Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The science of theology

In attempting to explain the Scientia aspect of theology, Vanhoozer says the following about science (The Drama of Doctrine, Ch. 8, p. 247):
While impersonal empirical procedures may be the mark of modern science, they are not that of Aristotle, Aquinas, or Barth. For Aristotle, a science proceeds from the "first principles" that are intrinsic to some aspect or area of reality. These principles are ontological (real) before they are theoretical (propositional). To be scientific is to approach a subject matter in a way that is appropriate with its first principles. ... For both Aquinas and Barth, Christian theology is the science that approaches its subject matter, God, on the basis of first principles that themselves proceed from God: "For sacred doctrine, those first principles are...scripture and Christ."
I don't think the classical approach gets off on the right foot. The theoretical does precede the ontological, because all language, including the word ontological itself, is theory-laden. Theory is more than a package of propositions. It is something like a "procedure," as Vanhoozer suspects, but more pertinently it is an interpretive matrix. Critical to the whole discussion of epistemology is that a theory is an evolving interpretive matrix. Ontology, for us feeble creatures, is really a bit of a fantasy. We could learn nothing if we didn't already have a theory about how things work. It is only because our theories are constantly being bombarded with corrections that we are able to learn more.

It is telling that Vanhoozer has such a gaping hole in his definition of knowledge, here (next page):
Theories of knowledge come and go, and theology would frankly be ill advised wholly to invest in any single account. Some minimal account of knowledge is, however, needed; hence the following provisional definition: knowledge is the product of a disciplined approach to a particular subject matter.
The irony of this statement is that he gets the first part right: theories come and go, precisely because we are ever-evolving creatures. But his provisional definition of knowledge obviously lacks all accounting for spontaneous increase in knowledge, including those wonderful discoveries which occur mostly by accident. Granted, his main concern in this chapter is discipleship. Yet I don't think it is a trivial matter to completely overlook the way in which knowledge grows more spontaneously than we often believe. Perhaps Vanhoozer ought to remember Barth's words: theology is a free science.

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