An Analysis of the Applications of Key Ideas from the Philosophy of Science to the Understanding of Doctrinal Development

Author: Edwin El-Mahassni

El-Mahassni, Edwin, 2017 An Analysis of the Applications of Key Ideas from the Philosophy of Science to the Understanding of Doctrinal Development, Flinders University, School of Humanities and Creative Arts

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The earliest, most comprehensive examination of how Christian doctrines develop was written by John Henry Cardinal Newman. He sought to demonstrate that this occurs in a slow and steady fashion and without great upheaval or conflict. Since then, different alternatives by Peter Toon, Hans Küng and Roger Olson among others, have challenged this notion by noting the effect that other social and cultural factors might have on the development of specific doctrines.

In the philosophy of science, in the 1960s, Thomas Kuhn wrote a treatise which challenged the status quo of how science itself progresses. He noted there are occasions where long-standing views are overthrown by factors that are not scientific in nature. However, theories from the philosophy of science have been under-utilised in understanding progress of Christian doctrines. In this thesis it will be shown that Christian doctrines have often followed neither a smooth nor linearly progressive path, but have been characterised by specific events leading to a dramatic re-evaluation of previously held beliefs or doctrines. Insights from the philosophy of science, in particular Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolutions, are applied to the historical development of Christian doctrine. However, there are limits to the application of Kuhn’s ideas to doctrinal development and these will also be highlighted. In this regard, the work of other philosophers of science, such as Larry Laudan and Imre Lakatos will also be examined to show how they can aid in the understanding of the development of Christian doctrine.

Several specific doctrines, as well as the literature on how Christian doctrines develop, will be analysed. Given that arguments can be made to show the origins, progress and development of Christian doctrines can parallel processes in science, an analogy might be made that Christian doctrines can in fact be viewed as scientific Kuhn’s ideas will be discussed and methodically applied to the foundations of Christian doctrines, showing correspondences between scientific and doctrinal progress. It will also be shown that models from the philosophy of science can be used to aid in understanding how Christian doctrines begin, develop and mature with previous work in the philosophy of science used as a tool to study and understand the nature of Christian doctrines.

This thesis will recall previous works which draw analogies from the philosophy of science to Christian thought. However, in largely focusing on the applications of Kuhnian perspectives to explain the development of Christian doctrine, an emphasis is also given to social factors. This partly relativistic epistemology, where the “knower” cannot be completely separated from the “known”, places it at the opposite end of the spectrum to objective epistemology. Specific case studies such as the doctrine of original sin, justification and the Trinity are described and serve to reinforce the theoretical statements of this work.

Keywords: development of doctrine, philosophy of science, Thomas Kuhn, paradigm shifts

Subject: Humanities thesis, Theology thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2017
School: School of Humanities and Creative Arts
Supervisor: Dr. Mark Wm. Worthing