Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Whatever Happened To Scientific Method?

A strange question on a theological blog, you might think.  But think again.  My initial academic training was in science, and this taught me how sound conclusions must be drawn from observable facts.

True scientific method requires that all the available data are considered before drawing any conclusions.  For example, if the supervisor of a scientific experiment were to tell a researcher that the only results to be recorded were those that he expected to discover, that would not be true scientific method.  What is required is that ALL available and discoverable data are collected, and on that basis alone are conclusions to be drawn.  Valid conclusions may only be arrived at when all available data are 'placed on the table.' 

The same thing applies to those who have knowledge of and worked in the legal industry, either as lawyers or policemen, etc.  Their duty is to gather all the available and discoverable facts, and out of these compose their case for the prosecution to be presented at court.  When the police created 'evidence' that was then presented to a court and this fact was discovered, not only were the police left with massive embarrassment but the potentially guilty criminal got off scot free.  Tampering with evidence is a crime of gigantic proportions, but not, it seems, when this has been done by the police.

In the study of theology, we can find the same kind of unscientific method being used by those who hold the highest view of Scripture - its authority, inspiration, God-breathed nature.  Like the researcher mentioned in the second paragraph, many theologians do their work by listening first to what their 'supervisor' tells them - and I'm not referring to the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scriptures.  I'm referring to those scholastic philosophers who have so influenced the minds and thinking of many reformed theologians that they have first of all to discover what they have said about a matter, and then look for evidence that will back up that philosophy.

Aristotle (384-322 BC), the great medieval scholastic philosopher, has left his mark on the thinking of succeeding generations of thinkers.  John Owen confessed that he did not believe that Aristotle was a believer; yet Owen appears to have imbibed Aristotle's philosophical method, which can hardly be described as scientific, in his theological formulations.  His method appears to be that you start off with what you want to arrive at and then use the data, not all of it, to ensure that your logic is impeccable and unanswerable.

Aristotle's influence on Owen's thinking is seen most clearly in Owen's formulation of his doctrine of the atonement.  Under his 'tutoring,' Owen wanted to arrive at a doctrine of limited atonement, that is, atonement that was limited in its design for the elect only, so he did one of two things; he either jettisoned all the Scriptural data that did not support his theological contention, or else he explained those terms away.  Such was his influence that when the theologians of Britain met at Westminster to draw up its well-known Confession of Faith, Owen's influence was paramount when it came to dealing with Christ as Mediator.  Not all those present accepted this theological development, with theologians like Edmund Calamy objecting to this interpretation of the atonement. 

How can this kind of re-interpretation of the Death of Christ occur?  Only when an unscientific method is used in the pursuit of knowledge.  When a system is to be imposed on the understanding of the clear teaching of Scripture, data no longer matter.  When the evidence is tampered with, a false result is guaranteed.

How careful we all need to be when interpreting Scripture, and how wary we must be of imposing other men's thinking on to our understanding of the Bible's central message.

We must get back to a true scientific method when approaching Scripture, and get back immediately.

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