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Theories and Models in Relation to Theology

Posted by thethousandmarch on March 26, 2012 at 6:40 PM

Again, I was listening to Econtalk in which the host Russ Roberts and guest Emanuel Derman, a former physicist, discussed an issue – theories, models and science – that can be applied to Christianity. The basic idea is that there is a significant difference between a theory and a model.

A theory is an attempt to actually describe reality. A model is a ‘metaphor’ that attempts to better understand reality based upon our understanding of something else. Derman says,

. . . Theories are really attempts, successful or unsuccessful, to describe the world the way it really is. They are kind of destructive and they look at the world. So, for example, if I were to take Newton's Laws and force = mass times acceleration, and the inverse squared law of gravity – those are descriptions of the world that are theoretically framed in mathematics but they are not an analogy. . . . A model . . . [is] really much more of a metaphor, an attempt to find an analogy between something you want to understand and something you really do understand, either heuristically or by a theory. . . . [M]odels are useful. Because they can, if the analogy is accurate enough, help you get at the intuition of what's going on.

Derman tells of how James Clerk Maxwell described “magnetic lines of force as fluid flow. Which they resemble but aren't exactly identical to.” As Roberts and Derman go on to discuss economics they mention aggregate demand and the efficient markets hypothesis as examples of models in economics.

So, what does this have to do with theology, and for me specifically, Christian belief? I think there is a lot of theological thought, especially systematic theology, which is better understood if we think of it in the terms of model rather than theory. By this I mean there is much we believe and teach which is true in a way, but not necessarily an accurate description of what is exactly true, but instead is a metaphor which helps us get as close to the truth as we possibly can. I would place in this category our understanding of the Trinity, the God/man nature of Jesus, and the atonement.

Let’s take the atonement for example. Was Jesus’ death a ransom, a penal substitution, a satisfaction, a vicarious sacrifice? What would it mean for Christ’s to be a substitutionary atonement? I don’t believe we can possibly understand what metaphysically occurred when Jesus suffered and died on the cross. I believe we are given metaphors, which we have developed, that help us get a glimpse of an understanding of what happened. When we push these metaphors too far and insist that our metaphors are exact descriptions of reality we create undue conflict between models and as a result between people.

Some other examples of models, which are very helpful but must be understood as models if we are to use them properly, are Luther’s understanding of the two kingdoms and the reformed understanding of the three uses of the law. These are helpful distinctions, which enable us to better understand scripture and apply it to our life. However, we must understand that scripture does not actually make such clear black and white distinctions. I would say the distinctions we sometimes make in theology are similar to the distinctions a scientist makes when studying our physical world. I’m not a scientist, so this may not be an exactly accurate comparison but I’m going to make it anyway – when studying light the scientist must sometimes think of it as a wave, but other times think of it as a particle. It’s not actually one or the other, but this is the only way we can think about light in our limited capacity. There are times were we must examine a particular doctrine from one perspective, but at other times we should look at it from other perspectives which may even seem contradictory

Categories: Basic Christian Belief, Atonement, The Kingdom of God