Is Theology a Science?

This question is, of course, way too large to address in only one post. However, I was reading Berkhof’s Introduction to Systematic Theology (which is included in the Eerdman’s edition of his Systematic Theology), and I found a really fascinating discussion of this question that was eminently clear and precise. So, what I want to do here is to set forth Berkhof’s arguments and see what people think.

The question revolves around the definitions of the two terms. What one means by “theology” and what one means by “science” will carry the day in answering the question. It seems fairly obvious that if theology is a science, it is a science that is different from the “normal” sciences we think of today (e.g., physics, chemistry, biology, etc.). With the advent of Kant’s denial that human beings can truly know anything beyond what the senses can apprehend (Kant did not deny the existence of things beyond the realm of the phenomenal world; rather, he posited that they were objects of faith, not knowledge), theology as a science has fallen on hard times.

Berkhof makes the point that many people wanted to retain the idea that theology is a science, but they wanted to do so while being persuaded of Kant’s position. This meant that they had to make theology into a science of observable things (see p. 46). What is observable is the human psyche. So theology had to be redefined as the science of religion (as opposed to the majority definition in church history of theology being the ectypal (creaturely) knowledge of God). In other words, it became the science of what we can observe happening in human beings when confronted with the supernatural. It was thought that the supernatural itself could not be the object of scientific study, but our reaction to the supernatural could be observed.

Berkhof notes several problems with this train of thought. Firstly, this is too narrow a definition of science. If science is limited exclusively to the realm of what we can observe with our senses, then what of those branches of science that deal with the philosophy of science? The material they work with is not sensory information, but is dependent on rational intuition (pp. 46-47).

A second problem Berkhof raises is that science, like theology, is also dependent on revelation. Without a revealed world, science would have nothing to study. As hard as science often tries to get away from revelation, it cannot escape natural revelation at all.

A third problem is that the physical sciences and theology both have tests that can be performed. The physical sciences use the laboratory, whereas theology uses Scripture as a test.

Now, Berkhof asserts that theology is not a science in the same way that the natural sciences are. Theology has a different method, a method determined by the subject matter. However, the question may be raised as to whether science can be reduced to the scientific method. Remember the original meaning of the Latin scientia, which means “knowledge.” Most scientists today would deny that anyone can know God as an object of knowledge. They would typically say that one can only believe in God. However, such a position completely ignores the possibility of the Bible being revelation from God to us. We can know God through His revelation of Himself. That we believe the Bible is God’s revelation does not mean that theology is still all a matter of belief and not of knowledge. The scientist himself has to believe that the tools of his trade are trustworthy (his senses, and his reason). Does that make his field less an object of knowledge and only a matter of belief? Then neither does belief in the Bible as God’s revelation mean that theology is all reducible to belief and has no component of knowledge in it. In short, theology, when rightly defined, is a science, when science is understood in the above way.

25 Comments

  1. ackbeet said,

    November 5, 2014 at 4:54 pm

    Another big difference is that in the physical sciences, the object of study is both below us, and something we control. In the science of theology, the object of study is above us, and controls us!

  2. Don said,

    November 5, 2014 at 5:10 pm

    There seems to be an incongruity in Berkhof’s third problem: “Scripture as a test” is not very much like physical-science tests. I don’t see how one performs tests on Scripture. I think it would be more appropriate to say that Scripture is the standard that tests one’s theology?

    then what of those branches of science that deal with the philosophy of science?

    Could you explain this? What “branches of science” are being referred to here?

  3. Pete Rambo said,

    November 5, 2014 at 6:33 pm

    Interestingly, both scientific and theological results can be skewed by the paradigm with which the student approaches. To wit, evolutionists ignoring evidence contrary to their paradigm.

  4. roberty bob said,

    November 5, 2014 at 7:36 pm

    From Acts 26:22-26

    Paul: I stand here to testify to small and great alike. I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen — that the Christ would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would proclaim light to his own people and to the Gentiles.

    Festus: [interrupting, shouting] You are out of your mind, Paul! Your great learning is driving you insane.

    Paul: I am not insane, most excellent Festus. What I am saying is true and reasonable. The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe . . . ?

    ………

    Our theology is based on two key public events done out in the open on the world stage, and witnessed by many. There’s a good core of data out there for doing science, not to mention the holy scriptures to aid in the interpretation.

    Theology — Queen of the Sciences [it was once held in royal esteem]

  5. Rob de Roos said,

    November 6, 2014 at 8:32 am

    Perhaps another aspect of theology as science is the realization that the British-American parlance of the term “science” has taken a more empirical turn since the early 19th century where as the German and French terms for science would seem to have more in common with the term of what use to used for the coinage of science, that of natural philosophy. The British-American coinage would seem to have a built in reductionism where the German French coinage would seem to allow a use that would include the things such as fact and value, human intentionality, consciousness- you know, the stuff that Nagel’s book, Mind and Cosmos discussed that caused the evolutionary community to go viral.

  6. greenbaggins said,

    November 6, 2014 at 9:28 am

    Adrian, yes, that is also something that Berkhof mentioned but which I did not include. Good for you to mention it.

    Don, what Berkhof means is that Scripture IS the test by which all our theology is judged.

    Pete, yes, that is often the case. Of course, then the question arises as to whether the paradigm one has is the biblical paradigm or not. There is a biblical paradigm. There is a system (see, for instance, the “pattern of sound words” in 2 Timothy 1:13, or the “faith once for all delivered to the saints” in Jude 3). The big question is whether the paradigm arises out of Scripture or not. Everyone, of course, has a paradigm, ESPECIALLY those who claim not to have one. They have the most pernicious paradigms of all, but of course they cannot acknowledge that they have one. The human brain is hardwired to synthesize truth into a manageable core. And, of course, the nature of God also points in this direction. He is a God who cannot lie, which means that the Bible is wholly consistent.

  7. CD-Host said,

    November 6, 2014 at 9:55 am

    Since you asked for responses let me do that. Though I’m going to appear rather dogmatic. “The question may be raised as to whether science can be reduced to the scientific method” and I’m going to answer with an unqualified “yes”. If you can’ perform observational independent repeatable experiments, it isn’t science. So in particular your example of Philosophy of Science is not a science either. It is part of philosophy. That’s not to say that Philosophy of Science may not in testing some of its theories be able to conduct observational independent repeatable experiments but where it can’t one isn’t doing science one is doing philosophy.

    Similarly Theology where can conduct observationally independent repeatable experiments is doing science. It is possible to derive some theological knowledge (when this defined as merely knowledge about what the bible asserts and nothing more) through science. One could say for example “there are 131 verses that address topic X, 117 assert Y the other 14 are neutral thus Y is our conclusion” that’s science. But the moment one steps away from that into any sort of broader theme it isn’t science anymore. Theology cannot construct the majority of its theories using science, and hence it isn’t rightfully a science. Particularly bad for Berkhof is that he posits an observational dependency in that the elect / sanctified have special insights into scripture due to interaction with the Holy Spirit.

  8. Josh said,

    November 6, 2014 at 10:17 am

    Berkhof may be right that theology is a science when we define our terms a certain way. However, the term “science” today is often associated with post-positivism.

    Post-positivism holds that we cannot know anything for sure. We can only falsify our theories. Thus, the “scientific method” usually involves testing the null hypothesis to, essentially, see if we are wrong. I think it’s a pretty good approach to empirical study of the natural world (including social science), but it’s not an appropriate way to approach Scripture.

    Rather than trying to re(re)define the way society uses the word “science,” I wonder if we’re better off arguing that science is not the only way of knowing things.

  9. David Reece said,

    November 6, 2014 at 12:04 pm

    If Science is knowledge, then the only knowledge available to man is the knowledge of the Truth which God has revealed in the Holy Scriptures.

    If by Science we mean the use of faulty sensory experience, induction and the logically fallacious hypothetical deductive method, then thankfully Theology is not that kind of science (so called).

    Read Gordon Clark on the Philosophy of Science and Belief in God (120 pages or so). Read the Scripturalism of Gordon Clark by Gary Crampton (80 pages). Read Lord God of Truth by Clark (40 pages). Read Of the Teacher by Augustine.

    The Bible alone is a source of knowable truth to man in this age.

    The Bible Alone is the Word of God.

  10. Jay Ryder said,

    November 6, 2014 at 2:08 pm

    Far too many neo-reformed folks frame their debates in post-Kantian terms. The historical fathers knew nothing of Kant’s false dichotomy and were wise enough to know not to base their formulations primarily on refutations of false belief.

    Go back pre-Kant, and the universities and institutions of education placed theology as the queen of the sciences. That is the rightful place for theology, because without a right view of ourselves, the world, and our creator, science will be limited, if not outright distorted, in all areas of specialization.

    The best that science alone can offer is a deconstructed mass of data. The need will always exist to systematize the data into overarching themes, narratives, and concepts. The realm of natural law is limited in making sense of all of these, not to mention the handicaps of the natural mind, which is corrupted by sin.

    Thus, theology needs to be restored to its rightful place as queen of the sciences. imo.

  11. Jay Ryder said,

    November 6, 2014 at 2:21 pm

    (For what may have been perhaps the first time I ever remember agreeing with him…) DG Hart earlier this year addressed this topic from the perspective of the old Princeton men who regarded systematic theology as the telos of biblical and theological investigation. :
    http://oldlife.org/2014/07/queen-sciences/

  12. Don said,

    November 6, 2014 at 4:22 pm

    Greenbaggins 6,

    Don, what Berkhof means is that Scripture IS the test by which all our theology is judged.

    That is fine, by itself. But then I do not see the advantage of trying to make an analogy between theological tests and physical-science experiments. One could say that empirical observations are the test by which physical-science theories are judged. However, the empirical observations are dependent not only upon the way in which the observations are collected and the theories underlying the experiment, but there are ways in which observations depend upon the state of the observer. That is, the judging standard (the empirical observation) has objective and subjective limitations and dependencies on what is being judged (the theory). I think it is quite dangerous to flip the analogy back and say that Scripture depends, objectively and subjectively, on the theology it is evaluating.

  13. November 6, 2014 at 10:48 pm

    I think it was Aquinas who first defended the idea of theology as science. Someone can correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t believe that the Reformers attempted to refute Aquinas on this front. Aquinas was writing well before anyone had tried to associate “science” with a system of knowledge about the natural world. Science in the Medieval understanding was a connected body of demonstrated truths which could be systematized, and from which further knowledge could be obtained by accepted methodologies.

    In the Christian West both Catholic and Protestant worlds saw theology as a fixed set of truths which could be codified and analyzed in order that further truths could be derived from this received body of knowledge.

    And much later it was Vos who defended theology as science in much the same way.

  14. greenbaggins said,

    November 7, 2014 at 10:44 am

    CD-Host, thanks for the response. Berkhof answers your objection by noting that the observational definition of science is too narrow. I would agree with Berkhof here, and against most modern culture.

    Don, Scripture does not depend in any way on the subjective state of the interpreter, that is quite correct. However, our theology does depend *partially* on our subjective state. The theology of a regenerate person, for instance, will be quite different than the theology of an unregenerate person. I would think the nature of the analogy would be more fruitfully carried on in this direction, rather than trying to make Scripture subjective.

  15. Don said,

    November 7, 2014 at 2:04 pm

    Greenbaggins 14,
    That’s why I think the analogy does not work, there is nothing in the physical sciences that is comparable to the position of Scripture.

    More generally, we seem to agree that theology is not a science according to the most common modern definition of science (at least in English, as Rob de Roos points out). I’m not sure how saying “Theology is a science” using a semi-archaic definition of science is going to a) promote theology or b) avoid confusion.

  16. Steve Drake said,

    November 8, 2014 at 9:03 am

    As finite beings, neither the secularist nor the regenerate, by means of logic, can legislate the nature of reality. Knowing this, the secularist attempts the impossible. On one hand he imbibes chance, irrationally assigns being to it, and claims his mind and the world he lives in are its result. On the other hand he assumes reality is rationally constituted and answers exhaustively to ‘his’ logical manipulations.

    Theology, formerly known as the queen of the sciences, was so named, because it gives the foundation for logic, uniformity, and the deductive method of all the other physical sciences. Without it, the secularist, as Van Til would point out, cannot account for his philosophy of fact.

  17. CD-Host said,

    November 8, 2014 at 5:14 pm

    @Steve

    On one hand he imbibes chance, irrationally assigns being to it, and claims his mind and the world he lives in are its result. On the other hand he assumes reality is rationally constituted and answers exhaustively to ‘his’ logical manipulations.

    He doesn’t assume reality is rationally constituted. He proves it by showing that he is able to make predictive statements about future sense perceptions based on past and present sense perceptions. In an irrational world such a thing would not be possible, since he can do so he lives in at least a mostly rational world. And then from there he can then construct a probabilistic epistemology and through experiment cap the likelihoods of “irrational events” at every decreasing probabilities.

  18. Steve Drake said,

    November 8, 2014 at 7:08 pm

    @CD-Host,

    He doesn’t assume reality is rationally constituted. He proves it by showing that he is able to make predictive statements about future sense perceptions based on past and present sense perceptions.

    The epitome of circular reasoning no less, for his ‘experience’, by his own assumption, rests once again on ultimate chance; a non-entity with no being and thus no power. He’s caught in the proverbial Gordian knot by attributing instrumental power to nothing. Something caused by nothing of course, is in effect self-created. Self-creation, violating the law of noncontradiction, is irrational. His system defunct, he seeks relief from this rationalist/irrationalist dialectical tension, claiming through his own efforts he can lift himself up, camouflauging his ‘discoveries’ with obfuscatory language. But alas, he cannot explain ‘facts’ in any meaningful way for he ignores and hates the fact-giver. A sorry situation indeed.

  19. CD-Host said,

    November 9, 2014 at 1:15 am

    @Steve

    His experience doesn’t rest on an assumption, it is an experience. I don’t assume I’m 5’10” I have experience of being 5’10”. There is no need to assume something that is directly experienced. Further there is no way “nothing” could have instrumental power, that sentence, “He’s caught in the proverbial Gordian knot by attributing instrumental power to nothing” doesn’t even make sense. It is like saying Christians are caught in a proverbial Gordian knot of bumble bees and rubber tires. Scientists / empiricists attribute instrumental power to those phenomena which are subject to massive numbers of repeatable experiments against predictions based on mathematical laws — far from nothing.

    I don’t want to keep flowing down this rabbit hole. Josh #8 is quite right in his characterization the view and the definition of science come out of post-positivism as a epistemological framework. There is no existential crisis or battle with nihilism. There is no tension. Facts are explained via. mathematically verifiable models and sense experience underlies it all as being the ultimate confirmation of truth.

  20. November 9, 2014 at 9:20 am

    […] target of theirs in the past.  Well, a couple days ago he put up an interesting post asking ‘Is Theology a Science?‘ wherein he was exploring some of Berkhof’s thoughts on comparing physical science and […]

  21. Steve Drake said,

    November 9, 2014 at 9:38 am

    @Cd-Host,

    Ah, yes. I too do not want to go down the rabbit hole with a self-denial that your sense perceptions have any validity in a chance universe. Claiming that mathematical laws and the logic of deductive principles are just ‘there’ and can be used by the scientist without accounting for the why and how of the scientist using them in the first place is another epitome: the epitome of self-denial. The God-hater, unfortunately, is really good at this. Romans 1:18-21, a passage I’m sure you’re familiar with, speaks to this.

    Science could only be possible with a Judeo-Christian foundation. Current secular scientists, not willing to acknowledge their Creator, purloin the foundational principles of the Christian system, calling them their own through the language of positivism, and tell us that science is the only arbiter of truth.

    We see the parlor trick CD-Host. The gig is up.

  22. November 11, 2014 at 12:02 am

    […] the Presbyterian Church in America and is pastor of Lebanon Presbyterian Church in Winnsboro, S.C. This article appeared on his blog and is used with […]

  23. November 14, 2014 at 5:19 am

    […] Keister looked at this question recently over at Green Baggins, providing a look at Louis Berkhof’s overview of the […]

  24. peter said,

    June 13, 2016 at 10:41 am

    If there is no creator, or the creator is not the one indicated in the Christian bible. How can anything written in this article be true, how do we KNOW. You can’t escape the fact the foundation of Christian theology is belief without knowing. The bible is hardly as reliable as our ability to observe, measure and test the natural world in the here and now.

  25. greenbaggins said,

    June 13, 2016 at 2:26 pm

    Peter, thanks for the reply, and welcome to the blog. I would answer your query by saying several things.

    Firstly, the senses can be easily deceived.

    Secondly, you must have just as much faith (if not more) in human reason and observation as I do in God’s infallible Word if you are going that route. You cannot escape faith, simply because we are all finite beings, and are not the first cause. Because we are derivative, we ALL take some things on faith, even and especially the person who doesn’t believe he is doing so. You, for instance, seem at least to BELIEVE that observation and reason are more reliable than the Bible. But you cannot prove that observation and reason are more reliable than the Bible without assuming the very thing you set out to prove. There is your faith.

    Thirdly, since I believe the Bible is actually given to us by God, on that presupposition (which, of course, is no more provable than your belief and trust in human reason and observation) I have an infallible source of information, an infallible bedrock on which to rely, whereas you do not. Human reason and observation can easily err. God cannot. You have faith in your fallible human reason and observation. I have faith in the infallible Word of God.

    The fact is that we would both use logic and reason. The difference is that I believe logic and reason are derivative from God. You believe that they function in human autonomy. Therein lies the true difference between our positions.


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