An Invitation to Analytic Christian Theology

Written by Thomas H. McCall Reviewed By James C. McGlothlin

The label “analytic theology” has been bouncing around for a few years now. Given the novelty of this category, it hasn’t always been entirely clear what this new theology amounts to. So I am very enthusiastic about Thomas H. McCall’s new book on the subject: An Invitation to Analytic Christian Theology. Given his past works, McCall is a very apt and competent theologian to give this short, highly informative, and very appealing introduction to Christian analytic theology.

McCall spends his first chapter attempting to explain analytic theology, “both what it isn’t and what it is” (p. 9). He begins this chapter by giving a concise history of analytic theology and its philosophical roots. As McCall notes, for much of the twentieth century academic philosophy—especially Anglo-American “analytic” philosophy—was often thought by many scholars to be synonymous with logical positivism, an analytic philosophical project that sought to show, among other things, that theological claims were meaningless. Here I believe McCall is implicitly addressing the baggage of worries that often come with the term “analytic” due to perceived connections with logical positivism. He then traces out how a cadre of Christian philosophers began to arise from the analytic tradition with ever increasing success (i.e., getting more and more published) by making stronger and stronger arguments within the philosophy of religion. McCall claims that part of this growing movement of philosophy transitioned to turning its sight on distinctly Christian topics, giving a new vigor to philosophical theology that had not been in existence for some time before that. McCall then suggests that the notion of “analytic theology” eventually arose from within this group of philosophical theologians to where we even have an actual Journal of Analytic Theology today.

But what is analytic theology? McCall defines it as a “systematic theology attuned to the skills, resources, and virtues of analytic philosophy” (p. 16). McCall spends the rest of the first chapter explaining what these virtues are. In sum, McCall characterizes, correctly in my view, analytic theology as a mode of philosophical theology that uses the specific tools of traditional analytic philosophy, including precise attention to language, logic, and concepts in order to meticulously clarify and explain, or at least to do so as much as possible.

After attempting to explain analytic theology, McCall then addresses various objections and misunderstandings that those unsympathetic with analytic philosophy might have. For example, one might think that analytic theology relies on a strictly univocal account of language or that it attempts to remove mystery from theology. Or analytic theology is just a species of natural theology, or “perfect-being” theology, which is apparently odious to some. Some have evidently worried that analytic theology is also spiritually unedifying. Though his responses are fairly brief to each of these objections, McCall admirably addresses them making the case that Christian analytic theology suffers more from misunderstandings and stereotypes than from substantive problems within its methodology. More needs to be said here, but McCall has successfully dulled the initial edges of these objections.

Most of the following chapters of McCall’s book attempt to show, by way of case studies, how the practice of analytic theology might be exemplified. Each of these chapters covers analytic theology’s connections with Scripture, history of doctrine, and culture (broadly conceived), respectively. McCall’s chapter on the history of doctrine is one of the most enlightening in showing how extremely beneficial analytic theology can be. Following theologian John Webster, McCall is attracted to the notion of “retrieval theology” (pp. 85–87). As he understands Webster, retrieval theology is not only appropriating theological claims and insights from historical theology but defending such claims and using them in the service of constructive theology in creative ways. It is in this latter task that McCall believes analytic theology can be most helpful, and the various case studies he appeals to make a strong case for analytic theology’s potential insightfulness to this area.

McCall’s book is engaging and clear. As a Christian and as an analytically trained philosopher, I am unsurprisingly sympathetic to using analytic philosophical insights and tools within theology. Given the suspicion that many evangelical theologians might have with analytic philosophy, the first chapter of this book would probably be the most beneficial to those theologians in that McCall tries to dispel some of the stereotypes and clichés associated with analytic theology. By discussing various case studies, McCall does a good job of giving a sense of what Christian analytic theology might look like when practiced and how it could be incredibly advantageous if brought more into the conversation of contemporary theological discussion, including evangelical discussion.

However, at least at one point, I did find McCall’s chapter dealing with analytic theology and Scripture injudicious. McCall attempts to show how an analytic theological method can be brought to bear upon a topic in biblical theology. The main topic in question is compatibilism—an explanation of the Gordian knot of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. McCall particularly examines D. A. Carson’s biblical case for compatibilism and spends an inordinate number of pages (almost 14% of the book) attempting to trounce Carson’s view. Though there is some insightful discussion here, the overall tenor of this section of McCall’s book is unfair and for the following reason.

McCall comments, “Carson’s choice of term compatibilism is interesting” (p. 61). Given McCall’s ensuing criticisms, “interesting” seems to mean here that Carson isn’t using the term “compatibilism” in the way it is normally used among analytic philosophers and theologians. But given that Carson is not an analytic theologian or philosopher, this amounts to McCall criticizing a scholar S of a field F1 for not knowing how to use some term t1 (or terms t2,tn) as used in some other field F2 that S is not an expert in. But why should one expect S to know that? To expect such is clearly unfair. This is especially incongruous given McCall’s later comment that when interacting with non-Western scholars, analytic engagement “will have to proceed with humility, openness, and respect” (p. 157). But this same respect should surely be practiced even within a completely Western context between scholars from different disciplines. Thus, the overall effect of this section of McCall’s book comes off as very one-sided. He is right to point out that the claim for something being “biblical” or “unbiblical” needs to be clarified and given more precision—part of the impetus of his criticism against Carson. But perhaps McCall should have picked a subject in biblical theology that didn’t tempt him to grind familiar axes (see his previous interactions with John Piper on the same subject in Trinity Journal 29.2 [2008]: 204–46).

Despite this criticism, McCall’s An Invitation to Analytic Christian Theology is an excellent introduction to this fairly new theological approach. For those suspicious of anything analytic, I highly recommend McCall’s book for the first chapter alone. I hope that this book serves to make the analytical method more appealing, and those who use it more accepted, to ongoing contemporary and evangelical theological discussion.

James C. McGlothlin

James C. McGlothlin
Bethlehem College & Seminary
Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA

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