Book Review

What is a Christian’s responsibility in a technological age?

February 15, 2021

When we experience a new technology or innovation, we often believe the ethical challenges we encounter are brand new and may even require a novel way of doing ethics. While the certain challenges posed by these technologies may be new and at times can be overwhelming, the Christian ethic is more than adequate to address the core issues at stake and provide a path forward through the confusion. Dr. Brian Brock writes Christian Ethics in a Technological Age to remind Christians that our ethic is grounded in the life of the church and is robust enough for even the toughest challenges of this age. Brock seeks to define a Christian ethic for technology that allows the church to live out its calling as the body of Christ through the worship of God and take responsibility for how these innovations will naturally alter our society for both good and ill. As technology breaks humanity down and seeks to reformulate us, Christ’s transformation heals both humanity and the world around us (27). A distinctly Christian ethic will reorient humans to God and to creation as God’s creatures who dwell secure in him.

Brian Brock is a professor of practical and moral theology at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland and also serves as the managing editor of the Journal of Religion and Disability. In Christian Ethics in a Technological Age, Brock has written one of the most substantive volumes on Christian ethics and technology to date. He argues that the deepest challenge to Christian faith in a technological age is its questioning of modern certainties about the relation of knowledge to belief and activity (4). To him, Christian ethics is not a derivation of moral claims from creedal affirmations, but rather a formed faith that reveals creation as it really is, as described by the creeds (4-5). In this volume, he also seeks to define technology as “a mode of human action into which we are born, an idiom of relation to creation and the neighbor,” as he provides a path forward for the church to engage in the pressing challenges and questions being posed about the nature of technology today (193). This definition ties into his emphasis throughout the work on the relational nature and understanding of technology in the life of human beings.

Need for a Christian ethic

It is important to note that Brock casts his vision of Christian ethics in a technological age, rather than the technological age–addressing the obvious temptation for each generation to think of their time as the technological. This subtle shift in rhetoric and titling seems to be an intentional move given Brock’s emphasis on an ethic flowing out of the church into this technological age rather than something to be recreated in order to address the pressing questions of technology in society. Often when technology and ethics are discussed, the assumption is that modern technology poses some type of existential threat to humanity and that our ethical systems must be updated in order to engage effectively. But as Brock builds out his case for Christian ethics, there is a noticeable peace and confidence in his tone, which speaks to how and where he is grounding his engagement on these issues.

Through his initial exploration into the thoughts of Martin Heidegger, George Grant, and Michel Foucault, Brock exposes our often-myopic understandings of technology and its influence in society. Alongside this analysis, he breaks down the instrumentalist and humanistic views of technology, arguing in the second section for a value-laden approach that functions similar to a deterministic view but with some important caveats. He argues that the deterministic view helps to diagnose the role of technology in society and culture but sharpens this view in light of Christian doctrine in order to help humanity break the hold of technology on society and help restore true freedom to humanity as morally responsible actors before God (169). His inclusion of these three figures in the history and philosophy of technology is interesting given that Heidegger and Grant wrote extensively on ethics, philosophy, and technology, while Foucault initially seems to be the outlier to the conversation. But Brock’s inclusion of Foucault in this discussion helps to tie together his emphasis on the experiential nature of technology and the habits formed through its continual use. He concludes by suggesting that “responsible moral deliberation about new technologies is the fruit of concerted attempts to see technology as the socially-embedded activity it actually is” (162).

In part two, Brock lays out his vision for Christian ethics in a technological age as he describes his alternative determinist approach to technology centered in the life and worship of the church. His approach focuses primarily on the calling of the local church to follow after Christ as the model for Christian ethics (172). Here Brock also casts his vision for Christian ethics not as a virtue-based approach or a narrative ethic, but rather focusing on an ethic flowing out of the church into this technological age. He forcefully and wisely shows that technology must not become an idol or god for humanity, but rather should be used (or more accurately used by God) to form a people under the banner of Christ’s redemption (235, 374-375). For Brock, Christian ethics is also “not a subsidiary discipline to dogmatics,” as some see the field of ethics in relation to theology (174).

The role of humanity in the world

As Brock casts a rich vision for Christian ethics in this age of technology, one element of his argument that seems to be lacking is substantive interaction with the imago Dei as the defining aspect of humanity in creation. With his emphasis on Christ as the focal point and the role of the ecclesia in Christian ethics, this crucial doctrine of Christian dogmatics and ethics garners little attention outside of his interaction with Karl Barth and the image of God, in which Barth intentionally focuses on humanity as a “single group” with the animals (337-339). Brock then shifts the discussion of the imago Dei to focus on how Christ is the very image of God and Israel’s Christ as head of the community of faith (337). This shifting of the imago Dei to focus solely on Christ, rather than those made in that image is a striking omission given his insistence on the redemption and transformation of the people of God. The imago Dei informs the relationship of humanity not only to God, but to the rest of creation including to the things that humanity makes in the technological age. Without this foundation, it can be difficult to engage many of the arguments being made in light of sophisticated emerging technologies that challenge the concept of human exceptionalism.

Being a 400-page volume, it seems odd that he doesn’t address many specific ethical issues surrounding the use of technology in society, given the depth of study in other areas of technological and philosophical inquiry. This is a weakness of the volume but not Brock’s actual intent in writing given his focus on defining a distinctly Christian ethic through his exploration of worship, work, and listening to God’s voice through the material creation (320). His recasting of technology under a new Christian ethical vision is one of the strongest elements of the entire work, and one might wish he had space to play that out more by addressing some specific ethical dilemmas of humanity with technology, outside of the singular inclusion of a discussion of the ethics of chicken farms and animal welfare (348-355). Though, this odd discussion does tie back to his emphasis on Barth’s exposition of the connection between humanity and animals earlier.

Overall, Brock’s volume is a significant contribution to Christian ethical engagement with technology and helps to define this field of study for the church. Brock ends with two major claims for Christian ethics in this technological age. First, “Our actions take place in a world still being redeemed and our work is alongside God’s work of redemption,” which speaks to his call for Christian engagement in the issues of ethics and technology (380). Second, Brock argues that “The ambiguity of this life breeds not fear but humble faith that embraces our role as followers and reminds us of God’s ultimate triumph” (381). This emphasis on God’s ultimate triumph should breed a humble confidence in the church to step up and into the pressing ethical concerns posed by the technological age, as the church maintains our responsibility and agency as God’s people in creation.

Jason Thacker

Jason Thacker serves as senior fellow focusing on Christian ethics, human dignity, public theology, and technology. He also leads the ERLC Research Institute. In addition to his work at the ERLC, he serves as assistant professor of philosophy and ethics at Boyce College in Louisville Kentucky. He is the author … 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