Engineers using AI to translate the Bible into new languages. Large language models simulating the language of Scripture to answer modern theological questions. A Reddit user who asked ChatGPT to write a Bible story about Jesus accepting transgender people. New apps that allow people to chat with biblical figures like Moses, Jesus, and even Judas Iscariot.
Along with workers worried about their jobs and conspiratorial types worried about a robot takeover, many scholars and pastors are worried about what AI will mean for biblical interpretation. As people increasingly turn to AI to answer their theological questions, how will these technologies shape our Bible reading?
Before we weigh the pros and cons of AI tools for Bible study, we should consider a deeper question: Why do we want AI to help us interpret the Bible? We apply tools to the Bible because we think they fit the task of biblical interpretation. What does AI provide a solution to? What need does it meet?
The history of American Bible interpretation can give us some answers.
Long before modern computing, the American Bible-publishing industry was flush with extrabiblical reference materials: concordances, commentaries, and charts. New printing methods made publishing increasingly efficient as literacy rates were rising, so more Bibles and Bible reading guides were printed.
According to historian Seth Perry in his book Bible Culture and Authority in the Early United States, the proliferation of concordances uniquely shaped American religious history. They fit the American ethos: Rather than listening to a religious authority interpret the text, concordances allowed the average reader to let Scripture interpret itself. The notes were not from a church tradition or a biblical scholar but simply referenced other parts of Scripture. The ideal for Bible reading was aptly described in the title of one popular Bible published in 1792: Brown’s Self-Interpreting Bible.
The proliferation of Bible reading aids encouraged a particular kind of reading. Concordances shaped habits toward what Perry calls “indexical,” “discontinuous,” and “citational” Bible reading. Rather than reading larger chunks of Scripture in their literary contexts, people were formed to think of Scripture as isolated data points.
Our interest in the Bible as data popped up again in the middle of the 20th century. In the midst of the Cold War, a particular way of reading the Bible—dispensationalism—became increasingly popular. This theology was spread not only through theological works but through fiction like the successful Left Behind franchise, and these fictional accounts of the Rapture and end times shaped the theological imagination of American Christians.
The Bible plays a significant role in these stories, as the people “left behind” struggle to understand the unfolding events. Historian Crawford Gribben’s account of Rapture fiction, Writing the Rapture, notes that many of these novels describe dispensational theology as obvious, even axiomatic. Characters in the novels read the Bible without any aids or guides and come to dispensational conclusions by reading the text alone.
One novel from the period, The Omega Project by Pentecostal evangelist Morris Cerullo, takes this approach and applies it to the new technology of the 1980s. In the story, the prime minister of Israel recruits a group of computer programmers to build a “data bank of unfulfilled Bible prophecies” in order to respond to the recent Rapture. It’s a fictional account of Bible interpretation, but it depicts an approach to Scripture shared by many Americans. “We’re computer programmers, not philosophers,” one character says.
Even before the average Christian could use computers to interpret biblical prophecies, these stories subconsciously communicated that the Bible could be organized and processed as discrete data points apart from theological knowledge or the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Especially in the 1980s, a period of international instability and fear of nuclear war, many Christians were drawn to methods of biblical interpretation that gave them great certainty about their immediate future. They were drawn to the idea that the strangest parts of the Bible were understandable if only we applied the right tools—like plugging data into a computer.
Today, the dream of a computer-programmed “self-interpreting” Bible seems to be a reality. Even prior to the newest AI Bible tools, online concordances and Bible study software appealed to our desire to have the Bible interpret itself. Now, we don’t even need to flip to the concordance in the back of our Bibles. We can simply click on a hyperlinked word to see every time the word is used in Scripture or to read relevant cross-references.
Theologian John Dyer, in his book People of the Screen, examines the way digital resources shape evangelical reading habits. Many of the participants in Dyer’s study talk about using digital tools to easily find “keywords,” do word studies, or search for passages. These “quick hits” are only possible because of relatively new technology, but the underlying approach to Scripture is as old as America.
Bible-reading habits have always been shaped by technology—from the scroll to the codex to the printing press. But this surprisingly consistent history illuminates a deeper origin of our reading habits than merely the available technology. Our consistent desire to see the Bible as “data” reveals a theological challenge for American evangelicals. Where other traditions have relied on liturgy and creeds to understand Scripture, American evangelicals prefer to “stick to the text.” We tend to prize personal Bible reading and often characteristically resist the imposition of religious authorities or church tradition.
But our reliance on supposedly neutral and objective tools for interpreting the Bible (from printed concordances to computers), which we often use in isolation, can overshadow the work of the Holy Spirit, the guidance of our communities, and the wisdom of tradition.
This habit of treating the Bible as a list of facts gives us the illusion of objectivity—of an interpretation free from bias or theological tradition. But it is an illusion. Even concordances and cross-references come with theological judgments.
Perry notes one important example: the “curse of Ham” justification for slavery. The strange story of Noah’s nakedness and his son’s curse in Genesis 9 took on special importance in the antebellum South. Concordances and cross-references in study Bibles would pair this passage with 1 Kings 9:20–21 and Joshua 9:23 to articulate the curse as continuing into the modern era, strengthening the association between the Canaanite tribes and Africans.
The seemingly neutral practice of presenting the text with cross-references reinforced a theology of subjugation based on racial prejudice. The choice to associate some verses with others is always a theological judgment.
As we think about appropriate ways to use new technology for biblical interpretation, we should examine not only the technology we use but also the desires we bring to the text.
Are we turning to technological tools to avoid the difficult work of turning to our communities for help understanding challenging passages? Are we seeking a seemingly objective way to interpret the Bible while neglecting to reflect on the gifts of Christian tradition and theology to guide our interpretations? Are we substituting prolonged study of the whole Bible for quick hits that piece together isolated verses?
One of the participants in Dyer’s study talked about switching back to print resources after using digital tools and finding himself frustrated when he looked for “commentary or clarification for certain words out of habit, and it wasn’t there.” We are turning to AI tools for our Bible questions out of a good desire to understand God’s Word, but our use of such tools often trains us to expect easy and immediately accessible answers to questions that might require longer, messier, and more collaborative work. Our desire for objectivity is often a desire to be freed from the constraints of community.
Could it be that we like asking ChatGPT questions about the Bible because there’s no relationship required? With AI, there’s no accountability if our interpretation demands something we aren’t willing to sacrifice, and no challenge of navigating disagreements and differences in interpretation. When it comes to reading Scripture, AI tools do not guarantee that we will sidestep the gift of the Spirit-indwelt family of God, but they can make it easier to do so.
Some perspective or tradition is always informing our reading, whether it’s a 19th-century Bible publisher, a Rapture-novel author, or a computer-program developer. There is no avoiding the reality that God revealed himself in the form of stories, letters, prophecies, and poems that cannot be reduced to data points. And there is no avoiding the reality that we finite and fallen creatures need guidance to hear God’s Word rightly.
Rather than seeking some way to interpret the Bible free from guidance, we should choose such guidance wisely, turning to the wisdom of Christians around the world and across history—and of those who gather with us weekly to hear the Word of the Lord.
Jesus himself noted that we can apply all the right tools yet miss the whole story: “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life,” he tells the Jewish leaders. “These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39–40).
We too can ask ChatGPT all the right questions, apply all the right digital tools, and still miss the whole picture of the gospel—a radical and compelling message that has been preserved and handed down through generations of the people of God.
We should carefully and faithfully consider the gifts and challenges of using AI tools for reading and interpreting the Bible. But if we fail to ask why we want AI to answer our Bible questions, we’ll keep uncritically repeating our same flawed reading habits—with AI’s help or not.
Kaitlyn Schiess is the author of The Ballot and the Bible: How Scripture Has Been Used and Abused in American Politics and Where We Go from Here. Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column.
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