It is not a sin for Christians to eat test tube meat and genetically modified foods!
Test tube meat production, genetically modified foods, soya beans, corn, chicken, pork, beef, soya oils.
EARLY LIGHT ON A MODERN DEVELOPMENT
This paper will show that there is nothing sinful for Christians to eat genetically modified foods and will explore what the Bible says, and what the earliest post-biblical church said about it.
In the twenty-first century, we are surrounded by disparate groups that forbid certain kinds of food on moral or religious grounds. Orthodox Jews abhor pork and shellfish, Muslims only pork. Some people, reputed Christians, seek to impose a vegetarian diet on all who claim the name of Jesus, while a number of other people teach that it is essential to the Christian faith to follow no more than the Jewish dietary laws. Nor is it only believers who hold certain kinds of food to be gravely immoral. Some secular people shun as morally wrong any foodstuff that is genetically modified or subjected to artificial processes, including the least amount of synthetic additives. Some permit meat only when the farmer or rancher had treated the animal with kindness and consideration and given them only the food of which these animal rights activists approve. Some of them are more vocal than people who are activated by religion, but both groups would force their dietary prohibitions on others. As a result, their prohibitions have been adopted by alleged Christians, who would urge abstinence on others in the name of the will and design of God.
But what does God say? Fortunately, ancient Christian literature has much to relate on whether it is ethical to eat various foods, such as the meat described in the next paragraph below, if only to treat such consumption as morally neutral, and gives a wide liberty to Christians in dietary matters.
Scientists are currently experimenting at producing meat in the laboratory by in-vitro cell growth, with the prospect that the process will replace animal breeding, feeding, and butchering. If manufacturing animal flesh by direct cell division becomes commercially affordable there will be no manure, no greenhouse gasses, no killing each animal, no competition between animals and humans for vegetation either as food or a source for ethanol in modern automobiles. Tissue-culture meat is also far more efficient and sparing of resources because one pound of protein from animals requires many pounds of plant protein, varying with the species.[i] But does God permit Christians to eat it?
The sources of Christian ethics in the present article are the New Testament and writings of the first generations of Christians after it, for they demonstrate that the Christian attitude to meat (1) was settled so early that the writers—or Christians not many generations earlier—had personally known Jesus or His early disciples and thus benefited from their unwritten teachings and interpretations of Scripture, (2) comes from a date so early that there was no likelihood for the original gospel to have been corrupted, and (3) is not based on only one among many possible interpretations of the Bible but was the interpretation of Christians who were personally familiar with the New Testament writers or their early followers.
This study ends at the persecution of A.D. 249-251, which also marks the 200th anniversary of the beginning of Christian literature and the first quarter-millennium of our era. This persecution was the most thoroughgoing, widespread and efficient that Christians had experienced to date, after decades of toleration,[ii] with decreasing dedication among the clergy. The persecution resulted in internal chaos in the church[iii] and an unprecedented mass apostasy, with multitudes denying their faith throughout the Roman Empire. People who were later re-admitted into the church after compromising their Christian principles further weakened the institution and represented the worst of Christians. The most faithful Christians died in the persecution; by definition, they were the sort who would most remember and continue the Bible interpretations, practices, and commitments inherited from apostolic times.
The numbers of Christians, including the most dedicated, were further thinned by the catastrophic, Empire-wide, epidemic of AD 251. It killed two-thirds of the population of Alexandria and five thousand people a day in the City of Rome, and hit rural areas just as hard.[iv]
The years 250-251 also mark the end of the writing and preaching ministry of Origen, who was the most influential Christian preacher, Bible scholar, and writer of the first half of the third century. He wrote more about the faith than any other author before the sixteenth century.
Consensus Early that all Meat is Clean
What the Bible says. The early general consensus was that no food is common/unclean for Christians. Jesus Himself taught in Mark 7: “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him” (verse 6) and “’Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, 19since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?’ (Thus he declared all foods clean.)” (verses 18-19). Matthew 15.11-18 is to the same effect.
In Acts 10.10-16, when Peter in a vision refused to eat food Jewish law prohibited, the Lord told him three times: “What God has made clean, do not call common.”
Post biblical reflections. The church father Origen commented that uncleanness or divine prohibition on eating particular meats is without foundation in the objective reality of God’s will. Origen believed a person might regard as unclean even foods Jewish law permitted and he would have qualms about eating them. Such regard, wrote Origen, is purely in a person’s own mind, and arises from failure to correctly perceive the real sources of defilement.[v] Origen was dean of the world’s foremost educational institution of the era (in Alexandria, Egypt) and later established one of his own in Palestine. He was the author more able than other believers to convey the consensus of Christian teaching of the time, because he traveled more frequently, as a consultant to pastor-bishops throughout the eastern Mediterranean.
Christianity, Origen wrote, recognizes no food as common or unclean,[vi] although simplicity of mind and faultiness in one’s powers of reflection mislead some hyper-scrupulous Christians to believe that some foods are.[vii] He forbade making judgments concerning the uncleanness of animals.[viii] However, he made allowance for Christians with sensitive consciences that have reservations about foods (usually meat) that had been sacrificed to idols, in which case not even Christians strong in the faith should disturb these weaker Christians by eating any in their presence.[ix]
What the Bible says. On the whole, ancient Christians opposed deliberate abstinence from particular foods if the abstainer thereby considered himself closer to God than other Christians. Romans 14 reads: “2One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. 3Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats”, while 1 Timothy 4.1-3 warns of “deceitful spirits”, “demons” and “liars whose consciences are seared, 3who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created”.
Post biblical reflections. Clement of Alexandria, Origen’s predecessor at the Egyptian school, wrote similarly in the 190s. He observed that the Bible allows eating of animal flesh, giving the examples of ravens bringing Elijah bread and meat[x] and Samuel giving Saul a leg of meat to eat.[xi] Clement repeated Paul’s Letter to the Romans to the effect that whoever does not eat should not despise him who eats, and he whose conscience is strong enough to let him eat should not judge him who does not eat.[xii] Clement dismissed as “blockheads and atheists” people who out of hatred for the body and the flesh ungratefully abstain from sex and “reasonable food”, giving as an example the vegetarian Brahmans of India.[xiii] Clement point-blank stated that such prohibitions are wrong, also quoting Romans 14.21 and 1 Timothy 4.1-5.[xiv]
Abstinence Not Encouraged
Post biblical reflections. Origen dismissed as fringe extremists and as “smarter than they ought to be” those people—usually Christian heretics—who “abstain from foodstuffs God created.”[xv] He attributed such observance to pride, contempt and contentiousness, and warned that it creates a stumbling block, especially to new believers.[xvi] Origen exhorted Christians never to scandalize other Christians through the observance of foods.
What the Bible says. Christian guests in particular are not to observe dietary prohibitions but to eat whatever is served. This dates from Jesus Himself:
And remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide, for the laborer deserves his wages. Do not go from house to house. 8Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you. (Luke 10.7f)
The Apostle Paul wrote to the same effect:
27If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. 28But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience— 29I do not mean your conscience, but his. (1 Corinthians 10.27-29)
Note that the guest is not obligated to inquire as to the source of the meat, but to deal with the matter only after its sacrificial origin is volunteered by someone else. Note also that, besides alienating the host, rejecting a particular item of food would be ostentatious abstinence for a religious reason on the part of the guest, and Jesus discountenanced ostentation in religious observances (Matthew 6.5f; 6.16-18).
Post biblical reflections. Clement is similar:
We are not, then, to abstain wholly from various kinds of food, but only not to be taken up about them. We partake of what is set before us, as becomes a Christian, out of respect to him who has invited us, by a harmless and moderate participation in the social meeting[xvii]
Some small sects allegedly kept kosher and others commanded vegetarianism, but their writings have not survived, so we today cannot assess whether the allegations of their proto-orthodox opponents about them were accurate or whether the sects allowed for exceptions and qualifications. The only extant writer to limit meat intake was Clement, and even he advised against merely eating a lot of meat. He assumed that Christians eat animal flesh;[xviii] but about food (especially meat) and wine, he advised: “If one partakes of them, he does not sin. Only let him partake temperately, not dependent on them”—in other words do not become addicted to meat.[xix] Clement gainsaid Christians who forbade all meat-eating.[xx]
What the Bible says. The only mainline Christian reservations about food before A.D. 250 were blood, flesh that had been sacrificed to idols, and strangled animals. These were set forth at the Council of Jerusalem recorded in Acts 15, where the apostles wrote to the new Gentile Christians that they need not keep kosher but only “abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled” (Acts 15.29 and 21.25; see also Acts 15.20).
Post biblical reflections. As for blood, the Christian Minucius Felix sometime between A.D. 166 and 249 stated that: “we do not use the blood even of eatable animals in our food.” [xxi] Because in-vitro meat uses no blood, but relies on synthesis using molecular biology of exclusively vegetable matter, it is thus ethically superior to meat obtained from animals, although it is more expensive at present.
What the Bible says. The impermissibility of sacrificed meat spawned a much larger literature and, in some writers, underlies the other prohibitions. Remember 1 Corinthians 10.27-29, quoted above. The prohibition was still very much alive in the last book of the Bible (Revelation 2.14 and 20).
Post biblical reflections. Around A.D. 125 in addressing a pagan audience, Christian philosopher Aristides of Athens wrote of his coreligionists: “of the food which is consecrated to idols they do not eat”.[xxii] This was not universal, for in the middle of the second century Justin Martyr recognized in regard to some heterodox Christians: “many of those who say that they confess Jesus, and are called Christians, eat meats offered to idols, and declare that they are by no means injured in consequence.” Justin denounced such heretics as wolves in sheep’s clothing, false Christs, false apostles, schismatics, and blasphemers.[xxiii] Even the pagan Roman governor of Bithynia reported around A.D. 112 that Christian refusal to buy sacrificial meat in the public meat market, coupled with the great number of Christians in his province, had depressed the market.[xxiv] Origen also spoke against it in one sermon,[xxv] but qualified his opposition in other writings.
Origen’s fullest statement concerning the dietary prohibitions is in his book refuting the attacks of an anti-Christian philosopher:
For that which is offered to idols is sacrificed to demons, and a man of God must not join the table of demons. As to things strangled, we are forbidden by Scripture to partake of them, because the blood is still in them; and blood, especially the odour arising from blood, is said to be the food of demons. Perhaps, then, if we were to eat of strangled animals, we might have such spirits feeding along with us. And the reason which forbids the use of strangled animals for food is also applicable to the use of blood.[xxvi]
Tertullian was a prominent Roman lawyer before his conversion and ordination in middle age, which means he was adept at making distinctions, considering all aspects of an issue, and discussing all facets of a matter. In A.D. 197 he recorded a prohibition not found elsewhere in the ancient literature: Christians, he wrote, abstain from eating blood and “things strangled and that die a natural death, for no other reason than they may not contract pollution, so much as for blood secreted in the viscera.”[xxvii] This addition was most likely a too rigorous application of Leviticus 7.24, Leviticus 22.8 and Deuteronomy 14.21, probably stemming from his lawyer’s habit of dealing as thoroughly as possible with a subject.
What the Bible says. Out of fraternal love, a Christian is not to eat such food if it constitutes a stumbling block to a brother or sister who is weaker in Christian knowledge and discernment. This principle dates from the Apostle Paul:
Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. 21It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. (Romans 14.20f)
some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. 8Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. 9But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? (1 Corinthians 8.7-10)
Eat or Abstain?
Post biblical reflections. A Christian should not even abstain from particular foods if abstaining will cause uneasiness for other Christians. During a persecution in France in A.D. 177 there was Christian named Alcibiades who had “lived an exceedingly austere life, confining his diet to bread and water, and partaking of nothing else whatsoever.” While in prison awaiting martyrdom, he was persuaded by a “Pillar” of the church that he “was not pursuing the right course in refusing to use the creatures of God, and living an example which might be a stumbling-block to others.” Alcibiades thereupon “partook freely of all kinds of food”.[xxx]
What the Bible says. Whether we eat meat produced by cell division devised by scientists or confine ourselves to what ranchers raise by traditional means, we should eat and drink to the glory of God and His community (1 Corinthians 10.31).
Post biblical reflections. Origen is similar: “everything should be done so that God’s work is not destroyed. A Christian should eat if another Christian is edified by it; and a Christian should not eat if God’s work would grow by him abstaining from eating”.[xxxi]
Thus we see that Christianity in the earliest times had dietary restrictions, but they were not detailed or absolute like those of some other religions, e.g. Judaism. Rather than relating to specific kinds of nutrition, Christian food rules before AD 251—before AD 100, for that matter—revolved around whether particular instances of eating or abstaining would build up or offend another person, and contribute to the glory and work of God. Ethical questions about diet, even those as recent as the twenty-first-century development described above, were comprehensively answered in the church during its infancy.
It is therefore not sinful for a Christian to eat meat grown in a test tube, genetically modified, or raised only in accordance with particular conditions of animal husbandry, unless eating it alienates from the Faith or causes problems of conscience for another person.
By David W. T. Brattston
Lunenburg, Nova Scotia B0J 2C0
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ANF = The Ante-Nicene Fathers ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. American Reprint ed. by A. Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo, N.Y.: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885-96; continuously reprinted Edinburgh: T & T Clark; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans; Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson).
[i] Nancy Shute “What Will We Eat? Making meat without killing could fix a host of problems” U.S. News & World Report 145.3 (4 August 2008) p. 48.
[ii] Origen Against Celsus 3.15 trans. Frederick Crombie ANF 4:470.
[iii] Robert Lee Williams “Persecution” in Encyclopedia of Early Christianity ed. Everett Ferguson (New York: Garland, 1990) p. 715.
[iv] Rodney Stark The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996) pp. 73 and 77, drawing on (i) E. R. Boak A History of Rome to 565 A.D. 3rd ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1947), (ii) E. R. Boak Manpower Shortage and the Fall of the Roman Empire in the West (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1955), (iii) E. R. Boak “The Populations of Roman and Byzantine Karanis” (1955) 4 Historia pp. 157-162, (iv) William H. McNeill Plagues and Peoples (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1976), and (v) J. C. Russell Late Ancient and Medieval Populations (Philadelphia: Transactions of the American Philosophical Society vol. 48 pt. 3, 1958).
[v] Origen Commentary on Romans 9.42.10.
[vi] Origen Commentary on Romans 9.37.
[vii] Origen Commentary on Romans 9.42.5.
[viii] Origen Commentary on Romans 10.7.7.
[ix] Origen Commentary on Romans 9.42.5.
[x] 1 Kings 17.6.
[xi] 1 Samuel 9.24.
[xii] Clement of Alexandria Stromata 3.6(52).
[xiii] Clement of Alexandria Stromata 3.7(60) trans. John Ernest Leonard Oulton and Henry Chadwick Alexandrian Christianity: Selected Translations (London: SCM; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1954) p. 68.
[xiv] Clement of Alexandria Stromata 3.12(85).
[xv] Origen Commentary on Romans 9.2.9.
[xvi] Origen Commentary on Romans 9.41.12.
[xvii] Clement of Alexandria Paedagogus 2.1. ANF 2.239.
[xviii] Clement of Alexandria Paedagogus 2.1 ANF 2.241.
[xix] Clement of Alexandria Paedagogus 2.1 ANF 2.240.
[xx] Clement of Alexandria Stromata 3.5(52) and 3.12(85).
[xxi] Minucius Felix Octavius 30 ANF 4.192.
[xxii] Aristides Apology 15 ANF 9/10.276.
[xxiii] Justin Martyr Dialogue with Trypho 35 ANF p. 212.
[xxiv] Pliny the Younger Letter 10.96, to the Emperor Trajan.
[xxv] Origen Homilies on Psalm 36 1.1.
[xxvi] Origen Against Celsus 8.30 ANF 4.650.
[xxvii] Tertullian Apologeticum 9 ANF 3.25.
[xxviii] Origen Homilies on Luke 25.2; Origen Commentary on Romans 10.3.2; Origen Commentary on Romans 10.3.4.
[xxix] Two Letters concerning Virginity 2.5. ANF 8.62.
[xxx] Last paragraph of the Letter of the Churches of Vienne and Lyons to the Churches of Asia and Phrygia ANF 8.784.
[xxxi] Origen Commentary on Romans 10.3.5.