What does theology study?

I’m curious if you would say the same of philosophy (the study of wisdom) and dismiss that academic field under the same reasoning.

I’m not trying to start a sub-topic. Just curious if you consider all academic disciplines outside the scientific-empirical fields to be “a bunch of people chasing each other in circles.”


@Puck_Mendelssohn, I would disagree. Your picture of theology is incomplete. It is not merely people “chasing around in circles”. In the case of Christian theology, these series of writings ultimately terminate in God’s revelation to humanity - sometimes claimed private revelations, but most importantly Scripture, which is communally accepted as God’s unique revelation to humanity. These are the “data points” which constrain Christian theology, which is why theologians often talk about “biblical data”.

Moreover, people reflect upon God’s revelation not only purely subjectively, but in relation to history, liturgy, philosophy, and natural science. Empirical input from natural science matters (which is why we have theologians talking about the GAE), but it’s not the only type of “data” under consideration. In that sense theology could be construed as philosophy but with the data points of Scripture.

Sure, there are many possible, divergent interpretations of Scripture. But there are also many possible different types of metaphysics and sociologies and theories of literature and education and so on. The matters that Scripture addresses - including morality, metaphysics, history - are not easily resolvable by clear-cut experiments like particle physics. A lack of consensus in the field does not mean that there is a lack of objective truth.


Someone once defined exobiology as a science in search of its subject.


FWIW, here’s what I wrote in the original thread:

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Well, “philosophy” is a broader term. Some of it is utterly useless and is very much in the circle-chasing model, e.g. postmodernism. Some of it, such as the philosophical foundations of empiricism, is highly useful. So, it depends. It is fair to say, I think, that philosophy is at its best when it engages real entities and phenomena.

In the case of theology, the difficulty is that there are no real entities or phenomena with which factual engagement can be had. There are of course ACCOUNTS of such things, but constructing a theology which is based upon facts one cannot substantiate is sort of building castles in the sky. And when theology pulls the ladder up behind itself, as in the claim that the god with which it is concerned is immune to various sorts of scrutiny and therefore CANNOT in principle be investigated, it makes its commitment to a non-fact-based, non-empirical system plain. I do not think that such systems can be of any use to anyone.

Now, one can of course study history and use the various writings which are deemed holy by one religion or another and evaluate those writings in relation to history. So, if historical/textual criticism is to be included as a part of “theology,” that can indeed be of some use in terms of understanding cultural history, sociology, past middle-eastern politics, and the like. But such a review will never, and can never, validate the paranormal contents of those texts.

Academic fields outside of the scientific and empirical are of use to people. There is a value in art history, in history, in art, in music, in literature, and so on. But these disciplines are mostly aesthetic in nature and so empiricism can really have little to do with them. History is of course of immense value and cannot always be investigated empirically, but its investigation can and must be guided by empirical understanding – for example, we reject the paranormal claims of religions which are not our own, and must likewise reject, for purposes of historical inquiry, those which are of our own if we are to be consistent.

Sure, but such a theology cannot be relevant to anyone who has not already accepted its premises, and those premises are, to anyone who carefully evaluates propositions, whoppers.

But they aren’t resolvable through scripture, surely, with the exception of history – and there, only to a very limited extent. Scripture is wholly irrelevant to morality – who cares what the opinions of a supernatural being are on issues that are intimately and exclusively human? Why would such opinions even be considered slightly relevant?

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Why do you think religion is not useful, regardless of its truth value? Isn’t there value in fostering community or a sense of social cohesiveness, which religion tends to do a very good job at?

Because if that “supernatural being” created, sustains, and guides everything, embodies goodness itself, and sets the ultimate consequences of being good or evil in this life, then it really does matter, doesn’t it? Even more if that supernatural being took on human nature to give an example of what being a perfect human looks like, and this human’s life is told in Scripture.


Someone may find it useful. To me its only possible function would be to help illuminate things – explain why things are as they are, that sort of thing.

That’s both valuable and not valuable, depending upon the results. Certainly many examples exist in history of “fostering community” and “social cohesiveness” which resulted in the murders of people who were not part of that community, for example. I don’t think you can say that things like that generically are valuable, because you need to know outcomes. And you do need to take into account the costs – if indeed the truth value isn’t there, believing things which are false can have other consequences.

First, those are ENORMOUS “ifs” and there is no good reason to suppose them to be true. Indeed, I have elsewhere pointed out that the OT genocides, if taken as true, negate any possibility of the god in those stories being one which “embodies goodness itself.” But supposing them to be true…

No, not really. I don’t follow you at all here. Moral judgments depend upon the understanding of our relations to each other and our understanding and empathy for suffering and joy. If being good had negative “ultimate consequences,” that wouldn’t change it to “bad,” it would just change it to “good behavior with unfortunate blowback.” Likewise the opposite: the OT genocides don’t become “good” just because a god with the power to punish disobedience orders them. A person who carried them out would still be evil, even if the consequences for him, in this life and after, were very, very good indeed. God’s opinion of that person would have nothing to do with whether his acts were good or evil.

One simply cannot insert an authority component to morality. It can’t be done, because what you end up with is only a variant of “might makes right,” which is the abandonment of ethical principle.

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Sure, I’m not saying that religion is always good. But it has also evolved to the point that some forms of religion seem to confer lots of benefits. For example, from this Pew survey, religious people are more likely to report themselves being happy, participate in other social clubs, and less likely to smoke and drink.

Why so? Where do you get this definition?

Well God isn’t just another person. He’s not a human who happens to have all these supernatural powers. If you endow me with superpowers to be invulnerable and able to create new life and teleport and a host of other superlative abilities, that would not make me into the Abrahamic God. That would just make me into a superpowerful demigod like that of the pagan religions - Thor, Zeus, Athena, etc.

But the Creator God is utterly transcendent and different in kind from anything he created. He is one, immutable, eternal, immaterial, incorporeal, perfect, omnipotent, fully good, intelligent, and omniscient - Pure Act, the Uncaused Cause, the Prime Mover, Being itself. Anything is good only insofar as they participate in God’s goodness. If the OT genocides disturb you, then at most that proves that God didn’t really command that and the Bible is not inerrant. But that by itself doesn’t remove the special status of God. God isn’t only a “different type of being” - he’s a different category of being entirely, one that gives a little more sense into why he’s not an ordinary moral actor like any other human.

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I’m curious. Why would you disagree? Don’t moral judgments depend precisely on that? What else could they possibly spring from?

That’s a hypothesis, and certainly not one that’s been demonstrated. We can see that the tales told in the OT are deeply immoral – the actions of depraved people and, if they were instructed by a supernatural being, a depraved supernatural being. So we can immediately discard any possibility that these texts accurately describe any being which is “fully good.” Perhaps they inaccurately describe such a thing, but that means theology based upon them will be flawed from the get-go, especially because there really is so very little to work from – no proper evidence, just old texts.

I’m prepared to consider the possibility that there could be some god unknown to man which is “fully good,” but I suspect you’re not very interested in that. If we’re talking about the Biblical god, he just isn’t. And we have no basis for claiming that there is a being that is “being itself” or any of those other conveniently ill-defined categories. It comes down to evidence, which is the thing theology hasn’t got; what theology does have is a variety of philosophical dodges to explain why it hasn’t got it.

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A convention of anti-vaxxers or a Ku Klux Klan rally accomplishes the same thing, Not that I am saying religion is necessarily the equivalent of either, but I think it shows that fostering social cohesion is, by itself, a pretty weak justification.


I should probably add that assertions of this sort – backed by absolutely no evidence of any kind – are just the sort of thing which make most theology, as Mencken said, “the effort to explain the unknowable in terms of the not worth knowing.” Much of this is simply an effort to place the object of theology beyond scrutiny, which is the sort of thing that ought to ring every alarm bell on the block.

One could never reach these conclusions from scripture. Even if the god described therein fit these characterizations, all you would have is a folkloric cultural tradition of such a being existing – a claim, in other words, much in need of evidence. But, of course, the god described in scripture is neither “perfect” nor “fully good,” as the depraved actions attributed to it show. “God is good” cannot be a valid premise; it is a hypothesis, to be evaluated in light of evidence, which proposes that the god in question (1) actually exists, and (2) is good.

If one thinks there is basically no such thing as right or wrong, sure; then one can just define “good” however one likes, and the opinions of a god are as good an arbitrary definition as any. If, however, one thinks there is such a thing as right or wrong, surely a god, whether it created everything or nothing, cannot be assumed to be good – its actions can be evaluated in relation to moral standards and a conclusion can be reached on that basis. But in order to do that, you have to have data: you have to have some actions of the god in question to evaluate.

If we take the Bible as true, we have a straightforward answer: the author of genocides and the murderer of innocent Egyptian children cannot be good. If we do not take the Bible as true, then we have no data, and with no data, we are stuck with Wittgenstein: whereof one cannot speak, one must remain silent.

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Do you seriously think my single post on a PS thread was meant to be the final word for defending the attributes of God? Of course not. The necessity of each of those attributes have been argued for by Christian philosophers and theologians many times before. I even copied the list from Edward Feser’s Five Arguments for the Existence of God, where he defends the reasoning for needing each of those attributes. There are good reasons for believing that God, if he exists, would have those properties. I’m not sure if I have the time to go through these reasons with you, but it’s not that people just arbitrarily thought of these attributes willy-nilly.

You can back most of them from Christian scripture, and a few other ones - like God being Pure Act - can be deduced from as corollaries of the other ones. Those are commonly termed the “incommunicable attributes” of God, and virtually every good systematic theology text explains how they are supported from Scripture and natural theology. I also don’t believe in reasoning about God only from Scripture - we can reason about God to some extent also by general revelation.

That is only valid if everyone already agrees on what the definition of “good” is, and that it’s independent of God.

Nope, because then your god wouldn’t be the God that I’m thinking of. You would be testing for the goodness of Superman or Sauron or Zeus, and I don’t believe in any gods of that kind. A god that is subject to human standards would be no more than a democratically elected ruler.

You’d be surprised. I don’t think Scripture is the only way to say true things about God; natural theology can reveal to us some things about God, and that is reflected in the universality of religious belief across all cultures. At this point, I think even if I were not a Christian, I would definitely be a theist of some sort.

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The trouble with these arguments about God’s goodness being beyond our human scrutiny is that it instantly removes any reason to believe that all will be well for the honest believer in the afterlife. You might be tortured for all of eternity whilst God considers this to be A Good Thing.


Are we back to the Euthyphro dilemma already? If we can’t judge God’s actions by human standards, we have no basis for deciding whether they are good or evil. “Good” become a meaningless term.

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No. I don’t know why you’d think that I thought that.

Right, but that’s pure philosophy “in the air,” so to speak. Useless as the day is long. The fact is that pure reason can get you to “cogito ergo sum,” and then you’re done. If you want to make factual judgments about what a god is, rather than fanciful statements about what you think a god must be like, you need data, not abstract philosophy.

Well, I do hope that everyone agrees that the murder of innocent children is wrong. We don’t need agreement on every moral principle, surely, to agree to that, and once we get there, god as described in the Bible is not “good.” No deep contemplation of the definition of “good” is required before we can make that judgment.

It’s not clear what you’re getting at here. No religion claims to elect gods, and judging the morality of gods in no way subjects them to popular will. Gods in fact can be judged by human standards. I do it, and so do others. That some do not wish to do it suggests that they are well aware how badly their gods would fail such a test. But suggesting that it is somehow impossible is an extraordinary notion and is quite indefensible.

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So why do you believe in any form of empiricism, then? Why do you think empirical study gives us any basis about reality, if all we can know is “cogito ergo sum”? Isn’t it just as much “wishful thinking” that science tells us anything about the real world? As Descartes himself asked, how do you know that your senses are not deceived?

Sure, but different people have very different opinions about where that judgment comes from. So it means little even if we agree that murdering innocent children is wrong, because we have starkly different views on why that is the case. Our conclusions just accidentally happen to agree. (Of course, I’d be interested to know why you personally believe that murdering innocent children is wrong.)

I’m also guessing that you agree instinct alone is not enough to justify a moral system. So a knee-jerk, deep-seated reaction against murdering innocent children is not enough to justify its wrongness, no more than a knee-jerk, deep-seated reaction against black people is enough to justify racism. So even if we both share a knee-jerk, deep-seated reaction against murdering innocent children, that is not sufficient to serve as the basis of a morality, much less one which can be applied to assessing the moral standards of God.

Of course they can be judged by human standards. My point is that that judgment is pointless and meaningless, a category error. It is like a YEC judging the correctness of evolution by the standards of their literal interpretation of Scripture.

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I can’t speak for Puck, but personally I accept empiricism, not because I know that it gives us a “basis about reality”, but because to do otherwise results in unpleasant and painful consequences.


Well, but I did not say that all we can know is “cogito ergo sum.” I said that that was as far as pure reason can take us. There is a huge difference.

You don’t, of course. But this is a “universal solvent” argument, which undermines theistic views as much as it undermines any other views, and if it is taken as true, we can never make any valid judgment about anything. Such arguments are not worth the time of people who have work to do in the world. In practical terms, we judge empiricism by its results. Theology, by contrast, has no results by which to be judged.

Not really. Once we have granted that, a god which does murder innocent children is not “fully good.” Bottomless arguments about the genuine basis of principles of right and wrong won’t change that.

As stated, I do agree: one needs moral reasoning, not just “instinct.” But if by “instinct alone” you mean to encompass all of human experience, no, I do not agree.

It could be, if you first could establish what your god is, what categories it belongs to, and what implications that has for the validity of human judgment. To do that, however, you would need evidence of a character which nobody has.

To be very clear: my view is that murdering innocent children is wrong, full stop. Your view appears to be that “murdering innocent children is usually wrong but, when it is done by or at the instructions of a god, it is not wrong.” I believe that an addendum of that character is a gross departure from moral decency.

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Very curious here: what is sufficient to serve as the basis of a morality?

But again, what defines “results”? Isn’t it all just circular reasoning?

I disagree. The reasoning matters a lot once you get beyond the superficial. It’s wrong for human beings to murder innocent children, but God is not a human being. It’s not even right to say that God murders, anymore than one can say that an animal can murder. God sustains my life this very moment; he doesn’t need to give a good reason to take it from me the next moment.

Again, why do you think murdering innocent children is wrong?

That is not my view. Because I don’t believe “a god”, I believe in God, and it seems that you don’t grasp what I mean by that.

This statement seems to be more of an emotional one rather than one based on reason and empiricism. What scientific experiment could tell us that murdering innocent children is wrong?