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Theology and reality: Critical realism in the thought of Alister E. McGrath

ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, 2011
Dissertation
Author: Brian Lee Goard
Abstract:
This dissertation examines the role of critical realism in the theological method of Alister E. McGrath. The thesis of the dissertation is that Alister McGrath uses critical realism in a way that strengthens his theological method and that serves a number of good theological ends, yet McGrath's methodology is in need of revision in some areas, and clarification in others, if it is going to be theologically acceptable. Chapter 1 introduces (1) the philosophy of critical realism, (2) Alister McGrath's work in theological method, and (3) the thesis and methodology of the dissertation. Chapter 2 examines the history and development of critical realism, beginning with the work of Roy Wood Sellars in the early twentieth century and concluding with a description of critical realism as developed by Roy Bhaskar. Chapter 2 argues that historically, critical realism has been a versatile method that can be applied to a variety of projects and disciplines. Chapter 3 delineates the main themes of McGrath's methodology and how critical realism affects those areas. Specific points addressed in this chapter include McGrath's prolonged engagement with other theological methodologies (chief among them being postliberalism), the concept of nature, natural theology, and the science-theology dialogue. Chapter 4 provides a critical evaluation of McGrath's use of critical realism. A number of positive conclusions about McGrath's use of critical realism are drawn, yet where McGrath has made problematic or underdeveloped applications of critical realism, both correction and suggestions for further development are offered. Finally, chapter 5 reviews the thesis of the dissertation and considers the method that has been taken in defense of that thesis. Specifically, it demonstrates how each of the previous chapters serve as evidence for the dissertation's thesis.

TABLE OF CONTENTS Page PREFACE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . vii Chapter 1. INTRODUCTION . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1

Defining Critical Realism . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4

Thesis . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5

Method . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6

2. THE HISTORY OF CRITICAL REALISM: EVIDENCE OF ITS DIVERSE APPLICABILITY . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8

Introduction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8

American Critical Realism . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9

Critical Realism in the Science and Religion Dialogue . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 14

Ian Barbour . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15

John Polkinghorne . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 21

Arthur Peacocke . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 25

Thomas Torrance . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 28

Critical Realism in Christian Hermeneutics . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 32

Ben Meyer . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 34

N. T. Wright . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 37

Recent Evangelical Hermeneutics

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 42

Bhaskarian Critical Realism . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 58

Conclusion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 68

3. CRITICAL REALISM IN ALISTER E. MCGRATH’S THEOLOGICAL METHOD . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 70

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Chapter Page Introduction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 70

McGrath’s Context . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 70

McGrath on the Nature of the Theological Task . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 76

McGrath on Other Theological Methodologies . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 80

Fundamentalism . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 81

Liberalism . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 82

Postliberalism

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 83

McGrath’s Preferred Critical Realist Methodology . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 88

Divine Revelation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 89

Tradition . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 95

The Science-Theology Dialogue . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 98

Nature and Natural Theology . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 107

Conclusion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 121

4. EVALUATION OF MCGRATH’S CRITICAL REALIST METHODOLOGY . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 122

Introduction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 122

The Case for Realism . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 122

A Case for Global Realism . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 124

McGrath’s Case for Scientific Realism . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 130

McGrath’s Case for Critical Realism . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 136

Problematic Alternatives to Critical Realism . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 136

The Explanatory Value of the Critical Realist Theory of Stratified Reality . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 145

McGrath’s Case for Critical Theological Realism . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 147

Against Theological Antirealism . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 149

McGrath’s Positive Case for Critical Theological Realism: Natural Theology . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 158

vi

Chapter Page McGrath’s Application of Critical Realism to the Theological Concept of Revelation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 171

General Criticisms of McGrath’s Layers of Revelation . . . . . . . . . . . 172

Another Layer of Revelation? Religious Experience . . . . . . . . . . . . . 175

McGrath’s Project Looking Forward: Issues for Further Study . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 199

Conclusion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 205

5. CONCLUSION . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 207

BIBLIOGRAPHY . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 215

vii

PREFACE

This dissertation grew out of two doctoral seminars and my dissertation supervisor’s strong advice to narrow my original topic. My first semester in the doctoral program, I took a seminar led by Dr. Chad Brand on God, revelation, and authority. In that seminar, Dr. Brand helped to fuel my interest in questions concerning theological methodology. A seminar on philosophy of religion led by Dr. Ted Cabal eventuated in a paper on realism and antirealism. It was in researching that paper that I first encountered Alister McGrath’s work on the topics of scientific and critical realism. I became very interested in the whole of McGrath’s work, yet what I anticipated as a dissertation on his entire corpus soon narrowed to deal only with McGrath’s scientific theology, and then was finally trimmed, at the urging of Dr. Gregg Allison, to deal with just one facet of McGrath’s scientific theological method, namely, critical realism. When I started in the Ph.D. program in the Fall 2004 semester, I never anticipated speeding so quickly through the coursework and comprehensive exams only to slow almost to a halt during the dissertation writing. Full-time work as a pastor and college instructor alongside an exciting, yet demanding, adoption process meant that the dissertation sat on the shelf all too many times. I am so glad God sent these blessings into our lives, however. A new fifteen-month-old son, Nicholas, came home to my wife and me on January 21, 2010, and with the stress of the adoption process behind us, we soon settled into a rhythm that allowed me to complete this project. That rhythm was

viii

made possible by God’s gracious ordering of our circumstances. Specifically, at several key junctures of this project, my wife (who is also in a graduate program) and I have been blessed to be near family. Their love and support has made a world of difference to both of our educational pursuits. My parents, Whudy and Carol, have been a constant encouragement through more than twelve years of college, and never once have they suggested that I go no further. I must also mention the contribution of my mother-in-law, Drema, who spent numerous days caring for our son while my wife and I were covered with teaching and writing responsibilities. More specifically, Drema’s selfless assistance opened up key windows of time for me to finish writing and editing this project. My wife, Kimberly, has been my most significant support. We married while I was in seminary, and when I mentioned going on for doctoral studies, she didn’t hesitate. She has been a faithful dialogue partner at every stage of my writing, and when I slowed in fatigue or worry, she always spoke fitting and energizing words. I am also happy to mention the tireless willingness of my adviser, Dr. Gregg Allison, to carry me along in this project. He has read these chapters numerous times and has been willing to take it up and put it down as I have taken semesters off for work and extensive travels for the adoption process. His guidance and suggestions have made this a much better dissertation; any remaining weaknesses, however, rest on my shoulders. My prayer is that this dissertation will in some way be of use to those interested in theological method and in Alister McGrath’s work in general. McGrath’s work provides some good answers to the enduring question of the relationship between science and theology. As the dialogue between these two fields develops, I hope this

ix

study serves to point to the Creator of all reality, God over all.

Brian Lee Goard

Louisville, Kentucky

September 2011

1 CHAPTER 1 INTRODUCTION

Alister McGrath has written and edited well over forty books, not to mention numerous journal articles, and he continues to be quite prolific. In 2003, the year McGrath turned fifty years old, Sung Wook Chung said of McGrath, “His teaching and administrating ministry has made an indelible impact upon a new generation of evangelical church leaders both in the Anglican Church and in the church worldwide.” 1

Since those words were written, McGrath’s influence and readership has continued to grow, largely due to his expanding treatment of issues surrounding the relationship between science and theology. Emerging from his studies of this relationship is what McGrath terms a scientific theology or the science of God, a body of work that is essentially a study in theological method. McGrath’s career has largely been taken up with historical theology. He has published works on a number of topics in this area, including (but not limited to) books on the history of the Christian doctrine of justification, the life of John Calvin, Luther’s theology of the cross, an intellectual biography of T. F. Torrance, and a substantive

1 Sung Wook Chung, “Preface,” in Alister E. McGrath and Evangelical Engagement: A Dynamic Engagement, ed. Sung Wook Chung (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), vii.

2 textbook on historical theology. 2

McGrath also has a great interest in science and more specifically in the dialogue between science and religion. He was awarded an Oxford D.Phil. for research in the natural sciences in December of 1977 and in 1978 gained first class honors in theology. His work of late has been dominated by questions that arise at the interface of these two disciplines. He has written a historical work on the foundations of the dialogue between science and religion and is currently in the process of developing a scientific theology. The first of his three-volume set, A Scientific Theology, appeared in 2001 and the second and third volumes were released in 2002 and 2003. 3 So far this project is largely a work in theological methodology. 4 Specifically, McGrath is interested in the relationship between theological and scientific methodologies. This sizeable issue involves McGrath in a whirlwind of debate that arises from philosophical, scientific, and theological quarters. The three volumes of A Scientific Theology “set out an approach to theology

2 Alister E. McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification, 3 rd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005); idem, A Life of John Calvin: A Study in the Shaping of Western Culture (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990); idem, Luther’s Theology of the Cross: Martin Luther’s Theological Breakthrough (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990); idem, T. F. Torrance: An Intellectual Biography (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999); idem, Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998). 3 Alister E. McGrath, A Scientific Theology, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001-2003). 4 He writes, “The structure of this trilogy should make it clear that this work is primarily concerned with theological method, rather than with specific theological topics.” Alister E. McGrath, Nature, vol. 1 of A Scientific Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 3.

3 which respects the unique nature of that discipline, while at the same time drawing on the insights of the natural sciences in a process of respectful and principled dialogue.” 5 In these volumes, McGrath seeks to develop a public theology 6 that does not regard contemporary challenges from the philosophical and scientific communities unworthy of comment. 7 These books offer a broad methodology for the task of theology that is realist in orientation, committed to the preeminent place Scripture has in and over the theological task, and intellectually responsible when it comes to the history, methods, and limitations of human knowledge and the natural sciences. The goal in this dissertation is not to evaluate the entirety of McGrath’s argument in A Scientific Theology, but rather to engage one particular facet of his thinking in those volumes, namely the philosophy of critical realism. Critical realism is multifaceted in its historical use, a fact that will be demonstrated in chapter 2, but for present purposes it suffices to define McGrath’s use of the term.

5 Alister E. McGrath, The Science of God: An Introduction to Scientific Theology (London: T&T Clark, 2004), ix. 6 Public theology here refers to something like the “world-viewish” theology of Arthur F. Holmes that has an apologetic tone and significance across the academic disciplines. A theology that is public must be done in and for the church but it must not be defined in postliberal or other terms that would limit its voice solely to those within the church and thereby rob it of its trans-traditional voice, its right (and power) to speak truth to those outside the church. Referring to the latter, McGrath writes, “The doctrine of [the] creation of the world and humanity is an aspect of the Christian tradition which offers predictions or retroductions which it believes to be valid outside that specific tradition” (McGrath, Reality, 76, emphasis mine). Holmes refers to world-viewish theology in Arthur F. Holmes, Contours of a Worldview, Studies in a Christian Worldview, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 40. 7 The argument that theology should speak not only to the church but also to the world will not play a large role in this dissertation, though that assumption comes to

4 Defining Critical Realism Philosophically, McGrath’s critical realism can be located between naïve realism and postmodern antirealism. Naïve realism argues that “knowledge is directly determined by an objective reality within the world.” 8 That is to say, there is an unmediated movement from reality’s presentation of itself to knowledge. Postmodern antirealism goes to the other extreme, denying mind-independent reality. On this view, “The human mind freely constructs its ideas without any reference to an alleged external world.” 9 Critical realism differs significantly from these two positions. Departing from antirealism, it affirms the existence of a mind-independent reality and argues that such reality can be apprehended, albeit never perfectly. Concerning the other end of the spectrum, critical realism is not as confident as naïve realism; it argues that the knower is significantly involved in the move from reality to knowledge. McGrath considers N.T. Wright’s definition an “excellent account” of the critical realist position. Wright submits that critical realism is, a way of describing the process of ‘knowing’ that acknowledges the reality of the thing known, as something other than the knower (hence ‘realism’), while also fully acknowledging that the only access we have to this reality lies along the spiraling patch of appropriate dialogue or conversation between the knower and the thing known (hence “critical”). This path leads to critical reflection on the products of our inquiry into ‘reality,’ so that our assertions about ‘reality’ acknowledge their

the fore throughout McGrath’s project. 8 Alister E. McGrath, Reality, vol. 2 of A Scientific Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 195. 9 Ibid.

5 own provisionality. Knowledge, in other words, although in principle concerning realities independent of the knower, is never itself independent of the knower. 10

McGrath develops and then employs this insight, along with independent developments in the work of critical realist, Roy Bhaskar, as a part of his own theological method.

Thesis Critical realism is a methodological tool that McGrath uses throughout his project, and the ways in which he has defended and applied critical realism in A Scientific Theology will be the focus of this project. 11 Specifically, the thesis of this dissertation is that Alister McGrath has utilized critical realism in a way that strengthens his theological method and that serves a number of good theological ends, yet McGrath’s methodology is in need of revision in some areas, and clarification in others, if it is going to be theologically acceptable.

10 N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, Christian Origins and the People of God, vol. 1 (London: SPCK, 1992), 35, quoted in McGrath, Reality, 196. Vern Poythress offers a similar definition: “The ‘critical realist,’ in distinction from the naive realist, acknowledges that appearances can be deceptive, and that in practice science is always tentative and subject to revision. But science aims at true description and explanation. Though we cannot have perfect certainty about its descriptions in any particular case, we are traveling toward truth, and some of the descriptions are true to facts out there. For example, we describe bulk matter as being made up of atoms held together by chemical bonds, because there are atoms, and they are held together by chemical bonds.” Vern S. Poythress, Redeeming Science: A God Centered Approach (Wheaton, IL: Crossay, 2006), 197. 11 Other books and articles from McGrath will be brought to bear at various points throughout the dissertation on his use of critical realism.

6 Method

Chapters 2 through 4 are offered as support for the thesis of this dissertation. Chapter 2 will show that critical realism is not limited to any one particular field or project. Progressing along historical lines, the chapter will begin with early use of the term “critical realism” and end with its use in twentieth-century social science and theology. By showing the wide range of applications for critical realism, the viability of critical realism for McGrath’s project will be strengthened. Furthermore, because a variety of critical realisms exist, a historical study of these various forms will illuminate the specific form of critical realism McGrath brings to the service of his theological project. With the demonstration in chapter 2 in place, namely the claim that critical realism can be utilized in a number of settings, it will remain to be seen whether McGrath defends and applies critical realism in a way that is viable for his own project. Chapter 3 will present an overview of McGrath’s theological setting and method, and then the particular themes in McGrath’s work on which critical realism impinges will be delineated. Chapter 3 will give a clear picture of McGrath’s work in A Scientific Theology, with special reference to how critical realism guides and serves his theological method. After demonstrating in chapters 2 and 3 that critical realism has a wide range of applicability and how it specifically serves McGrath’s project, chapter 4 will address the questions of whether McGrath has defended and applied critical realism well, and what needs to be deleted, clarified, or reworked. A number of minor clarifications or corrections will be suggested, and yet several areas will require significant attention. For

7 example, McGrath’s application of critical realism to the theological concept of divine revelation is at certain points in need of significant correction and further argumentation. To cite the primary example in chapter 4, McGrath has applied critical realism in a way that exalts the epistemic status of religious experience, which he takes to be a “layer” of divine revelation, and yet his argument is significantly underdeveloped. Thus chapter 4 offers an extended excursus, describing one argument that could significantly improve McGrath’s application of critical realism. Accordingly, chapter 4 will bring the dissertation’s thesis to full development while including a final section containing suggestions for further study, areas which are outside the scope of this dissertation, but are nevertheless directly related to McGrath’s critical realist theological method. Finally, chapter 5 will review the thesis of this dissertation and consider the path that has been taken in defense of that thesis. Specifically, this final chapter will demonstrate how each of the previous chapters serves as evidence for the dissertation’s thesis.

8 CHAPTER 2

THE HISTORY OF CRITICAL REALISM : EVIDENCE OF ITS DIVERSE APPLICABILITY

Introduction The term “critical realism” is found in the works of a diverse group of writers, many of whom seem to be working independently of the others. While these thinkers rarely acknowledge one another, certain similarities can be found among their works. To cite two primary examples, they share on the one hand a common affirmation of the mind-independent nature of reality and, on the other, a recognition of the mediated nature of the knowledge of that reality. Thus, critical realists, despite the diversity among them, are fundamentally committed to metaphysical realism and a specific posture concerning the nature of knowledge. This chapter will delineate the development of critical realism from its beginnings and, in the course of doing so, it will demonstrate the presence of these basic agreements among critical realists. This delineation will serve two primary goals, the first of which is to provide a context for the analysis and evaluation of Alister McGrath’s utilization of critical realism (chaps. 3 and 4), and the second is to demonstrate the wide applicability of critical realism. Regarding the latter, it will be seen that critical realism does not limit one to any one particular field of study, nor to any one view of God. Therefore, taken as a methodological tool and not a system or model of theology, critical realism may be utilized in a variety of settings. This observation will serve as a first step

Full document contains 244 pages
Abstract: This dissertation examines the role of critical realism in the theological method of Alister E. McGrath. The thesis of the dissertation is that Alister McGrath uses critical realism in a way that strengthens his theological method and that serves a number of good theological ends, yet McGrath's methodology is in need of revision in some areas, and clarification in others, if it is going to be theologically acceptable. Chapter 1 introduces (1) the philosophy of critical realism, (2) Alister McGrath's work in theological method, and (3) the thesis and methodology of the dissertation. Chapter 2 examines the history and development of critical realism, beginning with the work of Roy Wood Sellars in the early twentieth century and concluding with a description of critical realism as developed by Roy Bhaskar. Chapter 2 argues that historically, critical realism has been a versatile method that can be applied to a variety of projects and disciplines. Chapter 3 delineates the main themes of McGrath's methodology and how critical realism affects those areas. Specific points addressed in this chapter include McGrath's prolonged engagement with other theological methodologies (chief among them being postliberalism), the concept of nature, natural theology, and the science-theology dialogue. Chapter 4 provides a critical evaluation of McGrath's use of critical realism. A number of positive conclusions about McGrath's use of critical realism are drawn, yet where McGrath has made problematic or underdeveloped applications of critical realism, both correction and suggestions for further development are offered. Finally, chapter 5 reviews the thesis of the dissertation and considers the method that has been taken in defense of that thesis. Specifically, it demonstrates how each of the previous chapters serve as evidence for the dissertation's thesis.