(The article is a bit long but comprehensive. A good read for every believer.)
One of the greatest technological achievements in human history was the Apollo moon mission undertaken by the United States. Less than a decade before the successful Apollo 11 launch, and the return of the three astronauts to earth safely after two of them had stood on the moon as the first human beings ever to do so, less than a decade before the then president of the United States, John F. Kennedy had announced that it should be the nation’s goal to send a man to the earth and bring him back safely. Again, the fact that that was done within a decade, broke just about every expectation, including the expectation of many who had actually begun the American space program.
But compare that to the fact that just months after the COVID-19 virus was detected, a successful vaccine has now been developed, and ads of action by the Food and Drug Administration are counseled first on Thursday, and then the FDA itself on Friday, we now have emergency authorization for the Pfizer vaccine against COVID-19.
And that just a matter of months after the virus even entered our vocabulary, this is unprecedented in medical history. It is, in terms of technology, probably just about equal with the Apollo moon mission. We are talking about operation warp speed, doing what just a few years ago, no one would have expected to be possible. It generally takes years for the development of a successful vaccine, if indeed a successful vaccine is ever developed. But it has been, and it is expected that this week, a similar vaccine produced by Moderna, will come before the same counsel and will receive the same emergency authorization. As medical authorities put it over the weekend, shots in arms should begin today.
The Christian Tradition and the Question of Vaccines: Seven Principles for Christian Thinking
But as Christians think about the big issue of vaccines, yes, these particular vaccines, yes, this particular virus, but the larger issue of vaccines, there are some principles of Christian worldview thinking that ought to pertain it’s good for us at this time. It’s healthy for us to consider at least seven different points that have to do with historic Christian, indeed historic evangelical thinking, about the theological understanding, the moral understanding of vaccines.
I’ve written about this and spoken about it extensively before COVID-19, but in the context of COVID-19, I just want to go back and help us to do a bit of theological analysis. Again, I have reduced this to seven points that I think we can understand and apply to the COVID-19 vaccine context. The first is the fact that we do not, as Christians, believe in medical, non-interventionism. Now, you might say that’s really prior to vaccines, but that’s the point, we do believe in medical treatment. The Christian worldview, a biblical worldview, does authorize medical treatment. Just remember, perhaps the most obvious thing here is that Luke himself is identified as a physician.
But behind all of this, you have the larger biblical theology that would include the fact that taking dominion, as indicated in Genesis 1, would mean pressing back against germs and viruses even before human beings had the categories of germs and viruses. Pressing back against disease, pressing back against death, pressing back against illness and suffering and sickness, pressing back against injury. We are not medical non-interventionists, and you say, “Well, what would that look like?” Well, it would look like, for example, people saying, “Well, I believe in the sovereignty of God, and if God wants me to have the virus, then he’ll give me the virus.” But if you’re going to follow that logic through consistently, then you wouldn’t treat the virus. But again, that is not the biblical worldview, medical non-interventionism is not a principle of Christian moral theory. So, that means, and we always have to say, depending upon your medical advice, if you have a headache, you can take aspirin. If you have an injury, you can get treated. If you have a sickness, you can go to the doctor and hope for some alleviation of that sickness. You can undergo surgery.
Now, again, every single one of these things has its own moral questions. But in general, the fact is that the Christian faith understands that, biblically, a part of taking dominion is medical interventionism, medical treatment. That is why, where you find historic Christianity, you find hospitals. That’s where, when you see historic Christianity, you see all kinds of attention to the Christian dignity of those who are in medical professions. Where you find Christianity, you find medicine honored. So, I raise this issue of medical non-interventionism because what it tells us is, it’s not wrong to seek to avoid getting an illness. It’s not wrong to seek to avoid getting a virus, in this case by means of vaccine. There is a background to this, of course, in American evangelical history. All you have to think about here is Jonathan Edwards, the towering figure of 18th century theology in the United States, indeed the most important theologian in all of American history. Jonathan Edwards, who was then the president of what we would know as Princeton University, died March 27, 1758, of a wrongly administered inoculation.
Now, a little footnote here, an inoculation is not exactly the same thing as a vaccine. A vaccine is, in a sense, an inoculation, but there are inoculations that aren’t vaccines. But the point you need to know about Jonathan Edwards is not that he died because of the wrongly administered inoculation. And by the way, all they had back then was a basic knowledge of the fact that if you gave someone a smaller case of a disease, it could prevent a larger case. In this case, they gave Jonathan Edwards a lethal case of smallpox, but that also means that all they had to deal with was the live virus, even though they didn’t exactly know what the virus was. The vaccines that have to do with COVID-19 are profoundly not live virus vaccines. You’re talking about a different world, but we are reminded by Jonathan Edwards that he himself made the point that a biblical Christian worldview understands, that even the science of medicine is predicated upon an understanding of the world as orderly and intelligible. And all of that is based in the Christian doctrine of creation.
So again, number one, we do not hold, as Christians, to medical non-interventionism.
That might make sense for Christian science or any number of heretical groups. It does not make sense for biblical Christianity. The second big issue has to do with answering the question about the derivation of the vaccine itself. For example, what kind of technology is involved, what kind of cell lines are involved, especially as you’re dealing with a vaccine having to do with a virus. And in this case, there are some very important issues we need to confront. One of the things we need to confront is the fact that in the background to many medicines, vaccines, especially the closer you get to immunology, the fact is that many of these actual treatments have some history in morally problematic cell lines.
Now, there are two huge moral issues here for Christians, the first has to do with abortion. And as we are looking at many vaccines and furthermore, anything that has to do with the continuation of so-called immortal cell lines, these are self-replicating cell lines used in medical research. The fact is that many of these do go back to tissue taken from aborted fetuses, and there is some involvement, in most of the major COVID-19 vaccines, in the use of these fetal cell lines. Most importantly, what is known as HEK293. And the original cells for that cell line were taken from tissues that were the result of an abortion of a child, back in the Netherlands, in the 1960s. The cell line developed about 1972.
But the second issue doesn’t have to do so much with abortion, but with tissues that were taken without consent, without knowledge, and have been used throughout medical history, the most important of these lines is the so-called HeLa line that goes back to 1951.
And these were cells taken from a poor African American woman, suffering from terminal cancer. Cells were taken from her body. Her name was Henrietta Lacks, and cells were taken from her body, and they have been so productive for medical research that we are told that if you were to line up every one of the cells from the cell line of Henrietta Lacks, they would go all the way around the center of the earth three times. You’re talking about something that is almost microscopic, and yet so productive that you would now go around the world three times just given the replication of her cell lines. Now, again, this is complicated in medical ethics because she did not give her consent, nor did those who were her heirs, at least originally, for decades, have any benefit whatsoever, nor were they even informed of the fact.
The fact is that the vast majority of these cell lines, they’re called immortal cell lines, not because, of course, they are immortal, but because, in human terms, they keep on replicating, but the vast majority of them have some moral complications. So, how do Christians think about this? Well, first of all, we need to condemn outright, the use of any tissues from aborted human babies, period. Any tissues taken from aborted fetuses are illegitimate, period.
But there are other issues of the Christian worldview, of Christian moral reasoning we need to apply here. One is the issue of material effect. And that has to do with the fact that no one who is producing these COVID-19 vaccines had any direct involvement in bringing about the abortion of a single child, whether back in the 1960s or in the present, there is no current involvement.
The second thing has to do with proximity.
This is a fairly slippery moral principle, but it does have to do with the fact that the further you go in history, the harder it is to keep a clear argument as you’re going backwards in times toward morally significant events. The good news about the COVID-19 vaccines is that even as these cells, most importantly from HEK293, even as they were used in order to create the basic shape of the vaccine and its cellular form, the fact is, there is no fetal tissue whatsoever in any of the major COVID-19 vaccines, not a bit, that’s encouraging.
But at the same time, without the HEK293 line, which does go back to an aborted fetus in the Netherlands, the fact is, we would not have this vaccine. And that’s a tragedy of history. It’s a tragedy like so many others, where you understand that going backwards in time, there was a horrifying wrong done, but that does not mean that good cannot eventually come out of that harm, but it’s not a good that is untainted in a sinful world, and we need to understand that directly. We as Christians would not allow ourselves any direct, rational, understandable, intentional, conscious involvement in tissues that were taken from an aborted fetus if we had any control over it whatsoever.
The other principle of Christian moral reasoning we need to keep in mind here is what is known as the principle or doctrine of double effect. This has to do with the fact that there are actions which have more than one effect. The primary action, the primary intention, must be, according to a Christian moral reasoning, it must be good, and it must be aimed at doing good. It can never be aimed at doing evil. It can never be designed to have, as its first effect, a negative or evil effect. But we understand that sometimes, in a sinful world, there is a double effect. Sometimes it’s a triple effect, but the point is, the primary intention, which motivates the Christian to act, can never be directed towards a sinful end, towards an evil end. But there sometimes can be, and oftentimes in a fallen world, actually are other effects that are, in essence, unavoidable.
Now, without going more deeply into this principle, just imagine how this functions in Christian war theory, or just war theory. Sometimes taking action, even using violence, is the least worst thing possible, but it can lead to all kinds of ends that we do not intend, and must not morally intend.
The third Christian moral principle has to do with the efficacy or safety of the vaccine.
And again, and here’s where we do have a lot of confidence because the medical technology that amazingly produced this vaccine so fast has a background in RNA technology, which should make the vaccine almost by definition, not dangerous. But the FDA does not merely require the vaccines prove that they’re not dangerous, they actually have to prove that they are helpful. And specifically helpful in preventing, at least, a serious illness of the disease toward which they are targeted. Now, there may be any number of people, especially those who have some kind of specific allergic pattern, who might have to be careful about any vaccine, but in this case, this vaccine should, at least according to what we’re being told now, be both effective and safe.
But that’s not an absolutely closed question, but then again, we need to recognize, it almost never is an absolutely closed question when it comes to medical treatment. There are often hard decisions to be made. And those hard decisions sometimes have to balance different goods. You have to decide if you’re going to do this treatment or that treatment, surgery or some form of therapy, taking this pill or another pill. Nothing in a fallen world is ever so easy as to say, “This is an uncomplicated, clear, absolutely final determination, the absolute right thing to do against all alternatives.” In a fallen world, we often have to do that which appears to be most right, most safe and most good.
The fourth principle is the question of whether or not medical treatment should be mandatory, and this is going to be politically extremely hot in the United States.
I’ll just state right up front that making any medical treatment mandatory requires an overwhelming moral argument. And it comes down not only to whether or not it should be mandatory, but who could make it mandatory, and who could make that policy stick. Now, as you’re looking at the political reality in the United States, I will say right now, I find it very doubtful that the political context, or the American constitution would allow the federal government to offer a legal mandate that American citizens, or those who are residing in the United States, must be vaccinated. But a government such as the federal government has other tools of coercion and compulsion or persuasion in its power. For instance, it has the power to decide who does and does not come into the United States. It has the power to decide who does and does not stay in the United States if they do not have American citizenship. The federal government has authority over interstate commerce and that includes transportation and who flies on plane. So yes, there are some big issues that are within the power of the federal government, and would be short of the government having to admit, or trying to pass politically, some effort to have a universal mandate.
When it comes to state governments. Again, it is doubtful that any state is actually going to say, at least in the early months of the COVID-19 vaccine availability, that it will be an absolute mandate. But again, the states, all 50 of them, have mechanisms to bring about something like a mandate, including control over who can and cannot attend the schools. I’ll state now that, politically speaking, just in terms of political reality, it is hard to imagine that a universal mandate coming from any branch of the government would not be politically the equivalent of nitroglycerin.
But something short of a universal mandate is likely, at least state by state. Just consider the differences between blue and red states on many issues right now, the fact is that when it comes to even federal mandates for the public schools or other kinds of public funding, you can look to the fact that there may well be what could be either incentives or coercive measures. We just don’t know now. And it’s too early for us to understand where this is going, except that a universal mandate is going to be very unlikely and would create enormous opposition.
The fifth principle of Christians thinking about the issue of vaccines is the common good, love of neighbor argument, which comes down to the fact that many Christians don’t think about the third person argument, or the third party argument.
What am I talking about here? Well, you might be tempted to say, “Well look, if a vaccine is available, then the people who take it will benefit by the vaccine, and they’ll take whatever complications come with it. Those who don’t take it will just take responsibility for not taking the vaccine.” The problem is that in this moral equation, there are actually third parties. People who cannot take the vaccine or do not yet have access to the vaccine, that could still be infected by someone who refuses the vaccine.
The common good argument is extremely powerful in the Christian tradition. After all, it is rooted in the second commandment about love of neighbor. It’s not absolutely categorical, and understanding this pill, this treatment, this shot, this vaccine, applies in exactly the same way, but the general principle, the common good, love of neighbor, benevolence, caring for one another, seeking not to be an agent of infection to any other, that’s an important part of the Christian worldview.
The sixth principle of our thinking is the integrity of the family and the authority of parents.
And it comes down to this: we should be very wary of any government or other intrusion that seeks to give to children and adolescents, access to or authorization for the vaccine over against the convictions of their parents. We already see right now, in fact, we saw it before COVID-19, just having to do with other vaccines, that you have, in several states, and you have a growing argument, especially on the left, the fact that government should give to children and adolescents, a presumed right to give moral consent, even against the authority of their parents.
Just to state the matter bluntly from a Christian worldview perspective, that is extremely problematic. Now, as Christians, we understand that in a world of all kinds of cults and heresies and everything else, there are some people who will put the lives of their children directly at risk and not allowing them a blood transfusion or emergency surgery or care. And yes, we do believe that in some extreme cases, the government should intervene. But that level of an extreme case cannot include millions of Americans.
Different Christians will come to different conclusions, different Christian parents will come to different convictions, but I’ll just speak personally. I was raised in a Christian family, Christian mom and dad. My dad was in the grocery business. My mother was a registered nurse. She stopped working in that profession the moment I was born, as her first born child, but nonetheless, she was always a nurse. And even now in her ninth decade of life, she is still a nurse. Just like you’re always a Marine, you’re always a nurse. But my mother had seen children die, children in young ages and all the way up through adolescents die because of communicable diseases. Let’s just put it this way, my mother was extremely pro-vaccine.
By my own convictions, I will take this vaccine as soon as it is available to me. And I will take it not only for what I hope will be the good of my own health, but for others as well. And I will seek to hope to encourage others to take the vaccine, but encouragement and coercion are two very different things. And Christians have to understand that there are matters of conviction here that should not divide the house, even as they may divide the decision.
The seventh and final moral principle when it comes to our thinking about vaccines has to do with access and priority, and this is perhaps the easiest to understand.
Those who are at greatest risk for greatest good, need to be administered the vaccine first so that they do not get sick as we may need their help. That has to do with medical people, medical professionals, first responders on the front line. And then we understand, particularly vulnerable populations that especially have to do with those who are in long-term care homes and particularly those who are the aged. And then we have others who have preexisting conditions diagnosed and already known.
Well, it’s fairly easy to understand that even though there will be a lot of debates, just about everyone who is operating from a reasoned position is going to go from greatest risk to lesser risk. Now, there’s more to discuss there, there’s more to consider, there’ll be more decisions to be made.