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Empirical tools and theology 1

empirical tools

Empirical tools and theology.

Empirical tools and methodology are commonly used in the sciences and social sciences. Do these tools have any place in theology?

Tom (NT) Wright is a historian as well as a theologian. He uses the tools of history to help him interpret Paul. The ‘new perspective’ on the Apostle Paul, of which Tom Wright is a leading figure, uses the tools of many academic disciplines, and for some this is a major concern — used as a line of attack on the ‘new perspective.’

John Frame, very much a conservative evangelical scholar, uses the tools of logic as he frames theology.

Some evangelicals have long been suspicious of the use of multidisciplinary tools in the endeavour of theology. Are those suspicions valid? And, if not, why not?

I studied under Prof. Leslie Francis some 15 years ago and so I was exposed to his aim to develop a theological case for the use of psychological constructs and tools in Christian ministry. Yet many evangelicals are also deeply suspicious of psychological and personality typing.

I think there is warrant for discerning interaction, but not for outright rejection of empirical tools. And in the next few posts I intend to show why I think this.

Scripture itself describes and models the use of empirical tools.

Those who believe in God and his special revelation in his Son and through the Scripture have always also used the empirical tools afforded in civilisation.

This practice is far from novel and stands in a long history stretching right back into Scripture of making use of the so-called ‘wisdom of the Egyptians’. As Os Guinness writes: “We should… remember Origen’s ancient principle: Christians are free to plunder the Egyptians, but forbidden to set up a golden calf” (1992).

This is the first of several posts that explore the theological relation between science and faith.

In these posts I assemble various arguments to support the case for the use of empirical tools in Christian ministry and theology.

This post aims to help the reader answer questions such as:

While the scientific method and empirical tools might be welcomed and used by Christians in their workplace, do these tools provide valid means of knowledge within the community of believers?

And, if yes, what are the limitations?

This theological reflection is required because the author has found that evangelical Christians can be suspicious of non-theological methodology being used in theology and ministry — despite welcoming those tools being used in their places of work, or in their local hospital. As an aside, this suggests an unbiblical sacred/secular divide in thinking.

The distrust felt by Christians who try to shape lives in alignment with the Bible needs to be surfaced and addressed thoughtfully so that Christians can have a biblical and theological justification for the use of empirical tools, and the methods that flow from the empirical approach.

A scriptural argument in support of empirical tools and methodology.

It is widely accepted that until recently the ethos within conservative evangelicalism for at least the last hundred years has tended to be suspicious of the culture of wider society and therefore wary of the arts and sciences.

As an example, Dr Peter Masters of the Metropolitan Tabernacle, a self-confessed fundamentalist, wrote nearly thirty years ago that “while fundamentalists are traditionally great lovers of biblical scholarship, they are highly suspicious of unbelieving scholarship. In fact they reject it entirely” (1995, p.13).

Masters’ view would seem to rule out the sort of inter-disciplinary dialogue Leslie Francis argues for.

Some texts suggest suspicion of empirical tools is required.

Consider Psalm 20:7-9 (NIV-UK):

Some trust in chariots and some in horses,
but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.
They are brought to their knees and fall,
but we rise up and stand firm.
Lord, give victory to the king!
Answer us when we call!

And also Isaiah 31:1:

1 Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help,

who rely on horses,

who trust in the multitude of their chariots

and in the great strength of their horsemen,

but do not look to the Holy One of Israel,

or seek help from the Lord.

However, a wider Biblical examination adds nuance to this.

The rationale for posting about this is that building a Biblical foundation for using empirical tools:

(1) Is essential to one of the objectives of this blog series.

(2) Is timely for evangelicals who have become far more engaged with wider society and empirical tools in the last few decades, and

(3) Is central to one of the principle concerns of mission in our time — the challenge of contextualisation.

The primary question to be answered in this post is whether empirical tools and methods are a valid for theological enquiry.

This question has to do with the wider issue of the relationship between God’s people and other peoples.

It is in the wisdom literature that the people of God encounter a theology of that relationship — a theology that creates space for respectful interaction with the cultures of people who hold alternative worldviews. This section shows how that process can embrace empirical methods.

Graeme Goldsworthy, formerly Lecturer in Old Testament Studies at Moore Theological College, Australia, sees Proverbs 8 and Job 28 as crucial texts which celebrate the fact that God’s wisdom is revealed through his handiwork — the creation.

With respect to the wisdom literature of the Bible Goldsworthy argues that a tension emerges for the reader between sin as a breaking of the law and sin as foolishness — that is, the foolishness which brings disorder into the harmony of God’s creation. Both kinds of sin disrupt the relationships between man and the creation, between man and man and between man and God.

This tension, Goldsworthy argues, is intended by God who wishes to open people’s eyes to the problem of evil. This desire is seen in the fact that God gives us both wisdom and law, each providing a different (though not contradictory) lens through which to examine evil.

The wisdom literature of the Bible champions the use of the wisdom lens and makes little use of the law/redemption lens. An evangelical response to the Bible requires esteem for both lenses — even though the opening of the eyes to law/redemption is the distinctive feature of the believer’s experience because it reveals the redemption found in Christ.

In summary, wisdom emerges from the observation of the created order, and salvation from the revelation of God’s saving acts (Goldsworthy, 2000, p.417).

We evangelicals make much of God’s saving acts, but are not so clear on what we might call creation theology.

In Goldsworthy’s thesis wisdom is a process of empirical observation of the creation: “I applied my heart to what I observed and learned a lesson from what I saw” (Proverbs 24:32).

For example consider the invitation to make empirical observations that are so commonly found in Proverbs, such as Proverbs 6:6-8 (NIV-UK):

Go to the ant, you sluggard;
consider its ways and be wise!
It has no commander,
no overseer or ruler,
yet it stores its provisions in summer
and gathers its food at harvest.

God has made wisdom available to all of humanity both through the creation and through the revelation that comes through Holy Scripture. Whenever evangelical Christians fail to give esteem to the wisdom evident in God’s Creation (esteem that the Creation is accorded within Scripture itself), and reserve all their esteem for redemption — they (1) are not esteeming what Scripture esteems, and (2) are failing to see and use a God-given bridge that links all humanity.

empirical tools and theology

The endeavour to derive wisdom from the observation of the created order is not unique to the believing people of God.

It is evident that sections of the wisdom books of the Old Testament have close parallels with the wisdom literature of Babylon and Egypt. For example, “Proverbs 22:17-23:11 has close verbal similarities to parts of the Egyptian work, the Wisdom of Amen-em-ope” (Goldsworthy, 2000, p.363).

We cannot be absolutely sure who borrowed from whom, or whether there was a common third source, but it is untenable to deny the link — and most likely that the Egyptian work was the original.

For those evangelicals whose faith in Scriptural revelation is challenged by these findings, it is important to realise that the cultural mandate given to Adam and Eve is still being carried forward by all of humanity, not just those who cooperate willingly with that mandate and the God who gave it (Goldsworthy, 2000, p.365).

There is, therefore, a shared wisdom amongst humanity such that when “Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians” (Acts 7:22) there is never any suggestion “that Moses needed to repent of this or to unlearn it” (Goldsworthy, 2000, p.363).

Goldsworthy further asserts that this cultural mandate has ongoing expression in humanity’s:

“…quest for knowledge and technical know-how. To achieve the goal of continual progress, as it is usually thought of being, he devises more and more sophisticated ways of observing, classifying, and reasoning. But what modern technological man does in a highly complex fashion is at its heart no different from what man has always done. He has observed his world and tried to classify his experience as a way of getting to the underlying order of things.” (Goldsworthy, 2000, pp.365-366)

Those human beings who deny the Creator still carry forward the Creator’s wishes — though sometimes in a corrupted and corrupting way.

Christians can have the guidance of the Creator to bring to the work of empirical research — but they are not apart from the endeavour which God has placed on humanity. Christians may know additional and vital things by revelation (that the atheist denies), but what the atheist discovers by observation are truths known truly by empirical observation (Goldsworthy, 2000, p.367) and the people of God are not obliged to reject those discoveries (though all should recognise that conclusions from scientific observation are provisional and subject to revision).

The Christian’s wonder at the revelation of God’s saving acts should not preclude God’s people from making use of the wisdom also discoverable in the creation. After all, we assert that God is behind that very creation so it should not surprise us if it reflects him and his ways in its very substance. By this I refer to the evidence in the creation that there very well may be a Creator possessed of remarkable power, intelligence, wisdom, rationality and intentionality.

God’s people do critique the conclusions drawn by other cultures, however.

Even when the observations are accurate, the attributions of cause are likely to be influenced by the prevailing worldview of the observers.

Chris Wright, formerly Principal of All Nations Christian College, summarises how the Old Testament wisdom literature contrasts with the source material from Babylon and Egypt.

Polytheism and polytheistic thinking are replaced by a governing monotheism. The observations of the created order and how events turn out are viewed through the revelation of a holy God who is in covenant with his people through promises.

As a result, the Old Testament wisdom literature can admit that the righteous suffer but then grapples with that mystery without succumbing to either the cynicism or the fatalism of other Near Eastern wisdom texts (Wright, 2006, pp.443-444).

Wright suggests the following missiological implications of this realisation about wisdom.

(1) Wisdom is a bridge over which God’s people can link with others in different cultures and religions.

(2) Wisdom affirms the values and lessons that are shared between different cultures and peoples. God’s people do not need to be suspicious of other cultures since the acceptance of wisdom from other ‘nations’ is to cooperate with what God has prophesied, that the wealth of the nations would be brought to serve God’s people and purpose (see Isaiah 60-66, picked up in Revelation 21:24-27). However, this affirming is not uncritical because…

(3) The self-disclosure of God must judge human conclusions about wisdom (as noted in the previous paragraphs).

(4) Furthermore, while wisdom is a bridge, it is not redemptive of itself. The gospel must be freighted across the bridge. This necessity of divine intervention and redemption was comprehended even within the Old Testament wisdom literature (Wright, 2006, pp.445-448).

The next question is whether wisdom can be more than a missiological bridge. Can it also be a theological tool?

The reformed theologian John Frame makes a defence of inter-disciplinary science. He rejects the “encyclopaedia of the sciences” proposed by the Dutch reformed thinkers Kuyper and Dooyeweerd (Frame, 1987, p.91). This ‘encyclopaedia’ was a means of classifying what was the proper subject of each science and to give theology its priority.

Frame prefers Van Til’s approach which makes Scripture its starting point and has the confidence to allow flexibility — to allow any “interrelations” between disciplines that seem wise (1987, p.92).

Thus, when it comes to the interpretation of Scripture, Frame assumes the use of tools from other disciplines even as he acknowledges that sin will affect their use:

“We are fallible in our use of all the tools of theology, including language, archaeology and history, as well as logic. Yet all of these, including logic, are means for us to discover God’s infallible truth.” (1987, p.254)

Frame then bemoans that “standards of logical cogency are much lower today in theology than in any other discipline” (1987, p.254), thus showing that he favours the use of tools from other disciplines in the theological enterprise. He states that:

“Scripture warrants our use of logic… As such, logic is in a position similar to linguistics and history — a discipline that gives us information that is useful in the application of Scripture, information that ought, indeed, to govern our thinking about Scripture but information that itself is subject to biblical criteria.” (Frame, 1987, p.243)

Elsewhere Frame makes explicit that his view extends far more widely than logic, when he states that “all sciences help us to apply and therefore to interpret Scripture” (1987, p.314 – see also p.168).

Frame insists that the sciences need purifying from unbelieving presuppositions, but he does not suggest that the tools of science are polluted and therefore unavailable to theology.

He illustrates his point by referring to the challenge psychology has brought to the traditional reformed Christian’s sense of being a ‘miserable sinner’. The encouragement from psychology to have a good self-image has, in Frame’s view, invited a review of Scriptural teaching. That review has resulted in a revision and a rediscovery of the Scriptural teaching that the converted are saints and no longer sinners. While it is true that some such revisions can be motivated by compromise this should not prevent the church reviewing Scripture in light of the challenges brought by science (1987, p.315).

This brief interaction with Goldsworthy, Wright and Frame has argued for a Scriptural warrant for the use of scientific tools in the work of theology, and suggests that empirical tools are valid for use in theological enquiry by and for God’s people — as well as being a missiological bridge.

There will be further posts!

Meanwhile you may like to read my post on how we derive theology from Scripture here.

Photo credit, image of Amen-em-ope from Pinterest.


Frame, J. (1987), The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, Phillipsburg, New Jersey, Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing

Francis, L. (2005), Faith and Psychology, London, Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd.

Francis, L. (2006) Faith and Psychology: the contribution of empirical research and Jungian psychological type theory to practice and pastoral theology, American Psychological Society William C Bier Award address

Francis, L. (2008) author’s notes from phone conversation on 12 May 2008

Goldsworthy, G. (2000), Gospel and Wisdom (1987), in The Goldsworthy Trilogy, Carlisle, Paternoster

Guinness, O. (1992) Sounding out the idols of church growth, in Guinness, O. and Seel, J. (Eds) (1992), No God, But God: breaking with the idols of our age, pp 151-174, Chicago, Illinois, Moody Press

Masters, P. (1995), Are We Fundamentalists? London, Sword & Trowel

Wright, C. (2006), The Mission of God: unlocking the Bible’s grand narrative, Nottingham, IVP


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