Science and Medicine as Vocations for the Reformed Christian

In the first article written for this series, I highlighted the clear Biblical teaching that vocations first and foremost are a means by which the believer seeks to glorify God.  While this calling can be achieved in many ways, one important way that God is glorified through our work is when “culture” is developed from the physical creation.  This was the central command given to Adam in the creation, the so-called “cultural mandate” (Genesis 1:26–31).  Since Adam represented the whole of mankind, we too receive the call from God to develop wholesome, God-glorifying culture with the talents and resources placed in our care.

The fact that humans are collectively called and enabled to cultivate all aspects of God’s creation for his glory naturally leads to the question of how we are to go about doing this.  How should we begin?  I contend that the first way we begin any task is to find out about the nature of the task, and then use the understanding that we derive by that course of study to craft something beautiful.  That is, first we do the research, then we build upon what is known to develop the materials we are given to work with.  To me this sounds a lot like the scientific method, though it is not fair to limit the concept to science alone.  The methodology of “discovery and development” can be applied to any facet of the creation—to language, or music, or art, or literature.  This is how all creation is cultivated and developed.

Though the scientific method is universal to all of cultural development, when we speak of science we are generally referring to the study and development of the physical aspects of creation.  All that can be observed and measured by our senses properly fits into this category, and therefore to be a scientist is to be someone who studies the nature and properties of God’s creation.  Science also encompasses a study of the laws by which God providentially governs his creation, laws that we decipher as a series of predictable patterns and mechanisms that are intrinsic to the universe around us.  So to be a scientist is to observe and understand what God has done by his creative power (Psalm 8).  By science we peer—if ever so slightly—into the magnificence of God’s creative power.  To understand what God created is to see the depth of His creative thinking.  To understand where we are situated within his creation is to grasp the vastness of the created universe, and how small we are within it.  To understand how the creation works is to appreciate the intricacy with which God governs his creation.  In short, the calling of the scientist is to cultivate creation by learning about it and by communicating this understanding to others so that they may collectively marvel at the depth, vastness, and intricacy of God’s creative power, and thereby worshipfully marvel at the nature of their Master Creator.

That God has so chosen to reveal himself in his creation has been appreciated by the people of God throughout the ages, including David: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1), and the Apostle Paul: “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead” (Romans 1:20).  Scripture is replete with such references to what we call God’s general revelation of himself.  The Belgic Confession in Article 2 elegantly explains that we can know God “by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe, since that universe is before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God: his eternal power and his divinity.”  Together with the lens of Scripture, general revelation allows the child of God to gain a greater understanding and appreciation—and thereby a greater love—for the Creator.

In light of this view of creation as revelation, the vocation of scientist becomes one of honor because it entails an indirect reference to ministry.  The role of God-fearing scientist can rightly be considered a vocation of ministry in the sense that those in this profession plumb the depths of God’s general revelation to communicate to others aspects of the nature and being of God.  This ministerial role is certainly secondary to—indeed, wholly dependent upon—the ministry of the gospel, which is God’s special revelation and the only way to understand the critical question of why God created.  But the vocation of scientist is nonetheless a vocation of ministry.  As such the calling to be a scientist is a high and honorable calling, not to be taken lightly.

Much responsibility, then, is given to those who are called to study, interpret, and communicate God’s revelation of himself, and as such the calling is one that must be given to humility as well.  This very unfortunately is not the consensus attitude among modern scientists, who in pride have “changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator” (Romans 1:25).  What is this lie?  Go no further than the secular account of creation, which is now instead referred to as a “big bang.”  Or better yet, look at the secular explanation of origins, where there is not a word of credit given to the Creator, but much credit given to the creature and its evolutionary adaptations.  These lies, to which the unregenerate man will naturally gravitate, are a direct result of the fall, which essentially subverted the cultural mandate given to Adam such that the purpose was no longer directed toward the glory of God, but instead toward the glory of the creature.

The curse that sin brought upon humanity also weighs heavily on creation itself, yielding a stain upon the creature that is essentially two-fold.  First, despite its intrinsic beauty—which was unchanged by the fall—creation is now seen by humanity in a completely different light.  Whereas Adam originally understood that his role was to fashion the materials of creation into God-glorifying artwork, humanity now sees its mastery of creation as a means to enrich and glorify itself.  The ideas of nurture/replenishment/stewardship, which were originally meant to characterize the relationship between man and creation, were replaced with the images of subjugation/domination/rape of the creation.  This is the curse that the creation endures because of the fall.

Second, the curse of sin on creation is deeper and more direct, because it also changed the relationships between other creatures—both living and non-living—within the creation so as to corrupt the perfect harmony that God had initially instilled.  In Romans 8:20–23, Paul provides remarkable insight into the effects of the fall on the entire physical creation.

For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope, because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.  For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.  And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.

The curse on creation is even more explicit in Genesis 3:17-18, where God cursed “the ground”—symbolic of all creation—as a punishment for Adam’s willing choice to disobey God.  The connotation in this passage is again a loss of harmony between two creatures—man and the earth—within creation.  What was once perfect harmony is now conflict.  What was once perfect symbiosis is now infection and parasitism.  What was once a perfect cycle of metabolic renewal between all the molecular components of living organisms became an endless competition between damage and repair that ultimately culminates in loss and degradation.  Such was the consequence of sin on creation: a loss of relationships in every dimension—between God and humanity, between humanity and the creation, and between the non-human members of creation.

It is interesting to note that the disharmony in creation that was caused by sin led to a new branch of science that we call “medicine.”  This branch of science—which could not truly exist outside of the fall—is interested in the afflictions of the body caused by disease and dysfunction, by infection and degradation.  I emphasize that this branch of science is derived from the fall rather than from the original creation ordinance.  This distinction between general science—which is aimed at understanding and cultivating the original creation—and medical science—which is aimed at understanding and treating the physiological dysfunction caused by sin—creates somewhat of a philosophical problem for the argument with which I began this article.  In his original state, Adam would have had no reason to cultivate an understanding of disease or disharmony in creation, for it did not exist.  As such, there is no theological rationale to include the field of medicine within the cultural mandate, which we understand to be the creation ordinance that specified the vocational callings of mankind.

This leaves the inevitable question, then, of whether there is an underlying rationale outside of the cultural mandate to provide a vocational calling for Christians in the various fields of medical science.  To answer this question I direct the reader’s attention to a typical understanding of the medical vocation.  By this I mean to refer to the notion of a Christ-like reflection that is often used in Scripture to compare such figures as David or Solomon to Christ.  I believe that this point of view is particularly useful because Christ himself compared his ministry to the work of a physician.  Three of the gospels (Matt 9, Mark 2, and Luke 5) directly quote Jesus as stating “those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.”  This reference to himself—in addition to others in Scripture—has provided Christ with the title of “The Great Physician,” which is often used in view of his being the only solution for the sickness of sin in our souls.

As such the medical vocation can properly be seen as a “typical” calling, much as the vocation of shepherding is often used in Scripture to describe “Jesus, the Good Shepherd”.  The qualities of Christ that are implicit in the physician type are most obviously healing and compassion: as Christ has compassion upon those who are sick and dying in sin and brings the healing mercies of salvation, so the physician has compassion upon those whose bodies are racked by physical degradation and brings the healing mercy of medicine.  While we must be careful not to equate the mercy of the earthly physician with that of Christ, the type provides a powerful rationale for Christians—who would reflect the compassion of Christ—to find a vocational calling in the field of medicine.

In addition, I also emphasize that another critical aspect of the physician type is the notion of servanthood.  This image is particularly striking because of the relative position of authority, knowledge, and power that is given to the practitioner of modern medicine.  An enormous amount of education and training is required at all levels of medicine.  To have the right to bring the scalpel to the body of a patient, a surgeon must dedicate upwards of thirteen years of his life to rigorous training.  Such is also true of the medical scientist, the nurse, and other medical vocations.  In light of this rigorous training, modern society has given high honor to the medical profession, and has also bestowed upon it a particular power in our society.  Now contrast that honor and power with the actual role of medicine, which is simply to attend to the needs of others in what might rightly be considered a posture of servanthood.  So it was with Christ, who being all-powerful and all-knowing God, “made himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, coming in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2:7).  As Christ is our physican-servant, so must the vocation of medicine be one that reflects the humble service of Christ.

I briefly draw your attention to some practical benefits of Christians being involved in the fields of science and medicine in our modern society.  These benefits do not provide an underlying rationale for the involvement of Reformed Christians in the field of medical science, but they do embrace the most central of Reformed principles—that of God’s sovereignty.  When we see where God has provided a vocational calling, then it should also become evident through the eyes of faith how he will use us in that calling for the purposes of his kingdom.

The first benefit deals with the increasingly gray spectrum of science and medicine simply labeled “medical ethics.”  Remember that creation has been given to humanity by God for development, and as such “every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be refused” (1 Tim. 4:4) if it is received and used with an eye to God’s glory.  Such it is with modern medical technology. It is to be received with thanksgiving to God if and only if it is used in a manner consistent with God’s glory.  Unfortunately, the array of technologies and therapies that have become available or are under development boggle the minds of most scientists and physicians, to say nothing of the untrained member of modern society.  Both knowledge and wisdom are needed in guiding the use and development of these technologies, which requires a degree of informed stewardship that we cannot expect to be exercised by the unregenerate world around us.  Christians in the fields of science and medicine provide of wealth of knowledge—and hopefully wisdom—to the conscientious believer who desires to do what is right with medical technology.  Furthermore, Christians in these fields can also provide a voice of direction, caution, and eventually of warning to a medical community that is often bent on the glory and honor of humanity rather than that of God.

Last, it is also notable that those who provide the personal side of medicine—physicians, nurses, medical technicians and such—are often spectators of extreme emotional and spiritual vulnerability.  Let us not be blind to the sovereignty of God in each and every position in which he has placed us.  While it is no more the calling of a doctor or nurse to witness to the healing power of Christ than it is for a believer in any other profession, it is certainly true that the life and death issues that are confronted daily in the medical profession are unique.  As such God places individuals in the medical vocations in a unique position to minister to the believing child of God who is hurting from loss or physical suffering, and to witness to those who do not know Christ, but are grappling with the reason for the loss and suffering that they are experiencing.   These are practical benefits to the vocation of medical science, which reinforce the importance of these vocations as a calling for the Reformed Christian.