Theology and Speculation

Theology and Speculation February 17, 2015

Theology and Speculation

The issue here is the legitimacy of speculation in theology. What is speculation? In this context, if not in all contexts, “speculation” is making truth claims without clear warrant—reasonable grounding in relevant data. In theology “relevant data” are revelation/Scripture, tradition, reason (logic) and experience. “Experience” is intersubjective experience, not private experience.

Some years ago I came to the conclusion that much Christian theology, truth claims made by Christian theologians, is speculation—as opposed to clear exegesis of Scripture and tradition using reason and experience as guidance mechanisms and tools of interpretation.

Now I need to give examples. It seems to me that calling the Holy Spirit “the bond of love between Father and Son” in the immanent Trinity (like much talk about the immanent Trinity) is speculation. And yet, probably due to the influence of Augustine (De Trinitate) it has become commonplace in especially Western Christian theology.

Another example is theories of atonement: how exactly Christ’s death on the cross made possible human salvation. All theories of the atonement seem speculative to me.

Of course, my examples reveal that I think much “tradition” is itself speculative compared with Scripture itself. Most Protestants, anyway, claim to believe that Scripture trumps tradition and where tradition departs from Scripture it is to be held more lightly and with less authority.

Over the years I have gotten in the habit of reading every book of theology with a kind of critical principle about speculation: “Is this truth claim made by this theologian actually warranted by revelation/Scripture?”

I would guess that as much as half or more of all that I read in books of theology is speculation.

Now, having said all that, let me also say that speculation is not always bad. The human mind seeks answers and it is naturally for theologians to guess at possible answers when revelation/Scripture is not clear. I don’t blame theologians for attempting to answer the question “Why did Jesus have to die in order for us to be saved?” but I recognize much of most theological answers as speculation.

Some years ago I was at a banquet honoring a world class theologian’s sixtieth birthday. During his talk after the toasts he reminisced about his life and career and specifically referred to a falling out he had with another theologian who was present. He said directly to the other theologian “Let’s all just remember: It’s only guesswork anyway.”

Naturally I was a bit shocked as I had spent much time and effort studying that theologian’s work. And yet I was somewhat relieved at the same time because I had come to suspect that much of his theology was, indeed, “guesswork” or what I am calling here speculation.

Again, to me that does not nullify the value of that theologian’s contributions to theology. I only wish he and others labeled their prescriptive truth claims “speculation” rather than putting them forward as “truth.”

As I said, speculation is not bad or wrong, but it should not carry the weight, authority, that truth grounded directly in revelation/Scripture carries. And yet what often happens is people adopt an entire theological project as truth and are reluctant or unwilling to recognize much of it as speculation when, in fact, that is what it is.

Theologians (and others) should be more open and transparent about this. They should label their truth claims with degrees of speculation—from that which is closer to the data (“justified speculation”) to that which is farther from the data (“guesswork only”). My own reading of Christian theology has led me to believe that most theologians (other than fundamentalists) actually know these differences between truth claims but, for whatever reasons, are reluctant to label them.

What difference does all this make? Well, it should be obvious to people involved in theological work. It is very common for graduate students, for example, to latch on to a theologian and his or her system and treat it as truth itself. Arguments break out and people are demeaned, insulted, marginalized, even excluded because they don’t buy into the “truth system” that, in fact, is half or more speculation.

The twentieth century saw a renaissance of the doctrine of the Trinity in Christian theology—from Barth to Boff theologians (almost) all piled on the Trinity bandwagon offering their own contributions. I have read much of that literature and concluded that at least half of what is said about the Trinity in those numerous tomes of modern theology is speculation. Some of it I would consider warranted speculation but much of it is sheer guesswork. Who can really know the inner workings of the Trinity?

Now don’t get me wrong; I love theological speculation. I’m sure I do it! But a greater degree of humility ought to accompany speculation in theology (than is usually the case).

A case in point is the debates about the so-called “decrees of God.” Supralapsarians, infralapsarians, Amyrauldians, Arminians. So much of what went on in Protestant scholasticism was sheer speculation and yet it led to numerous divisions among Christians. Another case is, as already mentioned, theories of the atonement. The Bible overflows with images and metaphors. Attempting to develop a model that explains why Jesus had to die is natural, but elevating one model to dogma or rejecting others as wrong amounts to elevating to speculation to timeless truth.

There are minds attracted to speculation. When a theological question seems important to someone (or a group) and yet revelation/Scripture is not as clear as they wish it were (often the case) they often look around for a “Bible teacher” or theologian who “has the answer” and then latch onto that person as if he or she thought God’s thoughts after him. They then treat that Bible teacher’s or theologian’s “teachings” as God’s truth itself. They do not want to hear “This is my opinion,” or “This is how it seems to me.” So often the favored Bible teacher or theologian treats his or her doctrinal formulations just like the proverbial fundamentalist preacher who pounds the pulpit saying “The Bible saaaayyyys…” when, in fact, the Bible doesn’t say that at all!

These people have trouble distinguishing between revelation/Scripture and a theologian’s speculative answers to their pressing questions. I have seen this happen with students (and theologians) enamored with the theology of Karl Barth; they become upset when anyone questions Barth’s veracity on a subject. “That’s just Barth’s speculation” invites a glare and an argument—as if Barth’s Church Dogmatics were dropped down out of heaven. I have seen the same happen with people devoted to Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology.

In fact, both Barth and Tillich were prone to speculation. I suspect they knew it. But too often they did not couch their truth claims in such a way as to indicate “this is speculation.”

I favor theological works that admit speculation is just that—speculation. Unfortunately, they are too few.

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