Part 4 of 4: Analytic Theology and Non-Specialists: Are Non-Philosophers Welcome?

February 20th, 2017 by

This post is part of a short series looking at questions raised about Analytic Theology during a 2016 ETS response to Tom McCall’s An Invitation to Analytic Christian Theology. (See part 1 for an overview). In parts 2-3 we took a closer look at AT’s relationship to Biblical theology and AT’s relationship to global participants. These questions were selected for attention because two or more participants touched on the same concern in their papers. Our final post highlights a third question of this sort: “Is Analytic Theology’s technical nature a problem that it needs to correct so others can participate?”

This concerned was raised in the following ways. Marc Cortez mentioned Sarah Coakley’s 2013 essay “On Why Analytic Theology is Not a Club.” Despite being a friend of AT, he admitted that “outsiders” would need terms like “the indiscernibility of identicals” and articles using numbered propositions translated into something they could understand. Kurt Anders Richardson asked whether there might be a problem with AT’s claims to clarity if non-specialists can’t understand the material. Veli Matti-Karkkainen joined the chorus by suggesting AT’s “form factor” may not fit well with wider global audiences or be able to handle topics that concern them (e.g. violence against the powerless).

So, should AT be required to modify its “genre” if it hopes to gain acceptance among a wider audience of theologians? I don’t recall Tom McCall directly responding to this concern but Marc Cortez responded to his own concerns with what I take to be the right answer to this topic. In short, it’s an unfair question. Consider Marc’s words, “I would no more ask AT to abandon its methodology and vocabulary than I would Old Testament scholars to give up on archaeology. God gifts the world with people like both groups so that the rest of us can enjoy life.”

What would become of fields like geometry, physics or Hebrew if specialists were required to write only in ways that non-specialists were comfortable with? Who would not agree that a Nestle-Aland apparatus or an article on discourse analysis was confusing when we first looked at them? We would never suggest that Biblical Studies jettison these tools because they are unfriendly to “outsiders.” In response to Karkkainen’s concern, I’ve never heard anyone suggest that Biblical archaeology is a problem because it doesn’t have the tools to address concerns of the Global South. (I pointed out in part 3 that AT, bieng topic neutral, can most certainly work with concerns and ideas of the global south)

Most disciplines, not only AT, face the problem of “translating” their findings into works non-specialists can use. Until tools are created that make the resources of AT more accessible to others (e.g. a commentary authored by an interdisciplinary team of Biblical scholars and analytic theologians) this last challenge may stick around for a while. Until then, scholars needing access to the insights of AT face the same options they do with other specialties: (a) learn enough to become a semi-specialist that can follow the technical conversation or (b) team up with a colleague who can make sense of the literature for them. Asking a discipline (AT included) to handicap itself in order to appeal to the widest audience would disable it from contributing its gifts to the church. Having said this, what should pastors or theologians do who wish to dip their foot in the waters?

Given its newness, practitioners of AT are still wrestling with how to train fellow theologians and pastors in the use analytic tools. While skills like textual criticism or exegetical analysis (i.e. tools for working analytically with the text of scripture) have long been a part of the seminary curriculum, the tools for working analytically with philosophical ideas underpinning theology have not been. Hopefully this will change over time.

AT can pose challenges for newcomers, but how is this any different than starting out in Biblical Hebrew or textual criticism? It may take a few months to get one’s bearings, and (as with any discipline) it will take years to press into the level of proficiency one desires. AT has its own terminology, form factor, list of leading contributors, and body of literature. Related, as it is to analytic philosophy and historical theology, learners can dive as deep as they wish.

Newcomers will be happy to hear that the literature presents them with a spectrum. It is not the case that all AT articles are full of mind bending propositional logic (most are not); one is more likely to come across the high octane stuff in philosophy of religion articles. There are even AT articles that have no numbered premises in them! (These may be counterproductive for those wishing to learn how to do AT though!) Either way, AT does have a shallow end that newcomers can wade into.

Readers looking for a place to start have a variety of options open to them. If one is merely looking for examples of Analytic Theology, an obvious place to keep your channel tuned to is our website and the Tom McCall’s book An Invitation to Analytic Christian Theology is an obvious suggestion as well.

If a pastor or junior theologian, without access to philosophical coursework, wanted to start building their own analytic skills (rather than just accessing the literature) what should they do? I hesitate to suggest that a new discipline can be picked up on “one’s own”. But theoretically, one would need experience with (a) the analytic tools and terms used in AT work, (b) a familiarity with the philosophical literature AT has grown out of (c) exemplars that one can learn from and (d) if at all possible, a dialogue partner with some experience.

Opinions will vary on what resources to recommend to those attempting this. I would suggest you start at step (b) above (getting familiar with some of the literature). Read in areas you are most interested in. Interest will drive you to push through the more challenging task of learning (a) terms and tools . As you go, build a list of (c) names who have done exemplary work in philosophical and analytic theology. I look forward to creating a more substantial document to help students, but until then (and at the risk of gross oversimplification) here are some ideas for the absolute beginner.

If one wanted a variety of examples of (b) (i.e. the topics and styles of Analytic and philosophical theologians written for non philosophers), they might consult Reason for the Hope Within (Eerdmans, 1998), Four Views: God & Time (IVP, 2001), Oliver Crisp’s Retrieving Doctrine (IVP Academic, 2011), Tom McCall’s Which Trinity Whose Monotheism (Eerdmans, 2010) Thomas Morris’s Our Idea of God (Regent, 1997), or even Ronald Nash’s out of print The Concept of God (Academie, 1983). These are merely samples from a variety of years and perspectives. From there one could move into more technical literature if necessary.

Those wishing for help with (a) terminology and tools should get copies of The Philosophers Toolkit (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), Philosophical Devices (Oxford, 2010), and Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (IVP Academic, 2003).

For a list of names to begin following, one can purchase God and the Philosophers (Oxford, 1994) and consult the chapter headings. Add to this list all of the authors/participants in the above books. Remove Kane, Feldman, Papineau, Baggini, Fosi and add Michael Rae and Oliver Crisp.

If, after the above sampling, one remained interested in going deeper, a systematic course of study would need to be study to give the individual foundational skills in analytic philosophy and theology. Watch our site for resources. I’m already too far afield though. The point of this post was to insist theologians offer AT the same terms of engagement that they do other tools in the theological ecosystem (i.e. historiography, text criticism, translation, etc..).

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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