Doing Theology as a Servant of Jesus (14): Christian theology aims for truth.

In the past several decades, certain philosophers, literary theorists, and other intellectuals have put forth intellectual programs that are (more or less) relativist. While metaphysical relativists (there is no such thing as truth) are rare, epistemological relativists (we cannot know truth) are on tap in nearly any department on a given American university campus. The central problem with such relativism is obvious (and has been pointed out repeatedly)-the assertion of relativism is itself a purportedly true assertion. In other words, this assertion is self-referentially absurd (difficult to sneak this one past the epistemology police). If we’ve given up on knowing “truth,” we can’t deign to offer relativism as a “truth.” You can’t have it both ways (or, as my grandfather would say, “Let’s not go peeing down both legs”).

In light of the varying shades of relativism that can be found in our Western intellectual context, Christian theology’s claims to have truth (and even “Truth”) are often met with skepticism or even ridicule. Indeed, for many Westerners, this entire blog series lacks even minimal plausibility because the series has been written under the belief that Scripture is revelation from God which provides the true story of the whole world. As we noted, Christian theologians recognize Scripture, tradition, reason, experience, and culture as sources upon which they draw. They integrate the insights given by historical, biblical, philosophical, systematic, and practical theology in order to build an integrative theology which remains in conversation with philosophy, science, and other fields of knowledge. All of this is done in order to provide a unified and coherent account of the truth about God and the world. “The church’s affirmation,” writes Lesslie Newbigin, “is that the story it tells is the true interpretation of all human and cosmic history and that to understand history otherwise is to misunderstand it, therefore misunderstanding the human situation here and now. . . . From age to age, the church lives under the authority of the story that the Bible tells, interpreted ever anew to new generations and new cultures by the continued leading of the Holy Spirit who alone makes possible the confession that Jesus is Savior and Lord.”[1] But what does it mean to say that something is “true”?

Some philosophers set forth a coherence theory of truth.[2] Under this theory, any coherent system of belief counts as a “true” system of belief. Any belief that coheres with the rest of one’s beliefs counts as “true.” The problem with this theory is that one can construct a coherent set of beliefs that has no connection with reality. While the logical coherence of a belief system is a factor one takes into account when judging whether or not such a belief system is true, coherence is not itself constitutive of truth. Other philosophers set forth a pragmatist theory of truth.[3] Under this theory, whichever beliefs prove to be invaluable instruments of action can be counted as true. However, not all true propositions are immediately useful and not all useful propositions are true. Adolf Hitler’s belief system proved to be a valuable instrument of action for him and for Germany’s economy, but his belief system was built upon deeply inhumane falsehoods. While the pragmatic value of a belief system is a factor one takes into account when judging whether or not such a belief system is true, pragmatism is not itself constitutive of truth. In contrast to these theories, Christian theologians traditionally have espoused a correspondence theory of truth. In this view, truth is what corresponds with reality. Truth is independent of the human mind. Even if the human mind cannot recognize a particular truth, the truth of a matter still stands. This view of truth is pre-theoretic and intuitive, rooted in the human experience. We believe this view tallies with the biblical testimony, which teaches that God is truth and that God speaks truth (e.g., John 14:6).

Related to the question of truth is the question of knowledge (epistemology). Can human knowers access objective reality? Some philosophers have espoused naïve realism. In this view, it is assumed that the human knower can directly access objective reality. Naïve realism is called by this name because it naïvely overlooks the obstacles to knowing truth, obstacles such as human idolatry, and the historical and cultural location of the human knower. Other philosophers have held to epistemological nonrealism. In this view, it is assumed that the human knower does not have access to objective reality. In contrast to these two views, we believe that Christian theology best fits with a view known as critical realism.[4] In this view, human knowers are constrained by the limitations of our rational and empirical faculties and by the historical and cultural locatedness of our attempts to gain knowledge. But Christian theologians recognize a further reason that human knowers are limited and fallible: the distortive, corrosive, and ultimately subversive effect of human sin on the mind’s ability to know. In other words, sin has epistemological consequences. While God’s knowledge of reality is comprehensive, therefore, our human knowledge of reality is partial, inadequate, and dependent upon God. N. T. Wright puts it well when he writes that critical realism “acknowledges the reality of the thing known, as something other than the knower (hence, ‘realism’), while also fully acknowledging that the only access we have to this reality lies along the spiraling path of appropriate dialogue or conversation between the knower or the thing known (hence, ‘critical’).”[5] We believe that a critically realist theological method is necessary in order to take full account of the biblical testimony concerning truth and knowledge. What humans can know and say about God is not comprehensive, but it is true, trustworthy, and sufficient for faithful living.[6]

[1] Newbigin, Proper Confidence, 77-78.

[2] Brand Blanshard, “Coherence as the Nature of Truth,” in The Nature of Thought, 2 vols. (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1948), 2:264-269.

[3] William James, Pragmatism (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University, 1975).

[4] Some of the foremost theological proponents of critical realism are David K. Clark, Lesslie Newbigin, and N. T. Wright. See Clark, To Know and Love God; Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995); N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 47-64.

[5] N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 35.

[6] This way of putting it is a slight modification of Spykman, Reformational Theology, 74.

Doing Theology as a Servant of Jesus (13): Further Thoughts on Theology & the Sciences

In any public discussion of Christian theology, could there be a bigger elephant in the room than its relationship to the sciences? And let’s be honest about it: theologians have often been at fault. There are some theologians who ought not to speak so authoritatively about scientific matters because their words make clear that they don’t understand what they are talking about. And there are some scientists who traverse the continents mocking the theologians, but their words make clear that they do not understand Christian theology. (In both cases, it reminds one of a dog walking on its hind legs; it is not done very well, and only for the sake of making a spectacle.) And, for full disclosure: I am not a scientist and therefore hope that I don’t overstep my bounds in this blog (I’d hate to be like a dog walking on its hind legs). However, this series is about theology and, as theologians, it is incumbent upon us to reflect about theological method in relation to the sciences.

As this series has already noted, the discussion about theology’s relation to science has often proven to be divisive, as was made clear when the scientist Galileo was persecuted at the hands of the Pope as well as many Catholic and Protestant theologians, or when Christian theologians today are ridiculed by the scientific establishment. In response to the conflict between theologians and scientists, various views have developed about the relation of theology and science.[1] One view holds that theology and science are overlapping research programs which conflict with one another. Under this view, the two disciplines are inherently opposed to one another and, in most cases, one discipline is believed to be inherently superior to the other. Another view holds that theology and science are non-overlapping research programs which do not conflict. A third view holds that theology and science are overlapping research programs which should remain in conversation and partnership with one another, and which are not inherently conflictive or competitive. The understanding of theology that we have proposed in this series leads us to hold the third view above. The Bible, as God’s word written, is the foundation of our knowledge. From the biblical narrative arises a Christian worldview, which consists of basic beliefs embedded in that narrative. From the Bible and Christian worldview arise two disciplines, systematic theology and Christian philosophy, which give rise to other disciplines such as the natural and social sciences.

This understanding gives rise to the view that theologians and scientists should dialogue with one another and partner together in seeking to understand reality. “Reality is complex,” David Clark writes, “and human knowers access different dimensions of reality using different methods. This is precisely why dialogue among disciplines is important. Dialogue permits us to adopt multiple frames of reference on reality. Still, if truth is unified as we hold, we must seek connections between and integration of these multiple frames of reference.”[2] As Clark goes on to note, theology speaks to science and science speaks to theology. Theology speaks to the sciences by (1) explaining the origin and destiny of the universe, (2) explaining why it is orderly and can be interpreted, (3) explaining why the sciences matter, (4) helping to guide future scientific research, and (5) helping provide warrant for one scientific theory over another.[3] Moreover, science speaks to theology by (1) offering conceptual frameworks and analogies helpful for elucidating theological concepts, (2) helping provide warrant for one theological interpretation over another, and (3) illustrating and providing further explanation of biblical teaching on aspects of created reality.

But if theologians and scientists enter into a mutually beneficial dialogue and partnership, how do we adjudicate in the case of conflict? Under the model proposed in this chapter, theology and science are overlapping areas of study which are not inherently conflictive. A proper interpretation of the Scriptures will not be found in conflict with a proper interpretation of the created order. In light of this truth, we offer three principles for reconciliation in the occasion of disagreement between theologians and scientists.[4] First, either group (theologians or scientists) is subject to error and therefore either group is subject to correction. Both theologians and scientists are finite and fallible human knowers and both are subject to making interpretive mistakes. For example, the Catholic and Protestant church leaders were wrong to condemn Galileo based upon their misinterpretation of Bible passages. Likewise, scientists have been wrong to criticize theologians for their refusal to believe that the earth is not eternal and that it evidences design.[5] Second, science is in a constant state of flux. Scientific hypotheses and conclusions are always changing. For this reason, theologians should be very careful not to hastily revise their interpretation of Scripture based upon a purportedly “proven” scientific fact.[6] Third, Scripture is not intended to be a science textbook. Scripture does not err in what it asserts scientifically, but Scripture does not usually communicate with scientific precision. Based upon these three principles, both scientists and theologians are well-served to hold their exegetical conclusions with appropriate humility.

[1] The three views presented here are best viewed on a continuum. Often, the three views we have presented are divided further, until there are four or more models of the relation between theology and science. See, for example, Richard F. Carlson, ed. Science and Christianity: Four Views (Downers Grove: IVP, 2000).

[2] Clark, To Know and Love God, 284.

[3] This list is a slight modification of Clark’s five points. Clark, To Know and Love God, 287-294.

[4] These three principles are adapted from Norman Geisler’s treatment in Norman L. Geisler, “Science and the Bible,” in Norman L. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 691-692.

[5] An article by theoretical particle physicist Stephen Barr (University of Delaware) provides five examples where scientists have wrongly criticized theologians. Stephen Barr, “Retelling the Story of Science,” in First Things 131 (March 2003), 16-25.

[6] Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3d ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1996), has made clear that science does not always progress rationally, and that it indeed often reverses tracks or finds itself in the midst of irrational and radical paradigm shifts.

Doing Theology as a Servant of Jesus (12): Further Thoughts on Theology & Philosophy

In the last post, we discussed briefly the relationship between Scripture, theology, and other academic disciplines. In this post, we will follow up on one strand of that discussion by discussing the historically enigmatic relation between theology and philosophy. An account of the theological task must provide an account of the relation of these two disciplines. Before doing so, however, one must define this notion of “philosophy,” which can be used in quite different manners. David Clark points out that theologians use the word “philosophy” in at least four different manners.[1] First, philosophy can refer to a person’s philosophy of life, his worldview, his most basic conceptual grid. Under this view, philosophy is a macroperspective which interprets the whole of life. Second, philosophy can refer to an academic discipline which consists of a cluster of sub-disciplines such as logic, metaphysics, epistemology, and aesthetics. Third, philosophy can refer to second-order areas of study that have become academic disciplines with their own integrity. Examples include philosophy of science, philosophy of history, and philosophy of religion. Fourth, philosophy can refer to one’s commitment to critical thinking and argumentation.

When unfolding the relation of theology to philosophy, this post has in mind a combination of the latter three uses of the word philosophy. In our view, Christian philosophy is the attempt to describe systematically the structure of creation (the nature of being, of knowledge, of beauty, etc.), drawing upon God’s self-revelation found in the created order and in the Bible, and using the tools of critical thinking and argumentation. It seeks a comprehensive view of the created order as creation (not merely as “nature”), and draws upon Scripture. Although Scripture does not give a comprehensive or detailed analysis of creational realities, it does provide the framework and many clues for understanding them. Bartholomew and Goheen write, “In our experience, sometimes people get so excited about philosophy-believe it or not-that they forget that it is Scripture which is God’s infallible word. Indeed, in our opinion a healthy Christian philosophy, like a healthy Christian theology, will take us back again and again and deeper and deeper into the Bible. We also believe that because the Bible is God’s Word for all of life that philosophy too must bow to its authority.”[2]

How, therefore, is Christian philosophy related to the task of systematic and integrative theology (such as the type being encouraged in this blog series)? First, philosophy is helpful for conceiving one’s theological method. For example, Christian philosophers can help the theologian articulate the ontology and epistemology that undergird the theological enterprise. Second, the philosophical sub-discipline of logic helps the theologian conceive and articulate each doctrine in a unified and coherent manner, and further to relate the doctrines to each other in a likewise coherent manner. Third, the philosophical sub-discipline of “history of philosophy” can help the theologian understand both the positive and negative developments in intellectual history. Fourth, philosophical tools can help the theologian make a deep-level exegesis of his cultural context. Fifth, philosophical tools can help clear the ground for a person’s conversion, by answering various objections to belief. Sixth, philosophy can assist the theologian in analyzing various aspects of the creational order and of human life, an aspect of the philosophical task to which we now turn.

[1] David Clark, To Know and Love God, 296-299.

[2] Bartholomew and Goheen, Liberating Christian Philosophy, ch. 1.