Oliver Crisp on Why Analytic Theology Counts as Systematic Theology: A Recap

January 24th, 2017 by

Is Analytic Theology systematic theology? This was the question addressed at the first of this year’s AT seminars (held each Wednesday afternoon on the campus of Fuller Seminary). Oliver Crisp, speaking to an auspiciously full room of students, faculty and visitors, gave a presentation entitled Analytic Theology as Systematic Theology. This concern, according to Crisp has been the most persistent question asked by non analytic theologians over the past seven years (since the 2009 publication of Analytic Theology by Crisp and Rea). Apparently some folks still wonder if AT is just philosophy in sheep’s clothing. While Crisp did not wager this thought, I wonder if this signals a worry on the part of some that if AT is understood as systematic theology then it falls within their wheelhouse thereby requiring them to engage it on a more active level. (This is a task that some may not relish given AT’s use of philosophical tools.) If AT is not classed as systematic theology then it frees one to respond, “I don’t do AT, my focus is systematic theology.” For others this question may still be a matter of figuring out more about this new development on the landscape; a development that Kevin Vanhoozer (at this years LA Theology Conference) labeled as one of the more important theological developments in the last few years. In Vanhoozer’s defense he did not say whether it was a good or bad development! I suppose we can find out when he comes to deliver his presentation at Fuller later this year. Below are some of the highlights of Crisp’s presentation.

Is Analytic Theology systematic theology? Crisp wants to answer in the affirmative; Analytic Theology just is a species of systematic theology. (Not surprising given his presentation title.) Furthermore, Crisp is concerned that this is largely a formal question (with overwhelming affirmative evidence in the literature) that we ought to lay to rest so that those interested in working in AT (or joining the conversation) can move on to more fertile questions.

If someone wanted to show that AT was not a species of ST they would need to show that AT (as understood by those who work in this area) does not fall within the boundaries of ST (as understood by those who work in that wider discipline). The problem here is there are not agreed upon necessary and sufficient conditions for demarcating systematic theology over against other practices like philosophy of religion, social science and so forth. Crisp could have suggested that until this demarcation problem was resolved, AT need not answer the question, “Does AT count as ST?” Not one to disappoint however, he offered a more productive approach to getting at an answer.

Crisp’s suggestion was that one could take three representative theologians (inheritors of different approaches to doing systematic theology),  combine their ideas of what ST is at its core. This struck me as something like a responsible way of triangulating a location   for ST in the absence of agreed upon boundary conditions by the community. If it turns out that practitioners of AT are engaging in what three diverse theologians construe ST to involve, then it seems only fair to place AT within the purview of ST.

In his talk Crisp selected John Webster, Brian Gerrish, and Gordon Kaufman as representatives for the above approach. At the risk of brevity (on my part) the following three sin qua non emerged from quotations he gave.

For Webster, theology ought to be about the nature of the triune God. The goals and aims of systematic theology are properly theological. Crisp suggested we could think of this as something in the neighborhood of a Barthian approach to dogmatic theology. So the center of Webster’s circle (sticking with my triangulation illustration) is apprehending the Christian Triune God.

For Gerrish, dogmatics has as its subject matter the distinctively Christian way of having faith. His focus seems to involve prioritizing religious experience over doctrine (beliefs, dogmas). In other words, does Christian doctrine adequately capture Christian experience? Crisp wondered if we might liken this to Schleiermacher’s approach to theology. The center of Gerrish’s circle might be something like experience doing the above task.

For Kaufman, because we do not have unmediated access to God, theology becomes a subjective enterprise of generating our own ideas rather than getting at God’s ideas about himself. Each generation must revise theology in a way fitting for their own context. This, suggested Crisp, was a bit closer to Tillich’s theological project. The center of Kaufman’s circle is thus about imaginative Christian construction.

After laying out the these three coordinates, Crisp asked “What do these three share in common?  The combination of these three focus points is what we might call, Shared Task”: a commitment to an intellectual undertaking that involves (though it may not comprise) explicating the conceptual content of the Christian tradition (with the expectation that this is normally done from a position within that tradition, as an adherent of that tradition, using particular religious texts that are part of the Christian tradition, including sacred scripture, as well as human reason, reflection, and praxis (particularly religious practices), as sources for theological judgements.

The question then is, “Does AT land above the threshold of Shared Task?” Yes.  Those working within AT should therefore be counted as doing systematic theology. Crisp also went on to point out that unlike philosophical theologians (and certainly philosophers generally) those working in AT were seeking to engage in Webster’s call for theological theology. Many of its main participants (e.g. McCall, Crisp, Abraham) were seeking to produce theological content for the church not merely for the academy.

Having given a positive answer above, Crisp explained what it was about AT that made it look and feel different than what others expect ST looks like. It is not because AT is something other than ST. Instead it is that AT has its own intellectual culture (Or what Sarah Coakley might call a “family resemblance”). It has its own approach to the above tasks. Much like a Websterian, or Barthian approach to theology, folks working in AT pay attention to certain texts, engage certain thinkers and prize certain intellectual virtues. If we treat Webster, Gerrish and Kaufman are as exemplars of three cultures/family-resemblances in the theological landscape, then AT should count as a fourth. This gets at the disorientation newcomers experience when reading AT. For many, doing theology usually involves engaging other texts, privileging other virtues, being socialized at other conferences and so forth. When they see AT they think, “Is this systematic theology?”  “Yes it is”, says Crisp. AT does what the above exemplars do (e.g. seek to apprehend the Christian God, analyze doctrine over against faith experiences and participate in constructive projects) but it does so in its own way. At its best AT is a community of  Christians doing theology by using the resources of contemporary analytic philosophy to construct Christian theology, paying attention to the Christian tradition and focusing these efforts on the development of doctrine.  

Jesse Gentile is a new PhD student at Fuller seminary studying systematic theology. He has interests in theological anthropology, epistemology, ethics, technology and pretty much everything else. Jesse is the father of two awesome elementary school kids and is the husband of Ella (who works as a wills and trust attorney). He regularly does itinerant preaching among plymouth brethren assemblies throughout the U.S. Jesse hold’s degrees in Biblical Studies, Philosophy, and Instructional Design.

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