Data – Theory – Application

OK – don’t let the ‘nerdy’ title put you off – this Fish Hooks isn’t really about science stuff, but about the need for humility as we seek God’s Truth.

Now, some readers will recognize those three words in the title as a variant of what is often known as the ‘scientific method’ which begins with data (factual knowledge), seeks to develop a theory that explains it, and then employs the theory by applying it to a specific situation.  The success or failure of the application (experiment) provides new data which either strengthens or weakens confidence in the theory.

For modern science, a good theory is the ‘holy grail’ of all inquiry.  Without it, we feel helpless and ignorant, but with a well-proven theory in hand, we feel confident and empowered to apply our knowledge to new situations.  A theory is the HOW that explains the WHAT of the available data and enables the WHAT NEXT of application to new problems.

Now here’s the thing: this methodology of ‘Data – Theory – Application’ doesn’t work when we try to apply it to fields of knowledge where it’s not possible to perform controlled experiments – that includes a great deal of human experience – and, most especially, ALL religious experience.  Much grief results from failure to recognize this reality.

The problem isn’t that we Christians lack reliable data – the Bible tells us everything that we need to know about God and His work.  And the Bible is also chock-full of ‘application’ information as when it tells us the way God wants us to live.  But the Bible is essentially devoid of theory.  As an example, consider perhaps the most famous verse in the Bible: John 3:16.  “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son” is the data that is revealed to us; “that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” is its application to our human condition.  Now ALL Christians are in complete agreement on the truth of this assertion – both the data and the application.  But what we may disagree on is the kind of ‘theory’ that we use to connect the two things:  What is the ‘formula’ for belief?  Just how does Jesus’ death on the cross redeem sinners?   When does that redeemed life begin?  (e.g., at the moment of a ‘decision for Christ’ or at Baptism?) and so forth.  It’s not that the Bible is totally silent on these questions, but it doesn’t lay out the ‘theory’ with the kind of precision that we find in the physical sciences, for example.

Now it is probably quite impossible for us humans to think seriously about our faith without developing some kind of theories – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  In fact, our theories/interpretations allow us to extrapolate our Biblical faith to new situations.  But the problems begin when we start to take our theories too seriously – and especially when we take them more seriously than the entirety of God’s revealed truth.   That’s a pitfall that every Christian faction has at times fallen into – including Lutherans!  And sadly, our theoretical disagreements have all too often been the fuel that fires heated conflict among Christians.  Worst of all, incorrect theories have led people away from salvation in Christ.

So, given the problems created by our flawed quests for ‘correct theory,’ why didn’t God spell it out for us?  Well, that’s another theoretical question that the Bible doesn’t address, so let’s acknowledge that we just don’t know!  But at least part of the answer is that we simply are not equipped to understand God’s ways (Isaiah 55:8-9).   And the way Jesus emphasized the need for a simple trusting faith (Luke 18:15-17) and castigated the ‘wise’ who rejected Him (Matthew 11:25) should caution us against the dangers of trusting in our own intellectual analysis.  None of this should be understood as advocating spiritual ignorance: the goal of every Christian should be an ever-maturing faith (1 Corinthians 13:11-12).  But the source of spiritual wisdom is to be found in the sure Truth of God’s Word and the illumination of the Holy Spirit, received and lived in humble confidence, not in our own clever theorizing.

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.” (Proverbs 3:5)

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