Article review: “Analytic Theology: A Summary, Evaluation, and Defense” by Paul A. MacDonald, Jr.


August 20, 2013 by mattwilcoxen

9780199203567Today I received an email about a new article in the ever-excellent Modern Theology. The article is titled “Analytic Theology: A Summary, Evaluation, and Defense”, and it was written by Paul A. MacDonald Jr. This blog post is my summary and response to that article.

A couple of years ago, while I was still living in Southern California and just starting in on my PhD, Oliver Crisp moved to town. I was fortunate enough to be invited to partake in an “analytic theology” reading group that Professor Crisp was part of. There I sat with a bunch of eager young Christian philosophy students, gathered around our guru. Over a number of sessions, we read essays from Crisp’s edited volume (with Michael Rea), Analytic Theology. It was great fun, and it led me to read a couple of Prof. Crisp’s books, which I appreciated very much. Frankly, I think of Crisp as a Christian theologian. Full stop. So anyways, I was interested to see this new article in a journal that is not typically aligned with the analytic mode of philosophy.

(By the way, there is a new journal called “The Journal of Analytic Theology” and I think you can expect really good things from it.)

In the article, MacDonald does a few things. First, he charts the origins and rise of analytic theology. Second, he provides a couple of examples of analytic work in Trinitarian theology and Christology, attempting to highlight the promise of analytic approaches, but also offering criticism. In a final move, he proposes that analytic theology needs to tighten up its own definition of itself, defining itself by a normative commitment to a certain type of epistemology (and really a certain conception of God’s being).

In charting the origin and rise of analytic theology, MacDonald goes beyond Wolterstorff’s contention in the Analytic Theology volume that certain developments within analytic philosophy (e.g., abandonment of logical positivism and classical foundationalism) have created space for theological reflection. MacDonald points us especially to certain foundational projects in the last few decades: those of Plantinga, Wolterstorff, Alston, Marilyn and Robert Adams, Stump, and Swinburne. The work of these philosophers has come to influence theology, and analytic approaches have been gaining allies within systematic theology programs. Unfortunately, MacDonald does little to say what analytic theology actually is, or what its unique contribution to theology is. At one point he says that it is not a “subdiscipline of either philosophy or theology”. He then gives his very brief definition:

what largely defines analytic theology in its current form is its basic methodological commitment to explore the full range of Christian doctrine (and the truth generally believed to be contained therein) with the utmost precision, clarity, and rigor, in general conformity with the analytic style of philosophizing. Guiding this basic methodological commitment for many leading analytic theologians are further, normative metaphysical and epistemological commitments that broadly can be classified as realist (pp. 9-10).

The problem with this is that it’s all too vague. Precision, clarity, and rigor–is that a precise definition of what analytic philosophy is all about, and what it offers to theology? What more does it offer than stylistic aid?

In providing his examples of the work of analytic philosophy, MacDonald looks very briefly at the trinitarian projects of Swinburne and W.L. Craig (“social”), Brian Leftow (“Latin”), and then Michael Rea (“constitution model”). Each of these, he says, and especially Rea’s, are marked by the attempt “to gain greater philosophical clarity while at the same time remaining…orthodox, and in line with seminal Trinitarian thinkers”. MacDonald, without engaging substantively with whether any of these thinkers is more correct than another, offers this criticism: “Much of contemporary analytic work on the metaphysics of the Trinity, for all of its philosophical precision and clarity, would benefit from being more theologically precise and nuanced.”

A second example is found in the Christology of Oliver Crisp as found in his two major works in that locus (Divinity and Humanity and God Incarnate). In the end, he finds Crisp to be similarly promising but faulted, a criticism he extends outward:

Analytic theologians prize clarity of expression, and claim to offer logically perspicuous accounts of knotty metaphysical issues, especially those pertaining to major theological doctrines like the Trinity and the Incarnation. To a large extent they succeed…But to be consistent (one could argue, logically consistent), analytic theologians need to ensure that they continually meet their own very high standards, or the very high bar they set for themselves as champions of analytic virtues such as logical coherence, precision, and clarity (p. 23).

My question is: what constitutes sufficient clarity, precision, and rigor? Does this oft-repeated trio stand for something more than “make it all make sense”?

In the final section of the paper, MacDonald suddenly takes up the issue of assessing and defending analytic theology, but really he wants to narrow the definition of what analytic theology even is. Whereas one of the progenitors of the whole movement has defined it very broadly, and has shied away from defining it by a set of metaphysical or epistemological commitments, MacDonald is now demanding such commitments.

MacDonald interacts briefly with two papers from the Analytic Theology volume, one by Andrew Chignell and the other by Andrew Dole. These two essays, the former dealing with Kant, and the latter with Schleiermacher, are said to construe analytic theology so broadly that it is possible for it to be done from an atheological or atheistic perspective. His argument for why these modes should not be admitted to analytic theology is incredibly thin: because this is not theologydefined as thought and speech about God. He says regarding these rejected possibilities of analytic theology:

the proper referent of analytic atheology is only what other analytic theologians think and say about God. Nor is it immediately apparent how God-thought and God-talk on a postliberal view are about God, or are directed toward God, either.

In essence, for MacDonald, analytic theology must believe that God is an objective feature of the universe, and theology is the discipline which “investigate[s] and speculate[s] about divine reality, or the divine nature itself”. Since Chignell’s and Dole’s (alleged) conceptions of theology do not do this, they are ruled out on theological grounds, not analytic grounds.

MacDonald does not even seem to consider the fact that in both of these modes of theology (and perhaps in postliberal modes too), different definitions of “theology” are at work, ones that do not necessarily rule out objective knowledge of God. What they do, however, is restrict the purview of theology. For example, one could be a postliberal in that one might see theology as the analysis of the grammar of the Christian faith community, while at the same time believing that those in this Christian faith community have real knowledge of a real God, that they really refer to in their words and deeds.

In his concluding remarks, MacDonald notes that Michael Rea has unabashedly said that analytic theology has affinities with “onto-theology”. MacDonald wisely says that this is a charge that should be resisted because of its attendant charges of idolatrous projection. One of the ways that analytic theology can avoid these charges is by balancing its work out by developing a logically rigorous apophaticism. “Analytic theology can be dogmatic and speculative–aspiring towards true description and understanding of divine reality–while remaining submissive to the supernatural mysteries that it seeks to describe and understand.”

In the end, what we end up with here is first an article about how “Analytic Theology” is a movement that prizes clarity, precision, and rigor in theology. This is obviously a slap in the face to pretty much every other mode of doing theology–as if no one ever thought to be clear or precise before. Then it calls analytic theology to task for not being clear enough (that’s fair enough, I suppose). Finally, the attempt is made to defend analytic theology by redefining it as that sort of theology that speculates about the divine nature itself. Analytic modes of theology which do not meet this criterion are ruled out because they are not theo-logy”–they do not think we can speculate about the divine nature itself. Then a concept of mystery is vaguely referenced as a way to safeguard our speculations from charges of idolatry.

According to MacDonald, if you do not think that theology can speculate about “the divine reality itself”, then you’re not only not doing analytic theology, you’re not doing theology at all. So taken one way, I guess Gregory of Nazianzus, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Barth were all not only not analytic theologians, they were not even theologians. Unfortunately, the author has not provided any clarity, precision, or rigor as to how it is possible for us to know the divine nature itself. And that is the question, isn’t it?


3 thoughts on “Article review: “Analytic Theology: A Summary, Evaluation, and Defense” by Paul A. MacDonald, Jr.

  1. Paul Macdonald says:

    In what follows, I respond to Matt Wilcoxen’s review of my article. While I understand and even appreciate the criticisms Wilcoxen makes—whether directed at the analytic theology project or my summary, analysis, and moderate defense of it—I still think he fails to grasp the deeper point of much of what I say and argue. I hope that clarifying my main interpretative and argumentative claims will help blunt the force of his critique.

    To start, Wilcoxen says I offer an “all too vague” definition of analytic theology. But in the section of the article he quotes, I am not endeavoring to offer a definition of analytic theology. I’m simply identifying some its main characteristics, which I glean from what self-identifying analytic theologians have said about it. Moreover, the analytic penchant for clarity, precision, and rigor does not define analytic theology (nor are analytic theologians the only ones who care about these things). Style serves substance, or specific aims—most notably, providing clear, precise, and rigorous conceptual and metaphysical analysis of central Christian doctrines like the Trinity and Incarnation. So contrary to what Wilcoxen suggests, we cannot reduce analytic theology to a mere “stylistic aid.”

    Wilcoxen then raises a good question: “what constitutes sufficient clarity, precision, and rigor?” I pose this very question to the analytic theologians whose work I consider. How do we know, for example, when we’ve achieved a clearer understanding of what it means for God to be both one (in being / substance) and a Trinity of persons? Analytic theologians can point to the metaphysical models they offer, which give us clear options for making metaphysical sense of the Trinity. (See the second section of the article for more on this). But they can and should do much more: for example, showing how their models improve upon models that other Trinitarian theologians, both past and present, have offered. This is part of the ongoing challenge analytic theologians face in meeting the very high standards they set for themselves as explorers and purported explainers of cardinal theological mysteries.

    In the final section of the paper—my modest defense—my aim is not, as Wilcoxen suggests, to define analytic theology or theology itself so narrowly as to exclude obvious contributors to and shapers of the field, both historical and present. I also don’t “demand” that all analytic theologians hold certain commitments; in fact, I recognize that that analytic theology may flourish as an epistemologically or dialogically pluralist enterprise.

    But I do wave a cautionary flag: epistemology matters for theology. Wedded to the wrong epistemology, theology, analytic or otherwise, can become severed from the very transcendent truth (and reality) it traditionally has sought to understand and explicate, as well as defend. More specifically, a theology that rejects realism, even broadly and moderately construed, in favor of more skeptical and subjectivist epistemologies, threatens to undermine itself by devolving either into cosmology or the anthropology of religious experience and belief. I think this is bad for theology, not good: anti-realist epistemologies put theology in a straightjacket, not realist ones.

    Given this, how could I possibly think that (in Wilcoxen’s words) “analytic theology must believe that God is an objective feature of the universe”? Pursuing objectivity in our knowledge of God does not require turning God into an object (onto-theology), and we shouldn’t let ourselves fall into what I think is a distinctly modern (and postmodern), dualist trap—having to embrace either idolatry or agnosticism, as if they are the only alternatives. I see no inconsistency in developing a theology that is dogmatic and speculative but also recognizably and rigorously respectful of divine mystery. Theological giants like Aquinas have done so—why can’t we let analytic theologians try and do the same?

    Wilcoxen offers a final criticism: “the author has not provided any clarity, precision, or rigor as to how it is possible for us to know the divine nature itself. And that is the question, isn’t it?” It is the question—not one you can tackle in a single article. But if you want to get my answer to it, read my book: Knowledge and the Transcendent (The Catholic University of America Press, 2009).

  2. […] while back I wrote a review of Dr. Paul MacDonald’s Modern Theology article on Analytic Theology. Dr. MacDonald recently commented on that post with a detailed reply. So that his response does not […]

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