A Comparison and Critical Evaluation Between Theology and Science

Introduction

The purpose of this article is to provide a comparison and critical evaluation of two fields of academic discipline, namely, theology and science. It will do this by providing a definition of the two disciplines, along with their content and epistemological method. It will show by way of comparison that Theology is not an academic discipline per se, rather, it is a way of life, prompted by God, as opposed to human curiosity. While theology is set apart from all other academic fields, it is also indispensable for assisting science to remain within its scope, preventing it from turning into a system that produces ideologies.

What is Theology?

If one were to look for the definition of theology in a conventional dictionary, one would find, for all intense purposes, a field of study resembling any other discipline offered within an educational institution. Comparing the definition of theology with that of the discipline of science, for example, it is not difficult to see that both have as foci the attainment of knowledge and the systematic study of their respective subject. Indeed, the term theology contains the word God and thus concerns “the study of the nature of God” as defined in the Concise Oxford English Dictionary (Eleventh Edition). At this point it is clear, on the basis of such definitions, that such academic endeavours presuppose an intellectualism, a method of research that lead to the “unveiling” of the subject. Again, in appealing to the conventional dictionary for a definition of God, it is clear that we are dealing with One who is of another order, one could say a vertical order in relation to humanity and the rest of creation. This being the case, one cannot help but feel unfulfilled with such an introduction to theology which appears to be superficial and one dimensional. Thus the diligent observer, if not for any other reason but curiosity, is led to “discover” the truth concerning theology.

In seeking a fuller definition of theology, whether out of curiosity or having been struck from the profundity of this vertical order encountered within the conventional dictionary, what better place than an academic institution which offers theology as a field of study do we have as recourse? Appealing to such an institution we find the following definition of theology:

Theology is the deeper breathing of the entire Body of the Church which has prayer as its driving force, and the methodical doctrine concerning the truths of faith as its expression, according to the variety of gifts of the Holy Spirit and the needs of each era, to the glory of God and the salvation of the world.[1]

From this definition it is obvious that theology is much more than an academic discipline. More importantly, not only is a persons intellectual faculty demanded of them, but also their entire being. To be a “student” of theology requires exerting oneself so that one’s life conforms to certain principles.

What does this exerting consist of? What are these principles that govern one’s life, or rather, willingly accepted as the means through which one can truly experience life and understand its purpose? Before we can answer these questions we need to consider an important presupposition of theology, that is, how knowledge of God is arrived at. There is no formulation in the above definition of how one arrives to such knowledge that would resemble or even rival the epistemology of another field of study. Rather, the source of all theological knowledge is God himself according to the variety of gifts of the Holy Spirit i.e. knowledge of God does not originate with human beings – it is a gift of the Holy Spirit. Within the field of theology this type of knowledge is known as revelation. As Father Georges Florovsky writes, “Revelation is the voice of God speaking to man. And man hears this voice, listens to it, accepts the Word of God and understands it.”[2] It is for this reason that the theological enterprise is a calling from God, for God initiates and humanity responds to this calling.

Why Does Humanity Theologise?

If then it is God who is the source of knowledge, God who calls humanity to embark on the theological enterprise, naturally, one would then have to ask the question why it is that God calls humanity to such an enterprise. Again we refer to the definition above with reference to the words: to the glory of God and the salvation of the world. Not only is humanity’s destiny revealed with these words but the entire creation. God created the world out of nothing (ex nihilo) in an act of absolute love and freedom, and having done so, it would defy human logic to suggest that the destiny of the world would be other than that which constitutes the love and glory of God. Indeed, the fullness of revelation was revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, who underwent a kenosis by assuming the fullness of human nature uniting it without confusion to His divine nature. The incarnation as St Athanasius the Great says, provides the means through which humanity is transfigured and becomes a God by grace.[3] Thus, the ultimate purpose of theology is to draw humanity into a relationship with God, a relationship which transfigures humanity and glorifies God at the same time. God initiates this relationship and it is precisely for this reason that theology is a way of life and not an academic discipline per se. Moreover, this relationship is intended for all – not just those who have been called to “study” theology in an academic institution.

How does one enter into this relationship which God has initiated – a relationship which brings about the transfiguration of humanity and the whole of creation? One can only do this through a heartfelt and conscious realization that God has initiated the relationship because of His unfathomable love for humanity. Humanity is then in a position to respond positively – a response expressed in the various forms of Christian life resulting in gradual purification. Such a life is grounded in prayer. It is prayer which nurtures and sustains ones relationship with God – through prayer one becomes receptive of the Holy Spirit. “Authentic fundamental theology is learned from the Holy Spirit”.[4] It is for this reason Evagrios of Pontos writes that “A theologian is a person who prays and the person who truly prays is a theologian”.[5]

How Does Humanity Theologise?

Having analysed the crux of theology, we now refer to its aspect which to a certain extent resembles the scientific method i.e. theology as the methodical doctrine concerning the truths of faith as its expression.There are predominantly two methods used in the Eastern Orthodox Church for theologising. The first is known as Kataphatic theology and the second as Apophatic theology. Kataphatic theology is used for the expression and proclamation of the truths of the faith in a positive manner i.e. it is replete with content. The truths of the faith must be expressed and proclaimed to the glory of God and the salvation of humanity. Given the methods nature, it is critical that the truths are expressed with precision. Failure to do so, particularly within a tradition that is extremely rich may lead to contradiction within the faith, to a so called “reductionism” over emphasising certain aspects and more importantly to heresy. It is for this reason that theology employs those methods from the scientific community that lend to the precise formulation of creeds, canons and dogmas.[6]

On the other hand, in expressing knowledge of God, apophatic theology acknowledges the mystery of revelation and so its articulation of the faith takes on a negative form, “stripping human categories, thoughts, concepts and reason from the mystery of God”.[7] Human beings are of the created order and thus possess the means through which they can accurately articulate and define existence within this created order. As a result, humans cannot appeal to science and technology to comprehend the Divine. It is for this reason as Stanley Harakas writes that when expressing truths of the faith often one resorts to “art, poetry, song, literature – through aesthetic and emotional means, than by rationality.”[8]

Science

In contrast, the pursuit of knowledge and truth (in the secular sense) within science, although not limited to, predominantly employs the empirical approach. This approach to inquiry is based on gathering observable, empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning. Scientists propose hypotheses as explanations of phenomena, and design experimental studies to test these hypotheses. These steps must be repeatable in order to dependably predict any future results. Furthermore, the scientific method is dynamic in its attempt to develop more useful and accurate models and methods.[9]

How Does Science Differ From Theology?

Whereas theology is concerned with the uncreated God, science is concerned with the created world, i.e. all that is subject to the human senses. The objective of science is the pursuit of knowledge and truth primarily concerned with the visible world and natural phenomena. It is spawned by humanity’s curiosity and serves to satisfy the material demands of humanity. Moreover, science has as its primary tool the human mind and is unaware of the human intellect as understood in Eastern Orthodoxy, which is capable of divine illumination through simple cognition.[10] This means science is handicapped in its quest for knowledge and truth and can only pose tractable questions concerning specific problems. Even though it is able to gather accurate information, such information reflects abstracted areas of reality – “The exactitude has been purchased at a price, and that is the limiting of the question asked, the method employed, and the area investigated”.[11] Theology’s ultimate purpose is the glorification of God through His reconciliation with humanity. The achievements of science have had the opposite effect – the exaltation of humanity and its powers of reason, evident in “the acceptance of the secular world as intellectually normative”.[12] This does not mean that theology is inimical to science. However, it does express the contribution of science in the “falling away” of humanity from God, and the failure of science to recognise the limits of rational thinking and place bounds on the scope of its research and the interpretation of its discoveries. Alexei Nesteruk refers to the mediation of human reason and the uncreated realm of the Divine:

The mediation between science and theology can thus be understood as the development of transcendental references to God from within the faculty of reason, but in such a way that reason exercises its function at its extreme, transgressing intentionally its own limits and leading the thinking to paradox or antinomy that points toward the otherness of the reason itself, as well as to the otherness of those ontological references that reason tries to establish. In doing this, reason operates with strange concepts that have a dualistic constitution: on the one hand, they are formed by rational thinking rooted in this world; on the other, because they are directed toward God, they are fundamentally open-ended, for no logical restriction exists on the nonworldly side of the concepts.[13]

How is Science and Theology similar?

As mentioned earlier concerning theology, it is of upmost significance that the truths of the faith are articulated in such a way that they do not contradict the tradition of the Church, and that they safeguard the faith from heresy. In this search for precise words, it can be said that science and theology resemble each other. For in scientific discovery, truths founded empirically must be repeatable, so in theology the definitions of the Church testify to the “unchanging truth, truth which was revealed and has been preserved from the beginning. Dogmas do not develop; they are unchanging and inviolable …”[14] As with science, theology must fully utilise the powers of human reason in appealing to the tradition of the Church – according to the needs of each era the entire body of the Church must respond to the needs of the Church “while remaining faithful to the uninterrupted historical and theological life of the Church”.[15]

Conclusion

Having provided an overview of two academic fields which are in stark contrast, it is the express aim of this article to provide food for thought to those who are conscious of the barrenness of science beyond what it has to offer to the physical world, and who are seeking for those things the “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, Nor have entered into the heart of man…” (1 Corinthians 2:9 NKJV). As for proof in the existence of this “otherness”, it is plentiful; however this is the subject of another discussion – perhaps a challenge to the scientific community to disprove such existence.

Bibliography

Bobrinskoy, Boris. The Mystery of the Holy Trinity. Crestwood, NY, 1999.

Boojamra, John L. “St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly.” On Science and Theology 3,  (1969): 131-148.

Calivas, Alkiviadis C. Essays in Theology and Liturgy. Vol. Three. Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 2003.

Calivas, Alkiviadis C. “Orthodox Theology and Theologians: Reflections on the Nature, Task, and Mission of the Theological Enterprise.” G.O.T.R 37, (1992): 275-307.

FitzGerald, Thomas. “Spirituality and Reception, Paper Presented at the Faith and Order Plenary Commission Meeting.” Moshi, 1997.

Florovsky, Georges. “Revelation, Philosophy and Theology” in Creation and Redemption. Vol. 3. Massachusetts: Norland Publishing Company, 1976.

Harakas, Stanley Samuel. “Doing Theology Today.” Pro Ecclesia 6, (2002): 435-462.

Jungman, J.A. The Early Liturgy. London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1959.

Nesteruk, Alexei V. Light from the East: theology, science, and the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2003.

Stylianos, Archbishop. “The Sacredness of Creation.” Phronema 5, (1990): 5-13.

Vlahos, Metropolitan Hierotheos. “Orthodox Theology and Science.” G.O.T.R 44, (1999): 131-149.

Ware, Kallistos. “Scholasticism and Orthodoxy: Theological Method as a Factor in the Schism.” Eastern Churches Review 5, (1973): 16-27.


[1] Archbishop Stylianos, ‘The Kenotic Character of Theology as Ultimate Glorification of God Man’, Phronema, 2(1987): 11.

[2] Georges Florovsky, “Revelation, Philosophy, and Theology” in Creation and Redemption (Massachusetts: Norland Publishing Company, 1976) 3: 21.

[3] St. Athanasius, ‘De Incarnatione Verbi Dei’, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, trans. Philip Schaff (Michigan: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company), 65.

[4] Alkiviadis C. Calivas, ‘Orthodox Theology and Theologians: Reflections on the Nature, Task, and Mission of the Theological Enterprise’, G.O.T.R, 37(1992): 277.

[5] St Nilos, ‘On Prayer’, 60: 79, 1180 B.

[6] Stanley Samuel Harakas, ‘Doing Theology Today’, Pro Ecclesia, 6(2002): 439.

[7] Stanley Samuel Harakas, ‘Doing Theology Today’, Pro Ecclesia, 6(2002): 439.

[8] Stanley Samuel Harakas, ‘Doing Theology Today’, Pro Ecclesia, 6(2002): 440.

[9] Wikipedia, “Scientific Method”, 1999, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_Method. Accessed 12 April 2009.

[10] Alexei V. Nesteruk, Light from the East: theology, science, and the Eastern Orthodox tradition (Minneapolis: Augsberg Fortress, 2003), 53.

[11] John L. Boojamra, ‘On Science and Theology’, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly, 3(1969): 145.

[12] John L. Boojamra, ‘On Science and Theology’, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly, 3(1969): 133.

[13] Alexei V. Nesteruk, Light from the East: theology, science, and the Eastern Orthodox tradition (Minneapolis: Augsberg Fortress, 2003), 65.

[14] Georges Florovsky, “Revelation, Philosophy, and Theology” in Creation and Redemption (Massachusetts: Norland Publishing Company, 1976) 3: 30.

[15] Alkiviadis C. Calivas, ‘Orthodox Theology and Theologians: Reflections on the Nature, Task, and Mission of the Theological Enterprise’, G.O.T.R, 37(1992): 279.

Leave a comment

Filed under REFLECTIONS ON SCIENCE & THEOLOGY

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s