‘norma normans non normata est’

Or ‘how science and theology are both revisable and both dogmatic’

In the Christian life as in any discipline, including the physical sciences, tradition is as valuable as it is inescapable; yet it must be always open to revision in the light of its source.” (emphasis added)
Michael Horton (2011) The Christian Faith – A systematic theology for pilgrims on the way, p 201

It has been said[1] that one of the benefits of science is that it is perpetually under revision and is eminently open to critique. In this respect, it differs from religion and other knowledge or belief systems claiming authority.

I may well have discussed this before, but it’s worth repeating. Science is open to revision and this is indeed a virtue. In general, we ought not be too sure that we have the final word (or equation) on the matter, whatever the matter may be.

And theology too is open to revision, or ought to be. Certainly, as critics are likely to point out, theological beliefs have changed over time. While my ancestors may have worshipped the presumably healthy god Bran,  as you may know, I name as ultimate someone very different. So, over time religions rise and fall, but even within a particular religious tradition, beliefs often change. Indeed, as a Christian, I want the modern Church to change! I want it to change dramatically in practice, so that we are known, for instance, as a people who genuinely love a broken world. And I want it to ensure its beliefs are true, to refine and sift and consider them and to tell the world.

Theology can and does change over time and it is best for all involved if it does so according to an ultimately unchanging standard of truth. This fundamental datum that theology must reckon with, I am convinced, is scripture, the God-breathed writings of the Bible. If God has indeed spoken, let us listen.

Science too can change over time and it is best that it does so on the basis of experiment and reference to the empirical world of sense data. There is a real world out there and we want scientific theory to correspond to it! Change here is not for its own sake, but for theory to better track truth. There are of course, limits to scientific change, or so it is to be hoped – science is by its nature, when done well, tied down to data retrieved from the natural world; while there can often be conflict, not any old theory will do, the accepted criteria of ‘theory choice’ dictate this.

As with any discipline, there are layers of theory and some are more likely to change than others. And yet also, some aspects of science will not ever change. The scientific method will not fundamentally change, for this, at least on some accounts, is definitional of science. The belief that science will lead to truth will continue to be held by most scientists (assuming, perhaps, that the world continues to exhibit order and intelligibility). And in much the same way, Christian beliefs will not change so long as Christian experience of the world in communities springing out of scripture as God’s word continues to make sense to people.

Both good science and good theology are open to change and both also hold to some truths as foundational, whether their practitioners recognise it or not. And while there is much that could be said on the mechanics and interpretation of Revelation, for Christians, the grounding norm is given by God speaking – the norm that norms but is not normed.
Of course, the question will arise for some – why take revelation, particularly the specifically Christian revelation, seriously? Sure, perhaps science has deeper foundations, but science works and it’s not weird! It’s a good question.

Science is seen to ‘work’ by those who know something of the process of science. Similarly, theology is seen to work and be fruitful by those in Christian community. It’s not that truth is relative – but that in order to appreciate a view of the world, it helps to step inside it in some way. So if from the outside, theology looks like nonsense, maybe take a deep breath and plunge in, if you dare. I am convinced that there are enough hints from the outside, in overlap between history, science and philosophy as well as in the joy of life-giving Christian community, for this to be an attractive proposition if you will but consider it.

[1] In a philosophy of science lecture – and no doubt in other contexts as well.


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