Analytic Theology for Pastors - Part 1

Next Friday Fuller Seminary will be hosting a colloquium for pastors who are interested in analytic theology. In light of that I would like to throw out a few thoughts to signal how I think about analytic theology. Perhaps these thoughts will help readers (pastors among them). In this first blog I want to sketch out a bit of background information. In part two I'll either give more specific examples, or discuss where to go if you are interested in learning more. 

What is analytic theology? Lest I scare away certain readers too quickly, I'm going to avoid using the "P" word right out of the blocks. (Keep reading, you'll figure it out). Instead I want to begin by easing into some basic ideas that float through my mind when I think about analytic theology. 

  1. Analogy 1: Analytic Theology is theology done in a new key. Pastors are no doubt familiar with theology done in other "keys"  such as Biblical theology, historical theology, practical theology or systematic theology. To do analytic theology is to do theology, similarly, in a new key or perhaps even as one phase of systematic theology. Analytic theology is theology, but it involves approaching theology in a certain way. 
  2. Analogy 2: Analytic theology is (in some ways) to theological thought what knowledge of Greek/Hebrew are to certain stages of doing exegesis.  Just as you have tools for interpreting the Scripture, there are certain tools (i.e. words, concepts, long running dialogues to join, classic books to read) to aid in thinking carefully about theology. Pastoral training has historically included the development of at least a minimal set of skills in Greek and Hebrew. This enables the teacher or pastor to work carefully with the original language of ScriptureWithout knowledge of original languages one is dependent upon what others write or say, and in many areas one's interpretation of a passage will depend upon what others, who do have competency in the languages, say that a certain passage means.

    Could you do exegesis without knowing any Greek and Hebrew? Yes. Do you want to as a teacher or pastor? Ideally no. Could you understand the bible without knowing anything about historical backgrounds and Biblical geography? Yes. Do you want to as a teacher or pastor? Definitely not. Likewise, can you lead a discussion about the attributes of God, or the incarnation, or the makeup of the inner person,  God's relation to time and space without knowing some analytic or philosophical theology? Yes. Do you want to as a pastor?  I'm going to suggest, "No". Minimally, just like knowing something about the original languages will help you use tools better, similarly knowing something about analytic theology will help you use theological tools better. 
  3. Analytic theology is like a man who brings things out of his storehouse that are both old and new. One could argue that analytic and/or philosophical theology has been done since the days of the church fathers. Those who hammered out the ecumenical creeds engaged in certain forms of philosophical theology as part of their background work. Scholastics like Anselm, Aquinas and Scotus set a high water mark for such thought many centuries later. In our own day there seems to have been a rebirth of this way of approaching theological questions post 1960 as Christians, working in philosophy, applied their skills to theological questions. The story for that hiatus will perhaps need to wait for another blog.  Therefore (point 4)...
  4. Analytic theology should not be equated with turn of the century analytic philosophy any more than a seminary's current identity should be tightly equated with their turn of the century forebears. Analytic theology was born out of a mix between (as noted above) analytic philosophers with doing work on topics of Christian theology - but in ways that involved more philosophical approaches. Here you see I've gone and used the "P" word!  Before you write this off as inapplicable to followers of Christ - let me remind you of a favorite phrase of pastors. "The question is not if one is a theologian. We are all theologians; we all think about God. The question is how well we think about God." Might I add, as one who once thought philosophy had nothing to do with Christianity, that, "We are all likewise philosophers." We all think and think about thinking. We all discuss The question is, "How well do we do it?" It turns out that Athens has much to do with Jerusalem. More on that in another blog. Back to the story then... 

    Because there was a shift in analytic philosophy after the fall of logical positivism, one should not associate analytic philosophy immediately with Bertrand Russell, the early Wittgenstein, Frege, etc..  If you hear someone attempting to equate analytic philosophy (and by extension analytic theology) to merely reducing theological statements to formal logic, remind yourself that you are being presented with a incomplete caricature.  Yes, some of the high octane stuff may be encounters at the borderlands between analytic theology and philosophical theology (or philosophy of religion) but this is by no means the heart of analytic theology. There is something here fore everyone; especially the questions! If one merely skims through analytic theology to discover the sorts of questions that one has forgotten to ask, or assumed they knew the answers to, one will have done well. 

     Just to finish up this point, more representative names for philosophical theology would include (yes I am randomly listing names out  thereby leaving off some that should not be left... and yes I am risking a false abstraction by trying to organize them by generations):  
    1. (1st Gen) Basil Mitchell, George Mavrodes, Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorf,
    2. (2nd Gen) Plantinga/Wolterstorff again, William Hasker, Thomas Flint, Linda Zagzebski, Eleonre Stump, Richard Swinburne, Thomas Morris...
    3. (3rd Gen) Oliver Crisp, Michael Rea, Thomas McCall, Trent Doughtery, ...
    4. (4th gen) recent PhD students etc.. 

      If pressed I would say that the 2nd generation were those who threw open the floodgates on this area of work by demonstrated that Christian philosophers could do philosophical work every bit as rigorous as secular philosophers. Furthermore they demonstrated that theological topics provided rich ground for learning and advancing philosophical work. 
  5. But what is analytic theology? From my limited perspective here are some of the places where you see analytic theology in action. First, it seems to me that many Christian philosophers and analytic theologians have a bit of a realist bent to them. In other words, man, not all, analytic theologians, in discussing something like the hypostatic union would take this as  areal union meriting more than handwaving-as-explanation. An analytic theologian would not quote a list of Bible verses (and take themselves to be giving an explanation or model for the hypostatic union). Nor would they wave such explanations off as pure mystery. Nor would they be eager to take on board higher Biblical criticism and explain the incarnation as a mythical construct of the early Christian community. Instead an analytic theologian might think about how the clues of Scripture, philosophy,  or the sciences help us to think of a model for what the hypostatic union might work like ... and here is a key... in a way that is faithful to some of the material that we have while at the same time avoiding some problem. 

    Analytic theologians tend to be problem solvers and solution creators. If I've seen anything, I've seen the analytic crowd attempting to find ways to hold onto orthodox theology by developing solutions to conceptual puzzles encountered in theology. While some Christians may declare certain topics to be "mystery" and thus off limits - we can at least ask what makes them right about where the boundaries lie? What if, unbeknownst to some theologians, there was an entire parallel world of rich thought about theological issues that provided conceptual tools for thinking carefully (and at times more fruitfully) about what others categorize under "mystery".   To that end (point 7)
  6. Behold the parallel universe! It turns out that on a great number of topics, theologians and Christian philosophers have been writing - great stuff - and not reading each others works. Word on the street is that philosophers and theologians are friends but keep their distance. I'm reminded here of Air Force pilots and Navy Sailors. They know they are on the same team but they both have their own ways of doing things, their own equipment, different chain of commands, etc.. They serve the same nation but often live in very different "communities". Likewise Christian theologians and philosophers. Analytic theology is all about bringing these two domains of rich work into fruitful contact.  
  7. Analytic theology is not apologetics, but they do have one thing in common. Analytic theology is quite different than apologetics. The later is aimed at defending the faith or making progress in evangelistic encounters. Exchanges between believers and non-believers provide the real world context. Analytic theology by contrast is aimed at putting thinking tools (honed by Christians working in philosophical theology) to work on theological topics. Church dogmatics, or teaching the church theology is the real world context here. Where they bear a slight resemblance is that at times both  theology and apologetics find themselves engaged in unravelling challenges that stand in the way of comprehending (not exhaustively of course) certain theological ideas. Often these challenges are posed by those who do not consider themselves followers of Christ as part of the structure of their non-belief. (E.g. Christian theology often speaks of a soul. Neuroscience says the mind is reducible to (i.e. just is) the brain and that there is no soul. Therefore Christian theology is wrong on this account. And because Christian theology is wrong here then ... and I'll leave it to your imagination to fill in the blank. This is a rather pedestrian example of a theological topic from the theological loci we call anthropology that could come up in both a Sunday School class or on the street corner.  

    Stick with me now... Haven't theologians always talked bout such things? What is particularly analytic about this topic? The biblical scholar might list off verses containing words like sarx, or nephesh in an effort to figure out what was meant by those terms. The historian will enumerate what the church has taught about the soul in various eras. The analytic theologian is going to enter the conversation and investigate claims about what really contradicts what here, or perhaps show that someone in the conversation is equivocating on how they are using a phrase, or introduce various models from the philosophy of mind for how one could understand the soul (e.g. hylomorphism, property dualism, idealism, emergent dualism, etc.. ) and suggest which one best fits with the Biblical texts. 

    But what will analytic theology do for me and my church? 

    1. It will make you  as a teacher a more careful thinker by forcing you to clarify how words are being used or misused in your discussion of theology. We often use words like "this is", or "this shows" or "this proves" or "God could just do ____",  in ways that are inaccurate. Sometimes we claim God could do things that are logically impossible just because we have a sloppy view of omnipotence.  Sometimes we claim to hold a view and simultaneously hold things incompatible. This isn't a fault. We've all thought hard about some things, but perhaps not about other things. So AT will help you become more internally consistent with your set of beliefs. It will help you discover the implications of certain theological beliefs. Perhaps something you say you belief implies something you don't actually want to imply!
    2. Many of the people in our congregations learn physics and calculus in high school. They go on to operate on bodies and massive computer networks. They manage hedge funds and teams of brilliant people.  Ironically the church can sometimes treat such people like children when it comes to engaging them theologically. New Testament scholar Michael Wilkins points out that history has reversed itself. Where once the pastor was the most educated person in the congregation, it now seems that the pastor is often the least educated! When the smart people in our congregation get to wondering about certain "questions" it does them no good to hear too frequently that "These things are just mysteries that we won't know until heaven". Too much of this can invite skepticism. Why not introduce them to a formidable world of careful thinkers who can guide them through questions on God's hiddenness, the Trinity, human constitution, whether prayer changes God, free will, etc.  Making this move will require some education on the part of the pastor however.
    3. Analytic theology can help you realize that some topics that Christians wave off as "speculative" or "mysterious" are not that at all; it's just that they didn't yet have the conceptual tools to think through the answer set yet. I can personally recall questions that I thought were absolute mysteries (while attending a leading evangelical seminary) that now (with a degree in philosophy under my belt) I look at very differently. I can now (at least) map out both the exegetical options, as well as the conceptual options for certain topics. It is one thing to list out all the verses that speak about the soul. It is a completely different think to list out 6 different ways a person may or may not have a soul and be able to think about which model best fits the verses. Complete game changer. But yes, it takes time to get there. 
    4. Because of its affinity for historical retrieval, analytic theology can introduce you and those in your church to partners from bygone centuries that asked the same questions - and at times - more carefully worked through options (i.e. see Aquinas). This can also bring a newfound respect for older writers. 
    5. Often analytic theology can help you find the connecting links necessary for bridging  concepts from the everyday world (e.g. psychology, neuroscience,..) to Biblical and theological concepts. 
    6. While we must always take care to not be prideful, AT can bring a bit more confidence. This is because after enough experience one can take themselves to be working with a whole extra dimension of care/clarity/info that wasn't there before. 
    7. Analytic theology frequently sends us running back to the Scriptures, now that one has been introduced to a host of conceptual options (see 4 above)  for new exegetical clues. In other words, it provides yet one more thing (along side background studies, exegetical studies, and theological studies) to triangulate just where you want to position yourself theologically on a topic. At times it can almost feel like you are working with three dimensions of a theological idea rather than two. (Dimension one: what does the text say? Dimension two: what options and limits do other theological concepts provide? Dimension three: what logical or conceptual or scientific limits further clarify this issue? Dimension four: what historical limits or options are there).