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

From: George Murphy (
Date: Thu Jun 19 2003 - 13:48:51 EDT

  • Next message: D. F. Siemens, Jr.: "Re: Theological theory evaluation (Was: The forgotten verses)"

    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
    > measurements?
    > * 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?

            Scientific investigation of the world assumes that, in principle, the phenomena
    it considers can be studied by anyone at any time or place. IF - & of course this is a
    major "if" on which much of the debate will focus - God's revelation takes place in
    specific historical events, then that revelation is not accessible to everyone in the
    same sense in which, e.g., the laws of electrodynamics are. If God is revealed in a
    unique way in Jesus of Nazareth, then the witnesses to who he was, what he did, and what
    happened to him are in a privileged position with respect to that revelation.
            This does not mean that the process of understanding the significance of Jesus
    ends with the New Testament writings. It took the church several centuries to develop
    its formal statements about this, and of course theological development still goes on.
    & contrary to what some conservatives think, there is a creative aspect to theology: It
    isn't just an exercise in rearranging biblical statements in the most lucid way. The
    experience of a theologian & his/her culture - including science - will play significant
    roles in this enterprise. But that experience comes into play in interpreting
    revelation. It does not take the place of revelation.
            Thus I think it clouds the issue a bit to state it as a choice between "the
    authority of ancient text or revered theologians of the past" and "a systematic
    reflection on ongoing human experience". What we have to deal with is the question of
    the relationships (if any) between God's historical revelation as witnessed to in
    scripture and general human experience. Specifically, what (if anything) can each tell
    us about God and God's will for the world?

            You will probably not be surprised that I have essentially cast this as the
    question of the relationship between theology based on revelation and natural theology
    (or, if you will, between "special" and "general" revelation). But I think that's what
    it comes down to. My own belief is that while the general human experience of the world
    can enable us (in principle) to understand the world itself through scientific
    investigation, it can tell us about God only when placed in the context of
    special revelation. I've argued for this position several times on this list & my book
    which will be out (God willing) later this year will deal with it at much greater

            This in no sense means that the claim of the authority of scripture is being
    dropped. It is, however, important to be clear about the sense in which it's supposed
    to be authoritative - i.e., as a collection of witnesses to aspects of God's historical


    George L. Murphy

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