Christian Theology is only For Christians, That’s What My Homey Schleiermacher Says

There seems to be an ascendancy, once again, of philosophical theology [and I apologize, this post, or at least this point of this schleiermacher (1)post is going to have to remain rather general and abstract without any concrete examples at the moment]. The way I understand philosophical theology is pretty close to home; it is a form (it might be THE form) of evangelical theology that I sat under while in undergrad at Bible College (things changed a bit for me in my seminary experience because of two profs in particular). Philosophical theology, as I understand it, and have experienced it, in a nutshell, is what has come to be called: analytical theology. Analytical theology, in a nutshell, is theology, like scholastic theology from the post-Reformed era that feels free to drink freely from the analytical philosophical tradition (like from Aristotle, Plato, the Stoics, et al), and use the categories discovered by these philosophers as they reflected upon creation as the categories through which the Christian God was synthesized and casted.

So even with the scant sketch above of how I understand philosophical or analytical theology what should begin to emerge is how there is no necessary connection between Christian theology, and its revealed categories, and the categories “discovered” by the analytic philosophers. And yet what happens in the analytical theology tradition is that a foundation, of sorts, is constructed so that these two disparate approaches of thinking about metaphysical things can be brought into mutually supporting beams such that God’s life ends up being founded upon our capacity to think God (from reflecting upon creation) instead of being confronted by God Self-revealed and interpreted in Jesus Christ. This is how I see analytical theology functioning, and it is because of this that I must reject it, and search for an approach (and I believe that I have found one years ago now) that does not depend upon my ability as a philosopher and theologian to conceive of God, categorically, apart from his Self-revelation.

Friedrich Schleiermacher, a German theologian from the 18th and 19th centuries, who became known as the ‘Father of Theological Liberalism’ (wrongly!) offers an alternative to the analytical tradition–when critically received–that I believe is quite refreshing; and that I believe moves us away from attempting to work out correlationist theologies that seek to synthesize Christian theology with classical philosophical categories (Thomas Aquinas is one of the most famous for attempting to do this … I should say though, that I can learn a lot from Aquinas, still, just not uncritically).

I believe, along with Schleiermacher, and Karl Barth (and Thomas Torrance, et al) that Christian theology cannot and must not depend upon any attempted correlations between natural reflection upon nature (the analytical philosophers), and then syntheses of these reflections with Christian theology.[1] I do not believe, along with someone as Scottish as Thomas Torrance, that there are any natural analogies for God become man (i.e. the Incarnation); do you? Schleiermacher writes it this way:

Our dogmatic theology will not, however, stand on its own proper ground and soil with the same assurance with which philosophy has long stood on its own, until the separation of the two types of proposition is so complete that, e.g., so extraordinary a question as whether the same proposition can be true in philosophy and false in Christian theology, and *vice versa*, will no longer be asked, for the simple reason that a proposition cannot appear in the one context precisely as it appears in the other; however similar it sounds, a difference must always be assumed.[2]

And this in regard to the audience of Christian theology:

It is obvious that an adherent of some other faith might perhaps be completely convinced by the above account that what we have set forth is really the peculiar essence of Christianty, without being thereby so convinced that Christianity is actually the truth, as to be compelled to accept it. Everything we say in this place is relative to Dogmatics, and Dogmatics is only for Christians; and so this account is only for those who live within the pale of Christianity, and is intended only to give guidance, in the interests of Dogmatics, for determining whether the expressions of any religious consciousness are Christian or not, and whether the Christian quality is strongly expressed in them, or rather doubtfully. We entirely renounce all attempt to prove the truth or necessity of Christianity; and we presuppose, on the contrary, that every Christian, before he enters at all upon inquiries of this kind, has already the inward certainty that his religion cannot take any higher form than this.[3]

For Schleiermacher, then, and many others after him (like Barth, Torrance, and a whole host of more ‘liberal’ theologians), Christian Theology is for Christians! It is exclusive to those who have eyes to see, and ears to hear; as the Revelator has written: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”[4]

The ascendancy of philosophical or analytical theology that I referred to to open this brief piece up continues to make new in-roads into the evangelical heart-land. I think we ought to repent of that, and engage in theological endeavor that ironically comes from someone like Schleiermacher. We want to really be able to hear from the Lord, and attempt to repeat what we hear in a genuine way as Christians. We want to genuinely walk in the way that comes after we come to recognize that Deus dixit, that ‘God has spoken;’ and only after that and from that speech can we truly theologize and in a way that contradicts our words, and our lives instead of flowing from them (which I contend analytical theology does at its base in the methodological form that it flows from).

The end.

[1] If you have not spotted the undercurrent of what I am getting at yet let me help: What this cuts against, what I am about to write about, is natural theology. Natural theology believes that there are analogies in creation (because of an interconnected chain of being between creation and Creator) that can be used as foundation stones for us to build our knowledge of God upon (i.e. analogia entis, ‘analogy of being’). So this is part of the critique, and part of what is going on here. But the deeper concern I have is the impact that analytical theology can possibly have upon a Christian’s spirituality. I believe Christian theology, by definition, is for Christian eyes and ears, and so from this touchstone, of sorts, we proceed onward with Schleiermacher and Barth.

[2] Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, §16 postscript in Bruce L. McCormack, Orthodox And Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Publishing, 2008), 72.

[3] Ibid.

[4] New American Standard Bible, Revelation 3.22.

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23 comments

  1. In my transition to Evangelical Calvinism, I have probably been most tripped up by the EC rejection of natural theology, not because the case in unconvincing, but because it’s such a paradigm shift. I mean, you breathe this stuff the moment you enter the realm of Christian intellectualism. Hard to leave behind.

    This does bring up a related question, though. To what extent are the concepts of natural theology distinguished from the idea of general revelation?

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  2. Hi Caleb,

    I was very encouraged to read your “about” page at your blog, and see that you are a self-identifying Evangelical Calvinist. Just to be clear, being an evangelical Calvinist as Myk and I have identified it in our book is more of a mood and represents a certain continuum of belief, with the possibility for nuance. In other words, being evangelical Calvinist is not a straight-jacket. It is possible to be more prone towards natural theology, than not be, as an E Cal. That said, I am not really open to natural theology, or attempting to think God from human reflection upon human beings, or nature in general.

    I think typically when people refer to ‘general revelation’ they would also be referring to natural theology … I see these as interchangeable. Do you have an idea of how you might distinguish general theology from natural theology? Natural theology represents a methodology. I’ve written quite a bit about this, here is a post that touches further on this from an EC perspective: https://growrag.wordpress.com/2013/12/01/why-i-reject-natural-theology-faith-alone-grace-instead-of-being-the-difference-between-the-analogy-of-faith-and-being/

    John Calvin held to the senus Divinitatis, that there is an innate disposition in the human spirit towards seeing God in nature; but even for Calvin, and the Reformed trad in general, this sense is really only a condemning one. I.e. It wouldn’t provide a positive basis for “doing” theology as a Christian.

    I think I am pretty radical on this, but I think it is consistent with how I conceive of an order of being to knowing (i.e. that God precedes everything cf. Col 1.15ff i.e. ‘God has spoken’ theology. This was a key to Barth’s theology, that he took from Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck, and it is key for my style of EC theologizing).

    I am encouraged, Caleb, that you are an Evangelical Calvinist! 🙂

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  3. So, I have a question: how does employing the categories of analytical philosophy in the exposition of doctrine differ methodologically from employing the categories of quantum physics in the exposition of doctrine? How does Torrance escape the charge of natural theology?

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  4. ‘Father of Theological Liberalism’ (wrongly!)

    Not quite, “wrongly.” It’s a complicated narrative, to be sure. We must distinguish the liberalism of, say, Ritschl and Harnack from the liberalism of Schleiermacher, especially when the latter is taken-up by rather orthodox figures like Dorner. Nonetheless, as Dorner saw and Barth after him (and Forsyth, Torrance, and Scotland in general) the aesthetic starting point in Schly’s dogmatics is what doomed it from the beginning. And in that respect, it is the legitimate heir of liberalism of the mainline churches for the past two centuries.

    But, the epistemological point you are making is surely correct, and it accounts for why Barth had such an ambiguous relationship with his hero-foe, Schleiermacher.

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  5. Kevin,

    My wrongly is an overstatement, to a degree, I agree, but only to counter the overstatement on the other side of things. Bruce McCormack, in his book Orthodox and Modern has a very persuasive chapter on Schleiermacher that demonstrates Schl. as much more orthodox than the label “Father of Theological Liberalism” makes him sound. But yes, there is clearly a whole German complex of “liberals” who Schleiermacher can and should be placed among.

    McCormack makes the point, in that same chapter, that Barth picks up and corrects Schleiermacher (even if based upon a misreading of Schl. by Barth, at points) where Troletsch fails. And I think McCormack’s thesis at this point is strong.

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  6. Nathanael,

    Because Torrance uses electromagnetic field theory and relativity analogously and formally rather than materially to engage in his theological endeavor. But TFT definitely has a theology of nature, that is much more robust than Barth … no doubt!

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  7. So, does that mean that the use of analytical philosophy in theology is not problematic in and of itself but only insofar as it is used materially rather than formally? And do you think the use of analytical philosophy by the Yale school is an example of the proper use of analytical philosophy in theology?

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  8. I think the use of modal logic is a very important part for attempting to provide clear and precise definition as we make our theological arguments and points. So if that is your your analytical philosophy, then yes, I would definitely be able to affirm that point.

    I am not all that familiar with the Yale school’s usage of it? Are you referring to Frei, Lindbeck, et al?

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  9. Yes, George Lindbeck and Kathryn Tanner were the specific folks I have in mind (I’ve not read Frei or Platcher). Lindbeck employs Wittgenstein and Tanner uses quite a number a analytical folks.

    I’m OK with possible worlds as long as it’s made clear that they refer to created reality rather than encompassing God and creation like Plantinga and others think. I do think that accounts of freedom and necessity could use a bit of scholasticism; the medieva and post-medieval scholasticd spent a lot of time on those issues and are a lot more subtle and nuanced than modern philosophical accounts. (Antonie Vos is definitely worth reading on this issue.)

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  10. Yeah, I see, Tanner, Lindbeck, et al. They aren’t who I had in mind when I referred to Analytical Theology, this book that I have referred to here at the blog is what I had in mind: https://growrag.wordpress.com/2011/11/02/god-of-the-philosophers/.

    The medievals and Protestant scholastics I am very familiar with. I find Barth and Torrance more persuasive on discussions surrounding an ontology of freedom, whether that be in re to God or humans.

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  11. I understand who you’re aiming at. I just wanted you to clarify that the target was a specific appropriation of analytical philosophy rather than analytical philosophy full stop and you have so thank you.

    On the adequacy or not of Barth on necessity and contingency, I guess my estimation will really depend on which reading of Barth you take; McCormack or Torrance/Molnar. I tend to think McCormack reading is more accurate but I’m open to being persuaded otherwise. McCormack’s position on God’s freedom is (whether he realizes it or not) basically the same as that of Abelard, namely, that God is perfectly free in choosing what he in fact does. I simply can’t accept this view of God’s freedom. I find myself attracted to Scotus’s view, at least Scotus as he is portrayed by Antonie Vos and company.

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  12. You have an interesting take on analytic theology. You make the case that “analytical theology, in a nutshell, is theology, like scholastic theology from the post-Reformed era that feels free to drink freely from the analytical philosophical tradition (like from Aristotle, Plato, the Stoics, et al), and use the categories discovered by these philosophers.” Yet it seems to me that analytic theologians seem to be doing a lot more than this. You actually seem to be talking about analytic philosophers of religion. Analytic theologians aren’t simply natural theologians/philosophers of religion. As a good example of how this is so I would take a look at Oliver Crisp’s recent book “Deviant Calvinism” which is a prime example of analytic theology.

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  13. CWoznicki, yes, I’ve read a pre-published manuscript of Oliver’s book sent directly to me by him. It is good, but I don’t see how it ameliorates my point in this post. I will have to respond more later.

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  14. Cwoznicki,

    Let me reply further. I don’t really agree with you. While I like Oliver a lot, and understand his mode, he still works within a classic classical theistic tradition. While he is an excellent analytic theologian, one of my favorites, he still is working through classically material paradigms (ones that indeed that start in some inkling of natural theology). Yes, his employment of modal logic is stellar, and the precision with which he moves is outstanding. But from my perspective he is still working within or from a tradition that materially relies on upon natural theological categories to make his arguments. That said, I think he is very close to the kingdom! 🙂

    I am obviously using natural theology, a material thing that implicates formal things, as a watershed between analytical and dialectical theology. I think that Oliver would be the first to stand up and say that there is a definite difference between the Barthian tradition and his (as would Tom McCall, another stellar analytical theologian of our day.)

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  15. Nathanael, I go with Hunsinger/Molnar/Webster/Long et al on Barth; even though I have learned massively from Bruce.

    I am not a fan of Scotus’ voluntarism, but I do like the Scotist thesis, to an extent. I think the actualism of Barth parses things differently than Abelard.

    Would you care to elaborate on the parallel that you see between Barth and Abelard and God’s freedom further?

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  16. Cwoznicki,

    Would you care to differentiate your distinction between analytic philosophers of religion and analytic theologians?

    At a fundamental level of distinction I would guess that you would say that the philosophers are by and large not attempting to do Christian theology, while the theologian is. Even so, wouldn’t you agree that there is a basic formal relationship between the two insofar as they both rely upon philosophical reflection to furnish their metaphysical workshops? So to speak.

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  17. The parallel is between Bruce McCormack’s view of freedom as developed in his Kantzer lectures (in which he says he is developing Barth’s view further) and Abelard. In the last of the Kantzer lectures McCormack talks about divine freedom and his central thesis is that it is not voluntaristic. He says, “What God can choose is revealed in the choosing itself…freedom in this view does not require having more than one option…having multiple options is a counterfeit freedom.” McCormack says that this is so because God has his being in the eternal act of election. He thinks that the question of whether God might have acted differently (and this been a different God) is a meaningless question.

    My knowledge of Abelard’s view on the subject comes from the very excellent book by William J Courtenay entitled Capacity and Volition: A History of the Distinction of Absolute and Ordained Power (this is a book that will really shake up your preconceived categories about the middle ages; I know it did for me). According to Courtenay, Abelard’s view is that “God is able to do what he in fact does do” (p. 44). For Abelard, “There is no sphere of undeployed capacity, no process of divine deliberation in which choices are made from a larger range of possibilities. Consequently it is meaningless in the light of the simplicity and atemporality of God to speculate about whether God has the power to act in ways other than he does, or to have acted otherwise” (p. 50).

    Hopefully you can now see why I see their conclusions on divine freedom as parallel, even though their motivations for their conclusions are rather different.

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  18. That is interesting, Nathanael, I watched Bruce’s Kantzer lectures; they were good.

    I’ll have to read that book on Abelard someday. I think there has to be some other developments going on with Barth V Abelard since Barth was working after Kant and Schleiermacher in Germany in the 20th century and followed his actualism while Abelard didn’t. Interestingly, based upon the parallel you are drawing we could make a similar case between Thomas Aquinas and Barth, since for Aquinas God created because he is by definition a Creator. But I think that link is tenuous, and my guess is that a link between Abelard and Barth is also tenuous; but I’ll have to look into that further. Thank you.

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  19. Hey Bobby,

    Regarding your observation between the Barthian tradition and the analytic theology tradition (if we can even call it a “tradition” yet) – I certainly agree that Crisp would not put himself within the Barthian tradition. However, I don’t really see your point about starting with “some inkling of natural theology.” It seems pretty clear to me that he thinks he is doing dogmatic theology, not some sort of natural theology. Oliver certainly uses philosophical concepts in order to illuminate dogmatic claims, I don’t see how this denies the dogmatic nature of theology. I think it would be a completely different story if he started with philosophical claims and worked his way towards Christian theology (much like Swinburne), but I certainly don’t see Oliver engaging this sort of thing.

    Regardless of where we place Oliver and the rest of the analytic tradition, I do get your overarching point about using analogies from nature in theology. Analytic theologians, however don’t necessarily need to do that. Analytic theology isn’t necessarily about the philosophy that is being used to develop theology, Analytic theology is about using the clarity and rigor of the tradition we call analytic theology as opposed to the (seemingly unorganized) methods of the continental philosophical tradition. A lot of modern theology has relied heavily upon the continental style (even Barth!), analytic theology tries to draw upon the analytic style. I guess I got tripped up on your post because I was thinking mainly of style and not resources for doing analytic theology.

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  20. Hey CWoznicki,

    I think there is a Barthian tradition at this point. I pretty much work in it, Torrance works in it, a host of other folks I know work in it (esp at Princeton). So I don’t think that is a stretch to assert that at this point. In fact I think that really helps to distinguish what someone like Oliver is doing (although Oliver is a hybrid of sorts, who I know appreciates Barth as much as he critiques him). But the primary distinction that I see inherent between analytic theology and dialectic in a prolegomena is the analogy of faith versus the analogy of being. I see what Oliver is doing as working from the latter, insofar as Oliver works within, and to an extent, from, the classical Reformed tradition. I don’t think he would deny that.

    And I know that that is often the distinction made between analytic theology and dialectic theology (which I prefer to the Continental label), the idea that analytic is defined by intense rigor and precision; I don’t buy that. Dialectical theology has just as much rigor and precision, it is just that it works from an analogy of faith and relation rather than an analogy of being; and so its categories and grammar sounds and looks different, and its test for coherence and rationality are based upon different methodological grounds (like working from a theory of revelation and a theology of the Word that has no analogies available within the bounds of creation [which is different from how the analogy of being tradition works]).

    But I think this is an ongoing issue of debate, really, the kinds of distinctions we are attempting to make . And it is difficult to place certain thinkers in absolute ways into certain camps. Anyway, that is what I think.

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  21. You are certainly right about the Barthian tradition – I was referring to the Analytic Tradition, which I’m not sure we can call it a tradition yet. (We have yet to see if it has any lasting power.) I also agree with your point about dialectical theology being as rigorous and precise as analytic theology – its just precise in different ways. I have found this video on Analytic theology pretty helpful:

    Roundtable Discussion on Analytic Theology – http://youtu.be/wHcua6nMjUo

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  22. Sorry, (is it Chris?), I misunderstood you! I am not totally opposed to Analytic Theology, at least not Oliver’s style. Thank you for the link. I just watched it, and it was good to see these guys talking about this stuff.

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