Bonhoeffer, “Life Together” and the semester that changed me

March 17, 2015

Editor's Note: We asked several ERLC research fellows to weigh in on books and thinkers that have helped shape and solidify their convictions and worldview. Be sure to check out other posts in this series here

As a publisher, I make it my job to interrogate everyone I meet about their personal history with books. When did you become a reader? What books have most impacted your work? What is on your nightstand right now? I’ve found that when I ask students that graduated from Christian colleges and universities, the most common answers are two books: Mere Christianity and The Cost of Discipleship. That is my answer, too.

At Union University, where I received a bachelor's degree in Christian Ethics, they offered seminars on both C.S. Lewis and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Both courses gave me the opportunity to read each theologian’s catalogue of books. It’s scandalous how fun it was to spend a semester with Lewis and a semester with Bonhoeffer—I still can’t believe such a thing exists.

When I arrived at Union as a transfer student from Belmont University, I had read very little of what might be considered theology proper. Mere Christianity and The Cost of Discipleship were my first attempts at what I considered at the time—and I still do—serious reading. I liked Lewis because he was clever. I liked Bonhoeffer because I was a teenager and had an inordinate appreciation of hyperbole. I’m not sure I read either writer very well.

It’s dangerous to read great books

Union professors are generous with encouragement, at least that was the case with theology students. Professors like Brad Green taught me to appreciate great books (perhaps it’s more accurate to say I “caught” a love of great books; it is extremely contagious). We read The Abolition of Man together, and my love of clear writing and thinking grew. Then Union president David Dockery succeeded in persuading the entire campus, both faculty and students, that everything we read and wrote was directed in worship toward God. I bought in.

But I wasn’t sure where my theological commitments lay. It’s dangerous to read great books because no single thinker can—no single thinker should, save Jesus Christ—account for all of your theology. My young mind was caught in the intellectual push-and-pull of Augustine, Niebuhr, Hauerwas, Packer, Erickson, Grudem, Schaeffer, Henry and Barth. I wasn't Baptist yet. I didn’t know what it really meant to be a Baptist. Sure, I believed core Baptist doctrines I learned growing up in church, but I didn’t recognize terms like ecclesiology, epistemology or hermeneutics when I read theology. There at Union, it was time to defend what I had always believed to alternative positions, held by men much smarter than I am.

That’s why it is so surprising that a neo-orthodox Lutheran theologian from Schleiermacher's school could propel me toward Baptist theology, with conviction.

How Bonhoeffer and Life Together saved college

Another professor was slated to teach the Bonhoeffer seminar when it came time for me to sign up for classes, but he left for another job. To fill the gap, Gregory Alan Thornbury, the dean of the school, agreed to take it on with the help of Taylor Worley, another former student who was finishing up his Ph.D. in the UK. Little did I know how providential this last minute substitution would be.

It wasn’t just that we read the entire Bonhoeffer corpus (we did), or that we read the mammoth magisterial biography by Eberhard Bethge (we did), or that the class was composed of twelve of the brightest students–myself excluded in that assessment–in Union’s history (it was), or that the professors expected our best work and treated us as peers contending for real ideas that mattered (which they did), rather than inferiors, checking off an academic to-do list.

It wasn’t Bonhoeffer’s theological arguments that set me on the trajectory of ministry on which I now find myself—though I know it has had some effect. I can’t point to one book and say, “If you read this book, you will get what I am talking about.” It was that Thornbury and Worley matched the content of Bonhoeffer’s work with the experience of the class. Our Bonhoeffer seminar was Life Together, embodied.

Often, we read papers in Thornbury’s home, drinking coffee, laughing and chatting about church, rather than rote lecture dictation in a sterile classroom. In between heated debates on Sanctorum Communio and Act and Being, we prayed for one another. Our learning objective was far more ambitious than satisfying accreditation standards. We all agreed that our work was a service to one another and to God. The result was changed lives.

I could have chosen to write this essay a few different ways. One of them would be to argue that Bonhoeffer changed my mind about theology and the public square. That’s true, actually; Bonhoeffer has persuaded me of many important ideas. I also could have shown you all of the compelling things Bonhoeffer has written that tend to go unnoticed in his catalogue of work. Maybe I will do that another time. But I don’t think those things are the most valuable things I’ve gained from Bonhoeffer or why I continue to study him to this day. It was the rare combination of reading Life Together while doing life together in the concrete, embodied way Bonhoeffer calls us to that changed my mind and my life, that saved college for me.

I’m not sure where I would have ended up after college without those professors, without those students, and without that class, but I mean it when I say that I think they saved college for me. I don’t think I would be a convictional Baptist without conversations started in that class about ecclesiology. I don’t think I would have ended up at the Southern Baptist Seminary without friendships that started in that class. So much was decided for me as we did Life Together on Union’s campus. I am so grateful to my friends, my professors, and to Bonhoeffer.

Devin Maddox

Devin Maddox is the trade book publisher at B&H Publishing Group. He is also a Ph.D. student in Applied Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, focusing his research on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and writing. He and his wife, Cara, and three boys live in Nashville, Tennessee. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24