The Need For Theology

George L. Murphy, ASA Fellow
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Akron, OH

From: PSCF 53 (June 2001): 72-73.

The reports of the April 2000 "Nature of Nature" conference in the July/August 2000 Newsletter of the ASA and CSCA1

by Glenn Morton and Bryan R. Cross bring out--I think inadvertently--a serious deficiency in the Intelligent Design movement. More broadly speaking, they reveal a problem in many of today's conversations about science and religion: A failure to appreciate the need for theological expertise in such discussions.

At the beginning of his report, Morton lists some of the disciplines represented by speakers at the conference: Philosophers, historians, physicists, biologists, mathematicians, paleontologists, and those involved in the study of mind. Perhaps there were professional theologians present but they are not listed here and play no role in any of the reports. I realize that some of the participants mentioned have some theological training and competence, but it is the omission of theologians qua theologians and the consequent downplaying of the importance of theology with which I am concerned.

Why does this make any difference? The answer is quite simple. Theology is, according to one classical definition, "the teaching about God and divine things,"2 and a number of the discussions at the conference involved God. Without trying to exclude anybody else, one would think that those who are supposed to have formal training in speaking about God would be worth hearing in such discussions.

A couple of examples will illustrate my point. Morton says that the discussion about design and DNA "revealed a poorly thought out aspect of the Intelligent Design movement. Exactly how does God interact with the material world?"3 God has come immediately to the center of the debate.

In fact, the topic which is introduced here is one with which theologians have wrestled over the centuries, that of providence and divine action. They have developed a number of different theologies and models in response to precisely the question which has been posed: How does God interact with the material world?4

Just the variety of the responses to the question (Barbour lists nine possible theologies with accompanying models) shows that theologians cannot claim to have a definitive answer to the question, but their investigations have brought to bear knowledge of the Bible and of the world, and have pointed out the strengths and weaknesses of various approaches. Scientists and philosophers may find themselves re-inventing the theological wheel if they start discussing this topic without knowledge of the theological tradition.

The second example highlights even more clearly the need for theological competence. In his notes on the conference, Cross reports the response of philosopher Rob Koons to the question of whether it was possible to be a methodological naturalist without being an ontological naturalist: "Of course. But why would you want to? I maintain that our method should follow our ontology, and vice versa."5

"Why would you want to?" For a start, because there are some significant theological arguments in favor of doing so. A consistent theology of the cross and/or a kenotic theology of divine action (the two are closely related) suggest on theological grounds that we should be able to understand the world scientifically without reference to God, even though God is in fact at work in the world through natural processes.6 Moreover, some of the church fathers can be cited in support of a concept of the functional integrity of creation that leaves no gaps in the developmental economy of the world.7

Of course one may or may not accept such theological positions and their implications. But the issue does have theological components which need to be studied theologically. To dismiss them with a rhetorical "Why would you want to?" is hardly adequate.

Koons' statement suggests that philosophy, and ontology in particular, is to play the role of theology. In reality, God's character, made known in his self-revelation, should inform both our ontology and the methods we consider adequate for investigating the ways in which God interacts with the world and manifests himself in it. If this does not happen, then we are in danger of forcing God to fit our conceptions of reality.

All this having been said, let me warn against some misunderstandings. First, theological expertise is not salvific. We are justified by faith, not by our theology--which is, in simplest terms, just thinking about what we believe. Professional theologians do not necessarily rank highest (whatever that might mean) among Christians. But in serious discussions involving "God and divine things," they ought to have a significant voice.

Second, while I have spoken of the need for "theologians," my concern is not really full employment for this profession. It is, rather, the need to bring theological understanding of some depth to bear on the types of questions which were discussed at the "Nature of Nature" conference. If theology is thinking about what we believe, all Christians in possession of their faculties ought to be theologians to some extent. A person can have considerable knowledge of the theological tradition and skill in thinking theologically without being a professional theologian. A person can also be a good amateur scientist, philosopher, or historian, and the views of competent amateurs deserve to be heard. But all other things being equal, those who devote most of their time and effort to a field of study and who have been given some recognition for that work ought to be given attention when subjects in that field are under consideration.

Third, theology certainly needs to be open to insights from other fields of study, and theologians ought to have some knowledge of different disciplines. Work in science or history may, and often has, raised questions with which serious theology must deal. Many theologians do not know enough about scientific issues, and theological education needs improvement in this regard. But scientists, even those who are religious believers, are often equally ignorant of theology. If there is to be serious science-theology dialogue, then workers in one field need to have some familiarity with, if not expertise in, the other. Until we reach that point, there needs to be at least respectful listening to dialogue partners.

In any case, other disciplines cannot be allowed to determine the theological agenda. Natural reason is to have a ministerial, not a magisterial, role for theology.8

Virtually the whole history of Christian thought should serve as a warning about the distortions that Christian belief can incur if a priori philosophical views are imposed upon it.

Finally, I am not arguing here (though I do in other venues) for my own theological views. The question at present is not about the best theological position--Protestant or Roman Catholic, conservative or liberal, etc.--which should be taken with regard to particular issues of faith and science. The point is that some recognized competence in theological thinking and knowledge of the theological tradition is needed in science-theology dialogue in general, and in discussions of intelligent design hypotheses in particular.



1"Reports from 'The Nature of Nature' Conference," Newsletter of the American Scientific Affiliation & Canadian Scientific & Christian Affiliation 42, no. 4 (2000): 1, 3.

2J. A. Quenstedt, The Nature and Character of Theology (St. Louis: Concordia, 1986), 15. This is an abridged and edited translation by Luther Poellot of the first chapters of the 1696 edition of Quenstedt's Theologia Didactico- Polemica sive Systema Theologicum.

3Morton in "Reports," 1.

4A discussion of traditional views is Benjamin Wirt Farley, The Providence of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1988). A presentation of various ideas in connection with science understandings of the world is Ian Barbour, Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1997), chapter 12.

5Cross, "Reports," 3.

6Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, enlarged edition (New York: Macmillan, 1972), 311 and 360-1; George L. Murphy, "The Theology of the Cross and God's Work in the World," Zygon 33 (1998): 221; and Nancey Murphy and George F. R. Ellis, On the Moral Nature of the Universe (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996).

7Howard J. Van Till, "Basil, Augustine, and the Doctrine of Creation's Functional Integrity," Science and Christian Belief 8 (1996): 21.

8Siegbert H. Becker, The Foolishness of God (Milwaukee: Northwestern, 1982).