Science is Always Changing?

If I’ve heard it once I’ve heard it one hundred times: “science is always changing.” The implication every time I’ve heard it is this: “So I don’t trust science.” The further implication is this: “So I trust Christian theology, the Bible, etc.”

At the Houston BioLogos conference I had a short section in my presentation on this topic and I want to post it today though I’ve revised it somewhat.

Sitting next to two biologists at a BioLogos conference at Oxford I heard this charge from Jack Collins, a professor of Old Testament who has a degree (not in science I don’t think) from MIT, so it is not just populists who are making such accusations about the untrustworthiness of science. When I heard Jack say that a scientist next to me and I engaged in a brief discussion. I said, “Challenge him on this.” He said, “It’s all because of nutrition science reports in the media. Nutrition science is just beginning and it is always changing. But not all science is changing like that.”

While my reading of this discussion is that nutrition science is certainly always changing (color me cholesterol), evolution as a theory is not so much changing as it is expanding its comprehension and comprehensiveness of explanatory power. But I’ll leave it to the scientists to discuss how much science is changing and instead I will question instead the value of the implications I mentioned above. Some of the certaintist conclusions in those implications are worthy of some serious doubting in order for us to think more carefully about what it means to say an academic discipline is always changing.

I shall make a counter charge about my own field.

Theology is always changing. Or at least some theology is always changing. Some changes at the pace of turtle while others change so often one has to wonder if there is a solid core at all.

NT Wright — check out this interview on Relevant Mag site —  can come along and say “We got heaven all wrong for all these years. We got justification wrong all these years. We got the atonement wrong all these years. We got Jesus wrong all these years. We got Paul wrong all these years.”

My friends on the Reformed side of the ledger will say “After the church got all things wrong for so long, it was we got all these themes right in the Reformation and we’ve been right since and now Wright is getting these things wrong.”

Now let’s be more frank about this: if for four weeks in a row you go to five typical evangelical, non-denominational or barely-denominational churches and listen to pastors preach it is highly likely that you will hear five distinct if not different configurations about Christian theology and the big vision of God for this world. Then I listen to some conference speakers — with their zany theories and lots of people liking them because the speakers are anti institutional and anti pastor — and it all leads me to this:

My question then is this: Who’s always changing now?

I don’t mean this question to be cynical or impertinent; I mean it from the heart.

The reason evangelicals are so easily persuaded that science is always changing is because they indwell a symbolic world that differs so much from the symbolic world of other Christians and their theory of teaching is so democratic (and so rooted in the priesthood of all believers) that they don’t trust specialists. They indwell a world that shows so much variety they don’t recognize the wisdom of stability. This was precisely the point made by Christian Smith in The Bible Made Impossible.

I’d like then to suggest that the closest parallels to how science works in the symbolic world construct of theology is not how evangelicals do theology. Speaking of evangelical theology: What is an evangelical? Who is an evangelical? Who’s your evangelical theologian now? Grudem? Volf? Pannenberg? Erickson? Williams? Crisp? Holmes? Packer? Boersma? Bird? How do we do theology? Through the Bible or through the history of theological discussion? Do we begin with the Bible or not? Many theologians don’t, frankly. Do you think the consternation of these questions can be asked about the Westminster Reformed?

I suggest the closest parallel to how science works is to look at how theology is done among Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, and among strong confessionalists, like the “Truly” Reformed, who quippingly call themselves the TRs. They don’t agree on everything for all time but there is a deep and wide core to their theology that has not changed and is not changing and will not (probably) change. It functions as a theory does in science.

What I mean is that this form of Traditioning Theology operates as science does: some basic conclusions that are largely indisputable – Trinity, Creed, justification – are firmly articulated in creedal or confessional statements, those lines are expanded and challenged and refreshed but remain organically if not staunchly the same over centuries of endurance. Catholic theology of the eucharist, Orthodox theology of nature and spirit, justification for the Truly Reformed just haven’t changed even if they have expanded in power.

Take, for instance, the Trinity. The only reason Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware got by with their diversion from historic Trinitarian thinking was because they were in “theology is always changing, let’s go back to the Bible, we may have gotten this wrong” circles. Theologians of the historic tradition of theology knew immediately Ware and Grudem were wrong, if not more than wrong. They knew this because of the wisdom and stability of the tradition, a tradition that was rooted in gospel and the Bible and that grew slowly, incrementally and organically.

The wisdom of neither theology nor science always gets it right; the wisdom of each is that it can be revisited and revised and reshaped. But it is only because of the respect of the tradition that it permits revision.

I’ll dig just a little deeper: among many low church evangelicals today there is a profound disrespect for tradition, for the “elites” of the tradition, and therefore a profound belief in their own mental capacities to start all over again. Which creates some very interesting and at times helpful theology and far more often messier, inarticulate, and profoundly wrong theology. That disrespect feeds into disrespect for any intellectual discipline’s tradition. I have heard well-known theologians, who agree only with themselves and a few of their students, trash science as an ideology. All to say that the only way some of our conservative brothers and sisters can dismiss the gains of science is because their theology breeds a contempt of tradition.

It is my respect for how science operates and how Traditioning Theology works that has led me to this conclusion: to accuse science of always changing is an accusation that is disrespectful if not unaware of the way science expands and grows and develops. It is also a sign of my respect for Traditioning Theology.

We would do better to take the wisdom tradition as our model for how both science and theology are to be done than radical revolutions like the Reformation or the Evangelical Awakening. Of course, we most go back to the Bible – I’m a Protestant. But what I’ve seen is that we need to go back to the Bible more because we’ve lost the great tradition’s solid interpretive history and because we too often hear mind-boggling silliness at the hands of some today.

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