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The Blossoming of Philosophical Theology: What’s New?

Alan G. Padgett
by

Since the beginning of Christian theology, the work of theologians has engaged the best philosophical thinking of the day. It is simply not possible to understand well the theology of early Christianity without knowing the philosophical background found in Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics. Even when theologians seek to develop their doctrines from the word of God and deny philosophy a place in their theological method, philosophy has nevertheless influenced their writings and approach.

Jumping to the present day, one impressive development in philosophy and theology is found in contemporary philosophical theology. Philosophical theology combines both philosophy and theology. It takes up questions, problems, or themes raised in a specific theology, and brings to bear philosophical analysis in discussing them. In recent years, we find an amazing growth in philosophical theology, especially in the so-called analytic tradition. What is interesting to those of us who work in both theology and philosophy is this: theologians and scholars of religion, for the most part, continue to engage the so-called “Continental” school of philosophy when it comes to dialog with contemporary thought. Yet in the English language, the analytic school has been the dominant mode of philosophical inquiry for about a century now.

The fact that theologians and religion scholars in general tend even now to ignore the amazing growth of technical work in analytic philosophical theology seems rather odd. While I have myself been trained in logic and analytic philosophy, unlike some of my colleagues I find the Continental tradition to be valuable and worth reading (cf. the argument made in A.G. Padgett and S. Wilkens, Christianity and Western Thought, vol. 3 [InterVarsity, 2009]). Since both approaches to philosophy say significant things about religion, why ignore one of them? Now I have a few unscientific guesses as to why this may be so but I will not speculate about them here. Rather, our purpose is to review a number of recent volumes that are very helpful for students and scholars seeking current knowledge about analytic philosophical theology. We will explore five recent anthologies and handbooks, and one monograph, among several others that could have been included. The books reviewed here will familiarize the reader with the current debates.

Orientation

Perhaps a few definitions might be in order to start things off. It is difficult to categorize the differences between the Continental and analytic approach. One mistake often made is to imagine that Continental philosophy only happens on the continent of Europe. In fact, analytic philosophy is alive and well in Europe today, in German and French works, while important Continental philosophers work and publish in the English-speaking world. The geographical term is a matter of convenience. Analytic philosophy (sometimes called “Anglo-American”) often focuses on logic and looks to science as a model. It is concerned with the validity of arguments, including the notion of proof; the meaning of specific terms and propositions; and in general conceptual clarity and connection. Clarity, rigor, and careful analysis of basic concepts, and logical order are highly prized virtues in this movement.

The Continental approach is much more diverse. These philosophers follow in the tradition of Kant and Hegel, but use very different methodologies. Most of them are in conversation with the phenomenological method. This means they revise, extend, and/or deconstruct the philosophical methods of E. Husserl and M. Heiddegger. As such, contemporary Continental philosophers are interested in reflection on the processes and hidden assumptions of our human consciousness, as well as our human interaction with each other and the world in general. This includes questions of language, truth, and meaning. Continental thinkers often seek a more “radical” stance from which to view the big questions of meaning, truth, and various elements of human existence in the world (being-in-the-world). Because of this kind of focus on things having to do with human beings, existence, and meaning, they are often viewed as more natural conversation partners for theology and religious studies.

Early on the analytic tradition was highly skeptical of religious truth-claims. At one point, many philosophers in the “logical positivism” school argued that religious language was in fact meaningless: neither true nor false, theological claims were literally nonsense. This approach to philosophy is now long defunct. What has replaced it is a plethora of approaches to logic, meaning, and truth in the analytic school. Of special interest to readers of Catalyst is the growth of a specific movement of Christian philosophy in the analytic tradition. Many of these philosophers are now members of the Society of Christian Philosophers (SCP) or contribute to the SCP journal, Faith and Philosophy. The growth of the number and quality of literature in analytic philosophy of religion is such that the SCP now has well over 1,000 members, and Faith and Philosophy is one of the most, if not the most, prestigious journal of philosophy of religion in the world. All of the volumes we will review have a specific focus on Christian philosophical theology in the analytic tradition (whether they make this explicit or not).

To the Books Themselves

All of these books are helpful and important in their own way, but I will start with the one I can recommend as a first read for those getting in to the subject: C. Taliaferro and C. Meister, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Christian Philosophical Theology (Cambridge University Press, 2010). This book is not only brief but authoritative and readable. It has a clear connection to tasks of systematic theology as well. For example, the opening section on God begins with the Trinity (R.J. Feenstra), and the second section on God and the world includes chapters on the church (W.J. Abraham) and religious rites (Taliaferro). This is an excellent Companion that lives up to its name.

The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology, edited by T.P. Flint and M.C. Rea (Oxford, 2009), weights in at the other side of the scale. Larger in size and length (over 600 pages), few will purchase this expensive volume—but many students and scholars will benefit from reading it. The selection of topics and authors is judicious, with a strong Christian cast to almost every section, the notable exception being three chapters (out of 26) on “Non-Christian” religious philosophy, covering Jewish, Muslim and Confucian thought. The other sections are Christian for the most part, and divided according to standard systematic themes into prolegomena, God and creation, and specific Christian theological topics like the Trinity (Rea) or the Eucharist (A.R. Pruss). This volume is superior in depth and scope to the Cambridge Companion, but of course the editors had more room to work. Although of varying quality, like all such edited works, the chapters themselves are generally excellent. A fine example is W.J. Wainwright’s “Theology and Mystery,” which is a well written, balanced, and persuasive. It has the virtue of treating historical sources with sensitivity and learning (not always found in analytic philosophy of religion).

We now move from the handbooks to anthologies of more technical work. Here I can recommend as a first study O. Crisp, ed., A Reader in Contemporary Philosophical Theology (Continuum, 2009). The editor does a fine job of collecting important papers, previously published, by major figures in the current debate. His choice of topics and papers is a very good guide to current debates. The book is guided by standard theological themes, and includes sections on revelation and Scripture, Trinity, incarnation, sin, and atonement—all areas where there has been a great deal of current work by philosophers. The essays are somewhat technical, but not overly so. This is a good collection for students or scholars new to such reading.

Much larger is the two-volume Oxford Readings in Philosophical Theology, edited by M.C. Rea (Oxford, 2009). These essays are also by top philosophers currently working in the field, but are often more specialized and technical than other books under review. For example, D. Howard-Snyder applies probability calculus to the famous “mad, bad, or God” argument from C.S. Lewis. The two volumes cover fewer topics in greater depth than the Crisp anthology. The selection of essays and topics is generally excellent, but like the Crisp volume limited to Christian topics and analytic philosophy. Volume 1 covers Trinity, incarnation, and atonement, while volume 2 is devoted to providence, Scripture, and resurrection.

All of the works so far reviewed have been edited works, so we will close with a good example of a full monograph uniting analytic philosophy and systematic theology: T.H. McCall, Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism? (Eerdmans, 2010). This is the best work on the doctrine of the Trinity to combine analytic philosophy with Christian doctrine since D. Brown’s The Divine Trinity (1985). The author (a Methodist theologian) critically reviews and examines both contemporary analytic philosophers and major systematic theologians on the doctrine of the Trinity. He proposes a number of lessons learned for future theological reflection on this mystery of revelation. The result is a significant move forward in the current literature on a central doctrine of the faith.

One can see from the selection of topics named above that contemporary theologians and theology students would do well to read and reflect on the recent blossoming of analytic philosophical theology. Few could have predicted in the 1950’s that analytic thinkers—theists and atheists alike—would devote so much learning, energy, and argument to Christian theological themes. The volumes reviewed here will go a long way toward helping any reader enjoy the rich flowering of this new turn to theology.

Posted Apr 01, 2011       /      /   Google Plus    /