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Theology as a Science

Jessup Think
Jessup Think
Theology as a Science

Mark and Rex examine whether theology should be considered a science. The pair surveys the historical and linguistic issues surrounding the question.


Hey, welcome to Jessup think I’m one of your hosts, Mark Moore

and Mark’s co hosts Rex Gurney.

There we go. And today I’m really excited about this episode, I could have talked for five hours on this episode. Maybe even more, there’ll be subsequent episodes that come out of this episode, I feel sounds good already. I can already see it happening. But we’re gonna be we’re excited to look at theology as a science and kind of pose like, Can theology be considered a scientific endeavor? Should it be considered scientific endeavor? What does that even mean? And what the implications

are? If it is,

so we really hope you engage in this, there’s going to be some German names. There, there is going to be some even spelling and

spelling tests at

the end. So hope you enjoy. So I’ve been working on a journal article, actually, uh huh. And it was a position paper. So I was invited to write this. Write the article, and it was covering a question that I thought was interesting. And so to kind of bring it up on the, on the show, get your thoughts on this, but the question was, whether the study of theology could be considered or should be considered a scientific endeavor. And so I was I was intrigued by that, you know, I’m not a scientist by any means. And Rmi. Yeah. Hey, very cool. That’s close. It

totally has skipped a generation, if not more. There we go.

Yeah, I could, I could probably even say I didn’t go very far in science at all. In schooling,

it was really bad. My father was a chemist, and I got a D high school chemistry to class did you have to hide that? Well, I went to him for help wives. And he just looks at me and he takes his old college textbook out, blows the dust off of it, and just slams it down in front of me. And I go, this is not helping me. But I know I need to be an English major.

Right? Yeah, that’s, that’s I had two key moments in my life. And it was physics, and then calculus. And when I was in both classes at the same time, in my senior year in high school, and I was like, yep, this isn’t for me. This is not my world. I’m gonna go. Right? That’s right. Yeah. So yeah, we get we get English and theology and history. That’s why we get, but

the very fact that we can even do this podcast is because there are people that actually pass calculus, right.

Physics and Exactly. So we are indebted to them. Yes, that’s right. We support him. 100%. Exactly. But when you when you kind of hear that question, what are maybe some first things that come to your mind? Like, can should the study of theology be considered a scientific endeavor?

Well, I’m actually I think it opens up some broader questions in the role of science and faith and in the academy right now, pretty much right, you know, used to be even land grant universities, even state universities back in the day would have theology departments that didn’t last very long, but in the 1800s, they would Yeah. And now you rarely will find the theology department in anything but perhaps some faith based colleges. And what you will find a religious studies departments, yes, you can study religion as a social science. But theology is not considered in the realm of whatever sciences, I don’t know, if science deals with what’s real, then apparently, theology, people’s mind doesn’t deal with what’s real. airgo It’s not a science airgo. Right. And that, that just opens up all sorts of things about what you can teach, and even public schools in high school now. So this has a lot of really broad implications.

Yeah, it does. And it’s kind of it’s kind of interesting. I, you know, when I meet different people, in different areas of my life, you know, outside of the school, you know, I’m like, I teach it with just mirrors and always like, Hey, what do you teach? And I’m like, theology, and they’re like, Oh, it’s kind of like a lottery game, you know, because it does kind of expose this difference between what you can maybe study and know, and I think sometimes they have questions like, what do you teach about, like, how do you teach about theology? Right, and right, and so when I kind of approached this question, you know, when I was asked, I kind of saw that same thing where it was, does bring up kind of broader questions. And it also feels like there’s a little bit of a motive behind the question, like, in that mode of being, that our culture has a stress on science and scientific knowledge. And we’ll talk linguistically because we’re using that word in a certain way that hasn’t always hasn’t always been that way. That’s

Five vocabulary is really important. What do you mean by what you say? Exactly?

Very important, especially when you’re in a conversation with your wife, I encourage you to bring that up. I always that’s where I get into trouble the most. I’m like, No, what do you really mean by that word, and choosers, like don’t even don’t even go there? I’m like, I’m sorry. I can’t help it. It’s just what I do. But with that, yeah, like, so that word, we’re using it. But for me, the question kind of exposes that dichotomy between what we would call scientific knowledge and face right or religious,

how does one actually encounter knowledge or discover now, right? Yeah. Is there? Is there a way that you can, you know, there’s metaphysics give, you know, or theology give you any access to real knowledge? Or is real knowledge circumscribed by discovery through the scientific method, which is what a lot of people think right now. And that has all kinds of implications all over the place.

And it really does. And what is interesting for me when I started kind of digging into this question, to find that this isn’t the first time this question has been asked. Right, right. Like, it seems like because of the tension between science and faith, and and what’s happening now, it seems like all this is a very timely question. But when you look at it, wow. Since really, since the 13th century, right, this question has been raised and and Aquinas raises in his Summa, raise it kind of in question one right. I

noticed that in your excellent paper.

Thank you. Thank you. That he did well, you know, on all see, we’ll see how excellent it is. You know, when you’re writing some you go through those waves where you’re like, Hey, I think this is work. And then you’re like, this is the worst thing I’ve ever done in my life. I think this actually makes sense. Yeah. So I’m on one of the up waves right now. So let me stay there. Stay up wave. I

was completely on ironic mark on our mission. That’s true. Thank

you. Thank you. But yeah, so Aquinas tackles it right away. And he kind of clearly affirms science, theology should be considered a sign. Well, if Sciences

is, I guess, in the 13th century use of the word, sort of learning the rules of nature and codifying them then. Yeah, if in Aquinas his viewpoint and mine, actually, and I’m sure yours if the God of nature is behind the rules of nature, then Ergo speaking about the God of nature, can can be a scientific endeavor, right? It’s the difference between principles and secondary causes. But they’re linked there. So yeah, so theology can be you can use scientific language for theology.

Yeah, and, exactly, and even language wise, when Aquinas is using the word science, he’s, he’s kind of coming off of that latin word, scientists, which means knowledge. And that’s, that is the root word for our English word science, right? But when we we use science now, we mean, what are also called in the hard sciences or natural sciences, chemistry, biology, or anything studying the observable world. Right. Right. And, and so that was, for me, really interesting that so when Aquinas is asking this question, it’s really a question of knowledge. Right? Can the study of theology be considered knowledge, gaining knowledge and and Aquinas, very much influenced by Aristotle said yes. And based it on Aristotle’s view of science, science as a system of kind of logical deduction of, of kind of first principles received. And so for Aquinas, it’s a derived science. And it’s derived from those first principles. The first principles, though, for theology happened to be given by God and divine revelation, not something we observe. And and, and so that’s where he was. And it is also noted that even when Aquinas said it was debated amongst his, his, you know, cohort as well, but I thought it was Oh, that’s interesting. That question is popping up. And actually before Aquinas, kind of our earlier church fathers, a Gustin actually separated theology or and he wouldn’t have used the term theology that is kind of a medieval terminology. But I guess in the study of God, he separated it from science, and he viewed it more as wisdom, wisdom or suspense. Yeah. And, and so he and he thought

science studied that temporal world, but God was the eternal world, right, the greater. And so Aquinas kind of comes in and changes that a little bit where it’s both wisdom and knowledge and wisdom, I would assume would would be related to first principles and knowledge to secondary causes, which which are observable and Ryan can use. I don’t know if he would use this language, but what later in the Enlightenment, and after the scientific revolution, they would call what we would call the scientific method. But both things are legitimate with Aquinas,

right. Right. And

somewhere along the line that that actually fractured?

Yeah. It really did. And at least in the academy, yeah. And that’s, that’s the other thing that is because you kind of jumped from the 13th century to the 19th century. And you jump from France to Germany. Right. Right. And in that the context is the same, though, because Aquinas is having this conversation as the French universities are being formed University. Yeah, University of Paris. And and that was the question of, should theology be a part of the university? Same thing in 19th century Germany? with guys like schleiermacher, which I heard you have a good slap actually

have a great slide Microsoft. So when I was getting my PhD, I actually had to take a one whole semester seminar on schleiermacher. Nice and, and I had never actually heard of him until I went to Union in Virginia. It did. Yeah. Yeah. Just anyway, Baptists. That’s

a lot of schleiermacher. Neither did my Wesley.

But since I was using that word a lot because I was having to read his I forgive him forgot what the glob and something or other in German his his systematic theology. Yeah. The Christian faith, I think, is the English translation. And since I was using sly marker so much, and so my son, Carl, who at the time was maybe four, head had made this picture of this really elaborate little fish. And my wife asked him, so what kind of fish is this, and he looks at her and I was in the room at the same time, he says, This is my beautiful schleiermacher fish. So at least he thought the word was interesting enough to tell officious like, Oh, my gosh, that is awesome. I did not tell this story to my professor.

He would not find it. Right? That is a great schleiermacher schleiermacher fish I need to I need to invade is a great name.

To be able to spell it

right. Oh, man. I know it is.

There’s a lot of levels as bad as Nietzsche. But

yeah, just give up. Yeah, I and he and I actually

will sometimes just put in, and it’s like the end guy like you get it. You know, I’m talking about

before schleiermacher. The question was the same thing it was it was actually the formation of the University of Berlin. And he was he was asked along with some other guys to kind of give their opinion on Hey, what should and so he kind of vouched for theology should be a part of the Academy, it should be considered a science, again, science in a broad term, right. So Aquinas is using it in the broad for schleiermacher. That that German word right. vison shot, right, is is a larger view of science, not just the hard sciences, or not just the natural sciences. And and so his argument was, and I love the title, and the English translation of the title of his kind of treaties about this was occasional thoughts on universities in the German sense. People used to have a long

title as if she knew what the books were about, right? Yeah,

you’re like, Hey, I know exactly what this is about. He’s not hiding it. And for schleiermacher theology was a science. And he called it a positive science or practical science. Right? Right. And that it was a critical inquiry that cultivates human knowledge. So again, we come back to that knowledge.

Part of human knowledge has practical implications. Yeah. For individuals. Yeah. for social groups. Yeah.

for society, and, and theology, and God is a big part of society. And so he’s like, we should be studying this and studying it well, and training. Right.

And he knows that argument doesn’t need at least him.

Yeah, he does. Yeah. And he becomes the Dean of

theology, you know, somewhere in the midst of my education that near the end of the 19th century, I think at the University of Berlin was laid off on her neck, and so her next kind of day, Interesting kind of hybrid character because he makes a theological pronouncements. However, he’s really a church history guy. Yeah. And so you see, even by the end of the 1800s, how, how the, I don’t know, studying observable history and coming up with some conclusion starts to sort of overcome making Rhino positive theological statements.

Yeah, yeah. And that’s really, it really does shift. And actually schleiermacher is a little bit a part of that, in the sense that he, he knew for, for theology to be considered a science, it had to play by the rules of modernity, right, it had to end and so part of it, he kind of tries to insulate faith from, from modernity. And you know, it kind of separates faith a little bit from historical fact. And it’s all about the fool, or the feeling of utter dependence to God consciousness. But that’s

interesting, though, because I always thought we schleiermacher once once you actually look at the theological edifice that he builds in his systematic theology, yeah, it looks I mean, you know, except for, I guess, some quibbles around the edges, it looks fairly orthodox, right. But he’s sort of known as the father of liberal theology and sort of under a lot of suspicion, the reason why is a Baptist never heard of him, right, was because of his starting point. So instead of starting with a divine revelation in Scripture, I starting with and I think this is key, he’s starting with that feeling of absolute dependence. But that’s an observable kind of, you know, quite I don’t know, it’s an observable.

Yeah. You know,

part of human nomina observable phenomenon. Yeah. And, and so you can study that. Yeah. And then he builds this whole thing on top of that, so in some sense, he’s, he’s, I guess, basing his systematic theology on on, on something that we would call a social science. Yeah. Which, which, which is interesting. Maybe that’s the way he thought he could sort of smuggle that in. Anyway, right.

Yeah, I think yeah, I think it was, I mean, it’s interesting, as I’ve been kind of diving into these guys, and especially that, that transition of theology during that 19th century, and post enlightenment ran and kind of how we got where we are now. And, and so many of them like, schleiermacher, and then even Kierkegaard, and, and after, we’re really trying to protect Christianity, they were trying to protect Christianity, with all of these changes. And they, they were, they agreed with the changes. I mean, they agreed with the firm and in some ways, but they were like, so how can we how can Christianity stand up to this interesting schleiermacher? Because, in, in whatever world we are living in now, if indeed, we’re living in a postmodern world, a number of people are fro sort of what meta modern, whatever the hell

out in the world, a more elusive Exactly. But even amongst some, you know, fairly conservative evangelicals has been sort of a reappraisal of schleiermacher. Right, especially in his approach, because what he was doing, he did write this treatise, talking about, I don’t know, trying to reach the culture despisers he thought of himself as a missionary right away.


Yeah. His first and and we find ourselves in a very similar world in some ways. And so, you know, can we at least appreciate what he was trying to do? And if we don’t like the end result, right?

Yeah. Cuz he was trying he was kind of in that salon scene in Berlin, right? Yeah. He was trying to sell religion to right to its culture, despise the rice,

which honestly, some people think that’s what we are having to do. Right in the present moment.

Yeah. And, and, and I think, maybe some of it is yeah, being able to respect what they were trying to do. Even if we like would disagree, like or, or now looking at the outcomes. We’re like, Oh, yeah, you kind of when you gave away kind of historical grounding. Yeah, that never didn’t, there was nothing to grounded on and as just and then on the other side, so then many of those theologians like you’re saying been harnack afterwards, then they became like, the historical method became Okay, this is how we legitimize right, biblical studies or theology. And, and actually then called Bart who was a student of on hardneck that he kind of came in and he started to realize, wait, you in theology, you’re now because of this kind of history. A method of biblical criticism that you have, you’re not placing yourself above the object of your study. you’re placing yourself above God, like, Oh, I can know this about God because I know this about the Israelites and what they thought about and they were only doing this because their Babylonian friends were also saying that right. And he came in with, I think, another good move in this conversation to remind everyone that, again, he stressed the ology as a science, he would use that word. And I remember when I read that first time in Bart, that was kind of the first time I had I heard someone considered theology of science. And I’m like, wow, they’re interesting word for now. But it’s a science, but he calls it a free science. And so it’s a free science in the sense that it has to respect the freedom of its object of study, okay, that we have to respect that God is holy other, and that God can be God no matter what we think we know about him. And, and that then in turn frees us from our presuppositions. And so I thought that was an interesting move in the conversation is that it’s still it’s still this, this body of knowledge is the discipline of knowledge, theology as science. But just a good reminder. And I try to remind our theology students this, that when we’re studying God, God is someone who is wholly other

right and right. And, and we’ve spoken about this, I think, Ryan, our podcast before about difference between sort of a via negativa and via positive about what you can say and what you can’t say about God. Right. And speaking about podcasts, so we’ve already had a little Yeah, fun fact here. That I think Vaughn harnack live like, what two or three doors down from the bond hofers Oh, nice. Because Dietrich Bonhoeffer his father was, like, I don’t know ahead of what passed for a psychology department at the University of Berlin. And apparently, for a while, they would meet on the way to catch the tram into into school. So you have you know, an old Harry von harnack. There. Yeah. And then a young wet behind the ears, Bonhoeffer sort of walking down the street together, right? Yes.

That’s cool. Yeah, I knew that. Yeah, I do. Remember, there’s like a family friends, too, that they would

they would hang out. I don’t know what that says. I think it says more about class than theology. But right.

That’s a different podcast. Right. So so for me kind of maybe wrapping, wrapping up this. I know, for some of our listeners are like, well, I’m still trying to pronounce mission shaft maybe. Right. And don’t get Don’t try to. Yeah, exactly. Like, try to just Google schleiermacher.

You got to be able to actually Google.

But I think I think this, for me, it was interesting to know, okay, this isn’t the first time we’ve asked that question. I do think the question for us now has some similarities with these older conversations. For one, I mean, for many of the earlier ones not like before Bart, because Bart would, Bart didn’t want theology to try too hard to fit into the Academy. He was like, Hey, we don’t want to try to prove ourselves, like, you know, that, that has only led us to some bad places. But for schleiermacher Aquinas, like it was like, hey, should should this be a part of the academy? I think for us that that ship has sailed

it pretty much. Yeah, pretty much as

but but now I think it’s more maybe the the motive behind the question is, should theology be something that people consider a source of knowledge and truth? And, and is it something that should have a place in the wider conversation?

What can be known? Right?

Right. So really, it? It is a question of epistemology, right? So the epistemology is the study of what you know, how you know, and, and it really is the study of knowledge, because scientific knowledge in the sense of the natural sciences has taken the highest seat at the table, right? in our, in our current conversation, and you see it a lot, even in advertisements I was telling you about, like, just an ad popped up was like an ad kind of kind of one of those ad articles where you’re like, Is this an article or an ad and then you find out Yeah, they’re getting good. They’re getting really good. The, the podcast that is Yeah, well, I’m a whole focus on Don Draper. The whole advertising world. The but it said something it was about like, Weight Watchers, and it was just like, eight reasons to try weight loss. And then in parentheses, he says, besides the fact that it’s scientifically proven, and Matt just I was working on the article when that and, and I was just like, wow, can you imagine if it is said, besides the fact that it is theologically proven? Right, right. Like, it’s like when

in the public imagination, I mean, it’s just, it’s just two completely different sources of authority and one is privileged. And when is it right? I remember the movie Nacho Libra, when it skelet, though, believes he believes in science as if science is something that you can. Well, actually he was, his name was more truthful than he thought, actually. Right. I came up in the, like, I believe in science.

Yeah, I believe in science.

Yeah, it’s the source of what you can know and not know, as opposed to whatever, right jack black was representing. Right,

right. Yeah. And it’s interesting how it does come back to that idea of knowledge, like I can. And so we do and it’s that’s from the naturally bright days interesting language, right belief in


that believe

faith language? or How can you even investigate anything? That’s true. I think one of the, one of the issues we struggle with now with, for example, not just getting, I don’t know, theology back in as a legitimate discipline in the academy, but even getting some some things like the Intelligent Design movement into science classes and public schools. And and, you know, one of the arguments that sort of surrounds that is the difference between deductive reasoning and inductive reasoning, and the scientific method is inductive. Yeah. And for some reason, in a lot of people’s minds, that’s the only way you can ever really approach anything that’s, that’s valuable. If you think about anything deductively right, then you’ve already sold the game. We you know, before we even start, and yeah, and that’s been a that’s been a real hurdle for ID people. Because in much of the scientific community, they consider it a deductive theory and not an inductive an inductive argument. And so is it there’s problems all over the place with this?

Yeah, it really is. And, and I think one of the one of that wider, maybe the wider issue too, like you said, is just in like, our culture’s mine or people’s mind of being so separate, and science data even within the church, even Christians, I think, in many ways separate those two.

It’s interesting in in I think we were we were talking about this before the podcast even in the pH, my Ph. D. program, I had to I was church history, but I had to take some of the classes with some of the theology guys and they were all guys actually say men and women but at that time, they were all guy. But times change is exactly this is back in the in the in the dark ages. But the only way even at this seminary that I went to it was kind of a mainline seminary, but But still, the only way you could say anything about theology was actually to talk about ethics. They talked about practical theology. Yeah, as if everything else was relegated to I don’t know, I’m counting angels on the head of a pin or something. Right. Which is interesting for a seminary.

Yeah, actually. seminary

struggled ratios. How can we say anything about guys has gotten into the academy?

Yeah. And and that trickles down into into the greater culture right? It really does trickle from the academy into greater culture. And I think and so kind of my maybe my, my position in the paper is that I do think theology we do need to start maybe changing our language a little bit and I and maybe understand theology as a science in that broader sense of the word science and and maybe if anything, it just helps expose Oh wow, yeah, even like I believe in God but I put more weight in if something is scientifically proven, right, even if it’s subconsciously in my mind that that is Oh yeah, that’s that has more weight, more proof that theology is a source of knowledge, a source of knowledge and truth. Now we don’t God is holy other we don’t know God exhaustively. And this is the Guardian in me coming out but like, and we only know what he has told us about himself. Right? Like it’s a revelation. Yeah. And but but we can

know something. Yeah, God and about this world. Yeah. What’s important?

We can and and that way, it is a scientific endeavor and, and within the marketplace of ideas, it’s given a voice and actually, that voice for theology is the same. For what are what would also be considered humanistic sciences? And along with maybe the social sciences, that have also been kind of marginalized,

or hard sciences. It’s true. It’s true. This is a very deep, very deep argument.

Yeah. And I find a lot of disciplines, I think, getting them back into better dialogue as as equal partners, we need to find a way to get back to our seat at the table.

Yes, very important. Yeah. And if we’ve been regular, relegated by, I don’t know, the Enlightenment or postmodern lineman, rationalistic thinking about, you know, what’s scientific and what’s not? What gives you access to what’s real and knowledge are not, we’ve got to find a way to get back in that conversation. And that’s why in some ways, if we are in the postmodern moment, that actually is not necessarily a bad thing, because some of those arguments that have isolated in exile dusts, really, you know, increasingly, in some people’s minds don’t hold as much water as they used to. Right. So why can’t I have a place at the table?

Yeah. And, and I think, yeah, it’ll be interesting to see how that how we go from here. And now that I do think that many of them it could be in a wave, and that that seat will come back to the table and, and be not hold my

breath for a theology department you frankly, not 20 years, but definitely know, who knows,

who knows? And, and just being a part of that, and I think even just for us, and maybe for our listeners, having them think about Yeah, what role does maybe theology play in my own life? Now? I mean, in some ways, theology has been even excluded from the church

in a really interesting way, like sometimes churches, a theology three freezone, right. It’s and,

and, and bringing that back of, and really looking into, what can we know about God? What do we know about God? And then, and this is, I think, the big connection? How does that knowledge then does change the way I live? Just like when I learn something scientifically, it does change like, Oh, hey, like getting

back to schleiermacher. Again, what you think about God and what we’ve can say about God does have real implications and how we as individuals, and we as communities, go about living our lives.

Yeah, it really does. And it’s something we need to continue to think about and to think deeply about. Well, I could talk theology all day, I can talk schleiermacher and maybe we’ll just have a whole wormhole. schleiermacher episode. So off the

top of your head mark, you spell Slimer Okay, Yes, I

can. s c h, l. e, i, e, r. m a CH er schleiermacher Beautiful fish. Hey, does the slacker fish go to go to your local butchery fishery and ask Do you have any other schleiermacher fish? Very nice. Thank you for listening to Jessup. Think Be sure to follow us on Twitter at Jessup think we would love to hear your thoughts on the episode and engage with any questions you have. Our aim is to provide a framework for further reflection and deeper exploration of these important topics. You can also help the show by leaving a review on iTunes these reviews help the podcast reach new listeners. Until next time, I’m Mark Moore and this is Jessup.

If you’re interested in learning more about Jessup, please visit William Jessup is the premier fully accredited four year Christian University in the Sacramento area offering over 60 academic programs in undergraduate and graduate studies designed to see every student equipped and transformed into the leader they are called to be as you go, don’t forget to hit subscribe and share so you never miss an episode. Thanks for joining us for Jessup thing.

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