Monday, June 06, 2011

Some rather unanalytic thoughts on analytic theology: reflections on Logos 2011

I returned on Sunday from Logos 2011, a superb three-day conference at the University of Notre Dame, sponsored by the Center for Philosophy of Religion and under the specific auspices of the Analytic Theology Project. Let me begin by thanking Michael Rea and the other organizers of the conference for inviting me to participate in the conversation. It was an honor to be there and I greatly enjoyed my time at Notre Dame.

After writing a number of tweets (#logos2011) about it, I’ve naturally been asked to comment at length about the experience. I will do so now, though my assessment here is merely provisional in nature. Larger issues raised at the conference will have to be addressed at another time. This year’s topic on divine revelation, scripture, canon, and biblical authority is a central interest of my work, and for that reason, many of the most interesting theological insights from the conference will have to wait for a future occasion. Here I only want to raise some concerns that I have about the project of analytic theology more broadly, in light of the conversations I had at the conference.

But first, let me gush about the fantastic people I was so privileged to meet. I very much enjoyed conversing with Evan Fales (Iowa), whose paper was a favorite of mine at the conference, and whose use of Leach, Durkheim, Levi-Strauss to interpret scripture is immensely interesting to me. Getting to know Tamsin Jones (Harvard) was a highlight of my time. I was also happy to meet and interact with Andrew Dole (Amherst). It was a pleasure to interact with Oliver Crisp (formerly of Bristol, now at Fuller) and Michael Rea (Notre Dame); both graciously answered my questions and Crisp especially is a lot of fun at a bar. After years of reading his work, I finally met Kevin Vanhoozer (Wheaton) for the first time, as well as his family. More recently, I have taken a great interest in Kenton Sparks (Eastern), whose book God’s Word in Human Words is perhaps the best evangelical treatment of modern biblical scholarship—a work I cannot recommend too highly. Sadly, however, I had to miss the opening session with Peter Enns, a man I highly respect and admire. The reason for this is a little long, but suffice it to say, my luggage was lost during a layover at O’Hare airport. I received it the next day around noon at our hotel, but the last shuttle for the morning session left at 11 am. I also did not have a chance to talk personally with William Abraham (SMU), who provided what was for me the highlight of the trip (see below).

Second, let me also state the obvious: for a conference organized under the auspices of analytic theology, there were very few actually analytic theology or philosophy papers. Unlike previous Logos conferences (from what I’ve heard), this conference broadened the scope of participants considerably. They also chose scholars known for their work on this particular doctrinal topic, as opposed to picking analytic scholars to speak about the topic. The result was an excellent discussion about scripture, though perhaps not as satisfying on a philosophical level for those working in analytic philosophy of religion. Since I’m not interested in analytic theology myself, I found the papers very interesting and worthwhile. Some of the papers were even critical of analytic theology, whether implicitly (Paul Nimmo) or explicitly (Vanhoozer, Abraham).

In the rest of this post, I want to raise some concerns I have about the whole project of analytic theology. I raise these as part of a good faith effort to understand what the project is trying to do. If I have misconstrued anything, I do hope those in the analytic theology circles will correct me. I view myself as a friendly critic, an outsider interested in helping those “inside” do their work better.

My general critique is a classically “continental” one: viz. that I am concerned with the apparently ahistorical and non-social conception of reason with which the analytic people appear to be working. That is to say, there seems to be a sense that theological claims and concepts can be evaluated in abstraction from the historical, cultural, and political contexts within which such claims and concepts originate and develop. So we can evaluate someone like Schleiermacher or Barth by distilling a set of propositions and deciding whether the conclusions rationally follow from the premises. While this appears quite objective, it does not properly take into account both the inherently contextual nature of these theological texts but also the intrinsically social nature of reason itself. The former comes from the fact that these and other theologians are writing within a particular tradition, responding to developments within that tradition, and seeking to speak for this tradition within a new historical situation. The latter is a larger claim that goes back at least to Hegel (see Pinkard’s The Sociality of Reason), with whom I agree. But I cannot defend that tradition of thought here. That’s not to say analytic philosophy cannot take up this Hegelian line of thinking. People like Robert Brandom and John McDowell have done just that, within an analytic pragmatism or a particular reading of Wittgenstein that socializes our thinking, speaking, and doing in the world. (One could justifiably say that the analytic tradition is divided between two different readings of Wittgenstein. By and large, those I met at Logos don’t read him the way I do.)

I bring up this “continental” argument, because I think it illuminates a lot of the disagreements and misunderstandings that I overheard at the conference. I don’t just mean the dismissal of Barth I encountered, or the statements about Schleiermacher having a God who cannot act in the world and does not love humanity. These were certainly very bad and did not inspire confidence about the future, but these are not views unique to analytic theologians; many people hold such notions out of a general lack of knowledge of these theologians and an unwillingness to charitably engage them on their own terms. The problems I am referring to are things like the incredulous stares of some at the notion that I or another person are happy to get rid of inerrancy. While it wasn’t made entirely clear, I gathered that this is because the doctrine of inerrancy is a key premise in a syllogism regarding the authority of scripture. If one dispenses with this doctrine, one dispenses with the logical argument for scripture’s authority and meaningfulness. It became clear to me that many of these analytic grad students are simply ignorant of the entire theological tradition regarding this doctrine. They’ve never read the Protestant scholastics on verbal-plenary inspiration, never studied the writings of Hodge and Warfield in their historical context, never examined the arguments Barth gives for rejecting these doctrines or assessed the cultural and historical reasons for his claims. What these philosophers of religion want to know is: is this doctrine rational or irrational? is scripture authoritative or not? The idea that inerrancy could be a culturally-loaded term, with a complex web of historical relations that have to be entangled before it can be rightly evaluated, is viewed as either irrelevant or foreign or both.

This is why I think people like Enns and Sparks—both of whom, like Barth, make a very sharp distinction between the “humanity” of the text and the “divinity” of God’s word—provoked looks of puzzled astonishment, as if they’ve heard a new language for the very first time. The analytic crowd seemed to insist that unless we could directly predicate inspiration, revelation, and authority of the biblical text (qua text, i.e. words on the page), the whole Christian game would be up. The Barthian/actualistic position—that revelation is directly identified with the person of Christ himself, and that the word of God is a christic-pneumatic event in the encounter between text and reader—got no hearing at all at the conference. I’m not sure anyone in the analytic crowd knows what to do with it. An event resists any logical proposition. It is an existential disruption, not a syllogistic conclusion. Every analytic evaluation of Barth that I’ve read ends up greatly misunderstanding Barth’s christocentrism. They seem to forget that what distinguishes Barth from someone like Charles Hodge is not the various doctrinal propositions with which each agrees; it is rather the entire nature of what theology is as a discipline: its origin, ground, and telos. Between the systematic arrangement of discrete timeless, universal, propositional facts and the contextual-historical reflection on the faith and proclamation of a particular community—between scripture as the revelation of universal truths about God and Christ as the contingent actualization of God’s being that demands ever-new interpretation within new contingent situations—yawns a great chasm.

Returning to Enns for a moment: I think at the end of the day much of this conflict comes down to a christological disagreement regarding the very nature of incarnation. Enns and Sparks could both use some greater sophistication in their use of christological categories, but their essential insight is quite sound: scripture is a fundamentally and thoroughly human document, bearing all the marks of our finitude and fallenness. But precisely as a human document, God speaks in and through it in a way that remains truthful and normative. The incarnational analogy that Enns uses helps to illuminate this very point. Jesus is not God “in spite of” his human form, but precisely “as” a human, including everything that being human implies and demands (insofar as what is not assumed is not redeemed).

However, this is where we run into problems, because we have to clarify just what we mean by incarnation. The classical Chalcedonian tradition is both helpful and dangerous in this regard, because people like Cyril of Alexandria were quite willing to instrumentalize the human nature. The divine Logos was understood to be the sole active agent in the incarnation, while the flesh functioned passively like a garment worn by God in the world. So the incarnational analogy can easily support a very instrumentalist doctrine of inerrancy, even a full-blown theory of dictation (which a couple people at the conference came very close to accepting outright, and are at least sympathetic with). A better incarnational analogy requires a better christology, one that affirms the full human agency of Jesus. The way to do so, in my view, is through Barth, Jüngel, and McCormack—where Jesus is God precisely in his historical existence, where the “human nature” is not something appended onto the “divine nature” because the human existence is precisely where divinity is ontologically located (which to the analytics appears like a collapse of the natures).

I say all this because I think the lack of comprehension regarding incarnation and inerrancy is really indicative of a larger disagreement regarding the very nature of theological reasoning. This became clear at the after-dinner talk given by Billy Abraham (title: “Turning Philosophical Water into Theological Wine”!), in which he made it very clear that all Christian theology is a “spiritual enterprise,” which has spiritual formation as its rightful telos. Theology cannot escape things like diversity of tradition, historical and intellectual diversity, and the diversity of audiences. In short, the very idea of a universal rational discourse is, at least for theology, an illusion. He didn’t put it quite this way, but his point was that theology is about Christian discipleship, and discipleship involves concrete human beings within concrete historical contexts. It speaks from and for a particular group of believers, seeking to upbuild them in the faith and orient them toward love of God and neighbor. I do think most everyone in the room was on board with this, but there were some clear misgivings by some of the analytic types. The most telling moment occurred when one young man asked, “I really don’t understand why theology has to be concerned with spiritual formation at all. Why can’t it be just about logic and reason?” Abraham’s response was to the point: “Go do philosophy.” In other words, don’t call yourself a theologian, because you’re not doing theology. This particular man wasn’t the only person to raise this concern, and I suspect many people in the audience agreed with him.

So let me step back and assess what I take to be the general issue here. Is there such a thing as universal truth? Does theology trade in universally-valid propositions? Do we have access to timeless facts whose validity is universal in scope because not historically-conditioned? These are the kinds of questions that really divide the camps. I don’t want to get into how I would answer those questions here, since that would make this post even longer than it already is. For now, I’ll just say that even if there is universal truth, it’s not universal in the sense of being accessible to all—it is only truth for faith, i.e., within the context of the community of believers. The universality of truth is thus inseparable from the contingency and particularity of history.

My position thus stands in stark contrast to those in the analytic theology school, and I think there is a fairly obvious reason for this. Analytic theology is a subset of analytic philosophy of religion. According to proponents of analytic theology, this field is simply the systematic extension of the analytic philosophy of religion to every doctrinal locus. The aims of analytic theology are not fundamentally different from the aims of the philosophy of religion; there is a quantitative, rather than qualitative, difference between the two. Now the academic discipline of analytic philosophy understands its task to be the logical analysis of propositional arguments about various topics. Those who have not swallowed the Wittgensteinian, much less the Hegelian, pill—who still operate within the sphere of so-called universals—see themselves as capable of abstracting concepts from the historical contexts within which they are used; they can be analyzed apart from their concrete uses in particular situations for particular ends. A logically-justified claim has universal significance. Contrary to the “postmodern” continental tradition, everything is not hermeneutics.

For me, on the contrary, everything is hermeneutics. Every concept is culturally situated, every claim is determined by its location within history. There is no universally-valid ontology, no metaphysic that is not conditioned by a particular sociopolitical context. Now I think there are many ways of reaching this “continental” conclusion, but my reason is purely theological: Jesus Christ is the historicization of God, thus the historicization of theology. Speech about God is not speech about a universal concept of deity; it is contextual speech about the concrete reality of God in the world. This means that the very being of God is the ground for the hermeneutical nature of all theological discourse. There is no speech about God that is not essentially a matter of hermeneutical understanding. All talk of God is interpretation.

Is this an absolute divide? Are these two approaches to theology mutually exclusive? I’d like to think they aren’t, because I do want to engage these analytic theologians in constructive conversation that will be to our mutual benefit. But I am deeply skeptical. I am concerned that we have such radically different views of God, Christ, scripture, and revelation that we will never be able to move past prolegomena to actually do joint work in doctrinal reflection. I hope I am proved wrong and that my suspicions and worries are misguided. Based on the conference, however, I am left with decidedly mixed feelings.

Personally, I do not believe you can start with philosophy of religion and ever reach Christian theology. I am with Barth on this one. Or as Bultmann put it, “There is no alternative; [philosophy] must be either maid or mistress.” With Barth and Bultmann, I want the former (philosophy as maid). There are many at the conference that would probably agree with this, making theology the queen of the sciences. But exactly what they mean by this is often unclear. It seems that, in practice, philosophy is in fact the mistress—or, rather, they see no qualitative distinction between philosophy and theology, and whenever such a view is held, philosophy is inevitably the one in control.

I must reiterate again my deep gratitude for the invitation to attend Logos 2011. It was a pleasure to be there. I had some of the best conversations of the year (including some of the best drinks!). I met many incredible people, whom I look forward to seeing again in the future. I hope my misgivings are themselves misguided. I eagerly await future opportunities to discuss these important topics in more depth. In the meantime, consider me a friendly but critical outsider wishing the analytic theologians the best. There is still time to turn the philosophical water into theological wine.


Joe said...

David, I appreciate this post. As usual, your writing is helpful, clear, and incisive.

One minor question on wording. Do you mean "disentangle" in this sentence?

"The idea that inerrancy could be a culturally-loaded term, with a complex web of historical relations that have to be entangled before it can be rightly evaluated, is viewed as either irrelevant or foreign or both."

Stephen said...

Does it have to be such an either-or?

Does it have to be either that "everything is hermeneutics" or "nothing is hermeneutics?"

Does it have to be that philosophy is either "maid" or "mistress" to theology? Why does there have to be a conflict in the first place? Was such a conflict present in Aquinas?

Do "analytics" really all reject that words and logic have situational uses?

I am sympathetic with a lot of what you're saying here (especially about inerrancy), but you seem to be drawing some pretty distinct battle lines where maybe things are a bit blurrier than this particular conference has suggested.

David W. Congdon said...


I meant to say "entangled," knowing that it sounds a bit off, because my point is that we have to recognize how historically complex these words are before we can rightly understand them. They can't be easily (or perhaps ever) "disentangled" from this complex web of relations. That's not to say these relations are absolutely determinative; only that the concept is inseparable from them. There might be a theoretical distinction to make, but there's no clean separation.

David W. Congdon said...


Thanks for the comment. Do I think there is an absolute divide between the camps? No, not at all, and I think I stated that pretty clearly in the post itself. Remember, my broad analysis is a sketch of what concerns me about the project, not a final diagnosis of analytic theology as a whole.

But there's a reason why Billy Abraham gave the talk that he did. It's not that he (or I) think that analytic theology is incapable of thinking about theology in a more capacious (maybe even "continental" or at least pietist) sense; it's that neither he nor I have really heard anyone in that camp express a more capacious view of theology. I met a guy at the conference who is sympathetic with analytic theology who told me that the analytic crowd certainly wants to partner with others in moving forward, but that what they mean by moving forward is actually imperialization. Everyone has to join their ranks in the end. Eleonore Stump spoke of the Society of Christian Philosophers as their common church. The eschatological vision of analytic theologians seems to be an exclusively analytic kingdom.

Moreover, it's not enough for analytic theologians to simply say that "some" things are hermeneutics, as if we can demarcate what areas of theology are open to critical hermeneutical inquiry. That's the pick-and-choose method that Christians have long employed to keep certain long-held beliefs free from modern scholarship and critique. I am firmly opposed to that view. Either everything has to be scrutinized, or nothing. From my brief interactions with the analytic crowd, it seems fairly clear that they disdain hermeneutics or at least find it rather irrelevant or unimportant. That's a crucial divide, from where I stand.

The philosophy/theology differentiation is certainly a more modern development, but it's one that none of us can escape. As much the analytic crowd loves to hate on Kant, they are all post-Kantian in some rather remarkable ways. The whole project smacks of a high Enlightenment distinction between reason and the affections/tradition/etc. They may like to claim Aquinas as their hero, but it's an Aquinas shorn of his Augustinian roots, from what I can tell.

And as far as words being grounded in their contextual use, here again I am referring to Vanhoozer's paper, which was about the unity of form and content and the fact that scripture's authority resides in its use. The analytic response was predictable: the propositional form is all the form we need. It's not overstating matters to say that the analytic crowd was not won over by Vanhoozer's insistence that analytic theology has to be wed with poetic theology. There was indeed a line in the sand, and the analytic philosophers preserved the line and stood on the other side. Vanhoozer did a great job of reaching out, but there was very little hand extended from the analytic theologians.

Maybe the ones who were sympathetic remained silent (perhaps out of fear that they would be excluded from their own camp!), or maybe there was more agreement expressed in more private conversations to which I was not privy. All I can say is that everyone there recognized a rather tense separation among the conference-goers. Most everyone was quite charitable and friendly, but that's because people just agreed to disagree.

(That said, in a couple conversations with some hard-core analytic types, I was indeed asked why I wasn't a "heretic.")

Darren said...

Thanks, David, for this astonishingly helpful post. I have found myself ill at ease with analytic theology for a number of years now, and hadn't quite put my finger on the ways in which its methodology is so radically opposite from my own (as an historical theologian).

I certainly appreciate the contributions to be made from the analytic camp and happily grant them a seat at the table -- but I don't know that I could ever grant that analytic theology (like historical criticism, or a host of other biblical/theological methodologies) is in any way comprehensive or has the final or definitive say. Logical coherence of propositions and concepts (which is what I understand their highest goal to be) is one of many important tools in the theologian's toolbox. But can such coherence be rightly adjudicated apart from, as you say, the social and theological history of those concepts? I can't imagine any examples where such a thing would be possible.

Joe said...


I see, said the blind man. :) Thanks for the clarification.


geoffrey holsclaw said...


Thanks for the summary. I too find analytic theology worrisome, it seems to be a new scholasticism (in the bad sense). To engage in the clarification of terms is essential, but it is not the totality of theology.

One question, I could tell if you agree with Abraham's statement to go do philosophy. It seems you set it up as something you disagreed with, but then the post seemed to affirm a similar position. Was your astonishment toward the grad student?

Also, what do you see as the two ways of reading Wittgenstein? Is it the Tractatus vs. Philosophical Investigations, or something else.

David W. Congdon said...

Really? If I gave the impression that I disagreed with Abraham in any way, please tell me so I can fix it. I thought I was pretty explicit in my full endorsement of what he had to say. And yes, I guess I was astonished at the grad student, though I'm not sure how you derived that from what I said. I was astonished that he would have the gall to say that, but I wasn't astonished insofar as I already knew that he was merely expressing the opinion of many analytic philosophers of religion in the room.

As for Wittgenstein, that's more or less what it comes down to. Though the mystical element in the Tractatus is certainly not something the analytic philosophers embrace.

geoffrey holsclaw said...

the confusion was probably from me skimming the post. sorry about that.

about the Tractatus, yes the distinction between saying and showing is key, but often overlooked by certain school. I haven't read Badiou on W., but I can't wait to see his take on these issues. I see Badiou as able to relate analytic and continental perspectives.

David W. Congdon said...

I completely agree re: Badiou. I actually told two people, including Michael Rea, to read Badiou. Rea is apparently working on a textbook on metaphysics, and I told him Badiou has some very helpful things to say on that topic. I also mentioned Meillassoux.

James Gordon said...

David, you are right. That was an awful comment by that graduate student, and I appreciated Abraham's response to "go do philosophy."

geoffrey holsclaw said...

ah, yes, Meillassoux.

When I finish my dissertation (Hegel and Augustine) I hope to write something on Meillassoux and Speculative Realism (sometime like, Badiou and Augustine). But that assume SR isn't just a passing fad cashing in on the blogsphere.

geoffrey holsclaw said...

if i might add to my comment about Badiou, as somewhat of a tease, but I think that Badiou's theory of the event and his mathematical ontology explode the project of contemporary pragmatism is the forms of Pippin/Pinkard/Brandom/Stout. The work after my diss. will hope to argue this point, but then offer a theological critique/correction of Badiou.

But of course, I don't have time to argue now. :-)

mike d said...

It's at least helpful to remember that Abraham critiques AT from the 'inside'. He's been engaging analytic philosophy of religion in his theological work for years and his contribution to the Analytic Theology volume is basically a positive contructive/programmatic one.

That Abraham is identifying the negative tendencies within analytic theology just means he's steering it straight as it gets going not trying to completely reject or transform it - not that you intend to mean that.

Stephen said...


Thanks for the clarification. It seemed as if you were setting up an equally totalizing perspective, but I can see where you're coming from now.

Michael said...

Hi David,
Just a quick comment about the remark above about 'iimperialization': There's no question that some analytic theologians will want to see all of theology eventually done in that mode. But that fact has much more to do with the tastes and preferences of certain individuals than with analytic theology as such (which, after all, is just one way among many of doing theology). This point came up also at the AAR panel last Fall. On that occasion I said that my personal vision is to first help analytic theologians to get a 'seat at the table', and then to see them both influence and be influenced by their new dialogue partners. Some of the walls between 'analytic' and 'non-analytic' are (and have been for a while) being broken down in philosophical circles as well. (Witness, for example, Kris McDaniel, who is a first rate analytic metaphysician but has also done substantial work on Heidegger.) And, of course, the goal isn't just dialogue for dialogue's sake (enjoyable as that might be), but rather the expanding of horizons, methodological self-correction, and so on.

Thanks for this post, David. It was great having you at the workshop.

David W. Congdon said...

Thanks for the clarification, Michael. It was great to be there. Truly a highlight of my year, if not my academic life thus far.

Bobby Grow said...


Thank you for this post. I too have problems with the analytic tradition, and have really moved away from it over the past many years (although much of that time I was reading more historical theology and thus didn't really engage this until just a few years ago). I have a question for you: My chapter for our forthcoming book on Evangelical Calvinism is entitled: Analogia Fidei or Analogia Entis: Either Through Christ or Through Nature, and it has to do with this very issue (it is in the prolegomena section of our book). It sketches (more than actually argues) a view that is contra the analytic method (which I would see closely related to analogia entis), but of course my foot into the analogia fidei tradition comes through TFT and not Barth (McCormack's Barth). I tried to nuance my position in my chapter in a way that de jure is able to be situated within the analogia fidei tradition, but then I am also aware of McCormack's critique of say Hunsinger's reading of Barth (per McCormack's critique of Hunsinger in the Scottish Journal of Theology, and Hunsinger's "classical" or rather "metaphysical" reading), which I would take to be the same critique that could be leveled at TFT's metaphysicalism. So my question to you, in lieu of this, is do you think it's possible to actually be in the analogia fidei tradition (broadly construed) w/o also affirming the rather post-metaphysical reading of Barth (which I think is probably correct) that McCormack & co. (you included) articulate?

David W. Congdon said...


I don't think there is any necessary connection between the analogia fidei and a postmetaphysical theology. Those are two entirely separate issues. If anything, the postmetaphysical move is a way of lessening or at least highly qualifying the role of analogy by stressing the dialectical and paradoxical nature of theology. As Eberhard Jüngel has suggested, the difference between Barth and Bultmann can be understood as a difference between analogy and paradoxical identity. The postmetaphysical interpretation is a way of combining both sides.

So can a person hold to analogia fidei and not be a postmetaphysical thinker? Of course! The analogia fidei is not exclusively Barthian, not even exclusively Protestant. Many Catholics have embraced it, such as Gerhard Söhngen and Hans Urs von Balthasar.

Bobby Grow said...


Thank you. I just wasn't sure if there was a necessary linkage between the analogy of faith and a postmetaphysicalism for the Barth guys. I'm sure, as you note, it qualifies or shapes the way one employs the analogia fidei; but then, not in necessary ways. Thank you for clarifying that. To be clear, I didn't think there was a necessary linkage.

Indeed, it seems that the analogia fidei was present, in principle, with someone like Athanasius.

Thanks, brother!

Bobby Grow said...

Of course, one can't be postmetaphysical and analogia entis. So while the former negates the latter, it also, as a pre-commitment, presupposes that said theologian is committed to the analogia fidei. Right? In other words, you can't be committed to the analogy of being and be postmetpahysical; these mutually exclude each other. Wouldn't you say?

David W. Congdon said...

Yes, absolutely! You're quite right about that.