Erkki Sutinen (University of Turku, Finland)
Anthony-Paul Cooper (Durham University, UK & University of Turku, Finland)

Digital Theology: A Computer Science Perspective

ISBN: 978-1-83982-535-4, eISBN: 978-1-83982-534-7

Publication date: 27 July 2021


Sutinen, E. and Cooper, A.-P. (2021), "Prelims", Digital Theology: A Computer Science Perspective, Emerald Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. i-xiii.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2021 Erkki Sutinen and Anthony-Paul Cooper

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University of Turku, Finland


Durham University, UK & University of Turku, Finland

United Kingdom – North America – Japan – India – Malaysia – China

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Emerald Publishing Limited

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First edition 2021

© 2021 Erkki Sutinen and Anthony-Paul Cooper. Published under exclusive licence by Emerald Publishing Limited. Illustrations © Tuuli Bell.

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ISBN: 978-1-83982-535-4 (Print)

ISBN: 978-1-83982-534-7 (Online)

ISBN: 978-1-83982-536-1 (Epub)


List of Tables, Figures and Illustrations ix
List of Abbreviations xi
Acknowledgements xiii
1. Introduction: Towards a Dialogue of the Theological and the Computational 1
1.1. Meeting the Increasing Demand for Digital Theology 2
1.2. Computer Science Point of View on Digital Theology: Designing Digital Solutions for Theological Challenges 4
1.3. How Digital Transformation Shapes Digital Theology 5
1.4. Technology and Power Issues: Top-down or Bottom-up? 6
1.5. How to Use this Book 7
1.6. A Field of Scholarship Rooted in Practice 9
2. What is Digital Theology? 13
2.1. Existing Definitions of Digital Theology 14
2.1.1. Steinhart (2012) 14
2.1.2. Kolog, Sutinen and Nygren (2016) 15
2.1.3. Phillips, Schiefelbein-Guerrero and Kurlberg (2019) 15
2.1.4. Cooper, Mann, Sutinen and Phillips (2021) 16
2.2. Offering a New Definition From a Computer Science Perspective 17
2.3. Examples of Digital Theology Research, Projects and Applications 17
2.3.1. Online Church Services 17
2.3.2. Online-only Churches 19
2.3.3. Online Christian Communities 19
2.3.4. Virtual, Augmented and Extended Reality Church 20
2.3.5. Bible Apps and Bible in a Year Apps/Plug-ins 23
2.3.6. Online Christian Dating 25
2.3.7. Life Before Death 26
2.3.8. Use of Emojis and Emoticons in Religious Discourse 28
2.3.9. Digital Theology Research 28
2.3.10. Online Theology Vocational Training 30
2.3.11. Church Leadership and Management Technology 31
3. Why Explore Digital Theology? 33
3.1. Ubiquitous Theology 34
3.2. Innovating or Innovative Theology 38
3.3. Crowd-sourcing Theology 41
3.4. Mobile Theology 44
3.5. Sustainable Theology 46
3.6. Big Data Theology 49
3.7. Artificially Intelligent Theology 51
3.8. Context-aware (or Adaptive) Theology 52
3.9. Universal Access Theology 53
3.10. e-Theology 55
3.11. Summarising the Why: What would Aristotle Say of Digital Theology? 56
4. How to Research Digital Theology? 61
4.1. General View 61
4.1.1. What: (Post-)Positivistic Orientation and Quantitative Approach 62
4.1.2. Why: Interpretive Orientation and Qualitative Approach 62
4.1.3. How: Building Digital Solutions – Orientation and Design Science Research 62
4.1.4. Action: Emancipatory Orientation and Action Research 63
4.2. Encyclopaedia of Example Digital Theology Research Methods 63
4.2.1. Quantitative Surveys 63
4.2.2. Statistical Analyses 64
4.2.3. Machine Learning 65
4.2.4. Qualitative Interviews 67
4.2.5. Focus Groups 68
4.2.6. Ethnographies 69
4.2.7. Phenomenography 71
4.2.8. Grounded theory 72
4.2.9. Qualitative Surveys 72
4.2.10. Case Studies 74
4.2.11. Observations 75
4.2.12. Design Science 76
4.2.13. Mixed Methods 76
4.2.14. Social Media Research 77
4.3. Tools 81
4.3.1. Data Collection and Analysis 81
4.3.2. Software development 82
4.4. Ensuring Quality in Digital Theology Research 83
4.4.1. Quality Assurance 83
4.4.2. Ethical Principles for Digital Theology 83
5. What Might the Future of Digital Theology Look Like? 91
5.1 Factors Shaping the Future of Digital Theology 91
5.2. Narrative of the Interplay of Tensions 95
5.2.1. Setting the Scene 96
5.2.2. Complexities of the Drama 106
5.2.3. Where From and Where To? 114
5.3. Tasks of Digital Theology in the Foreseeable Future 117
5.4. Real-life Laboratories for Designing Digital Theology Applications 117
5.5. A Computer Scientist Challenging a Theologian 119
5.6. Can Digital Theology Provide Theology or Computer Science a Paradigm Shift? 121
6. Conclusion 127
References 129
Index 135

List of Tables, Figures and Illustrations

Table 1. Technology Attributes Shaping the Expectations from Digital Theology. 35
Table 2. Sacred Spaces, Places and Realities. 37
Table 3. Digital Sacred Reality Generated by Space and Time. 38
Table 4. Aspects of Gamification for Enhancing Awareness of Another Culture and Their Missiological Relevance. 54
Table 5. Four Causes of Digital Theology. 57
Table 6. The Ethical Principles of the ACM Presented Alongside Consideration of Relevance to Digital Theology and Examples of Scenarios within the Field of Digital Theology. 85
Table 7. African Megatrends’ Impact on the Future of Digital Theology. 93
Table 8. Key Resources and Practices of Ages and Their Relevance to Digital Theology. 104
Table 9. Examples of the Changing Role of Technology. 108
Table 10. Future Challenges of Digital Theology by Technical and Conceptual Tasks. 118
Table 11. Conservative and Reformative Uses of Digital Technology in Theological Disciplines. 121
Fig. 1. Quadrants of Digital Theology. 94
Fig. 2. Dependences Caused by Theology and Technology. 111
Illustration 1. 23
Illustration 2. 26
Illustration 3. 28
Illustration 4. 98
Illustration 5. 100

List of Abbreviations

Abbreviation Refers To Further Information
ACM Association for Computing Machinery
AR Augmented reality
CDIO Conceive, design, implement and operate in engineering education
COVID-19 Coronavirus disease 2019
ERP Enterprise resource planning
FOI Freedom of information
GPU Graphics processing unit
ICT Information and Communication Technology
ICT4D Information and Communication Technologies for Development
IoT Internet of Things
IT Information technology
ITU International Telecommunication Union
MOOC Massive open online course
OGD Open government data
RDI Research, development and innovation
SDG Sustainable development goal
STEM Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (education)
STEAM Science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (education)
T4 Theology for
UN United Nations
VR Virtual reality
W3C World Wide Web consortium
XR Extended reality


Erkki compiled the text at the Future Technology Lab of the University of Turku in Windhoek, Namibia. He is thankful for the inspiring and encouraging discussions with his Namibian colleagues and students, and University of Turku for sending him to Africa to learn and understand the potential of the Global South, also in Digital Theology. The colleagues and students left behind in Finland tolerated his absence and delayed responses. Erkki is grateful for the support and love of his wife Päivi for opening up to new challenges, even when this required a remote marriage or commenting upon the draft of the book while ill in bed, and his grown-up children and the three granddaughters for their patience with a travelling father and grandfather. He dedicates his part of the book to his elderly mother Irmeli Sutinen, a teacher and a pastor, who always keeps on reminding him of the importance of writing books, especially those that have a mission and a message – hopefully this one has both.

Anthony-Paul would like to extend warm thanks to his parents, Wayne and Diane Cooper, and grandparents, Jack and Norma Holland, for their support and words of advice over the past few years spent exploring Digital Theology and investigating the applications of social media data to research questions within this emerging field.

Erkki and Anthony-Paul would also like to extend thanks to their various research partners and co-authors for the inspiration and assistance they have provided during that time – David Goodhew, Peter Phillips, Lorenzo Cantoni, Esko Kähkönen, Reijo E. Heinonen, Emmanuel Awuni Kolog, Joshua Mann, Ilkka Jormanainen, Tomi ‘bgt’ Suovuo, Samuli Laato, Eeva Nygren, Suvi Nenonen, Nicholas Pope, David Tjiharuka, Annastasia Shipepe, Jonas Kurlberg, Kauna Mufeti, and the late Timo Honkela. They are also very grateful to Tuuli Bell for the illustrations which she provided for this book.

Both authors are indebted to Professor Emeritus Jorma Tarhio for his insightful review and suggestions on the manuscript, and Dr Mikko Apiola for his comments.


The Covid pandemic which began in early 2020 has changed our view of the world in many ways. It is a reminder of our vulnerability in the face of the natural world and a time of deep sadness for many people. But it also accelerated a change in the way that churches interact with the digital environment. Broadcasting of services on the web became the norm rather than the preserve of mega churches. Small groups no longer met over tea and biscuits in the living room of a house but over Zoom and the constant refrain of ‘you are on mute’. Pastoral conversations were offered by church leaders on digital platforms and the guardians of faith and order had to consider whether communion could be done online.

These questions of mission, liturgy, community and discipleship have been talked about for over a couple of decades by digital enthusiasts and by those who have been excluded from church life on grounds of accessibility. But for many in the church these questions were not seen to be central to our understanding of the mission of God in the world. Many were quick to skim the surface using the technology of the web to advertise the church coffee morning or to provide cheap broadcast videos to support various ministries. Few people took seriously the complex texture and potential of this digital space and what we could learn about human nature and agency. Only a small number of prophetic voices engaged with the theological questions of what we could say about God in all of this – where we could see in the Athens of the digital environment the presence of the ‘unknown God’ and ‘that the God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands’ (Acts 17:23–24).

This would have been a prophetic book even if the pandemic had not happened. With the pandemic and the lessons we need to learn from it, the book has urgency and even more importance. Its authors take us through the emerging field of digital theology with passion and expertise. Indeed any emerging field needs this type of book to inform, guide, critique and point forward. They combine academic rigour with accessibility. But this is far from just an interesting read. It is an exciting manifesto for the digital theologian, the digital congregation and the Christian who wants to live the Lordship of Christ in everyday life which is now so digital.

It is essential that Christians, church leaders and church structures do not sleep walk or be catapulted into a very different world without identifying that God is already present and at work. However, we have got into it, the gift of the digital environment can and should be used for the glory of God.

David Wilkinson

St John's College, Durham University

June, 2021.