Inaugural Lecture - Center for Classical Theology - REGISTER
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Prescriptive Theology and Descriptive Science?

A significant issue regarding the operational differences between Christian theology and science within the public norms of Western modernity concerns description and prescription. The usual story is that science is descriptive of “simply” what is physically “there,” whereas Christian theology is prescriptive.

Theology concerns how Christians should live and how they should make sense of the world in the light of revealed first-order truths. There is a nor- mative aspect at the very heart of the Christian theological enterprise. Here first-order truths are the foundational premises of the Christian way of life, which can be lived well (as enabled by the Holy Spirit, in accord with the revelations given to the church, in the fellowship of believers) or not so well. There is a perfect model for the Christian to both emulate and participate in—namely, the life of Christ. For this reason, the imperfect Christian in the church militant can always be encouraged to do better.

Science, on the other hand, is seen not as prescriptive but as descriptive. Science—we tend to assume—is not interested in telling anyone how they should live, or in making normative judgments at all. Science simply tells us what is physically there and how it physically works.When Christian theology was the first truth discourse of the broadly Western lifeworld, the meaning of natural knowledge was interpreted and situated within Christian theology. Click To Tweet

A highly significant consequence of seeing science as descriptive and Christian theology as prescriptive is that we have corralled metaphysical and normative concerns (first-order beliefs and prescriptive qualitative judgments) into the personal territory of religion (or, perhaps, philosophy), and we have corralled matters of fact and instrumental know-how into the public territory of science and technology. Here, first-order beliefs and normative commitments are not seen as matters of public knowledge. Matters of public knowledge are not, in themselves, seen as carrying any metaphysical, prescriptive, or normative freight.

In reality, applied science can be every bit as prescriptive as Christian theology, and applied Christian theology should be just as concerned with accurately describing reality and with understanding instrumental power as is science. The mismatch between our assumptions about autonomous, objective description and subjective prescription, and how we actually integrate the two, need not concern us yet. But at this tentative definitional outset, a significant sociological feature of the way we typically define Christian theology and science is that the former is presumed to be prescriptive and the latter is presumed to be descriptive. The separation of meaning, value, and transcendence, on the one hand, from facts, use, and working knowledge, on the other, is a very significant feature of how Christian theology and science have developed within the modern Western way of life, at least over the past two hundred years.

Christian Theology and Science?

Using our starting definitions, we can say that Christian theology is prescriptive thinking about God and reality as done by people who hold that Christ is God incarnate, was born of a virgin, was crucified, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven; and science is a rational, empirical, and reductively physical form of descriptive natural knowledge.

As sketched in the introduction, science has come to displace Christian theology as the first truth discourse of the modern scientific age. This is important to understand. When Christian theology was the first truth discourse of the broadly Western lifeworld, the meaning of natural knowledge was interpreted and situated within Christian theology. When things are the other way around, the meaning of Christian theology is readily understood and interpreted as situated within the truth criteria of modern science.

The above excerpt is from the Introduction of A Christian Theology of Science by Paul Tyson
Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group © 2022 Used by permission.

Paul Tyson

Dr. Paul Tyson is an Honorary Senior Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, University of Queensland (Australia), and author of Returning to Reality: Christian Platonism for Our Times (Cascade, 2014), and A Christian Theology of Science (Baker, forthcoming 2022).

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