Having gone through a full year in the Logos Institute of Analytic and Exegetical Theology, I am left in a period of reflection on the value of the analytic style into theology and even Biblical Studies. While a specific definition of the analytic style or even analytic theology is something that can be debated, Michael Rea gives a good summation of what the analytic style entails, coming from one of the first readings we had in the program:
P1. Write as if philosophical positions and conclusions can be adequately formulated in sentences that can be formalized and logically manipulated.’
P2. Prioritize precision, clarity, and logical coherence.
P3. Avoid substantive (non-decorative) use of metaphor and other tropes whose semantic content outstrips their propositional content.’
P4. Work as much as possible with well-understood primitive concepts, and concepts that can be analyzed in terms of those.
P5. Treat conceptual analysis (insofar as it is possible) as a source of evidence. 1
This expressed so much of what analytic theology is in its style. But upon first becoming familiarized with it, it felt like a daunting task. It felt like to me that we were trying to tread into the domain of intellectual wizard, who had mastered magical skills of analysis that we could never wield. However, as we hurried our way through what felt like a never-ending stream of papers our first semester, somewhere along the way I, and I would say even we, began to get into the spirit of what the analytic style is about. But having developed a working capacity in it, though far from mastery, the question still looms at me: why is this needed? If I were to talk to someone who was skeptical of analytic philosophy, on what grounds could I try to persuade them to see the value of analytic style?
If may proffer a possibility, it is rooted in the nature of how language works. This echoes the analytic turn to language in Wittgenstein, but my suggestion is no mere attempt to reproduce the early Wittgenstein’s skepticism of philosophy as simply a problem of definitions or late Wittenstein’s turn to normal language, though it echoes many of these sentiments. In fact, the value of language may actually be a positive response to deconstruction in Jacques Derrida, who thought the meanings of language being unstable with no fixed point or concept by which we can then understand everything else; context always makes meanings transient and elusive to finally pinning down.
Much criticism against Derrida can be offered, and I would suggest Derrida’s view of language while being important didn’t adequately express the nature of all language. Rather, his view of language was much more useful to a certain class of words: abstract words.
Essentially, abstractions are concepts that lack ostensive representation: I can not point anywhere to show you specifically what love, justice, peace, etc. is. I could point to a couple kissing on the bench at the beach and I could call it “love” but I am not referring to the specific shows of affection. I could talk about a person who has been abused and ignored being acknowledged and recognized and call it “justice,” but what I mean by justice isn’t in the specific acts of
Because of this, I don’t learn about abstract concepts purely by observation of the world as I would learn about concrete things such as apples, tables, bodies, etc. Instead, I primarily learn about abstract concepts through other language; I learn what justice is by the ways the word justice is describe by the usage of other words,. For instance, someone might say, “justice is giving people what they deserve.” Then, I might hear of scenarios in the news of people “getting what they deserved,” but I only able to understand these news events as justice because the concept of justice has been bequeathed to me through the other words used with “justice.” Abstract language emerges from seedbed of language itself; concrete words are the roots that give birth to the trunk, branches, stems, and leaves of abstraction.
But this leaves abstract concepts being very
So, what determines with what sense I use abstract
What the analytic style does is to essentially counter this tendency by, in a sense, re-concretizing language. But to clarify what I mean by that, I don’t mean getting rid of abstracts; anyone who reads analytic philosophy or analytic theology knows it is filled with abstracts. Our current society will not be able to operate without the power of abstractions to manipulate and interpret non-sensory information, so there is no going back from this apart from an
The analytic style, then, re-concretizes language such that Derrida’s view of the instability is language is no longer as valid. While even concrete words can be used with subtly different shades and senses based upon context, the divergence between different linguistic senses isn’t as dramatic for concrete words as it is abstract words. Thus, communication between parties is more effective in more concrete discourse than it is in abstract discourse. Furthermore, within ourselves as persons, by defining our meaning more, we can have a clearer sense of what it is we are thinking about, clarifying the muddle that often times arises with the
But more specific to theology and Biblical Studies, the analytic style helps us to understand the object of our faith, God in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. When Karl Barth’s criticism of much of the edifice of Western Christian theology in both Protestantism and Catholicism sounded, it presented the seminal forms of a new paradigm for theology and even Biblical Studies. Barth wanted dogmatic theology to be much more radically concrete and particular to God Himself as made known in Jesus Christ; theology wasn’t a set of abstract ideas but theology was the knowledge that comes to us from the revelation of Jesus Christ and this knowledge was of the person of Christ and not knowledge about something else. While there are many grounds to critique Barth, the spirit of Barth’s theology, as Karl Hunsinger as helpfully summarized in How to Read Karl Barth, makes theology focuses on what is and what happens when God discloses Himself and acts, rather than on trying to build a theology upon abstract concepts we use to interpret what is and what happens when God discloses Himself and acts. Barth’s theology, in my mind at least, is the move towards re-concretization. While all paradigmatic transitions are messy, hence there are many problems in aligning Barth’s theology with the Biblical witnesses, they provide a sign post for a new way of doing things. Hence, the analytic style is deeply conducive to the process of re-concretization that Barth’s theology is pointing towards.
Hence, in doing this, we can move more towards an appreciation of the Biblical witnesses to God’s disclosure and actions. Rather than trying to read the words of Scripture as containing a wide array and set of abstract propositions and ideas that themselves are necessary for us, whether they be of a doctrinal, experiential, or moral content, we read the Biblical witnesses as witnesses to things that have happened, where it be Jesus of Nazareth ministering, being crucified, being raised, ascending and being glorified, or whether it is Jesus calling down to Saul, or whether it is the dramatic work of the Spirit, or whether it be the revelation and discernment of wisdom that the Spirit gives, re-concretizing our language allows us to move towards seeing the witnesses in this way: they are talking about something that God has done, is doing, and expects God to continue to do. The more abstract language, such as the language of justification, is not some attempt to propound some abstract idea about forgiveness or acceptance that we can then use in variety of different senses within our imaginations but rather is an abstract word that is trying to explain the divine cause for the specific reality that Christians experience when they come to faith in God.
In the end, concrete words are effective witnesses; hence 1 John starts by addressing the concrete realities of their own experience in hearing, seeing, and touching as it came to Jesus. An increasing predilection towards highly abstract language, by contrast, tends to muddy things up between persons and within persons due to the differing linguistic senses of the words; thus abstraction obscures witness. And, if I may suggest for my own Methodist context where we have facing stark divisions over theology and ethics, being demonstrated through our conflict over concerns about sexuality, this tendency towards abstract has contributed to this division. United Methodism is inhabited by different groups who use the same words but in dramatically different senses because our differing theologies largely determined by different cultural rules we have for theological word usage. Consequently, the implicit epistemology in United Methodist is informed by this immersion in the implicit idea of the intellectual superiority of abstraction for determining theological matters. Hence, I previously wrote that there is perhaps a need for an epistemic conversion among United Methodists that becomes radically particularized to the person of Christ.
So from my perspective, the analytic style by re-concretizing can bear fruit more generally for understanding and thinking, more specific to the Christian faith by taking God Himself as known in His Son and Spirit as the central, primary content of theological knowledge, and offering a potential way forward through the morass that is United Methodist division. Whether these things will happen is another question and matter, but I will do what I can to try to develop my analytic skills more and employ them in this manner for these purposes.