Theology is a science. Many disagree vociferously and claim that there is a big gap between science and theology. Science, they say, is that which we learn through empirical inquiry and investigation, whereas theology springs from those inflamed by religious emotions. Historically, however, systematic theology has been understood to be a science.
THEOLOGY AND SCIENCE
The word science comes from the Latin word that means “knowledge.” Christians believe that through God’s divine revelation, we have real knowledge of God. Theology could not rightly be called a science if knowledge of God were impossible. The quest for knowledge is the essence of science. The science of biology is a quest to gain a knowledge of living things, the science of physics is an attempt to gain knowledge about physical things, and the science of theology is an attempt to gain a coherent, consistent knowledge of God.
All sciences use paradigms or models that change or shift over time. A paradigm shift is a significant change in the scientific theory of a given discipline. If you were to come across a high school physics textbook from the 1950s, you would see that some of the theories presented then have been demolished. No one takes them seriously because there have been significant shifts in the theories of physics in the years since then. The same thing happened when Newtonian physics replaced earlier theories of physics. Then Albert Einstein came along and created a new revolution, and we had to adjust our understanding of physics again. A paradigm shift occurs when a new theory replaces an old one.
That which usually provokes paradigm shifts in the natural sciences is the presence of anomalies. An anomaly is a detail or a minor point that does not fit into a particular theory; it is something for which the theory cannot account. If one attempts to fit ten thousand details into a coherent picture, much like working with a ten-thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle, and can make all the pieces fit except for one, most scientists consider that to be a good paradigm. The assembled structure that fits together in 9,999 ways will make sense of and account for almost every bit of data explored. However, if there are too many anomalies – if a significant amount of data cannot be tied into the structure – the theory falls apart.
When anomalies become too numerous or too weighty, the scientist is forced to go back to the drawing board, to challenge the assumptions of previous generations, and to construct a new model that will make sense of the new discoveries or pieces of information. That is one of the reasons why we see constant change and significant progress in the sciences.
When it comes to understanding the Bible, the approach is different. Theological scholars have been working with the same information for two thousand years, which is why a dramatic paradigm shift is unlikely. Of course, we do gain new nuggets of precise understanding, such as the nuance of a Greek or a Hebrew word that earlier generations of scholars did not have at their disposal. Yet most of the shifts in theology today are not driven by new discoveries from archaeology or from the study of ancient languages; they are most often driven by new philosophies that appear in the secular world and by attempts to achieve syntheses or integration between those modern philosophies and the ancient religion revealed in Scripture.
That is why I tend to be a conservative theologian. I doubt I will ever come up with an insight that has not already been worked over in great detail by greater minds than mine. In fact, when it comes to theology, I am not interested in novelty. If I were a physicist, I would try constantly to come up with new theories to satisfy nagging anomalies, but I consciously refrain from doing that when it comes to the science of theology.
Sadly, many are quite willing to pursue novelty. In academia, there is always pressure to come up with something new and creative. I recall a man who sought to prove that Jesus of Nazareth never existed, but was instead the mythological creation of members of a fertility cult while they were under the influence of psychoactive mushrooms. His thesis certainly was novel, but it was as absurd as it was new.
Of course, this fascination with novelty is not unique to our era. The Apostle Paul encountered it among the philosophers at Mars Hill in Athens (Acts 17:16-34). We do want progress in our knowledge and growth in our understanding, but we have to be careful not to be lured into the temptation to come up with something new just to be novel.
THE SOURCES OF SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY
The principal source for the systematic theologian is the Bible. In fact, the Bible is the primary source for all three theological disciplines: biblical theology, historical theology, and systematic theology. The task of biblical theology is to consider the data of Scripture as it unfolds over time, and this work serves as a source for the systematic theologian. A biblical scholar goes through the Scriptures and studies the progressive development of terms, concepts, and themes in both the Old and New Testament to see how they are used and understood over the course of the history of revelation.
A problem in seminaries today is a method of doing biblical theology called “atomism,” in which every “atom” of Scripture stands alone. One scholar might decide to limit himself to studying only Paul’s doctrine of salvation in Galatians, while another focuses exclusively on Paul’s teaching on salvation in Ephesians. The result is that each comes up with a different view of salvation – one from Galatians and another from Ephesians – but there is a failure to examine how the two views harmonize. The presupposition is that Paul was not inspired by God when he wrote Galatians and Ephesians, so there is no overarching unity, no coherence, to the Word of God. In recent years, it has been common to hear theologians claim that we find not only differences in theology between “early” Paul and “late” Paul, but also as many theologies in the Bible as there are authors. There is Peter’s theology, John’s theology, Paul’s theology, and Luke’s theology, and they do not fit together. That is a negative view of the coherence of Scripture, and it is the danger when one focuses only on a narrow piece of the Bible without at the same time considering the whole framework of the biblical revelation.
The second discipline, another source for systematic theology, is historical theology. Historical theologians look at how doctrine has developed in the life of the church historically, primarily at crisis points – when heresies emerged and the church responded. Theologians today become frustrated when so-called brand-new controversies arise in churches and seminaries, because the church has experienced each of these seemingly fresh theological disputes time and time again in the past. The church historically has met in councils to settle dis-putes, such as at the Council of Nicea (AD 325) and the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451). Studying those events is the function of historical theologians.
The third discipline is systematic theology. The systematician’s job is to look at the source of biblical data; the sources of the historical developments that come through controversies and church councils and their subsequent creeds and confessions; and the insights of the great minds with which the church has been blessed over the centuries. The New Testament tells us that God in his grace has given teachers to the church (Eph. 4:11-12). Not all teachers are as astute as Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, or Jonathan Edwards. Such men do not have Apostolic authority, but the sheer magnitude of their research and the depth of their understanding profit the church in every age. Thomas Aquinas was called “the doctor angelicus,” or “the angelic doctor,” by the Roman Catholic Church. Roman Catholics do not believe that Aquinas was infallible, but no Roman Catholic historian or theologian ignores his contributions.
The systematician studies not only the Bible and the creeds and the confessions of the church, but also the insights of the master teachers that God has given throughout history. The systematician looks at all the data – biblical, historical, and systematic – and brings it together.
THE VALUE OF THEOLOGY
The real question concerns the value of all such study. Many people believe that theological study holds little value. They say, “I don’t need theology; I just need to know Jesus.” Yet theology is unavoidable for every Christian. It is our attempt to understand the truth that God has revealed to us – something every Christian does. So it is not a question of whether we are going to engage in theology; it is a question of whether our theology is sound or unsound. It is important to study and learn because God has taken great pains to reveal himself to his people. He gave us a book, one that is not meant to sit on a shelf pressing dried flowers, but to be read, searched, digested, studied, and chiefly to be understood.
An important text in the writings of the Apostle Paul is found in his second letter to Timothy: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). That text should put an end to claims that we do not need doctrine or that doctrine has no value. There is profit from a careful study of the Bible. Because the Bible is inspired by almighty God, it gives us a valuable and profitable asset, and that asset is doctrine.
The Bible is profitable also for reproof. The academic world devotes much energy to biblical criticism, sometimes called higher criticism, which is an analytical critique of Scripture. However the biblical criticism in which we ought to engage renders us the object rather than the subject of the criticism. In other words, the Bible criticizes us. When we come to the Word of God, the Word of God exposes our sin. The biblical doctrine of man includes us, as does the biblical doctrine of sin, and we are reproved for our sinfulness when we come to the text of Scripture. We may not listen to the criticism of our peers, but we are wise to heed the criticism of God as it comes to us in sacred Scripture.
Scripture is also profitable for correction from both false living and false belief. Not long ago, at the request of a friend, I read a New York Times best seller about how to become a medium and communicate with the dead. I got about halfway through the book and had to stop reading. There was so much spiritual filth in that book, so much falsehood, that those with even a simple understanding of the law of God in the Old Testament would have been able to detect the lies. Such is the profit of correction from false teaching and false living that we can gain from Scripture.
Finally, Scripture is profitable “for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” The purpose of theology is not to tickle our intellects but to instruct us in the ways of God, so that we can grow up into maturity and fullness of obedience to him. That is why we engage in theology.