by Alister E. McGrath
Introductory Essay by Christain Schwarke
Alister McGrath, a former professor of historical theology at Oxford University, now teaching at King´s College in London, has written extensively on the interaction between science and religion. This book is a short version of the author’s three-volume “Scientific Theology” (2001). McGrath rewrote the text in order to make it more accessible to non-specialist readers. The introduction offers a biographical sketch in which the author explains his route from the natural sciences to theology (McGrath earned a PhD in both fields) and how he came to the ”vision of a Scientific Theology” .
The concept of Scientific Theology is not merely a contribution to the science-religion-dialogue but is meant to be a Systematic Theology with a scientific approach. Therefore, the reader will not find scientific results in dialogue with theological statements. Rather, the book provides a discussion about the methodological foundation of both science and theology. From the beginning, McGrath emphasizes that his approach is based on ontology, evangelicalism, orthodoxy, and, most important, a form of “critical realism”.
The book is structured with three main sections following the volumes of the trilogy: Nature, Reality, and Theory. In the chapters on nature, McGrath develops the concept of a renewed “natural theology”. Highly critical of both the Enlightenment and postmodernism, McGrath states that postmodernism has opened the field for a plurality of descriptions of the world but that it overstates the constructivist bases of those descriptions. Therefore, Christianity has the right to make its own assertions but it has to argue with the sciences about the best explanation and about truth. In opposition to Feuerbach´s theory, natural theology sees the world as God´s creation. For McGrath, as a matter of fact, the doctrine of creation is the cornerstone of theology´s dialogue with the sciences.
The second part of the book, Reality, explores what could be called a third way beyond foundationalism and radical constructivism – a “critical realism”. McGrath holds that there is a reality “out there” to which scientific research responds. But what we assume to know about this reality is always open to falsification. Furthermore, referring to R. Bhaskar, McGrath argues that reality is stratified. It is ordered on different levels which have to be explored by different means and methods. According to McGrath, this also applies to the different objects within theological research, such as scripture or religious experience. Finally, and most importantly, the concept of critical realism implies that every scientific (and hence theological) attempt to understand reality is an endeavour a posteriori, thus excluding rationalist (a priori) approaches.
The third part, Theory, defends the project of a “Scientific Theology” against possible attacks from the standpoint of those who consider a rational theology to be improper for serving God. From this point, McGrath proceeds to apply his theory of science to theology. Here, three aspects are important. Both science and theology work with 1. analogies, 2. abduction (in the sense used by C. S. Peirce), and 3. adjustment of theories resulting from the observation of anomalies. Therefore, a scientific theology maintains that doctrine as well as science gives a valid explanation of reality, although they both undergo development in history.
McGrath’s book is an emphatic plea for a rational theology which is fit for being discussed in the academic marketplace and is faithful to the Christian tradition. Especially people who are starting to study this field will benefit from reading this book.