CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY: The Inductive Method of Theological Investigation

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The inductive method of theological investigation is a way of studying and understanding religious beliefs and practices through the observation and analysis of empirical evidence. This approach involves collecting and examining data from various sources, such as sacred texts, historical documents, and personal experiences, and then drawing conclusions based on that evidence.

The inductive method is often contrasted with the deductive method, which involves starting with a set of assumptions or premises and then using logical reasoning to arrive at a conclusion.

In the context of theology, the inductive method can be used to study a wide range of topics, such as the nature of God, the meaning of religious texts, and the origins and development of various religious traditions. It is often used in conjunction with other methods, such as historical and textual analysis, to gain a more comprehensive understanding of religious beliefs and practices.

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Overall, the inductive method of theological investigation is a useful tool for scholars and theologians who are seeking to understand the complexities and nuances of religion and its role in human experience.

Every science has its own method, determined by its peculiar nature. This is a matter of so much importance that it has been erected into a distinct department. Modern literature abounds in works on Methodology, i.e., on the science of method. They are designed to determine the principles which should control scientific investigations. If a man adopts a false method, he is like one who takes a wrong road which will never lead him to his destination. The two great comprehensive methods are the à priori and the à posteriori. The one argues from cause to effect, the other from effect to cause. The former was for ages applied even to the investigation of nature. Men sought to determine what the facts of nature must be from the laws of mind or assumed necessary laws. Even in our own day, we have had Rational Cosmogonies, which undertake to construct a theory of the universe from the nature of absolute being and its necessary modes of development. Everyone knows how much it costs to establish the induction method on a firm basis and to secure a general recognition of its authority. According to this method, we begin by collecting well-established facts and infer the general laws that determine their occurrence from them. From the fact that bodies fall toward the center of the earth, the general law of gravitation has been inferred, which we are authorized to apply far beyond the limits of actual experience. This inductive method is founded upon two principles: First, that there are laws of nature (forces) that are the proximate causes of natural phenomena. Secondly, that those laws are uniform; so that we are certain that the same causes, under the same circumstances, will produce the same effects. There may be a diversity of opinion as to the nature of these laws. They may be assumed to be forces inherent in matter, or they may be regarded as uniform modes of divine operation, but in any event there must be some cause for the phenomena which we perceive around us, and that cause must be uniform and permanent. On these principles, all the inductive sciences are founded; by them, natural philosophers’ investigations are guided.

The same principle applies to metaphysics as to physics, to psychology, as well as to natural science. The mind has its laws as well as matter, and those laws, although of a different kind, are as permanent as those of the external world.

It is the so-called inductive method because it agrees with everything essential to the inductive method as applied to the natural sciences. The inductive method is an investigative way of studying the Bible. It helps to provide an overall understanding of a passage of Scripture: what it says, the intended meaning to the original audience, and how it can be applied today. The inductive method seeks to arrive at general conclusions through the consideration of specific facts.

First, the man of science comes to the study of nature with certain assumptions. (1.) He assumes the trustworthiness of his sense perceptions. Unless he can rely upon the well-authenticated testimony of his senses, he is deprived of all means of prosecuting his investigations. The facts of nature reveal themselves to our faculties of sense and can be known in no other way. (2.) He must also assume the trustworthiness of his mental operations. He must take for granted that he can perceive, compare, combine, remember, and infer; and that he can safely rely upon these mental faculties in their legitimate exercise. (3.) He must also rely on the certainty of those truths which are not learned from experience but which are given in the constitution of our nature. That every effect must have a cause; that the same cause, under like circumstances, will produce like effects; that a cause is not a mere uniform antecedent but that which contains within itself the reason why the effect occurs.

REASONING WITH OTHER RELIGIONS

Second, the student of nature, having this ground on which to stand and these tools wherewith to work, proceeds to perceive, gather, and combine his facts. These he does not pretend to manufacture nor presume to modify. He must take them as they are. He is only careful to be sure that they are real and that he has them all, or at least all that are necessary to justify any inference which he may draw from them or any theory that he may build upon them.

Third, from facts thus ascertained and classified, he deduces the laws by which they are determined. That a heavy body falls to the ground is a familiar fact. Observation shows that it is not an isolated fact; but that all matter tends toward all other matter, that this tendency or attraction is in proportion to the quantity of matter, and its intensity decreases in proportion to the square of the distance of the attracting bodies. As all this is found to be universally and constantly the case within the field of observation, the mind is forced to conclude that there is some reason for it; in other words, that it is a law of nature that may be relied upon beyond the limits of actual observation. As this law has always operated in the past, the man of science is sure that it will operate in the future. It is in this way the vast body of modern science has been built up, and the laws which determine the motions of the heavenly bodies; the chemical changes constantly going on around us; the structure, growth, and propagation of plants and animals, have, to a greater or less extent, been ascertained and established. It is to be observed that these laws or general principles are not derived from the mind and attributed to external objects but derived or deduced from the objects and impressed upon the mind.

(1) The Inductive Method as applied to Theology

The Bible is to the theologian what nature is to the man of science. It is his storehouse of facts, and his method of ascertaining what the Bible teaches is the same as that which the natural philosopher adopts to ascertain what nature teaches. In the first place, he comes to his task with all the assumptions mentioned above. He must assume the validity of those laws of belief that God has impressed upon our nature. In these laws are included, some which have no direct application to the natural sciences. Such, for example, as the essential distinction between right and wrong; that nothing contrary to virtue can be enjoined by God; that it cannot be right to do evil that good may come; that sin deserves punishment, and other similar first truths, which God has implanted in the constitution of all moral beings, and which no objective revelation can possibly contradict. These first principles, however, are not to be arbitrarily assumed. No man has a right to lay down his own opinions, however firmly held, and call them “first truths of reason,” and make them the source or test of Christian doctrines. Nothing can rightfully be included under the category of first truths, or laws of belief, which cannot stand the tests of universality and necessity, to which many add self-evidence. But self-evidence is included in universality and necessity, in so far, that nothing which is not self-evident can be universally believed, and what is self-evident forces itself on the mind of every intelligent creature.

Facts to be Collected

In the second place, the duty of the Christian theologian is to ascertain, collect, and combine all the facts which God has revealed concerning himself and our relation to Him. These facts are all in the Bible. This is true because everything revealed in nature and in the constitution of man concerning God and our relation to Him, is contained and authenticated in Scripture. In this sense, “the Bible, and the Bible alone, is the religion of Protestants.” It may be admitted that the truths which the theologian has to reduce to a science, or, to speak more humbly, which he has to arrange and harmonize, are revealed partly in the external works of God, partly in the constitution of our nature, and partly in the religious experience of believers; yet lest we should err in our inferences from the works of God, we have a clearer revelation of all that nature reveals, in his word; and lest we should misinterpret our own consciousness and the laws of our nature, everything that can be legitimately learned from that source will be found recognized and authenticated in the Scriptures; and lest we should attribute to the teaching of the Spirit the operations of our own natural affections, we find in the Bible the norm and standard of all genuine religious experience. The Scriptures teach not only the truth but what are the effects of the truth on the heart and conscience when applied with saving power by the Holy Spirit.

The Theologian is to be guided by the same rules as the Man of Science

In the third place, the theologian must be guided by the same rules in the collection of facts as governing the man of science.

(1) This collection must be made with diligence and care. It is not an easy work. There is in every department of investigation great liability to error. Almost all false theories in science and false doctrines in theology are due in a great degree to mistakes as to matters of fact. A distinguished naturalist said he repeated an experiment a thousand times before he felt authorized to announce the result to the scientific world as an established fact.

(2) This collection of facts must be not only carefully conducted but also comprehensive and if possible, exhaustive. For ages, an imperfect induction of facts led men to believe that the sun moved around the earth and that the earth was an extended plain. In theology a partial induction of particulars has led to like serious errors. It is a fact that the Scriptures attribute omniscience to Christ. From this it was inferred that He could not have had a finite intelligence but that the Logos was clothed in Him with a human body with its animal life. But it is also a Scriptural fact that ignorance, intellectual progress, and omniscience are ascribed to our Lord. Both facts, therefore, must be included in our doctrine of his person. We must admit that He had a human, as well as a divine intelligence. It is a fact that everything that can be predicated of a sinless man is in the Bible, predicated of Christ, and it is also a fact that everything that is predicated of God is predicated of our Lord; hence it has been inferred that there were two Christs,—two persons,—the one human, the other divine, and that they dwelt together very much as the Spirit dwells in the believer; or, as evil spirits dwelt in demoniacs. But this theory overlooked the numerous facts proving Christ’s individual personality. It was the same person who said, “I thirst;” who said, “Before Abraham was I am.” The Scriptures teach that Christ’s death was designed to reveal the love of God, and to secure the reformation of men. Hence Socinus denied that his death was an expiation for sin or satisfaction of justice. The latter fact, however, is as clearly revealed as the former; and therefore both must be taken into account in our statement of the doctrine concerning the design of Christ’s death.

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Necessity of a complete Induction

Illustrations without end might be given of the necessity of a comprehensive induction of facts to justify our doctrinal conclusions. These facts must not be willfully denied, carelessly overlooked, or unfairly appreciated. We must be honest here, as the true student of nature is honest in his induction. Even scientific men are sometimes led to suppress or to pervert facts that work against their favorite theories, but the temptation to this form of dishonesty is far less in their case than in that of the theologian. The truths of religion are far more important than those of natural science. They come home to the heart and conscience. They may alarm the fears or threaten the hopes of men so that they are under strong temptation to overlook or pervert them. If, however, we really desire to know what God has revealed, we must be conscientiously diligent and faithful in collecting the facts which He has made known and in giving them their due weight. If a geologist should find in a deposit of early date implements of human workmanship, he is not allowed to say they are natural productions. He must either revise his conclusion as to the age of the deposit or carry back to an earlier period the existence of man. There is no help for it. Science cannot make facts; it must take them as they are. In like manner, if the Bible asserts that Christ’s death was a satisfaction to justice, the theologian is not allowed to merge justice into benevolence in order to suit his theory of the atonement. If the Scriptures teach that men are born in sin, we cannot change the nature of sin and make it a tendency to evil and not really sin, in order to get rid of difficulty. If it be a Scriptural fact that the soul exists in a state of conscious activity between death and the resurrection, we must not deny this fact or reduce this conscious activity to zero, because our anthropology teaches that the soul has no individuality and no activity without a body. We must take the facts of the Bible as they are and construct our system so as to embrace them all in their integrity.

Mosaic Authorship HOW RELIABLE ARE THE GOSPELS Young Christians

Principles to be Deduced from Facts

In the fourth place, in theology as in natural science, principles are derived from facts, and not impressed upon them. The properties of matter, the laws of motion, of magnetism, of light, etc., are not framed by the mind. They are not laws of thought. They are deductions from facts. The investigator sees, or ascertains by observation, what are the laws which determine material phenomena; he does not invent those laws. His speculations on matters of science, unless sustained by facts, are worthless. It is no less unscientific for the theologian to assume a theory as to the nature of virtue, of sin, of liberty, of moral obligation and then explain the facts of Scripture in accordance with his theories. His only proper course is to derive his theory of virtue, of sin, of liberty, of obligation, from the facts of the Bible. He should remember that his business is not to set forth his system of truth (that is of no account), but to ascertain and exhibit what is God’s system, which is a matter of the greatest moment. If he cannot believe what the facts of the Bible assume to be true, let him say so. Let the sacred writers have their doctrine while he has his own. To this ground, a large class of modern exegetes and theologians, after a long struggle, have actually come. They give what they regard as the doctrines of the Old Testament; then those of the Evangelists; then those of the Apostles; and then their own. This is fair. So long, however, as the binding authority of Scripture is acknowledged, the temptation is very strong to press the facts of the Bible into accordance with our preconceived theories. If a man be persuaded that certainty in acting is inconsistent with liberty of action; that a free agent can always act contrary to any amount of influence (not destructive of his liberty) brought to bear upon him, he will inevitably deny that the Scriptures teach the contrary, and thus be forced to explain away all facts which prove the absolute control of God over the will and volitions of men. If he holds that sinfulness can be predicated only on intelligent, voluntary action in contravention of law, he must deny that men are born in sin; let the Bible teach what it may. If he believes that ability limits obligation, he must believe independently of the Scriptures, or in opposition to them, it matters not which, that men are able to repent, believe, love God perfectly, to live without sin, at any, and all times, without the least assistance from the Spirit of God. If he denies that the innocent may justly suffer penal evil for the guilty, he must deny that Christ bore our sins. If he denies that the merit of one man can be the judicial ground of the pardon and salvation of other men, he must reject the Scriptural doctrine of justification. It is plain that complete havoc must be made of the whole system of revealed truth unless we consent to derive our philosophy from the Bible instead of explaining the Bible by our philosophy. If the Scriptures teach that sin is hereditary, we must adopt a theory of sin suited to that fact. Suppose they teach that men cannot repent, believe, or do anything spiritually good without the supernatural aid of the Holy Spirit. In that case, we must make our theory of moral obligation accord with that fact. If the Bible teaches that we bear the guilt of Adam’s first sin, that Christ bore our guilt and endured the penalty of the law in our stead, these are facts with which we must make our principles agree. It would be easy to show that in every department of theology,—in regard to the nature of God, his relation to the world, the plan of salvation, the person and work of Christ, the nature of sin, the operations of divine grace, men, instead of taking the facts of the Bible, and seeing what principles they imply, what philosophy underlies them, have adopted their philosophy independently of the Bible, to which the facts of the Bible are made to bend. This is utterly unphilosophical. It is the fundamental principle of all sciences, and of theology among the rest, that theory is to be determined by facts and not facts by theory. As natural science was a chaos until the principle of induction was admitted and faithfully carried out, so theology is a jumble of human speculations, not worth a straw, when men refuse to apply the same principle to the study of the Word of God.

By Charles Hodge

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