Scientific method is a difficult and complex subject which cannot be adequately discussed within the space of about 1,250 words. Volumes have been written around it. Here I have perforce confined myself to the merest outline, just sufficient to explain and support my case that Theology is a science and should be studied in a scientific spirit. It is quite extraordinary that many people use about theological matters and, in particular, God's Word, without compunction methods and arguments which would excite ridicule and contempt in ordinary affairs, let alone scientific studies. I have long felt that a public protest is called for, so I have prepared the paper in this issue.
Special attention is drawn also to my protest therein
against the false spirituality which insists on making
"spiritual interpretations" of Scripture. No doubt some
will wish to reply to it. If so, I hope they will honestly face
the issues involved. I challenge them to define what a
"spiritual interpretation" means and then to take a passage
such as Rom. 4:3
Paganism is one of them, secularism another, superstition yet another. All are harmful and a serious menace; but there is one which lies at the root of all of them and is the greatest danger of all: irrationalism.
Irrationalism in this context may be defined as the idea that theological truth is a different sort of truth from scientific truth, practical truth or necessary truth. These three are no more than different aspects of the same thing. Scientific truth is ascertained from observations leading to generalizations which in turn lead to hypotheses which are open to test by experiment. These experiments are in effect further observations, upon which are based further generalizations or hypotheses, which lead to yet further experiments. This process is like ascending a winding stairway; each turn taking us a stage higher towards our goal. Practical truth is the application of this process to practical and technical aspects of life. Necessary truth is concerned with Mathematics and to some extent Logic and Philosophy. Simple examples are: "Twice three is six" and "A thing cannot both be and not be."
The irrationalist idea is that theological truth is like none of these. It is supposed to be a different sort of truth, differently apprehended: a form of truth which, in particular, is not amenable to scientific method. If, then, we ask the irrationalist how theological truth is to be apprehended, we are told that it must be by faith or by the acceptance of the dogmas of an infallible Authority, sometimes some Teacher, but usually some Church. Beyond that, we are never permitted to go any appreciable distance. There is never any adequate definition of "faith" in this sense; and the argument for the infallible authority of "the Church" is always in a circle. We are to believe" the Church" because its authority is based on the Bible, we are to believe the Bible because its authority is based on "the Church." So if we were to declare of some particular dogma: "The Bible does not teach this"; the reply will be: "The Church alone has authority to interpret the Bible." We then ask: "Where is this authority?" and we are told "The Bible." So we end where we began. This is the system in brief; but, needless to say, it is never stated so baldly as that, for then the obvious fallacy would be apparent even to a child; but that is what the argument amounts to when stripped of verbiage.
I propose to ask here two questions and to answer them as simply and clearly as I can. They are: What is the nature of scientific truth? Does any essentially other sort of truth exist?
Consider the first, taking for example the subject of Astronomy, as this is in time and space the most universal of all the sciences. To begin with, men observed the sun, moon, planets and stars. Gradually observations accumulated, and presently generalizations were worked out which enabled men to date the beginnings of the seasons, the times of new and full moon, the hours of high and low tide; and eventually to forecast eclipses with quite remarkable accuracy. In so far as these forecasts stood the test of further observations, they in some measure established the truth of these generalizations and presently permitted theories to be devised to explain them. These theories in turn suggested opportunities for further, observations and experiments, and also for the devising and construction of apparatus to improve both; which in turn provided data and further observations, and suggestions for still further apparatus and experiments, until the whole majestic edifice of modern Astronomy appeared.
But here we must be careful to distinguish between what is known and what is still only conjectured. What is known, or believed to be, can be overthrown only by proving that it is, in fact, only conjectured; that is to say: first, that some other interpretation of ascertained facts can be devised, or that they have not been ascertained sufficiently accurately or completely; second, that this interpretation fits the facts better; and, third, that it suggests further and better opportunities for observation and experiment by which it may in turn be verified. If no such interpretation can be found, we are justified in assuming that what we reckon to be known really is known and a part of truth.
Unfortunately, what is conjectured is always more exciting and interesting to journalists and the general public than what is really known. So we read in newspapers and magazines such phrases as "Science teaches that. .." What "Science" is supposed to "teach" in these is always mere conjecture and wholly worthless except as conjecture.
Science teaches nothing. It is the sum-total of what is known, no more.
All the products of science which are of any use to mankind from washing-soda, disinfectants and anaesthetics to radio, television sets and electric light, come not from what some imaginary entity called "Science" teaches, but from what scientific research has discovered.
Science is the method of knowing imposed upon us by the very nature of things. It is not a method of knowing, but the only method. In practical life no other truth whatever has any existence. Even historical truth is nothing more than the recorded observations of other people; whether it is or is not truth depends solely on whether they observed adequately and accurately, and recorded accurately what they observed. Their records, if the truth, differ in no essential from the records of some scientific experiment recorded soberly in a scientific paper.
To avoid cavil, I should perhaps mention that there is another kind of thing which in some sense can be reckoned as truth. I refer to the highest forms of music, the greater works of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, Scriabin, Franck and Vaughan-Williams. The musician hearing them is aware that he has been permitted a glimpse into Reality, into something which is not only beautiful but, in some way beyond the power of words to explain, a part of Truth. But the essence of this awareness is expressed in the qualification "beyond the power of words to explain." It is not a truth which can be expressed in words. There is an underlying unity between goodness, beauty and truth, but it is at a deeper level than we can do more than feel.
There is, then, nothing capable of expression in words which does not come to us by scientific method—at any rate, so far as the material world around us is concerned. So our second question resolves itself into a third: "Is spiritual truth a different sort of truth which comes to us in a different way?"
For us to be able to receive scientific truth, material truth, three things are needed: the material universe for truth to be true about, our senses to enable us to make contact with this world, and a brain capable of understanding the message given us through our senses. If we lost all our senses, we could discover nothing further about the universe around us. If the brain is sufficiently seriously injured, we cease to be able to understand anything at all. These facts apply to all truth. Finally, if no outside universe existed, there would be nothing to learn about it.
This last point is glaringly obvious; yet when people consider theological or spiritual truth, it is often completely overlooked. They talk glibly about "spiritual experience"; yet forget that unless spiritual things exist to be experienced it is quite impossible to experience them. So the problem arises whether there exists a spiritual universe for theological or spiritual truth to be true about; then whether there exists any medium whereby we can make contact with it, and finally whether any part of us is capable of grasping it. The answer to the second and third is, and must be, our senses and our mind; for, as already pointed out, we have no other means. This is absolutely obvious to any normal person. The concept of what is called "Mysticism," a supposed direct contact between God and the individual soul, makes no difference to this; for even if a "mystical experience" were real and objective, it would be completely incommunicable if not in words; and if it could be passed on in words, it could have been communicated to the mystic in words in the first place. Nor is it possible to understand how an experience (other than a direct impression by the senses) can be grasped at all unless it can be framed in language somehow.
Thus, if God does not communicate spiritual and theological truth to mankind in words, or in thoughts or experiences which can be translated into words, no such truth can exist for us at all. We are examining in our studies of God's Evangel the proposition "Abraham believes God," and we note two things: that Abraham believes someone and that he believes the information thus imparted to him. It makes utter nonsense to say simply "Abraham believes." To quote Mark 9:23, 24 is no answer; for there it is quite plain from the context what was to be believed. We cannot just "believe," we have got to believe something definite if we believe at all.
One of the most influential religious newspapers in Great Britain, the "Church Times," reviews (April 2, 1954) a book, "The Gospel According to St. John" by R. A. Edwards (Eyre and Spottiswoode, 12s. 6d.) and says:
Among the people whose minds work in this odd way there is much talk now about removing the supposed "mythological" elements of Scripture. About what these elements are, there are many diverse views; but there is little difference of opinion among these skilled surgeons about their ability to cut up God's Word—until it comes to deciding what fragments may be left to us. Then, as always, each one differs from the others. When one comes to look at it all with open eyes, is it not the extreme of presumptuousness to declare that the Apostle John was not writing a plain factual record, and that anyone some nineteen centuries after is in a position to correct him? John himself, or someone who was doing the actual writing on his behalf, declared: "And we are aware that his testimony is true"; and this is repeated at the end of his third epistle. Moreover, "true" and "truth" occur more times in John's writings than in the whole of the rest of the Greek Scriptures. Yet we are expected to believe that John did not mean what he wrote, that in fact when he was pretending to write history he was working out a sort of religious novel, for that is what calling his Gospel an allegory means.
If, in spite of this, anyone should have doubts as to whether parts, at any rate, of the Gospels may not be fictional, such as the first two chapters of Matthew and of Luke; let him examine the apocryphal gospels, which beyond question are fictional. He will doubt no longer. The counterfeit is beyond measure inferior to the genuine.
In point of fact, the worst part of the quotation is in the words "spiritual interpretation"; for they imply not only unbelief but complete mental confusion as well. Never yet have I met anyone who can produce a lucid definition of the term "spiritual interpretation." The inescapable conclusion is that the term is really a "cant phrase," a hypocritical form of words designed to appear meaningful but really to cover utter poverty of thought. One suggestion is that it means an interpretation which deals with spiritual things; but that is what a literal interpretation does, for there is nothing unspiritual or wrong in being literal; so that gets us no further. Another is that it means a "figurative interpretation." Then why not use this term? The answer is easy to find. A figurative interpretation is meaningful only when the literal interpretation is thoroughly understood; the figure has to be defined with reference to the literal meaning and carefully kept in step with it.
What "a spiritual interpretation" does, in actual practice, mean is something quite different: the substitution of the interpreter's fancies, opinions or theories for the plain statements of the original writer. What I never have been able to understand at all is how or why any honest person can want to do such a thing. If I were so foolish. as to want to manipulate the Gospel story into "intricate theological designs"—in other words, to write a sort of fairy tale around it—I hope I would have the intellectual honesty, indeed the decency, to write my fairy tale out of my own head, and without imputing sheer dishonesty to God's Apostles.
For that is what "spiritual interpretation" always means in practice—that what the Apostles wrote was not "plain factual record" but their inventions and imaginings about it; so that we in turn. are free to follow their profane example and to invent and imagine as well. And that is precisely what those do who think in this sort of manner.
Nevertheless, my remarks about this do not mean, for instance, that John's account "of the Passion" does not bring out the Passover typology; but simply that it is not designed to bring it out, as the Reviewer declares. If in itself Scripture has any value at all, we are free to find out every thing we can from it; what we are not entitled to do is to try to squeeze it into the mould of our own theories. One thing is absolutely certain: if the Apostles did not say exactly what they meant, it is now hopelessly impossible to discover what they did mean. This applies to Matthew, Luke, Paul and James as much as it does to John. The choice before us is therefore perfectly plain: to accept and believe the Scripture writers as they stand, or to reject them completely. Either they were chosen instruments of God, disclosing to us a unique revelation of Him; or they were impostors, whether innocent or deliberate. No half-way position is logically possible.
But why not pick out from their writings what is indubitably true? That is easy to answer: we do not know what it is. It is too late by nineteen centuries to correct John or Paul; even assuming that there ever was anyone on earth who could do so. To sort out the true from the false in John's Gospel, a man would need to know more about their subject-matter than the writers of Scripture themselves did: and if he really knew all that, he would not waste time over correcting them, he would write his own treatise. Only second-rate people bother to edit the words of the great; the great write their own works.
Another way of evading the issue is to declare that the Scriptures are poetry and must be understood poetically (precisely what understanding them poetically means is never explained). But whether any particular narrative is poetry or prose is quite irrelevant to its truth. Re-write a poem as prose: if it is done efficiently, all that is lost is its beauty and perhaps the overtones of feeling in the juxtaposition of words. This may be a great loss; but a loss of beauty, not of truth. Purely as poetry, nothing in the Greek Scriptures is, or was ever intended to be, in the same class as the works of Homer.
Nevertheless there is a plain purpose behind the propaganda for the "two truths" theory, i.e. the doctrine that theological truth is different in kind from scientific truth. The aim is no other than the destruction of the Scriptures as the one and only rule of faith for Christians. Its corollary, since we cannot exist in a vacuum, even of thought, is their replacement by some form of "Catholic" dogma. The enlightened Christian has no use whatever for "dogma" if by that word is meant doctrine enforced by the authority of any church or sect, however wealthy and powerful, however poor and weak. We need nothing and will receive nothing as spiritual truth other than what is in God's Word written. Dogma is really an idol, a substitute of man's own invention for God's own truth. Ultimately there are only two gods: God the Creator of all things; and the idols which are, in fact, ideas constructed as abstractions, or representations of abstractions, by the sinful minds of His creatures who have fallen under the yoke of sin and death; and they are no part of the ultimate Reality which is the totality of the Good, the Beautiful and the True.
Those who worship, or even seek after, abstractions other than the perfect values of goodness, beauty and truth which are themselves manifestations of the Creator, such as man-made dogmas, traditions, theories and taboos, are idolaters, whether they hold them as mental images or construct them as images of wood, metal or stone.
One of the significant philosophical movements of our time is Logical Positivism. Its basic notion is that the only really meaningful ideas are those which can be described in terms of actions. It bristles with difficulties, particularly in its relation to values; goodness, beauty and truth; yet nevertheless its basic notion can be of great use as one of the touchstones of truth. For example, the ideas of the Incarnation of the Lord Jesus, His Death, Resurrection and Ascension, are all descriptions of actual happenings. Even if precisely how the Incarnation took place is beyond our understanding, the idea that it took place certainly is not; and so it offers no real difficulty to faith, beyond weighing the evidence which exists. But many of the "Catholic" dogmas cannot face this test. Consider the dogma of Original Sin. There is no sort of meaning in the idea that we share Adam's sin or that we sinned in Adam. No train of actions can describe it. No conceivable action on our part could give us any share in or responsibility for an act which occurred thousands of years before any of us were born. Nor is there any meaning in the notion that a baby is born sinful. The truth which dogmatic tradition has covered up almost universally is that our bodies have inherited mortality. "Death came through into all mankind, on which all sinned". (Rom. 5:12). The very flesh of which we are made is corrupted with mortality even before we draw our first breath.
People talk loosely about "the dogmas of Science"; but, as a matter of fact, no such things exist. These supposed dogmas are to be found only among the camp-followers of Science, the journalists and writers who seek to trade on the latest published discoveries or even theories, not the people who carry out the research, except a few who occasionally forget their function and try to be popular writers. The one thing which prevents the findings of Copernicus, or Newton, Kelvin or Einstein from being overthrown is the absence of indubitable facts which could overthrow them. Their findings have been or may be modified by fresh facts and new techniques, but what is true in their work has remained and must remain true, because it is true. The same applies to scientific study of the Sacred Scriptures. Its results are truths, not dogmas.
Then why does not such study produce results comparable with those in physical science? Because Theology has as yet hardly emerged from the Dark Ages. The few who are seeking to put it on a sound scientific basis are poor and without publicity and influence. Yet it is a fact that what has already been achieved has transformed our outlook; and, no doubt, in the eon to come, when it blossoms to full flower, its greatness in the face of overwhelming difficulty will be thankfully recognized.
In fairness, it must be said that truth is easier to ascertain in Physics, Chemistry and Technology than in Theology; for in the material sciences there is always available some comparatively easy check on results. The inventor of, say, a new type of television receiver has always available this final test: whether it will work when he turns the knob or presses the button. But truth in spiritual matters, though it does "work," does not do it so immediately or obviously.
To forestall any cavil, it should be added that much modern scientific thought is expressed in a special language of its own, in special terms or in symbols or equations quite beyond the comprehension of the uninitiated; and often, in Physics particularly, this symbolic language to a large extent displaces words, and expresses ideas, processes and concepts which are too difficult or complex to express in ordinary words. Yet nevertheless this language is not something inherently different from word-language, but only an extension of it made in order to cope with situations for which ordinary language was never designed and for which it is therefore unsuitable. It is truth in a new form, not a new form of truth or new kind of truth.
Those who give way to the false notion that theological truth is somehow a different kind of truth from scientific truth are in practice saboteurs. They are betraying us to our greatest enemy, the false "faith" which has been very neatly defined as "believing what we know to be untrue." Needless to say, the idea is not put in so crude a way; but it means that, all the same.
We stand almost swamped by the tide of false theological teachings which has overwhelmed the world; and the situation has become so bad that there is little we can do beyond witnessing to the truth as best we can and resolutely rejecting the medieval darkness which fills the dogmas of all the churches. If we can but stand faithful then, God helping us, we will be able to keep the torch of theological science alight and eventually pass it on burning brightly to those who will certainly follow us, even if we ourselves are betrayed and eventually defeated through want of faith among our brethren.
R. B. WITHERS. Last updated 13.4.2006