Model Theology: An Introduction to Post-Modern Explanation

by Robert C. Brow

Chapter 1

Models and Explanations

This chapter introduces the theory and history of the use of models in philosophy and theology. Readers who prefer to be practical should move directly to the second chapter.

No discussion of any kind is possible without propositional statements. You can only agree or disagree with one or more propositions. But propositions need a framework or model within which you can settle whether something is true or false. In a framework or model of two dimensional geometry you can agree or disagree that this is or is not a right angled triangle. The proposition makes no sense without a geometry model.

Obviously models are invented with some purpose in mind. And having invented one model we tend to enlarge it, and if possible connect with other models. The first geometry began with a simple model of circles, straight lines, squares and rectangles for tomb and temple building. By adding a third dimension, and including the dimension of time, a system of astronomy and physics emerged.

In this century there has been a huge conceptual shift from a Newtonian model of astronomy to the adoption since Einstein of models based on relativity. The relativity model proved to have exciting heuristic value as it suggested hundreds of new directions for advanced research.

Similarly modern biochemisry and genetics were triggered by the new way of looking at things made possible by the double helix model for the DNA molecule. [See James D. Watson, The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA, (New York: Atheneum, l968) and many later editions].

The Evaluation of Models for Usefulness

When a new model is invented and offered to us we can evaluate it for elegance, explanatory power, and usefulness. A flat earth model for example is not wrong and it works very well for surveying, or even to picture a smaller country. That does not mean that a flat earth map is equally useful for flying a jet plane. A globe is a better model for air navigation.

If a jet pilot took off with three hundred passengers armed with a flat earth map of my backyard, or even a Mercator projection of the world, he would be viewed as criminally negligent. The negligence is that he is using the wrong tool for the work he is hired to do. But no one is viewed as criminally negligent for producing a flat earth map of Toronto. A flat earth map of a big city is not out of touch with reality. A Mercator projection map of Greenland gives an exactly correct reading for the latitude and longitude of Mexico city but it hopelessly out of touch with the reality you want for comparing the area of Greenland with Mexico.

But even the best models can become obsolete. The old method of measuring the shortest route on a global map for flying across continents is already being replaced by a computerized system of coordinates from satellites. A friend who sails the oceans tells me that he already has such a system for finding his location to within a few feet, and his sextant is useless in comparison. A computerized model of enemy country is even better for flying missiles down the air ducts of underground factories. Newton's model of the solar system was not wrong, and it was very elegant, but it won't do for flying to Venus. For that you need Einstein's relativity.

Our first conclusion is that we use a huge variety of alternative explanatory models in various kinds of relationship to one one another. We do not bother with models which seem confused and inconsistent, but we evaluate those that make sense to us for the particular purposes we have in mind.

The Philosophy of Models and Logical Grids

In their Principia Mathematica Bertrand Russell and Alfred Whitehead demonstrated that all mathematics is a form of logic. In his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus Ludwig Wittgenstein then showed that the sciences are logical constructs or grids by which we can picture and process whatever is out there. The Tractatus ends by saying that beyond what we can put into language there is mystery, concerning which we should be silent.

In the Tractatus the logical grid begins with geometry. In a two dimensional geometry no facts about height are possible, in three dimensional geometry no facts that include the idea of time and movement are possible, and as Kuhn pointed out none of the facts Einstein has enabled us to elicit from a relativity model can be derived from Newton's model.

By the time he wrote his Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein had seen that the whole of human language functions as a complex logical grid for picturing and processing a part of the mystery around us. The language which we use to live our lives and discuss right and wrong goes far beyond the very limited language of science. As science develops we discover that very different alternative models can be used to picture one area of the reality around us.

A particular person can be described socially, geographically, by weight and measurement, by history, economics, bone structure, physiology, or biochemistry. It has recently become possible to describe a person totally by genetic structure. But no one model can even approach getting at his or her mystery.

It makes no sense to discuss whether models are equally true. That would be like believing that tools are equally true for carpentry. A good carpenter evaluates and chooses tools for usefulness, and he is constantly open to the possibility that a new kind of tool would make one of his existing tools useless for some purposes. Similarly models can only be evaluated for usefulness in a particular task.

Though he did not use Einstein's key word to describe the working of language Wittgenstein's description of the activities of human language inevitably imply a very complex relativity of alternative models in relation to each other. "Making up a story and reading it - play acting - singing catches - guessing riddles - making a joke; telling it - translating from one language to another - asking, thanking, cursing, greeting, praying etc." [Philosophical Investigations, section 23.]

The Emergence of Model Theology

The impending importance of the linguistic revolution for the social sciences was seen by Peter Winch, The Idea of a Social Science, (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1958). He was one of the circle of those who had been influenced by Ludwig Wittgenstein at Cambridge University, though the Philosophical Investigations were not actually published until 1967.

The implications for theology were pointed out by Frederick Ferre, Language, Logic and God, (New York: Harper & Row, l961). Ferre's title was obviously chosen to indicate it was the opening of the theological assault on Logical Positivism, a philosophical system that denied meaning to aesthetic, moral, and value judgments. Unless propositions could stated with scientific precision, they had no meaning. And that by definition excluded all our assertions using words like God, love, beauty, and justice. For the swan song of this philosophical theory see A. J. Ayer, Language, Truth, and Logic, (1936).

Since the linguistic revolution philosophers have seen that the most precise sounding of scientific terms are also metaphor laden and context dependent. A year after Ferre's book, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, (1962), Thomas S. Kuhn argued that the great steps forward, or revolutions, in the progress of science are by way of paradigm shifts rather than by the mere accumulation of information. He stressed that paradigms in themselves can never be right or wrong. They are merely invented logical structures. The discussion has been immense, beginning with Gary Gutting (Ed.), Paradigms and Revolutions: Appraisals and Applications of Thomas Kuhn's Philosophy of Science, (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, l980).

The use of alternative models in theology is a comparatively recent development. The tradition had been that a theologian should know the truth and demonstrate the falsity of all other pretentions. In the post-modern world all theological models compete on an even playing field with all others.

An early attempt at model theology was Avery Dulles, Models of the Church, (Doubleday, 1974). Robert Brow first used a model theology method in Go Make Learners: A New Model for Discipleship in the Church, (Wheaton, Illinois: Harold Shaw, l981). Sallie McFague developed some categories needed for model theology in Metaphorical Theology: Models of God in Religious Language, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, l982), and then applied them in Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, l987).

The importance of paradigms in modern theology is outlined by Hans Kung and David Tracy, Paradigm Change in Theology: a Symposium for the Future, (New York: Crossroads, 1989). Kung correctly identified some implications of Kuhn's work in the first chapter, but by the end of the symposium Kung is unfortunately still looking for the correct new paradigm for theology (pp.439, 443, 449, 451). He should have known from Kuhn's work that there is no final or correct paradigm in science or in theology.

It seems simpler to avolid Kuhn's used of the term paradigm in favour of the simpler word model. Nothing hangs on the dividing line between models and paradigms. See Frederick Ferre, "Mapping the Logic of Models in Science and Theology" in Dallas M. High (Ed.), New Essays in Religious Language, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969).

It is also important to note how Margaret Masterman showed that Kuhn was working with at least three quite different kinds of paradigm. She called them metaphysical, sociological, and construct paradigms in "The Nature of a Paradigm," in I. Latakos and A. Musgrave, Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, (Cambridge University Press, l970).

Masterman's metaphysical paradigms are large scale world views. In God of Many Names, (1996), Robert Brow outlines twenty four species of religion or ideology as alternative world views or metaphysical models. Masterman's sociological paradigms picture the stated and unstated rules for a community, or a group of scientists, or a church denomination. In Go Make Learners: A New Model for Discipleship in the Church, (1981), Robert Brow outlined some models of how baptism is administered in our churches.

Construct paradigms in Margaret Masterman's terminology picture one component of a bigger paradigm. For example the double helix pictures the structure of the DNA molecule as a key component in the bigger paradigm of biochemistry. In Clark H. Pinnock and Robert Brow, Unbounded Love: A Good News Theology for the 21st. Century, (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1994), on Advent pictures the Son's continual interventions in world history as one component in the bigger model of Creative Love Theism.

An important result of the linguistic revolution is that we can no longer interpret faith in one sense. Faith is not one single thing that we have or don't have. Faith in a bank, faith in someone's witness in a law court, faith in the Bible, faith in God as Artist of our world, faith in the Holy Spirit to guide us, or in Jesus as the Son of God. All these have to be understood in their context. [See Anthony C. Thiselton, "Polymorphous Concepts" in The Two Horizons: New Testament Hermeneutics and Philosophical Description, (London: 1980 and Grand Rapids: William B.Eerdmans, l980)]. Faith seems much more like the model through which we view the love of God.

Some Basic Principles of Model Theology

Posted by Robert Brow on the CETA List March 5, 1996

In the post-modern world what will count will be those who can articulate totally public digital information in alternative visions of life and communicate them civilly with others. Such creative people are already in huge demand in the Arts, Advertising, Government, Labour relations, Human resource management, Manufacturing, Medicine, Politics, Retailing, etc. It is not hard to predict that the new generation of intelligent students will demand this skill in their teachers. All others will be downsized to go and serve pizza.

The skill that is required in the case of preachers, Christian Ed teachers, and those engaged in our world wide mission is the ability to do model theology. The skill is based on some very theological assumptions:

  1. God has made humans with the capacity to adopt, discuss, and propagate alternative visions of life (the imago dei ?).

  2. When we try to answer the questions of our children, or we want to explain our vision to others, we inevitably have to offer an explanatory model. Our model could just be expressed by telling stories, but it will in time be set out in a statement of faith, and written up in theological form.

  3. Since God gives humans the freedom to adopt, try out, and see the consequences of a vision of life we had better give that same freedom to people whose vision we do not share.

  4. But that does not mean we cannot communicate our visions to each other. When alternative visions seem to clash we need a civil method of engaging in the conversation.

  5. At least the conversation should include listening and trying to grasp the other's explanatory model "from the inside."

  6. When each has grasped the other's explanatory model without caricaturing (i.e. to the satisfaction of the other person) it may be possible to engage in comparing the moral implications of both models. And in some cases there may be a conversion.

  7. But between some models there can only be an agreement to differ (e.g. a-Theism and Theism) and allow the other to exist. In other cases (e.g. Hamas and peace making) all out war may be necessary. Which is why the United Nations had better realize that they may be able to facilitate dialogue, but in some kinds of war a fight to the finish may be unavoidable as in the wiping out of Nazism (or the Canaanites in the Curse of Ham).

Chapter 2...