Theology … The Queen of the Sciences? (RJS)

In today’s post I would like to put forth a few ideas for discussion, all related to the claim that theology is the queen of the sciences and how this could or should play out. This isn’t a polished argument, but a desire to start a conversation.

The modern university has its origin in the High Middle Ages (1000-1300) when many of the oldest institutions we know today were founded. In Europe this brought education out of the local monastery or cathedral and into a broader sphere. Theology, however, was “The Queen of the Sciences.” Most education was for the church, and the subjects of study culminated in theology. Other subjects were of value primarily as they served to enable theological thought.

Today it is relatively common to hear a statement about theology as the queen of the sciences made in discussions of science and faith. We are, some suggest, in the midst of a power play to relegate all other forms of knowledge, especially theology, to the tyranny of science and enlightenment rationalism. Theology must, they suggest, retain the privilege of having the last word, and the right to criticize and eliminate from the consideration some kinds of ideas.

Is theology the queen of the sciences?

If this is true, we then must step back and figure out what it means for theology to be the queen of the sciences.

How can we study theology? What tools do we use?

How do we learn about the nature of God?

One of the commenters on my post last week Evangelical Evolutionists … and an Opportunity put forth this kind of argument explicitly in the context of the natural sciences and evolutionary biology.

Is it possible or desirable for a theologian to criticize a scientific idea theologically? Is it possible or desirable for a scientists to criticize a theological idea scientifically? What about other fields as well? Sociology? Economics? Politics? Can a theological criticize a political idea theologically?

The issue that I see is that people tend to get upset when pastors and theologians criticize scientific ideas on theological grounds, but they are perfectly willing to do the reverse.

What I’m getting at (if it isn’t obvious already) is that this seems to be less about science, evidence, and theology, and much more about a power play to make sure that theologians are subservient to scientists, that they recognize their lower status in the modern world, and that the scientists are properly recognized as the real priesthood of the modern age.

And after a response of mine, the commenter came back a little more explicitly:

I agree almost completely with that! One thing to note, however, is that while all truth is God’s truth, the fact is that every discipline only has partial truths (or even untruths, or merely practical truths masquerading as truth), every discipline needs to be open in conversation to comments from other disciplines. While theology should be open to input from other disciplines, ultimately it is the queen of them all. (emphasis added)

This argument is used to diminish the significance of evolution in biology, relegating the idea of evolution to a human construct subject to theological critique and dismissal.

This exchange led me to think about the issues involved in the claim that theology is “the queen of the sciences” a little more carefully. The situation becomes somewhat murkier if we look beyond the natural sciences, or even the social sciences. Theology should be open to input from other disciplines, but ultimately it is the queen of them all? It is not clear, to me at least, what is meant by such a phrase … or how it could or should be applied.  And here it is, perhaps most useful to change gears and move to a different topic.

The Nature of Justification. It appears that many of the same issues that come into play in the discussion of evolution, creation, science and faith, come into play in  the discussion of justification and the new perspective on Paul. The conversation on Scot’s post yesterday, (A) Reformed View of the New Perspective, was fascinating. One of the commenters noted:

I think the nature of the clash is the division of the disciplines of systematic and biblical theology. I read through Wright and Piper’s back and forth and it seemed like they were talking past each other. Wright argues like a historian; Piper like a theologian. Wright, Dunn, Sanders, and Hayes want to ground Paul’s thought in the religious milieu of his day, whereas the conservative Reformed critics of the NPP are looking for a system that harmonizes all of the biblical data even outside of Paul. It’s history versus proof texts.

… The Reformed can’t answer their arguments with proof texts, because the NPP argues that the verses don’t mean what they think they mean. The classic examples of this are the arguments around the phrases “works of the law” and “the faith[fulness] of Jesus Christ.”

In this discussion many want to place theology in the drivers seat. Theology is viewed as an appropriate tool to criticize biblical studies and historians. But it is unclear, for some at least, that historians, students of ancient languages and cultures, or even biblical scholars can be permitted to challenge theology.

Is this what is meant by the idea that theology is the queen of the sciences?

Is it appropriate for historical and textual considerations to challenge theological ideas?

Biblical Interpretation. And we can take one more example. If theology is the queen of the sciences, then theology controls biblical interpretation. That is, the bible is to be interpreted through the lens of theology. Consider the following verse from the story of Noah:

The LORD regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. Gen 6:6 (NIV)

John Calvin’s theology drives his commentary on this verse.

The repentance which is here ascribed to God does not properly belong to him, but has reference to our understanding of him. For since we cannot comprehend him as he is, it is necessary that, for our sakes he should, in a certain sense, transform himself. That repentance cannot take place in God, easily appears from this single considerations that nothing happens which is by him unexpected or unforeseen. The same reasoning, and remark, applies to what follows, that God was affected with grief. Certainly God is not sorrowful or sad; but remains forever like himself in his celestial and happy repose: yet, because it could not otherwise be known how great is God’s hatred and detestation of sin, therefore the Spirit accommodates himself to our capacity. (Commentary on Genesis – Volume 1 Translated by the Rev. John King)

According to John Calvin the verse is not to be read literally because a literal reading of the text would contradict firmly held notions about the nature of God. It is taken as given that God can not regret or repent and he cannot be deeply troubled, he cannot experience grief.

Another example is found in the commentary on Genesis 3. Here John Calvin, reading the text through his theology, concludes that God willed that Adam would Fall. God had determined the future state of mankind. Any other conclusion would be contrary to the nature of God … according to Calvin’s theology.

I don’t mean to claim that Calvin’s theology is necessarily unbiblical. Certainly his reading of the whole of scripture informed his theology. But in this commentary his theology informs his interpretation. There is no sense that Calvin approaches the text open to the idea that he may learn something from Genesis 3 or Genesis 6 about the nature of God.

Is the bible to be read through the lens of theology?

Is this what is meant by the preeminence of theology?

I think all of these examples serve to illustrate a point. Theology is the queen of the sciences only in the sense that it is the fundamental focus that brings coherence to our view of the world and our role in the world. All truth is God’s truth. Theology is not a lens through which we test all other ideas. Our theology, our understanding of the nature of God, has to be informed by the bible, by the things we learn about God’s creation, by the things we learn about history and culture. But it is a feedback loop. Our understanding of the nature of God also informs our appreciation for and interpretation of the wonder of his creation and the story of the past.

If there is no feedback loop in play, theology as the queen of the sciences leads to the tyranny of a human construct, and it will usually be wrong in rather significant ways.

This isn’t a simple problem and there is, of course, much more to be said.

What does it mean to claim that theology is “the queen of the sciences”?

In what way could, or should, theology criticize new ideas or discoveries in science or history?

What does it mean to claim that all truth is God’s truth?

If you wish to contact me directly, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

  • Jerry

    Good stuff, RJS. Does the metaphor of “queen” even work in an era of democratic ideals? That aside we would probably need to unpack some philosophy of science to really get at these questions. If science is “knowledge” then theology would be a subset of science; it is knowledge about God. But even the different sciences, knowledge fields, have differences of opinion about what they actually know (scientific careers can be built on highlighting differences).

    But let’s just focus on theology, literally “words about God.” One of the key factors in acquiring “knowledge” is the important of language. We gain knowledge by hearing, reading, speaking words about God. Moreover, our knowledge of God, our theology will be shaped by who we are in dialogue with about God. In the current discussions here on Jesus Creed (doing theology indeed!) we have been marching through NT Wright’s latest book. If I am in dialogue with Wright more than say, Piper, then I will probably come up with different language, different theology.

    We Christians can claim theology as the “queen of sciences” if we like. But queens were never omnipotent. Furthermore, I think the mathematicians also claim their field as the queen of sciences.

  • Jerry

    Oops, sorry for some of those grammatical failures in that last post. But maybe that in itself makes a point?

  • http://whatyouthinkmatters.org/blog Andrew Wilson

    This is an extremely interesting piece, RJS, and a great conversation to start. Personally, I don’t think the “history versus proof texts” distinction is entirely fair on the Reformed/NPP debate (and it’s Hays, not Hayes, btw), since many Reformed critics of the NPP use first century sources – including other biblical texts! – to ground their criticisms, and Wright in particular is eager to present an interpretation that does justice to all the biblical data, not just the Pauline letters. But no doubt that can sometimes happen, and your Calvin citation was a great example. I’m preaching this week on God changing his mind from Jonah, so it’s a timely post to consider!

  • C

    Is the bible to be read through the lens of theology?

    I think it’s inevitable that we will read scripture through the lens of our experiences, biases, and beliefs. We’re all biased. This is neither particularly good nor bad, but simply human.

    The thing to do is to realized first that you’re wearing spectacles, then to try on a new pair and ask, “Are things clearer through this lens?”

  • garver

    Just some historical background:

    In the medieval context, theology was “queen of the sciences” because of her object: God. In the strictest sense, “theology” was God’s own self-knowledge of himself and of his works. Thus it was both a speculative (contemplating its object) and a practical (action-directing) science, though there were debates about which function is primary.

    Theology, as we participate in it, is ultimately then knowledge and enjoyment of God himself, which is our happiness or beatitude. It is also, therefore, the “queen of the sciences” in that respect, in that it treats our ultimate end or good, which is our own fulfillment and flourishing through participation in the life of God.

    Of course, our knowledge of God (theology as we experience it) and God’s own self-knowledge (theology in itself) will never coincide, not even eschatologically, and certainly not in this present life, given our limitations and the defects of our fallen minds.

    None of that settles the points you raise, but it perhaps gives some context for what the title “queen” was supposed to mean originally.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    Thanks for following up on this RJS, I too was struck by the statement concerning the queen.

    I wish folks could distinguish (as garver said) their theology from god’s theology. It is the same sort of thing as those who say that the “bible says x therefore I believe it” don’t realize that they are believing their interpretation of x, and not x itself. There is a big difference.

    Likewise, that same mindset plays out when those folks critique science. They make the same mistake by assuming that a scientists findings are interpreted by a scientist as the absolute truth, when my experience shows that many/most scientists rightfully understand their findings are pointers toward the truth but not the truth itself.

    And this highlights another criticism I have developed concerning the religious community and, in particular, the reformed. Many do developed nuanced perspectives of words, like theology, and grace, and justification, and wrath, etc. But these words have a common meaning as well and when the theological theories are developed with these nuanced versions of the words then said to the masses, or the less specific thinking pastors and such, the nuance is lost and the common meaning is assumed. So even if we had a discussion with Piper or Spence about theology being queen and they clearly separated the theology of man from the theology of god, when they then pronounce that theology is queen as agreed to by everyone they will not communicate that nuance. And the hearers of the declaration will believe that all agree that Piper’s theology is more important and trumps science.

  • http://abcwesterville.org Mark Farmer

    And which science is King? ;-)

    The notion of a “Queen” of sciences is, as you note, rooted in the Middle Ages, before the Enlightenment. So it supposes a hierarchical Great Chain of Being. It is this supposition of a hierarchy that does not correspond to what we know about how science works. I’m think of Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which describes the grudging recognition and admission by scientists of data which do not fit existing paradigms. The minds of theologians and Biblical scholars work in the same way. It is therefore not a question of what discipline is preeminent, but of how any discipline can develop sufficient dialogue with other sciences so as to refine and enlarge its root paradigm to receive account for the most possible data. The postmodern model is justifiably the web or network, not a hierarchy.

    If there were a hierarchy, philosophy would have to rank above theology since, as Nancey Murphy shows in Beyond Fundamentalism and Liberalism, every theology presupposes a philosophy (a metaphysics and an epistemology). But then, contemporary philosophy has to take into account the findings of physics about the quantum nature of reality. If there is a hierarchy, then, it is a revolving one, with the throne occupied by various sciences in turn.

  • http://abcwesterville.org Mark Farmer

    By the way, your quote of Calvin’s comment on God “repenting” reveals Calvin’s awareness of the principle of a distinction between God as God really is and our ideas about God. This distinction between an entity as it really is and our ideas concerning the entity leads inexorably to the relativization of all knowledge, i.e., postmodernism. Since all fields of knowledge are thus only relatively faithful to reality, none can claim ultimate or absolute dominance. (Calvin himself didn’t get this far, since he perceived his theology as absolute truth.)

    NT Wright said once at the beginning of a conference that 30% of what he would say was wrong; he just didn’t know which 30%! Now that is a wise attitude!

  • RJS

    Mark,

    I have heard Wright make similar comments, and the percentage ranges between 20% and 30%. This sends an important message though, it isn’t simply a reflection of Wright’s humility. We should always listen and analyze with the expectation that some percentage of the idea put forth will be wrong. We don’t lap up the pearls of wisdom from all-knowing masters, we engage in a conversation with the goal of becoming peers on the journey.

  • Glenn Sunshine

    I would add to the medieval context of the phrase that medieval thought saw all knowledge and all the world as arranged in an interconnected system that properly understood leads us back to God. E.g. natural science was natural theology, because studies of the natural world lead us back to the God who created it. Thus theology was in a sense an organizing principle for all knowledge (Latin scientia) that pointed to the origin and goal of both learning and the world. It is much more difficult for us in our compartmentalized thinking and our different eschatology (a whole discussion in itself!) to relate to their integrated view of the world and thus to appreciate the significance of the idea that theology is the queen of the sciences.

  • Joe Canner

    For most practical purposes, theology has forfeited its right to speak into the realm of science because this right has been abused by conservative Christians in the last 50+ years. Theology could have had (and could still have) an important role in respectfully challenging attempts by scientists (e.g., Dawkins) to make unwarranted extrapolations from science to theology. However, by making unwarranted (and often disrespectful) extrapolations from theology to science, we have lost our credibility and most of our ability to serve in that role. I am hopeful that cooler heads will prevail on both sides so that the respectful dialogue can be resumed.

  • RJS

    Joe,

    I agree with your main point as far as I understand it, although let me try to express it a little differently.

    Christians have lost the opportunity to bring theology to the table as a significant partner because of the way theology has been used to bludgeon or as a trump card. Most of the time when one says “this can’t be so because it conflicts with my theology” theology is being misused. This is certainly true in the natural sciences, and I think it is true in the examples I have in this post … where a theological idea (justification) controls the view of the nature of first century Judaism for some and where Calvin explicitly interprets Genesis through the lens of his theology in a one-way path.

    When cooler heads prevail, theology has a great deal to offer and our theology develops from all aspects of God’s self-revelation.

  • Randy Gabrielse

    Thank you RJS for bringing this up.

    I could write on this for days, but I have NT class this evening. It is important to note how recently these things have changed. American colleges in the early 19th century were still teaching in the same mode as the Middle Ages.

    However, it is fundamental to recognize the depth of this issue. I don’t have citations at hand, but Calvin B. DeWitt, Emeritus Prof. of Environmental Science at UW-Madison has written a fantastic article in the ASA journal demonstrating how secularization in the academy is more about specialization of knowledge and multiplication of departments than about any concsious exclusion of religion. Also, see Ellen F. Davis’ work on OT theology and science. The next-to-last chapter of “Getting to Know God: Rediscovering the Old Testament” is titled something like “Torah of the Land.” She makes her case without bringing up science in any explicit way.

  • Bev Mitchell

    RJS
    “Christians have lost the opportunity to bring theology to the table as a significant partner because of the way theology has been used to bludgeon or as a trump card. Most of the time when one says “this can’t be so because it conflicts with my theology” theology is being misused. This is certainly true in the natural sciences…”

    Yes, this is sadly true. There is real fear of science out there. We evangelicals (theologians, professors, pastors, parishioners) have been way too slow to appreciate the awesome beauty and richness of God’s creation, as revealed by science, and have badly missed a multitude of opportunities to celebrate these wonderful insights into the nature of creation, as examples of God’s wonderful work of love. We let some in science use this marvelous mountain of knowledge to beat up on theology when we should have, long ago, formed a cooperative enterprise with science to better understand (science’s forté) and explain (theology’s mandate) what turns out to be right before our eyes.

    Instead, we run and hide from the very real discoveries of science because we are afraid of contaminating our theology with the reality of creation. If we really believe that God created, and continues to create, and calls it good, and does it out of the depths of his love,  how can we defend our behaviour? Is it possible that we are closet Gnostics, and really believe that the material world is ultimately bad and somehow contaminating?

    Antidotes to this self-defeating behaviour are available, should we have the courage to grasp them. There are calls for a respectful cooperation between science and theology. Finally, to provide my answer to one of your questions: theology should not be trying to challenge science on science’s turf (nor vice versa). Rather, theology should do its level best to take over where science necessarily leaves off. It should also, thankfully, use the ever growing mountain of evidence about God’s cosmos available from science as an important source of truth about reality.

    A great summary of how courageous evangelical theologians might proceed is provided by John Polkinghorne in “Theology in the Context of Science” Yale University Press, 2009. 

  • Joe Canner

    Bev, you reminded me of another point I meant to make before. Whenever I hear Christians rhapsodizing about the wonders of creation, I instinctively bristle because I expect that there will be an anti-science swipe soon to follow (“and they think that this could have all happened by chance……”). Perhaps I am overly paranoid, but this instinct is based on experience and is frequently proved justified. This saddens me, because it was not always this way for me; I would love to enjoy the wonders of nature with fellow-Christians without theology-science-conflict overtones.

  • http://www.geekpreacher.com Derek W. White

    ” Our theology, our understanding of the nature of God, has to be informed by the bible, by the things we learn about God’s creation, by the things we learn about history and culture.”

    In saying this, you sound much like an Anglican theologian by the name of Rochard Hooker. In essence, he stated that one should use Scripture, Tradition, and Reason when doing theology. With just a bit of work, I believe this type of thinking can be very useful in discussions between theologians and scientists. Of course, historically, some of the great scientists of the past were also fairly decent theologians.

    The Geekpreacher

  • tom r

    RjS you ask the question:Is this what is meant by the idea that theology is the queen of the sciences?” I am not sure what others mean but I would say no. As you point out that during the High Middle Ages “The Queen of the Sciences” had a meaning to the effect that theology was the ultimate subject at universities and thus all other subjects existed to aid theology. It’s a Medieval phrase and should be used in that context. To use it in a modern context of discussions of science and faith only leads to confusion. You have raised some important questions that could be made into 2 or 3 posts but Medieval intellectual history is a whole other subject.

  • RJS

    tom r,

    I think you are right – the phrase shouldn’t be applied to our situation. I raised the question because, at least in the context of the science and Christian faith discussion, especially with respect to evolution and creation, the sentiment is often expressed. The comment I quoted from last week is not the first time the phrase has been used in comments on my posts by a mile.

    I think I am going to have to put Medieval Intellectual History on my list of things to learn something more about. It is a fascinating topic.

  • phil_style

    Leron Shults’ description is best for me, that theology and science should be lovers.
    From this book: http://www.ashgate.com/isbn/9780754652311

  • RJS

    phil_style,

    I’ve read Leron Shults’s book – and posted on it. It is a bit of a tough read, but there are some good insights.

  • phil_style

    RJS, I think I bought the book after reading your reviews actually….. now that you mention it.

  • CGC

    Hi RJS,
    I really don’t like “queen of the SCIENCES” but after saying that, I understand the concept. It seems to me used wisely or rightly, it’s just saying our Christian worldview will inform other areas o knoweldge or something like “prima Scriptura.” Maybe some people think every discipline is nuetral, equal, or the playing field is totally level, the postmodern impulse. I quess I just see the examples given as abuses to the idea but that’s my take. Or to put this differently, I am sure some people could question “prima-Scriptura” but I’m not sure people really want to go down that road which is at least a different road than what Christians have historically taken in the past.

  • tom r

    I think it is appropriate for historical and textual considerations to challenge theological ideas. After all we should get our theology from the scriptures, and historical criticism is an aid to understanding the bible. The problem is that sometimes what the bible says conflicts with our theology or with modern science. I have as much trouble as Calvin with a God who changes his mind and I am not Reformed. I think Calvin was right when he said “the Spirit accommodates himself to our capacity” If the people at the time the bible was written thought the sky was solid holding back an ocean He did not tell them any different. If they thought all humans came from one original couple He did not correct their view.

  • Rick

    RJS-

    In light of this post, what are your thoughs on the new “analytical” mind study?

    http://news.sciencemag.org/sciencenow/2012/04/to-keep-the-faith-dont-get-analytical.html?ref=hp

  • RJS

    Rick,

    Scot has a link to this study planned for some afternoon later this week.

    The study is interesting, but it is also framed in a rather prejudicial form. That is, the way the interpretation of the results is framed in popular report (and possibly in the paper itself) both implies and assumes that religion is false.

    I think that one of the things a study like this makes clear is that we need to think as a church and as leaders in the church about how to reach both intuitive and analytical aspects of human reasoning.

  • Rick

    Thanks for the heads-up. I will be looking forward to it.

  • http://highgateroadchapel.co.uk Andrew Hill

    I suggest that theology is indeed the Queen of the sciences because she alone can answer the ultimate questions. Without God we have no absolute morality and no ultimate purpose which makes us of any lasting value.

    The late Yale law professor Arthur Leff wrote a classic essay on this problem, which he ended in this shocking way: ‘As things are now, everything is up for grabs. [In other words, there are no moral absolutes] Nevertheless: napalming babies is bad. Starving the poor is wicked. Buying and selling each other is depraved…There is such a thing as evil. All together now: Sez who? God help us.

    Raimond Gaita, an atheist thinker, reluctantly wrote:
    Only someone who is religious can speak seriously of the sacred…We may say that All human beings are inestimably precious, that they are ends in themselves, that they are owed unconditional respect, that they possess inalienable rights, and, of course, that they possess inalienable dignity. In my judgment these are ways of trying to say what we feel a need to say when we are estranged from the conceptual resources we need to say it…Not one of these statements about human beings has the power of the religious way of speaking…that we are sacred because God loves us, His children.


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