By Brian Lowther
I am currently studying the transcript of a speech Ralph Winter gave in 1999 at a gathering of the Presbyterians for Renewal.The Presbyterians for Renewal gave the Winters the 1999 Bell-Mackay Prize recognizing life-long devotion to the mission of Jesus Christ in the world. This prize was named after Nelson Bell a medical missionary and father-in-law to Billy Graham, and John Mackay who was both a former professor to Winter at Princeton and a president of the World Council of Churches. The prize came along with a $5,000 gift.
The main thrust of Winter’s address was to explain why he and Roberta had decided to use the $5,000 gift as seed money for a new endeavor he called the Institute for the Study of the Origins of Disease (ISOD). This was his initial conception of what would later become the Roberta Winter Institute. He described this new project as a “major correction in the mainstream of Christian theology.”
He then described how John Mackay was familiar with both the values and the limitations of all particular streams of Christian belief. This fact served as a segue for him to say that he was not going to be speaking about a major correction in just one stream—such as the Evangelical stream from which he came—but rather, “an urgent Biblical insight lacking in all of them.”
One reason this correction is needed, he explained, is that our whole way of understanding God and the Bible was hammered out by people like Calvin and Luther centuries before we had any knowledge of microscopic forms of life such as disease germs, and that—amazingly—our theological sensitivities have not yet been updated to account for this new knowledge.
I wonder just now if Winter was correct. I’m sure he ran into people who disagreed with him on this topic, though I never heard him say so. But in my experience, when I’ve stood before an audience and said, “Our theology has not been updated to include germ theory,” I get a lot of blank stares.
I’ll venture a guess and say that a lot of the people are thinking, “Wait a second. Can it be true that our theology has just stayed the same since Luther and Calvin, with no regard for the scientific discoveries since then?” Certainly there has been a lot of theological reflection about other scientific discoveries such as Galileo’s heliocentrism, not to mention the raging theological debate about scientific theories such as evolution. Is it possible that microbiology has been untouched by theological reflection?
This notion made me curious so I did just a tiny bit of research and came across a 2004 paper entitled The Bible and Microbiology by Adventist and Biochemist George J. Tavor. In it he lists thirty terms in the Bible with direct links to microbial activity.
So it appears that there is some theological reflection occurring. There must also be plenty of serious pondering happening in groups like the American Scientific Affiliation, but I have yet to spend significant time combing through their archives.
I suppose the issue at hand here is not whether there has been any theological reflection about microbiology, but that we, as Winter put it, “do not commonly accuse Satan for destructive germs,” and that we “have no mission theology for destroying such germs.” When clarified in this way, this sentiment does seem to represent an empty space in the middle of our theology that no one has significantly ventured into yet.