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And Now the Double Standard

Tuesday, I posted that truth is not relative.  Truth is truth, and if it’s the truth, it isn’t going to go back and reverse itself, as science so often does.

I spotlighted 5 things I was taught in elementary school science class as irrefutable fact, all of which are now considered false.  At the end of the post, I stated that I already knew the reply to this and I agreed with it.  I posted the reply on Wednesday.

Science is great at discerning cause-and-effect, but I’m not so sure that I’d classify the findings as “irrefutable truth.”  Our knowledge base is growing rapidly, and so we will find out that we occasionally missed the mark with previously held scientific theories.

Considering the vastness of the universe, the average scientist is likely formulating theories with 10% of the necessary data.  We expect to revise theories as more data become available.  With that in mind, those five points I made become simplistic and silly.

Now then, why does that create a double standard for theists?

Because our critics expect us to be right from the outset and never change.  However, when I criticize science for reversing itself, I’m rightly called ignorant.  I’m making an overly simplistic statement that totally misses the mark.

By the same token, as more information becomes available, people revise their opinions and theologies.

For example, despite Matthew Bellasario’s bellowing, the early church did not accord Mary the special place that Catholic theology does.  They brought Mary into their liturgies because they felt that she deserved a place on account of her role in Jesus’ life, which eventually evolved to a Co-Redemptrix and Mediatrix of All Graces role.  Catholics pay her hyper-dulia, a high accord indeed (higher than the saints, but lower than God).

One can even see evolving theology in the New Testament.  The letter to the Hebrews was likely the latest document prepared, and it is rich in theology.  The Gospel of John was the last of the Gospels and (again) it is rich in theology not present in the earlier Gospels.  We can deduce John’s theology from the earlier Gospels and Paul’s letters, but it isn’t codified in either.

The Trinity was codified in the Athanasian Creed, the third of the three ecumenical creeds generally agreed upon by all Christians.  We see an evolution in the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed, and finally the Athanasian Creed — each becomes more intricate as we gain greater insight and understanding.

Why, according to the critic, must all Christian belief be found all at once and never change; a progressive evolution indicates falsehood?  I don’t discount science as false merely because scientists revise their findings later.  Therefore, theology shouldn’t be discounted as false merely because we have revised it as time went on.  All of the revisions were made for good reasons, like the revisions to various scientific theories.

One thing hasn’t changed: Salvation by the grace of God, effected by our faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ.  Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant: we all unite under that banner.

And now you may comment on the entire series.

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About Cory Tucholski

I'm a born-again Christian, amateur apologist and philosopher, father of 3. Want to know more? Check the "About" page!

Posted on November 25, 2011, in Apologetics, God, Science, Theology and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Do you think the method by which scientific theories evolve is comparable to the method by which theology evolves? It seems as though scientific theories evolve primarily (perhaps not exclusively) due to additional evidence being brought forward, things being proven true or false, etc. But I don’t know that the same can be said for the evolution of the various Creeds. My overly simplistic, less-than-Wikipedia knowledge of the Creeds gives me the impression that they come about when there is disagreement about what’s in the Bible or how to interpret it, so some group of people get together and decide what is “correct.” For example, here’s a quote from the Wikipedia article on the Nicene Creed, which is more or less what other quicky Google searches lead to as well: “The purpose of a creed is to act as a yardstick of correct belief. The creeds of Christianity have been drawn up at times of conflict about doctrine: acceptance or rejection of a creed served to distinguish believers and deniers of a particular doctrine or set of doctrines.” I’m sure this process to determine what the correct beliefs are is more than a simple coin flip, but I’d be interested to hear about any extra-biblical evidence that is brought to the table, or any “incorrect” theories that are falsified due to some sort of testing or experimentation.

    Theology is not discounted as false merely because it has been revised. It is discounted as false because of how and why it is revised. If it’s unfair to expect theological changes to be supported by evidence and testable hypotheses, the atheists will probably want to know why.

    • Two observations.

      First, if Wikipedia is all you have, move on and stop wasting my time.

      Second:

      It seems as though scientific theories evolve primarily (perhaps not exclusively) due to additional evidence being brought forward, things being > proven true or false, etc.

      That is EXACTLY why theology gets revised — additional evidence or things being proven true/false. And we take major flak for it!

      A couple of questions for you:

      1) Shouldn’t Christians agree on how to interpret the Bible?

      2) If so, then how should we go about reaching a consensus, if not convening a council and discussing the issue?

      3) Could you restate this portion:

      I’m sure this process to determine what the correct beliefs are is more > than a simple coin flip, but I’d be interested to hear about any extra-biblical evidence that is brought to the table, or any incorrect theories that are falsified due to some sort of testing or experimentation.

      I’m not sure I understand exactly what you want.

      I’m also not sure I understand why you say theology is discounted because of how and why it’s revised. Maybe a thought experiment can clear this up:

      Let’s say that you thought I had three kids — all girls. You found quotes from my blog to back that up. But, in the end, I was able to contextualize those quotes so that you understood I didn’t mean two separate girls, just that my only daughter had behaved differently in certain situations. Then I pointed you to the blog post that announced the birth of my son.

      So, now you agree: I have two kids, a boy and a girl, with another girl on the way. Does this mean that you shouldn’t have revised your beliefs, since all I did was argue from my previous blog posts? Should I have brought my kids, or pictures of my kids, too?

      This is similar to how and why theology is revised. An argument is put forth based on Scripture, and if people come to accept that argument, then it can be placed in a creed. To pose this a different way, do I always need empirical evidence for a belief, or is a convincing argument sufficient?

      I don’t think I said that creedal formulations can be unsupported by science. For a final question, how would one go about verifying creedal statements by scientific means? I’m not saying it can’t be done, but I’d be curious for you input on that.

      • Theodore A. Jones

        Is this statement true or false? “It is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” If you assert that it is not a false statement which law is it that you have obeyed to be declared righteous by God?

  2. “Shouldn’t Christians agree on how to interpret the Bible?”

    Not necessarily. I wouldn’t expect followers of Shakespeare to necessarily agree on how to interpret all of his plays. (I’m not saying the Bible is purely fiction. I’m saying both the Bible and Shakespeare’s plays were written by people who are no longer alive, so there is a limit to how well their intentions can be known now.)

    “If so, then how should we go about reaching a consensus, if not convening a council and discussing the issue?”

    That’s the only way (that readily comes to mind) when there isn’t any empirical evidence or observation to support the consensus. Those who don’t agree with the consensus just go off on their own and form splinter groups, sometimes gaining followers and thriving, other times remaining very small or fading away altogether. The success of the splinter group seems to be significantly impacted by the ability of its leader(s) to convince people of their position, and less so on any empirical evidence.

    Brap: “I’m sure this process to determine what the correct beliefs are is more than a simple coin flip, but I’d be interested to hear about any extra-biblical evidence that is brought to the table, or any incorrect theories that are falsified due to some sort of testing or experimentation.”

    Cory: “I’m not sure I understand exactly what you want.”

    I guess I’m asking for some explanation/expansion of this comment of yours: “That is EXACTLY why theology gets revised – additional evidence or things being proven true/false.” I am asking, in other words, if there is any evidence considered when developing the creeds, other than reinterpreting the Bible or clarifying previous interpretations? What theological ideas have been proven true or false, and how was that done? I’m not saying there is no sound basis for determining, over time, _what_ was originally written (given an evolving knowledge of the language of the earliest known manuscripts, the culture at the time the manuscripts were supposedly written, the context, etc.). But that can only take you so far in determining the truth of what was originally written.

    “To pose this a different way, do I always need empirical evidence for a belief, or is a convincing argument sufficient?”

    For some beliefs, such as having a “normal” number of children, I probably wouldn’t need empirical evidence. But it might take more than some blog entries to convince me that a woman has given birth to seven sets of conjoined twins. And that’s not even miraculous, just statistically improbable.

    “For a final question, how would one go about verifying creedal statements by scientific means? I’m not saying it can’t be done, but I’d be curious for you input on that.”

    I can’t think of any way, which is why I take issue with a group of people convening and declaring something like, “This is the truth. You must believe this to be saved, or to be a true Christian, or whatever.” A consensus of opinion about how to interpret a body of work is one thing, but declaring that consensus to be “the truth,” and the only truth, and claiming to know how one’s acceptance or denial of that truth affects what happens in the afterlife, seems too far a leap to make when trying to interpret any written document.

  3. Cory Tucholski,

    I discovered your blog thanks to someone’s Twitter feed (although I closed that browser window and cannot remember exactly who’s it was). I had a look around and rather enjoy what you have written. I have added your blog to my news reader and intend on participating.

    Brap Gronk,

    1. First, Tucholski’s question asked whether Christians SHOULD agree on how to interpret the Bible, not whether they DO or CAN agree on how to. Second, your appeal to Shakespeare does not seem to make a relevant point in this regard; our ability to know authorial intent (in either case) is constrained, not impossible, so Tucholski’s question is meaningful—and unanswered.

    2. Interpreting the Bible is a matter of exegesis, pertaining to what is stated and meant textually. There may be empirical entailments and implications but they function as a secondary hermeneutic, the primary one being exegesis because we are dealing with text. Moreover, the central focus of Scripture is the person and work of Jesus Christ in revelation and reconciliation, which is the controlling context of every intrabiblical and extrabiblical fact. (See the Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics, Articles 20–21.)

    3. As for the sort of “extrabiblical evidence that is brought to the table” in order to interpret and understand what the text says and means, or to correct or overturn incorrect ideas, I would offer the example of John Walton and his work on the text of Genesis 1, wherein he examined the people and culture of the ancient Near East in order to get a better sense of how the original author and audience of Genesis 1 would have understood the revelation (see The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate, 2009, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press). He offers a good example of how serious historico-grammatical exegesis can overthrow entrenched traditional views by an even firmer commitment to the biblical text.

    4. I am not sure how you could fail to recognize that expanding our knowledge “of the earliest known manuscripts, the culture at the time the manuscripts were supposedly written, the context, etc.,” precisely involves extrabiblical evidence, apart from which historical and grammatical exegesis would be unintelligible. If I wrote a text about scientism and people 1,000 years in the future wanted to properly understand my intent, they would look at data outside my text (the cultural artifacts of my era) to get a plausible sense of the context and meaning of what I wrote. Since that set of data is not itself my text, it is by definition external to it; but it functions as a secondary hermeneutic when it comes to interpreting my text, with exegesis being the primary hermeneutic.

    5. When it comes to convincing you of what God reveals to mankind about redemptive history, any suggestion that empirical evidence is the means thereof simply underscores a profound ignorance. The issue is not about empirical evidence, but about the question-begging nature of how people approach the evaluation. One has to deny the sovereign God of Scripture in order to conclude that there is no compelling evidence to think he exists (by which one virtually determines never to meet a fact that points to God), which is to beg the question.

    • David,

      1. Regarding whether Christians should agree on how to interpret the Bible, my answer to most (if not all) “should” or “ought” questions is that it depends on what the goals are. (Sometimes the goals are so obvious they don’t really need to be discussed, but many times they aren’t.) I can’t think of any goals I have that would be impacted by Christians’ agreement on how to interpret the Bible, so I don’t think I’m in any position to say whether they should or should not agree.

      3. Thanks for the book recommendation. I do enjoy reading books from “the other side,” and based on the Amazon page it sounds like this is one I’d be interested in, especially since it touches on the origins of the earliest biblical texts.

      4 and 5. As you can probably guess, the difference I see when comparing the evolution of Christian theology to the evolution of scientific knowledge is in the use of empirical data. When a scientific theory is being analyzed, modified, or discarded, it generally doesn’t matter who came up with the theory originally, when the theory was developed, or what the culture was like at the time. Granted, the state of scientific knowledge at the time may help explain how or why a theory was originally developed, but all that matters now is the data that can be gathered or analyzed today to support or refute the theory.

      I see no parallel with that in the evolution of Christian theology. It must presuppose divine inspiration of the Bible, whereas science has no (long term) sacred texts or authors, not even Darwin. Sure, it may take awhile to slay some sacred cows in the scientific arena, but the evidence eventually becomes overwhelming and does the job. With theology, no current evidence can ever be gathered to prove or falsify the claims such as sola fide or the Trinity, so we just have the beliefs that can be gleaned from the writings of a few ancient authors. Theology seems to evolve as modern beliefs about those ancient beliefs evolves, which non-theists equate with a weak or non-existent foundation.

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