This article originally appeared in the Oct. 23 1995 issue of Christianity Today.

As the Oregon assisted-suicide law is contested in the courts and the "Kevorkian versus Michigan" legal marathon continues, we cannot forsake asking this critical question: What are physicians for?

Is medicine an industry, just another consumer-wants-satisfaction enterprise? In that case, doctors are technicians, and their customers can tell them precisely what to do. Or, is medicine something else? Maybe it is what we used to call a profession. A profession is a job, grounded on a professed moral vision, mutually accepted by its members, be they academics, lawyers, or whoever.

Americans still trust their doctors, generally speaking. But whether we are patients or physicians, we just cannot make up our minds: Do we want technicians who have a monopoly on key skills? Or do we want what we used to have—a vocation driven by moral vision?

Now is a good time to be reminded of the origins of the medical profession, because it started with these very questions. And unexpectedly, Hippocrates, the famous physician of antiquity, is in the news once again. Although almost nothing is known of his life and work, he gave birth to centuries of medical tradition in Western civilization.

Among recent developments, a group of distinguished doctors and ethicists, including some Christian leaders, have signed a modernized version of the famous oath. That may not be too much of a surprise, since Hippocrates was the father of all prolifers. On the twin life issues of abortion and euthanasia, he made the definitive statements: No, No.

More surprising has been the Russian Ministry of Health, which, in its search for a regrounding of medical values went back beyond the "Oath of a Soviet Physician" and decided to favor a rewrite of the Hippocratic original.

How are we to understand the mesmeric power of this ancient medical creed?

Medicine and morals: Try though we may, we cannot entirely escape the notion that medicine is indelibly inscribed with human values. The genius of Hippocrates, with his pagan vision of human dignity that so remarkably anticipated the Judeo-Christian vision of care for those who are made in the image of God, was to bind medical practice and moral commitments in a covenant of indissoluble marriage.

The Hippocratic what? Most people don't realize that the most important single fact about the Hippocratic Oath is that it is an oath. Almost all of the post-Hippocratic alternatives, from the World Medical Association's Declaration of Geneva on, are simply human statements of intent, declarations in two dimensions. The immense moral power of the oath arises from its setting human life and medical practice squarely in the presence of God.

The sanctity of life: Hippocratic medicine treats human life as a gift from beyond human life, a covenant stewardship to be kept by patient and physician alike.

A manifesto for reform: The Hippocratic Oath has long been the basis of consensus medicine, but that was not how it started. It has been described as, originally, a manifesto for medical reform in a generation of generally immoral physicians. Hippocrates set out to do it otherwise, and eventually ousted the liberal establishment of his day.

Recapturing moral medicine

How should Christians and Christian physicians assist the reinvigoration of a moral vision for medical care? First, let us put abortion in its place, as a symptom of a diseased medical culture. Already, the blight of euthanasia is on us; and as a community, pro-life Christians are woefully ill-prepared.

Second, let's work for the reform of medicine, like the Hippocratics, by developing an alternative medicine held together by unshakable covenant commitment to the sanctity of life and to the good of the patient. Hippocrates founded a close-knit and interdependent community to challenge the dominant assumptions of the physicians and patients of his day.

Finally, Christians may serve as the conscience of a troubled profession, torn between its ancient moral calling and a technical reduction of skills-for-hire.

Nigel M. de S. Cameron is dean of the Wiberforce Forum. This article originally appeared in the Oct. 23, 1995 issue of Christianity Today.

Related Elsewhere

Also appearing on today's site:
Books & Culture Corner: "24 Cow Clones, All Normal" … | Oh yes, and a few cloned human embryos that died.

Earlier this year, Cameron and Lori Andrewes, a pro-choice bioethicist, argued in The Chicago Tribune that cloning is an issue that is drawing together a new coalition of traditional to express concern about where the latest genetic and reproductive technologies are taking us.