The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) of the Southern Baptist Convention recently issued a statement, Artificial Intelligence: An Evangelical Statement of Principles. The document was published with the endorsement of sixty-five signatories. I was one of them.
The statement has been getting some journalistic attention, and some of my friends have asked me why I signed. When I asked why they were posing the question, one of them wondered how I could sign something that described the Bible as “inerrant.” Another told me that she was surprised to see me “endorsing something from the Southern Baptists!” Yet another observed that the document “did not say enough.”
I won’t respond to those concerns here in any detail, except to offer some brief thoughts. I have long been fond of the characterization of biblical authority in the 1974 Lausanne Covenant—that the Bible is “ the written word of God [is]without error in all that it affirms.” The word “affirms” here is important. Those of us associated with Biologos want to accept everything that, for example, is “affirmed” in the first chapter of Genesis. The important question, of course, is whether that chapter is affirming—whether it is meaning to teach us—that we live in a “young earth” that was created in six literal days. Not everything that the Bible “says”—that the earth has “corners” for example—is what the Bible means literally to affirm.
As for the Southern Baptist connection, like several of the other non-Baptist signers, I am a strong admirer of the ERLC’s Russell Moore, who was the prime mover behind the issuing of this declaration on artificial intelligence. I often utter a quiet “Amen” when I read something that he has written, and was happy in this case to add my “Amen” in joining a more public chorus about artificial intelligence.
What I especially like about this ERLC statement is that it is a teaching document. For my part, I want my seminary students to read it. The statement has implications for issues they face in the areas of ministry for which they are studying—preaching, counseling, cross-cultural, youth ministries, chaplaincies, and much more. The document touches on a number of topics that are the stuff of the news shows—and Netflix films!— of our daily lives: medical advances, military technologies, airport security measures, workforce concerns, social media, and our interactions with Siri and Alexa. I say that this document “touches on” these kinds of issues. There is no in-depth exploration here. The Christian community needs a book—or a lengthy podcast—on every paragraph in the statement. But the document points us to topics that should be dealt with in those lengthier explorations.
In his banquet address at our recent Biologos conference in Baltimore, Francis Collins briefly discussed the recent case of the Chinese researcher He Jiankui, who announced last November that he had successfully produced the world’s first gene-edited babies. Francis expressed deep concern about this development. As himself a major contributor to significant genetic research, Francis is certainly no foe of ground-breaking scientific efforts to promote and improve upon the patterns public health. But he makes a clear distinction between research programs that improve upon our efforts to diagnose and remedy our physical ailments and research programs that are aimed at altering our humanness as such.
The ERLC makes the same kind of distinction, warning against “the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.” And similar lines are drawn in other key areas. AI can greatly improve those patterns of work in the creation to which the Lord calls us an persons who are created in his image. But none of that should be used “as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.” Neither should governments employ technologies—the increasing use of “facial-recognition” technologies are a case in point here—”to reinforce or further any technology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.”
Can more be said? Of course. Much more. A document like this does not pretend to say it all. Its role is very different. It is urging upon us the need to “test the spirits.” While it does not itself do that testing, it does give us guidance in asking the right questions and in moving in the right directions as we explore new challenges.
In recent years I have been increasingly impressed with the idea of the Christian life as a journey—as walking along paths where we regularly come upon new challenges and quandaries. We presently face issues that the Christian community has never encountered before. These days John Bunyan’s pilgrims regularly come across new phenomena in today’s journeys of faith: The virtual space of Warcraft; twelve year old kids declaring “gender change;” in vitro fertilization; online seminary degrees; robots in surgery centers; “smart” refrigerators.
The psalmist speaks with ancient wisdom to our present context: God’s Word is “a lamp unto our feet, a light on our path” (Psalm 119:105). The folks who drafted the ERLC meant to help us shine the Light of God’s Word on the complexities raised by artificial intelligence in our challenging times. It is meant, not so much as a declaration of “speaking truth to power,” but to stimulate ongoing conversations in the Christian community: in college and seminary classrooms, in church discussion groups, at youth ministry retreats—and in family dinner conversations.
We do need also to help to shape public policy on these matters. But to do that effectively we need to reflect on these matters among ourselves as followers of Christ. To do that we need help on raising the right questions. For that purpose this document can serve as a useful tool of cultural discernment.