Is there such a thing as "good theology" and "bad theology"?

I’m putting this here because it isn’t exactly a factual question, and I think it holds too much debating potential to go in IMHO.

I belong to a variety of mailing lists, several of which are the official lists for authors of science fiction books. On one of them, there’s currently a discussion about intelligent design and the concept of “irreducible complexity.”

Somebody mentioned that he thinks that structures currently claimed to be irreducibly complex will eventually be discovered to in fact be reducible. As a response, I brought up this article by Ken Miller (of Finding Darwin’s God fame), which makes the claim that flagella have been shown to be reducible after all. Somebody else pointed out Dembski’s response to this paper. In passing, I mentioned that I thought it was funny that they were arguing about whether intelligent design was “good theology,” since it seems like that would be a subjective thing.

Since then, several people, including the author who runs the mailing list, have asserted that the terms “good theology” and “bad theology” do mean something objective, and that you can tell if something is good theology “just like you can tell if something is good art, or good psychology, or good philosophy.”

One quote was:



Honestly, I have no idea what he means. How would one measure what is good philosophy or good theology or good art? Good psychology, I suppose, could be defined as psychology that helps people and actually makes them feel better rather than not helping them (or making them worse)… but is there a “good psychology” that can make everybody feel better? And if not, doesn’t that make it subjective?

Can anybody enlighten me?

Theology probably shouldn’t be described in terms of “good” or “bad,” but “correct” or “incorrect”—presupposing the truth of whichever scripture the theological arguments are being derived from.

The truth of the the theology, of course, rests on the the truth of these scriptures. For instance, while I’m not a scholar on the subject by any means, I can generally recognize correct theology within Christianity, but since I don’t regard the Bible that forms the basis of the theology, I don’t regard it as true.

But that’s what I’m asking – they’re claiming that theology is “objective” – which I take to mean that it’s “good” or bad" regardless of the truth of any underlying scripture.

A couple additional quotes:

To which I said “Could you explain what is objective about it?” and got this response from another list member:

Which I’m having trouble understanding.

Well, it’s objective in the sense that a theological standpoint must necessarily be deduced, honestly and logically, from the Scripture of whichever One True Religion we are referring to.

As I’ve seen the “good/bad” terminology used, good theology is that which comes directly from the scripture, bad theology is a departure from scripture.

But, I suppose for clarification, I should add that the interpretation of the text from which theology is derived may be subjective, which would then permit a dimension of subjectivity down the line of “objectively deduced theology.”

However, it’s still “objective” in the sense that the reasoning involved is emotionally detatched and without an agenda (if that’s possible).

Ya dig? Or am I just adding a pile of babbling nonsense to your confusion?

I’m not a theologian, but I see theology as philosophy as it pertains to god and the divine. As such, it starts from some assumptions and makes deductions from there. If the deductions are actually consistent with the initial assumptions, then it’s good theology. If not, it’s not. Whether the assumptions are good or not is a matter of opinion, but what can be derived from them isn’t.

I think I understand … maybe. Does it basically boil down to “No, it’s not strictly objective, but it can be objective within any particular subjective framework.”


Sure you can have “good” and “bad” theology.

Say I believe in a pantheon of squirrel gods, who have the following attributes;

  • They created the universe.
  • Since then, they do not affect the universe in any way.

This theology we can no more say is correct or incorrect than any other, but it’s also “good” theology in that it’s inwardly logical; nothing contradicts anything else. It would work, for lack of a better term.

Compare that to a different pantheon of squirrel gods, which;

  • Created the universe.
  • Have never affected the universe at all, ever.

Again, it could be the correct theology. However, it’s not “good” theology, because it’s inconsistent; if we assume it’s correct, it contradicts itself. It’s bad theology.

Obviously there’s degrees to which something can be “bad” or “good” theology - but more importantly we generally are able to point out whether it is or not, whilst we’re generaly unable to say if a theology is correct or not. And the “better” the theology is, the more likely it is to also be correct, too.

I recall a test I took a few years ago that was posted somewhere on the SDMB; it was a test of how many contradictions and inconsistencies were in your personal beliefs. Anybody recall where that is?

If “good” and “bad” is strictly a matter of internal consistency, then that suggests that much of the world’s theology is not “good,” doesn’t it?

Come to think of it, that’s what started this whole thing: Ken Miller saying that ID is bad theology because it contradicts certain tenets of Christianity, or makes God less powerful, or something.

That’s about what I was saying, yeah.

Also, it’s objective [look at definition 5] in that it can be detatched from emotions and preconceptions, based only on facts. Or as one of the quotes you provided said: rational thought.

But I really don’t like it because it counts off for unusual beliefs.

It seems to me that the distinction being made between good and bad theology is using this definition of theology:

As such, the system of the study itself can either be effective (good) or ineffective (bad).

This seems like an excellent way of distinguishing them to me. It is certainly possible to start from a given set of Scriptures and make unsupportable deductions, or to start with the natural world, no scriptures at all, and make supportable ones. So your definition seems better than one using Scriptures.

I’d say that most theology is inherently subjective, in that it cannot be verified with the natural world. If one takes Scriptures as being human written, we can have a conclusion agreeing with a given set of Scriptures while disagreeing with reality. If this is “good” theology (and I think it might be) it shows that theology is subjective. When natural philosophy started getting tested against the real world, it turned into science, and became more objective than it used to be.

I too agree with Strinka’s answer (from Post #5).

Theology uses rational analysis and argument to address spiritual issues, and this rational analysis and argument can be good or bad, valid or invalid, just as it can when addressing historical or aesthetical or mathematical issues.

I think theology can be judged by the same standard as science; it’s good if it examines the evidence and then forms theories that are supported by that evidence. It’s bad when a conclusion is made first and then evidence is sought to support the conclusion.

In theological research, the evidence is usually going to be scripture - messages that are assumed to be of divine origin. A good theologian would read scripture and then based on what he has read, he would determine the divine message. A bad theologian is one who would have a pre-existing opinion and then sought out scriptural passages to justify it.

A better distinction would be between legitimate and authentic religion:

OK, let me ask: presented with something like intelligent design, does it make sense to argue about whether it is “bad theology” or “good theology”?

My thinking is that it does not, at least not without establishing what your assumptions are beforehand (such as “Branch X of Christianity is entirely true” or “God is infinite, eternal, and omnipotent” or whatever). Then you could potentially determine whether it conflicted with any of those assumptions.

But in most cases, accusing an ID proponent (or critic, for that matter) of bad theology is just going to make them spell out why their particular assumptions make it good theology (why it is consistent with those assumptions, that is), wouldn’t it seem?

I wouldn’t accuse an ID proponent of good or bad theology. I’d accuse them of lying.

Good, that’s pretty much what I was saying in the discussion: accusing somebody of “bad theology” is a waste of time, when you could focus on the science.

Theology, in and of itself, is a lie. It’s almost impossible to differentiate between a good lie and a bad lie, so I’m thinking that the question is moot.

You might say that there are those who can admit they have no idea what God is all about, and those under the bizarre impression that they do, respectively.