The Structure of Theological Revolutions

Theology develops over time—it seems obvious to me, but I have friends who disagree. Every theological doctrine has a history, beginning with the first person to think it and describe it, and then it is refined over centuries by many others. Hans Küng keenly compares the development of theology to the development of science in his excellent book, the Theology for the Third Millennium.

Küng says that Thomas S. Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions applies to theological development. Science has developed through different models over time; the Ptolemaic model was replaced by the Copernican model, and then Newtonian model replaced it, and then the Einsteinian model replaced it, and so on. Each scientific model was made obsolete by later models that described the world more accurately. Küng says that theology has gone through the same revolution of models, such that the Augustinian model was replaced by the Thomistic model and then was replaced by the Reformation model, and so on. Each theological model improves upon the previous model and supplants the previous models. 

The conclusion is that abandoning the Reformation model to return to a previous model such as the Augustinian or Thomistic models, would be tantamount to turning back from modern science such as the Einsteinian model to follow obsolete models such as the Ptometiac scientific model. Protestant theology is always returning to the bible, ad fontes, but never regressing entirely to outmoded theological models. We return to the Bible to advance our theological understanding of the Bible, but not to reject theological development, and nor to return to obsolete theological models of long ago.  

Scientific and Theological Revolutions

Model ⇒ Model ⇒ Model ⇒ Model ⇒
Ptolemaic Copernican Newtonian Einsteinian
Greek-Alexandrian Latin-Augustinian Medieval-Thomistic Reformation

Hans Küng on Theological Revolutions:

In physics we can now distinguish between a Ptolemaic, a Copernican, a Newtonian, and an Einsteinian macromodel. Couldn't we make an analogous distinction in theology between a Greek-Alexandrian, a Latin-Augustinian, a Medieval-Thomistic, a Reformation, and one or several modern-critical interpretive models? [...]

Thus in physics, there would be macromodels for general scientific solutions (such as the Copernican, Newtonian, or Einsteinian model), mesomodels for the solution of medium-range problem areas (such as the wave theory of light, the dynamic theory of heat or Maxwell's electromagnetic theory), and the micromodels for scientific solutions of detailed problems (such as the discovery of X-rays). 

The theological analogy for this would be macromodels for general solutions (the Alexandrian, the Augustinian, the Thomist, the Reformation model), mesomodels for the solution of intermediate problem areas (doctrine of creation, grace, the sacraments), and micromodels for solutions of detailed problems (doctrine of original sin, the hypostatic union in Christology). [...]

Even very well scrutinized "classical" theories like those of Newton or Thomas Aquinas have proved inadequate and in need of overhauling. There is no reason, then, to absolutize a method, a blueprint, or model. Instead we have every motive for an unrelenting new search, for permanent criticism and rational supervision: on the way through pluralism to even greater truth. [1] 


[^1] Hans Küng. Theology for the Third Millennium: An Ecumenical View. New York: Doubleday, 1988. 134-35. Print.


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  1. Wyatt, Pannenberg has some interesting reflections in Theology and the Philosophy of Science around the theme of models. He bases it on Kuhn and Polanyi, but with input from Karl Popper. He will also speak of “models” for the interpretation of the death of Jesus. In any case, here is a little of what I learned:

    The concerns of religion at this point anticipate new formulations of the nature of scientific hypothesis and theoretical models, such as we find in Michael Polanyi and Thomas Kuhn. Science itself recognizes that its form of rationality is not as “objective” as it once thought. Applied to religion, part of the process of religion in an “open society” is the willingness of any religion to engage in bringing together its teaching into a coherent whole. The point here is the ability of the person operating at a philosophical or theological level will need to provide some degree of coherence to the presentation of the truth of his or her religion. However, coherence here is not just coherence within the religion. Rather, at this level of thought, the truth as seen in the religion will need to cohere with other truths known in science, psychology, and sociology. The religion must renounce a prior claim to truth, in the process making its claim to truth a theme of its thoughtful presentation of its teaching. An appeal to a sacred text, an appeal to “authoritative” councils within the tradition, or an appeal to supposedly authoritative persons within the community, is not sufficient in this understanding of a thoughtful and reasonable procedure. Such approaches appear to deliver one from subjectivism in the sense that one turns attention away from oneself and toward an external authority. In reality, however, even the truth of the external authority must also become a theme of the thoughtful and reasonable presentation of beliefs. Now, the other side of this issue is to suggest that making a total commitment of one’s life to a particular set of beliefs is nothing more than rational assent. When a person is willing to think religiously about life, one willingly and knowingly takes the risk involved, including that one may have placed trust in the wrong object. In this statement, we both explain why so few persons “convert” from one religion to another, and we explain why some persons do make such conversions.

    Any religious statement has the character of a hypothesis. One can test assertions by their implications. Karl Popper wrote of “critical verification,” basing it on the testing of a theory by means of the conclusions derivable from it. Assertions about a divine reality and divine actions can receive testing by their implications for the understanding of finite reality. Religion is subject to the requirements of scientific integrity that demands that theoretical modes be explicit and systematic. They must belong to a system of theoretical formulations. Therefore, they have the form of hypotheses. The hypothesis is part of the logical structure of a proposition in that the proposition distinguishes itself from the state of affairs to which it relates by the act of claiming to correspond with it. All experiences of meaning are hypothetical in the sense of the Karl Popper principle of trial and error. Its basis is anticipation of the totality that is still in process of formation. For example, the ordinary experience of meaning has an implicit anticipation of the totality of meaning, while religious experience has the form of an explicit awareness of the total meaning of reality. Thomas S. Kuhn has shown that the decision of whether a scientific theory is false depends on a decision between two competing paradigms of natural explanation. The contribution of general statements within general theories is their ability to explain the evidence at hand. One can think of a theory “proved” when it is able to explain the facts at hand. In science, a hypothesis also has verification through deriving predictions from them, although historical and hermeneutical hypotheses do not. Of course, due to the incompleteness of human experience, statements about the totality of reality are open to suspicion of being unwarranted dogmatism. Yet, we cannot dispense with assumptions about reality at any level of reasoning. A philosophical model is successful in its description of the still open totality of meaning of experience to the extent that it integrates the areas of experience already worked out in the sciences with each other and with the areas of pre-scientific experience. Hegel described it as a speculative intuition that one could judge on the integrating success the model. It relates to the understanding of human experience found in all the sciences and it relates to previous philosophical models and their models. Whether the model is tenable depends on whether the world, humanity, and history are recognizable in the model.

  2. One thing I do not like about the above diagram is that a science, by its nature, is cumulative in knowledge. A scientific model describes more of the facts available at the time. A new model emerges because it accounts for more of the facts. I prefer thinking of theology and philosophy as part of the “great conversation” as some term it. Thus, I can read a Plato or Aristotle, not so much with the thought of surpassing them, as engaging them allowing them to stimulate my thinking today. I think theology is similar. I am not sure of the direction this is heading, but the fact certain issues in theology and philosophy are abiding suggests that we can never set aside past thinking. Cumulative knowledge means that you only need knowledge of the current model to have knowledge of physics, chemistry, or biology. You do not to engage early attempts, because you know that certain of their ideas are false. I do not think you can say the same thing about philosophy and theology.

    • George, I’m not stating that theology is equivocal with science. That’s a bigger can of worms that would require some commentary on CD I/1. There’s an analogy of development of science and theology despite differences, mutandis mutatis. I also disagree that science may be reduced to accumulation of knowledge, because the paradigm shifts that Thomas S. Kuhn describes requires back-tracking and re-evaluation of things once rejected and once accepted, a thorough re-evaluation of all things. Or in biblical language, a conversion experience, seeing all things new.

      Overall, I appreciate and agree with much of what you shared, especially in the first comment, and your references to Pannenberg are always appreciated here! Thanks for following, you always have great insight george.


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