The first seminar (or, against Trojan Horses)

January 8th, 2016 by

The Analytic Theology Project at Fuller Theological Seminary had its first seminar on Wednesday. Project director Oliver Crisp gave the inaugural talk, which was accompanied by coffee, tea, and vegan cookies (this is California, after all). As a number of us have hung around campus for a few months now, we have heard a recurring refrain: “Cool! You just got $2 million to study Analytical Analytic Theology…what the heck is that?” So we thought it would be beneficial for someone to take a stab at answering that question and it only made sense that Crisp himself would be the best one for that job.

Crisp outlined a few aspects to Analytic Theology including engaging with a certain growing body of literature, prizing conceptual analysis and clarity, and rigorous argumentation (and some of the other virtues Michael Rea mentions in this piece). Crisp also helpfully traced a bit of the history of Analytic Theology through the pioneering work in the 1960s and 70s of Alvin Plantiga, Nicholas Wolterstorff, William Alston, and Richard Swinburne. He also helped draw some distinctions between analytic philosophy of religion, philosophical theology, and Analytic Theology. For what it is worth, I am not so sure it is really helpful to even make these kinds of distinctions for they often seem to quash rather than encourage theological creativity. Why let these artificial academic demarcations determine where one follows the argument or what resources one uses?

Discussion after Crisp’s talk focused on clarification of the desires and limits of Analytic Theology, including insightful observations by AT Faculty Fellows Amos Yong and Kutter Callaway. We also got into a discussion of just what the “tools” are from analytic philosophy that are being advertised as so helpful to theology. Here it seems the best response is just to point to examples such as the use of the metaphysics of spatial location to talk about God’s omnipresence (Hud Hudson and Ross Inman), or neo-Aristotelian hylomorphism to talk about the Incarnation (Michael Rea), or speech act theory from the philosophy of language to talk about acts of consecration (yours truly).

Some pushback was offered in response to the relation between the style and methods of Analytic Theology and taking certain positions on controversial topics. My own sense (and two cents) is that we need to do a good job of assuring two opposite constituencies that Analytic Theology is not some Trojan Horse. On one side of the theological spectrum, the allegation might go something like this: “You say you are just using analytic philosophy to do theology, but then then all of a sudden you are going to unleash a barrage of epistemic foundationalism, or the correspondence theory of truth, or hardcore cataphatasicm!”

Whereas, on the other side of the theological spectrum, the contention might be: “You say you are just talking about standard theological doctrines in a contemporary way, but then then all of a sudden you are going to unleash a barrage of philosophical thinking that is foreign to the Bible and just what Paul warned against in 1 Timothy 6:20!”

To the first crowd, I think we need to, in good analytic fashion, make a distinction between (a) the style, methods, and resources of analytic philosophy that could be beneficial to the theological task and (b) the substantive commitments of the Christian faith. There is nothing, it seems to me (nor to Crisp as it came out in the Q&A) about the analytic style that commits one to any specific substantive position. One only has to have a cursory familiarity with analytic philosophers to know there are philosophers on opposite ends of the spectrum on nearly every conceivable issue in philosophy. So there is no sense in which analytic philosophy is conceptually monolithic, thus there is no reason for Analytic Theologians to be so either.

To the second crowd, I think we need to point to the great theologians of the church’s past to show that what Analytic Theology is doing is really no different from the appropriation of philosophy by the likes of Augustine, Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, or Jonathan Edwards. Substantive theological reflection has always engaged with the philosophy of the day as a way of articulating doctrines. So whether this was Augustine and Neo-Platonism, Thomas Aquinas and Aristotelianism, or Alvin Plantinga and analytic philosophy, the idea has been roughly the same: philosophy can help theologians do theology.

Overall it was a great way to kick off our seminar series and we are very excited for the conversations to continue. In this context at Fuller, we should be in no lack of engaging topics…or vegan desserts.

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James M. Arcadi is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Analytic Theology Project at Fuller Theological Seminary and a Templeton Research Fellow in the Jewish Philosophical Theology Project at the Herzl Institue. He completed his PhD in Theology and Religious Studies from the University of Bristol where he focused on a philosophical explication of the doctrine of the Eucharist.

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