On the Nature of Theology: The Science of God

Hi! Welcome to my first blog post here at Trinityhaus! I hope that these posts will help you, the reader, better understand God, Scripture, and yourself. For those of you who are not familiar with me, my name is Andrew Hollingsworth. I will be graduating with my Ph.D. in Theology from the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary this May 19, 2018 (woohoo!). Long story put short: I am a teacher, and I am a writer. The Lord has called me to teach his church about him via the classroom and print. This blog is an attempt at the latter. My goal in my blog posts, as stated above, is to help readers better understand who God is, what his Word says, and what his plan for you in this world is. So without further ado, let’s dive in!

So what is theology? Broadly defined, theology is the science, or study, of God. As Christians, one of our fundamental beliefs is that there is a God that is one being in three Subsistences (Father, Son, and Spirit).  Our study of God is not arbitrary; rather, it is quite important. As one pours through the pages of Scripture she will notice that God is particularly keen on his followers speaking well and accurately of him. Following in the footsteps of theologians such as Wolfhart Pannenberg and Alister McGrath, I attempt to think about God in a scientific manner.

Again, I define theology as “the science of God.” But what exactly is a science? Surely one cannot study God in the same way that she studies biology! Broadly defined, a science is a body of knowledge of a particular subject organized in a systematic fashion. In other words, science is a type of approach to the inquiry of something. Alister McGrath highlights in his 3-volume A Scientific Theology that scientific knowledge is always a posteriori (after the fact) rather than a priori (before the fact). When a scientist approaches her object of inquiry, she must let that object be the primary determiner of how it will be studied. Suppose I want to inquire into the nature of plants, i.e. botany. If I approach the study of plants with a theory or method that I have determined before engaging plants themselves then I am likely either to misunderstand my experiments and observations of the plants, or I am likely to take everything I learn about the plants and twist it in order to fit my previously held theory or method. This is not what science is. In science, we allow the objects of inquiry (henceforth referred to as particulars) to determine the methods of inquiry. Sure, we will always approach particulars with preconceived ideas concerning their natures and structures, but these preconceived ideas, or theories, are not static. Our theories and methods of inquiry are always subject to changes as we continue to engage the particulars. This is what the philosopher of science, Roy Bhaskar, referred to as critical realism.

Critical realism is an approach to science that acknowledges that inquiring subjects are not merely passive when examining the data of particulars. Our minds are actively interpreting and organizing the data into systems in order to make sense of them. As a result, it is always possible that we have misunderstood, or obtained misinformation, about the particulars. Critical realism is critical in that it is aware of this phenomenon and is always open to revising its understanding. It is realism in that it acknowledges that there is an external reality into which the inquirer is inquiring. According to realism, there is an actual reality, an actual something, that bears upon our senses causing us to perceive it. What we perceive is not merely a figment of our imaginations, nor is it only a construction of our minds. There is, objectively, something that is outside us that forces itself on our senses resulting in our perception of it. Critical realism acknowledges this while also acknowledging that our minds, due to our traditions and languages, do not passively receive sensory data; rather, they actively receive it. Our minds do organize and make sense of our sensory perceptions without our being immediately conscious of it. As previously noted, this makes it possible that we have misperceived reality.

Again, theology is the science of God. Being a science, theology allows its object of inquiry, the Triune God subsisting in Father, Son, and Spirit, to determine how the theologian inquires into him. In the same way that a biologist begins her inquiry into a living organism as it is present to her, so must the theologian with God, i.e. she must allow how God presents himself to her to determine how she inquires into him. This is what theologians refer to as the doctrine of revelation. We will talk more about revelation in future posts, but suffice it to say, for now, that one can only know God as he makes himself known, or reveals himself, to her. As an Evangelical, I affirm that God has made himself known in the historical Jesus of Nazareth, Holy Scripture, and universal history (what many German theologians refer to as Geschichte). The first two of these, Jesus of Nazareth and Holy Scripture, are our two primary sources of theological knowledge. If one wants to inquire into the nature and character of God, then she must look to how he has revealed himself in Jesus and Scripture. Oversimplified, these two sources make up the theologian’s particulars.

I am aware that I have thrown a lot of dense material at you in a short amount of space! I’m sure you might even be wondering what’s the point of all this stuff on science. I’m more than happy to tell you! Every single person is a theologian whether she realizes it or not. Even atheists practice a type of negative theology, i.e. God is not. In a sense, they are atheologians. Every person, theist or atheist, has beliefs about God, be they positive (God is) or negative (God is not). If these are genuine beliefs, then they take the form of propositions. A proposition (or a statement) is a sentence that either corresponds to reality or it does not. As such it has a truth value: it is true or it is false. All beliefs, whether theological or whatever, are either true or false. Our beliefs either correspond to reality or they do not. Our thoughts about God either correspond to reality or they do not. As a result, beliefs have consequences. If I do not believe that the red traffic light does not signify the imperative “Stop,” and I run right through it then I have subjected myself to the consequences of possibly causing an accident or getting a ticket. Whether or not these consequences obtain, there is another consequence: I have broken the law, whether I believe I have or not. Not only this, but our beliefs about the world determine how we live in it. What we believe about God has consequences. Some beliefs have different consequences than others. As Christians, we are already aware that certain beliefs about God, Jesus, and Scripture have consequences. Also, our beliefs about God determine how we live in this world. All this to say, it matters what and how we think about God. We, therefore, ought to take utmost care in how we inquire into his nature and character. If we take care in how we inquire into the natural and social worlds realizing that our beliefs about them have consequences, i.e. through science, then why would we treat our inquiry into the nature of God any differently? If we take the utmost care into how we inquire into the natural and social worlds, then how much more so should we take care when inquiring into the nature of the divine?

I hope this is not too daunting! I promise, this might seem so now, but upcoming posts will prove that this endeavor is not as intense as it might seem at the moment! To paraphrase our Lord, I will not forsake you in these dense theological waters! This post has been a discussion on the scientific nature of theology. I want quickly to point out that this is not the only nature theology has! Theology also has narrative nature, a hermeneutical nature, and a dramatic nature. I have discussed the scientific nature of theology first because it is concerned primarily with the accuracy of propositions concerning God. I aim to use the scientific nature of theology as a type of foundation for discussing the other aforementioned natures of theology. My next post will be on one of these others, though I am not sure at the moment which it will be. I hope this post has been helpful and stimulating for you, and I look forward to writing my next post. Until then, let’s already attempt to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, souls, and minds! Be blessed!

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