Are Theology and Science Both Interpretive Disciplines?

Ted Cabal, author of Controversy of the Ages: Why Christians Should Not Divide Over the Age of the Earth has said, “Theology and Science are both interpretive disciplines.” I take him to mean, among other things, that a scientist interprets nature and a theologian interprets the Bible. This would imply a symmetry of focus and approach. Cabal did not present his statement as if it was a radical proposal, and I would agree that it seems like self-evident reality.

I am asking the question because I wonder if BioLogos Forum participants share this view. In this BioLogos article, for example, we find:

When discoveries in God’s world conflict with interpretations of God’s Word, Christians have three options:

  1. Abandon our faith in order to accept the results of science
  2. Deny the scientific evidence to maintain our interpretations of Scripture
  3. Reconsider our interpretations of Scripture in light of the evidence from God’s creation

I am struck by the asymmetry of this presentation: “the scientific evidence” is juxtaposed with “our interpretations of Scripture.” Why wouldn’t it be presented as “our interpretations of nature” juxtaposed with “our interpretations of Scripture,” or “the scientific evidence” juxtaposed with “the biblical evidence”?

It would seem as if the assumption here is that science and theology are not both interpretive disciplines. If scientists and theologians are not both mediating knowledge to us - scientists with their interpretations of nature and theologians with their interpretations of the Bible - what then is happening? Are we saying that scientists do not mediate knowledge to us but that theologians do?

Hi Mike, in my opinion they are not symmetrical at all. Science seems to require far less “interpretation”. It seems to me that in science you can actually prove propositions to be demonstrably true, beyond any reasonable doubt, in a way that is often inaccessible in theology. So I think the comparison you are suggesting doesn’t hold.


The two are distinct because:

  1. science is knowledge gained by conjecture, theory and experiment, and is totally based on human intellect and effort.
  2. theology proper is based on scripture that states God has revealed Himself through His servants and this knowledge is revelation. Theologians work on understanding such knowledge, but the meaning proclaimed by the Church is based on the authority granted by Christ to His apostles and servants.

“Beyond a reasonable doubt,” the earth used to be flat. Demonstrably.

That asymmetry catches me up too, Mike. And I personally usually would word the option #3 as “Reconsider our interpretations of Scripture and/or science in light of all considerations available.”

That said, @Josh does have a point which causes me not so much to agree with him in a complete sense, but rather to allow for an asymmetry of degree. I.e. It is correct that science does address easier / more accessible / more testable questions than does theology. So there really is less interpretation and less latitude for divergence than what we find in theology. If others here were to insist there is no interpretation on the science side of things, then I disagree. In other words, I would make the situation a little less asymmetrical than what the Biologos quote reads, but there would still be an asymmetry (of degree) in it for me too.

This should not be taken as an asymmetry of authority (where so many triumphalists on either side love to take it). Just because I choose to believe my eyes in a certain situation even though my brain might be incredulous, doesn’t mean that I’ve suddenly given my eyes authority over my brain. There may be times, rarely, when I may choose to override what my eyes are telling me. But if we did that a lot, we would probably not long be in this world. So this whole “which of these two is forced into the subservient position: theology or science?” is in the end: nonsense. We strive long and hard (sometimes in vain) here to emancipate some of the more fundamentalist atheists and YECs (and including even yourself if I"m not mistaken?) from this manufactured, and thoroughly non-Biblical contest. It may take a while to soak in, and that is fine. Too much or too little porosity in our mental structures – both extremes can take us into danger zones.


I get your point, but I don’t think what you’re implying is correct. Do you think the demonstrable shape of the earth that we know today is an “interpretation”? My point is that many things in science are not an interpretation, in any comparable sense. (Sure there are other areas of science that are interpretations, but we have many things such as the shape of the earth that are not. Hard to say that about theology.)

This was Wittgenstein’s point in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, where he tried to solve the problems of philosophy by defining a proposition. “A proposition pictures a possible state of affairs.” If that possible state of affairs actually does obtain in the world, the proposition is true. (A fact.) If it does not obtain, the proposition is false.

From this angle, it seems the only things that we may say with certainty to be “true” are those things we call “facts,” which is the realm of empirical science. Does this mean, as some mistakenly took Wittgenstein to mean, that only science is capable of expressing truth? No, because for Wittgenstein, “There are indeed things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.” In other words, there is a different category of truth that cannot be stated in empirically or logically verifiable propositions. These lie outside the line drawn by the principle of verification. As he says previously in the Tractatus (parenthetical remarks are mine):

“6.41 The sense (the meaning, the purpose) of the world must lie outside the world. In the world everything is as it is and happens as it does happen. In it there is no value – and if there were, it would be of no value. If there is value which is of value, it must lie outside of all happening and being-so. For all happening and being-so is accidental (contingent). What makes it non-accidental cannot lie in the world, for otherwise this would again be accidental. It must lie outside the world.”

Put another way, all events and actions in the world (all facts) are contingent. Things might have happened this way, but they also might have happened another. All we can say is, “This is how things are.” But statements of value and meaning are not like that. Statements of value or meaning go beyond mere propositions of fact. All that the world supplies us with are facts. When we try to go beyond the facts of “what is” and make a statement that assigns value or meaning, we have gone beyond the realm of contingent and accidental facts. This is what Wittgenstein means when he immediately says:

“6.42 Hence also there can be no ethical propositions. Propositions cannot express anything higher.
6.421 It is clear that ethics cannot be expressed. Ethics is transcendental.”

He uses “transcendental” in a technical philosophical sense to mean that which is incapable of being experienced by the senses. Thus, what is transcendental is beyond the reach of science, which deals only in what can be observed and measured. As soon as I try to assign meaning to an event, or to judge the purpose or value of something, I have stepped out of the realm of binary True/False statements of verifiable facts and into the realm of meaning, values, purpose, beauty, art, love, justice, mercy, forgiveness, etc. In that realm science is silent, yet that is where most of my life is lived, and those are the types of truths that Scripture is intended to teach.


I was thinking the other day about how science and theology both deal with “cause and effect” but would have to say that they ultimately differ in that science changes based on observable evidence, whereas theology is based more on revelation and insight. That is not to say that insight cannot change based on new information, but it is pretty much in the background rather than the object, as it is in science.


That’s a fair point. There are a lot of things that we are willing to call observational facts with as much certitude as is humanly possible (short of the philosophical extremes of questioning even our own existences, etc.).

“Pure” theology / religion may have a body of facts too, even if a much smaller one. One that comes to my mind would be: suffering exists. That’s not a scientific statement, but I do believe nearly everyone would agree with it. I don’t dispute that the body of things we are willing to call “facts” is much smaller in theology than in science because of the difference in accessibility of the subject matter.

The reason I added the “Pure” qualifier above is that it is a fallacy that many of us have long labored against that science is somehow not included within religion and is instead a competitor standing outside or potentially against it. So I was only temporarily accommodating if you will, in the game of thinking of science as standing outside of any religious hegemony. I doubt there really is any such thing as “pure” religion in my present ‘game-playing’ sense.

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What Ted Cabal fails to clarify is that all the information in the Universe is more or less subject to interpretation. The “devil” is in the “more or less”.

In Science, an observor may have to draw out conclusions based on the exact temperature readings he or she has obtained from a test.

In Scripture, a reader may want to draw out conclusions based on a specific text … then he has to find the right meaning in the original language, then he has to make a case for why one example should be used over another, and so on and so on.

Mike, I would hate to say that you are following a rather cliched path - - the one worn deeply into the debating turf, where a quote is used to prove that Science is somehow not as certain as Scripture.

But while nobody here challenges the idea that Gravity is a foregone conclusion, it is quite rare indeed when someone goes so far as to question the historical existence of Newton!

In contrast, the Bible suffers under a constant chain of questions?:

  1. Is there really a Yahweh?
  2. If there is, is the Bible really his work?
  3. Was there really a Moses?
  4. If there was a Moses, was there really an Exodus?
  5. If there was an Exodus, was it really a migration of half a million people or even more?

And so on…

I don’t want to become a lightning rod of castigation - - or a literal lightning rod for the displeasure of the Great Divine. But I have to state unequivocably, there are Truths of Nature which are much more certain than the Truths of the Bible.

Here on these boards, the question is how much of the premises of Evolution can be considered a part of these Natural Truths? If we stay away from the biology of mutation for now … and focus on the oldest forms of the Old Earth investiation (i.e., Geology & Physics) … Rocks represent a Constant kind of Truth in Facts.

Some tests are rather obscure and nuanced, but there are plenty of tests that are not. Forgive the pun, but Geology is on terrifically solid ground compared to what Christians typically dispute!

- Jesus says bread and wine become flesh and blood. But most Evangelicals reject this.

- Jesus says the Bible says we are gods. But most Evangelicals reject this.

- Jesus says (or makes clear) that Adulterers shall not be stoned, except by those who are sinless. Most Evangelicals, even when they agree that Adulterers should not be stone (which could lead to a lot of empty time slots in the evangelical Sunday hours) - - still reject that Jesus was rejecting some of the Old Testament.

So why should YEC’s be at all surprised when Christian Evolutionists say: more obvious than the mercy shown to an adulterer is how rocks on Earth were formed, and how long ago it happened?

Compared to Geologists, YECs know virtually nothing certain.


I have posted a pleasant story about Isaac Asimov, and an article he wrote years ago about how Science has a granularity to it … where, except in the rarest of occasions, new discoveries are in overturning the footnotes … not in the general principles.

In the literature of science, great “hay” is made on the topic of phlogiston !!! A mysterious substance that allowed things to oxidize or burn. It was “oh so logical”. But it was false. Nobody thinks that phlogiston will be discovered to actually be True! But it is a cautionary tale about how mystical beliefs (for scientists or for Christians) can get one into a lot of factual hot water!

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Or did he say that flesh and blood become bread and wine, that we can freely partake? You can look at it either way. In any case, I think the Catholic reverence for the elements has some merit, even though I think even they look at transubstantiation as a spiritual transformation not physical.
In any case, as good example of the how the disciplines vary, thanks for sharing.


I think that is a very good approximation. I think it would be more accurate to say that scientists interpret empirical observations in a testable and falsifiable fashion while theologians interpret scripture to understand the intent of the authors. Theology and belief are a bit different since even atheists can be, and are, theologians.[quote=“Mike_Gantt, post:1, topic:36394”]
This would imply a symmetry of focus and approach.
I think there is one good characteristic shared by good scientists and good theologians: they spend a lot of effort trying to prove themselves wrong. Skepticism of your own conclusions forms the basis for any good investigation, whether it be science or theology. Many a person has been led down the primrose path by falling in love with their own ideas to exclusion of contradictory evidence.[quote=“Mike_Gantt, post:1, topic:36394”]
When discoveries in God’s world conflict with interpretations of God’s Word, Christians have three options:

Abandon our faith in order to accept the results of science
Deny the scientific evidence to maintain our interpretations of Scripture
Reconsider our interpretations of Scripture in light of the evidence from God’s creation

I have always viewed faith as a set of beliefs that lack evidence. I have never viewed faith as a set of beliefs contradicted by evidence. At least in my view, those are two different things.

In another thread we discussed the concept of “The Map is not the Territory”, and I think it fits here. If a map says there is a 15,000 foot mountain range going through the center of Kansas, but direct observations of Kansas reveal no such mountains, which do we go with? Most of us realize that reality is reality, and it’s kind of hard to argue with. However, what humans write can be fallible, or they can be allegorical, mythical, or a moral tale. If you pit a literal interpretation of Genesis against the empirical facts of the universe, then I don’t see how the Bible comes out of that one in good shape.[quote=“Mike_Gantt, post:1, topic:36394”]
It would seem as if the assumption here is that science and theology are not both interpretive disciplines. If scientists and theologians are not both mediating knowledge to us - scientists with their interpretations of nature and theologians with their interpretations of the Bible - what then is happening? Are we saying that scientists do not mediate knowledge to us but that theologians do?

I just quoted this essay in another thread which you may have seen, but I think it is worth quoting here as well.

“The net of science covers the empirical universe: what is it made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for starters, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty). To cite the arch cliches, we get the age of rocks, and religion retains the rock of ages; we study how the heavens go, and they determine how to go to heaven.”–Stephen Jay Gould, “Nonoverlapping Magisteria”

I don’t think that essay is the end all, be all when it comes to science and theology, but it does have some merit.

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How many times have I pointed out the lack of symmetry, Mike?

Science is about trying to falsify hypotheses by using them to predict direct observations made in the future. It prevents most cheating by requiring empirical observations; that means baking all one’s inferences in BEFORE the prediction.

That’s the most powerful part of science you repeatedly pretend does not exist. Why?

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Some scientists might say it’s an interpretation and others might say it’s a “best fit model.”

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But that was never a conclusion based on science—unless we fall into equivocation fallacies and assume that the ancient scientia (“knowledge”) was the same thing as modern Science which is based on the Scientific Method. Ken Ham loves to amplify that equivocation fallacy in order to persuade his audiences that “Science is simply knowledge.” Of course, even a child hearing that will wonder, “I have a friend who studies a lot of astrology websites. So that astrology knowledge is science?” Ham & Co. plays on that confusion in order to convince people that “Science has a long history of mistakes.”

Modern science is a relatively recent invention. It took centuries of philosophers grappling with the limitations of ancient scholarship and the stumbling blocks of folk wisdom, theological biases, arguments from authority, and lots of other distractions to eventually define modern science as something far more rigorous than the Natural Philosophy which preceded it.

Every time I hear of a Young Earth Creationist speaker/author from AiG, ICR, or CMI trying to discredit science by citing some laughable “Scientists used to claim that _______”, I can usually count on it being an example from ancient philosophers or theologians of the Middle Ages.

Many years ago one of my Ph.D. students nailed me right between the eyes for all too casually referring to Phlogiston Theory as a “blunder of Science.” A few years before he had done a Master’s thesis on the ways in which Phlogiston Theory was one of the last great gasps of the old-style Natural Philosophy. He argued that it had far more to do with the four humours of ancient Greek philosophy than actual empirical evidence. It was a case of the still in its infancy scientific method being used to try and salvage an ancient Greek worldview which was dying out. Of course, the entire saga was a great learning experience for the academy and even a few stellar scientists who should have known better fell back on old ways of thinking. [At my age my memory is not all that reliable–so please don’t quote me!–but I seem to recall my student citing interesting passages from John Dalton, the Father of Atomic Theory, where he drew upon Hippocrites and Galen so as to explain Phlogiston in terms of the four elements of ancient philosophy and the four bodily humours based upon them: yellow bile (fire), black bile (earth), blood (air), and phlegm (water). Obviously, none of this was empirical based as required by the Scientific Method. It was not a conclusion of Modern Science, but famous scientists known for producing good science did sometimes fall back into old habits.]

Modern Science certainly has its share of wrong turns and distractions. But what is so valuable about the scientific method and peer-reviewed scholarship is that the self-correction record of Science is quite remarkable! It stands in sharp contrast to a lot of pseudo-science movements which continue to recycle discredited ideas because they are still useful for propaganda purposes when dealing with the science-illiterate general public. (That’s why silly arguments like “There are zero transitional fossils” and “If coal and diamonds were formed millions of years ago, why is there still carbon-14 found in them?” and “If the world is much older than 6,000 years, why isn’t there more salt in the oceans?” are still promoted on Answers in Genesis and ICR.)


As to “spiritual transformation not physical”, that had been my assumption as well—but every time I have tried to confirm this with Roman Catholic professors and theologians, they have defiantly corrected me. My Latin fluency is not what it should be but whenever I’ve tried to resolve this issue once and for all in the key primary sources, I come away more uncomfortable and less than confident in my research abilities. At times it seems like RC theologians have chosen words which seem to entail built in “escape clauses” allowing one to avoid literal interpretations of their transubstantiation definitions. Yet, in the very next sentence or paragraph they go out of their way to say things like “In no way should transubstantiation be understood figuratively or in any way less than the actual, literal, physical body of Our Lord Jesus Christ. We don’t know how this occurs for it is a great mystery, one upon which every good Catholic must believe.” (Mind you, I am not quoting a particular RC theologian to whom I can attribute these exact words. I’m just trying to paraphrase the details I found in Latin texts as well as countless RC commentaries.)

I would be delighted to be corrected on this matter but this was my conclusion when I last tried to tackle this question back in the 1990’s. Of course, if this topic is pursued here, it needs to be assigned its own thread. JPM, if you see error(s) in my position on this, I’d be delighted to learn more. I just never felt comfortable with the results of my research on this topic.

[If someone’s stomach was pumped shortly after Mass and the partially digested host was subjected to DNA analysis, would it reveal the genome of Jesus Christ? Personally speaking, I don’t think so—but I’ve yet to get a straight answer on this from a Roman Catholic theologian. Now if my question sounds facetious or mocking to anyone, that is not at all my intention. My question is totally sincere. Also, I can point to questions of a similar nature having been discussed at great length during various major Roman Catholic confabs down through the centuries. I remember my favorite Church History professor telling of the Mongol (?) hordes besieging some city for weeks while a meeting of cardinals inside the city walls were discussing the eternal destiny of a hypothetical mouse which happened to eat a crumb from the host which fell upon the floor of the church after being blessed by the priest. Apparently at least some of the great theologians of that era considered that question of vital importance. By the way, I have never tracked down a citation for my professor’s classroom anecdote but he was considered one of the world’s top authorities on church synods and the like. But I’m writing purely from memory on this.]

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To answer the question of transubstantiation you’d have to delve into Aristotle and Aquinas and discuss the notions of substance and accident. Scientifically, the bread and wine would remain bread and wine (the “accidents”), but in substance they would be transformed into body and blood. Or something like that.

Every communion sees the Eucharist a little bit differently.


I think it would be even more accurate to say that there COULD be a symmetry in focus and approach if (in addition to trying to prove her/himself wrong) the theologian constructed hypotheses and made predictions about what would be found in other parts of the Bible with which s/he is not familiar.

However, I haven’t seen any evidence that theologians, even amateur ones, do that.

I certainly have. It is extremely common!

In fact, I can think of a great many theological tomes where the author basically explains “I used to hold position A on topic X but after intensively putting my view through falsification testing and researching sources J and K previously unknown to me, I now hold to position B.” In fact, these Biologos forum threads (as well as some of the feature articles) routinely feature such situations where the theologian (whether professional or amateur) kept reviewing the soundness of their position and eventually accumulated enough evidence to change their conclusions. This included making predictions of what an exegetical study will reveal in a study of text passage R and later admitting that the prediction failed. Thus, Benjamin, I was quite startled to see you claim that you’d never seen any evidence of this because I thought you had been participating on these Biologos threads for quite a while. They are difficult to miss!

If you are interested, I could name some theology books which provide prime examples of “I tried to show my previous position and predictions to be wrong and I succeeded!” I have a lot of background in Biblical exegesis and the examples of this kind of self-refutation are particularly common. It is a daily practice in many seminary classes! In our younger years we all wrote our fair share of such self-refutation papers as routine assignments. (Sometimes the failed prediction involves a planned detailed study of extra-Biblical texts such as Talmudic or Church Father sources but this still fits your scenario.)

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