In the opening chapter of Genesis, God speaks the words “Let there be,” producing a dazzling variety of creatures, each “according to their kind.” At first glance, the creation story seems to speak only of the natural world—of skies and seas, fish and birds, stars, and planets. What might technology have to do with the opening chapters of Genesis?
In his essay, “Technique and the Opening Chapters of Genesis”, Jacques Ellul states that before the fall, “no cultivation was necessary . . . no labor, no anxiety. Creation spontaneously gave what man needed.” He concludes that “no matter what attitude one takes toward technique, it can only be perceived as a phenomenon of the fall; it has nothing to do with the order of creation . . . It is necessarily of the situation of the fallen Adam.”1 The fall has certainly brought distortions to technology (including the relentless drive for efficiency, which Ellul associates with technique), but does technology have anything to do with creation, or is it simply a result of the fall?
The first chapters of Genesis provide a crucial frame for understanding the context for all our human cultural activities. Creation is much more comprehensive than what we might call “natural things,” it includes all the things that God has ordained to be.2 This includes the vast possibilities in creation, things like poems and pancakes, beer and banjos, airplanes and art, markets and marriage, and bicycles and burritos.
We see this unfolding of culture displayed in Genesis 4 with Jubal “the father of all who play stringed instruments and pipes,” and Tubal-Cain, who “forged all kinds of tools out of bronze and iron.” Bronze is an alloy made from copper and tin, requiring suitable tools and know-how (indeed, Tubal-Cain might be considered the first engineer named in the Bible). All of these good things find their basis in the possibilities of creation, and this includes all the technological possibilities.
The creation story includes a curious verse, one that appears in parentheses and gives just a hint of the latent technical possibilities in creation. Genesis 2:12 reads, “The gold of that land is good; aromatic resin and onyx are also there.” This verse speaks to me as an engineer, suggesting that the inclusion of raw materials in creation is not a coincidence, but part of God’s intention for his world.3 It is possible that the soil under the feet of Adam and Eve may well have included sand, a material made up of silicon, an element which is at the heart of today’s modern digital computers.4 Who knows what other possibilities in creation still wait to be discovered and uncovered?
Moreover, in the first chapter of Genesis God explicitly gives humankind the task of caring for his good creation and uncovering all of its possibilities. God does not prescribe what to do, but delegates this responsibility to humans who are required to exercise both freedom and responsibility (Gen. 1:28). This is reflected in the responsibility given to Adam to name the animals, “He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name” (Gen. 2:19b). The act of naming had special significance to the Hebrew people and indicated a sovereign right.5 This task of naming continues to this day, as we uncover new areas of creation and give names to new discoveries.
Furthermore, the opening chapters of Genesis provide a context for understanding why things are not the way they are supposed to be.6 The disobedience of humankind described in Genesis 3 has had wide-reaching implications, also for human cultural activities like technology. The first temptation was essentially to seek autonomy apart from God, a temptation that continues in our technological activities. The builders of the tower of Babel sought to build their own bridge from heaven to earth “to make a name for themselves” (Gen. 11:4). Modern day “towers of Babel” persist whenever people put their trust in technology to solve all problems and to bring health and material prosperity. As it turns out, the good gold mentioned in Genesis 2:12 can also be forged into idols.
But we also see glimpses of how technology can be a blessing in our fallen state. When Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden, God sewed more durable clothes for them from animal skins. Later, we see God choosing to use the ark, maritime technology, to save Noah’s family as well as animals. But all these technological aids are imperfect and temporary measures. Ultimately it is only through Christ that all things will be fully restored. Indeed, in Genesis 3:15 we read the first hint of the gospel.7
From the beginning, people were given a choice to determine what direction the unfolding of creation would take. We still do today. With each new digital circuit, computer program, or construction project, we exercise both freedom and responsibility. If we misdirect technology, such as pursuing absolute efficiency through technique, there will consequences (as Ellul warned in The Technological Society). Ultimately, when Christ returns, all technology will be directed in obedience to God. Even technologies of destruction, like swords and spears, will be beaten into instruments of cultivation like plowshares and pruning hooks (Micah 4:3).
This has profound implications for the way that technology is taught in a Christian university. A Christian engineering and computer science curriculum must go beyond mere facts and formulas—it will develop disciples who seek to shape the technical possibilities in God’s good creation in responsible ways that honor him.
An earlier version of this article originally appeared in Christian Courier.
- Jacques Ellul, “Technique and the Opening Chapters of Genesis,” in Theology and Technology: Essays in Christian Analysis and Exegesis, eds. Carl Mitcham and Jim Grote (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1984), 126.
- Albert Wolters, “Creation”, Comment, March 1, 2010.
- This idea was developed further in a previous CSR blog titled “The Meaning of Technology”.
- Derek C. Schuurman, Shaping a Digital World: Faith, Culture and Computer Technology(Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013), 33-34.
- Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen, The Drama of Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014), 31.
- Neil Plantinga, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996).
- Bartholomew and Goheen, The Drama of Scripture, 42.
I continue to appreciate your insights from your unique perspective. Thanks for this.
Thanks – glad you find them helpful!
Although not Steve Job’s nor Apple’s intent, every time my iPhone boots and that apple with the bite taken out of it appears on the black screen, it serves as a reminder that despite holding in my hands one of the most technologically advanced devices I have ever owned, life is marred by the Edenic curse. Great article!
When I was teaching intro physics to (mostly) engineering students I would often use Exodus 35: 30 and following verses for opening devotions, “The LORD has chosen Bezalel….and has filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts, to make artistic designs in gold, silver, and bronze,…” as a reminder that a sign of being filled with the Spirit includes more than just “mouthy things” (as my wife has put it).
The difference between us and animals is the creative cognitive abilities He’s given us since we are created not only in His image but also in His likeness, i.e., with the ability to create. A beaver can take branches from trees to create a damn. We can take wood from a tree and process it technologically so that it can be used to build houses and furniture. Composers create symphonies, Shakespeare and others have given us poetry and plays, and on and on .. . .
Very interesting observation.
Very nice thoughts Derek. I always appreciate your insights. I think I’ll share them with my class this morning!
Thanks – I’m glad you found them helpful!