Analytic theology is one of the cool, sexy hip things happening. – Michael Bird
What is analytic theology? I’ve written quite a bit about that question on this blog before. And honestly, a lot of people have throw in their two cents regarding this question. But what we have in Thomas McCall’s An Invitation to Analytic Christian Theology is probably the clearest most concise, most accessible introduction to the topic. As Oliver Crisp says in a blurb “until now it [analytic theology] has had no introductory text…McCall provides a stellar volume for this purpose.”
McCall begins this introduction with a brief history of analytic theology, chronicling its emergence from analytic philosophy to analytic philosophy of religion to what we have now, analytic theology. He notes that there is no single decisive settled meaning for the term, but we could say that:
Analytic theology signifies a commitment to employ the conceptual tools of analytic philosophy where those tools might be helpful in the work of constructive Christian theology. (16)
He then addresses some of the common objections people have made about the movement including: “analytic theology relies on a univocal account of religious language,” “analytic theology is an exercise in natural theology,” “analytic theology is naïve with respect to the history of doctrine,” “analytic theology is only apologetics for conservative theology,” and “analytic theology isn’t spiritual edifying.”
[It should be noted that the last objection in particular is an objection that hits close to home for me. I’m a part of Fuller Seminary’s Analytic Theology project whose stated purpose is to focus on three Big Questions as case studies to road test the value of analytic theology in a vocational context: prayer, divine love, and the theological implications and engagement of the sciences of human origins…. The project hypothesizes that Analytic Theology (AT) provides a rigorous intellectual framework for the training and formation of church leaders. Our team will approach this in two ways. First, by “thickening up” AT theologically, providing examples of work that showcases the virtues of AT in written outputs and publications on the three Big Questions of the grant. These are prayer, divine love, and theological anthropology in conversation with the sciences. Second, we will bring together theologians and scholars with pastors and church leaders to explore the ways in which theology, and AT specifically, may be of service to the life of the church.” So yeah, I do think it can be spiritually and pastorally edifying.]
The work McCall does in laying down the foundations of Analytic theology will be very helpful for those seeking an introduction to the topic. But for those who are sort of familiar with analytic theology the later 4 chapters will be of greater interest. In these chapters he addresses the relationship between analytic theology, Scripture, the history of doctrine, and culture. The final chapter addresses how analytic theology stands in relation to theology’s proper posture and approach to its ends. McCall ends with some suggestions about how the analytic theologian may relate to modern theology, the theological interpretation of scripture, global Christianity, and pastoral concerns. In McCall’s opinion, the future of analytic theology is quite promising, precisely because it represents a renewal of older ways of doing theology.
One of my favorite things about this book were the “case studies” that McCall did over the course of each chapter. In the chapter on Analytic Theology and Scripture McCall uses Analytic theology to help bring clarity to what we mean when we say X is biblical. The term “biblical” and “unbiblical” often gets thrown around without sufficient precision. This actually makes for some poor arguments when arguing that one’s position is “biblical” and an opponent’s position is “unbiblical.” McCall places the term “biblical” on a spectrum between stating that: The Bible explicitly asserts P –> the Bible includes sentences that assert p and sentences that assert (not)P. This set of distinctions is important and is helpfully brought to the forefront of our theological work with the help of analytic theology which places a large amount of importance on clarity.
Besides the case study on the term “biblical,” McCall applies the virtues of analytic theology to put D.A. Carson’s use of the term “compatibilism” under the microscope. This is an excellent example of how analytic theology can help us to do even biblical theology. In his chapter on historical theology he uses analytic theology to address several contentious Christological controversies: 1) the metaphysics of the incarnation and 2) physicalist Christology. In his chapter on culture McCall takes on recent discussions about creation and evolution. This is likely McCall’s least innovative case study. Nevertheless, this is probably one of the most “practical” of the studies. What the creation/evolution debate really needs is clarity, as the debate suffers from proponents on both sides speaking past one another in broad generalities about the opponents supposedly held position. Consider even how some of those involved in the debates tend to make it an all or nothing issue: evolution or creation, with no clear working definition of what exactly these terms mean. If the dialogue is to go forward these sides need nuancing, and McCall helps bring this to the table.
As Mike Bird said – Analytic Theology is one of the cool, sexy hip things happening. He is absolutely right. However the future of analytic theology will be determined by how well it can weave its way into the life of the church. If analytic theology is to stay insider game, played by a small group of experts, the movement will likely die. However, if analytic theology is to become something more than a mere fad it will have to do something… it will have to prove that it has something to contribute to the life of the church. McCall’s work in this introductory text shows that Analytic Theology has what it takes to become more than a mere fad – if done well – analytic theology will become a staple part of the church’s task of thinking and speaking about God in a way that honors the Christian faith.
Note: I received this book this book from IVP in exchange for an impartial review.