Which master does a Christian academic serve?

December 3, 2014

Academicians have a commitment to the truth. After all, the point of being a member of the “academy” is having opinions and research validated through the work of similarly qualified and committed researchers and thinkers. The presumption is that the corporate conclusions of competitive and in some ways independent thinkers have a sort of objective authority an individual or a self-contained conclave of thinkers is unlikely to obtain.

Christians have a commitment to orthodoxy. After all, the point of being a Christian (evangelical, at least) is holding the faith “once delivered to the saints.” To hold a faith not endorsed by scripture as evidenced in its interpretation at the hands of believers similarly committed to scripture's authority is to fall short of orthodoxy and prey to either heterodoxy or cult-vulnerability, or both.

So when a Christian academic runs into a conflict between his commitment to academic truth and his commitment to scriptural orthodoxy, which master does he serve?

Objectivity in academics

Non-Christian academics sometimes view Christians as incapable of maintaining the objectivity required for academic work. After all, if a professor in a conservative Christian school discovers reason to doubt the authenticity of a New Testament text, for example, is he really going to give up his income by reporting his findings, all for the sake of intellectual integrity? A negative answer to that question implies, in the mind of the one making the argument, that “Christian Academic” is an oxymoron.

But there are three things wrong about that line of reasoning—wrong indeed generally about there being a unique problem for scholars with creedal or confessional commitments.

First, the argument as posed above could be, and at least as far as anecdotal evidence supports, is, dependent on an errant presumption about the motive of a Christian academic who finds some reason to question the creed to which he is committed. The cynic presumes his reluctance to publish would come from the desire for job security (as an example). But job security may not be the cause of his reluctance at all. He could, for instance, hold back on his research because he actually values the faith he holds, and he is reluctant both to accept what undermines his own faith and potentially to undermine the faith of others.

Secular academicians may think the latter motive (creedal conservation) is as egregiously violent to the spirit of true scholarship as the former (job security). But they would be wrong, for no less than reasons in both of the last two points in this response.

Second, the secular critic making the argument above has committed what is probably the most common of errors when one human evaluates another: condemning in the other what is condoned in the self. Not only does every person carry a host of personal commitments, prejudices, fears, and weighted social obligations into his research and analysis, but entire academic disciplines—indeed every academic discipline—is deeply circumscribed by the limits of its current paradigm. Anomalies within disciplines—again, every discipline—stand as persistent reminders that paradigms stand not as boundaries enclosing truth, but as boundaries excluding outliers, whether personal or ideological. When one of those factual outliers, for example, shows up in research, even the most rigorous researcher may “bury” findings for years or decades rather than risk being put out of the controlling paradigm of the discipline. Even when researchers do report outliers, it is with the presumption that something must be wrong with the research, not with the paradigm. So there is, in reality, an orthodoxy built into every discipline. And it is at least as likely as not that the orthodoxy within “objective” disciplines is every bit as rigorously defended or mandated as the orthodoxy within overtly creedal communities.

Third, there is actually a benefit to holding a creed or confession when working within a given academic discipline, especially where the faith has a somewhat direct relationship with the discipline itself (e.g., Christianity and New Testament Studies.) When a researcher stumbles across information apparently detrimental to his paradigm—when he finds an anomaly or an outlier—the reason he presumes something is probably wrong with his research is because in those situations there usually is something wrong with his research. The paradigm itself will probably end up holding. A little extra work, sometimes a lot of extra work, may finally yield the error and restore confidence in the initial paradigm. The point thus far should be fairly clear. If creedal or confessional orthodoxy is equivalent to the average discipline’s paradigm, then it is not a bad idea, even academically speaking, for heretical or heterodox ideas developed from legitimate academic work to be put on back burners or regarded with disapprobation.

Orthodoxy and claiming truth

But that analogy is only as accurate as orthodoxy is equivalent to an academic paradigm. But orthodoxy is not equivalent to an academic paradigm. It is better. Orthodoxy can actually make claims about truth, not just about the exclusion of error (as a paradigm). And orthodoxy’s great strength and desirability is its permanence, not its contingency on a temporary set of controls for instruments and mental models. After all, orthodoxy (again, for evangelicals at least) is about faith in a revelation from God, not about derivations from human minds, no matter how great. Now, of course, people can embrace the wrong orthodoxy. So claims of orthodoxy may be false. People can also embrace the wrong paradigm.

But it is as silly for an evangelical scholar to abandon orthodoxy (say, faith in God, confidence in scripture, or even the nature of salvation) because of the recent “discovery” of a manuscript or the development of a novel idea as it would be for a CERN researcher to believe neutrinos travel faster than light on the testimony of a handful of experiments (with faulty equipment, by the way). If it is possible that something is true and always has been (and it certainly is possible) and if it is reasonable and valuable to stabilize a discipline using a paradigm as a gyroscope (and it certainly is reasonable and valuable), then it only makes sense for New and Old Testament Scholars, for Philosophers of Religion and Theologians, for Missiologists and Professors of Evangelism, and for Professors of Poimenics and of Homiletics, to submit their academic work to the truth-stabilizing influence of, in the case of conservative evangelicalism, confessional orthodoxy, and maintain complete integrity within the academy.

In such ways both faith and truth endure.

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