Wow, you’re asking really difficult epistemological questions.
“All truth is God’s truth” firstly suggests that there are different sources of truth. (1) God’s written word, i.e. scriptural truth, and (2) human observations/experiences of the natural world, i.e. scientific truth.
It’s important to note that deriving (1) scriptural truth from God’s written word requires a process of human interpretation, just as (2) scientific truth requires human interpretation of real-life observations/experiences of the natural world.
We refer to accepted human interpretations of scripture as (1) “doctrines”, while accepted human interpretations of the natural world are called (2) “scientific theories”.
Generally speaking, these are the two kinds of truth we want to deal with: (1) Theology, and (2) Science.
“All truth is God’s truth” means that legitimate epistemological approaches like (1)Theology and (2)Science are both legitimate ways of knowing the truth about God and the natural world which He creates. Moreover, theology and science both point us to “the truth”. In fact, allowing them to complement each other leads us to a far better understanding of “the truth” than what each can do on its own!
We can confidently say this, because to the best (along with the majority of) theologians and scientists, there are no necessary contradictions between theology and science. If there were such contradictions, we perhaps have to give up one of them. The beauty of it all is that not only do the two not contradict, but theology can also inform our science, and likewise science can inform our theology.
Whenever Science appears to threaten Theology, and vice versa, it’s a good sign for us to reconsider both our science and theology, and figure out if both can be improved upon to give a better picture of the truth.
Of course, there are deeper questions like why (or how much) we should trust theology and science; these are questions for which there seems to be no definitive crowd-pleasing answer, though generations of theologians/philosophers surely have given it their best shot. This is where faith comes into the picture.
The epistemology underlying Science is called Critical Rationalism (defined by Karl Popper).
Interestingly, the same epistemology can be applied to all areas of knowledge, even theology. James D. G. Dunn and N. T. Wright call it Critical Realism. I believe that’s what makes their scholarship so solid.
This is based on an overarching principle of logical consistency: i.e. every valid system, whether scientific or theological (or a combination of both), must be logically consistent. Scientists formulate scientific hypotheses and repeatedly test them against observations by attempting to falsify them. Those hypotheses that withstand such rigorous testing acquire the status of “accepted scientific theory”. Likewise, Dunn and Wright, through their approach of Critical Realism, continually test their theological hypotheses against scripture, history, etc. (To some extent, it’s even possible to test theology against science.) I think the best theologians tend towards such a “critical” approach (even if they are not conscious of it).
To me, all this is faithful to the principle in 1 Thes 5:19-22, which says: “Do not extinguish the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt. But examine all things; hold fast to what is good. Stay away from every form of evil.”
For more information, you may refer to “N. T. Wright’s Hermeneutic” (parts 1 and 2):
PS. Could someone please teach me how to make use of bold/italic formatting, etc. ? Thanks!!
I keep seeing Polkinghorne’s name everywhere, but have yet to read his works. Thanks for the recommendation!
Agreed. In Science, there are well-established standards that are easy (relative to the skill of its practitioners) to adhere to. This is why practitioners of pseudoscience are easily identified and dismissed by the scientific community.
But in the realm of Theology, somehow everyone seems free to pursue their own agendas. Theologians are usually not even required to undertake the kind of rigorous training that philosophers go through, such as courses in logic. (It’s strangely ironic that when I google “rigorous training”, an article by John Piper is the #2 search result …)
Where truth is concerned, epistemology (and the closely related hermeneutics) is a big deal. Much of the disagreement amongst theologians is due to fundamental differences in epistemology. It is very possible to differentiate theological/hermeneutical approaches based on their epistemological underpinnings. Furthermore, theologians are not always consistent! The denominational nature of modern-day Christianity means that theologians are often dogmatic with regards to particular “essential” doctrines (and forcibly interpret scripture to fit those doctrines), whilst being more open-minded vis-à-vis so-called “non-essential” doctrines.
There are countless examples of laypeople being mislead by pseudoscience (e.g. young-earth creationism), despite the existence of clearly defined scientific standards. The situation is more dire in Theology, where standards are not as well-established. Laypeople generally only manage to see different sides condemning each other. And if laypeople already have difficulty distinguishing science from pseudoscience, imagine how much harder it is to distinguish the differences between the different forms of theology! (Many would-be theologians are themselves guilty of such ignorance.)