The King’s Gospel and the King’s College

April 7, 2014

An Address at the Inauguration of

Gregory Alan Thornbury as the

Sixth President of The King’s College

Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church

New York City

April 3, 2014

I first encountered Gregory Alan Thornbury not as a person and not even simply as a reputation, but as a kind of foreshadowing. He was, as Bob Dylan might put it, a slow train coming down the track toward my life. I was contemplating applying to the doctoral program of Southern Baptists’ mother seminary, a school that had endured a reformation back to its roots in doctrinal orthodoxy, but a reformation that, as far as the doctoral program was concerned, was still “already and not yet.” Many in the admissions office were not on board with the new conservative direction, and some even actively sough to dissuade me—and who knows how many others—from applying. But, at the 1995 Southern Baptist Convention in Atlanta, I spoke with one admissions counselor who told me, “You need to get to know Greg Thornbury.”

I say he told me that, but it is more accurate to say he whispered it. He kept looking over his shoulder as though he were Mr. Tumnus afraid to mention Aslan lest he be overheard by the trees, which might turn him over to the White Witch. He went on to say, “Seriously, remember that name. Greg Thornbury. He’s the smartest guy in every room, and he’s the real-deal, whole-package evangelical.”

When I arrived on campus as a new doctoral student in systematic theology, the first person I met was Greg Thornbury and, just as advertised, he was the smartest guy in every room—and he was the real-deal, whole-package evangelical. In a very short time, we were allies in doctoral colloquia and seminars, and working together in the President’s office, or, more usually, the President’s basement. And I found Greg Thornbury to be even more than I had heard. It was as though a scientific genius had engineered a way to mix the best of Carl F. H. Henry with the best of Elvis Costello.

And now, here we are, where, it seems to me, Greg Thornbury was always predestined to be: leading a great evangelical institution of learning in the heart of New York City. This is, personally, a thrilling time for me. It is also a sobering time, because what President Thornbury is undertaking represents a great charge and a great trust.

In Matthew 21:28-32, Jesus tells us a story—one of the parables we reflect on not nearly enough. The chief priests had challenged Jesus on the question of where he obtained his authority. Keeping with his usual practice, our Lord turned the questions back around on them, asking questions about John the Baptist he knew they wouldn’t want to answer. He then told a parable of two sons. The father asks the first son to work in the vineyard and he says “I won’t go,” but then, changes direction, and says he will. The second son immediately agrees to go, but then later turns and says, “I will not.” Which of these sons, Jesus asks, is faithful to the will of his father? This is precisely the question we should ask ourselves tonight.

When we were students, Greg once took our mutual hero, Carl F. H. Henry, to the Sunday service of a booming evangelical megachurch. After the service, Greg asked Dr. Henry, “So, what did you think?” Dr. Henry sat silently for a moment, before answering, “I think that service represents the success of the evangelical movement.” He then added, “We were so successful with our youth rallies that our teenagers grew up and want to repeat them, and call them worship services.” For those of you who don’t know, from Dr. Henry, that was not a good thing.

He knew that the very things that helped evangelicalism flourish—entrepreneurialism and freedom from longstanding institutions—could easily, when unmoored from doctrinal orthodoxy and ecclesial rootedness, become the undoing of the movement. Persistence itself is no sign of fidelity, if that persistence doesn’t persist in obedience. Jesus identified the religious establishment of the nation of Israel as persistent in observance and in structure. But they had so lost their way that they couldn’t recognize the kingdom of God, standing before them in flesh and bone.

Evangelicalism always faces the temptation to listen to the call of that old zombie Harry Emerson Fosdick, who never stays long in his crypt and often walks forward with Mr. Rockefeller’s money brimming from his pockets. Fosdick’s temple stands across the city from where we are tonight, a monument to what some would tell us that we need. The temptation is to barter away what the world around us finds embarrassing about the faith we have received. In a previous era, that was the miraculous—virgin births and empty tombs. In our era, it is usually a Christian sexual ethic. This never works, which is why, despite Mr. Jefferson’s predictions of the future, the Unitarians have not inherited the earth.

But, more importantly, this impulse, is an act of violence. It leaves people in sin and death. If there is no Judgment Seat, or if Jesus and his apostles are inaccurate in what we will give an account for there, then why concern ourselves with Christianity at all, much less Christian higher education? But if there is a Judgment Seat, a Lake of Fire, a New Jerusalem, then those that would mute the hard truths of the call to repentance are worse than merely unfaithful. They are the spiritual equivalent of human traffickers, promising guilty souls safe passage over the River Jordan, but leaving them to die in the desert.

The second son starts out with obedience—with the immediate response of “All to Jesus, I Surrender.” But when the cost is counted, he turns aside. Many have. And many will. Some turn aside to what J. Gresham Machen warned us is a different gospel altogether, liberalism, even when it knows how to sing our praise choruses. Some turn aside to the Canaanite fertility religion of the prosperity gospels, whether in their monetary or political forms. The King’s College much watch, ever diligently, that the college never becomes more important than the King.

But then there’s that first son.

Our response to the challenges around us should not be a dour, curmudgeonly evangelicalism. The gloominess and fretfulness so many evidence is more than defeatism, it is a sign of wavering belief in the promises of Jesus himself. Carl Henry reminded Greg Thornbury and me of that truth. We were lamenting the current state of evangelicalism, two young doctoral students to the greatest evangelical theologian of the twentieth century. We lamented the pragmatism, the hucksterism, the liberalizing tendencies, and we asked, “Does evangelical Christianity have a future at all.” Dr. Henry looked at us as though we were crazy.

“Of course gospel Christianity has a future,” Dr. Henry said. “But the gospel Christians who will lead it may well still be pagans right now.”

Dr. Henry told us that we were acting as though Christian leadership were a genetic dynasty, complete with ruling families. And yet, he told us, God never built his church that way. Saul of Tarsus was a murderer. Augustine of Hippo was a player. C.S. Lewis was an atheist. Chuck Colson was a hatchet man. The gospel not only saved these leaders, but God put them in the leadership of his church. They seemed to come out of nowhere, with shady pasts and uncertain futures. And none of us would be here, apart from their labors.

We had forgotten what Jesus told the chief priests. “Truly I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you.” And why? It is because in the preaching of John, ‘the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him.” The difference is the gospel as the power of God unto salvation.

This is the burden of The King’s College, in a world of uneasy consciences. This college must exist to preserve and to engage a gospel for the sake of those who are not yet aware of it, or not yet interested in it, or perhaps even as of yet openly hostile to it.

The answer is not what some would prescribe, the sort of selective universalism that refuses to call to repentance in those areas of sin deemed untouchable by the ambient culture. The answer is not the angry warrior spirit that seeks to humiliate our opponents.

The church of Christ Jesus cannot be a gospel-free outrage machine. And the church of Christ Jesus cannot be a gospel-free affirmation machine.

That’s why The King’s College should never be merely a finishing school for the evangelical elite. Every classroom and every lecture should serve as a reminder that the next Augustine might be wasting away on heroin right now on the streets of Manhattan. The next Corrie Ten Boom might be a sex-worker in a darkened alley right now. The gospel can change, not just for their sake but  also for ours. The King’s College must exist for them.

That’s why The King’s College must fight for doctrinal orthodoxy. An almost gospel won’t do. And that’s why The King’s College must ever struggle to retain intellectual rigor. This academic prowess is an act of love, equipping these brilliant students to push back the arguments behind which guilt consciences hide, in order that they may hear the voice that calls “Adam, where are you?”

Yes, we face difficult times, every generation of the church does. But we also face unprecedented opportunities. People walking past on the streets outside us, many of them will be burned over by the unkept promises of the utopianism of the Sexual Revolution and of Faustian libertarianism. You must study, you must labor, to preserve something old, something ever new, not just for us, and not just for our children, but for our future brothers and sisters in Christ, many of whom may hate us right now. But many of them may one day lead us, by the power of the Spirit that calls to life that which was dead.

When we gather if, if the Lord keeps us that long, for President Thornbury’s retirement ceremony, what should we hope now that we will say? We should hope that the obedience we pledge now is kept. But we should also hope that through the witness of this place, the church is filled with those who were prostitutes, those who were tax collectors, those who were without hope and without God in the world. We should hope that the reputation of The King’s College goes forth, like Greg Thornbury’s, as a slow training coming. We should hope that we will say then, of this great college, “It’s the smartest place in the world, and it holds the gospel, the real-deal, whole-package gospel.”

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