Saturday, 28 July 2018

Why theology is not a science (and neither should it be)

We live in a time where science is held in an almost mystical reverence by many people (mostly non-scientists) and this is not new. The result has been that many academic fields that was originally not considered as "science", has either lost their respectable positions  (e.g. various arts, literature and even philosophy) or has tried to present themselves in a more "scientific" guise. This reverence for science (often without really understanding the strength and weaknesses of science) has many unfortunate consequences, including the lack of training by the majority of scientists in basic logic or the philosophy of science, the very presuppositions and assumptions on which all their scientific work is built. To be sure, I can do good science without thinking or understanding the principles on which my scientific method rests (yes, there is not just one "scientific method", in spite of what many scientists think). I simply need to know my own field and the methods used for research in my field.

But the most unfortunate consequence of this lack in philosophical background, has been the rise of "scientism", the belief that only knowledge based on some "science" can be true or worthwhile and that only that which can be investigated using "science" or scientific principles actually exists at all. Just a moment's thought will expose the fallacy of this idea. It means that mathematics (used extensively in all science, but not based on or scientifically proven), logic (used in science, but often also with glaring logic fallacies to be found in scientific publications due to the lack of a solid grounding in basic logic in most science undergraduate programs) the philosophy of science and epistemology (really the foundations of science), and all the historical fields (e.g. history, and archaeology, which do use some scientific tools like carbon dating, but is not and cannot really be called "science" in the modern sense, including the history of science itself) can no longer make any meaningful contribution to knowledge. Philosophy, ethics and theology all obviously becomes superfluous in this "modern scientific" world.

I have for the longest time considered modern "liberal" theology as simply an mask for unbelievers in the Christian community, the mask that hypocrites who no longer believe in Jesus or the God revealed through the Bible, used to hide their unbelief and to pretend to be "good Christians" so that their livelihood would not be under threat (since they are basically paid by the common, believing Christians). A way for them to still be able to call themselves "Christian" or "Christian scholar" or at least "theologian" or "biblical scholar" while simultaneously denying the very fundamentals of the Christians faith. However, I recently realised that at least originally, the early liberal theologians often had totally different motivations. It was for them an attempt to reach "modern" people who had a "scientific" worldview and could no longer believe in the supernatural and miraculous events found throughout the Bible. For them theology and even Christianity was not inherently based on the real existence of a living God and a Jesus who worked wonders or physically rose from the grave, but instead was all about the "ethics" or "spiritual insight" to be found in Christianity. Christianity for them was not about the person of Jesus the Christ, of Nazareth, but about a "historical Jesus" who was not really the Christ "of faith", but who did teach some timeless "truths" that meant that religion and theology was still relevant in the modern word. It was all about saving some kind of "Christianity" or the church and making it acceptable and believable to modern man. In a sense they acted out of love and loyalty, but not loyalty or love for the God and Jesus of the Bible; rather loyalty to the church and love of religion (and maybe their own positions in the religious structures). They tried to change theology to appear more "scientific", to be based on the same presuppositions as "science", so that in this way it could be relevant and meaningful to modern people. But also to a certain extent so that they would escape some of the disdain in which many of their colleagues in the new modern sciences were looking down on their area of expertise, their "queen of the sciences" having been dethroned. When I talk about "modern theology" here, I use the term in the way that Andrew Murray used it: the so-called "liberal theology" of the nineteenth century and its philosophical modern-day descendants, which includes most of "mainstream" theology taught in most (Dutch) reformed theology faculties in South African universities (see Die Moderne Teologie.pdf).

I have always maintained that if God (the God of the Bible) truly exists, He would in no way be the proper subject of science. He is the Creator of all nature, so there is no way that the methodologies and approach developed to investigate the natural world, would be appropriate or able to investigate a Person so great. He is claimed to be the Creator of all the "laws of nature" painstakingly being discovered by the natural sciences, so how does it make sense that He would Himself in any way be subject to the very laws that He created? Why should a methodology developed so that we can find these regularities in nature tell us anything about the Creator of these laws? The methods and assumptions of the natural sciences for investigating creation, are simply irrelevant to investigating the existence, nature and character of the Creator. Instead, historically the foundations of the natural sciences were based on the philosophical foundation of the God of the Bible (combined with Greek philisophy - Science is based on a foundation of logic, philisophy, mathematics and yes, even theology, rather than the other way round. The reason why the Christian worldview provided the basis for science is twofold:

  1. Christianity postulated that one single God, a God of order and laws, created all of nature and that therefore nature was subject to these laws. This was in contrast to polytheism that postulated different (often capricious) gods ruling over different parts of nature and often in opposition to each other, so that there was no reason to suppose that nature could be predicted using certain laws. This was also in contrast to ancient atheism which could provide not basis to suppose that nature would not simply be chaotic, with anything and everything simply the result of chance and randomness and no reason to presuppose laws of nature that can be used to predict how nature works.
  2. Christianity postulated that nature is just the creation of God and is in no way divine itself. This meant that we were free to investigate and study all aspects of nature in contrast to those religions that held that nature itself was divine and above us, so that as mere humans it would be irreverent to study nature as just an object. Because our God and Father had created nature, as Christians we were not only free, but actually encouraged to study his handiwork as a way to bring more glory to Him, the Creator.

I recently realised that there is another and very important way why modern "liberal" theology is not and should never be considered as a "science" or "scientific". While in science it is true that we "stand on the shoulders of giants", our current knowledge and new discoveries are based on the results of previous research, it is also a basic part of science that the foundations and previous claims are frequently re-examined and retested. And it is this aspect, the repeated experiments or retesting of current theories and hypotheses, that is lacking in modern theology. The "JEDP hypothesis" of the origins of the first 5 books of the Bible, which should have been rejected long ago based on archaeological and other evidence, is still with us in new and modern guises. The fact that we now know from the archaeology how ancient documents in the Near East were copied and changed by their copyists over time, and that this actual evidence shows absolutely nothing like the claimed process of the JEDP hypotheses, is simply ignored by most (all?) modern theologians. The typical feedback and re-examination of evidence that is so important for modern science, is simply absent. Instead, ever-more complex, new hypotheses are simply built on the foundations of previous hypotheses, with little or no new evidence and little or no examination of the basic foundations or assumptions themselves  - it gets refined and expanded, but the hypothesis itself is never seriously subjected to testing and compared to the alternatives. It is well-known by now in the history of religion, that nothing like the pseudo-evolutionary process of religious "development" originally proposed by theory behind the JEDP hypothesis ever occurred... this real, actual evidence is simply ignored in favour of a theoretical framework into which all evidence are simply pressed to fit or else just ignored. It is claimed that writing and literature could not exist in Israel before the existence of a sophisticated monarchy on theoretical grounds, and the actual evidence of literacy and development of alphabetical writing itself among Asiatic slaves and miners in Egypt, simply ignored! The one exception to this uncritical acceptance of theoretical claims without evidence, for which theologians no doubt congratulate each other, is the "traditional" supernatural viewpoint of the Bible as describing real events and a living God, active in history. This is the one hypothesis in theology where no punches are pulled and of which nobody can be sceptical enough. I have no problem with the fact that we should not be gullible in theology and examine everything critically... this approach is actually encouraged in the Bible ("But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good;" - 1 Thess.5:21). What I am saying is that the major problem in modern theology is exactly that they do not critically examine everything. Only one hypothesis (that the God of the Bible actually exists as He is revealed in the Bible) is regularly subjected to critical examination, while the alternative hypotheses are not subjected to nearly the same level of scepticism. Modern theology is a pseudo-science, not primarily because it attempts to investigate a Person who would not legitimately be the object of scientific study if He truly exists, but because it is too eager to accept uncritically the alternative hypotheses and isolates itself from the many new discoveries in other fields (like archaeology) and its implications - See On the Reliability of the Old Testament. It pretends to be scientific while showing the same uncritical reverence for "science" that used to be shown for God, not understanding the methodology and limitations of science and evidence even in related fields like archaeology and history. Most importantly, it commonly accepts or illegitimately uses the argument from silence - if there is no external confirming evidence of an event, it is considered as evidence that it did not happen (there is a legitimate argument from silence, but again, there is little evidence that most theologians can distinguish between the two).

Science cannot investigate the supernatural. Its methods were developed to investigate and discover the laws of nature and the natural world, working according to unchanging and predictable laws. By pretending to be scientific in adopting naturalistic assumptions (that there is no super-natural or that we cannot investigate the supernatural), it adopts the weakness of science, but without the strength of science in being truly self-correcting when the evidence is in contradiction to our hypotheses or theories... this makes it a pseudo-science. If theology ever hopes to again be worthy of a title equal to "queen of the sciences", it should unapologetically recover the supernatural as part of its field of study, at least as a legitimate possibility to be investigated, and truly develop a new methodology by which various supernatural claims can be tested and examined carefully; holding fast and accepting only the good and rejecting all evil and falsehood.

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