Part 1 of 4 – Analytic Theology at ETS 2016: Four Theologians Respond to Tom McCall’s Book An Invitation to Analytic Christian Theology.

January 19th, 2017 by

If you were wondering what other theologians think about Analytic Theology, a panel discussion at ETS 2016 (Nov 15-17 in San Antonio)  was your chance to find out. Michael Bird, Marc Cortez, Veli Matti-Karkkainen, Kurt Richardson shared papers critically interacting with Analytic Theology by way of responding to Tom McCall’s recently published, An Invitation to Analytic Christian Theology (IVP Academic, 2015). The room was full for most of the three hour panel, testimony to growing interest in AT. Tom McCall closed the session by responding to each of the panelists main concerns.  For those of you that were unable to attend, we thought it would be helpful to share some the main thoughts emerging from the discussion. This initial post will summarize the highlights of the entire session. Posts 2-4 will address objections. (Bear with me as I squeeze five theologians papers into the word count of a church brochure!)  

Michael Bird (Biblical scholar theology lecturer; Ridley College) opened the session with a few cheap shots that kept the post-lunch crowd awake and chuckling. He quipped that, “AT looks like the love child of Charles Hodge and AJ Ayer”, and that “AT is the left side of the brain trying to control theology. When expressing a concern over AT’s putative neglect of genre and metaphor he asked McCall, “Bro do you even Vanhoozer?”   

Despite his waggish quips, Bird’s thoughts came through loud and clear.  He suggested  AT could benefit members of the theological guild  (i.e. in a football “special teams” sort of way) and that it “… was an example of a productive interface between philosophy and theology” that might help address theological paradoxes. That said, most of his comments were clearly on the negative side.

His repeated and primary criticism was that practitioners of AT picked through scriptures, plucking out  premises for arguments in a way that struggled to appreciate genre, metaphor, and narratival context.   He was also eager to push back against AT’s criticism of the abuse of metaphor by suggesting that it reminded him of Hobbes’s Leviathan in which metaphor was repudiated as dishonest despite good intentions. He was concerned that  AT appeared to lack humility, especially if it took itself to be the sine qua non of theology or if it thought it could supercede Biblical theology.  

In contrast to Bird, Marc Cortez (Systematic theology; Wheaton), was broadly positive about AT. At multiple points during the panel Cortez seemed visibly annoyed by the criticisms he was hearing. In response, he commended AT’s pursuit of clarity in its writings and echoed its concern that vagueness was allowed to go unchecked in many theological conversations. He suggested that practitioners of AT seemed willing to pursue truth at any cost, evidenced by their willingness to help others solve theological problems they themselves did not share.

He did raise a concern about AT’s relationship to Biblical theology.  Marc countered his own criticism by pointing out that Tom had devoted an entire chapter of the book to this very issue (see chapter 3). He also noted that St. Andrews had recently opened an Institute specifically aimed at fostering the interaction of AT and Biblical Studies.

Cortez’s “main concern” was about majority world voices. He couldn’t help but notice (Marc has experience with AT beyond reading McCall’s book) that many titles in the Journal of Analytic Theology were primarily from and for an Anglo American audience. If, perhaps, AT is being limited by its cultural center of gravity, doesn’t that detract from its claims to clarity?

Lastly, Marc closed his paper with an admission that AT can be intimidating to “outsiders”. After acknowledging that every discipline has its own language and methodology (i.e. AT can’t be asked to abandon what others retain), he suggested AT might need translators if it was to hope to successfully share its fruits with a wider audience.

Kurt Anders Richardson (Toronto School of Theology; GIAL) presented his paper after Cortez, and took a critical posture like Bird had. His paper was the hardest of the three to follow given its discursive attempt to comment on a higher number of issues. He registered concerns such as whether AT was attempting to swamp theology like Christians were swamping philosophy of religion. He applauded AT’s criticisms of abusing metaphor but then suggested metaphor was natural to language. He suggested AT was just an example of speculative theology going all the way back to Origen, that it might not have anything to offer that wasn’t already present in good theology. He also questioned if its promises of clarity matter if AT isn’t intelligible to the non-specialist, and is AT just an attempt to sneak philosophy into theology curriculum. Richardson did commend AT’s pursuit of clarity and potential ability to defend classical Orthodoxy.

Veli Matti-Karkkainen (Systematic theology; Fuller Seminary), was the last of the four responders. He shared  that he was more of a learner than a practitioner of AT. He hoped to provoke a few thoughts by drawing on his experience in global and ecumenical theology. Overall Karkkainen seemed to make two broad points.

His first point was a complement of AT’s claim to pursue clarity and conceptual rigour. But here, what the right hand gave the left hand took away. Karkkainen happily suggested that he knew of no academic practitioner of African, liberation, feminist or postcolonial theology that did not also strive for coherence and logical precision.  His point wasn’t (perhaps like Richardson’s) that “AT isn’t doing anything new”, but more like, “AT shares the same goals as every theology. (Time will tell.)

His second point could be clustered around the theme of AT and global contexts. Can theologians from the global south participate in AT? Were they? Did AT’s form factor inhibit those wanting to talk about justice rather than just the atonement? If AT is critical of metaphor, would this cause a problem  when  metaphor is essential to connect ideas from global practitioners of theology? He closed with the suggestion that a Templeton Grant be applied for to support the idea of finding a way to foster conversation between AT practitioners and global non-practitioners so as to benefit everyone.

Tom Mccall (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) closed the session with a paper responding to all the above concerns. I will include his responses in posts 2-4 while focusing on three of the panelists most frequently voiced concerns:   AT’s relation to Biblical Theology, AT’s relation to non-Western contexts and  AT’s posture towards non-specialists.


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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