Paul Witteman and the Scholarly Status of Theology

Paul Witteman, a Dutch television presenter, recently denied the scholarly status of theology in a column. Several of my Twitter friends in the Netherlands reacted to the column and the Christian newspaper Reformatorisch Dagblad published an article about it. Having struggled myself with some of the issues that Witteman addresses, let me make a modest contribution to the discussion by reproducing here some paragraphs from chapter 4 of On the Way to the Living God:

Theology suffers from a double plausibility crisis. Not only does it share in the general plausibility crisis of Christianity and the church . . ., but its status as a scholarly discipline is also deeply doubted. This doubt is not only felt and expressed by outsiders, but also by theologians themselves, including me. Still, I do not despair. In this essay I will explain the most important methodological considerations that underlie the present study and will answer the question of how I seek to practice theology.

I invite myself and others to understand theology as a search for truth concerning the living God and his relationship to the world and to humankind. From one perspective, it almost goes without saying that this is what theology is about and it may even sound tautological to call theology a search for truth concerning the living God. However, from another perspective, this understanding of theology is seen as so problematic that theology should either redefine itself or abolish itself, at least as a scholarly discipline.

For many scholars it is simply a matter of definition that God cannot be the object of their research. In their view scholars as scholars cannot directly participate in the quest for God. They can study the source texts (scriptures, creeds, etc.) of a religious tradition, but God himself falls outside their scholarly paradigm. Of course, they may meet the character “God” in their source texts, but in their scholarly work they lack the tools and methods to discover and decide whether the character “God” in these texts really refers to the living God, and so they keep silent about this final question.

I myself work with two basic paradigms, which I call the historical one and the theological one. The first one understands scholarly research as a process of interaction between primary sources, secondary literature, and the scholar herself. This can be illustrated with the following triangle:


All angles are important: neither is it acceptable to base oneself as a scholar on secondary literature only, without going to the primary sources, nor will one gain maximal insight in the sources if one ignores what has already been observed about them in the secondary literature, nor should one limit one’s own role to gathering what the secondary literature says about the primary sources; however, when all three angles interact, something new may be born that takes scholarship a step further.

Although I find this historical paradigm helpful, I also see the need to go beyond it. Society does not only need scholars who can study the sources afresh, but also scholars who can deal with questions that cannot be answered by studying sources only. Preeminent among this latter type of questions is the quest for God. As long as we keep to the historical paradigm in theology, our search for truth concerning the living God indeed stops at the character “God” in our primary sources and our final question remains unanswered.

I can use the historian’s triangle as a tool, but my main paradigm is better visualized with a different triangle:


In this paradigm, scholarly theological research is understood as a process of interaction between God himself, source texts and secondary literature, and the scholar herself. My invitation to understand theology as a search for truth concerning the living God and his relationship to the world and to humankind implies an invitation to practice theology according to this paradigm. But let me immediately add a word of warning to this invitation. It is one thing to state a paradigm and another thing to make it operational for oneself and again another thing to get work according this paradigm accepted in the academic world. It may sound great but be unmanageable in practice. . . .

I can imagine the criticism that I am broadening the definition and changing the paradigm of scholarship too lightly in order to include the search for God in it. The main objection against the invitation of this essay is probably simply this: God can or should not be part of scholarly research. This objection can be put forward for various reasons, four of which I will discuss in this section: one may maintain

(a) that God does not exist, or
(b) that God is too holy to make him an object of research, or
(c) that we cannot say anything about God with certainty, or
(d) that God becomes a science stopper if we allow for him in our research.

As for (a)—that God does not exist—, it is perhaps a matter of fact that God-according-to-some-definition does not and cannot exist, but I am also not interested in speaking about God-according-to-that-definition, but rather about the living God. In the opening essay I have not proven that the living God does exist, but have noticed that much atheistic thought, valid as it may be in itself, does also not disprove the existence of the living God. I will develop this line of thought in the next essay. For now, it seems fair to say that the debate about God’s existence has not yet been decided, but that it kills the debate or at least its quality if one forbids that serious academic work is done on it.

As for (b)—that God is too holy to make him an object of research—, this idea is probably based on a one-sided picture of research. If we think about research as killing an animal, laying it on the dissecting table, cutting it open, and putting it part by part under the microscope, then indeed it is not only extremely impious but also utterly impossible to make the living God an object of research: we cannot catch and kill him. [Note: unless, of course, he becomes man and does not try to escape death.] However, in many scientific and scholarly methods the object of research is not caught and killed, but studied alive. Moreover, in my understanding of theology, the research focus is also not so much on God in himself as on God in his relationship to the world and to humankind. Indeed, we seek to (re)gain perspective on the living God in order to be able to live on the way to him, but we do not expect to see him face to face already in this life. In fact, the emphasis on God’s holiness can lead us in two directions: it can make us stop thinking about the relationship between the Holy One and us and thus lead to practical atheism on pious grounds, or it can make us reflect on the relationship between the Holy One and us and thus stimulate theology. In this study I opt for the latter.

As for (c)—the idea that we cannot say anything about God with certainty—, this objection can partly be answered along the lines of the discussion of (a) and (b). In short, uncertainty can make us stop searching, or make us the more eager to search, in order to gain at least some more certainty.

As for (d)—the idea that God becomes a science stopper if we allow for him in our research—, this point indeed deserves some attention. Using God as a “science stopper” means that when we try to explain a phenomenon or an event and find it difficult to give a sufficient natural explanation, we say: “God has done this, and thus further research for a natural explanation is superfluous or even an act of unbelief.” Many scholars and scientists, both believers and unbelievers, deem it wrong to use God as a science stopper. They adhere to methodological naturalism, which means that they only allow for natural explanations in scientific and scholarly work. In many disciplines this works well and makes it possible that persons with varying religious persuasions work together.

Methodological naturalism becomes problematic, however, if one works in an area in which one suspects or believes that some events actually did not happen in a natural but in a supernatural way—for example, miraculous events about which the Bible reports. In such cases, should scholars indeed only allow for natural explanations and reject supernatural explanations as unscientific, or does their work actually become more open-minded if they allow both for natural and supernatural explanations (and maybe a combination of them)?

I will discuss this issue more fully in the next essay, but let me briefly state my position here. Theoretically, I see the possibility of developing a philosophy of science that allows for divine interventions and for supernatural explanations in scientific/scholarly work under specific conditions, without falling into an anything-goes-attitude and an uncontrolled use of God as a science stopper. However, actually, I deem it more likely that God’s relationship to the world does not imply divine interventions in the natural order and so there is no need to see God as a (source of) supernatural explanation. How I then seek to take biblical miracle stories seriously will become clear in the last two sections of the next essay.

For now, it will be evident that I neither defend using God as a science stopper nor actively oppose methodological naturalism. However, if, as is often claimed, personal faith in God and methodological naturalism in scientific and scholarly work can go together well in one person, it is reasonable that we allow for a discipline that can reflect on such a position more deeply than all individual scientists and scholars can do for themselves—this reflection on the relationship between God and the world and humankind is exactly what is at the heart of theology. In short, point (d) is not an argument against my understanding of theology, but rather in favor of it.

Now that we have faced some of the objections against the invitation to understand theology as a search for truth, more specifically as a search for truth concerning the living God and his relationship to the world and to humankind, let us also consider some of the promises and prospects of such a conception of theology.

First, understanding theology as a search for truth does justice to the object of theology as discussed in the opening essay (section 1.5). Here, both the words search and truth need to be emphasized. If the desire of the heart is the desire for the living God, only the truth about the true God can really fulfill the heart. Ideas that are not actually true may be attractive for some time, but when their untruth becomes apparent, they leave the heart empty. This is not to say that it is always easy to know the truth about God and many would agree that it is impossible for human beings to come to a full knowledge of the true God during our life here on earth. Seeing God face to face, knowing him as we have been known, is not something that is given to us here and now. Therefore, theology is a search for truth. The theologian is a wayfarer, not somebody who has already reached the end of the way.

Second, understanding theology as a search for truth makes it an honest practice, even if it fails to achieve its goal. The variety of positions that have been taken by theologians, both past and present, and the sometimes very outspoken truth claims including condemnations of other positions, may have led to the impression that theologians are not so much concerned about the truth as about their cherished beliefs and ideas. Over against this impression, theologians can enhance their reputation and integrity if they understand their work as a search for truth and are open to correction if the truth happens to be different from what they had thought. People who honestly search for truth keep their honor if they fail to find the truth or only come to a very partial understanding of it.

Third, understanding theology as a search for truth makes it at least initially clear why it is good that theology is practiced as a scholarly discipline in universities or similar institutions. Without being too idealistic about universities, they are certainly places that can remind theology of its task to search for truth rather than to convey to opinions that (some group in) society wants to hear and they can offer (at least relative) freedom for this search. Even if theology admits beforehand that the nature of its object probably prevents that it will ever come to a full understanding of the truth of its object, this is not a reason to exclude it from the university and to consider thinking about God as a matter of private opinion only. Of course, thinking about God is a personal issue and it should not become an exclusive privilege of people within the academic world. However, academic theologians can supply the market with well-informed opinions that have gone through a process of trying several paths of thought and of discovering which ones run into dead ends and which hold the prospect of coming closer to the truth of God.

In short, the quest for God is too important to be treated as a matter of personal opinion only. Certainly, it is a personal matter, but it is also a matter that deserves more reflection than each individual person can do for himself or herself. As a historian one can rightfully say: “Searching for God and speaking about God is not my specialism.” But as a theologian I see it as one of my core tasks to contribute to the quest for God. For this very reason, I have made it the purpose of the opening essay and this study in general to (re)gain perspective on the living God. If this raises methodological questions, let us neither deny them nor let them deter us from our quest, but let us face them as challenges that are to be overcome.

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