Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Science and speculation

In comments on another thread we have seen the old question raised, would the Word have been made flesh without the Fall? An interesting question this, one I have thought about a few times. Indeed, I have an arsenal of arguments for saying that the Incarnation was the purpose for which man was made in the image and likeness of God, and that the final end of our salvation, Glorification, strengthens this. I like the whole question, and could spend a lot of time with it.

Nonetheless, we have been reminded that the Scriptures speak of the Incarnation almost exclusively as the means whereby we are saved from sin and death. I say almost, because the most direct statement seems to come across as dependent on almost nothing other than a clear distinction between God and creatures to give it its shocking force: "And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth." (John 1:14) Nonetheless, again I say almost. For, the context of the Incarnation of the Word comes after this (in v.5): "And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not."

The light could be spoken of alone, but Saint John contrasts it against the darkness. Like it or not, we cannot read about the Incarnation, as taught in Scripture, without the fact of the Fall always present. "For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil." (I John 3:8) "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners." (I Tim. 1:15) The emergency of the Fall, like that of a burning building, is our reality, and simple rescue is our need, certainly, before any other consideration.

Theology is science, in fact "the Queen of the sciences." It is not like a science, but rather, it is science. Speculation is fun, and even scientists may speculate in their spare time. Nonetheless, the work of science is to discover truth through empirical data. That is, to discover the objective truth through experimentation, observation or any other genuine experience.

In a simple analogy, people argue the political issue of gun control always on the basis of theory and speculation. But, we have empirical data that proves, very simply, that gun control causes violent crime to increase. Wherever and whenever it has been tried, the experiment has failed, and we can document the opposite result from what was intended by legislation. However, this will not end the speculative basis of gun control advocacy.

In a similar vein, my years as an investigator on the mean streets of Baltimore taught me that no case is safely built on logic. Logic must be present, but a case must be based on a fact. The most cleverly and carefully constructed case may be built on logic, only to be destroyed in a split second by the discovery of one fact. This is why real life homicide detectives never build a prosecution on motive, inasmuch as motive, by itself, is not a fact that proves anything.

What, then is the empirical data of theological science? It is revelation. What fact proves the revelation? Above all, that the disciples of Jesus Christ testified as eyewitnesses that God had raised Him from the dead. Their testimony was sealed in their own blood. Is it a fact of history, then, that Jesus Christ rose from the dead? Well, it is certainly a fact of history that many witnesses saw Him after He rose.

This fact vindicates the empirical data of His own testimony about Himself, giving us further empirical data upon which we practice the scientific discipline of theology. Speculation is fun, and may even touch upon the truth beyond our comprehension. But, we must deal with facts -- yes, glorious and mysterious facts, but facts nonetheless.

Some of our brethren, especially among the fashionable members of the most up to date and stylish Eastern Orthodox churches, criticize the forensic nature of Western theology. They say we emphasize atonement too much, and instead should emphasize theosis (of course, Western theology teaches both, as does proper and genuine Eastern theology). To this, it is best to answer that even the most direct scriptural statements on theosis never stand alone.

For example, let us look at the strongest statement of all about theosis: "Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust." (II Pet. 1:4) The Apostle, Saint Peter, does speak of the glorious end of our salvation, but, as we see, in the realistic context of our current predicament and warfare.

Saint Paul, writing to the Church in Rome, speaks of that same glorious end:

"For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified." (Rom. 8:29, 30)

But, here too, the context does not allow us to wander from the current condition in which we find ourselves. "The creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now." (vs. 21, 22) Indeed, the whole context began in chapter six: "What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein? Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death?" etc.

Chapter seven followed: "O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin."

As glorious as the promise is about the future liberty of the children of God, in Scripture it is never far from the fact of our current condition and struggle. We cannot safely emphasize theosis without joining it to the forensic, propitiatory death of Jesus Christ once for all. And, speculation about what might have been the will of God apart from the Fall is not safely engaged in for long, inasmuch as the reality of our condition is that of emergency and need.

Without realism concerning our present need, we may puff ourselves up into a celestial high that divorces us from humility; some alleged vision that obscures the actual revelation of God's love in favor of something presumably more "spiritual" than we, in our true condition, are able to appreciate. The genuine revelation of God's love, the revelation He has actually given to us to meet our indisputable need, is not glorious in outward appearance, but bloody, terrible and devastating: "God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." (Rom. 5:8)

I enjoy speculation as much as anyone. But, we need first our science. We need our facts, the empirical data of our salvation.


Anonymous said...

Fr H,
You have beat me to the draw, for my next sally would havwe been to develop the point that what is at stake in this contingency-on-the Fall issue is really the proper method for theology. Exegesis or speculation? That's what it comes down to. For Aquinas, Scripture was the final court of appeal, as he so frequently makes clear.

As for our nasty disagreeable "Western" tendency to be "forensic," how do they cope with the fact that a key word (perhaps THE key word) of the central prayer of the central sacrament of the Faith is that ueber-forensic term "covenant,"
like in "this cup is my blood of the New Testament, shed for you and for many, for the remission of sins." We cannot escape the truth that both "Testament" (diathhkh) amd "remission" (aphhsis) are legal terms.

Anonymous said...

Fr Hart,

I agree with you that theology is a science; Hall says it is a science of things divine. My Oxford College Dictionary says that theology is the study of the nature of God and religious belief; religious beliefs and theory when systematically developed. It doesn't mention science at all in connection with theology. The same dictionary defines science as the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment. Okay, so theology, like science, is a systematic study. Theology, like science, makes observations based upon cause and effect reasoning (with God being recognized as the Cause and Source of everything). Since scientists, according to Hall, accept "the universality of order" which is the absolute validity of the law of causation, and since that universality of order is also an integral part of theological studies, it is altogether reasonable in my mind to refer to theology as a science. God Himself, Who exists without prior cause, is the only "uncaused" Cause, minus Whom the whole universality of order collapses.

To speculate, according to the dictionary noted above, is to form a theory or conjecture about a subject without firm evidence. Hall says that the Being of God and the creation doctrine are both morally certain but not demonstrative evidentially; thereby they require grace and disposition to believe. Does that mean they are the product of speculation? For nonbelievers we know this is often their mantra, but with God's supernatural grace His Truth as revealed in Holy Scripture is also our Truth as believers. Spiritual things are discerned spiritually. And Hall points out that it is hard for an unspiritual soul to acknowledge its insufficiency in spiritual matters.

A final thought. Given that science is the systematic study of the structure of the natural world, and we know that God is the Cause and Sustainer of the natural world (indeed, revealing Himself through it according to Tertullian), one can hope that science is and/or will be used by God for His manifestation to those whose hearts have not been yet opened by grace.

Thank you for your wonderful blog!


Anonymous said...

"Hall says that the Being of God and the creation doctrine are both morally certain but not demonstrative evidentially; thereby they require grace and disposition to believe."

Susan, when Hall says the existence of God and doctrine of creation are "morally certain," he means that these are truths revealed in the Scriptures or in God's general revelation.
When he says they are not evidentially demonstrable, he means that they are not based on the kind of empirical data which laboratory sciences rely on. He does not mean that any truths of the faith are derived from mere speculation.

Anonymous said...


In response to your last statement regarding Hall - "He does not mean that any truths of the faith are derived from mere speculation" - my point was that spiritual discernment via God's supernatural grace is the key in cases where truths of the faith are not demonstrative evidentially. Non-believers consider such truths of the faith to be speculation because, as you have stated, "they lack empirical data which lab sciences rely on."

My apologies for any misunderstanding.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for your reply, Susan. The topic is slippery because "evidence" and "speculation" mean different things to believers and unbelievers. For those who have been given the gift of faith, the canonical Gospels and the NT generally constitute strong evidence of the Incarnation. To unbelievers, these documents as such, and any credence given to them, is just a bunch of speculative thought, no different from the Platonic theory of ideas or the pagan notion of the transmigration of souls.

We should clarify in advance how we are using terms. For me, canonical Scripture is evidence. Anything beyond that measuring rod is speculation. Examples of speculation would be the history of the world had Adam not sinned, or the number of angelic choirs, or the sinlessness of the BVM.