Since getting accepting into the MLitt program at the Logos Institute, I have continuously asked myself: what have I gotten myself into? This question became more foregrounded as I arrived and visited with other people in the program and saw their various educational skills and backgrounds. There is a feeling of intimidation that has overwhelmed me these past few weeks. In discussion with one other student, I know there is that feeling coming also. But as with many feelings of trepidation, it is sometimes fueled more about not knowing rather than not being able.Surrounding coming to this program is a very important question: what is analytic theology?
It isn’t simply enough to talk about theology. What theology really is hard enough to describe as it is, eliciting almost as many answers as there are theological traditions. To prefix that with the word “analytic” brings images of cold, hard academic rigor, strong skepticism, and abstruse terminology. In my first discussion before applying with one of the teachers of the program, Dr. Andrew Torrance, I probed into what it meant to pull analytic philosophy, invented by philosophers such as Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore and propagated by later positivists like A.J. Ayer, into theology. I asked with a hint of skepticism given the nature of their skepticism about God that the early analytic philosophers had and a bit of trepidation considering the mathematical genius of people like Russell and Frege (who is a precursor to the development of analytic philosophy). Should analytic philosophy and theology mix? And more personally, can I who focused more on Biblical Studies with only a passing training in philosophy, and most in the Continental and American Pragmatist traditions, actually do this work? Dr. Torrance’s answer and the answer in some of the readings for the class can help alleviate some of the questions and concerns.
In the Introductory chapter of Analytic Theology: New Essays in the Philosophy of Religion, Michael Rea outlines a broad vision for analytic theology by describing the “analytic style,” as containing the following:
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
While these criteria are certainly not beyond question2, it does present a brief, yet formalized picture of the work done in Analytic Theology. However, to a neophyte in analytic philosophy/theology, these propositions come across as hard to really grasp.
To put it into a less precise description (and potentially overly narrow), it seems that analytic theology is about using the available philosophy resources in analytic philosophy to come to understand what one is really trying to say about God and whether it is reasonable or not. The tools and methods challenge us3 to see what is happening underneath the hood of our expression and reasoning. Much of our talk about God can easily devolve into appellations to vague, undefined concepts that we then employ in various, equivocating ways.
For instance, the language of grace can easily diminish into some broad, touchy-feeling notion of acceptance while also making appeals to some divine power coming at the cost of the sacrifice of Christ. The concept of grace can be appropriated to justify non-judgmental acceptance of a person while simultaneously used to talk about the power of God to effect personal, spiritual transformation. While these two notions need not be bounded off from each other as unconnected, that these two semantic functions can appear in the same sermon, writing, etc. and switched between without clarification can lead to some murky confusion. Sometime this confusion may even lead to a contradiction/tension within the concept itself. Insofar as the aspect of grace that entails God’s power of transformation entails a certain standard that a person is transforming into, it can be undercut by the aspect of grace that is understood as unconditional acceptance, where the standard is overlooked (or vice versa).
Given the object of knowledge of Christian theology, God as revealed in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit, is not an object of inquiry that is knowable via the same methods as the physical, material world is, it is necessary that our talk about God would necessarily be ambiguous and fraught with potential equivocation. The appropriation of the tools of analytic philosophy ushers our own theological expressions as well as other’s we engage with into a greater scrutiny, challenging our ideas at a level that we are not typically accustomed them to being challenged. It is quite easy to become immune to the criticism of opposing theological perspectives. For instance, I as a Wesleyan am quite immune to any appeal by a Calvinist that says giving God the greatest glory entails unconditional election. However, in providing a more rigorous critical base to work from, it is harder to develop a mental immunity to a deeper level of criticism,4 hopefully prompting a greater openness to understand the total work that God is doing in Christ through the Holy Spirit in His Church and throughout the world. So, as a Wesleyan, how one defines “free will” in the Arminian/Calvinism debate impacts how one assesses its viability for determining soteriological discussions. If “free will” is simply defined as the ability to make a choice that is not wholly caused or determined by previous events, then Wesleyan-Arminian theology is left with a void of neither empirical evidence validating it nor Scriptural texts talk about such an abstract matter. As a Wesleyan, a deeper understanding of the definitions of the terms I am using pushes me to know more specifically what I am talking about and considering how reasonable it is. In light of such a challenge, I am inclined to qualify my adherence to free will as a freedom from God’s unilateral determination of my choices, which may be more justifiable within the canon of Scripture, rather than making broad, metaphysical and psychological claims.
While my knowledge of the field of analytic theology is certainly only at the beginning stages, I can fairly confidently say that it is more about refining than it is a whole brand new field of thinking. It is like learning how to use power tools after you have been accustomed to a hammer and handsaw. Power tools may be overkill if you simply need to put a nail in, but they are certainly helpful if you are trying to build a whole house. Likewise, analytic theology is overboard if one is simply trying to deepen’s one devotion to Christ, but if you are building a whole theological system of beliefs5 then it behooves us to use the best tools at our disposal. But the same work is being done as in the past, only with tools that do it differently; analytic theology isn’t a new branch of theological belief as much as it is a discipline to include with our other disciplines that train our hearts and minds to follow Christ.
So, the task is certainly exciting; while intimidating still, it is intimidation from knowing the rigor of the work to be done, rather than fear of inability.
- Rea, Michael. “Introduction” Kindle Edition of Analytic Theology: New Essays in the Philosophy of Religion. Edited by Michael Rea and Oliver Crisp. Oxford: 2009.
- See William Abraham’s article entitled “Turning Philosophical Water into Theological Wine” in volume 1 in the Journal of Analytic Theology, where he raises a concern about P4
- I would say ideally it should be first about challenging our expressions about God before challenge another’s, but that is an idealistic dream but as with all intellectual endeavors, it can be inclined to use it the criticism of opposition first
- Albeit, it is certainly not impossible to sidestep; one can easily and simply ignore it as abstruse or esoteric and be on your way.
- Of course, one may criticize the notion of a theological system in the first place