- I will argue that theology is a science
- I will argue that, insofar as theology is a science, theology deals with knowledge of God
- I will argue that insofar as theology deals with knowledge of God, that knowledge of God is ‘certain.’
Theology is a Science
Theology is a science. This aspect of the theological task is particularly well described by T.F. Torrance. All empirical (experimentally based) sciences have a subject matter. Here, the term “subject matter” is to be sharply distinguished from the more Aristotelian term “object.” Whereas the latter implies a discreet item which is to be directly observed either through the senses of through the faculties of reason, the former implies a more or less unknown identity or cluster of identities. What is the ultimate difference? While Aristotelian science seeks to describe an object, to distinguish it from other objects, and thereby to arrive at knowledge of an object’s essence, empirical sciences seek to learn from its subject matter. Rather than applying a method to its subject matter that is more or less universal, empirical science develops method based upon the unique needs of the subject matter. Thus, the subject matter is the “subject” of this inquiry, yielding up its secrets to those who would accept it on its own terms.
In this sense, theology is empirical science par excellence. For, rather than assuming this student’s position before a subject matter, theology assumes this position before the sovereign Lord of cross and creation. The radically subservient place of theology before her Lord is emphasized by the fact that the possibility for theology is an entirely divine possibility. God, in that he is not accessible by means of the data gathering function of the human senses or of human reason (no matter what claims reason makes – more later), is only known through his self-revelation. This self-revelation occurs paradigmatically through the person and work of Jesus Christ, both then and now, and now precisely because then. We need not get into the details here. Suffice it to say that God has revealed himself in a way that truly corresponds to himself, and thus he has offered himself to theological study.
Barth, Torrance and myself (not to elevate myself to their stature!) all work after Kant. Thus, though we may quibble with Kant here and there, the basic idea is that Kant has rightly pointed out the bankruptcy of traditional metaphysics. The realm of human possibility only has to do with that which we can experience in our psycho-physical beings, and therefore, is incapable in and of itself of knowledge of God. It is true that Kant led to some messy stuff in theology, like certain negative aspects of Schleiermacherian thought and to more fundamentalist stances, but Barth simply side-stepped this problem by recovering speech about God speaking (Deus dixit) and revealing himself to us. The ditch between us and God cannot be crossed from our side, but it can be crossed from God’s side.
Theology and the Knowledge of God
So far we have argued that theology is an empirical science and that, in a sense, it is the true empirical science, for the subject matter of theology is “subject” in a profound and entirely unique way. We have also briefly noted that the possibility of theology is grounded upon God’s self-revelation in the person and work of Jesus Christ. We next have to inquire about what knowledge of God we gain through this self-revelation.
The answer to that inquiry is that Jesus Christ mediates God’s own self-knowledge to us. This is in contrast to Calvin, who could all too easily speak of our knowledge of God as simply knowledge of God’s disposition toward us and not knowledge of God in himself. However, if God is Triune, and if Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God, then in the person and work of Jesus Christ we meet the Triune God in his mode of existence as a human being. Now, this is not to say that this knowledge of God can be read off of the human nature of Jesus. On the contrary, this knowledge of God is hidden by Jesus’ human nature and is only able to be recognized by faith as the Holy Spirit brings us into union with Christ’s person and work. But, to those who have been awakened to the true identity of Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit, this knowledge of God is found in Christ.
What is this knowledge of God, God’s own self-knowledge, that is communicated to us by the person and work of Christ as the Spirit awakens us? This is a hard thing to nail down, but we can say that it is at least the affirmation that “Jesus is Lord” (Lord, here, refers to the revealed name of the God of Abraham as attested in the Old Testament) and that we know God as Father through the person and work of Jesus. These are the basic convictions of faith, which are basic not only to God’s being with us, but also – through a robust doctrine of the Trinity – to God’s being with himself. The task of theology is the further elucidation of this notion, on the basis of the Scriptural witness to God’s self-revelation in Christ.
Theology’s Knowledge of God is ‘Certain’
My philosopher friend defines “knowledge” or “certain knowledge” through three conditions. First, one must believe something; second, that thing must actually be true; third, one must believe the thing in question for the right reasons. This ultimately boils down to two factors: first, one must be convinced of something; second, that thing must correspond to reality.
That a human subject holds an opinion about the state of reality is a basic given for knowledge. Knowledge, whatever else might be said of it, must be possessed. Thus, the first portion of my above reworking of the definition of true or certain knowledge is not in question. It is the second section that is contentious, and that contention rests with how one determines that an opinion about the state of reality actually corresponds to that reality. This is precisely where my philosopher friend and I differ.
My philosopher friend would prefer to establish a general method to determine whether an opinion about the state of reality actually corresponds to reality, such as the canons of reason or repeatable and observable sensory data. I, on the other hand and in keeping with the notion of a science advanced above as a mode of inquiry that takes its cues from its subject matter, would argue that the type of evidence sought must be suited to the subject matter. So, the question becomes, what sorts of evidence are fitting with reference to the knowledge of God?
We have said that knowledge of God has its origin in God’s self-revelation, that in this self-revelation God’s own self-knowledge is mediated to us through the person and work of Jesus Christ, and that the basic content of this self-revelation is that Jesus is Lord and that we know God as Father through the person and work of Jesus Christ. We have also said that this knowledge is hidden to us insofar as our human possibility of knowledge is concerned; it must be shown to us through the work of the Spirit. Because this knowledge comes to us from beyond the realm of human possibility, and because it must do so, means that any evidence from within the realm of possibility is not suited to the establishment of this knowledge.
Hebrews 11.1 indicates that it is faith that is the evidence of things that are unseen, and thus outside of the realm of the possibilities of human knowing. It is faith that is suited to demonstrating the correspondence between the knowledge of God and the reality of God. But we must be careful in how we understand faith. Faith is not simply a human emotion, although it includes that. Faith is not part of the realm of human possibility, although it is expressed within us and thus within the realm of human possibility. Faith, in actuality, comes from the realm of divine possibility, as Ephesians 2.9-10 indicates. The other important facet of faith is that it is directed toward an object. It is not simply a human emotion, but a response within the human person that is aroused by the work of the Holy Spirit, and which establishes in the human person the knowledge that Jesus is Lord and that God is our Father on the basis of the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Faith is not independent of this knowledge. If faith does not include this knowledge, then what is under consideration is not faith. In that faith is the evidence of this knowledge, knowledge is certain. This knowledge corresponds to reality and is demonstrated on the basis of the only evidence suitable for an inquiry into this subject matter.
Theology is the further elucidation of how, on the basis of this knowledge of God by faith, we must think of God. Thus, the specific claims of theology are not matters of certain knowledge. They may be found to be incorrect. However, the knowledge that comes through faith is what grounds theology, and is not a product of theology, and thus is not in question here. Furthermore, theological speech, insofar as it is human language and is an undertaking carried out from within the realm of human possibility, can never correspond exactly to the reality that is God. And yet, because God has revealed himself within the realm of human language, he has made human language to function in a way that it cannot naturally function. Despite having no natural capacity to refer to God, God allows human language to correspond to him analogically.
Selected Bibliography, or, What I reflected upon before writing this.
- Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, II.1
- ______, Evangelical Theology
- ______, Göttingen Dogmatics
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 1
- Thomas F. Torrance, “The Problem of Theological Statement Today” in Theology in Reconstruction