The Image of God, Personhood and the Embryo
MacKellar (2017), SCM Press, London.
270 + xii pages, £35.00, ISBN: 978 0334 05521 1
Genesis 1:27 is the fundamental of biblical bioethics. On
that verse hangs our understanding and regard for the human
embryo. The image of God and early human life have typically
been treated as two disparate topics, theological or
biological. In this book, Calum MacKellar seeks to connect
them. He states his reason (p. vii) as, ‘… because a
specific and detailed examination of how the image of God may be
reflected in the embryo seemed to be missing from the accumulated
heritage of Christian study.’ He also wants to equip pastors
to teach their congregations about related and discomforting
issues, such as infertility, miscarriage and abortion. That
is an admirable ambition. Furthermore, he anticipates a
practical response (p. x), ‘… if the claims being made [in this
book] are correct and embryonic human lives can be considered as
being made in the image of God, then the deliberate destruction of
these countless embryos represents the deliberate destruction of
those whom God loves very deeply.’ That is a most laudable
call to action.
Part I, the opening quarter of the book, presents a brisk overview
of historic and current thinking about the moral status of the
embryo, the image of God and personhood.
First, concerning the moral status of the embryo, MacKellar is
adamant (p. 7), ‘… from the restricted viewpoint of science,
embryos … are only collections of cells destined to become, with
time, collections of dust or ashes. This means that the
worth and value of an embryo cannot be demonstrated from a
scientific perspective and any moral appreciation becomes
impossible. It is only because of the manner in which God,
the only true source of value, chooses to consider this being that
it has any worth and deserves to be recognised with moral
status. This is the real challenge for modern societies as
they struggle to evaluate the embryo from a secular moral
What follows is a survey of human embryology, from the ancient
views of Plato and Aristotle, those of the Church Fathers, a
lengthy discussion of Exodus 21: 22-25, through to the more recent
opinions of men, such as Paul Ramsey and Oliver O’Donovan.
The dénouement? Historically, the Church has generally
cherished human embryos and consistently opposed their deliberate
destruction. The great divide of the current
protection-destruction debate depends upon (p. 26), ‘… an
essentially empirical perspective based on observation and a
perspective that seeks to understand the nature of the very being
of the human …’
This is big talk and one of the major benefits of MacKellar’s
work. Here is a conservative Christian and a former research
scientist claiming that the world and its scientism have
constructed a colossal bioethical mistake.
Second, though the image of God in the creation of human beings is
stated explicitly only three times in the Old Testament, the
implications are legion, including human attributes, such as the
rational, relational and the creative. MacKellar takes the
vastest view and embraces them all while admitting that the
reality is unfathomably more. Moreover, after examining
various topics, he settles his thesis by insisting that the image
of God is present in the earliest of human embryos.
Third, personhood is a more contentious and trickier concept to
grasp. Here vague notions like ‘the right to life’, ‘the
body-soul duality’, ‘when does human life begin?’ and ‘are persons
and individuals synonymous?’ arise and are shown to cloud the
issue. MacKellar plumps for personhood appearing in the
earliest embryo because, you are a soul, not you have a soul, or
as Barth stated, ‘man is embodied soul and besouled body’.
Thus, personhood is about being, not about completing a tick box
of attainments. Herein is the theological understanding of
personhood as both unitary and mysterious substance versus its
biological understanding of raw material with attributes.
Part II, the remaining three-quarters of the book, is a more
detailed rehearsal of the themes of Part I. The first two
sub-sections on creation and the incarnation are the pre-eminent.
MacKellar tackles creation in general and creation of mankind in
particular. He insists, because both occur ex nihilo
and without any necessity, they are therefore marked by God’s
love. He declares (p. 88), ‘… each and every human person is
created from, and represents, both the beautiful unity of all
three persons of the Trinity and also the amazing love that binds
them in communion’ and (p. 90), ‘How this creation of every child
by God takes place will always remain a mystery' ... 'In other
words, these new beings will in some way continue to reflect the
image of God because he created them.’ See, the bond between
the image of God and the human embryo is resolutely forged.
Then comes the enormity of the incarnation, fittingly the longest
chapter of the book. MacKellar displays it as
ineffable. While the incarnation of Jesus Christ as man
remains the best Scriptural reply to the question, when does human
life begin? MacKellar takes it to another level. It is, ‘…
the reality that Christ became fully human in all defining
dimensions of humanity, including its pre-natal aspects’ (p.
139). In other words, the creator becomes the paradigm human
being. But it was the Father’s love that sent his Son.
And by the Spirit, believers are the recipients of that Triune
love. Grasp that and suddenly the incarnation of the
embryonic Christ blossoms with love, creation and human
dignity. How we stupidly downplay the stupendous event!
Every book has its downsides and this one is no exception.
There is no getting away from it – this is a difficult book to
read. Of course, the subjects are complex and at times
brain-achingly so. This is not helped by the author’s rather
heavy and repetitious style – there is no relief by way of
anecdotes, analogies or witticisms. Instead there are
recurring themes and reminders that not all topics will be fully
covered. These criticisms betray the book’s poor structure –
a good copy editor would have had a radical field day and produced
a better book.
The book’s style is also somewhat unexpected. Citations
abound – there are over 900 in total. It could be regarded
as a collection of quotations held together by comments from the
author – but that would be too unkind.
Dr Calum MacKellar is currently the director of research at the
Scottish Council on Human Bioethics, Edinburgh and an elder in the
Church of Scotland. And his Scottish roots show
through. For example, there are some two dozen extracts from
the writings of the Scottish theologian Thomas Torrance, numerous
statements from various Reports of the Church of Scotland and
several notes by other learned men and women from North of the
border. Is this balance or bias? And, yes, all writers
have distracting tics, such as MacKellar’s use of the word
‘interestingly’ – it opens sentences at least a dozen times!
Finally, the cost of this modest-sized paperback, at £35, will
deter many potential readers. Nevertheless, let it be known
that I found the book sufficiently instructive that I purchased
and donated a copy for the library of the London Seminary.
Notwithstanding these complaints, MacKellar expounds some truly
wonderful major themes that undoubtedly add to conservative
Christian understanding of what it means to be a human
being. He also tackles some minor, but not unimportant,
themes of twenty-first-century embryology. For instance, he
unpicks the tangled thinking associated with embryonic status and
the processes of twinning and recombination (p. 202). And
there is an Appendix entitled The Moral Status of New Kinds of
Embryos. For those readers perplexed by hybrids and
cybrids, as well as other novel human formats, MacKellar’s
Appendix is helpful. Overall, he invokes the precautionary
principle and concludes that all such beings should be given the
benefit of the doubt and therefore shielded by the full protective
position (p. 240).
Since quotations are currently à la mode, here is a practical one
(p. 39) from Calvin’s Institutes that encompasses
something of MacKellar’s remit, ‘We are not to consider that men
merit of themselves but to look upon the image of God in all men,
to which we owe honour and love … Therefore, whatever man you meet
who needs your aid, you have no reason to refuse to help him.’