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C. Further Developments in Methodology: Pannenberg, Murphy, Clayton

According to Wolfhart Pannenberg,Wolfhart Pannenberg, Theology and the Philosophy of Science, trans. Francis McDonagh (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976).the defense of the truth of Christianity since the thirteenth century has been intimately tied to the claim that theology is a science (Wissenschaft). In the contemporary context, Pannenberg first uses Popper to challenge the logical positivist’s characterization of science. He then adopts Popper’s view that scientific theories are revisable hypotheses and applies it to theology as well, though he ultimately rejects Popperian falsificationism. Instead he argues that theories in the natural and human sciences are to be judged by the criteria of coherence, parsimony, and accuracy. Pannenberg then draws on Stephen Toulmin, for whom theories in history, science, and hermeneutics serve as explanations by placing facts in a broader context. For theology, the explanatory context becomes the whole of reality, including the future. The resurrection of Jesus plays a pivotal role in Pannenberg’s methodology by proleptical revealing the future as eschaton. Pannenberg then developed a criterion for acceptability of both theological and scientific theories: the most adequate theory is the one that can incorporate its competitors. Conflicting religious traditions can thus be judged by their ability both to conceive of the whole of reality as it is proleptically revealed and to provide an explanation which more fully incorporates all that we know of it than do other traditions.For an extensive and careful introduction to and critique of Pannenberg’s methodology in relation to science see Van Huyssteen, Theology and the justification of faith, Ch. 6. See also Nancey Murphy,...

In 1990, Nancey Murphy criticized Pannenberg’s methodology, claiming that Pannenberg cannot answer the Humean challenge to theological rationality.Murphy, "Theology in the Age of Scientific Reasoning," especially Chs. 2, 3. Murphy noted that Ian Barbour had anticipated the importance of Lakatos in Barbour, Myths, Models, and Paradigms,... Hume’s point of view is incommensurable with Pannenberg’s, and thus cannot be incorporated into Pannenberg’s system, as Pannenberg’s own methodology requires. As a more adequate alternative she recommended the adoption of Imre Lakatos’s methodology of scientific research programs, with its central core and surrounding belt of auxiliary hypotheses. According to Lakatos, we should judge the relative progress or degeneration of such research programs on the basis of their ability to predict and corroborate novel facts.See Murphy, "Theology in the Age of Scientific Reasoning," Ch. 3, esp. p. 58-61.Murphy then offers a crucial modification of Lakatos’ conception of ‘novel facts’: “A fact is novel if it is one not used in the construction of the theory T that it is taken to confirm... (that is) one whose existence, relevance to T, or interpretability in light of T is first documented after T is proposed.”Murphy, "Theology in the Age of Scientific Reasoning," 68. Note that without careful attention to Murphy’s modification, the notion of ‘prediction’ might seem to undercut superficially... This modification allows Murphy to apply Lakatos’s methodology to theology, to decide rationally which theological research programs are empirically progressive, and thus to complete the argument for the scientific status of theology.

Philip Clayton has also advocated the theological appropriation of Lakatosian methodology.Philip Clayton, Explanation from Physics to Theology: An Essay in Rationality and Religion (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989).Clayton views “explanation” as the key concept embracing both the natural and social sciences and, ultimately, theology --- one with sufficient diversity to span vastly differing disciplines while retaining an underlying unity. Here the revisionist, contextualist, and historicist arguments in recent philosophy of science become crucial. In the natural sciences, where one interprets physical data, the truth of an explanation is pivotal. In the social sciences, however, where one interprets both physical data and the experience of actor-subjects (i.e., the “double hermeneutic”), explanation means “understanding” (Verstehen). Theological explanations, then, are subject to validation not by verificationist / foundationalist standards, but by intersubjective testability and universalizability, as performed by the disciplinary community. Clayton supports his case by relying on the discovery / justification distinction: religious claims can be truthful even if their sources are in social, and not just physical, data. The key, though, is Lakatos’ requirement that a previously specified set of criteria is held by the community by which competing explanatory hypotheses can be assessed, including the stipulation of “novel facts”.

Over the past decade, Murphy and Clayton have offered important critiques of their corresponding positions which have further revealed the layers of complexity that underlie theological rationality.George Murphy, "Quantum Theory and Resurrection Reality," CTNS Bulletin 11.1(Winter 1991); Philip Clayton, "Review of "Theology in the Age of Scientific Reasoning" by Nancey Murphy,"...Meanwhile, Murphy’s approach has been implemented in discussions of theological anthropology by Philip Hefner,Philip Hefner, The Human Factor: Evolution, Culture, and Religion, Theology and the Sciences Series (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993).pragmatic evaluation of religion by Karl Peters,Karl E. Peters, "Storytellers and Scenario Spinners: Some Reflections on Religion and Science in Light of a Pragmatic, Evolutionary Theory of Knowledge," Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science...and the theological implications of cosmology in my workRobert John Russell, "Finite Creation Without a Beginning: The Doctrine of Creation in Relation to Big Bang and Quantum Cosmologies," in Quantum Cosmology and the Laws of Nature: Scientific Perspectives...I believe that further pursuit of the suggestions by both Murphy and Clayton is an extremely important task at the frontiers of theology and science today.For additional discussion see Philip Clayton and Steven Knapp, "Rationality and Christian Self-Conception," in Religion and Science: History, Method, Dialogue, ed. W. Mark Richardson and Wesley...

Contributed by: Dr. Robert Russell

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