TM04                                                                                                              16 January, 2003





Theology Can Use the Scientific Method


and Still be Theology







Kevin Sharpe

(The Union Institute College of Graduate Studies, Cincinnati, USA;

The Ian Ramsey Centre, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK;

and Science & Spirit Magazine)



Jonathan Walgate

(Oxford, UK)








I compare and contrast the method of science with the method of theology. I also wish to apply the method of the sciences to theology.

First, I outline the scientific method as it has evolved from the contributions of the sociologically oriented philosophers and historians of science. It would seem important to justify the application of theological method to theology, and this I attempt before looking at what the method might mean for the structure of a theology. I seek to follow up several outcomes and implications of the move, especially over the scientific nature of theological language, and the truth of theological statements.

An empirical method for theology assumes the existence of God and then asks what is the nature of God using scientific techniques on proposed answers to the question.



Issac Newton, perhaps England’s finest physicist, considered only two things worth studying: the work of God and the word of God. The usual image of theology conjures up pictures of the study and preservation of accepted doctrines, yet not long ago it lay at the cutting edge of discovery.

Science alone in the public’s eye now holds this lofty position as the vanguard of human knowledge. So powerful is its image that Richard Dawkins introduces his book, The Selfish Gene, with the claim that evolutionary science renders meaningless all other attempts to answer the questions, “Why are we here?” and “What is our purpose?” This is false—theological language has meaning for people and valuable things to say. But theological language must adapt to the times in a world that increasingly looks to scientific proof for its criterion of truth. This paper accepts this challenge.

I suggest that theological language describes reality as does scientific language. I also suggest that the idea “God” has a referent that functions at a metaphysical level similarly to how the idea “objective reality” functions in physical science. Theology, therefore, can and should follow a method analogous to science’s.

The paper follows a straightforward plan. I seek to apply the method of the sciences to theology, and so, as a first step, I outline that method, especially as it develops from the sociologically oriented philosophers and historians of science. I attempt to justify its application to theology and look at the outcomes and implications of the move, especially at the scientific nature of theological language and the truth of theological statements.

I hope this stand, though it reflects an empirical bent in myself and holds to theology’s scientific nature, will contribute to an awareness and understanding of the primary decisions for any theology.


The Scientific Method


Science is a useful, productive, and successful endeavour. The evidence is all around us—planes in the sky, computers in our laps, and vaccines in our bloodstream. The public’s faith in the accuracy of science is greater than at any time in history. Science is true. But all is not well with the unqualified acceptance of this “gospel truth.”

An attack began in the 1950s on this understanding of the doing of science. Thomas Kuhn exposed and dispelled the central myths of the “science is true” position: namely, that all data are independent of theory, that theories are verified or falsified from these data, and that the resulting choice between theories is entirely rational and objective. In his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn went further than this attack, portraying science as irrational and subjective; it even became unclear how science achieved any results at all.

These opposing interpretations now converge.

Ian Barbour describes scientific practice in his book, Myths, Models, and Paradigms.

A scientific discipline comprises research traditions, he writes, one such tradition often dominating a discipline. Key examples (or paradigms) embody each tradition and which, as the subjects of teaching and modelling, initiate a student into the tradition’s methods for attacking problems. The paradigms also guide the tradition’s research programs.

A research tradition also assumes, sometimes along with other research traditions, certain metaphysical beliefs, for instance about what sorts of things exist in the world. Newtonian mechanics (once an extremely powerful paradigm and still reigning in some disciplines such as biochemistry and psychology) generated a widely accepted collection of metaphysical commitments. Observation need not directly root these beliefs; rather, they are assumptions about the sorts of patterns that observations should fit into.

The doing of science within a research tradition requires the construction of models and theories. A model is an imagined mental construct, usually a mechanism or process. The scientist concocts an analogy between the patterns of a phenomenon and an imaginary construct, and a theory develops that matches observable aspects of the phenomenon with terms of the model. A familiar and intelligible situation thus becomes, with creative imagination, the basis for understanding some other aspect or part of the world.

Criteria, which include simplicity, coherence, and agreement with experimental evidence, assess the theories.

·        “Simplicity” refers, not only to simplicity in the form of the theory and the minimum number of independent assumptions, but also to an aesthetic element: the beauty, elegance, and symmetry of the theory.

·        “Coherence” refers to a unification of separate laws, a systematic linking of theories, and exposing similarities between diverse phenomena.

·        “Supporting experimental observations” refers to a theory’s accurate account of known observations and prediction of future measurements, especially fresh discoveries. This is the main criterion.

 Science does not verify or falsify theories by comparing them with a set of objective data found through observation. To some extent data are public and objective, but to a large extent the data depend on the theories (and the process of observation); no clear line separates observational from theoretical terms. Two features highlight this:

·        Criteria besides observation exert some control over theories, despite the lack of specific rules for their unambiguous application. Scientists make subjective decisions about the elegance and coherence of their work.

·        A scientific community can hold onto a theory threatened with discordant data. It might create auxiliary hypotheses to explain the data, for instance, or say the data are incorrect, or hope that someone will find something that undermines the rebel results. A comprehensive theory firmly resists falsification. A low-level law baldly stating relationships between observables lies more at the mercy of discrepancies.

Discordant data rarely overthrow fleshed-out theories. What will are alternative theories that have “greater promise of explaining known data, resolving anomalies, and predicting novel phenomena.”

Metaphysical assumptions lie at a yet higher level than theories, further away from direct empirical verification or falsification, but not immune to change. The arrival of new emphases in research traditions can change their metaphysics, or the acceptance of new traditions with difference basic ideas. Newton’s assumption of gravity’s “action-at-a-distance,” for instance, now faces revision because physicists postulate a particle that carries the gravitational force. Changes in interest in science or other areas of human experience can also question the wider application of the metaphysical assumptions of a tradition.

The different facets of scientific knowledge (metaphysical assumptions, research traditions based on paradigms, comprehensive theories built from models, and laws that relate observables) can all change. The changes in each case are partly objective and partly subjective. This compromise reflects Barbour’s philosophical position, which he calls critical realism, a compromise between naive realism and instrumentalism. A step away from a severe logical empiricism must happen for theology (a more obviously subjective enterprise than science) to adopt the scientific method.


In Defence of Reason


To suggest theology adopts the method of the sciences rouses dispute. Polemics of late separate the two. Extreme empiricists, such as Dawkins, argue for the lack of worthwhile content in religion. Many religiously minded, in reaction, want to carve out an isolated niche for religious language. This attempt to defend theology stems from a fear that a gulping down of science’s method sells out to the enemy. But this enemy’s bark is worse than its bite; Kuhn and others have manicured science’s claws.

Theologians do face a challenge, however, if they adopt the scientific method: they need to understand how their discipline can be scientific. Not only must theology be rational and intellectual, but our experience of the world must also ground it. Unsupported argument and fundamentalist faith may reside in the practice of religion, but theology, as a careful and academic study of our existence, must be empirical.

Theology is a constructive and reflective rational discipline. Religious adherents possess sets of beliefs, lives that are in some way religious, and a language in which they talk of matters religious. A theologian, a Christian theologian for instance, attempts to express and explain Christian beliefs in a rational, coherent, faithful, and systematic way. The theologian accepts these aims and tries to explain certain phenomena. Theology is, in this way, “faith seeking understanding.”

Two twists complicate this picture. First, theologians can also play leader-roles for religious beliefs, language, and life. They can suggest matters a little beyond the commonly accepted belief system and so lead believers into that new area. Second, theologians can hold to and explain a set of beliefs other than those they would call Christian. Schubert Ogden accordingly believes that a theology should align itself with what is inherent in human existence, and this need not be Christian. In such instances, however, Christian theologians attempt to make their constructions faithful to a set of beliefs they consider the essentially Christian.

Many object that theology should not or cannot seek truth in the manner of science. Three reasons supposedly support this.

First, theological theories cannot in principle be verified or falsified and are therefore not scientific. This stance could arise from subjectivism, which says that both theology and science are totally non-empirical. Or it could arise from a positivist-empiricist view, which diametrically opposes theological statements to those of science—the only truly empirical ones. The stance from either extreme fails to hold up. Both objective and subjective factors exist in each of science and theology. Any extreme separation of the two distorts the reality.

Theology’s greater metaphysical content as compared with science reflects its greater subjectivity. Many take this to an extreme and talk of theology as if it were purely metaphysical. David Tracy suggests, for instance, that theological claims do not function in the same dimension as those of science because the religious ground all others and account for all experience. Ordinary criteria of verification and falsification do not apply here. Tracy’s argument misses, however, what Barbour points out: metaphysical concepts do relate to empirical evidence. They constantly change under its pressure because of shifts in theories and research traditions. Theology also seeks to explain not only the whole which is reality (which Tracy assumes), but also the constituent parts of it; this opens it to change as well.

The third reason for the apparent lack of the scientific in theology lies in its history. Theology used to make scientific assertions, laying out the physical structure of the cosmos and its means of creation. Powerful claims of empirical science found these theories wanting. Theology thus tries to distance itself from statements about the physical world and so save itself from further raps on its knuckles. Existentialism appeared, along with demythologization, functionalism, language-game fideism, and other movements. To make its way back into suggesting scientific statements is not easy.

A theology can make scientific statements, including statements about the nature and creation of the physical cosmos, in several ways besides those I have already mentioned.

·        What theological theories say about the meaning of life and history tests them. We can compare them with philosophical and historical, hermenteutical and phenomenological analyses.

·        Theologies can rest on historical events, on knowledge of the structure of society, on human personality or psychology, on experiences claimed as common to all people. These are testable.

·        Theologies have made such factual assertions as the coming of the end of the world at the year 2000, and that wealthy and successful people are so because of their good lives. They can state that the evolutionary process converges toward an Omega Point. These are testable.

·        A theologian who advocates the anthropic principle—that we can read Divine purpose from the precise gearing of the universe for the generation of life—must listen to the cosmologists whose work may support or falsify the hypothesis.

Theology can make scientific claims for any part of its subject matter: human experience, history, and the physical, biological, and social world in all their facets. The methods and criteria of the relevant disciplines should evaluate these claims. A full theology will attempt to explain in one coherent whole all that exists, and this will comprise statements proper to other disciplines and which those disciplines should evaluate.


Scientific Theology


Theology can be scientific. What would such a theology look like? How might we use the scientific method in theology?

The most fundamental theological assumption, and which to a large extent defines theology as a discipline as distinct from, say, biology or sociology, is theos. Theology centers on the idea “God” (whatever we mean by that word); God is the organizational key, the idea that all others depend on and fall in line with. A theoretical system becomes a theology if its central, dominant, and hinge idea is an idea of God.

Now the problem looms. Theology seeks to study God, but how can it identify the reality of God to begin describing it?

We might identify the reality God from the history of the word’s usage. The theologian can attempt from this to isolate a cluster of attributes essential to God and areas in which human beings have and can experience God and God’s activity. This might enable the identification and description of God. Theology must take on board the additional metaphysical assumption that we can know God, at least imperfectly or in part.

God is not there to describe as is a physical object. But is theology’s job to describe God as I might describe the chair I sit in? If God were the sole subject matter of theology, suggests Wolfhart Pannenberg, theology cannot be a science. “The question arises,” he writes, “of how to distinguish God from the affirmations of theologians and already-committed believers.” We must describe God in a more roundabout way than we do normal objects, and this gives “God” a peculiar but not unique place in our language. Theology must have something else as its subject matter, and through this we can learn the nature of God.

And what is this subject matter of theology? Don Wiebe judges that theology concerns the world, “the empirical world in its totality and the sum total of our personal experience.” It attempts systematically to account for and explain, not only religious experience (the “category of experiences which is other than mere sensation”), but all phenomena within the world, “the daily round of experiences of which our life is made.”

“God” acts as a peculiar key concept for the explanations and understandings of theology. It fulfils its role as the starting point for theology similarly to how another metaphysical assumption—that an objective and regular physical world exists—fulfils its role in science. Natural science centers its explanations on the physical world. It believes that the world comprises such invisible things as physical forces and fields, and with existing and determining properties such as mass, velocity, valency, and so forth. Both science and theology try to explain the same object, but they use different media. Both look at (or describe) all of reality through their respective lenses of physical reality and God. The lenses act to isolate specific aspects of reality as central to explanation. Douglas Clyde Macintosh saw this back in 1919:

There is one presupposition peculiar to empirical theology, just as there is always one presupposition in every empirical science that is the special presupposition of that science. The empirical sciences assume the existence and the possibility of empirical knowledge of the objects they undertake to investigate. Thus chemistry assumes the existence of matter; psychology, the existence of states of consciousness; psychology of religion, the existence of religious experience, and so on. In each case there is assumed, commonly on the basis of pre-scientific experience, the accessibility of the object to further knowledge through further experience. And what is true of the sciences is true of empirical theology. . . .Ordinarily the empirical theologian, it may be expected, will posit the existence of God—defined, to be sure, in preliminary fashion—because he is already practically sure, on the basis of religious experience, that God really exists. . . .It is. . .what God is, that is to be investigated through scientific theological observation and experiment under the guidance of definite working hypotheses.

Theologians create a theology centered on an idea of God. They then need to evaluate their construction with certain criteria, both as an individual theory and, to a greater extent, against competing theories.

This departs from past understandings of scientific method. Suppose I reject a theological theory that suggests I should castigate myself for sinning in all sorts of terrible ways though I, an upright and good Christian, do not know I have. I would reject the theory because I know of an alternative theological theory that makes more sense of my life as I experience it. We tend to hold to a theory (especially a comprehensive one) if no better alternatives exist, while we search for another.

The criteria to evaluate theologies do, as in science, vary in the importance across various schools of thought, though they draw from the same pool. Simplicity of formulation, aesthetic charm, the fruitfulness of the consequences—any human theory of the world, whether a scientist’s or a theologian’s, values these. The difficult issues arise as we consider the prime quality of a scientific theory—its command of supporting evidence. Here we meet a potential contrast between science and theology.


Differences between Scientific and Theological Criteria and Methods


Differences between the ideas “God” and  “the physical world” lie in our feeling the immediacy of the physical world, a sentiment which many used to feel (and some still do) toward God. We cannot point to God because we coin the word to explain a wider class of experiences, including human subjective experience, than those the idea of the physical world can explain.

Three other differences appear to distinguish the scientific and theological methods and their criteria.

The first concerns the use of and desire for mathematical models and theory in science. The lack of mathematics in theology says more about the humanities background of most theologians than about the potential for using mathematical models in theology. Mathematical ideas may not even imply a quantitative approach as opposed to the qualitative one that matters human seem to require; theology usually fights such reductionism as an enemy. The use of probability theory and statistics in sociology, for instance, suggest the usefulness of mathematics in human sciences.

The second contrast concerns the unanimity of science, the ability of scientific experiments to achieve more or less the same results wherever and whenever and by whomever they are performed, given the same initial conditions. The assumption that the physical world behaves consistently and repeatedly makes the derivation of general laws of nature possible. Thus any claim to factual truth is incompatible with purely private or idiosyncratic experience. This opposes theological “special case” philosophy, which suggests that theology should not feel compelled to appeal to public criteria and method. God does what God wishes to do. The community of secular inquiry, however, rightly claims its rational procedures as the way to obtain truthful statements. Repeated and careful examination of phenomena lead to valuable knowledge. This applies to theology as well.

This returns us to the criterion of supporting evidence for theology and its most testing aspect: human experience. Earl MacCormac writes: “Religious language must be testable in the sense that common experiences must be available that are capable of interpretation in religious terms and symbols. Unlike science, these common experiences need not all be observable since much of religious expression involves feelings and desires.” Tracy follows this path in his emphasis on the religious face of common human limit-experiences. But Avery Dulles disputes this approach, asking about the place of extraordinary experiences: should these play a primary role in the evaluation of theological theories? Would this remove any chance of theology achieving unanimity? MacCormac notes that religious experiences, though personal, are not purely subjective because many people share them. He refers to common religious experiences. I would disagree with Dulles, but not necessarily conclude that all people must encounter religious and common human experience; many people must share them, however, for theology to have a public subject matter.

Godbey writes that, between the contents of theologies that use the method and findings of the sciences, “complete unanimity is not to be expected [on scientific grounds], and, on religious grounds, . . .it is not to be desired. . .because of the absolutely indispensable nature of honesty in one’s religious witness.” The proliferation of theologies and theological research traditions—each claiming truth and each based on different criteria, relative weights of criteria, and initial God-ideas—reflect the greater degree of subjectivity in theology than in science. Perhaps we should not expect complete unanimity in theology, given Kuhn’s interpretation of rival and discordant research traditions in science. We should, on the other hand, expect unanimity within each theological research tradition. Those who share common criteria, areas of evidence, and basic concepts should build their theological theory together, reaching plateaux of agreement.

The third and most important difference between scientific and theological criteria concerns predictability. Barbour’s criterion of “supporting experimental observations” for science includes the valuing of a theory for its ability to yield “precise predictions for future measurements.” No equivalent criterion exists in his list for religious beliefs. Scholars often cite this as the key distinction between science and theology, for the latter does not seek far ranging causal laws that allow for such predictions. Theology deals more with the unique unfolding of human history or of a person’s life, the scholars continue, than with the repeating phenomena of nature.

A comprehensive theological theory resembles a metaphysical system. Much of theology’s corpus reflects on the nature of things in general, based on broad categories that include the idea “God.” Theology is a higher-level act of knowing than science because it lacks the lower-level laws apparent in science. Ferré admits that we cannot make predictions from metaphysical systems—a major difference between them and those of science—because their categories are general and they try to account for all types of phenomena, including those that will occur in the future. They leave nothing to compare them with. Predictions of novel phenomena are impossible if all types of experience are already considered. Thus, since theology is more akin to metaphysics than to the religious beliefs of Barbour’s discourse, we should expect less of this scientific predictability than in science.

Yet one of the means by which Hugh Jones suggests we test a theological position lies in its fruitfulness in anticipating and planning for whatever lies in the future. Such theological predictions will probably not concern physical events, but people’s actions. William Austin concludes that, in the testing of theological theories, “predictions of future events play some role, at least in some traditions, but in general the role is secondary and ambiguous.” In as much as theology deals with non-unique, repeating occurrences and causal laws, and in as much as it uses non-metaphysical categories, it can predict the future.


Science and Theology


The method I propose for theology provides a way for theology to attempt expressing truth. It should not claim, nor should any other method claim to lead to a complete account of truth. Knowledge is imperfect. Religious tradition after tradition stresses that perfect knowledge of the reality lies beyond our reach. Science similarly admits it has not reached the truth and so strives for better understanding. Truthfulness in science results in long-term, rational, and empirical arbitration between theories. Science comes closer and closer to truth as its theories change. Theology comes more and more to know the nature of God and God’s world. But we can only aim for truth; never can we know we have reached it or are even approaching it. The scientific theological method will not provide a definitive description of reality viewed religiously. This method only provides the most adequate vehicle in our times for the expression of truth theologically.

I cannot irrefutably argue for this. I can only suggest it to you.

The act of discovery is the key to all human knowing. So says Michael Polanyi. Knowledge progresses as we discover ever more about the world we live in. A sense of discovery exists in theology when it learns new things. Theologians must involve themselves at the forefront of human knowing if they truly wish to discover and to seek understanding. John Godbey writes: “Theology must wrestle with the best human knowledge available in the historical epoch in which a [theologian] writes. This admission. . .arises. . .out of a concern for the wrestle of theology with truth.” This wrestling, Godbey shows, has engaged many of the great theologians right down through the ages—Origen, Aquinas, Schleiermacher, Tillich, and, I add, C. S. Lewis. It must also engage us. Today, the method of science provides the “best human knowledge available.”

The core motivation for pursuing a scientific method in theology comes from a desire to do justice to and to minister to secular life and experience, to the theologian’s secular being.

The scientific method is the paradigm in our modern western culture for producing truthful, useful, and perhaps meaningful knowledge—whether we like it or not. Theology dare not drift too far from that cultural placement of truth (even while fulfilling its task of criticizing secularity), else it (and its critique) will lose in meaning, worth to the community at large, and any relevant message or cutting edge it might have. Theology should not side-step this challenge, but meet it head on, and adopt the scientific method. To do this would give weight and vibrancy to the theological enterprise and help theology face more openly the divide between fact and value. Our theology must be scientific to act as an effective moral force and means for directing and unifying our lives.


Kevin Sharpe, 16 Rivercourt, 1 Trinity Street, Oxford OX1 1TQ, U.K. Email:

Jonathan Walgate, Email: