From: Howard J. Van Till (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Date: Thu Jun 19 2003 - 11:03:48 EDT
I had asked:
>>How many on this list would identify "derivable from the designated
>>authoritative text" as one of the primary evaluation criteria for the
>>evaluation of theological theories?
Terry Gray replied:
> Count me in on this one. That's what the authority and sufficiency of
> scripture means in my mind.
Thanks, Terry, for the (not unexpected) reply. Here's the background for my
earlier question. My apologies for its length, but I would be interested in
the comments of a few people willing to read to the end.
There was a time in the early history of science when appeal to authority
(often in the form of written text) was an accepted way of answering some
questions. In the extreme it might be characterized: "Got a question about
the natural world? Go to the writings of Aristotle to find the answer."
There is still a limited place for appeal to scientific authority today (say
in portions of the educational enterprise), but the sciences have learned
well by experience that appealing to authority is no way to learn anything
new about the natural world. Galileo and others have demonstrated the value
of the empirical approach in science and the need to employ the full range
of human experience in the quest for learning. Got a question about the
natural world? Good, then systematically investigate the natural world to
find an answer. Perform relevant observations, measurements and/or
experiments to see what the natural world is actually like and what it
actually does. Formulate scientific theories about some phenomenon and
evaluate these theories on the basis of a number of criteria that have, over
time, demonstrated their fruitfulness in identifying and selecting the best
available theory or in suggesting areas where the modification or
replacement of a theory might be called for.
The formulation and evaluation of theories is one of the core activities of
contemporary science. Examples of historically fruitful theory evaluation
criteria in the sciences include:
* Observational relevance. Is the theory vulnerable to affirmation or
falsification by observational data?
* Predictive accuracy. How well do a theory¹s predictions compare with what
is observed or measured?
* Coherence. Is the theory under scrutiny internally consistent? Is it also
consistent with other theories considered to be well supported?
* Explanatory scope. Does the theory apply to a broad range of phenomena, or
is it confined to a very narrow class of phenomena?
* Unifying power. Does the theory under scrutiny serve to unify several
theories of limited scope into one more comprehensive framework?
* Fertility. Does a theory suggest and stimulate further experiments or
* Aesthetic qualities. Does the theory display aesthetic qualities such as
simplicity, elegance, beauty, and the like?
But science is not the only discipline in which theories are formulated and
evaluated. Similar activities are also performed in theology. The question I
pose for consideration is, What is the basis for the formulation of
theological theories, and on what criteria are theological theories
evaluated? In a recent essay, "Retelling the Story of Science," theoretical
physicist Stephen M. Barr made a comment relevant to this concern. "The
scientist," said Barr, "must submit his mind to the data of experiment, the
theologian must submit his to the data of revelation." (First Things, March,
2003, p. 19) Some theologians might well challenge Barr¹s comparison of
science and theology, but he is certainly not the only person to make such
an assessment. For the moment, let us take it as accurate.
If the data of theology is "revelation," where is that revelation to be
found? Is it confined to the words of some ancient sacred text? Many members
of religious communities assume that it is. If so, then theological theories
are formulated from interpretations of that text and evaluated on the basis
of their faithfulness to that written authority. The primary theory
evaluation strategy in theology would appear to be the familiar appeal to an
authority represented in written text.
If that is the case, is that a desirable state of affairs, or would there be
some merit in reexamining the practice of theory evaluation now prevalent in
theology? It seems clear that the natural sciences advanced by abandoning
their early dependence on appeals to textual authority and by adopting a
theory evaluation program based instead on the relationship of theory to our
human experience‹especially to experience rooted in systematic observation,
measurement, and experiment. Is there a similar advance available to
theology? Would it be desirable to explore this possibility?
Specifically, if theological theories were to be evaluated on the basis of
criteria rooted, not in appeals to the authority of ancient text or revered
theologians of the past, but in a systematic reflection on ongoing human
experience, including the experience of scientific investigation, what might
those evaluation criteria look like? Is there a way for theology to gain
from the experience of science regarding the value of moving from an
authority-based theory evaluation strategy to an experience-based strategy?
Howard Van Till
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