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Scientific Theology and Dogmatics

So, it’s early on Saturday morning and I’m not sure why I’m really awake.  I fell asleep last night while trying to compare translations of Exodus around 11:40.  I’m preaching on Exodus 14:19-31 in a couple weeks and figured I might as well get started now before all heck breaks loose around here next week with orientation.

I also began two new reading adventures.  The first is for a class, Scientific Theology.  As many of you know my background is in Physics/Computer Science and then two years ago I switched to theology.  Last Spring I was introduced to the work of T.F. Torrance, who some regard as the greatest theologian of the second half of the 20th Century (most agree that Barth was the biggest name in the first half).  He sought to combine the insights of the natural sciences as tools to help in our understanding of theology.  After all, Torrance, and many before him, argue that since God is the creator of all things seen and unseen (a basic Christian doctrine of Creation) that the world around us should help us understand God better.  In some circles you will hear people speak of “Natural Revelation” or “General Revelation” vs. “Special Revelation”.  This is true of Calvin as well as many of the Reformed Confessions (Westminster in particular comes to mind).  Well, as my good friend Matt Bell points out, as well the great Karl Barth, there is somewhat of a flaw in this thinking.  It is true that God has spoken through his Word, but why do we insist on creating two categories of revelation – one general, one special?  Karl Barth founds this especially troubling since “Natural Theology”, which many theologians love to talk about today, contributed a great deal to the rise of Hitler in Germany, as he mixed a theology of Aryan supremacy drawn from “Natural theology” with political rhetoric.  Barth’s point was that no, there was no general revelation, all was special revelation.  After all, there is but one God, and we only know of God through his actions.  After all, there is no knowledge of a non-acting God.  Theologians even speak of the “being-act” of God.  Since God is not a being in the sense of which we think of one (flesh and bones, physical location, etc.) we really know God’s “being”, the inner workings and nature of God, only through his actions, whether that be as Scripture bears witness to God or as we view the nature of the world around us.  By eliminating the two categories, Barth argued that Hitler had to be wrong – what he has concluded by “natural theology” couldn’t be so, because it contradicted how God had spoken in scripture.  However, getting back to the main point, Torrance (and others) reclaimed the connection between the created world and the study of theology with the following hypothesis.  If God is both the author of the world (God’s Works) and scripture (God’s Word) shouldn’t the two be natural partners?  Torrance’s answer was yes, and he seemingly bases everything on a scientific method, including his exegetical method.  Torrance, who is now in his 90’s and in somewhat poor health has passed the mantle onto Alister McGrath who has taken up the charge with a new three volume set entitled “Scientific Theology”.  Volume 1, which I have just taken up and will be reading this term for a independent study is subtitled “Nature”.  
     In the first chapter, which I finished last night, McGrath lays out a brief history of the various partners of theology, including its long time dance partner philosophy, and more recently its whore of a partner the social sciences.  One of my professors, Andrew Purves, whose specialty is Pastoral Theology, believes that theology recently has let the social sciences control it, to the detriment of Christians everywhere, and to this point, McGrath agrees.  After all, social sciences operate from a naturalistic framework which is entirely incompatible with Christian theology.  At least Philosophy would admit the possible existence of God.  McGrath believes however that unlike Philosophy and the Social Sciences, which have two often becomes Lord’s over theology (just look at the impact of Kant upon the theology of Harnack, Hegel, and Schleriermacher)the natural sciences are an appealing and natural partner.  After all, as he has and others have pointed out, God’s Word and God’s Works should help shed some light on one another.  In the next chapter he’s going to lay out his methodology for doing a Scientific Theology
     The second project I began last night is a continuation of my independent reading of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics.  Barth’s massive 13 volume systematic theology covers over 9000 pages of small print.  It’s divided as follows
Volume 1: The Word of God
Volume 2: The Doctrine of God
Volume 3: The Doctrine of Creation
Volume 4: The Doctrine of Reconciliation.
Each individual volume is broken down into parts.  So for example, there is Vol 1.1, 1.2, 2.1, 2.2, 3.1, 3.2, 3.3, 3.4, 4.1, 4.2, 4.3.1, 4.3.2, 4.4.  I started by reading 4.1 on my own and finally completed it after fifteen months.  I had planned on continuing onto 4.2, but had also thought about beginning 2.1, Barth’s Doctrine of God.  Ultimately I started at the beginning, 1.1, where Barth lays out some of the foundations for Dogmatics.  It turned out to be an interesting choice and there are a lot of parallels between McGrath’s discussions and Barth’s.  Barth’s most interesting point is that theology as a science really has no reason for existing.  It is pointless to exist because it shouldn’t have to exist as a separate field, since all that was created and all that is of God.  He says that theology exists because there is a void there.  He also says that theology, the task of talking about God, belongs exclusively to the church and here I agree.  Too many people today, and sadly many of them get a lot of press, claim to be doing theology or talking about Jesus outside the church.  The problem is, you can’t do that.  We all know how irritating it is when someone who thinks they have a clue starts talking about something we know a lot more about, and such is the case when those outside the church get on their high horses and talk about God like they know something.  They usually resort to bad theology (aka the Divinci Code) or abstract philosophy and never truly engage in the task of theology, serious discussion of what God has done and said in history.  We have fine “scholars” who have decided what Jesus really said and did, the Jesus Seminar (As you might know, I’m consider these guys sham scholars who have been successfully destroyed by real scholars across the liberal and conservative spectrum).  Yet this what happens when people outside the church take on the task of theology.  Why?  Theology must begin with Faith, there’s no two ways about it.  Faith is what makes theology theology, and not just philosophy or anthropology.  Without faith one cannot know God, because part of knowing about God includes knowing God.  Hence, those outside the church who do not have faith, cannot be theologians.  

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