The science of theology.
Millard J. Erickson on the “scientific” methodology of doing theology.
Though one might not be inclined to categorize theology as a science, per se, some of the same developmental contrivances which make for pure scientific discovery are applicable in the realm of theology, as well. Chief among which is the methodology by which one arrives at a given theological supposition. Much like a scientist whose gamut involves observing, researching, theorizing, testing, analyzing, and reporting on a particular set of data prior to any conclusion being acquired, affirmed, or accepted, the theologian is obligated to follow a similar sequence before making any theological assumptions.
In Millard J. Erickson’s Christian Theology, one is introduced to a series of ten sequential components which are proposed to encompass sound theological exploration, these being collection, unification, analyzation, examination, consultation, identification, illumination, expression, interpretation, and stratification (53–65). This, to be sure, should not be understood to be a rigid structure by which all theology is done. Rather, these components are enumerated in order to establish the general method by which sound theological doctrines emerge. As Erickson suggests, theology is an attractive field of study, inviting both artisans and researchers to examine its infinite depths.
To begin, the theologian must gather the materials from which his or her theological expedition will begin. This can include a thorough exegesis of the pertinent texts of Scripture which might relate to one’s topic, as well as ample investigation into the grammatical and historical background of each selected text. The collection process requires a measure of self-scrutiny, otherwise one is at risk of codifying inherent presuppositions before any actual theological work has begun. Indeed, a “pure” theologian will be open to texts which seem to challenge their conclusions, with the understanding that the text from which all true theology is derived remains the lone authoritative voice, not the student doing theology.
After one has collected sufficient texts, the process of unifying the detached texts into a comprehensive whole is necessary. The exegetical process will bring to the forefront an overriding idea or series of ideas, which will, then, be coalesced into a distinct statement of theological expression. From there, the theologian is forced to ask, “What is the meaning of this?” Any given theological assertion will respond to this inquiry with an answer which demonstrates the essence and resonance of the theological doctrine so proposed. Analyzing the import of one’s theological supposition will clearly evidence its significance, for oneself and for others. Furthermore, juxtaposing a theological doctrine against historical theologies of the past will quickly identify a doctrine’s validity and longevity. An additional question to ask at this juncture is, “How does this hold up?” As Erickson suggests, sound theological suppositions ought to be examined across cultural boundaries and traditions.
Part of a theologian’s task is identifying cultural particulars within the textual material, and determining whether such particulars are permanent and abiding or temporary. Included in this step is considering if one’s theology is perforated with one’s own culture or if the doctrine coheres to a level of permanency regardless of the culture or context or century. “Interaction with other cultural perspectives,” Erickson notes, “will help us distinguish the essence of the biblical teaching from one cultural expression of it” (58). One is, likewise, invited to incorporate sources outside of the biblical texts at particular junctures prior to making firm theological affirmations. This will lead the theologian to the point of correlation, or re-expression, of the theology into contemporary forms and contexts.
Along the way, a theologian’s interpretive milieu will surface as their engagement with the myriad of biblical and theological texts intensifies. One will, likewise, notice this distinct interpretive method develop as one’s theology is outlined and stratified. Reflecting upon Erickson’s proposed method might, at first, seem overly complex. The granularity of his method can inoculate one to the significance of his intent. Indeed, it seems ironic that he would suggest that theology “cannot follow a rigid structure” (53), while advancing a monolithic structural decalogue by which one is able to do theology. Be that as it may, as Erickson states, theology is both artful and scientific. “There is a sense,” he says, “in which theology is an art as well as a science” (53). Doing theology, then, is never an abstract exercise laden with random suppositions, it is an orderly arrangement of truths which develop as one rightly handles the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15).
Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2013).