The ethical similarities between Corinth and today

April 1, 2015

I know a Kansas City resident who could have lived in first-century Rome. He’s not that old, of course, but he knows that much about ancient Mediterranean history and culture. Every time he talks about the New Testament, I learn something new that’s not available in modern commentaries.  

When he handed me a copy of Timothy Savage’s, Power through Weakness: Paul’s Understanding of the Christian Ministry in 2 Corinthians and said, “Brother, you have to read this,” I knew I had to read it right away. So I did and with just the result that my Roman time-traveler anticipated.  

Savage’s work allowed me to see Paul’s letters in a new way; and since then, I don’t think there’s another book that I’ve recommended as often.

We are what the Corinthians were

Therefore, when an invitation came to rave about a significant ethical work, this title sprang to mind. It doesn’t quite fit the profile—not at first, anyway. After all, it deals with 2 Corinthians, not abortion, gay marriage or religious liberty. It’s a work of exegesis, not a treatise on public policy. Yet, I have a theory: if we can see why Paul had enemies in Corinth—people who hated his preaching of the cross—we will face today’s ethical debates with sanctified déjà vu.  

Things have changed since Paul’s day, no doubt; but human nature hasn’t, or at least not enough to make the Apostle’s troubles entirely foreign to us. What the Corinthians once were, we now are. The fit is close enough to be useful.  

Rejecting the cross in Corinth

Savage’s argument begins with an account of Corinthian social life and values, because these factors explain why Paul’s ministry and message would be rejected by unregenerate pagans. The latter were treating temporal goods as ultimate ends, trying to surpass each other in wisdom, eloquence, power, wealth, beauty and victory. Life was a contest, a zero-sum, shame-and-honor struggle, where victory meant everything—especially to freedmen and people of lesser or ignoble birth.  

Thus, we should have expected the Corinthians to despise Paul’s message of the cross, dismissing it as idiocy. Only fools would believe that a crucified Jew, abandoned on slave’s wood, is the Lord and Savior (1 Cor. 1:18). Who could accept this offensive message? How could Pauline weakness—carrying in his body that kind of death—be a conduit of supernatural power? As arrogant social-climbers, the Corinthians rejected Paul and his message, favoring the alpha men who offered to replace the Apostle and preach a cross-free gospel.

But it gets worse. Paul’s gospel implies that love is cruciform and that boasting is allowed only if its object is Christ. We must do more than put ourselves second: we come in last, after the Lord himself and everyone else, too. In this sense, discipleship inverts the world’s core-values, leaving no room for self-regard or pride. Pagans sense this fact intuitively and recoil from Christian morality as something immoderate and unreasonable.  

So we come to today’s ethical scene, with new light from Paul’s letters to Corinth and a living color applied with Savage’s help.

The deeper catalyst behind ethical questions

On the one hand, we know that some arguments in ethical theory involve mostly factual disagreements; and the latter give us plenty of trouble, all by themselves. If life has begun, it shouldn’t be unjustly ended. But when does life begin? If the purpose of sexuality is procreation, then homosexuality is wrong. But is that the purpose of sexuality? Does sexuality have any purpose? People should be cared for until their lives end. But when does someone’s life really end?  

Lost people answer these questions in one way, and we answer them in another. In this sense, some debates turn largely on matters of description, not on judgments of ultimate value. On the other hand, if our culture resembles ancient Corinth—and we can hardly miss the overlap—PTW suggests a darker force at work, one that could intensify today’s struggle between biblical right and secular wrong.

Maybe the today’s antinomians are just selfish, after all, and driven by shame-and-honor priorities. It’s a familiar problem, and no one in this life fully escapes the temptation. We know what it’s like to make idols of wealth, power, beauty, victory and wisdom—to keep score and forget our neighbors. We know what it’s like to demand a reasonable gospel that entails feasible sacrifices. Thus, we should expect to find similar failings outside the church, this time going deeper and doing more damage.  

Why, then, do parents kill their imperfect children in the womb, children developing without limbs or conceived at the wrong time? Why do people get divorced so often? Why do they use their votes to seize other people’s money? Why do they want to define marriage as “state-sponsored PDA”? How did “No” become so offensive? Each question suggests a failure of moral insight in our society, as if the options presented were being judged by an alien yardstick, a radically different standard. But what is the standard?

We have given away the answer already. People may sin, as they do in these cases, because they have ascended thrones, in essence, and feel entitled. They know what the facts are about human life. They know that homosexuality isn’t normal and isn’t right. They know that unborn children are children. They know that the purpose of government is not to achieve by proxy what one would never do in person—e.g., accessing other people’s money without working for it. Parents shouldn’t abandon their children or deprive them of either one by divorce.  

But when these “No’s” are heard, another voice rises to meet it, a voice from ancient Corinth and within each of us, if we yield to it. This second voice says, “I’m entitled.” I’m entitled to a perfect baby, born on my schedule. I’m entitled to smooth skin and a happy, tailor-fit marriage with someone young, attractive and unproblematic. I need a stylish car, sexual gratification, whenever and with whomever. It’s an old lie that stays green all year round, a lie that fools the wise egoist every time. Cross this line, bright one, and you’ll fall for that ancient lie of the serpent: “You shall be as God.”

Thor Madsen

Dr. Thor Madsen has been at Midwestern Seminary since 1999 and is currently Dean of Graduate Studies, PhD Program Director and Professor of New Testament, Ethics and Philosophy. Dr. Madsen graduated from Wheaton College with the Bachelor of Arts degree, majoring in philosophy. Following his studies at Wheaton, he went to … Read More

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