ChatGPT and the Christian

289

Recently I received a letter from a reader in Canada alerting me to the potential danger of using ChatGPT, particularly for making sermons by ministers of the Word. Information about the possible use and misuse of this recent medium also applies more broadly to church people wanting to remain faithful to Scripture. ChatGPT is an artificial intelligence (AI) internet tool that will provide information or answers to almost any question put to it. Ask it for a sermon on a particular Bible passage and it will do so. A young person recently told me that there were youth who openly admitted using (and submitting unaltered) ChatGPT introductions on Bible chapters for youth Bible study meetings. In schools (and in universities), educators have expressed concern about students handing in essays which are in fact not their own work but simply ChatGPT constructions.[i] Thereby students are lying by presenting work as if it is their own when in fact it’s not. Moreover, since ChatGPT does not show where it gets its information, how will students know if they’re getting the truth? And as for businesses, a businessman told me that some businesses were now using ChatGPT to generate dozens of favourable reviews on their businesses webpages, thereby also lying. Hence, it’s open to abuse. But must we shun it altogether, or can we use it beneficially with the understanding that we simply need to be very vigilant, aware and discerning?

My correspondent, with years of experience in technology, said technology was now available that “could easily replace our ministers by producing sermons that excelled in their Reformed qualities”. Indeed, he had posed the question to his elders: “what would you say if my technology were able to produce a sermon that was far more faithful to the Word than any human could produce – would we also pragmatically justify using this technology rather than a minister?” He had much more to say about how this technology could affect our church and broader culture, but I want to limit myself here.

Interestingly, our Free Reformed ministers in Australia reported briefly last year in Una Sancta[ii]on an online discussion they’d had about using AI for making sermons. They referred to ChatGPT which presented itself as having potential benefits in sermon preparation, such as helping to analyse and interpret biblical texts, identifying relevant and engaging sermon topics, “organising and structuring sermons, helping preachers present their sermons with coherence and clarity”. ChatGPT said that it “streamlined the research process” and thereby “allows preachers to invest more energy into other pastoral duties”, and “enhance their understanding of the Bible’s original meaning, theological concepts and doctrinal implications”. However, ChatGPT could not replace “the preacher’s spiritual wisdom and relationship with the congregation” and concluded that: “While AI can enhance efficiency and knowledge, preachers should be cautious about relying too heavily on technology” because sermons are more than just an academic exercise; they need to connect with the congregation.

In reflecting on the use of ChatGPT, the Free Reformed ministers asked themselves: “Does this mean that ChatGPT could write a sermon? What if a minister was to give the right parameters to ChatGPT and it spits out an objectively more biblical, reformed, redemptive-historical and Christ-centred sermon than the one the minister worked all week on… how to think through that….?”

The Free Reformed ministers conclude that the answer is No, and they give the reason why: “The nature of preaching in addressing and the illuminating work of the Spirit in understanding the Word of God, can’t be generated by AI. This is true for the preparation and the preaching of God’s Holy Word. ChatGPT can never prayerfully prepare a sermon like ministers do.”

Illustration by Chad vanBurgel

As for using ChatGPT for youth and adult Bible study introductions, we need to be very careful. Also here the need to “test the spirits” and to compare what is said with other parts of Scripture and with our confessions is essential. ChatGPT is based on what other people feed into the computer and therefore could well reflect Arminianism and promote the doctrine of the ‘free will’. Contrary to this we believe in the five ‘solas’ of the Reformation: Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone), Sola Gracia (salvation through grace alone), Sola Fide (salvation by faith alone), Solus Christus (salvation through Christ alone) and Soli Deo Gloria (to God alone be the glory). Since these truths are undercut by much of Christianity, and hence influence what is fed to the internet, we would do much better to study God’s Word and the confessions and use the commentaries and other writings of reliably reformed authors. Moreover, one of the purposes of someone making an introduction is so that the introducer can with the greater study help the discussion. 

Using ChatGPT in schools and universities is already presenting problems. To be sure, the problem of plagiarism in schools and universities already existed prior to ChatGPT. But it is now becoming even more difficult for teachers to identify whether a submission is a student’s own work. Our students need to be honest and to remember that they are dependent on the Lord Jesus who sees their every move. He observes how we handle the pen and the computer and whether we apply His commandments, and therefore also the 9th about telling the truth, in our every action, word and thought.

That applies also to our businesses. As reformed people we’ll seek to apply principles and practices based on God’s Word. And whilst ChatGPT can be used to help businesses, e.g. by preparing quotes, it need not surprise us that in an increasingly godless world, governed solely by the profit motif, ChatGPT will also be manipulated to mislead prospective customers. Advertisers will use it to appeal to their target audiences. Even scammers are becoming more sophisticated, using ChatGPT to gain data about us and using it slyly to commit us to reveal information that can be used to rob us.

So, should we shun it altogether? Does it have any redeeming features? I asked Br Bert Veenendaal, formerly a Professor and Head of Department of Spatial Sciences (dealing with geographic information) at Curtin University, whether we have reason for great concern. Here is, in the main, what he said:

“My overall response is: no reason for great concern, but rather, a need to use discretion and better understand the use of this technology as it is now, and as it evolves further. 

So here are some points highlighting my thoughts:

  1. ChatGPT is indeed an application of AI which has some very impressive “knowledge” algorithms that access and use data and knowledge bases to cleverly put together sentences and paragraphs. In response to a request, it is very clever at accessing related data and in formulating the response using language and style. In fact, when asking the same question multiple times, it even restructures and reformulates the sentences in response. However, the response is only as good as the data and information from which it is drawn, so responses may be incorrect or have errors. Rev W Bredenhof wrote an article on his blog showing how it got info on the church at Launceston completely wrong! 
  2. ChatGPT learns as it goes. So your queries and responses to its responses are used by ChatGPT to gain more knowledge and learn the relationships among data and knowledge. For example, when I asked about the FRC of Mundijong, it knew nothing about it, but when I told it some information about the church, a daughter church of Byford, etc., then successive queries included it in the responses. So by “feeding” it more (reformed) information, it will actually grow in its ability to respond.
  3. Although new and novel, ChatGPT is only a technology. As we get to know and use it more, we will also be able to know how to use it in a reformed way and be on watch for the dangers of misuse. This is no different in essence to previous new technologies: radio, television, internet, smart phone, social networking, etc. We are only at the initial stages of ChatGPT and don’t even know yet the full range of what it can do or how it will be used.
  4. We need to learn and use this technology on the foundation of God’s Word and understanding how we can use it appropriately and staying away from the dangers that may be presented. In regards to using it for sermons, our ministers wrote about this in Una Sancta 29 July 2023 showing how it can be used to assist in sermon making, but not replace it. 
  5. When analysing sermon preparation from a Reformed perspective, ChatGPT can provide some useful information and facts, and even assemble them in some fashion, but that is only a SMALL part of sermon preparation.
  6. ChatGPT does NOT give references as to where it gets its information, so its sources are unknown. Also, it doesn’t appear to be able to cross reference Scripture, but it does know facts about Scripture verses etc.  Also, it does not have a broad Reformed view of Scripture and Confessions, and cannot replace a Reformed minister who is knowledgeable in Scripture and Confessions and prays for the Holy Spirit to guide him in his preparation. So there are quite obvious limitations of chatGPT.
  7. I also found some impressive use of ChatGPT in theological studies, integrated into the curriculum. ChatGPT is especially good at languages and can be used to work out Hebrew and Greek words and their context. I saw a curriculum where students use ChatGPT to grow in their knowledge and use of Scripture using the original languages.
  8. Being faithful to the cultural mandate means that we will use this new technology in a Scriptural way that glorifies God in the way we use it; hence we cannot ignore it or avoid it.
  9. We are only at the early stages of ChatGPT use so it would be difficult to analyse it thoroughly at this stage. The analysis of its use in a reformed Scriptural manner will need to happen as we work out how it is being used and how it will be used in the future. We cannot pre-empt this now. We can, however, begin to think about and assess its use in situations where it is beginning to be used and write about that…which was done by our ministers using it for sermons (in that US article mentioned above).
  10. Overall, ChatGPT is a brilliant technology using data and information cleverly in a “body of knowledge” using AI techniques. However, this body of knowledge is incomplete, growing as it learns, but can never replace a human mind, nor does it have a body and soul. I’m sure it will grow to have a very beneficial role in the reformed Christian world (as has other technologies that have improved communications, etc.).

I hope the above gives you some things to think about regarding your request. These are only thoughts given my limited knowledge of using ChatGPT. But I am sure it will continue to evolve as a technology tool, and also in how it will be used, so there should be plenty more about it down the track.”

From the above it would seem that, as with other forms of media, ChatGPT can be used and abused; and doubtless this will become more evident. Meanwhile, let us ‘learn to discern’, to ‘test the spirits’, to separate fact from fiction and to walk in the truth. So much of what is presented as objective truth or reality is often manipulated to present a slanted depiction of reality. In the press it is often based on a ‘standard’ set by the media owners. ChatGPT has no ‘owners’ in that sense; it does not reference its sources and appears to be accountable to no one. But we do have a standard: God’s holy Word and the confessions; and we need now, more than ever, to be well at home in them. In Hosea 4:6 the LORD warns us: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge”. The extent to which ChatGPT is a blessing or curse for us will depend on our knowledge of, and faithfulness to, Scripture. Amidst a world of indoctrination and manipulation we need to stand firm so that equipped “with knowledge and all discernment” we may “approve what is excellent, and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with all the fruits of righteousness which come through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Phil. 1:9-11).

 

[i] Natasha Bita, “The intellectual arms race”, The Australian, January 8, 2024, https://www.theaustralian.com.au/nation/oldschool-solutions-to-counter-downside-of-ai-chatbots-in-education/news-story/a1a6940d3e02b3ea242f38881bd4357d
[ii] “Harnessing AI”, Una Sancta, 29 July 2023, pp. 386, 387.