Science as the ancilla theologiae

Here we go! I wanted to continue blogging about Alister McGrath’s A Scientific Theology: Nature today. Actually I wanted to continue blogging about it last Saturday. Oops. Sorry. Got a bit held up by attending one robotics competition, and then planning for another. (If you think building a robot is hard, just try arranging a trip for a bunch of people to another city.)

The first chapter of his book is mainly about seeing science as the ancilla theologiae for modern Christian thinkers. This term is best explained by a quotation,

The natural sciences today offer to Christian theology today precisely the role that Platonism offered our patristic, and Aristotelianism our medieval forebears. A scientific theology will treat the working assumptions and methods of the natural sciences as offering a supportive and illuminative role for the Christian theological enterprise, both assisting theological reflection and identifying and allowing exploitation of apologetic possibilities and strategies.

In other words, science can offer the same sort of philosophical resources and categories to Christians today that Platonism offered very early Christians, and Aristotelianism later Christians. I thought this quite the interesting idea. There are benefits and risks to using science this way.

As a benefit, it might help us find ways to proclaim the gospel to a wider culture that thinks in scientific ways. It might also produce some of the same intellectual benefits of any other interdisciplinary study – the discovery of relevant parallels, for example. But perhaps most importantly,

A positive working relationship between Christian theology and the natural sciences is demanded by the Christian understanding of the nature of reality itself – an understanding which is grounded in the doctrine of creation… If God made the world, which therefore has the status of being ‘creation’ as well as ‘nature’, it is to be expected that something of the character of God might be disclosed through that creation.

The risk to this approach is that ideas that come from outside of Christianity may come to have a significant effect on our understanding of Christianty. For example,

The pressure to articulate the Christian theological vision in terms congenial to the scientific spirit of the age can easily lead to the critical theological category of ‘revelation’ being restated as, and reduced to, the awareness of an order already present in creation.

Therefore it is important to keep in mind that science should hold a supportive role for theology, but not a primary role, a ministerial role, not a magisterial role.

The question, “are the benefits of appropriating cultural and philosophical resources outside of Christianity worth the risks?” is one that has been considered by Christians literally from the beginning of the faith. McGrath quotes Justin Martyr, a 2nd century writer, who argued that the seeds of divine wisdom had been sown throughout the world, and could therefore certainly be appropriated by Christians, saying that “whatever all people have said well belongs to us Christians”. Other Christians had the opposite opinion, famously expressed in the 3rd century by Tertullian, who asked “what has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”.

But perhaps the most influential answer to this question came from Augustine, and I can do no better than share a quotation from his de doctrina Christiana,

If those who are called philosophers, particularly the Platonists, have said anything which is true and consistent with our faith, we must not reject it, but claim it for our own use, in the knowledge that they possess it unlawfully. The Egyptians possessed idols and heavy burdens, which the children of Israel hated and from which they fled; however, they also possessed vessels of gold and silver and clothes which our forebears, in leaving Egypt, took for themselves in secret, intending to use them in a better manner (Exodus 3:21-22, 12:35-35)… In the same way, pagan learning is not entirely made up of false teachings and superstitions. It also contains some excellent teachings, well suited to be used by truth, and excellent moral values. Indeed, some truths are even found among them which relate to the worship of the one God. Now these are, so to speak, their gold and silver, which they did not invent themselves, but which they dug out of the mines of the providence of God, which are scattered throughout the world, yet which are improperly and unlawfully prostituted to the worship of demons. The Christian, therefore, can separate these truths from their unfortunate associations, take them away, and put them to their proper use for the proclamation of the Gospel.

I don’t usually think of science as “pagan learning”, but there you go!

Toward the end of the chapter McGrath mentions some important interactions that have already occurred between science and theology. Quoting documents like the Belgic Confession (PDF), he argues that Christians have long believed the God can be known, to an extent, through the natural order,

We know God by two means:

First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe, which is before our eyes as a most beautiful book, in which all creatures, great and small, are like so many characters leading us to contemplate the invisible things of God, namely, his eternal power and Godhead, as the Apostle Paul declares (Romans 1:20).

Therefore one might ask – how great a role did Christian doctrine play in the initial development of science? Many early scientists made their religious motivations quite clear, after all. But McGrath is simply uncertain just how important the Christian doctrine of creation was in the development of science (even if it should have been very important)! Later scientific developments did provoke theological discussions and tensions that we still live with today – heliocentrism called into question the traditional reading of some Bible verses. Later, Newton’s demonstration of the universality of physical laws was thought to lend support to the Christian doctrine of creation. Later still, of course, was the tension created by Darwinism. All of the resultant debates made it clear that the proper relationship between science and theology was important and worth discussing and also that, especially with time and the increasing fragmentation of knowledge, there were increasingly few qualified to speak about that relationship.

I picked up this book with hopes discovering a vision for a better integration between theology and science myself, so here’s hoping that McGrath can articulate one.

OK, long post, I’m done! Probably will not have a post this Saturday, since it fast approacheth, but look for one the Saturday following, and do speak if you have any thoughts on these matters.


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