Theology … The Queen of the Sciences?

In today’s post I would like to put forth a few ideas for discussion, all related to the claim that theology is the queen of the sciences and how this could or should play out. This isn’t a polished argument, but a desire to start a conversation.

The modern university has its origin in the High Middle Ages (1000-1300) when many of the oldest institutions we know today were founded. In Europe this brought education out of the local monastery or cathedral and into a broader sphere. Theology, however, was “The Queen of the Sciences.” Most education was for the church, and the subjects of study culminated in theology. Other subjects were of value primarily as they served to enable theological thought.

Today it is relatively common to hear a statement about theology as the queen of the sciences made in discussions of science and faith. We are, some suggest, in the midst of a power play to relegate all other forms of knowledge, especially theology, to the tyranny of science and enlightenment rationalism. Theology must, they suggest, retain the privilege of having the last word, and the right to criticize and eliminate from the consideration some kinds of ideas.

Is theology the queen of the sciences?

If this is true, we then must step back and figure out what it means for theology to be the queen of the sciences.

How can we study theology? What tools do we use?

How do we learn about the nature of God?

One of the commenters on my post last week Evangelical Evolutionists … and an Opportunity put forth this kind of argument explicitly in the context of the natural sciences and evolutionary biology.

Is it possible or desirable for a theologian to criticize a scientific idea theologically? Is it possible or desirable for a scientists to criticize a theological idea scientifically? What about other fields as well? Sociology? Economics? Politics? Can a theological criticize a political idea theologically?

The issue that I see is that people tend to get upset when pastors and theologians criticize scientific ideas on theological grounds, but they are perfectly willing to do the reverse.

What I’m getting at (if it isn’t obvious already) is that this seems to be less about science, evidence, and theology, and much more about a power play to make sure that theologians are subservient to scientists, that they recognize their lower status in the modern world, and that the scientists are properly recognized as the real priesthood of the modern age.

And after a response of mine, the commenter came back a little more explicitly:

I agree almost completely with that! One thing to note, however, is that while all truth is God’s truth, the fact is that every discipline only has partial truths (or even untruths, or merely practical truths masquerading as truth), every discipline needs to be open in conversation to comments from other disciplines. While theology should be open to input from other disciplines, ultimately it is the queen of them all. (emphasis added)

This argument is used to diminish the significance of evolution in biology, relegating the idea of evolution to a human construct subject to theological critique and dismissal.

This exchange led me to think about the issues involved in the claim that theology is “the queen of the sciences” a little more carefully. The situation becomes somewhat murkier if we look beyond the natural sciences, or even the social sciences. Theology should be open to input from other disciplines, but ultimately it is the queen of them all? It is not clear, to me at least, what is meant by such a phrase … or how it could or should be applied.  And here it is, perhaps most useful to change gears and move to a different topic.

The Nature of Justification. It appears that many of the same issues that come into play in the discussion of evolution, creation, science and faith, come into play in  the discussion of justification and the new perspective on Paul. The conversation on Scot’s post yesterday, (A) Reformed View of the New Perspective, was fascinating. One of the commenters noted:

I think the nature of the clash is the division of the disciplines of systematic and biblical theology. I read through Wright and Piper’s back and forth and it seemed like they were talking past each other. Wright argues like a historian; Piper like a theologian. Wright, Dunn, Sanders, and Hayes want to ground Paul’s thought in the religious milieu of his day, whereas the conservative Reformed critics of the NPP are looking for a system that harmonizes all of the biblical data even outside of Paul. It’s history versus proof texts.

… The Reformed can’t answer their arguments with proof texts, because the NPP argues that the verses don’t mean what they think they mean. The classic examples of this are the arguments around the phrases “works of the law” and “the faith[fulness] of Jesus Christ.”

In this discussion many want to place theology in the drivers seat. Theology is viewed as an appropriate tool to criticize biblical studies and historians. But it is unclear, for some at least, that historians, students of ancient languages and cultures, or even biblical scholars can be permitted to challenge theology.

Is this what is meant by the idea that theology is the queen of the sciences?

Is it appropriate for historical and textual considerations to challenge theological ideas?

Biblical Interpretation. And we can take one more example. If theology is the queen of the sciences, then theology controls biblical interpretation. That is, the bible is to be interpreted through the lens of theology. Consider the following verse from the story of Noah:

The LORD regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. Gen 6:6 (NIV)

John Calvin’s theology drives his commentary on this verse.

The repentance which is here ascribed to God does not properly belong to him, but has reference to our understanding of him. For since we cannot comprehend him as he is, it is necessary that, for our sakes he should, in a certain sense, transform himself. That repentance cannot take place in God, easily appears from this single considerations that nothing happens which is by him unexpected or unforeseen. The same reasoning, and remark, applies to what follows, that God was affected with grief. Certainly God is not sorrowful or sad; but remains forever like himself in his celestial and happy repose: yet, because it could not otherwise be known how great is God’s hatred and detestation of sin, therefore the Spirit accommodates himself to our capacity. (Commentary on Genesis – Volume 1 Translated by the Rev. John King)

According to John Calvin the verse is not to be read literally because a literal reading of the text would contradict firmly held notions about the nature of God. It is taken as given that God can not regret or repent and he cannot be deeply troubled, he cannot experience grief.

Another example is found in the commentary on Genesis 3. Here John Calvin, reading the text through his theology, concludes that God willed that Adam would Fall. God had determined the future state of mankind. Any other conclusion would be contrary to the nature of God … according to Calvin’s theology.

I don’t mean to claim that Calvin’s theology is necessarily unbiblical. Certainly his reading of the whole of scripture informed his theology. But in this commentary his theology informs his interpretation. There is no sense that Calvin approaches the text open to the idea that he may learn something from Genesis 3 or Genesis 6 about the nature of God.

Is the bible to be read through the lens of theology?

Is this what is meant by the preeminence of theology?

I think all of these examples serve to illustrate a point. Theology is the queen of the sciences only in the sense that it is the fundamental focus that brings coherence to our view of the world and our role in the world. All truth is God’s truth. Theology is not a lens through which we test all other ideas. Our theology, our understanding of the nature of God, has to be informed by the bible, by the things we learn about God’s creation, by the things we learn about history and culture. But it is a feedback loop. Our understanding of the nature of God also informs our appreciation for and interpretation of the wonder of his creation and the story of the past.

If there is no feedback loop in play, theology as the queen of the sciences leads to the tyranny of a human construct, and it will usually be wrong in rather significant ways.

This isn’t a simple problem and there is, of course, much more to be said.

What does it mean to claim that theology is “the queen of the sciences”?

In what way could, or should, theology criticize new ideas or discoveries in science or history?

What does it mean to claim that all truth is God’s truth?

If you wish to contact me directly, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

If you have comments please visit Theology … The Queen of the Sciences? at Jesus Creed.

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