The Philosophy of Science and the Wissenschaftlichkeit of Christian Theology

In this paper I aim to defend the Wissenschaftlichkeit of theology by identifying parallel methodological procedures in philosophy of science and theology. To achieve this, I turn to the work of the American philosopher William Christian Sr and the Hungarian philosopher of science Imre Lakatos.

In his book Doctrines of Religious Communities, Christian makes a distinction between primary doctrines and governing doctrines. Primary doctrines are doctrines which the religious community considers to be indispensable to its faith. These primary doctrines cannot be abandoned without undermining the entire belief system. In the case of Christianity such primary doctrines are the belief that there is a God and that we encounter this God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. To abandon these doctrines would be tantamount to rejecting Christianity altogether. Governing doctrines, on the other hand, govern the way the religious community handles its primary doctrines. These governing doctrines, Christian argues, are subject to modification and adaptation. An example of a governing doctrine in many faiths is the scripture principle, which aims to ensure that doctrinal affirmations are in continuity with the primary texts of the community of faith. In the case of Christianity, this means that all affirmations made about the nature of God and the central role of Jesus of Nazareth in enabling believers to know God (primary doctrines) must be compatible with the teaching of the Bible.

In his essay Falsification and the Methodology of Science Research Programmes Lakatos distinguishes between the ‘protective belt’ and the ‘hard core’ of scientific theories. Propositions are derived from the hard core in order to match the theory ever more closely on to reality. These secondary or ‘peripheral’ propositions, as Lakatos also calls them, form a protective belt around the hard core. Should the scientific theory be falsified, this falsification is attributed to the derivative, peripheral propositions, which are then corrected in order to accommodate the falsification. The hard core thus remains unthreatened by falsification while at the same time being applied more closely to reality through the modification of the protective belt.

These insights from Lakatos and Christian’s distinction between primary and secondary doctrines can, I argue, be employed to reflect upon the ‘scientific’ status of doctrinal affirmations. To mix the terminology of Christian and Lakatos, (secondary) propositions can be derived from the hard core (primary doctrines) of the Christian faith to act as a protective belt for that hard core. In the paper, I illustrate the application of these notions of primary and secondary doctrines, hard core propositions and protective belt, by providing a case study of progress in Christian doctrine. One such case study is evolution of the secondary doctrine of the communicatio idiomatum to function as a protective belt shielding the primary, hard core doctrine of the incarnation. By this means, I hope to demonstrate that there can be progress in theology without, however, compromising the core doctrines of the Christian faith.

David Law is a professor at the University of Manchester