The Nature and Promise of Analytic Theology
by oliver d. crisp, james m. arcadi, and jordan wessling
brill, 104 pages, $84
Theology is born of wonder. We see the sun and ask: What light illumines this light? We read of a bush that burns but is not consumed and wonder: What fire burns without need for fuel? Wonder before the realities presented to us by the Book of Nature and the Book of Scripture leads us to wonder about those realities. The quest for understanding, which drives all intellectual disciplines, drives the discipline of theology as well.
Yet theology’s quest for understanding is tempered by several considerations. God is not a body in space that can be measured. Nor is he a member of a class that can be analyzed in terms of genus and species. In scriptural idiom, “the King of ages” is “invisible.” God transcends both our physical and our intellectual capacities of perception. “The blessed and only Sovereign” is one “whom no one has ever seen or can see.”
Divine invisibility, however, is not unintelligibility. God does not transcend human capacities for perception and analysis in the manner of a Kantian noumenal realm that, in transcending human intelligibility, transcends intelligibility itself. When the main character in Adam Roberts’s novel The Thing Itself encounters the titular monster, “the-thing-in-itself,” he can only describe the incomprehensible presence as “raw tissues of flesh, darkness visible, a kind of fog,” “a great tumbling of scree down an endless slop,” “claws, jaws, a clamping something”—in other words, as a reality that might just as well be described in any words as in no words at all. Not so God. He dwells in “unapproachable light” (1 Tim. 6:16), and “in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). Human intelligence cannot fully comprehend God because God is supremely luminous, supremely intelligible. The brightness of divine light simultaneously outshines human capacities for categorization and analysis and awakens our God-given thirst to know, understand, and possess him: “to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord” (Ps. 27:4; 63:1–2).
Theology’s quest for understanding is further tempered by the manner in which God, the principal subject matter of theology, communicates himself to us. To his affirmation of divine invisibility—“No one has ever seen God”—the Fourth Evangelist adds an affirmation of divine revelatory largesse: “The only-begotten God . . . has made him known.” Though the invisible God can be recognized in his visible works of creation, he reveals himself above all in the Word made flesh.
Faith is a humble, dependent mode of knowing. Faith relies on someone else’s intellectual virtue and rests on someone else’s credibility, receiving what can be known of God in this life on the basis of God’s testimony through his prophets and apostles in Holy Scripture. Despite its dependent status, faith ascends to heights that reason cannot comprehend, because it grasps the majestic Word of God. Faith apprehends “him who is invisible” (Heb. 11:27). Moreover, it is precisely faith’s apprehension of the invisible God that awakens the quest for deepened understanding. Faith seeks to “understand the things freely given us by God” (1 Cor. 2:12; cf. Eph. 3:14–19).
Though faith’s quest for understanding remains largely unfulfilled in this life—“For now we see in a mirror dimly” (1 Cor. 13:12)—God promises that one day it will be fulfilled. God will crown faith’s quest with the beatific vision of God (Matt. 5:8; Heb. 12:14). Then we will see him “face to face.” Then we will know him fully as we have been fully known (1 Cor. 13:12).
In The Nature and Promise of Analytic Theology, Oliver Crisp, James Arcadi, and Jordan Wessling commend the discipline of “analytic theology” as a useful servant in faith’s quest for theological understanding. A relative newcomer, analytic theology emerged a little over a decade ago when scholars such as Crisp, William Abraham, Thomas McCall, and Michael Rea began applying the logical tools and argumentative style of analytic philosophy to the subject matter of theology. Early studies, such as Crisp and Rea’s Analytic Theology: New Essays in Philosophical Theology (2009), signaled the promise of this approach. The present work declares the promise fulfilled, citing an impressive résumé of academic journals, monograph series, annual conferences, and research centers devoted to analytic theology.
Analytic theology is not the first attempt at applying philosophical rigor to theology. During the Arian crisis, Christian bishops and theologians deployed the linguistic and philosophical tools of the day to clarify the mysterious nature of the Father-Son relation and refute idolatrous conceptions of that relation. In the great medieval schools, and later in Protestant universities that inherited the methodological approaches developed in medieval traditions of learning, Christian theologians drew upon a treasury of philosophical resources in their pursuit of theological understanding. The rise of analytic theology, with its appropriation of analytic philosophy, is but the latest phase in Christian theology’s long history of engaging philosophy for its own spiritual and intellectual ends.
The usefulness of analytic philosophy for theology is not self-evident. In the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, a foundational text for analytic philosophy, Ludwig Wittgenstein laid down a rule that seems to preclude theology’s attempt to speak of its ineffable subject matter: “what can be said at all can be said clearly; and whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent.” More recently, John Searle, a leading American analytic philosopher, is reported to have said: “I am an analytic philosopher. I think for myself.” (In his recent attempt to define analytic philosophy, Michael Beaney cites these statements by Wittgenstein and Searle as representative of the discipline.) Does not Searle’s alignment of analytic philosophy with autonomous reasoning make it unserviceable to faith’s quest for understanding? Theology is not, first and foremost, a matter of thinking for oneself but a matter of “thinking after” that which the theologian has received from someone else, that which is first to be believed and only then to be understood.
Crisp and company are aware of these concerns and address them head-on. According to the authors, analytic theology does not compromise the priority of faith in theological understanding. The articles of faith, they affirm, are not established by thinking for oneself. They are revealed in Holy Scripture and received by the gift of faith.
Drawing on precedents in fourteenth-century medieval theology, Crisp and company argue that the resources of analytic philosophy assist us in better grasping the articles of faith, and that in three ways. First, doing theology in an analytic mode assists us in clarifying terminology used in the articles of faith, such as “substance” and “person.” Second, it helps us address objections raised against the articles of faith, especially those that charge the Christian faith with incoherence. Third, it assists us in grasping the articles of faith by means of analogies. By appealing to matters with which we are more familiar (the relation between a diver and his scuba gear), analytic theology helps us better understand matters with which we are less familiar (the relation between the Second Person of the Trinity and his human nature).
Unfortunately, analytic theology’s commitment to prioritizing “precision, clarity, and logical coherence” and its commitment to avoiding “substantive (non-decorative) use of metaphor” can tend toward domesticating divine transcendence. As Katherine Sonderegger observes, acknowledging the ineffable nature of theology’s subject matter is a sign, not of epistemic failure, but of epistemic success. Moreover, too serious an allergy to metaphorical description of God threatens to cut us off from the very language God has given us to make sense of his ineffable glory. But, the authors contend, the domestication of divine transcendence is not the necessary outcome of their method.
After all, analytic theology’s habit of avoiding “substantive” use of metaphor is just that, a habit, not an absolute proscription. Analytic theology does employ metaphors and analogies in its quest for theological understanding, drawing on familiar concepts to illuminate more difficult concepts (as in the example of the scuba diver noted above). The concern of analytic theologians like Crisp, Arcadi, and Wessling is not to rid theological discourse of metaphorical terminology but to avoid unbridled, impressionistic uses of metaphor that fail to observe the “reality depicting” (Janet Soskice) significance that comes with speaking of one thing in terms of another.
The authors acknowledge that analytic theology’s commitment to “precision, clarity, and logical coherence” might dispose the discipline to the dangers of “ontotheology,” the practice of subsuming God and creatures under a larger umbrella of being and of describing God and creatures by means of univocal (as opposed to analogical) language. A common example of this mistake occurs when theologians attempt to construct a generic concept of “person” to specify what must be true of both divine and human persons. The authors also recognize that some practitioners of analytic theology espouse a univocal approach to theological language. They argue, however, that such an approach is not intrinsic to their enterprise and point to recent studies in analytic theology that seek to honor the place of mystery in theological discourse.
We should celebrate the emergence of analytic theology. Since the nineteenth century, theology has struggled to remain focused on its primary subject matter—God and God’s acts—and too often has become preoccupied with questions of praxis and politics, questions it is unfit to address to the extent that it has lost its primary focus. Analytic theology, in the early years of its existence, does not exhibit signs of succumbing to this modern theological malaise. Its focus is manifestly theological.
Nor is analytic theology embarrassed to learn from Scripture and tradition. As noted above, it adopts the posture of “faith seeking understanding” in its intellectual pursuits, humbly receiving the doctrinal content of Scripture and tradition, not in order to destroy that doctrinal content through analysis, but in order to understand and appreciate it. Analytic theologians find the mysteries of the faith, such as the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the sacraments, interesting—and they seek to offer metaphors and analogies for those mysteries by which faith may acquire productive understanding.
Systematic theology needs analytic theology. In its modern mode, systematic theology has not always exhibited the conceptual rigor and clarity one might expect from a discipline devoted to speaking of divine light. One leading late-twentieth-century systematic theologian boasted that his work could not be translated into English—leaving some to wonder whether the problem was not merely the sophistication of his German. Closer to home, North American systematic theology’s quest for a “metaphorical theology” that speaks to our time has sometimes exposed it to the charge of incoherence, if not idolatry. A healthy dose of the rigor and clarity that analytic theology affords could be just what is needed, especially if analytic theology is able to appropriate the best resources of the broader Christian philosophical tradition, which were cultivated specifically to speak of a transcendent God. In this regard, the Thomistic tradition is an especially rich resource.
Yet viewing analytic theology as a “species” of systematic theology, as Crisp and company do, risks suggesting that it is an alternative, relatively independent way of practicing systematic theology. It seems to fit Schleiermacher’s definition of a distinct theological “discipline.” It has its own literature, its own questions and methods, its own intellectual culture and social settings, and so forth. But, I wonder, is analytic theology’s relative independence as a species of systematic theology conducive to its long-term flourishing?
Systematic theology, as I understand it, excels when it operates in several distinct but interdependent modes of theological reasoning. Theological reason has an attentive mode, which it exercises in the pursuit of hermeneutical and historical understanding of Scripture and tradition. Theological reason has an analytic mode, which it exercises in making and clarifying judgments regarding the deliverances of Scripture and tradition. Theological reason has an evangelical mode, which it exercises in commending the judgments it derives from Scripture and tradition and in attempting to clarify those judgments in response to the questions and objections of its auditors inside and outside the Church. And theological reason has a doxological mode, which it exercises in petitioning and praising its primary object, the God who dwells in unapproachable light.
None of these modes or powers can operate successfully apart from the others, which is not to say that every systematic theologian must specialize in every mode of theological reason or that every research program in systematic theology must give direct attention to each of these modes. It is only to say that, apart from a proper conception of the nature, objects, and ends of theological reason in its wholeness, the discipline of systematic theology is destined for fracture and fragmentation.
Systematic theology is enjoying a particularly healthy season at present. And the rise of analytic theology is one of the signs of its health. But if analytic theology is to flourish as a theological discipline, as I hope it will, then perhaps we should view it not as a “species” of systematic theology, but instead as one of systematic theology’s “essential powers”—a power that systematic theology cannot do without, but one that does not, by itself, fulfill the requirements for a fully functioning, healthy body of divinity.
Scott R. Swain is President and James Woodrow Hassell Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?