A thought motivated by Galileo’s work…

Religion / Science

One of the things that leads some to argue that Galileo was the founder of the modern scientific method was his insistence that reason must be always compared to observation. Reason, by itself was not the final arbiter of a dispute.

It was his insistence on this point that was the core of his break from the teleological thinking of Aristotle.

It was also the core of the objection that the Catholic Church had to his writing. (Or so some have argued…)

I wonder if we might gain by making a similar requirement for theological thought. Theological reasoning must always be compared to observation…

In a real sense Holy Scripture contains the observation of God’s action in the world. So using scripture as a theological norm would fit.

But what about things not covered in scripture? Should we be reasoning from principles found in scripture without comparing our deductions to observation?

Full blown calvinism would seem to me to argue that such an idea would necessarily lead to error. But what about folks who don’t believe in the total depravity of creation?

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. Nick, you write: “In a real sense Holy Scripture contains the observation of God’s action in the world. So using scripture as a theological norm would fit.”
    John Polkinghorne similarly says that “Scripture is not an unchallengeable set of propositions demanding unquestioning assent, but it is evidence, the record of foundational spiritual experience, the laboratory notebooks of gifted observers of God’s ways with men and women.” [See http://www.questioningchristian.org/2004/10/the_bible_as_a_.html; emphasis in original.]
    The problem I have with scripturalists is that they don’t want to consider any other observations of God’s possible action in the world, unless of course the observations happen to fit their pre-existing theories.
    In a very real sense, this scripturalist attitude violates the First Commandment by worshiping an idol, the idol being the scripturalists’ wishful thinking. (Any theory qualifies as a form of wishful thinking: If we can show that the world works in this way, then we can make predictions and act in the world on that basis.)
    To quote Dr. Polkinghorne again: “I have great sympathy with David Pailin when he says that ‘Attempts to defend theism by ignoring the question of truth . . . are fundamentally atheistic. They worship human wishes rather than ultimate reality.'”(See http://www.questioningchristian.org/2004/11/facing_facts.html; scroll down to ‘Facing the facts puts God first’).

  2. Maybe this approach to theology only makes sense to those who have been trained in the sciences, but it makes sense to me. It seems to me to do a better job of letting God be God, at least theoretically, then holding to reason or scripture independent of observation.

  3. Thanks DC – especially for showing that what I’m noodling about is at least congruent with Polkinhorne’s thinking…
    Part of the reason I think we need to include scripture as *a* norm is that we have always done so. You see scripture being handled that way in the New Testament and in the later books of the Old Testament. And any thinking about the nature of norms has to include that which has gone before – in the same way that General Relativity has to show that it reduces to Newtonian Gravity for small mass systems. Or that Quantum Physics has to reduce to Classical Physics for large quantum numbers…
    I’m not a scripturalist, at least as I think you are defining the term. I don’t think that Holy Scripture is the only source of truth – and I don’t think Anglicanism has traditionally seen it as the highest trump in the knowledge game. But I do believe it contains information necessary to our salvation (which is what I swore I believed when I was ordained).
    What I like about Polkinghorne’s suggestion is that it turns Holy Scripture into the lab notebook of the the Holy Spirit’s actions (to strain a metaphor.) And that lets scripture be treated with respect and authority, but doesn’t set it up as a sort of magical book ala the Koran.
    But as I said – I’m really just thinking this through out-loud. If someone can knock my idea down, please have a go at it…

  4. Mark Diebel says

    Another take on Galileo is revealed in his own comment that reason has done such great violence to the senses, “Nor can I ever sufficiently admire the outstanding acumen of those who have taken hold of this opinion [heliocentric cosmos] and accepted it as true: they have, through sheer force of intellect done such violence to their own sense as to prefer what reason told them over that which sensible experience showed them to be the contrary.” (Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems)
    You are raising a basic point that needs further discussion. Goethe pointed out the superiority of perception… our eyes disclose but our reason, reflecting on what we see, can make missteps.
    Regarding scripture reading a similar judgment is warranted. We can read but mistake the meaning very easily. My own thinking, yes I’m an Episcopal priest… and [once a chemist always a] chemist… goes towards work coming out of Goethe’s scientific thinking… and followed by Owen Barfield (CS Lewis’s friend). The human being must cultivate the areas of concrete experience to once again include heavenly things…. something like Isaiah (and Paul) did… now, like Paul, under a Christ initiation.
    Galileo wavered between realizing that indeed reason does do violence to the senses… and with Francis Bacon… thinking that inductivism was the path ahead.

  5. Mark, for some reason what you said reminded me of standing watch as a newly-qualified officer of the deck (OOD) aboard the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise in the 1970s. I was a young lieutenant j.g. and was one of five or six qualified OODs aboard.
    (By way of background, for four hours at a time, the on-watch OOD is in charge of, and responsible for, the entire ship as the captain’s direct personal representative. On an aircraft carrier, the OOD is often de facto in charge of the task force of accompanying ships as well.)
    I distinctly remember noting, soon after qualifying as OOD, that previously I had tended to spend too much time with my face glued to the radar scope. It was easier to do that than to try to mentally process all the amazing hurly-burly of a busy warship. It was almost as though the radar scope were an object of worship; if only I would pay it sufficient attention, I could ignore all the other distracting things that were going on, and all would be well. (Later, in training other would-be OODs, I saw that this was a very common failing.)
    As the actual OOD, however, I found that the radar scope contained only part of the information I needed to function. If things were to go awry, the captain wouldn’t give a [expletive] that I had been carefully monitoring the scope; what he wanted was for me to stay on top of things and make things happen the way he wanted. With that in mind, like other good OODs, I quickly learned merely to glance at the radar scope, and only every once in a while. I spent the rest of the time scanning the deck itself, the other gauges, the written watch orders, and most importantly, the horizon. I tried to suck in all the information I could, from every possible source, so that when circumstances changed – and they did, constantly – I could respond appropriately.
    If we were to replace the term ‘radar scope’ with ‘Bible,’ I think our scripturalist friends have somewhat the same mindset as I did as a trainee OOD: If everyone will just pay sufficient attention to the Bible, we can ignore the distractions from the real world, and be confident that things will go the way we want them to do. These folks could benefit from a similar adjustment in perspective; unfortunately, I can’t think of what might induce one.

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