RE: Theological theory evaluation (Was: The forgotten verses)

From: Alexanian, Moorad (
Date: Thu Jun 19 2003 - 12:20:27 EDT

  • Next message: Jim Armstrong: "Re: Theological theory evaluation (Was: The forgotten verses)"

    The scientific method is nothing but human reasoning applied to the study of the physical universe. Theological/philosophical musing are also governed by the very same human reasoning but the subject matter, what constitutes evidence, and the method of establishing truth or falsehood are different from that of experimental science.


            -----Original Message-----
            From: Jim Armstrong []
            Sent: Thu 6/19/2003 11:58 AM
            To: Howard J. Van Till
            Cc: Asa
            Subject: Re: Theological theory evaluation (Was: The forgotten verses)
            Howard - an interesting and thoughtful response. Timely too, in my case. I had started to write a response to the effect the science per se was not the only place where we use the scientific method (basically just to make the point that science and the scientific method are related, but different critters). I got a little bogged down and had a priority issue to boot and so scratched the response. Good thing! What a nice job you did! Thanks...once again!
            Jim Armstrong
            Howard J. Van Till wrote:

                    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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