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January 1978 · Vol. 7 No. 1 · pp. 18–25 

Integrating the Social Sciences and the Church: A Critique

Scott Chesebro

In the late fifties and early sixties integration seemed the only solution to the growing unrest between the races in American society, an unrest predicted as early as 1830 by de Toqueville and chronicled The American Dilemma by the Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal. Somewhere in the late sixties blacks began to realize that integration meant acculturation to white middle class values, a situation by definition never quite possible since whites would continue to control access to the culture which they had created. Though baffling to many whites who saw their offer to share middle class culture with black people as generous, black people understood that the integrity of their cultural heritage was at stake in the call for integration. Hence the black pride movement which reached somewhat of an apex in the recent airing of “Roots.” Black people have always known that the history of America included more than the several disparate European immigrations which followed the “discovery” of America by Columbus. The acculturation movement, cleverly misnamed as integration, brought the issues of identity and integrity as a people with an African heritage into sharp relief. It was at this point that many black leaders felt compelled to oppose the efforts of integration despite the very real promises of material progress.

While the problem being discussed in this article is historically unrelated to the race issue, certain parallels are evident upon closer examination. The issue of integrating the social sciences with Christian theology whether in the church, the college, or the workplace suggests problems for the church not altogether dissimilar to those faced by blacks during the racial integration period. This critique of the integration model as a resolution for the tension between the gospel {19} mandate and social sciences is motivated by the concern that integration in this case may well mean an acclimation of the gospel to humanistic themes.

As a Christian who is a sociologist, the writer is quite aware of the attempts to heal the tension between the social sciences and the theistic tradition by integrating the two. The tension, of course, rises primarily from the underlying assumptions of each concerning the nature of man, society, and the universe. The sciences early on expunged the idea of erratic or even occasional supernatural tampering in the affairs of nature by positing order and predictability. The ramifications of such a world view for the theistic tradition became clear rather early. The appeal of the scientific method to empirical evidence demonstrated a notably more sophisticated capability of calling all supposed reality, including the validity of religious ideas, to question than the rationalism of early thinkers.

Infant social science took most of its cues from the mathematical sciences. It conceived of itself as the positive savior of the world. August Comte saw the social sciences as the queen of all sciences, reflecting the most significant stage in the evolution of man’s knowledge about this world. Not incidental to our present concerns, positive science was seen as a guiding light bringing enlightened man out of the murky waters of superstitious theological explanations.

Comte had high hopes that the social scientists would rule the world. Their knowledge of the laws of psychological and sociological reality would best equip them to control the human relationships necessary to the proper care and functioning of society. By nature a humble man, Comte saw himself as the high priest of this new positive religion. It is important to note the implications of such a high minded view of the social sciences. Science was its own legitimation. All other forms of knowledge must bow before it in reverence. Positive revelation is only comprehensible by scientific method. The method becomes the measure. Though Comte’s hopes for science appear naive even in the light of the most advanced and most sophisticated social science developments to date; nevertheless the underlying self-legitimating nature of the scientific enterprise remains.

Positive science’s self-legitimation is illustrated in Karl Popper’s methodological constraint upon the nature of knowable reality. Popper maintained that the integrity of the scientific method rested upon the concept of “falsifiability.” If a notion or theory about reality could not be submitted to a test of falsifiability it could not be properly considered scientific. Since the scientific method was held to be the ultimate reality-tester, questions not conformable to Popper’s criteria for validity as scientific questions might be considered of no worthy consequence. The implications for the theistic tradition are inescapable. {20}

The historic response of conservative Christianity to this “disenchantment of the world,” as Weber called it, is not altogether heartening. Denial responses to the credibility of the scientific method did not slow its ability to bring under control ever widening areas of measurable reality, including social reality. Emile Durkheim subjected the heretofore sacred realm of the social to scientific methodology by identifying the existence of measurable social facts. Scientific exploration became the Church’s Pandora’s box. Outsiders were quick to proclaim the imminent death of God.

More recent evangelical response to the science/church problem, while perhaps answering the critics of an earlier period, is, in this writer’s view, no less disheartening. While earlier Christianity saw science quite effectively squeezing out the transcendent, more enlightened Christianity has tried to squeeze him into the available criteria for validity. Witness the explosion of apologetic responses to the “God is dead” movement based upon logical-empirical arguments. Sophisticated evangelicals appear eager to affirm the truth claims of the scientific method and thus assert their world-wise man-come-of-age position.

The attempt to integrate theistic revelation and truth with the social sciences has not dealt sufficiently with problems inherent in the nature of the scientific method. Max Weber quite clearly saw that what science could explain in the social realm, scientific application could dominate and control. The question that must be asked is whether a god subjected to the validity criteria of the scientific method can be dominated and controlled by that same method. Following close upon that question is whether man, created in the image of God, is adequately explained and hence legitimately controlled by the same method.

Except in the area of evolution, the traditionally natural sciences seem not to have produced the problems of integration that characterize the church’s relationship to the social sciences. It is often said that the Bible is not a text on the composition of material reality. To posit a God who created a world of order which is opened to man through the scientific method raises few evangelical eyebrows. The same easy co-existence of the transcendent with the social sciences does not exist. The Bible, it seems, does not so easily defer in the areas of the nature of man and society as it does in regards to the natural composition of the universe.

It is quite conceivable that, unless one posits the realms of man and nature as separate realities, the critique of an easy integrationist approach between the theistic tradition and the scientific method must be questioned unilaterally. Since my own orientation is from the social {21} science perspective I will be content to pose the questions for integration which arise most clearly in that area.

The following questions are framed in such a way as to leave any final resolution open to dialogue. That these instead of other possible questions are raised here as well as the nature of their statement is intended to suggest the position of this paper.


The scientific method and the theistic tradition have developed and maintained distinct ways of knowing. For the scientist, knowledge is the product of scientific methodology; the methodology is a priori to, and an underlying assumption of, produced knowledge. Scientific method assumes a closed reality system knowable through logical-empirical deductive procedure. Science is concerned with a classificatory identification of the most basic elements of reality and their functional relationships. Order is the sine quo non of science. The organic paradigm is axiomatic. Testing for validity and reliability assumes an end-goal of prediction and control.

For the theist the phrase, “in the beginning God,” shapes not only the content knowledge but also the method of knowing. Man not only loves because He first loved us but man only knows because He made himself known to man. It is through revelation that theistic man comprehends his reality. In a theistic epistemology knowledge emanates from the revelation of the Creator. A theistic epistemology calls for a knowing that results from an active response to revelation given by God concerning Himself. Phrased within contemporary language, theistic knowledge is dynamic. It is framed within history but it is defined and comprehended through an active response and commitment to revelatory truth which continually challenges history through God’s word and through God’s people. The theistic hermeneutic is obedience (see Ollenberger’s, “The Hermeneutics of Obedience,” Direction, VI [April, 1977]), a dynamic obedience which continually contradicts the static character of scientific methodology.

Popular integration of the scientific and theistic ways of knowing by dichotomizing theistic revelation into special and natural begs the question of how to know. It assumes that God created science to help us untangle the mysteries of the natural and gave us the Bible to untangle the mysteries of the spiritual. The accommodation of revelatory truth to the scientific method in the dualism of natural and special revelation fits more neatly into Comte’s three stages of knowledge than the scientifically sophisticated evangelical would care to admit. It unconsciously gives to the scientist the reverence and oracular character once reserved for God’s chosen. As science {22} becomes ever more pervasive in its power over nature, God’s truth becomes increasingly spiritualized, individualized and historicized.


Upon entering graduate school in the social sciences, the believing student is soon made aware that any notions of God are irrelevant to the task at hand. To let God leak into the explanation of behaviorial phenomena dilutes the absolute power of science over the subject matter. The social sciences’ struggle for respectability (and budgeting) within the scientific disciplines has only amplified the concern for exclusivity. The further and necessarily consequent power of the scientific method to explain lingering notions of faith in an all-sovereign God act to expunge that faith altogether from students who have been taught from kindergarten to take science seriously.

For those able to compartmentalize their faith by shedding their lab coats upon entering the holy place or for those successful in integrating their faith into the various niches left open by the incompleteness of the method, the dilemma of power seems to be resolved. Yet the scripture and the historical church are both uncomfortable with either kind of compromise. Paul speaks of the dangers of equating the wisdom of man with the wisdom of God. Is it blasphemous to suppose that the scientific wisdom of modern man is as inferior to the foolishness of God as was the Greeks’ philosophic wisdom?

The major concern with the question of powers is the increasing subjection of the power of the church to scientific method. From organizational theory to the psychologizing of human guilt, the power of scientific method is felt in the church. The scientifically trained, whether in systematic theology, pastoral counseling, or budget and management become the new high priests of the church. The successful church is the church that functions according to a whole series of measurements borrowed directly from the sciences. Ascertaining the will of God is so much easier with the employment of a cost accountant and a feasibility consultant. Implementing His will is so much more effective with methods developed in the social sciences.

Revelatory truth compels us to call into question the powers and principalities of our age be they cultural mandates that blind us to the themes of peace and justice or scientific methods which frustrate the power of God’s Spirit in His church.


The call of the gospel for the social scientist has been obscured by the debate between humanism and positivism. Christian social {23} scientists have found it convenient to frame their own approach within one of these schools. And because the humanist approach challenges the scientific method at points amenable to the concerns of the gospel, the Christian social scientist has found some solace within the humanist position. While humanizing the social sciences may have its merits, especially when viewed through a gospel perspective, the humanist position does not allay the problems of social science for the follower of Jesus. The humanist approach to the social sciences paves the way for integrating gospel concerns with social science. There is a danger in such an integration.

The inherent danger of integrating Christian concerns with a humanistic social science is to accept a man-centered mission as opposed to a God-centered mission. The professions have attempted to implement a humanistic service motif. Professional motivations and methods must not be confused with those of the gospel. The theist does not see man as the measure of all things. The theist is not primarily concerned with the production of the good society or even the great society. He is concerned with furthering the kingdom. His mission cannot be stated in terms of ego building, or preserving human dignity, or promoting the democratic free enterprise system. His mission can only be stated in the terms of the kingdom. His is the responsibility of building God’s community on earth. That community is typified by love, peace, righteousness, and good will. There is no client-centered theology. The church’s marching orders and her strategy are based squarely on revelatory truth. To the extent that the social sciences define motivations, goals, or methods, they impinge upon the mission of the church.


Influencing much dialogue within the social sciences these days is the concept of paradigms, that is, different systems for comprehending reality. The concept “paradigm” is useful as a tool or aid in understanding the problems inherent in integrating the social sciences and the gospel.

The foregoing analysis of the gospel way and the social science way of understanding man and society posits two paradigms or language structures within which reality is understood. The church has built a vocabulary for its commission in the world. That vocabulary cannot be altered or substituted at the point at which it attempts to confront social realities and still retain its integrity. Social science vocabulary cannot be substituted at convenient points for gospel vocabulary without losing the wholistic character of either paradigm. Any borrowing of vocabulary by the church from other paradigms must be such that the paradigm is in no way restructured by that {24} borrowing. At each point that social science language is adapted by the church, the church loses the integrity of its own paradigm.

The problem of paradigms connects closely with the use of language. The danger in integrating social science language into the theistic paradigm should be self-evident. Social science language has been defined by social science method. And the mission implied within the vocabulary assumes a closed reality system that is man-centered. How then can the church incorporate social science language and method into its paradigm without compromising its own identity in the world?


Christians who have chosen to contribute to the church through the social sciences often find that study within their field greatly affects their faith. For some the challenge of the social sciences is so great that their faith appears no longer viable and they become committed to social science. Others build a wall around their faith supposing it to be too sacred to be tampered with or just misunderstood by the social sciences.

Proposed alternatives to these two responses to the problem are increasingly taking the course of integration. Psychology and social work have led in the attempt to integrate. Sociology has been slower, partly because its analysis has not fit as comfortably with the concerns of contemporary evangelicalism.

The critique of integration developed above proposes that there remain many serious problems in incorporating social science method and language into the church. The idea of mediation, as developed by the school of critical theory, holds more promise in preserving the integrity of both the church and the social sciences.

The process of mediation is best understood as that process whereby one entity interacts with the other while maintaining and respecting the integrity of the other.

The church’s relationship to the world has always involved the process of mediation. Language, witness, faith and the Christian community in dynamic tension with the world have characterized that mediation. The dynamic tension of the divine in Jesus the man is part of the mediation of revelatory truth for human understanding. The term integration does not seem appropriate in describing either God’s relationship to human understanding through Jesus nor the church’s relationship to the world.

Within a model of mediation the church’s relationship to the {25} social sciences takes on a different character than in the integrationist model. The church would insist on defining itself and its mission in revelatory theistic language. It would strive to become God’s community, the kingdom here on earth by gospel methods. The integrity of the church as a witness to the presence and power of God in the world would not be compromised. The church should be aware of its very real historical place in the world while always transcending that place through the hope of salvation and the critique the gospel brings to the world. The church must mediate the social sciences from a thoroughly theistic and kingdom community perspective. It cannot integrate the perspectives of the social sciences into the framework, for to integrate is to give validity to the social sciences for defining and controlling a part of the church. As the church has mediated (though not always in a responsible way) physical technologies, cultural expressions, and political social organization for its work as God’s community, never merely integrating them, so it must mediate the new “knowledge” constantly arising from the scientific method.


  • Gerth, H. H. and C. Wright Mills. From Max Weber. New York: Oxford University Press, 1946.
  • Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1962.
  • Matson, Floyd W. The Broken Image. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1964.
  • Ollenberger, Ben. “The Hermeneutics of Obedience,” Direction, VI (April, 1977), 19-31.
  • Radnitzky, Gerard. Contemporary Schools of Metascience. Chicago: Henry Regnery Company.
  • Ravetz, Jerome R. Scientific Knowledge and Its Social Problems. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.
Scott Chesebro was instructor in sociology at Tabor College from 1975-77. He is currently working with Urban Life Center in Chicago.

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