They enclose each
individual in the illusionary circle of his resources for self-healing. This soli-
darity is, in addition, also hurt in still another way because such banks insti-
tutionalize unacceptable discrimination based on financial resources.
Genetically modified organisms pose still further problems. We will
not go into the question of their novelty or their innocuousness for the
environment and for the long-term development of agriculture, even if that
question is very important. But one still must be alert to the economic con-
sequences that accrue from the marketing of patented parallel products.
Entire peoples thus can become subjected to the dictate of provider firms
and masters of products, once these have been rendered indispensable.
Apart from such a possible subjection, one must insist on the indispensable
difference between invention (which results from the labor and genius of
an individual or of a team and therefore merits protection) and discovery
of what belongs to the whole world, and cannot be appropriated by any
particular party.


These several examples are sufficient to illustrate the way in which certain
applications of technology or certain practices, which are relevant for
bioethics, can be considered sinful. Still one should not restrict oneself to
particular cases just to point a finger at them.
It is clear the problem of sin extends to greater depths. Whatever one
thinks of this or that action, “unfortunately” one thing is certain: evil and
misfortune are always present in the midst of our world, perhaps today
even more so than ever. And this is why morals and ethics are necessary.
They serve to name, denounce, and avoid these ills.
Can one explain such dramas in any other way, so as to shun humans’
own responsibility? Can one decently claim that the existence of the misfor-
tunes invoked is nothing but the result of impersonal tragedies or of an
inexorable fate, without any relationship to human fault, whether individual
Bioethics and Sin 181

or collective? Obviously no. Humanity cannot avoid, in one way or another,

to recognize its large responsibility and culpability for the evils which have
destroyed it and still are destroying it. It is here that the doctrine of “original
sin” is still relevant. We are no longer in paradise, and honesty forces us to
confess that it is not for nothing that we are where we are.
This confession made, we must admit that the kinds of responsibility or
co-responsibility for the generation and the continued existence of evil are
multiple, complex, and at bottom inscrutable (Ricoeur, 1986; Gesché, 1993).
We have attempted to sketch some basic insights into those kinds, and to
show in what way they relate to a particular area of human action, namely
medicine, biology, and gene technology. Nothing permits us to conclude
that these areas can escape the common lot of all human undertakings.
Is this common lot, therefore, a fate in which all humanity is enclosed,
without any hope of ever escaping from it? No, answers the Christian faith.
There is no fault and no sin, which could not be redeemed in Christ. In
Him, the fate which seems to inescapably weigh down on humanity is bro-
ken up, and humans are called to live with one another, and to live in the
eyes of God in justice and equity. God’s mercy, manifested in Christ,
extends to all areas of human existence, including medicine, biology, and
gene technology. It is our task to seize it and to take our part in following
Christ in his fight against evil and misfortune.


1. My account of sin mostly follows those by Bühler (1976) and Sitzler-Osing et al. (2001).
2. Translator’s note: By the term gratuite, the author, in taking his clue from Paul Tillich, wishes to
emphasize a quality that operates on three levels: economically it denotes something that is given “for
free,” aesthetically, it connotes “graciousness,” and theologically, the fact that God’s grace is given to
man as a gift of love.
3. The theme of the face (of the other) and of one’s responsability in view of the other’s face per-
vades the work of Lévinas: “Le 'Tu ne tueras point' est la première parole du visage. Et c'est un ordre. Il
y a dans l'apparition du visage un commandement, comme si un maître me parlait. Pourtant, en même
temps, le visage d'autrui est dénué; c'est le pauvre pour lequel je peux tout et à qui je dois tout” (Lévinas,
1982, p. 83).
4. The defense of organ sale, which in this journal was offered by Torcello and Wear (2000), is not
really convincing. Their view of the human body is too reductionist and mechanist. There is no room for
a gift (without recompense) and for love as a constitutional element of humans’ humanity. Concerning
this last point see also the secular sociological perspective taken by Godelier (1996), and the contribution
by Collange (2000), especially pp. 117–128 and pp. 207–217.
5. See Cambon-Thomsen & Collange: “Blood banks with tissue from the umbilical cord are insti-
tuted for the sake of securing blood for one’s own later use or for research purposes” (2003, pp. 3–9).


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