How I Became an Analytic Theologian

August 10th, 2016 by

Like a number of other people who have ended up doing analytic theology, I didn’t set out to become an “analytic theologian.” In fact, I set out to be an artist. After high school, I went to art school for a year to complete a Foundation course in Art and Design at Wimbledon School of Art in London. I didn’t find what I was looking for in Wimbledon, though I continued to paint beyond my art school days and have even turned my hand to book illustration in recent years, which is strange because at one stage I had thought about being an illustrator.

From Art, I moved to Divinity. I also moved from one end of the country to the other, to the most northerly university in the UK, as well as one of the oldest. I had four wonderful years at King’s College in Aberdeen. I discovered whilst there that I loved theology, and that I was a passable student. I had some inspiring teachers such as David Fergusson, Iain Torrance, Trevor Hart, Gary Badcock, W. P. Stephens, and I. Howard Marshall. I also had some great friends that loved to talk theology late into the night. It was difficult to leave when I graduated, and I wanted to continue with my new found love of the intellectual life. However, in the meantime I got a teaching qualification and began work at a private boy’s high school. I learnt a lot there too. Chiefly, I found that I knew very little about philosophy, and that philosophical questions kept pursuing me. So I ended up doing a master’s degree by research, writing a thesis on the logical problem of evil. I also began doctoral work on the philosophical theology of Jonathan Edwards, the eighteenth century New England minister and leader of the Great Awakening. Edwards was a great teacher, as was my doctoral supervisor, Paul Helm. They kept me at my books and provided me with excellent models for thinking through theological problems with an analytic eye. I also found to my dismay that a real divide existed between the theologians and the philosophers at King’s College, London, where I did my doctoral work. The more philosophy I imbibed, the more this troubled me.

Meanwhile, I moved from teaching to ministry, serving in a church for three years. At the conclusion of my time there, which coincided with the end of my doctoral studies, it wasn’t clear whether to stay in ministry, or to apply for an academic post, so I looked for both. A temporary academic job came up, and I took it. My family moved up to St Andrews, where we lived and I taught for two years. Towards the end of our time there, I applied for a postdoctoral fellowship at the Center for Philosophy of Religion in the University of Notre Dame. I won the fellowship, and we moved to America. To me, Notre Dame is a special place. At the time Alvin Plantinga was there, as was Peter van Inwagen, Thomas Flint, Robert Audi, Ted Warfield, and Michael Loux, with Nicholas Wolterstoff as a visiting professor. One of the great gifts of that year was meeting and befriending Mike Rea, who was on faculty in philosophy. We immediately struck up a friendship, finding that we had similar theological (and philosophical) inclinations. One day over coffee we were bemoaning the fact that theologians and analytic philosophers didn’t really communicate much, though each had a lot to learn from the other. We decided to try to do something about that. From this conversation, the Analytic Theology volume of essays published by Oxford in 2009 was born.

Eventually, I found myself with my family back in the UK at the University of Bristol, in a friendly and encouraging department of great friends and colleagues. We also had another sojourn in the USA, this time in Princeton, before ending up at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California where I now teach. In the intervening time much has happened. Analytic theology has grown and begun to flourish. More work has been done in the field, generating books, edited collections, journal articles, essays, a book series with OUP, and the academic journal, The Journal of Analytic Theology. At the same time the annual Logos conference has begun, where theologians and philosophers can meet and interact, and do analytic theology. Analytic theology is now featured in international conferences too, such as the Evangelical Theological Society conference, the American Academy of Religion conference, and the Los Angeles Theology Conference as well.

There are now different views about analytic theology. Perhaps there always were differences. My own view is a deflationary one: analytic theology is a method for pursuing systematic theology. It doesn’t really stipulate what view you should take on substantive matters. That is up to the particular theologian. I have found much in analytic philosophy that can help me do my theology. I am grateful for it. I think it has helped me find my voice, and distinguish what is theologically important from what is not. It also strikes me that it is a way of doing theology that resonates with much of the tradition, from Anselm and Thomas Aquinas to Jonathan Edwards and Francis Turretin. I may not have set out to become a theologian, let alone an analytic theologian. But I am happy to find myself in the company of those interested in doing theology in such an analytic vein.

Oliver Crisp is a professor of systematic theology who joined Fuller Theological Seminary in 2011. He holds a PhD from King’s College at the University of London, an MTh from the University of Aberdeen, and a BD from the University of Aberdeen. Crisp’s current research projects include writing a book on the atonement, and work on the doctrine of sin.

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