History Methodology New Liberalism

New Liberalism and the Southern Baptist Convention: A Sociological Approach to Science

This post is the third in a series addressing New Liberalism and the Southern Baptist Convention. “New Liberalism” is a catch-all term for what some see as a theological threat similar to the liberalism of the previous century. This series does not assume that New Liberalism is in the SBC, but is intended to more clearly delineate the concept of New Liberalism in relation to the SBC.

If secondary, tertiary, and social matters of the Christian faith have come to the center of theological discourse within the SBC, then one cannot escape discussing them. The New Liberalism forces itself upon us. With it comes the exaltation of psychology and sociology in relation to the tenets of a strictly biblical Christian worldview. The idea is that ‘all truth is God’s truth,’ which is true enough in and of itself. However, the approach of the New Liberalism is prone to place parity between the authority of what we derive from nature and the authority of what we derive from Scripture such that the mind of man becomes the measure of all things, including Scripture. In such a system, the word of God is no longer the normative interpretive tool of the word of God, but the word of man, divorced from all but the ethical imperatives of Scripture. Works-righteousness is emphasized, and grace is de-emphasized, soteriologically and hermeneutically, as it were.

Science was once thought of as a reliable route to knowledge based on one method of scientific procedure. However, this understanding of science as coming straight from the ‘facts’ was rendered obsolete once philosophers of science recognized that ‘facts’ are dependent upon theories and cannot be known infallibly. When the inductive approach to science crumpled under the pressures of philosophical and methodological concerns, Sir Karl Popper attempted to sidestep those difficulties by proposing a deductive method of science involving falsificationism. His account of science nevertheless left much to be desired in terms of knowing how to find the faulty part of a scientific theory. In a realistic scientific situation, faulty predictions could be caused by so many different factors that it was virtually impossible to determine whether a falsifiable proposition was falsified or not. Although some scientists still take these approaches to the scientific method, Thomas Kuhn followed the failures of falsificationism by bringing relativism into the realm of science. He proposed a model of paradigms from within which scientists work. The difficulty with Kuhn’s account was that scientific approaches became bound to such radically different paradigms there was no way to judge between them. This relativistic scheme left no way to tell whether a shift from one paradigm to another constituted scientific progress or regress. Paul Feyerabend capitalized on what was left of science after all of the aforementioned attempts to explain it. He saw these philosophical failures as a basis for his own account of science wherein science is nothing special. He could find no one scientific method. The scientific endeavor was reduced to subjectivism. Anything goes. Neither the scientist nor society need be tied to some sort of officially forced dogma. ‘The’ scientific method does not exist, the method that exists is whatever method the scientist in question freely decides to use. Nor is there anything about science which makes it superior to any other form of knowledge. While controversial, Feyerabend’s postmodern account of science is true to much of what we learn about the scientific methods throughout history.

If science is not some special source of objective knowledge of the world, the focus shifts to the subjective aspects of science. If sociological concerns are the only sufficient philosophical foundation of science, sociology also becomes its subject of study. The discussion of supposed facts gives way to the discussion of how we supposedly obtain our knowledge of those facts. The old science gives way to the new sociology. The ‘hard’ sciences give way to the ‘soft’ sciences of psychology and sociology. ‘Race,’ ‘gender,’ and sexuality become much more significant than supposed scientific findings of ‘fact’, because ‘race,’ ‘gender,’ and sexuality are determinative of those findings of ‘fact.’

In the old liberalism, the deliverances of science were eventually understood as superior to Scripture. In the New Liberalism, the deliverances of older scientific discoveries in astronomy and evolutionary biology and the like are not at issue, but the deliverances of what science has become. Psychology and sociology are brought to the forefront of our understanding Scripture. At the same time, psychology and sociology are outside the realm of what the pastor-theologian possesses the prerogative to address. New Liberalism works from the conscious or subconscious assumption that sociological concerns impact not only all scientific knowledge, but all knowledge, including our knowledge of theology.

Thus, what the Bible says about ‘race,’ ‘gender,’ and sexuality is not nearly as important as what society says about them. These topics are, after all, predominantly sociological subjects, and just as the Bible was not a textbook of science, so also the Bible is not a textbook of psychology or sociology. Just as we could not make authoritative pronouncements regarding scientific approaches to Big Bang cosmology or evolutionary biology and the like upon the basis of Scripture, so also we cannot make authoritative pronouncements regarding the psychological approach to counseling or the sociological approach to race and gender and the like, at least not upon the basis of Scripture. In the end, Scripture is still ‘sufficient,’ just not for everything. The New Liberalism would have it that the most central aspects of our self-conception be understood through psychological and sociological observations rather than what God says about them in his authoritative word. And yet, theological conservatism would have it that the most central aspects of our self-conception, as well as the scientific disciplines of psychology and sociology, are inseparable from what God says about them in his authoritative word. In the end, theological conservatism would have it that Scripture is still sufficient.

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