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Robin Parry is the husband of but one wife (Carol) and the father of the two most beautiful girls in the universe (Hannah and Jessica). He also has a lovely cat called Monty (who has only three legs). Living in the city of Worcester, UK, he works as an Editor for Wipf and Stock — a US-based theological publisher. Robin was a Sixth Form College teacher for 11 years and has worked in publishing since 2001 (2001–2010 for Paternoster and 2010– for W&S).

Monday, 4 February 2013

The Queen is dead; long live the Queen: the death (and resurrection?) of theology

Here are some thoughts based on Brad Gregory's book, The Unintended Reformation (2012).

In Europe and America universities were originally Christian institutions intended to expand knowledge within the framework of a Christian worldview. In the twenty-first century they are secular institutions from which a Christian worldview has virtually been expelled. For years the pressure has been on Theology departments because they remain within the model of “faith seeking understanding” and no longer fit the ethos of the secular university. Many universities would prefer Religious Studies (the supposedly neutral, scientific study of religions).

In the medieval period Theology was the Queen of the Sciences, the subject that served to integrate all the other disciplines. Now the knowledge generated within Theology departments is not even considered to be knowledge by the university. Theology is no longer Queen; she is a beggar that at best gets pitying glances from passers by.

In the Middle Ages reality was seen as a single reality and all truth was God’s truth. Theology provided the integrative framework that sought to explain how all the different areas of the world and knowledge of it were interrelated. It could do this because its subject matter was the most fundamental level of reality — God and God’s relationship with creation; nothing fell outside of its range. The modern academy is broken up into countless specialist subjects that often do not inter-act, and even inter-disciplinary efforts fall far short of the intergrative project of the medieval period. Christian spirituality also governed the very ethos of learning:
Christianity’s salvific, participatory knowledge as epitomized in monasticism was not anti-intellectual, but it was resolutely teleological and therefore deliberately selective: knowledge of the natural world was good, just as literacy and knowledge of rhetoric, grammar, and logic were good, if they served the common good of the virtuous, shared life and participatory knowledge of the faith oriented toward the final good of eternal salvation. ... Like monasteries, universities were intellectually selective, teleological institutions who purposes presuppose faith’s truth claims and participatory knowledge. ... They were Christian moral communities that sought to contribute to the wider good ... (Gregory, Unintended Reformation, 311, 314)
A great weakness of medieval Christian universities was that they did not appreciate that knowledge of the natural world is not primarily gained through examining classic texts (such as Aristotle) but through empirical study of the world. This failure of insight came back to haunt them during and after the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century.

The fall of theology was, argues Gregory, an unintended consequence of the Reformation. The Reformation broke the shared framework for the integration of knowledge (a framework shared by both scholastics and Renaissance humanists). Rival doctrinal claims became the basis for rival confessional universities.

Universities were very important for rulers because that was where their lawyers, doctors, diplomats, pastors, and secretaries were trained. Confessional states, Catholic and Protestant, did privilege theology within their universities but for the sake of political stability they protected it from intellectual challenge such that theology ceased to keep up with advances in other departments, such as in the natural sciences, and then found itself unable to handle the new knowledge. Political protection for theology made it intellectually weak.

Also new non-university institutions such as scientific academies were set up. They bracketed out Christian theological questions so as to enable cross-confessional collaboration and this created a context in which science developed in a way only weakly connected to theological thought. Thus the new knowledge associated with the natural sciences and the discoveries of the new world developed outside university contexts, often in the palaces of rulers. This knowledge, unlike theology, seemed universal (people of different creeds could agree on it) and useful. Closeted away in universities theology was insulated from needing to properly engage the new knowledge and thus theologians often lacked the adequate training and understanding when they did try to do so.

Gradually the new perspectives on philosophy and history began to turn to the domain of theology — the Bible itself began to be studied like any other ancient document and serious questions began to be asked about its historical reliability

Universities began to change by moving away from the confessional model, first Leiden then Göttingen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Berlin. Their duty was to enable to state to function and religion was proving a hindrance to that so it was increasingly sidelined and sealed off from influencing other subjects which could increasingly ignore religious questions. The increasing demands in modernity for scientific objectivity (grounded in the success of the natural sciences and increasingly imitated by other, newer subjects like sociology and psychology) combined with the inability of theologians to agree on method let alone results led to the secularization of knowledge.

But, it seems to be that the notion as theology as Queen of the Sciences is ripe for a cautious revival. A Christian vision of the world does lead one to seek a wholeness and interconnectedness of knowledge, something beyond the mere inter-disciplinary studies of the modern, fractured academy. And the vision of God and creation set forth in classical Christian theology does provide a framework within which to make sense of the disciplines. Something worth pondering. But such a revival of the notion must be done with great care. So I think I'll let someone else do it.


Tom Nicholson said...

Thanks for that very helpful summary.
I was interested to know the outline of the book.

Robin Parry said...


That's not an outline of the book—just a chapter.

I have some better reflections on the issue here:



Tom Nicholson said...

Wow! Thanks! (Sorry!)

And I'll go to the link now!!

Anonymous said...

"Universities were very important for rulers because that was where their lawyers, doctors, diplomats, pastors, and secretaries were trained."
And some things stay the same... /: