Does Theology Have a Method? An Interview with Paul Allen

Recently, the catholic theologian Paul Allen (Concordia University, Montreal, Canada) published a great book on theological method, titled Theological Method: A Guide for the Perplexed (T&T Clark 2012). For many, theological method indeed is something to be perplexed about. Is there really something like a theological method? Many atheists even argue that theology has no place at a university, because it has no method.

Allen apparently argues to the contrary. He gives a historical overview of how the development of theological method, describing key figures, both catholic and protestant. He shows how theological method has developed in a continous dialogue with developments within philosophy, science, and the wider culture.

So, to give readers an impression of what the book is about, I asked Paul some questions about his new book, about theological method, the relation between science and religion, and whether an atheist can be a theologian…

Paul, if a scientist were to ask you whether theology has a method, how would you respond?

Allen: I would say that theology has a method, but it is much more differentiated than scientific method. So, it’s probably more accurate to say that theologians have a set of similar tasks that they tend to follow in a patterned way. But, each theologian brings his or her own sense of priorities, hermeneutical principles and styles to bear on a theological question. All of these colorations can be accounted for in analyzing theological tasks.

If I were to sum up in a single sentence what theological method is, I would say that it is a set of comparisons, contrasts and correlations – involving plenty of analogous language at certain stages of judgment – regarding four sources of theological content. Those sources of content are: scripture, reason, tradition and experience. One of the most important observations to make of theological method is about these sources – they overlap. For instance, much of scripture is a narrative account of certain special types of experiences. And, a lot of the church’s tradition is actually an interpreted formulation of certain passages of scripture and experience. This is one thing that sets apart theological method from scientific method – its sources are fluid, historically conditioned and particular to the interpretive rules of individuals and traditions. Science is repeatable and universal because of its repeatability. Theology’s universality is not on account of a set of tasks, but rather on account of its object, God.

How does theology relate methodologically to the natural sciences in your view?

Allen: The similarities with science are cognitive, not epistemological. That seems like a strange thing to say, but it isn’t really. One of the theologians whom I mention a fair bit in the book is Bernard Lonergan, whose understanding of method is of a set of eight tasks that can be understood according to whether the task is a cognitional act of four kinds only: experiencing something, understanding something, judging something or deciding to think or act in some particular way. These kinds of cognitional operations are part of being human, but when we pay attention to the patterns of their use in an intellectual inquiry, such as theology, we can take special delight in knowing what kind of thing we know. For instance, an interpretation of Gen. 1:1 is simply that: an understanding. An understanding does not in and of itself preclude a variety of judgements or decisions that potentially flow from that particular understanding. So, this is Lonergan’s point about method: it is always cognitionally based. And, when we know what we are doing (literally), our theology becomes more disciplined, less prone to bias or ideology and better communicated. Lonergan’s eight taks are what he terms ‘functional specialties’ by the way.

As for similarities with science, I think these cognitional patterns are self-evidently present in science, but there, due to the universality and repeatability that are hallmarks of scientific procedure, the cognitional elements are less varied. A verification is a judgment that is made on the basis of new observations and an understanding of those observations that is anticipated in light of other judgments. We simply take that for granted. Not so in theology – the variation and particularity of theological claims are strong, often poetic and alluring elements for those who want to articulate their faith and its meaning. Yet, (finally) theological knowledge claims – as in science – are provisional, even if the faith that bases those claims is not.   

Your book is published in the series “Guide for the Perplexed”. What is so perplexing about theological method?

Allen: Theological method perplexes precisely because it is not scientific in the English sense of the word ‘scientific’. (As with cuisine and much else, the French have an advantage here – ‘scientifique’ indicates scholarly discipline that in the English ‘scientific’ is reserved for those who practice social or natural science.) It is paradoxical perhaps to refer to a theological method, since theology a) uses analogical language and b) revels in the particular (e.g.: the Incarnation). In contrast, scientific method is learnt from school age and although it has been bent out of shape by residual logical positivism, it is still fairly straightforward compared with theological method.

Many critics regard theology as being suspicious because of its subjective nature. If you have 20 theologians in a room, there are probably as many theologies.

Allen: Yes, this suspicion is itself suspicious frankly. If 20 theologians in a room shared the same identical theology, that would be your first clue to take your leave from that room. I mean, theology is a creative and sometimes artistic enterprise. It has to do with our subjectivity because it is making sense of our experience in some given way. It could not be otherwise. Yet, having said that, and this is something I discuss in chapter four of my book, I have absolute respect for the medievals, whose theology seems to be so objective, but which is not at all merely dry logic. Take Anselm – he’s gotten a terrible reputation since Kant because of the ontological argument. Never mind that contemporary philosophers of religion are delving into that argument once again. His work is in fact a series of meditations on God in the glow of extended prayer and a rather exciting, politically dangerous personal life.

What role does faith play in theological method, if at all?

Allen: Faith is commitment, “the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things unseen” as it says in Hebrews. So, it’s not unlike the commitment shown by scientists to do science. Michael Polanyi made this comparison decades ago. So, while I would qualify my claim here by conceding the foolishness of fundamentalism (whether theological or scientific), in the end, I would say that the more faith you have in the object of your inquiry, the more fruitful and vivid will be your search. So, faith is good – the more the better  – so long as you bear in mind the moral stricture of always remembering your own fallibility and the provisional nature of explanations that try to make faith meaningful for a wider public.

In your opinion, is it possible that an atheist be a theologian, just by following the theological method? 

Allen: To my mind, atheists often engage in a philosophy of religion. I can’t see atheists doing theology, not on my understanding of the term. Perhaps some atheists do theological journalism, which is popular and sometimes mistaken for theology proper. But, it’s even getting difficult for atheists to do religious studies. There was just published an article co-authored by Donald Wiebe (in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion) admitting, after years of defending the contrary, that religious studies cannot be undertaken in a really scientific spirit. I think that he’s right now, but it’s a huge blow to some atheists and agnostics who have worked hard to establish religious studies as an alternative to theology, a scientific alternative.

If the reader is allowed to remember one thing from your book, what should that be in your opinion?

Allen: I think what I would like the reader to take away is some sense of the excitement of being able to understand theologians by how they think, and at the same time, appreciating just how much the theological method of many theologians actually defies the categories into which they have been slotted. One of the most dubious ways that theologians have been categorized is through the political labels of conservative and liberal. This is somewhat of a disaster for Christian theology and so I dabble a bit in juxtaposing the dissimilar as in fact quite similar. I think, for instance, that critical correlationism – while it is a hallmark of ‘liberal’ Christian approaches – does not always give you liberalism per se. Schillebeeckx – a fellow Dutchman of yours, who recently passed away – adopts critical correlationism in his theology. But he makes it into something radically Christian. It almost resembles Hans von Balthasar’s method in certain ways. Now, that’s heretical to say, but I think it’s plausible in certain distinct ways.

Paul, thanks so much for your time responding to these questions.

2 thoughts on “Does Theology Have a Method? An Interview with Paul Allen”

  1. Thank you both for a wonderful interview. I have been studying Lonergan’s work for a while now, and I have recently become interested in the relevance of the science and religion dialogue for theological method (especially through the work of Nancey Murphy). It’s great to see these two perspectives come together in this interview.

    It seems to me that Allen’s approach to theological method is very similar to that of David Tracy (with an emphasis on the hermeneutical nature of method, less on the objective aspects of method that could lead two people to independently arrive at the same conclusion). There is also something similar to Wolfhart Pannenberg’s insistence on the particular nature of the events on which theology is based and of its sources.

    That last bit (the specifying of Scripture, tradition, experience, and reason as sources) seems problematic to me, though. It would seem that theology’s object (God) is, as Allen says, rightly a unique aspect of theology as a science. It would also seem that theology’s functional specialties are unique (though analogous to those of other disciplines because they are rooted in the same invariant operations–experiencing, understanding, judging, and deciding).

    But it seems to me that the sources of theology ought to be broader, with differentiations only as to how the most prominent sources (Scripture and tradition, in particular) are used as an entryway into the broader study of God’s effects in the world. That seems to be what Aquinas successfully did, and what every truly “catholic” theologian (Allen mentions Von Balthasar) does at their best. It doesn’t seem to me that we need to single out Scripture and tradition as distinct sources so much as as guides to the world as a single, complex source. Then, method and the pursuit of God as object can take over in directing our inquiry into God’s effects in the world.

  2. Thanks Stephen,

    Well, to your last point: I would find it hard to render theology’s sources broader than the 4 sources, given that each of them is fairly broad. Experience, for instance, is specified by some theologians as religious experience and while I’m sympathetic to what that means, I don’t think that the meaning of lives lived should be unintentionally bracketed out of a running definition of experience.
    I do think that scripture deserves to be privileged and this perhaps puts me at odds with Tracy who talks quite a bit about ‘classical texts’. I think we can do better than that because theology (as opposed to the philosophy of religion) is tied to the witness of the church. And scripture is the church’s text or texts, to be more accurate. Theology stands or falls on what the scriptures testify, which is of course hard to summarize but which is definitely linked to Jewish monotheism (against idolatry) and Christ as person (against paganism and every idealization of Christ’s message and person, which means all the various gnosticisms through the ages).
    It is true that the bifurcation of scripture and tradition has a bit of a problematic history in Catholicism, beginning with Trent’s use of the phrase. But since Vatican II, the Catholic church is being more careful about not separating the two, which is a laudable effort in my view.

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