Friday, March 9, 2018

A Call for a Return to Theology as a Science

Theologian Richard Hooker was one of the most influential English Clergymen of the 16th Century. King James I was quoted by Hooker's biographer as saying, "I observe there is in Mr. Hooker no affected language; but a grave, comprehensive, clear manifestation of reason, and that backed with the authority of the Scriptures, the fathers and schoolmen, and with all law both sacred and civil." John Locke quoted Hooker repeatedly in his Second Treatise on Civil Government and was greatly influenced by Hooker's staunch defense of reason.

It is Richard Hooker who defined Theology as “the science of things divine.” And indeed the very word “Theology” contains the same suffix used in many branches of science, such as biology and geology. The suffix “logy” is in fact a latinized form of the same root as the Greek “Logos”. Logos is translated “Word” in the first chapter of the gospel of John when it says “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” but I need hardly tell this distinguished group that it means so much more than “word”. It refers to the very essence of rational discourse which is a hallmark of science.

Even though we speak of what we do as “Science” historically the study of the universe and the biota and material things in it have been considered to be the “Natural Sciences”. This is in contrast to the “Social Sciences” which include such things as Sociology. I might as well throw in the “Applied Sciences” such as Engineering.

My point is that “Natural Science” was not originally and should not be now the only kind of science which exists. Disciplines of study which use the Scientific Method to ascertain truth can and once were considered to be forms of science. The Scientific Method consists of noticing some puzzle or problem, or paradox, and proposing a hypothesis which is offered to solve or explain it. This hypothesis is then tested in some way which either confirms or rejects the hypothesis. The conclusion is based on the results so obtained. Often the conclusion calls for more testing to further refine our understanding. Reason is the primary tool used at each step of this process.

Back in Richard Hooker’s day, Theology was considered another branch of science. This was because the approach to truth discovery was in essence the same, in particular before experiments in Natural Science became more systematized. Many institutions of higher learning, even to this day, offer degrees in the “Science of Theology”.

The natural sciences studied the physical universe. Theological Science studied God and His Word. Both areas of science had their premises- starting points which were not challenged but rather assumed to be true as a necessary pre-condition to their work. For example, in natural sciences we assume events in the natural universe happen in accordance with laws which are discoverable and unchanging. If we didn’t believe that, none of our tests would be worth doing- they would not bring us any useful information. We assume some things about the universe are true. We assume the universe reflects the true state of reality and is not lying to us, though we can misunderstand it for a very long time. This is a part, the less objectionable part, of what is called “Methodological Naturalism”.

The Science of Theology also has its premises. That God exists, that the Bible is divinely inspired, that the three great Creeds of the Church are true. Like nature to the natural scientist, scripture also reflects the truth of reality, a higher reality, and it is not lying to us, though we can misunderstand it for a very long time. These are the premises of Theology, at least they were in Hooker’s day.

Now the natural sciences have made a great deal of progress in explaining and understanding our natural world since the 16th century. Though they kept the same premises in those four or five centuries, their particulars were constantly being challenged and refined. Sometimes they wound up changing course abruptly if new insight or new evidence demanded it. But because the practitioners did this, as time went on they got closer and closer to the “actual” truth. Their course corrections are legion but they get smaller and smaller as time goes on.

What I fear has happened to Theology is that many corners of the church have quit it altogether. Oh they may still use the word, but the “logy” has left it. The process by which the truth is honed and refined is long absent because the particulars are too seldom challenged from the inside even as the premises are being increasingly and unfairly savaged from the outside. In the natural sciences challenging and improving on existing particulars is strongly encouraged. In the clerical institutions conformity to what has been handed down is the singular pathway to advancement.  

One of my great fears for natural science, as science becomes more systematized and standardized, is that too many particulars will be shoe-horned into posing as premises. Then less and less will be on the table for improvement and natural science will risk becoming stagnated, however long its good run. We must have our premises, but to declare everything we think that we know a premise is to risk an end to further rational inquiry in that area even if it turns out not to best way to describe reality. Most ideas ought to remain particulars.

I do not suggest that the Church re-think its premises any more than I would suggest those of us in the Natural Sciences waste time continually re-examining our premises. But I would urge the church to re-think some of its particulars, just as practitioners of the natural sciences have done to great effect for the last few centuries. At least some in the church should have the calling, and the duty, to see if they might bring the particulars of their fellowship into greater and greater conformity with the reality of the subject matter- in this case the Word of God.

I am calling on some of you to become the Richard Hookers of our generation. I am calling for a return to the Science of Theology in order to improve humanity's understanding of God’s Word in light of the new things we have learned, both about scripture and about the natural world in the last four centuries. There is a great need of you. As Natural Science has raced ahead over the last four centuries theology has become stagnant. I believe its premises are still true, but its particulars have not improved through the rigors of the proto-scientific method which was so characteristic of the men who founded the great strains of Christian thought.

There are presently some findings from natural science which have troubling implications to some particulars of most of the church regarding Adam. I do not view these challenges to the particulars as upending the premises of the Christian Faith. When scientists get an unexpected result in one of their experiments in the natural sciences, they remain confident in their premises even while they re-consider a given particular. So should the church.

Of course Early Genesis, the Revealed Cosmology already has scripture-grounded solutions to the problems I refer to. What we need from you is to do theological science. To examine these and other proposed solutions, and compare them to your own observations from the text. Then reject, accept, or refine them according to a reasonable accounting of scripture.

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