Science in Christian Perspective



Biblical Perspective on Engineering Man-Machine Systems
Edward B. Allen

PBC Information Sciences Company
McLean, Virginia 22 101


From: JASA 30 (March 1978): 42-43.


A man-machine system is the combination of people and machines working together to accomplish some purpose. Some common examples are the family car and its driver, and an airplane and its pilot. An assembly line is also a complex of man-machine systems. Developing such systems is the trade of engineers. The Christian engineer is in a special position to see the rebellion of the world against God, and seeing the evil, he is responsible before his Lord for his witness to the truth and his testimony to the redeeming power of God. The purpose of this Communication is to illustrate how biblical principles apply to the engineering practice of the Christian.

The Rebellion of the World

Let us build us a city, and a tower, whose top may reach onto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. (Genesis 11:4)

A man-machine system reflects the spiritual condition of its builders. It may reflect submission to the Lord, or rebellion.

In Genesis 11, we find the story of a major technological project, the Tower of Babel. The people decided to build a city and a high tower to become famous. When the Lord saw their rebellious attitude, He confounded their language, and the people were scattered. The phrase "reach unto heaven" suggests that the purpose of this project was to make man equal with God. This desire to be self-sufficient, independent of God, is one of the prime expressions of man's sinful nature.

This purpose is also typical of modern man-machine systems. The stated purpose of a computer system is usually "to extend man's abilities." This reflects the deeper purpose of the heart: to be equal with God, "to reach to heaven." A computer data bank is an attempt at "omniscience"; teleprocessing and remote sensing suggest "omnipresence"; computer control of huge machines suggests "omnipotence." Computer systems are often vehicles for man's attempt at technological self-sufficiency. The building materials of the Tower of Babel illustrate striving for self-ufficiency: man-made brick rather than natural materials such as wood or stone. Similarly, computer programs are the epitome of a man-made building material: they are simply ideas. Man keeps trying "to reach to heaven" by his own efforts.

There is also an analogy between Babel and our computerized society in the Lord's judgment against them. The judgment against Babel was confusion; today, much of the complexity and confusion of society has been made possible only by the computer. "To err is human, but it takes a computer to really fool things up."

The similarity between the Tower of Babel and modern computer systems has little to do with the technologies; it lies in the similarity of the heart conditions of their respective builders. The world is still rebelling against the lordship of the Creator, and is using technology to express that rebellion.

In contrast, the engineering practice of the Christian is submitted to the lordship of Christ. In Ephesians 5:8-13 Paul emphasizes that we are to "walk in the light." The grace of God working in the life of the Christian produces goodness, righteousness, and truth, and thus, by contrast, his life will make the rebellion of the world plainly evident. The Christian engineer is to let His light shine.

For ye were sometime darkness, but now are ye light in the Lord: walk as children of light; (For the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness and righteousness and truth;) Proving what is acceptable unto the Lord. (Ephesians 5:8-10)

The Responsibility of the Engineer

And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down out of the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said onto him, Up, make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wnt not what is become of him. (Exodus 32:1)

In Exodus 32 we find the story of the Golden Calf where the children of Israel asked Aaron to make them gods which would lead them out of the wilderness. Aaron took the people's gold and made a Calf. Aaron then led the people in worship of the idol. Moses came down the mountain and found the people dancing before the Calf, and was very angry. When Moses confronted Aaron with his sin, Aaron tried to pass the blame on to the people and tried to minimize his involvement in building the Calf: "then I cast it into the fire, and there came out this calf" (v. 24). Aaron made it sound as if the Calf came out spontaneously. Moses also confronted the people with "Who is on the Lord's side?" and three thousand men died in the ensuing judgment. Finally, Moses interceded for the people before the Lord. The key spiritual truth of his encounter with the Lord is that each person bears the responsibility for his own sin. The people sinned in asking for other gods, and Aaron sinned in making the idol and leading the worship.

This story is comparable to engineering a man-machine system. The people had the role of project sponsor, and Aaron had the role of engineer. His solution to their demands was to build the Golden Calf, but he failed to meet their need, because the Calf was incapable of leading them out of the wilderness. He catered to the rebellious purpose of the people, rather than pointing them to the living God. Aaron's problem is similar to that of the Christian engineer. The world demands a technological savior, but only the living God can solve the world's problems. The real problem is sin. The Christian engineer is often tempted to let the worldly sponsor assume that a man-machine system is a technological savior. It may solve a technical problem, but in reality, no technical system can solve the real problem, sin, Only the grace of God can do that.

The analogy between Aaron and the Christian engineer goes further. After getting caught in a counter-productive project, the Christian engineer is tempted to pass the blame to the boss ("he was in charge"), to the sponsor ("he asked for it"), or to chance ("oops ). However, the spiritual truth still applies: each person is responsible for his own sin.

Even though the Christian engineer faces these temptations, he has the power of Jesus to be victorious over sin. It is the blood of Jesus which completely cleanses him when he falls, and it is the power of the Holy Spirit in his life that makes victory over temptation of a practical reality. Romans 8:11-14 draws the distinction between living after the flesh (our own power) and living by the Spirit (His power). The key principle for the Christian engineer in dealing with the world's demands for a technological savior is to be led by the Spirit.

For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. (Romans 8:14)

 The Lordship Of Jesus

For by him (Jesus) were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible, and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him. (Colossians 1:16)

In the realm of technology, the inventor and the entrepreneur are the image of success. It is always assumed that man is the creator of man-machine systems: the designer invents ideas; the entrepreneur makes things happen. Thus, man takes all the credit for himself.

In Colossians 1:16-22 we find that Jesus is the creator of all, even the technology of modern society. The Christian engineer knows that it is only by the grace of God that men design and build anything, and as head of the church, Jesus is to be glorified in all things, in particular his own work.

in the realm of technology, the two roles of Jesus as Creator and Redeemer complement each other, because every created thing is fulfilled in Him and is reconciled with Him through the cross. God's purpose in creating man-machine systems has been that Jesus be glorified. However, sin has caused alienation between God and creation, so we see many systems that are destructive and oppressive. It is the blood of Jesus that redeems fallen man-machine systems. A man-machine system is redeemed through God's redemption of the engineer who builds it and the people who use it. A system engineered to the glory of God is motivated by a righteous purpose; it is designed around the needs of people; and it is implemented with the highest standards of craftsmanship. A system used to the glory of God is truly beneficial to people and is not oppressive or destructive.

And, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven. (Colossians 1:20).