Natural Events and the Divine Nature

The following quote is from T.F. Torrance’s discussion of the virgin birth, but I think it highlights a broader view of the relationship science and theology (or perhaps even faith?).

In understanding any act in nature we have to ask two questions, What is it? and How is it? And these two questions belong together. But here in answer to the question what we are confronted with an answer which has no natural how attached to it, but rather a how that transcends the natural event altogether. That transcendent how is described as an act of the Spirit, as a creative act from above which breaks into our humanity and into our nature. It assumes form and process within our humanity, and therefore its what can be spoken of, but its how recedes into the divine nature of the Son of God and is beyond our observation and understanding.

Blind Faith is Not Faith

The college basketball season is reaching March Madness and millions of people will join in the annual ritual of filling out brackets. Some will play for money, others for pride, but the point is the same to win. Everyone has their own method for picking the games, some try to analyze the teams, others choose based on mascots, team colors, or favorites (for example, my wife picks Duke to win the championship every year!).

But before we can all waste countless hours examining the bracket, a committee will enter a room and decide which 65 teams will have the chance to win the coveted National Championship. They will justify their decisions with acronyms like RPI, SOS and DIFF but all the decisions also include the eye test – when I watch this team play do they look like what I think a good basketball team should look like. The hard part, however, is everyone forms their own opinion on what a good basketball team should look like. The question then is, do we use analytics to support what we already know as true or do we use analytics to determine if whether or not what we see is true?

Thus, March Madness led me to think about about how we as humans come to understand anything because it seems that in all forms of acquiring knowledge the eye test has its place.

For example, scientific discovery is based on the scientific method. To oversimplify, it involves three stages: hypothesis, testing, analysis. In this scenario, the hypothesis is the eye test, it is an assumption based on experience about what is true and what is false. The hypothesis is then tested to see if the results support or deny the assumption. Finally, the analysis is when the hypothesis is confirmed or denied based on the results of the testing. The objectivity of science (though I think we can agree science is not always objective) is based on the assumption that the hypothesis must be confirmed by the testing. The hypothesis comes first but the testing is meant to be the controlling factor in making the decision. In other words, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

Philosophical inquiry also has a similar method for testing propositional knowledge. Propositional knowledge is knowledge that involves truth. For example, there is performative knowledge (e.g. I know how to cook, I know English) that only assumes our ability to perform something without questioning the truth of the object (e.g. is what I do really cooking? or if there even such as thing as cooking?). Propositional knowledge on the other hand makes a truth claim (e.g. 1+1=2) which requires verification. To verify propositional knowledge the basic formula is:

Someone knows that ‘Concept A’ is true if and only if

  1. Someone believes that Concept A is true
  2. Someone is justified in believing that Concept A is true
  3. Concept A is true

In this method, belief is the eye test or the hypothesis. It comes first, but it requires justification. That is, it must be tested to see if belief matches reality. Only if belief matches reality, if Concept A is true, can it be considered knowledge.* Thus, much like in scientific knowledge, ‘objectivity’ in philosophical inquiry is grounded in the assumption that all knowledge must be proven for it to be true.

Hermeneutics, or more generally the art of interpretation, also has a similar theory for acquiring knowledge. Paul Ricoeur describes the process of interpretation as a dialectic between explanation and understanding, but Heidegger noted that the process actually begins with preunderstanding not explanation. Preunderstanding, the eye test, is an initial guess (sometimes more educated than others) at meaning that allows the process of explaining and understanding to begin. It is the starting point that further examination then uncovers as true or false. Although this particular theory of hermeneutics is not as interested in objectivity as science might be, it still follows a similar method of determining the truth or understanding.

Christianity has a similar understanding of acquiring knowledge captured in the phrase ‘Faith Seeking Understanding’. In this way, Christianity has understood knowledge as the act of faith, the eye test, being confirmed through understanding, the analytics. Faith, what we believe, is examined through the study of scripture, personal and communal experiences of God, and supplementally through the study of science, philosophy, etc. In this sense, faith and thinking critically are not in competition but rather work together as guides toward understanding the infinite God in more faithful ways.

Yet, within certain strands of Christianity to subject faith to any testing is seen as wrong. Hebrews 11:1 is often paraphrased in these arguments to prove that faith is believing in what we can’t see, or in other words faith is blind. But, I’ve written this way too long blog post to argue that blind faith is not real faith. Faith is not based in the yet to be determined, but in the real, faithful actions of God. We believe in our future resurrection because of a past resurrection. We believe God will provide for his people, because of his history of provision. If what we believe cannot be verified by testing then what we believe is surely blind but it is not real.

Therefore, test your faith to see that it is real because God is not afraid of us using the mind he gave us. Boldly ask the Holy Spirit to ‘be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect’ (Rom 12:2).

Finally, back to your brackets… based on my scientific testing you might as well pick by colors or mascots because I lose to my wife and sons (ages 7, 5, 4) every year.


*For simplicity, I am not mentioning the difference between a priori knowledge and a posteriori knowledge as would be included in most philosophical discussions.

Thomas Aquinas – Doctrine of Scripture I

For me, the doctrine of Scripture (what one believes about the nature of scripture) is the most fascinating topic in Christian theology. I enjoy reading contemporary works on the subject but I find that I most identify with ‘older’ works where the debate does not center on defining, qualifying, accepting, rejecting inerrancy and/or infallibility. Therefore, over a series of posts I am going to examine doctrines of Scripture found in various ‘older’ writings.

Up first: Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica (Book 1, Question 1, Articles 1-10). This post looks at his view of the divine nature of Scripture and the connection of reason and faith. Following posts will consider Aquinas’ thoughts on metaphors and plurality in Scripture.

For Aquinas the very work of theology – articulating the truths of God – was grounded in properly interpreting Scripture. But, before considering Aquinas’ doctrine of Scripture, it is necessary to understand a basic principle of his thought, namely that humanity is directed towards God and that eternal union with God is the end, or purpose, of human existence (1.1.1).  According to Aquinas, however, God is unknowable within the bounds of human reason and so humankind is unable to attain union with God in and of themselves.  Consequently, he writes, “In order that the salvation of men might be brought about more fitly and more surely, it was necessary that they should be taught divine truths by divine revelation” (1.1.1).  In Aquinas’ thought, Scripture is the divine revelation that teaches divine truths and Scripture contains the wisdom necessary for salvation (1.1.1).  Thus, his basic doctrine of Scripture is that Scripture is the divinely authored self-revelation of God designed to reveal himself to humanity.  Based on this understanding of Aquinas’ doctrine of Scripture, one can appreciate his methodology for interpreting Scripture.

Reason Ministers to Faith

              A crucial aspect for understanding Thomas Aquinas’ methodology for interpreting Scripture is to realize the relationship of faith and reason.  He writes, “Although those things which are beyond man’s knowledge may not be sought for by man through his reason, nevertheless, once they are revealed by God they must be accepted by faith” (1.1.1).  This is to say that since Scripture is God’s self-revelation of things beyond humanity’s ability to understand, comprehension must begin with faith and one is to believe what God tells her through Scripture even if she cannot rationally explain it.  Nonetheless, since God is both the author of Scripture and the creator of the world, the knowledge of God gained through His revelation is not something contrary to the knowledge attained through reason.  Rather, Aquinas believes that “since grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it, natural reason should minister to faith” (1.1.8).  Hence, he judges that reason can be used to clarify the meaning of Scripture, although not to prove faith (1.1.8).

Aquinas’ notion of the relationship between faith and reason leads one to acknowledge how Aquinas uses the lesser sciences, such as philosophy, when interpreting Scripture.  He states, “This science [the study of Scripture] can in a sense depend upon the philosophical sciences, not as though it stood in need of them, but only in order to make its teaching clearer” (1.1.5).  Additionally, Aquinas respects the interpretative tradition of the church and considers it helpful in illuminating the meaning of Scripture.  Yet, all other sources are only tools, “the handmaidens” of holy teaching (1.1.5), to help elucidate Scripture they are not the final authority.  In fact, he often uses Scripture to correct what he considers heretical within philosophical and interpretative traditions (1.1.8).  Ultimately, for Aquinas, God’s self-revelation is the infallible truth on which faith rests (1.1.8) and, therefore, he concludes that the study of Scripture is the one true science (1.1.5).  Thus, Aquinas’ doctrine of Scripture, as divinely authored self-revelation, allows him to make use of lesser sciences, such as philosophy or church tradition, when interpreting Scripture.  Yet, it places them under the authority of Scripture.