Theology and the Knowledge of God

This post is a response to the arguments of my philosopher friend, which can be read – along with my preliminary responses - here and here. What precisely is this post intended to secure?
  1. I will argue that theology is a science

  2. I will argue that, insofar as theology is a science, theology deals with knowledge of God

  3. 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.

Addendum: Kant

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.

Concluding Considerations

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


Anonymous said…
just curious... the faith you're talking about, is it given to everyone or just certain people?

Faith is not “given” in the sense that it becomes the possession of anyone. However, faith is awakened within the psycho-physical experience of certain human beings as Christ’s self-mediation is made real to them through the power of the Holy Spirit. For a discussion of this process, see Barth’s discussion of Spirit baptism in CD IV.4.

If you are fishing for a discussion of universalism, I’m afraid that you are on the wrong blog. To engage that topic, I suggest that you check out the work of my friend and colleague David.
Travis, thanks for the plug.

Geoff, if you are really interested in the subject of faith, I do recommend reading my post on "sola fide" in my series on universalism. It stands on its own (apart from the context of universalism) as my best exposition of the nature of faith.
Ben Myers said…
Thanks for this interesting post. You might also be interested in a recent book that compares Barth's and Calvin's views on "the knowledge of God":

Cornelis van der Kooi, As in a Mirror: John Calvin and Karl Barth on Knowing God: A Diptych (Leiden: Brill, 2005).
Shane said…
Travis, to respond to your first point, I do not think Theology is an empirical science. Partially this is because I think your characterization of empirical science is not one that any actual empirical scientist would accept. I don't think you'd meet any scientist who thought theology was a science because one of the crucial things that makes science science rather than magic is the idea of public accessibility. A scientist cannot say that his hypothesis is true, but that only the real faithful could know that it is true. Scientific demonstrations must be public.

The second problem goes back to the fact that you still have not accepted the definition of knowledge I offered. I know when (1) I believe x; (2) x is actually true and (3) I have a justified reason for believing x. Your reworked understanding of knowledge lacks the criterion of justification, which cannot be omitted.

For example, suppose my car's radiator is leaking and I bring it to the mechanic to fix. As I arrive, I see the mechanic, standing dead drunk in the parking lot and waving a revolver around. As I pull in, he shoots my car and the bullet hits my engine and it just so happens that the bullet gets lodged in just the right spot to stop my radiator from leaking. The mechanic walks up to my window and says, "That'll be $400".

"Piss off" I say.

"What? I fixed your car. You owe me $400."

At this point, I reply that the mechanic had no 'knowledge' that shooting my car would fix it. It happened as a matter of pure chance that what he did fixed the problem. He had no justifiably way to be certain that what he did would work, so consequently, I won't pay him.

This is why you need a justification criterion for knowledge, to make accidental being right about something to be different from 'knowing' something for certain.

Now to see the connection between 'science', 'justification', and 'knowledge' let's define a 'science' as an enterprise whose goal is the creation of some 'knowledge' about the subject of its investigation. The thing that makes the scientific investigation of a subject 'scientific' is it's reliance upon a trustworthy method. The method must be appropriate to the subject matter and so each science creates its own methods.

The 'empirical' science are those whose methods are founded on observation (empereia) and experiment. The conclusions of empirical science should be something like, "Water freezes at 0 degrees celsius". Because the conclusions of empirical science should look like this, the method of the empirical sciences will therefore rely upon repeatability as the 'justification' that its hypothesis (read 'knowledge claim') is actually true.

A scientist 'knows' that water turns to ice at 0 degree C, because he has performed the experiment with the proper apparatus and, sure enough, water always turns to ice at precisely 0 degrees. Now, because empirical sciences rely upon inductive and abductive inferences, the conclusions of empirical science are always presented tentatively.

Even if water has turned to ice at 0 degrees a hundred times in the past, perhaps some future experiment will provide new data which contradicts the current hypothesis. That doesn't look likely, but from a strictly empirical point of view, it can't be ruled out of the realm of possibility. Because of this feature, empirical science does not seek 'verification' of it's hypotheses, rather it seems to falsify them. If you form a hypothesis and do everything experiment you can think of to prove that hypothesis false and do not succeed, then you have a justified belief that the hypothesis is true (i.e. you 'know' it is true). Justification is a matter of statistics in empirical science. The more experiments have failed to falsify the hypothesis, the more justified I am in believing it.

Now it is clear that theology isn't an empirical science in this sense for the simple reason that theology has no method capable of justifying its claims in public terms because there are no theological 'experiments' or 'observations'.

When I have more time, i'll post my thoughts regarding your second and third points.
Ben - I'm glad to see you around. Am I right in thinking that this is your first comment here? Thanks for the tip on that book!

Shane – Of course, you know that in characterizing theology as an empirical science, my goal was to establish precisely the opposite of that which you argue for in your comment, namely, a publicly accessible mode of the justification of theological knowledge. While you are right in pointing out ways in which theology differs from the empirical sciences generally conceived, you have not directly addressed my comments on scientific method. You have implicitly argued that they are wrong, and that scientific method proceeds through the use of a general and publicly accessible method. I have argued the same, namely, that what can be considered a general method of empirical science is to allow the subject matter in question to set the methodological agenda.

You have a gift for choosing analogies that make your point look absurdly simple. However, I must ask if your arguments hold true in the case of physics research, or aeronautical research? Rather than dealing within the realm of common sense, these branches of science deal with highly complex subject matters, some of which are not directly observable, and presume a great amount of knowledge in order to be understood. In the existence of these conditions for understanding / knowledge, they are not publicly accessible. Only those who meet the necessary conditions can access the knowledge and find it to be justified. I have argued something of the same in the realm of theology. There are certain conditions that must be met in order to find theological knowledge to be justified. The condition is faith, and it is outside the realm of human possibility.

Finally, you continue to refuse to allow the subject matter of theology (God) to set its own rules about what constitutes justified knowledge. This is akin to asserting a general hermeneutic as sufficient for the understanding of Scripture. While one studying the biblical texts can and should bring to bear all the critical tools available, ultimately those tools of general hermeneutics are insufficient. Something similar is operative in the current context.
Shane said…
Give it time T. I'm working my way around in here and I'll address some of the other things you are concerned about here as I work my way through your points 2 and 3.

I'm still trying to figure out if i really think theology is a science or not. I'll write more when i figure it out.

Take all the time you need. :-)
Macht said…
If you can find a copy of James K.A. Smith's Introduction to Radical Orthodoxy, he has some interesting thoughts on the relationship between philosophy, science, and theology (starting on p. 166). I'll try to post about it on my blog some time later today.
adameitel said…
Hello, my name is Adam. I've never weighed in on a discussion here before, though I've been happy to listen in.

My inaugural comment arrives in terms of a brief question: Have both sides of this discussion defined knowledge too narrowly?
My answer is maybe. I suspect that Shane is seated in the analytic tradition and will therefore define knowledge as justified true belief. I suspect that Travis will not disagree, though he has made clear that the criterion for justication of knowledge must be furnished by the
object of inquiry. But I wonder if we have not, from the outset, begun with a faulty definition. Is this all knowledge is? Justified true belief?

I think that one ought to incorporate (or even priveledge) the notion of performance knowledge into a discussion about the knowledge of God. To speak of the knowledge of God in terms of informative true statements is to reduce the knowledge of God to mere verbalizations of human acts of knowing. Verbalization of acts of knowing are not themselves knowledge but rather artificial expressions of a human action wherein the human subject engages the real.
Anonymous said…
WTM, thanks for the links, my apologies for unintentionally heading down a rabbit trail... It just appears to me as though claiming faith as the evidence of knowledge is begging the question... but I am going to read more, following your suggestions. I do like David's blog a lot, in fact, that's what led me to yours. Unfortunately, I am not as well-versed in Barth as the rest of you! Thanks!

Shane said…
Hi Adam, thanks for chiming in!

I am open to the suggestion that there are other kinds of knowledge than the sort of propositional model i've laid out here. I'm not in fact an analytic philosopher, (but my friend is). At any rate, I don't think that bringing in the notion of performance is going to help here though, because travis and I both agree (i think) that Christianity has a positive dogmatic content which can be presented propositionally. For example, when I Christian says, "i believe in God the father almighty, . . . " he means that there exists such a person as God who has done . . .

I'm afraid that the notion of 'performance' (while it might be helpful in some ways) would tend towards blunting the real dogmatic edge of theology. It isn't that just that we are arguing about how to perform the act of saying the creed. We are only arguing about how properly to perform the creed because we believe that there is some reality to which it corresponds. Our performing well or poorly doesn't change the underlying truth of the thing itself. (Provided travis can suspend his kantian disdain of talk of things in themselves.)

Shane said…
@WTM "However, I must ask if your arguments hold true in the case of physics research, or aeronautical research? Rather than dealing within the realm of common sense, these branches of science deal with highly complex subject matters, some of which are not directly observable, and presume a great amount of knowledge in order to be understood. In the existence of these conditions for understanding / knowledge, they are not publicly accessible."

Even physics is publicly accessible, not in the sense that everybody understands it (not everybody knows how to fix a car either), but in the sense that you don't have to be a Christian, a capricorn or a brunette to 'get' it.

The difference between a physicist and a theologian is that a theologian at the end of the day is going to say you have to take something on faith. There is something fundamentally unjustifiable about theological claims. You have to believe in God first before anything else makes sense.

In physics this is not the case. If you want to be a real dick to a physicist you could say something like, "Yeah, I don't know about all this gravity nonsense. Sounds like a bunch of hocus-pocus mumbo jumbo to me." Assuming you had a very patient physicist, he could explain to you the equations that predict gravitational forces and even recreate the same experiments that originally proved the existence of gravity.

In short the physicist is not going to say something like, "Look, there isn't any evidence for anything that i'm saying, but you should commit your life to the existence of gravitational fields on faith."

That's why theology is not an empirical science, because there are no empirical data to back it up. You can't perform an experiment for me to prove that God loves me. You can tell me that he does and that Jesus died for my sins, but you can't 'show' me that this is the case. You can't make him incarnate before me again. I can't touch him or see him.

It seems to me that theology is not a science just because it does not produce certain knowledge of its subject matter. But theology can be 'scientific' in the following way. Theologians agree amongst themselves that certain basic dogmas are true. These basic dogmas are taken on faith because they are unjustifiable. Now, on the basis of these dogmas, theology works just like other sciences, attempting to unfold the content of these core dogmatic assertions and elaborating what does and does not follow from the truths believed on faith. Theology can thus be 'scientific' in the sense that a good theological thesis ought to be something that a Jew, or atheist ought to be able to say, "If I believed in the trinity, then yes, this theory would follow . . . "

You are right in broad strokes. Theology is not an empirical science in the sense that it proceeds on the basis of empirical data. However, I do think that at a meta level, the methods fundamentally match (as I laid out in my post). Also, you take the claims of theology to be unjustifiable because they depend on faith. I make them justifiable precisely because they depend on faith. Again, I think that you have to let the terminology flex and adapt itself to the subject matter in question (God). Geoff is right about begging the question in a sense, but only because God supplies both the condition and the actuality of knowledge of himself. Call this fideist special pleading if you will. That doesn’t both me.

One other nit-picky thing. It wouldn’t matter if you had sensory experience / data of the incarnation. The incarnation is a veiling of God, except the Spirit accomplishes a work of unveiling. There is absolutely nothing about the human nature of Jesus that necessarily reveals God.
I've just become aware of an interesting post on the question of theology and science over at Halden's place. Check it out.
Shane said…

this is going to be a pretty hard sell for you. show me what you mean that faith is evidence. Is it the kind of evidence you could use in a courtroom to convict someone? Surely that isn't what you mean, because you agree that faith is something private rather than public. So I take it you must mean that faith is 'evidence' (not the scare-quotes) only for the person who receives it. Perhaps you want to say that for the person who receives it, faith is a necessary and sufficient condition to justify belief in the dogmatic claims of Christian theology, but that because the experience of faith is of the nature of a private inward experience, it is only a necessary and sufficient condition for the person to whom it is miraculously revealed.

Are you trying to get at something like this?

I still don't know that I buy it, but just trying to make sure i understand you.
@ Shane,

Faith is private in a sense (but it is not dependent upon a person’s interiority), but that a person lives with reference to faith is a witness to that faith and to the knowledge of God that it entails. This witness is publicly accessible. And this witness could be accepted as empirical evidence if one was inclined to take the claims of that witness seriously. The problem is that most people, even many Christians, are not so inclined. They either want to be able to point to miracles or other things in the historical record, or they don’t want to entertain the thought of certain knowledge based on faith at all.

Faith is that evidence which is fitting to the knowledge of God. Thus, on the basis of faith, the knowledge of God is certain. – That is my fundamental claim. But, because faith is a reality that lies outside the realm of human possibility – it is a gift of God and it is an ever-coming gift such that it is never possessed – it is an evidence that is operative with reference only to those who have been awakening by it.

Bottom line – in any particular discussion of “certain” or “justified” knowledge, you must let the thing known determine what sort of evidence justifies it or makes it certain.

@ Geoff and Adam,

It is a pleasure to have you here and contributing, and I hope that you will continue to do so in the future. :-)
Shane said…

I'm going to get to this claim about the inquiry being tailored to the subject matter soon. I haven't forgotten to come round to the point, just establishing some preliminaries.

Anonymous said…
I must admit that I have not followed this conversation since posting, (what with visions of sugar plums and terms papers dancing in my head.) But I did want to respond to one thing Shane said in response to my earlier comment.

Shane said: "I'm afraid that the notion of 'performance'... would tend towards blunting the real dogmatic edge of theology.

I would like to respond to Shane by saying just the opposite. As I see it, it has been the exclusion of performance knowledge (otherwise called sapientia or phronesis) that has actually attenuated the character of modern dogmatics!

For every field of inquiry there is a corresponding practice that is itself the sine qua non for the realization of knowledge. Aristotle understood this in his Nichomachean Ethics when he warned his pupils that only the man who already practiced virtue could describe virtue. Similarly, Plato understood that a pupil must be habituated to the good so that “when Reason at length comes to him, bred as he has been, he will hold out his hands in welcome and recognize her because of the affinity he bears to her.” So also, Augustine understood the acquisition of knowledge as ordo amoris. Least of all, St. Paul clearly found in 1 Cor. 13 that there is a certain species ofknowledge that cannot be had by he who does not practice love. The knowledge to which Paul has referred is no other than the knowledge of God.

For much of its recent history, theology has been practiced as a kind of science concerned with mere episteme: theoretical knowledge. Certainly there is merit for this kind of knowledge. But it must be insisted that episteme, apart from the phronetic knowledge of Christian love, is but a “clanging cymbal”—an empty philosophy that is no theology at all.

In my opinion, Dogmatics loses its "dogmatic edge" when one forgets this.
Shane said…

I thought you were headed in a different direction, more towards 'performance' as a hermeneutical tool. At any rate, I would never want to say that one need not be a good person, merely that being a good person is only a necessary and not a sufficient condition for . . . christian life. It is also required that one believe the right things. My concern is simply not to allow piety to overshadow orthodoxy, although you are right to warn against excess in the other direction as well.
Macht said…
I've written a post on this subject here.

I didn't talk about this in my post, but I think that some of Shane's description of "empirical science" is off the mark. First, even if JTB is an appropriate model of knowledge, it isn't clear that science would count as knowledge since it is unclear whether science is true. At best, if I were to agree with you that science is in the business of falsification and not verification, we might be able to say that science is "approaching truth." That is, if falsification is how science works, then we are gradually approaching truth by showing non-truths to be wrong but we aren't really justifying anything to be true. Luckily, though, this isn't how science actually works.

What makes science "science" is not "it's reliance upon a trustworthy method." If philosophy of science has taught us anything in the last 50 years, it is that. Some of the best examples of science have been the result of people going against the rules (not following "the scientific method"). This is true for Galileo and Einstein and countless others. In my post that I linked to above I give a better account (in my opinion) of what makes science "science." What counts as justification in science depends on what science we are talking about! The methods that astrophysicists use are much different than the methods that psychologists use, for example. Astrophysicists don't really have a need for double blind experiments, for example. It just a totally inappropriate method for them to use. Justification is driven more by the object of study than by some abstract ideal of rationality. So I tend to agree with WTM on this. What counts for justification in theology should be driven by the object of theological study, not by what certain philosophers of physics say is the correct method. If theology is a science (and I think it is, in a sense) it should have its own methods of justification appropriate to theology, not physics.
Shane said…

I am not advocating a single unified scientific method which all sciences must follow. (Travis is implying that I am saying this but it isn't true). What I am saying is that sciences are trying to create knowledge, therefore they are trying to find ways to justify their claims. A claim is justified (which is different than verified, NB) by means of "some reliable method".*

I am not talking about how einstein through up the idea of relativity (which might have nothing to do with method), rather i'm talking about what made it a proven fact generally accepted by the physics community (namely that it made certain predictions about physical phenomena that were later confirmed by observation). In psychology, as you mentioned, double blind tests are called for. In astrophysics, they are not. The important thing is that if a scientist starts making claims which are impossible to be observed or for which no reliable method to check the truth of the claims could ever exist, then he is no longer doing science. (String theory is bullshit, for precisely this reason).

Theology is not a science, therefore, because there is no reliable way to check the truth of its claims.

*Note that the position I am taking, i.e. that science does produce 'knowledge', because I take the view that induction can give you the right to believe something is true. The empiricist objection you make, that science never really reaches the truth presumes the opposite. I agree that induction means we must hold our beliefs somewhat tentatively, but, realistically, it is true that things fall down and no inductive skepticism is going to persuade me that I don't have the right to believe that if i drop a pencil that it will fall to the ground.
Macht said…
Well, as I said the general consensus today in the philosophy of science is that method is not what gives us knowledge. As I claimed in the post I linked to, what makes something method reliable depends on what our object of study is. Just as double blind experiments are inappropriate for physics, so are many methods in physics inappropriate for theology. Hermeneutics, for example, seems much more appropriate for theology.

My point about falsification was that the whole reason that Popper developed it as a method was to get around the problem of induction. So it is odd for me that you would be drawing on Popper on the one hand but relying on induction on the other. Inductive models of science generally don't rely on falsification - in fact, it is pretty much a heresy for them. Inductivists want to ground their theories on provable facts and build their theories up using those facts. So, if you really did accept induction as something that gives you the right to believe something is true, I wouldn't expect you to write something like:

"Even if water has turned to ice at 0 degrees a hundred times in the past, perhaps some future experiment will provide new data which contradicts the current hypothesis. That doesn't look likely, but from a strictly empirical point of view, it can't be ruled out of the realm of possibility. Because of this feature, empirical science does not seek 'verification' of it's hypotheses, rather it seems to falsify them."
Shane said…

I see that I presented the issue poorly. sorry for the confusion.

at any rate, i'm afraid we are getting a bit off the topic.
Macht said…
No, I think we are on topic still. My point is that you can't appeal to the natural sciences in order to determine what methods to use in theology. Theologians have been working for centuries to develop their own methods and ways of arguing. But this shouldn't count against it if we are asking whether theology is a science because we would expect different sciences to have different methods because they have different objects of study.
Shane said…

I'm not specifically appealing to the notion of natural science to understand theology. Travis is and I'm objecting to him. When I say 'science' I have something other than the empirical or physical sciences in mind, although I include things like physics, chemistry, etc. as sciences.

As I have defined it a 'science' is an enterprise that tries to gain 'knowledge' (= justified true beliefs) about a certain subject matter. What I am insisting on is the link between justification and method. Mathematics is a science, even though it performs no experiments, because it still has a way to justify its claims, i.e. formal logic.

It is evident that there are lots of things that are taught in a university which are not sciences. Including art, music, literature, etc. I am not arguing that these ought to go away. Just that they aren't sciences. Even disciplines like history and sociology are pretty close to the bubble as far as their scientific status goes.

Theology, it seems to me, is not a science for precisely the same reason that the interpretation of literature isn't. As you yourself have mentioned, theology has a hermeneutic method. However, my point is simply that there is no hermeneutic method which will always give you the 'true meaning' of a text. There are always different meanings produced by the different interpreters. Arius reads the bible and sees that Christ is created; athanasius reads it a completely different way, and there is no a priori way based on the hermeneutical method for us to tell which of them is right.

I'm not denying that theology has a method or that it is entitled to have its own method. What I am denying is that its method is of the sort to produce justified true beliefs which comprise the conclusions of a real science.

This all ultimately boils down to the problem of whether faith gives you certain knowledge or not. I deny that it does. If theology is a science, then you have to say that faith does give you certain knowledge. But, theology isn't a science for the reasons i've explained. It doesn't have a reliable method that always results in justified knowledge. If either you or travis would like to object that the method of theology does produce justification in all cases, you are welcome to do so, but neither of you have said exactly what this method consists of, merely that it exists.
Macht said…
Well, I've already objected the in a different way - that the natural sciences don't produce justified true beliefs. We know, for example, that either quantum mechanics or relativity theory (or both) are wrong. Yet both are considered good science. And, as I said above, if the method of the natural sciences is falsification (it isn't, BTW) then the best we can is that science is approaching truth.

There are also plenty of philosophers of science who talk about the natural sciences in hermeneutical terms and draw on people like Gadamer to explain how it works.

I could point out, too, that just as people like Arias and Athanasius disagreed about how to interpret the Bible, so too did people like Hilbert and Russell and Brouwer disagree about what methods were appropriate for mathematics. The same could be said for every science.

Traditionally, faith has been said to give certain knowledge. For example, Calvin called faith "a firm and certain knowledge of God's benevolence toward us." And I'm sure I don't have to remind you of Hebrews 11.

In any case, somebody above linked to a post on science, theology and postmodernism and it (and the other posts in that series) gets at many of the points I've been making (e.g., hermeneutics in science), only much more thoroughly.
Shane said…
I just spent an hour writing a nice post in response to Macht's last comment but the internet seems to have eaten it.

basically the gist was this:

Yes there are philosophers of science who think that science gives us true beliefs about the external world. I cited Stathis Psillos as one example and made a few comments about his paper "Scientific Realism and Metaphysics" (which is available on his website linked above). Scientific realism implies that what science produces are (justified) true beliefs.

Second, I worry that your 'hermeneutical' or post-modern approach to science is going to lead to anti-realism, which I find problematic for other reasons which would have to be dealt with elsewhere. I would greatly appreciate more information about this hermeneutic view of science, unless the view you are going to bring forward is something like the bullshitty Luce Irigaray feminist critique of 'white male' science. [To see a good skewering of this kind of stupidity, cf. "Fashionable Nonsense" by Sokal and Bricmont.]

happy xmas!

Macht said…
Well, that sucks ... I hate it when my posts get eaten.

I wasn't arguing that science doesn't give us true beliefs about the world. I'm still not sure about it. What I was arguing was that given the view of science you put forth (falsification, not verification) that you have to believe that science produces approximately true beliefs. I should note that even Psillos admits that scientific realism may only imply that we have approximately true beliefs, not true beliefs (his "Epistemic Thesis").

I was also arguing with my quantum physics/relativity example that we have known false beliefs in science right now. And these were produced using the methods of the natural sciences.

The picture of science that has emerged in the last 50 years is one where the sciences are traditions. Science is not the objective, observer-neutral discipline that it is so often characterized as. Scientists are seen not as robots who apply certain set methods to get the results they want. Rather they are interpreters of nature, experiments, etc. What they do involves judgment and wisdom and understanding, not rules and methods. This is why hermeneutics is becoming important in philosophy of the natural science. While scientists employ various methods while "doing science," what makes good science is the scientists themselves making good judgments, interpreting test results correctly, and things like that.

(This is off topic, but while the Sokal affair was horrible, the conclusions that Sokal and Bricmont drew from it were just as bad. Fashionable Nonsense seemed like a chance for the authors to mock things they showed very little understanding of. This doesn't mean I agree with those people talked about in the book, it just means that I think their critique of these people was horrible.)
Tom McGlothlin said…
I have two questions:

1. What is at stake in claiming the term "science" for theology? Are we sure we're not trying to cash in on some of the prestige that term carries today?

2. The Barthians constantly talk about the method being determined by the subject matter. Good enough. But isn't it true that the choice of methodology is a human decision? If it is, then it must be in response to the (divinely revealed) subject matter. But in order to make methodological decisions based on the nature of the object, one must know something about the object. How would one go about adjudicating between different views of the object that would imply the appropriateness of different methodologies?

Macht: Thanks for your insightful comments. I know very little about the philosophy of science, so I appreciate your knowledge of the subject matter.

Shane: I have to go for now (off to work on an exegesis paper), but I'll return to address some of your concerns.

Tom: Excellent question. I hope to respond soon.
Thanks for your comment about approximate knowledge. It seems our very definition of knowledge is subject to the same revision. The turn to the subject in the philosophy of science is incredibly important, and more importantly the traditions and communities in which those subjects operate in inquiry. Barth was at least willing to acknowledge the humanity of theology as a science, and thus called it a necessarily humble science.
I've posted a response over at my blog on this topic. It is rather scattered and repetitive. I'm prepping to leave for home for Christmas, but I hope it furthers conversation in the meantime. I'll respond to any comments after Christmas most likely.
All strength and joy,
Aric Clark said…
goodness gracious this thread got long and complicated.

In essence, I agree with Shane. Claiming faith as the evidence of knowledge of God is begging the question, it isn't publicly accessible and even more importantly it isn't certain. People claim to be people of faith who demonstrate by their actions that they are not. Others experience losing faith, and people of faith come to wildly wildly different conclusions about the subject matter such that it seems unlikely they could actually have faith in the same God. It really doesn't seem a reliable basis for knowledge, in my opinion.

Of course we all have to make our own theological judgments about these things. But, I reject the notion that knowledge of God must be publicly accessible, and I affirm the notion that the mode of verification is unique to the subject matter, and thus that faith is a "firm and certain knowledge" - to quote Calvin.

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