If you have ever read the works of authors like Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstoff, Oliver Crisp, Paul Helm or Richard Swinburne then you have most likely read a work of analytical philosophy or analytical theology. While analytic philosophy has had a long history of use, analytic theology is rather new to the scene.
Analytic theology is a budding field that is making its mark within the broader theological world. But if, like me, you are not as familiar with analytical theology as you would like to be then Thomas H. McCall’s new book An Invitation to Analytic Christian Theology (IVP, 2016) is just for you. McCall is an analytic theologian himself who teaches biblical and systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, IL. His two previous works of analytic theology are Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism? and Forsaken: The Trinity and the Cross, and Why It Matters.
What is Analytical Theology…
While there are more complex explanations of analytical theology, in short, it “signifies the commitment to employ the conceptual tools of analytic philosophy where those tools might be helpful in the work of constructive Christian theology.” (16) This naturally begs the question as to what analytic philosophy is. While there is no final consensus, there is general agreement that it includes things like conceptual precision (Smith), logical rigour and clarity (Crisp), and a style and ambition that is similar to that of analytical philosophy (Rae). (17-18)
Analytical Christian theology requires its practitioners to know not only the relevant areas of philosophy but further, and more particular to its task, the Christian Scriptures, historical theology, posses an ability to engage culture with its ideas, and “seek to articulate what we may know of God as God has revealed himself to us.” (22) As such, analytical theology is serious about the task of theology. While some chide its existence because “they worry that analytic theologians bypass and effectively ignore God’s own revelation as it occurs ultimately in the incarnation of the Holy Son and reliably in the Bible as Holy Scripture,” it actually places a high priority on the Christian Scriptures as its foundational source of authority and orients itself towards a focus on Jesus Christ.
So Christian analytic theology is the application of analytic philosophy to the task of Christian theology. It is not an enemy of theology but rather a helpful friend. But how, why, and what does it matter to theology if we apply the principles of analytic philosophy to it?
… And Why Does It Matter?
While most, yea, even the vast majority of Christians will never engage in analytic theology, it does have a place within the church (both the academy and the local church) as a means to benefiting the average Christian. What one will realize time and time again while reading this book is that analytic theology is a work of systematic theology while utilizing the more rigorous tools of analytic philosophy. Your average systematic theology textbook, while dipping into philosophy, historical theology, and other fields to inform it, is not engaging in analytical theology. The analytical aspect takes the task of theology to the next level so to speak. “Analytic theology, as a kind of systematic theology, tends especially to be concerned with a focus on logical coherence.” (57) This is not to say that systematic theologians are not concerned with logical coherence but it is to say that analytic theology more directly addresses the issue and works it out more in its practice.
While most Christians, even some theologians, may turn a blind eye to this field of work, analytic theology offers the Christian church a service in the work of theology. For instance, McCall tackles several areas of theology to which he applies analytic theology as a means of showing its relevance and use. One such area of study to which McCall applies analytical theology to is historical theology. This is commonly called retrieval theology or constructive analytic theology. “This work actively evaluates various theological proposals from the tradition, and does so critically as it tries to mine the riches of the tradition for theological materials that will be useful in constructive work.” (85) So it goes beyond the traditional practice of “repetition and description” as characterizes historical theology (90), and seeks to further develop a specific theological issue from an historical perspective in a more contemporary context. It seeks to carry the work of the past into the present with the idea of further theological development and application.
Other areas McCall applies the work of analytical theology to are kenosis theology within Christology, physicalist theology in Christology, and the historical Adam in relation to evolution and creation. In respect to the third issue, McCall shows how analytic theology helps one to wade through the various differences in the use of the term evolution. One definition does not fit all when it comes to the use of the term as can be seen in the six different uses of the term McCall describes: old earth, simple to complex life, descent with modification, common ancestry, naturalistic mechanism, and naturalist origins (136-37). In evaluating Peter Enns’ book The Evolution of Adam, McCall points out that he uses the definition of at least five of those listed above in the conclusion to his book but without proper distinction. This is confusing at best. The point to see here is that the way in which McCall goes about examining the various references to evolution in Enns’ work is an exercise in analytic theology. He is applying rigorous, logical, precise, and clear argumentation is his examination of Enns’ work in order to bring more clarity to the issue.
To What End is Analytic Christian Theology?
Analytic Christian theology would be distinct from analytic philosophy (philosophy of religion), or merely analytic theology, in that it is intentionally practiced for the glory of God and the service of the church. Analytic theologians are not rogue theologians seeking to blaze their own trail of tradition or fame. McCall suggests that “it should be grounded in Holy Scripture, informed by the Christian tradition and attentive to the potential and pressing challenges faced by God’s people in God’s world.” (161) It is to have a Trinitarian focus in its product and its practitioners are to be marked with the same Christian character to which all Christians are called to in their life and work (166-70).
An Invitation to Analytic Christian Theology accomplishes its task of introducing and orienting its readers to the task of analytic Christian theology. Far from a merely academic endeavor, analytic Christian theology enjoys the role of applying the rigors of analytic philosophy to systematic theology and the like to produce a more robust, coherent, logical, and ultimately God glorifying theology.
McCall has pulled the curtain back and invited us into a field to which all theologians ought to aspire to practice. If truth matters, and it does, then we ought to strive to be more and more truthful about how we present the truth of God. Analytical theology will help Christian theologians do that. Not only for theologians, I believe that the basic ideas and goals driving analytic Christian theology ought to characterize any serious Christian or ministry leader who wants to do theology for the glory of God. I highly recommend this book for Christians who are serious about thinking, doing, and writing good theology.
I received this book for free from the IVP for this review. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”