Monday, November 29, 2010

Theory Construction in Theology

For sometime now I have had the reoccurring thought that theology employs theories in much the same way as the natural sciences. Of course, with the natural sciences, theory construction and disconfirmation is patent. We know that if theory T has as a logical consequence P, and if ~P actually turns out true empirically, then there is something wrong with theory T. (Assuming, of course, that one's inferences are in fact deducible theorems of T.) It is all rather straightforward for the scientist - - or at least it seems prima facie so.

A number of years ago I was excited by some of the similarities I found between scientific theory construction and theological construction. It was to me then rather exciting to think that somehow theology uses theories. (I confess to having a bit of the natural theologian in me in those days.) But something has happened. While it is true that I am no longer much excited by the similarities between scientific and theological theory construction, it is not because the seeming similarities have faded for me. No - - it is because it seems to me now patently obvious, and not at all surprising, that theological theory and scientific theory have the same structure. The excitement has faded because there is no longer anything creative in the thought. They just are of the same kind. Let me explain with an example that is not that of natural theology at all.

I am rereading some of the Finnish work on Luther in teaching 'Luther, Justification and Deification' in the Institute of Lutheran Theology Masters of Theology program. Among the many claims made by the Finns is that Luther employs the notion of theosis as a central motif within his theology, that his notion of justification presupposes the unio cum Christo. The way that this is argued is to take a number of themes in Luther, chart the interrelationship between these themes, and then go to the Luther texts to see if perusal experience is consistent with the theory built out of the interrelationship of these themes.

For instance, they argue that the inhabitatio Christi grounds both forensic and effective justification, that the imputational notion of justification is the divine favor or gratia, while the effective notion is the divine donum or gift. While the favor of God addresses the wrath of God, the gift of God pertains to the corruption of our natures. Just as favor of God undergirds the gift of God, so the gift of God grounds the favor of God. For Luther, justification is a unitary process that includes what is often regarded by the Reformation traditions to be sanctification. God gives Himself to His creation in love, and thus all of creation is butressed by the indwelling God. But fallen creation groans in travail for salvation. This salvation is available through the gift of divine love which is the presence of Christ in the believer grasped through faith. Thus, 'x has faith' and 'x has the presence of Christ' are materially equivalent. (I thought about claiming that they were conceptually equivalent, but I can imagine x having faith without x having the presence of Christ. How is this possible? It seems that much of Lutheran Orthodoxy was quite capable of asserting the truth of the former without asserting the truth of the latter.)

Now these general assertions could be clearly stated as propositions of a theory. One would start with some statement such as 'x has the indwelling of Christ if and only if Christ gives himself to x'. One might say then that 'for any divine property P had by D, if x has P, then x has D itself''. After such definitions, one might declare as theoretical postulates that 'for any x, if x has the presence of Christ, then x is justified', and 'for all x, if x is justified, then x is both declared righteous by divine favor, and made righteous by divine gift'. That this would be tedious work, is readily granted; that it would succeed in laying bare the structure of a class of theoretical assertions is only hoped for.

Given that a theory could be structured in which the logical and conceptual relationships between the assertions of the theory were aptly displayed, the question arises as to the applicability. Is this theory applicable to theological reality itself? Is it applicable to a class of texts written within a tradition, or written by a single author? Is it applicable to the Luther texts? Here is seems that what the theory would have to have besides the internal marks of consistency and coherency, are the external characteristics of applicability, adequacy, and fecundity. I shall treat each in turn.

Theory T would be applicable to a class of texts C if and only if it were not disconfirmed by any particular assertions found within C. Theory T would be adequate to a class of texts C if there were not assertions of C that T could not in principle handle. Theory T would be fecund with respect to C if it generated a continuing program of fruitful and creative insights concerning the relationship of T to other theories.

What is different between scientific theory construction and this theological theory construction is what Heidegger called the Befragte, that which is asked questions on the basis of the theory. In natural science theory construction, nature is the Befragte; in theological theory construction it is most often a class of texts that are questioned. To find out what view Luther held, one must be content to advance theoretical models, some of which are contradicted by the texts and some of which are not, some which fit nicely into other overarching theories, and some which do not. Just as we cannot know the Ding an Sich in nature, but must model nature and build a sustainable "take" on nature given our experience with it, so too in theology, we cannot know the mens auctoritatis (mind of the author), but content ourselves with sustainable "reads" on the basis of the Luther texts themselves. Moreover, just as traditional scientific theory must not be easily discarded in favor of newer scientific theory, but generally regarded as authoritative unless directly contradicted by new empirical evidence, so too should newer theological theory not supplant traditional readings unless there is a compelling reason to do so - - a reason arising from a straightforward experience with the Luther texts themselves.

So I find these days in theology that some statements are "more theoretical" and some "less theoretical" on the basis of whether the first are "further removed" from the primary literary experience of reading the text. So too are some theological terms "more concrete" or "less concrete" as to how they cash on the basis of the particular texts. Accordingly, oftentimes the most "theoretical" of terms are those that are presupposed everywhere in our perusal experience without being asserted directly very many times at all! It is of this latter nature, it seems, that the Finnish Lutheran notion of divinization participates.