Analytic theology is a discipline of theology that attends to doctrinal matters while being very precise with language, aspiring to produce works of high quality thought and cogency according to philosophical norms.
Analytic theology is a recent instance of the interaction between philosophy and theology. Analytic philosophy, for its part, sought to use language more precisely within philosophical discourse, with many of its practitioners seeking to construct systems of thought using precisely defined terms. As Christian theologians interacted with analytic philosophy, beginning in earnest with a book brainstormed by Oliver Crisp and Michael Rea, Analytic Theology: New Essays in the Philosophy of Theology, they sought to utilize many of the analytic methods to deal with a wide range of theological and historical issues. While analytic theology has come to dominate current theological discussions on philosophical issues, practitioners still need to grapple with issues concerning the norming authority of Scripture and revelation.
Philosophy (defined as the articulation and defense of a worldview) and theology (defined as the application of God’s revelation to all areas of human life) have influenced one another greatly over the centuries. Analytic theology is a fairly recent instance of this interaction.
Let us first look at its philosophical side. Western philosophy has typically sought to build up a structure of human knowledge by its use of human reason and sense experience. But the results of this quest have disappointed many. Although we may talk of “progress” in the natural sciences such as astronomy, physics, and chemistry, it seems that philosophers continue to discuss the same problems today that they discussed thousands of years ago. Why has there been so little progress in the discipline of philosophy? In the late 19th and early twentieth centuries, philosophers such as Bertrand Russell, G. E. Moore, and Ludwig Wittgenstein expressed the view that the problem was language. Philosophers, this group argued, had been talking past one another because they have not expressed their views clearly.
Through the 20th century, many philosophers sought to focus very sharply on the clarification of language in philosophical discourse. This movement became known as “philosophical analysis,” “language analysis,” or “analytic philosophy.” Some of the analytic philosophers abandoned the traditional philosophical program of system-building, arguing that philosophers have no access to facts unavailable to the sciences. Others, however, like Wittgenstein, argued that once language has been clarified we can get a true picture of what the world is like.
Analytic philosophy went through a number of phases in the 20th century. The early writings of Russell and Wittgenstein advocated a system that Russell called “logical atomism,” which tried to reduce language to its smallest essential elements, which were thought to correspond to the essential structure of the world. This was a metaphysical assertion about the nature of reality, that the world consists of elementary “atomic facts,” and each of these could be represented by an “atomic sentence” in a supposedly perfect language, so that in that language, the sentences would constitute a perfect picture of the world.
But later analytic philosophers sought to abandon metaphysics altogether. “Logical positivism” argued that language could not make a meaningful assertion unless it could be verified or falsified by quasi-scientific methods. For the positivists, that implied that religious or metaphysical language was “cognitively meaningless”; it was incapable of making a true or false assertion. Only science, then, gives us access to the facts of the world, and the only job left for philosophy is clarification of the language of science. Logical positivism, however, fell out of favor when it was argued that the positivist theses themselves could not pass the verification test.
What replaced logical positivism as the predominant method of analytic philosophers was the “ordinary language philosophy” of the later Wittgenstein. In his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein argued that the goal of philosophy was not (as in the previous analytic movements) to reconstruct language in order to make it clearer, but rather to accept ordinary language as it is and to study the jobs it does in human life. Wittgenstein called these jobs “language games.” In his view, the work of philosophy was done when we have learned to restrict our language to the functions it plays in ordinary human life. But other analytic philosophers questioned whether it was not also possible to use analysis in a more positive way, to develop technical languages in areas somewhat removed from ordinary life.
Theologians and Christian philosophers interacted with all of these philosophical developments. Naturally, they saw logical positivism as a serious challenge, for if logical positivism were true, then the entire discipline of theology was largely nonsense. But many theologians sought to make affirmative use of ordinary language philosophy and other analytic movements that treated religion with some respect. These discussions were called by names such as “philosophy of religion” and “philosophical theology,” but those phrases have been used for many centuries and do not catch what is distinctive about the dialogue between theology and analytic philosophy.
Nevertheless, in the later 20th century, there was a substantial interaction between analytic philosophy and religious philosophers and theologians. Some of the Christian thinkers associated with this development were William Alston, R. B. Braithewaite, William Christian, Thomas Flint, Paul Helm, Paul Holmer, George Mavrodes, Thomas V. Morris, Alvin Plantinga, Ian Ramsey, Eleonora Stump, and Nicholas Wolterstorff. The Society of Christian Philosophers (founded in 1978) and its Journal Faith and Philosophy were major influences in encouraging an analytic philosophical approach to Christian doctrines.
Many of these philosophers have continued to write and teach into the 21st century. But “Analytic theology” names a movement distinctive to the 2000s. One of its founders, Michael Rea, summarized the discussions of the mid 2000s that led to the book edited by him and Oliver Crisp, which set the movement going:
As we discussed the matter, we thought that perhaps a volume might be called for—a volume tendentiously entitled Analytic Theology, which would include a few essays making a case directed toward theologians on behalf of analytic approaches to theological topics, a few essays that offered criticism of such approaches, and a few more essays that addressed some of the historical, methodological, and epistemological issues that seemed to lurk in the background of the disciplinary divide. Broadly speaking, our primary task in the volume was to say a bit about what we take “analytic theology” to consist in, and then to make a sort of cumulative case in favor of its being a worthwhile enterprise (Michael Rea, “Analytic Theology: Precis,” 573).
The book contemplated here, Analytic Theology: New Essays in the Philosophy of Theology, is sometimes considered the beginning of analytic theology as a movement. Reviews were quickly published pro and con. There was a significant discussion of the book at the American Academy of Religion in 2012, and the Journal of Analytic Theology began in 2013. Since then a great many books and articles have been published that associate themselves explicitly with the analytic approach.
There is no hard and fast distinction between this movement and earlier interactions between theology and analytic philosophy. But the earlier interactions tended to focus on issues commonly discussed in the history of philosophy, such as the existence of God, the nature of evil, the nature of truth and goodness. Analytic theology is more distinctively theological than previous schools. It takes up doctrinal matters (in many religions but particularly Christianity) that have previously been limited to exegetical, historical, and systematic theology. These include the Trinity, divine sovereignty, free will, the incarnation of Christ, his two natures, his resurrection, the relation of faith to justification, the nature of liturgy and the sacraments, Heaven and Hell. (See the very influential article by Alvin Plantinga, “Advice to Christian Philosophers”.) Analytic theologians have also discussed developments in the history of theology: creeds, confessions, and important thinkers like Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas. In this literature there is emphasis on defining terms very precisely, distinguishing various uses of terms, analyzing in depth the logic of theological arguments, and discussing the developments among secular analytic philosophers relevant to theology.
Analytic theology has come to dominate discussions of philosophical issues among Christians in recent years. Its aspiration to produce works of high quality thought and cogency has been acknowledged and appreciated, as has its use of more recent logical and analytic tools. In my judgment, however, analytic theology, like previous forms of interaction between philosophy and theology, has been weak in its failure to apply theological norms to the work of philosophy itself. Many writings in the analytic theology movement, even writings by people who are unquestionably committed to Christ, sound like attempts to be religiously neutral, as if the Bible and the confessions had nothing authoritative to say to the issues at hand. Analytic theologians need to take up seriously the question of how revelation directs philosophical thought. How does Scripture direct the thinking of a philosopher? And how does biblical authority, therefore, affect the conclusions of philosophical argumentation?
Note: I have included the following titles as documentation of the history and current literature of the analytic theological movement. These are primarily for research, not edification. Some affirm Christianity, some do not. Very few of them accept the Bible as the Word of God. The reader should exercise discernment.
Earlier Works of Analytic Philosophy
- A. J. Ayer, Language, Truth, and Logic
- Bertrand Russell, The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell
- G. E. Moore, Selected Writings
- Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind
- J. L. Austin, Philosophical Papers
- J. O. Urmson, Philosophical Analysis: Its Development between the Two World Wars
- Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations
Interactions Between Analytic Philosophers and Theologians, before 2000
- Alvin Plantinga, God and Other Minds: A Study of the Rational Justification of Belief in God
- Alvin Plantinga, Warrant (Three volumes)
- Anthony Flew and Alasdair McIntyre, eds., New Essays in Philosophical Theology
- George I. Mavrodes, Belief in God: a Study in the Epistemology of Religion
- Nicholas Wolterstorff, Reason within the Bounds of Religion
- Paul Helm, Belief Policies
- Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God
- William Alston, Perceiving God: the Epistemology of Religious Experience
The Analytic Theological Movement
- Eleonore Stump, Atonement
- Oliver Crisp and Michael Rea, Analytic Theology: New Essays in the Philosophy of Theology
- Thomas McCall, An Invitation to Analytic Christian Theology
- Timothy Pawl, In Defense of Conciliar Christology: a Philosophical Essay
- William J. Abraham, Analytic Theology: a Bibliography
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