Is Theology An Improvable Science? -- By: Leonard Withington

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 021:84 (Oct 1864)
Article: Is Theology An Improvable Science?
Author: Leonard Withington


Is Theology An Improvable Science?

Rev. Leonard Withington

Equidem non inficior (qua sumus ignorantia circumsepti) quin plurima nobis implicita nunc sint, et etiam sint futura, donec deposita carnis mole propius ad Dei praesentiam accesserimus: in quibus ipsis nihil magis expedias quam judicium, suspendere, animum autem offirmare ad tenendam cum Ecclesiâ unitatem.

Calvin, Inst., Lib. III. Chap. n. Sect. 3.

This is a question which no man likes to answer promptly without knowing who the inquirer is. If it were put to a clergymen in New England by a rigid Scotch Calvinist, a follower of John Knox, he would probably answer intrepidly in the affirmative, and feel no hesitation as to consequences; but if it were put to him by a disciple of Theodore Parker, he might say: “No; I want no improvements which deny the materials and destroy the ground on which we must build.” Yet the question is an absolute one. Theology either has reached its perfection and is incapable of further advancement, or it is still capable of amendment and shining with a clear light on a believing World. The argument which some bring to prove that it is incapable of advancement is not valid; namely, that it is founded on a divine revelation — it came in its origin perfect from the hand of its author; because we may say the same of creation and its laws — they have been all before us since man has been a spectator to their operations, and yet how slow have we been in finding out what seems so obvious when once found! When Papal delusion reigned over Christendom, the Bible was the same and was still in existence; yet we speak of Luther and the Reformers as great enlighteners of the world. The simplicity of truth is often the last thing that purblind mortals are fated to find.

The great secret is to find a medium, to improve for the future, and not destroy the past or present. It is one of the infelicities held out by such a glowing writer as Dr. Channing, that just in proportion as he awakens confidence in future discoveries, he pours distrust on all our present speculations and attainments.

The question, then, is, what is improvement? “What is that which mends without destroying? If we saw a partially-lighted church for an evening service, we should conclude that its condition was not to be mended by pouring a flood of redundant light from a thousand chandeliers and gas-lamps, which would only oppress the eye and create confusion; but the object would be to carry the original glimmer to a permanent brightness; so in theology, we shall never cease in this world to see through a glass darkly, but we may polish the glass, and explain the enigmas as far as our faith may rest on certainty....

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