Recovering an Engaging Doctrine of God for the Church’s Moral Witness

July 11, 2014

And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:1-3 ESV)

A.W. Tozer famously said “The history of mankind will probably show that no people has ever risen above its religion, and man’s spiritual history will positively demonstrate that no religion has ever been greater than its idea of God.” (Knowledge of the Holy) If this is the case, then it seems the modern West seems to be in a bit of a jam.

According to much ballyhooed Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, we live in what ought to be described as “a secular age” (A Secular Age). Taylor’s main thesis is not so much that godless atheism is ascendant, soon to wipe out backwards religious traditions in the cold light of pure reason, as the old secularization thesis would have it, but that we have reached a point culturally where belief in God is no longer the default. Five hundred years ago in the West you were born a believer. Now, it is a choice made only after deliberation among various live options.

But the problem is not just that belief is no longer the default, it’s that the very concept of God is confused and contested in the West. Before you had sort of a clear choice as to what God you did or didn’t believe in–a sort of standard, Judeo-Christian model on offer that everyone was sort of familiar with. Now, once you’ve decided whether there’s something “more” out there, you’ve still got to figure out what that “more” is like. Given our American values of autonomy, creativity, and entrepreneurship, it’s not hard to see how this plays out into increasingly diverse, heterodox, subjective spiritualities being offered on the market.

Among other things, Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics chronicles just how bad the confusion’s gotten, not just outside, but within the church itself. Outside the church we find both the vocal, militant atheists, but also the more popular Oprahesque, emotionally-narcissistic pseudo-spiritualities peddled in works like The Secret, The Power of Now, and Eat, Pray, Love. At the same time, within the church we’re still faced with the reheated leftovers of theological liberalism, or, possibly worse, the superficial yet terribly destructive picture of God we find in Osteen-like prosperity preachers.

Given this sorry state of affairs, we might ask, “What of the academy?” Kevin Vanhoozer opines that while a number of theologians have gotten around to speaking of God himself, for the most part there’s a bit of a theological famine on the subject. “Theologies” of sex, art, dance, money, literature, and so forth abound, but God gets the short shrift (Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship, pg. xii). From where I’m sitting, the same thing could easily be said of the Evangelical pulpit–God gets plenty of mention, but usually it’s to suggest parishioners consider casting him in a (major!) supporting role within the drama of their own self-improvement.

If I may temporarily adopt the English penchant for understatement, I’d like to suggest that the contemporary loss of the doctrine of God is a bit of a problem, particularly for the Church’s public, moral witness.

Worship and Witness, Idolatry and Darkness

Upon arriving at the foot of Mt. Sinai, Israel learns that she was chosen as the special object of grace from among the nations to represent God before the nations as a holy nation, a kingdom of priests. This would happen both in the Lord’s loving care for her as well as in her worshipful obedience to the covenant commands (Exodus 19:4-6).  It’s no quirk of numerical happenstance that the command against idolatry comes at the head of the 10 Commandments, Israel’s instruction in the way of the Lord (Ex. 20:2-7). The people of God are to worship God alone–the rest of the commands are justified with respect to God’s name, character, and saving actions. Our obedience to them reflects a right knowledge of his holiness, love, and righteousness. At the core of biblical ethic is biblical worship, and at the core biblical worship is a biblical doctrine of God.

It is for this reason that Israel commanded not only to worship the true God, but to worship God in truth–in a manner consistent with his revealed character. This is precisely why they are not to make false images, either of wood and stone, or as J.I. Packer reminds us, the even more pliable material of cultural preference and psychological projection in the way Feuerbach (Knowing God, pg. 42). Misconstrue God and you’ll inevitably misconstrue and, eventually, rebel against his commands.

What’s more, the public character of the laws must be re-emphasized: the command came at the head of the national covenant charter, not only the private catechism. As Jewish scholars Moshe Halbertal and Avishai Margalit note, the charge of idolatry in Israel was one with political and social implications, not simply personal, pietistic ones (Idolatry, pg. 234). Israel was not only to be a nation of pious individuals, but a nation that qua nation ordered its public life according to its understanding of God, the righteous king. A public confused about God, would inevitably fall into confusion, immorality, and chaos, adopting as its principles the death-dealing ways of foreign deities such as Chemosh and Molech, or the vitalistic, orgiastic cultural patterns of the Baals and Asherahs. As the Apostle Paul says, after idolatry comes the darkness (Romans 1).

We can see just this confusion at work in any number of disturbing trends in contemporary culture. Not thirty years ago, Oliver O’Donovan sketched out the implications of the loss of our concept Creator God in his brief, but penetrating analysis of the changing state of medical ethics in a technological society, Begotten or Made?. For O’Donovan, the crucial distinction between begetting or making, biological nature as given and raw material to be manipulated via technique, had become so distorted as to be non-existent. Blurring those lines across which no man ought pass has pitched us headlong into the moral confusion regarding superficially innocuous elective surgeries, abortion, and quite presciently transgender confusion. All of this stems from the more fundamental and culture-wide confusion between creature and Creator, nature and its Author.

Recovering An Engaging God

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? (Romans 10:14)

If the Church is going to have a word worth speaking into the culture, or indeed, the courage and wisdom to speak it in life-giving ways, she desperately needs to recover a vision of her sovereign, holy, loving, indeed, engaging God.

A weak doctrine of God, stripped of transcendence and holiness, leads to anemic public engagement. Without a transcendent, holy God who is Other and before all things, we naturally fall into the tendency to identify the movement of the Spirit with the progressive culture of the age. Instead of the divine, disruptive ruach, you get the zeitgeist, which was part of the problem with German, liberal Kultur-Protestantism. At the personal level, this is the God who never contradicts any of my impulses and urges; the God whose Spirit simply is my spirit. Or, trending in the opposing direction, the God who is not the concerned covenant Lord leaves us with the moralistic, therapeutic deism in which God is so detached from our everyday living as to not be concerned about these sorts of things.

In either case, why would the Church ever speak up? If her God makes no claims upon the world, or, in any case, not any really demanding ones, then what is there to witness about?

Alternatively, a view of the holiness of God conceived without love leads to the acerbic, compassionless, combativeness of the Javert-like moral crusader. Here we have a public witness, but it is a false one that betrays a distorted view of its great Subject. No, the holiness God is that of a burning, inconceivably pure love that, while provoked by sin, is ultimately salvific and gentle with the broken–a bruised reed he will not crush. The Holy One of Israel is a comforter and the rock upon which the weak, the widow, the orphan, and the powerless depend. Otherwise, the world will rightly shut its ears against the clanging gong of our loveless proclamation. Only when the Church knows the holy compassion of her God will she be able to speak, and indeed, live, in a way that is true to the forgiving, gracious One she recognizes as her Lord.

Theologians and ethicists cannot avoid doing business with their conception of God if they are to equip the Church to be an adequate witness in the world God has decided to save. Only a deep understanding of the God of the commands will ground our ability to preach, teach, and elucidate the commands of God to a culture deeply entrenched in idolatry. Even more, pastors, the resident theologians of the local church, need to preach deeply, robustly theocentric sermons that press our congregants beyond the dominant therapeutic modes of spirituality on offer.

Before the Church can pronounce, “Thus says the Lord” to the world, she must know how to joyfully exclaim “Behold your God!”

Derek Rishmawy

Derek Rishmawy is a Ph.D student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School studying Systematic Theology. He's a regular contributor to sites like The Gospel Coalition, Christ and Pop Culture, The Local Church, Mere Orthodoxy, and Christianity Today. He is also co-host a podcast called Mere Fidelity. 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