Should theology make objective claims?

Ancient manuscripts contain objectively verifiable texts, but their interpretation may be far from objective.

Relatively speaking, ours is an age where subjectivity is king. Theology students, especially those with prior learning in the humanities, may feel uncomfortable with assertions of authority and objectivity with respect to biblical texts, dogmatic convictions, the systemisation of theology, and church tradition. I have known people to physically cringe when seeing a book title containing the word “Dogmatic.”

Rumours of the death of objectivity have been greatly exaggerated. In his book on theological method, David K. Clark has a chapter on theology in the academic world with a section headed, “objectivity in theology.”[1] For Clark, it is right for evangelical theology to claim “that Christians can know the deliverances of theological reflection as objectively true.”[2]

Clark acknowledges philosopher Richard Rorty’s claim that “the application of such honorifics as ‘objective’ and ‘cognitive’ is never anything more than an expression of the presence, or the hope for, agreement among inquirers.” But he argues that theology, considered as a science, “should move toward a certain form of chastened objectivity.”[3]

According to Clark, modernist liberalism sought objectivity by applying a form of the scientific method to its subject matter (e.g. Rudolf Bultmann’s demythologization”) and hoping that this would identify an essence of religion acceptable to rationalistic, anti-supernaturalistic presuppositions. Sadly, this lowest-common-denominator approach often delivered results that were not recognisably Christian and arguably satisfied no one. In contrast, Clark suggests that

the Christian worldview is not like a tunnel that closes in on us, but like a window that opens up to a real world. As a community of believing theologians, we work together to comprehend the world, gradually moving toward richer understandings of the world and its Creator. We use a variety of strategies to move beyond any relativism that destroys properly justified truth claims and leads many to abandon epistemology or theology.

When left unchecked, scholarship based on an enthusiastic commitment to objectivity or relativism will eventually display fatal flaws. They are ideals, poles on a spectrum. None of us can be entirely objective, or consistently subjective, in the way in which we go about our lives or our studies. How, then, does Clark guard against the dark side of a strong commitment to objectivity? He argues that

Honest theologians find genuine depth of understanding by listening carefully to Scripture, to the church’s reflection on Scripture, and to the various disciplines through which humans have investigated God’s universe. Someone who possesses depth of discernment born of careful listening can recognize the difference between insight and ideology. And if this is so, then we can develop the intellectual ability, personal integrity, and emotional health necessary to transcend our personal prejudices and to hear the Bible and tradition in ways that increase genuine knowledge of God’s creation.[4]

Does Clark appear too optimistic here? What reasons would you present to refute this statement? How might his commitment to “careful listening” still fail to avoid the pitfalls of ideological bias?

In support of his case, Clark notes fellow theologian Richard Lints’s insight that our theologising must recognise two principles:

    1. the reality principle: we inhabit a real world that influences and restrains our thinking, and are not free to follow our own speculations wherever they lead;
    2. the bias principle: we must work hard to avoid the distortions that easily corrupt even the most careful theological work.[5]

Clark acknowledges that some contemporary theologians are “skittish” about such claims of objectivity. For those who hold “unwarranted” Kantian assumptions about the impossibility of objective knowledge, the challenge is to resist such an ethos. For those who claim that all ideas about God are a human invention to satisfy psychological needs, the challenge is to persuade from Scripture that God and God’s ways are “anything but a human concoction.”[6]

There is much more of value in this important book. Clark concludes the section on objectivity in theology by affirming that evangelical theologians “are right to seek knowledge of God by judiciously and critically using time-tested scholarly methods”; but “At the same time, we cannot give primary allegiance to every standard that operates in the Western academic world.”[7]

What is your response to these observations and claims?


This post was written by Rod Benson for The Theology Whisperer, a series of short blog posts on theology and theological education. Leave a comment in the box below, or email theologywhisperer@gmail.com 


References

[1] David K. Clark, To Know and Love God: Method for Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2003), 215-219.

[2] Ibid., 215.

[3] Ibid., 215, quoting Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979), 335.

[4] Ibid., 216.

[5] Ibid., 216f. See Richard Lints, The Fabric of Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 26f.

[6] Clark, To Know and Love God, 218.

[7] Ibid., 219.

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