You are on page 1of 20


William Wood

A Reader in Contemporary Philosophical Theology. Edited by Oliver

D. Crisp. New York: Continuum, 2009. 379 pages. $39.95.
Analytic Theology: New Essays in the Philosophy of Theology. Edited by
Oliver D. Crisp and Michael C. Rea. New York: Oxford University
Press, 2009. 336 pages. $99.00.
The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology. Edited by Thomas
P. Flint and Michael C. Rea. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
544 pages. $150.00.
Oxford Readings in Philosophical Theology. Vol. 1: Trinity, Incarnation,
Atonement. Edited by Michael C. Rea. New York: Oxford University
Press, 2009. 384 pages. $160.00.
Oxford Readings in Philosophical Theology. Vol. 2: Providence, Scripture,
and Resurrection. Edited by Michael C. Rea. New York: Oxford
University Press, 2009. 448 pages. $160.00.

William Wood, Oriel College, University of Oxford, UK.

Journal of the American Academy of Religion, December 2009, Vol. 77, No. 4, pp. 941960
The Author 2009. Published by Oxford University Press, on behalf of the American Academy of
Religion. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail:
Advance Access publication on November 3, 2009

Downloaded from by guest on December 9, 2013

On the New Analytic Theology,

or: The Road Less Traveled


Journal of the American Academy of Religion

For the purposes of this review essay, I will take the religious studies academy and related
terms to include theologians working in divinity schools and departments of religion.
Richard Rorty is widely read in religious studies, but he is not regarded as a mainstream figure
by analytic philosophers themselves. So much the better for Rorty, one might say. Fair enough
my only point is that reading Rorty does not give one an accurate picture of post-Quinean analytic
philosophy. Similarly, Wittengensteins influence on mainstream analytic philosophy, including
analytic philosophy of religion, has dwindled to almost nothing.

Downloaded from by guest on December 9, 2013

NOT LONG AGO, at an AAR job interview, I was asked about the
difference between philosophical theology and philosophy of religion.
There was a lot packed into the question. Answering it well would
require me to say something about theology, on the one hand, versus
religion, on the other. Additional disciplinary traps loomed. In many
quarters, the label philosophical theology has become a codeword
that names a subdiscipline within analytic philosophy of religion. Thus,
notwithstanding its self-identification as a kind of theology, philosophical theology is typically produced by Anglo-American analytical
philosophers housed in philosophy departments. In contrast, the theology that is produced in divinity schools and departments of religion
tends to be more influenced by continental approaches to philosophy.
I cannot say that I answered my interviewers question especially
well, but it hardly mattered. Under a barrage of follow-up queries, it
emerged that my answer had missed his real point entirely. I had not
been asked a substantive question about different kinds of academic
work. I had been asked an ideological question. I had been asked to
declare my colors and choose sides. Philosophical theology or philosophy
of religion? Analytic or continental? All of the above was not an acceptable answer. How did these divisions arise and why do they persist?
Most scholars working in the religious studies academy have little
use for analytic philosophy.1 They tend to treat it with suspicion when
they consider it at all, which is rarely.2 For their part, most analytic philosophers of religion return the favor by ignoring contemporary theology and continental philosophy of religion, to say nothing of the other
subdisciplines of religious studies. Many practitioners of religious
studies believe that analytic philosophy of religion is merely a stalking
horse for oppressive and antiquated forms of traditional Christianity.
Conversely, analytic philosophers of religion often treat practitioners of
religious studies as silly, unserious, uninterested in truth, and unwilling
if not unable to appreciate that the rational case for traditional
Christianity is actually quite strong. From a certain point of view, the
entire situation is bizarre. On the one hand, what can only be called
constructive theology, and of a very traditional sort, is currently flourishing in philosophy departments, in near total isolation from the
actual academic discipline of theology. On the other hand, the actual

Review Essay


For a useful treatment of its genealogy, see God, Philosophy and Academic Culture: A
Discussion Between Scholars in the AAR and the APA (Wainwright 1996).
Here I single out Stumps fine essay, which argues there are truths that can be known through
narrative, which cannot be known through analytic philosophy.

Downloaded from by guest on December 9, 2013

academic discipline of theology remains fractured and embattled, under

attack from all sides, unsure of its place not only in the academy, but in
churches and divinity schools as well.
The volumes under review all speak to this strange disciplinary situation.3 Analytic Theology: New Essays in the Philosophy of Theology
offers up something new under the sun: the spectacle of analytic philosophers who insist that they are also theologians (Crisp and Rea 2009).
Edited by Oliver D. Crisp (Reader in Theology at the University of
Bristol) and Michael C. Rea (Professor of Philosophy at the University
of Notre Dame), Analytic Theology presents a spirited and polemical
collection of newly written essays. Its contributors make the case that
analytic philosophical theology is theology and that academic theologians ought to pay more attention to it. The Oxford Handbook of
Philosophical Theology (edited by Thomas P. Flint, also of Notre Dame,
and Rea) comprehensively reviews the current state of scholarship on
key topics in philosophical theology (2009). Finally, we also have two
newly published readers in philosophical theology, a two-volume
Oxford reader edited by Rea (2009) and a single-volume Continuum
reader edited by Crisp (2009). Taken together, it is fair to say that the
Handbook and the two readers offer concrete examples of the kind of
analytically influenced work that is commended by Analytic Theology.
Analytic Theology contains four sections. The first, In Defense of
Analytic Theology, features three essays that defend the value of analytic
philosophy for contemporary theology and attack contemporary theology
for failing to exhibit the right analytic virtues. Essays in the second section,
Historical Perspectives, make the case that analytic theology is recognizably continuous with a Patristic understanding of faith and cannot be
ruled out by Kant or Schleiermacher. The third section focuses on the
data for theology: scripture, reason, and experience. The standout essay
here is Thomas McCalls engagement with the Barthian account of revelation in On Understanding Scripture as the Word of God (171186).
The final section, Analytic Approaches Reconsidered, presents methodological alternatives to analytic philosophy from Eleonore Stump (herself a
leading analytic philosopher), Merold Westphal (on behalf of phenomenology), and Sarah Coakley (on behalf of feminism and apophasis).4
A common theological stereotype holds that analytic philosophy of
religion restricts its focus to religious epistemology, arguments for the
existence of God, and analyses of bare theism, while ignoring more


Journal of the American Academy of Religion

See William J. Abraham, Systematic Theology as Analytic Theology (Crisp and Rea 2009:

Downloaded from by guest on December 9, 2013

robustly Christian topics. The Handbook and the two readers show that
this stereotype is not true anymore. All feature multi-chapter sections
on theological prolegomena like revelation, authority, and scripture. All
feature either sections (the readers) or individual chapters (the
Handbook) on the trinity, the incarnation, and atonement. The
Handbook also includes chapters on heaven and hell, the Eucharist,
science and religion, theology and mystery, and the problem of evil.
The Rea reader has one section on providence and another on materialism and the resurrection, neither of which are included in the Crisp
reader, whereas the Crisp reader has a section on sin, a topic not
covered in the Rea reader. With the exception of three chapters in the
Handbook on Jewish, Islamic, and Confucian philosophical theology, all
of the contributions are explicitly Christian in focus.
It is interesting that none of the contributors seem concerned with
debating the status of theology as an academic discipline. The contributors all have a positive desire to place their work under the heading of
theology, and yet they do not appear to worry about what that heading
signifies to the wider academy. They also display no anxiety about the
fact that (for the most part) they are philosophers by trade who find
themselves doing theological work. Nor do they seem especially eager
to distinguish philosophical theology and analytic theology, as kinds of
theology, from analytic philosophy of religion, as a kind of philosophy.
It is clear that they use the term analytic theology to describe traditional systematic theology done under the influence of analytic philosophy.5 Yet there appears to be no meaningful distinction intended
between analytic theology, so construed, and philosophical theology. I
also did not find any explicit treatment of the difference between
philosophical theology and analytic philosophy of religion. In
practice, however, when one compares the topics treated in the
Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology (Flint and Rea 2009) with
those treated in the Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Religion
(Wainwright 2005), it appears that one major difference is that the
latter, but not the former, includes chapters about arguments for the
existence of God.
One might suppose that the distinction between philosophy and
theology must be drawn very sharply indeed, but in the works under
review, it is not. I should add that the contributors show no positive
intention to blur the boundaries between the two. Rather, they seem

Review Essay


serenely uninterested in such meta-disciplinary disputes.6 Their disinterest is itself quite revealing. After all, in some quarters of the
academy, the distinction between philosophy and theology might be
regarded as the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate academic
workwitness the endless, pearl-clutching debates in departments of
religion about whether allowing theology into the academy will
somehow eviscerate the study of religion as a legitimate human science.
Yet no one seems to worry that philosophical theology threatens the
academic status of philosophy departments or fails to rise to the level of
legitimate academic work.

It seems, then, that there is an easy slidesome would say a slippery

slopefrom analytic philosophy of religion to philosophical theology to
analytic theology. But what, after all, is analytic philosophy? Since they
wish to commend it to their readers, several contributors first try to distinguish analytic philosophy from its continental cousin. But describing
the difference between analytic and continental philosophy is like defining religion. It is inherently tendentious, a mugs game. Consider first a
description provided elsewhere, by Harriet Harris and Christopher
Insole, in their introduction to another collection aimed at assessing the
impact of analytic philosophy on the philosophy of religion (Harris and
Insole 2005). Reasonably enough, they identify analytic philosophy with
a particular method, the method of classical analysis. In their view, this
method most distinctively exhibits
the dissection of sentence structures and investigation of language as the
best means of investigating concepts. The focus on language and
meaning comes from a conviction that the best way of understanding
ourselves and the world is to look at what we think, and the best way of
getting at what we think is to analyze what we say . . . . Analytic philosophers vary from one another and disagree, for example, over the extent
to which the philosophical task is to state definitions. But it is a sufficient generalization for now to say that they proceed by isolating beliefs
for individual consideration, breaking arguments down step by step, and
taking apart sentences word by word, and that they do this in order to
spare us from confusion and specious argument. (2005: 12)
They certainly criticize the academic discipline of theology, often harshly (e.g., Crisp and Rea
2009: 39, n. 15; 55, n. 2), but my point is that they show no worries about drawing lines between
theology and philosophy in their own work.

Downloaded from by guest on December 9, 2013



Journal of the American Academy of Religion

According to Harris and Insole, analytic philosophy is chiefly a method

of linguistic analysis in which philosophers either analyze complex concepts into their constituent parts (e.g., from bachelor to unmarried
male) or carefully attend to ordinary language to determine what makes
words and sentences meaningful.
This description is not especially tendentious, but according to
Nicholas Wolterstorff, it is outdated. His essay How Philosophical
Theology Became Possible within the Analytical Tradition of
Philosophy (another outstanding contribution) claims on the contrary

Though it is a generalization that admits of many exceptions,

Wolterstorff is correct that analytic philosophers are no longer primarily in the business of analyzing concepts or assessing the meaning of
ordinary language. Wolterstorffs essay is therefore a useful corrective to
those who continue to identify analytic philosophy with linguistic
analysisor worse, with logical positivism.
Even so, one might wonder how it came to pass that hardnosed
analytic philosophers can produce work that genuinely deserves the
label theology, while still remaining philosophers in good standing.
Wolterstorff tells the story, which focuses on advances in epistemology,
and especially on the demise of classical foundationalism. Classical
foundationalism, associated with Enlightenment figures like Descartes
and Locke, assumes that all rationally held beliefs, including theistic
beliefs, must be grounded in evidence and, ultimately, in apodictic certainty.7 According to Wolterstorff, analytic philosophers have now
rejected classical foundationalism as untenable (Crisp and Rea 2009:

Flint and Rea define classical foundationalism as the view, roughly, that a belief is justified
only if it is indubitable, incorrigible, evident to the senses, or deducible from beliefs that are
indubitable, incorrigible, or evident to the senses (3).

Downloaded from by guest on December 9, 2013

the theme of limits on the thinkable and the assertible has lost virtually
all interest for philosophers in the analytic tradition. Of course, analytic philosophers do still on occasion charge people with failing to
think a genuine thought or make a genuine judgment. But the tacit
assumption has come to be that such claims will always have to be
defended on an individual, ad hoc, basis; deep skepticism reigns
among analytic philosophers concerning all grand proposals for
demarcating the thinkable from the unthinkable, the assertible from
the non-assertible. (Crisp and Rea 2009: 157)

Review Essay


See also his essay Between the Pincers of Increased Diversity and Supposed Rationality in
Wainwright (2005).
In the interest of space and to avoid confusion, I am simplifying and slightly altering Reas
account here without (I hope) departing from its main point. Rea himself treats antecedent
philosophical assumptions more as methodological commitmentssomething he calls source
foundationalism, which is still distinct from the classical foundationalism discussed above (Crisp
and Rea 2009: 1317, 2628, 30).

Downloaded from by guest on December 9, 2013

160).8 Moreover, no single theory of rational belief has come to replace

foundationalism, and so our present situation is that of extraordinary
epistemological pluralism in which many if not most epistemological
theories are not hostile to theistic belief. As a result, charges of irrationality against theistic beliefs must be made on an individual ad hoc
basis rather than by appealing to some general epistemological
theory like the demand that all beliefs must be grounded in apodictically certain evidence (161).
These developments in epistemology also explain the otherwise puzzling fact that analytic philosophy of religion has flourished, even
though philosophers have shown comparatively little interest in developing arguments for the existence of God. Since it can be rational to
believe in God even when one cannot show that God exists, the dominant attitude has been that nothing of any great epistemological importance hangs on whether or not one can give arguments for Gods
existence (163). Many opponents of analytic philosophy of religion
continue to assume, wrongly, that it is committed to Lockean or
Cartesian epistemological projects. Wolterstorff shows that in this
respect at least, analytic philosophy of religion is authentically postEnlightenment, if not quite postmodern.
Now consider the fact that analytic philosophers of religion conspicuously decline to bracket their Christian assumptions when
they philosophize. According to Rea, however, analytic philosophers
in general do not bracket their contested philosophical assumptions
when they philosophize. More often, they try instead to work out the
implications of those assumptions, without ever explicitly justifying the
assumptions themselves unless called upon to do so. For instance, in
the field of philosophy of mind, a philosopher committed to scientific
materialism might take materialism as an assumption and try to work
out a materialist theory of consciousness without ever defending materialism from the ground up (Crisp and Rea 2009: 15).9 Similarly, a
research program in philosophical theology might ask Suppose reason
and the Bible are sources of knowledge . . . . How then should we think
about the metaphysics of the incarnation? (15). Again, the epistemological story recounted by Wolterstorff explains why such a program


Journal of the American Academy of Religion

Kripke is probably the single greatest influence on contemporary analytic philosophy. The
fact that he is nearly unknown outside of analytic circles is a real shame. (A relevant parallel would
be analytic philosophers who have never read Heidegger or never heard of Levinas.) An accessible
(though sharply critical) account of the Kripke-influenced revival of analytic metaphysics may be
found in Jerry Fodors review article Waters Water Everywhere in the London Review of Books
(2004). It is available online:
This talk of metaphysical theorizing about God will cause many theologically trained readers
to worry about ontotheology. I return to this issue below.

Downloaded from by guest on December 9, 2013

would be regarded as philosophically legitimatewe are no longer

required to ground all of our claims in apodictic certainty and so there
is nothing untoward about first helping oneself to various contestable
assumptions and then working out the implications of those assumptions. This does not mean, of course, that our contestable assumptions
are immune from criticism, still less that they can never be shown to be
false or incoherent. When our assumptions are directly attacked, we
may acquire a rational obligation to defend them, but we otherwise
have no positive epistemic obligation to defend all of our assumptions
from the ground up before we even begin to philosophize.
Wolterstorff tells only part of the relevant history of contemporary
philosophy of religion, however. The other part concerns the return of
metaphysics. Beginning in the 1970s, in the wake of Saul Kripkes
Naming and Necessity, analytic philosophy took a metaphysical and
essentialist turn (1980).10 Drawing on the deeper understandings of
identity, possibility, and necessity developed in Kripkes work, philosophers have turned away from analyzing language and toward theorizing
about the essential properties of things in the worldand also the
essential properties of God. Thus, according to Rea, although one key
task of analytic philosophy is epistemological (to identify the scope
and limits of our powers to obtain knowledge of the world), another is
broadly metaphysical: to try to discover such true explanatory theories
as we can in areas of inquiry (metaphysics, morals, and the like) that
fall outside the scope of the natural sciences (Crisp and Rea 2009: 4).
Religious phenomenaincluding Godare taken to fall outside the
scope of the natural sciences in the relevant sense, and are therefore
ripe for metaphysical theorizing.11
It seems, then, that we can no longer distinguish analytic philosophy by appealing to the outdated methods and substantive commitments that once sharply distinguished it from other forms of
philosophy. Perhaps, then, analytic philosophy should now be distinguished mainly by its unique rhetorical style. Several contributors make
exactly this claim, though it is a tricky one to explicate fairly. The usual
loaded words show up again and again. We are repeatedly told that

Review Essay


For a lamentable example of analytic triumphalism, see Randal Rausers Theology as a Bull
Session (Crisp and Rea 2009: 7086). Rauser draws on Harry Frankfurts essay On Bullshit (2005)
and argues that Sallie McFagues view of theology as persuasive metaphor and Jurgen Moltmanns
view of theology as perpetual conversation both reduce theological discourse to bullshit. I question
Rea and Crisps decision to include this piece at all, given their stated desire to begin a muchneeded interdisciplinary conversation about the value of analytical approaches to theological
topics (Crisp and Rea 2009: 2). I should be clear that my problem with Rausers piece is not that
it is nasty. My problem is that it is nasty and poorly argued. His case against McFague amounts to
the charge that she misleads her readers by saying that theology should inspire personal
transformation while also holding that God is not personal (79). But there is nothing at all
misleading about the claim that one can have personally transformative religious experiences of a
non-personal deity (or a non-personal non-deity, for that matter). His case against Moltmann rests
on the claim that Moltmann repudiates critical reason altogether just because he rejects theological
system-building and holds that the practice of reason-giving in theology should aim at persuasion
rather than coercion (8283). But, contra Rauser, surely Moltmann can embrace open-ended
dialogue as the proper form for theological reflection without thereby rejecting the regulative
demands for clarity of exposition and rigor of analysis as such (83). Rausers essay is exactly the
kind of work that gives analytic philosophy a bad name outside of philosophy departments.

Downloaded from by guest on December 9, 2013

analytic philosophy exhibits virtues like precision, parsimonious

expression, logical coherence, rigor, andabove all, mentioned in
nearly every contributionclarity (Crisp and Rea 2009: 56, 35, 55,
83, 280).
There is a certain nave triumphalism at work here. Somehow I
doubt that continental philosophers or theologians cheerfully prize
writing that is vague, wordy, incoherent, rigor-free, and unclear.
Moreover, what counts as clear, parsimonious, and rigorous writing will
vary according to the community for which one writes. Analytic philosophy may be clear to readers trained in the analytic tradition, but it is
not clear to every intelligent reader. Nor is it surprising that untrained
analytic philosophers often find contemporary theology unclear. Note,
too, that someone with continental commitments might reasonably call
analytic writing thin instead of clear, and might reasonably call
densely allusive continental writing rich instead of obscure.
Rhetorical virtues do not transcend disciplinary socialization. Analytic
philosophy is not the unmediated language of thought.12
Still, this criticism can be pushed too far. We all recognize analytic
philosophy when we see it, precisely because it has a distinctive rhetorical style. Rea does a good job of capturing that style. His five-element
list of analytic desiderata includes the usual suspects (Prioritize precision, clarity, and logical coherence), but it also includes an oftenoverlooked element that really does mark a crucial difference from
scholarly writing in the other humanities: Avoid substantive (non-decorative) use of metaphor and other tropes whose semantic content outstrips their propositional content (Crisp and Rea 2009: 56). In short:


Journal of the American Academy of Religion

Analytical philosophy of religion is important because it is very important in itself whether our beliefs about our origin, nature, and destiny
are true ones; and because true beliefs about these matters are needed
if we are to have true beliefs about how it is good to live. Analytical
philosophy of religion is one tool which can help us to be good people
and to live good lives (Harris and Insole: 33).

Analytic style notwithstanding, it is pretty hard to imagine, say, John

Caputo writing anything like that.


Perhaps it is true that analytic philosophy has frequently been mischaracterized by its opponents. All well and good, one might say, but is
it not also the case that analytic philosophers of religionon any plausible characterizationcontinually help themselves to philosophical and
theological assumptions that have, in fact, been shown to be false, incoherent, or otherwise illegitimate? I suspect that many continental philosophers, theologians, and practitioners of religious studies would say
yes. Several of the contributors have anticipated this reaction, and have
written articles that are primarily defensive in order to address it.
Again, with no slur intended. It was Philip Goodchilds discussion of the difference between
analytic and continental philosophy of religion in his introduction to Rethinking Philosophy of
Religion: Approaches from Continental Philosophy that prompted me to include this formulation
about truth claims (Goodchild 2002: 12). I should also add that one can still be extremely
concerned about truth without also deploying explicit propositional truth claims in ones writing.

Downloaded from by guest on December 9, 2013

analytic argument is univocal argument, but that is not always true in

other fields.
Another defining feature of analytic argumentone that is
especially pertinent to the philosophy of religionis that analytic philosophy proceeds by way of explicit, propositional truth claims. In fact,
analytic philosophers of religion are so concerned with making and
assessing truth claims about the Christian faith that it is not far off the
mark to say that the whole enterprise often seems like a form of
Christian apologetics (with no slur intended, at least not by me). This
concern with truth claims marks another key difference with much continental philosophy of religion and theology.13 Consider, for example,
the catechetical opening paragraph of Richard Swinburnes The Value
and Christian Roots of Analytical Philosophy of Religion. It could
serve as a rallying cry for many of the authors under review.

Review Essay



This is my example, not Reas.

In another essay, Andrew Dole appeals to Schleiermacher (of all people) to remind us that
religious doctrines with practical functions like the transmission of piety can also function as
descriptive truth claims (Crisp and Rea 2009: 152).
See also Wainwrights excellent Theology and Mystery in Flint and Rea (2009: 78104).

Downloaded from by guest on December 9, 2013

I first return to Reas introduction to Analytic Theology. Without

intending to damn with faint praise, Rea offers about as sympathetic an
engagement with theological and continental objections to analytic philosophy of religion as one could reasonably expect from an analytic
metaphysician. For example, he considers the charge that analytic philosophy is ahistorical, and concedes that, typically, analytic philosophers
do not regard historical events as determinative of religious claims
(Crisp and Rea 2009: 22). His point, I take it, is that although religious
claims do have a history, that history is not relevant to whether the
claims themselves are true or false. Analogously, although we may need
to study the history of science in order to understand the social and
material conditions that allowed Newton to formulate the law of universal gravitation, one can fully understand the law itself and know that it
is true while remaining completely innocent of the history of science.14
Rea also considers the objection that analytic philosophy is irrelevant or even inimical to theology, because theology is finally a matter of
praxis, the practical life of faith. Reas response to this objection is
somewhat unexpected. According to Rea, the demand that philosophy
or theology should promote wisdom or offer a general theory of right
living is unwelcome hubristantamount to setting an academic discipline up as a rival to first-order religious resources like scripture (Crisp
and Rea 2009: 19). Instead, the right theoretical task for Christian philosophers and theologians to pursue is in fact one that involves clarifying, systematizing, and model-buildingprecisely the sort of project
that analytic philosophers are engaged in (19).15 I agree with Rea that
academic theologians and philosophers should almost always refrain
from treating their own work like a practical religious resource. (And I
agree that this is a genuine temptation.) But it is worth pointing out
that even if theology and philosophy should not substitute for genuine
religious resources, it does not follow that they cannot contribute to
first-order practices of spiritual formation, or that theologians must
take on only the theoretical role outlined by Rea.
Finally, Rea responds to a set of objections about whether analytic
philosophy of religion takes divine transcendence seriously enough.16
Many theologians would argue that analytic philosophy of religion is
inherently idolatrous because it first derives a philosophical concept of


Journal of the American Academy of Religion

For discussion of the claim that metaphysical realism and the correspondence theory of truth
are compatible with a robust doctrine of divine mystery, see Crisp in Crisp and Rea (2009:
The phrase interpretation universalism comes from Nicholas Wolterstorff (Wainwright
1996: 18).

Downloaded from by guest on December 9, 2013

God and then assumes that the real God must fall under that concept.
Others would say that it is guilty of ontotheology, in that it treats God
as an explanatory posit and presupposes that clear knowledge about
God is possible for us. Rea denies that analytic philosophy of religion
seeks a complete knowledge of God while agreeing that it does presuppose that some propositional knowledge about God is possible. In
short, Rea says that although God remains deeply mysterious, God is
not totally mysterious. This is a sensible position. Rea does agree,
however, that the methodological worry about idolatry is genuine,
one that analytic theologians ought to take seriously (Crisp and
Rea 2009: 25).
By now it should be obvious that analytic philosophers of religion
talk rather easily about the realm of the transcendentabout God
rather than about religion, where religion can be understood as a
human construction. Moreover, that talk is straightforwardly realist, in
that it treats its objects of inquiry as things that are really out there, in
the world, independent of human minds, even when those objects are
things like God, Gods property of being omniscient, Christs divine
nature, and so forth.17 All of this will seem wanton to many practitioners of religious studies (including theologians), who are more
likely to be committed to some form of interpretation universalism.18
According to interpretation universalism, our cognitive engagement
with the world is always already an interpretation of the world, and all
such interpretations are mediated by cultural-linguistic conceptual
schemes that vary across time and across populations. It follows, supposedly, that we never engage with the world as it is in itselffor what
would that even be?but rather with the world as an interpretation
that is jointly constructed for us and by us.
Interpretation universalism is usually taken to mean that straightforward talk about transcendent phenomenon is highly problematic at
best, impossible at worst. One could spell-out this worry in various
ways, but I suspect that they would all resolve into this charge: analytic
philosophy of religion has not madestubbornly refuses to make
Kants critical turn. Call it philosophy of religion, call it philosophical
theology or analytic theology; call it what you willit is all pre-Kantian

Review Essay


and therefore it is all made out of straw. Andrew Chignell disagrees

with this charge, but he presents it fairly:

Analytic philosophers of religion, it must be said, do not accept these

Kantian restrictions on knowledge. Thus Swinburne: the Kantian doctrine about the limits of human knowledge was a big mistake; and analytic philosophy, unlike continental philosophy, has liberated itself from
that doctrine (Harris and Insole 2005: 39).
The difference between metaphysical realism, favored by analytic
philosophers of religion, and Kantian interpretation universalism,
favored by theologians and continental philosophers, is absolutely
crucial. It marks the single most important division between the two
camps. Indeed, in my experience, across the rest of the humanities
and definitely including practitioners of religious studiesassertions
that Kant was mostly wrong, that interpretation universalism is mostly
false, and that metaphysical realism is mostly true tend to be met with
a reaction that goes beyond mere disbelief. Outside of philosophy
departments, those statements earn incredulous stares.
In contrast, Chignell argues that Kant himself engages in a certain
sort of speculative theology and would not stand in clear opposition to
contemporary analytic philosophical theology. The major argument
turns on the claim that although Kant says that we cannot have knowledge (wissen) about things-in-themselves (including God), we can have
rationally acceptable beliefs (Glaube) about them, from which it follows
that we can refer to them and otherwise talk meaningfully about them
(Crisp and Rea: 117135).20 Chignells exegesis is careful and
For example, Should we not have learned from Kant that the mind always unavoidably
interprets and shapes knowledge? Indeed, when a phenomenon, whether religious or otherwise, is
observed, studied, and conveyed, it is also inevitably interpreted, shaped, and molded by the
observer . . . (Hyman 2004: 199).
Though he is careful to note that Glaube-beliefs are more like what we might call
acceptances than what we would call beliefs (122).

Downloaded from by guest on December 9, 2013

one often encounters statements in theological circles that begin with

the phrase As Kant has shown and end with a claim about the
inability of our concepts to apply to reality-in-itself in generaland to
God in particularand thus the impotence of all attempts at substantive theology in traditional realist mode. These statements are then
used to motivate the shift into anti-realist mode, or an allegorical
mode, or an apophatic mode, or at the very least a practical mode in
which doctrinal wrangling takes a back seat to concerns about liberation and social justice. (Crisp and Rea 2009: 121)19


Journal of the American Academy of Religion

The Wolterstorff article cited above is worth reading, and can be digested quickly, since its
main anti-Kantian arguments are found on only two pages (1718). In brief, Wolterstorff rejects
the Kantian account of intuitions and concepts, and having rejected those, finds it easy to reject
the Kantian supposition that our concepts are barriers that prevent us from grasping reality
directly rather than links that enable us to grasp reality directly. I have also learned from William
P. Alstons A Realist Conception of Truth (1996) and John Searles The Construction of Social
Reality (1995).

Downloaded from by guest on December 9, 2013

persuasive, but it is a far cry from any wholesale rejection of Kantian

constraints on knowledge. (Nor is it intended as such.)
Andrew Doles essay critically engages with Schleiermacher, who
handed down his own set of highly influential Kantian strictures on
theological knowledge. Dole agrees that Schleiermacher would reject
philosophical theology founded on analytic metaphysicsthough not
for any Kantian reasons. Rather, such a project would contaminate
religion by bringing an alien motivationan interest in truth for its
own sakeinto the fold (Crisp and Rea 2009: 151). Perhaps unsurprisingly, Dole urges us to depart from Schleiermacher here.
Doles essay, and Chignells, show what it looks like when analytically trained thinkers who are also good readers exegete foundational
philosophical and theological texts. Both essays leave interpretation universalism as such relatively unscathed, however. For his part, in a long
footnote, Crisp cites the first chapter of Plantingas Warranted
Christian Belief (2000) and a Modern Theology article by Wolterstorff
(Is it Possible and Desirable for Theologians to Recover from Kant?
[1998]) and then lobs the familiar charge that Kants own epistemology
is incoherent because it simultaneously claims that we cannot know
anything about the noumenal world while also purporting to know
something about itnamely that we cannot know anything about it
(Crisp and Rea: 51, n. 30). Yet that quick move is not enough to
dismiss Kant, still less the interpretation universalism he inspires.
I have little doubt that the journals abound with sound arguments
against Kant. But given that the contributors to Crisp and Rea avowedly
aim to convince non-analytic opponents that analytic philosophy of
religion is valuable, and given that they deploy some intense antiKantian rhetoric while pursuing that aim, and given the further
assumption that non-analytics are hostile to analytic philosophy in no
small part because they are in such thrall to Kantgiven all that, I
would expect some serious analytic firepower directed at showing just
why Kant is so clearly wrong. We get nothing of the sort. In any event,
I wish one of the authors had pointed us toward some good analytic
arguments against interpretation universalism.21

Review Essay



Downloaded from by guest on December 9, 2013

Space prohibits me from discussing the Handbook or the two

readers in detail, but I will briefly touch on two key areas of interest
the divine attributes and the doctrines of the trinity and the incarnation
before discussing a third, philosophical assessments of Biblical
studies, in more detail.
The Handbook includes six chapters on the divine attributes: simplicity and aseity (necessary self-existence), omniscience, atemporality,
omnipotence, omnipresence, and moral perfection. The chapters all
exemplify the most common analytic approach to the divine nature,
known as perfect being theology. Philosophers begin with the
Anselmian claim that God is the greatest conceivable being and then ask,
for example, what would count as having the greatest conceivable power
or the greatest conceivable knowledge? (It is just this kind of project that
invites charges of ontotheology from the more continentally inclined.)
Much analytic work on the divine attributes is highly detailed and technical, but collectively, it shows tremendous virtuosothe payoff (for
better or worse) of analytic precision. The body of work discussed in
these chapters also explains why classical theism is still taken very
seriously by analytic philosophers when it has been discarded by many
theologians. The overwhelming philosophical consensus is that some set
of the classical divine attributes is mutually consistent, which means that
there is a coherent classical account of Gods nature. Lively disagreements remain, however, about whether God is outside of time altogether
(and therefore about whether God changes, and therefore about whether
God suffers), and about whether God is metaphysically simple.
The twin doctrines of the trinity and the incarnation have been the
objects of intensive research in recent philosophical theology. In both
cases, the perennial challenge is to provide coherent formulations of
these seemingly paradoxical doctrines. Arguably, the philosophical vocabulary and logical machinery of contemporary analytic metaphysics is
especially well suited to this challenge. With respect to the trinity, contributors to the Rea reader develop options in social trinitariansim, which
analogizes God to a perfectly loving community, and Latin trinitarianism, which places more emphasis on the divine unity, as well as more
novel philosophical options, like Brauer and Reas material constitution
solution or Peter van Inwagens relative identity solution (Rea 2009:
vol. 1). With respect to the incarnation, the Crisp reader is especially
valuable, since it contains three major essays by Eleanor Stump, Thomas
Flint, and Peter Forrest that, respectively, present Thomist, Molinist, and
kenotic accounts of the incarnation (Crisp 2009). Both readers contain


Journal of the American Academy of Religion

Downloaded from by guest on December 9, 2013

essays by Thomas V. Morris, whose Metaphysics of God Incarnate

(which defends a two-minds account of the incarnation) continues to set
the agenda for analytic Christology (1986).
Contemporary theologians may (or may not) be pleased to learn
that powerful logicians are working away, testing rival versions of the
classical doctrines of Christianity for logical coherence, but I do not
really expect analytic work on the divine nature, the trinity, and the
incarnation to find its way onto the theological agenda. For the most
part, this is just as it should be. I add the qualifier for the most part
because anyone who holds that classical theism, the trinity, or the
Chalcedonian two-natures Christology must be rejected as logically
incoherent ought to give due consideration to the best analytic work on
these doctrines before abandoning ship. Other than that, however, theologians are certainly under no obligation to start trying to solve logical
problems alongside analytic philosophers. Let both sides do as they
desire. Behold: comity.
Recent analytic work in an emerging field that one might call the
philosophy of Biblical Studies, however, offers more promising and
controversial avenues for cross-disciplinary argument. Here philosophers do things like examine the authority or inspiration of the Biblical
texts, defend pre-critical ways of reading the Bible, and affirm the historical reliability of the New Testament accounts of the life of Jesus.
They also find and indict unjustified metaphysical assumptions and failures of reasoning among practitioners of the academic discipline of historical-critical Biblical studies. In the Rea reader, essays discuss the
nature of revelation (Swinburne), what it means to say that the Bible is
inspired by God (Abraham and Craig), and how we should weigh the
authority of individual Biblical passages versus the canon as a whole
(Keller, Sundberg, Wolterstorff ) (Rea 2009: vol. 2). The final three
essays debate whether Christians can rationally reject certain conclusions of historical-critical Biblical scholarship when they conflict
with traditional Christian faith (Stump and Plantinga say yes; Fales says
no; Rea 2009: vol. 2). The Crisp reader features another essay by
Plantinga arguing that Christians are not required to bracket their faith
when interpreting the Bible (not even when they act as academic Bible
scholars), an essay by Stephen T. Davis claiming that when we say that
the Bible is true we mean to say that God speaks to us in the Bible, and
an essay by Wolterstorff arguing that sometimes (but by no means
always) we distort the Biblical revelation altogether when we focus too
much on whether the Bible is true. It also contains an essay by Paul
Helm on infallibility (Crisp 2009).

Review Essay



In the religious studies academy, analytic philosophical theology
stands interestingly athwart the two warring tribes of theology, on the
one hand, and the scientific study of religion on the other. Indeed,
regardless of what one thinks about its substantive conclusions, the very

Downloaded from by guest on December 9, 2013

I especially recommend Eleanor Stumps Visits to the Sepulcher

and Biblical Exegesis in the Rea reader (2009: vol. 2: 242266). Stump
juxtaposes Raymond Browns commentary on the empty tomb narrative
of the Gospel of John with a twelfth-century Easter play, the Visitatio
Sepulchri. As Biblicists do, Brown slices and dices the gospel text into
different sources and traditions. Yet Stump uses the Visitatio to argue
that Browns conclusions about the text are a product of his questionable methodological presuppositions and are not actually justified by
historical evidence at all. Stump is both a first-rate philosopher and a
subtle reader of texts, and I found her essay stimulating.
Collectively, these essays on scripture amount to a near total departure from the norms of academic Biblical studies. It is tempting to
dismiss them as arrogant, thinly disguised fundamentalism, but that
would be a mistake. To do so would be to miss out on some bracing
arguments. At worst, the direct, full-speed-ahead vigor of analytic argumentation often has the virtue of forcing one to revisit ones own thinking. (Analytic philosophers often do not take for granted things that
everyone else does take for granted.) For example, consider Rudolph
Bultmanns famous remark that it is impossible to use electrical light
and the wireless . . . and at the same time to believe in the New
Testament world of spirits and miracles (1961: 5). Really? I have heard
this statement quoted approvingly many times. It captures the sort of
sentiment that academics often accept without question, as an unarticulated background belief about what it means to be appropriately
modern. But Plantinga points out that as a descriptive empirical claim,
Bultmanns assertion is obviously false (lots of people understand contemporary physics very well and still have traditional religious beliefs)
and as a normative philosophical claim that modern science is incompatible with traditional Christianity, it is radically undersupported by
argument (Rea 2009 vol 2: 290). Of course, Bultmanns remark may
nevertheless rest upon good philosophical arguments that he himself
did not formulate explicitly. But surely it is not Plantingas job to formulate those arguments. It is the job of someone who agrees with


Journal of the American Academy of Religion


See, for instance, Hyman (2004).

I should say that one could tell the same kind of story about philosophers of religion at
public institutionsWilliam J. Wainwright at University of Wisconsin-Milwaulke, for instance.

Downloaded from by guest on December 9, 2013

existence of philosophical theology complicates some sterile debates in

the field of religious studies. Philosophical theology cannot be written
out of the academy at the level of method, at least not in the usual way.
The constitutive boundary in the academic study of religion falls
between the religious insider and the scholarly outsider, theorized as
the boundary between theology and the study of religion. In recent
years, continental philosophers and postmodern theologians have tried
to blur that boundary by appealing to various consequences of the supposed demise of the modern episteme. The key claim is that in our postmodern situation, we recognize that Enlightenment-style universal
reason is but one discourse among others, that no discourse can claim
universality, and that the particular discourse that is theology is as legitimate as any other.22
In response, scholars who advocate a sharp distinction between
theology and the study of religion find themselves defending, if not
quite disengaged reason, at least the scientific status of all genuine academic work in religious studies (Wiebe 2008). That is, whether they
accept or reject various claims about postmodernity, opponents of postmodern theology continue to criticize it for failing to live up to the
proper canons of rational inquiry in the academy. But down the hall
from the department of religion, we find another discipline, philosophy,
with sterling academic credentials and its own methodological norms,
norms that do seem to legitimate exactly the practice that our own
opponents of theology will not countenancenamely, the practice of
making and assessing truth claims about God.
Consider, for example, the career of Syracuse philosopher William
P. Alston.23 Alston wrote loads of philosophy that had no reference at
all to religious belief. He also wrote Perceiving God, which defended the
rationality of religious belief (1993). Yet even though Perceiving God
argues that it is rational to believe claims like God is appearing to me
now, it is universally regarded as a work of philosophy (and a very fine
one, too) rather than theology. It would be laughable to assert that
Perceiving God is not really philosophy, more laughable still to assert
that it is not even a legitimate academic work. Now consider that
Alston also wrote articles that are even more directly about God. For
example, in Two Cheers for Mystery! he argues that God is mysterious in some ways, but not in all ways (in Dole and Chignell 2005: 99
116). Should we call this philosophy or theology?

Review Essay


Alston, William P.

Perceiving God. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.


A Realist Conception of Truth. Ithaca: Cornell

University Press.

Bultmann, Rudolph

Kerygma and Myth. New York: Harper and


Crisp, Oliver D. ed.


A Reader in Contemporary Philosophical

Theology. New York: Continuum.

Crisp, Oliver D, and

Michael C. Rea, eds.

Analytic Theology: New Essays in the Philosophy

of Theology. New York: Oxford University

Dole, Andrew, and

Andrew Chignell, eds.

God and the Ethics of Belief: New Essays in

Philosophy of Religion. New York: Cambridge
University Press.

Flint, Thomas P, and

Michael C. Rea, eds.

The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical

Theology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Downloaded from by guest on December 9, 2013

Suppose it is theology and suppose we agree that theology is not

legitimate academic work. What, then, is the difference between
Perceiving God ( philosophy) and Two Cheers (theology), such that
one is clearly academic work and the other is not? Or is Two Cheers
legitimate academic work in the philosophy department that magically
becomes illegitimate edifying discourse two doors down the hall in
the department of religion? How would one ever defend that result?
It would be a good thing if more scholars of religionand especially
theologiansread analytic philosophy. Moreover, theologians who want
more scholars of religion to read theology ought to agree. So also scholars of religion who want more theologians to read Marxist and
Freudian critiques, or wrestle with non-Christian religions, or with
social scientific approaches to religion. And for the same reasons, too
there are good arguments there, arguments worth taking seriously, even
if one ultimately rejects them. We profit intellectually when we engage
with the interdisciplinary other. This is a truism of the religious studies
academy, itself inherently interdisciplinary. So too with the analytic


Journal of the American Academy of Religion

Waters Water Everywhere London Review of

Books 26/20, October 21. Available at http://

Frankfurt, Harry

On Bullshit. Princeton: Princeton University


Goodchild, Philip, ed.


Rethinking Philosophy of Religion: Approaches

from Continental Philosophy. New York:
Fordham University Press.

Harris, Harriet A, and

Christopher J. Insole, eds.

Faith and Philosophical Analysis: The Impact of

Analytical Philosophy on the Philosophy of
Religion. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

Hyman, Gavin

The Study of Religion and the Return of

Theology. Journal of the American Academy of
Religion 72:195219.

Kripke, Saul

Naming and Necessity.

Harvard University Press.



Morris, Thomas V.

The Logic of God Incarnate. Ithaca: Cornell

University Press.

Plantinga, Alvin

Warranted Christian Belief. New York: Oxford

University Press.

Rea, Michael C., ed.


Oxford Readings in Philosophical Theology. 2

vols. New York: Oxford University Press.

Searle, John

The Construction of Social Reality. New York:

Free Press.

Wainwright, William J.,


God, Philosophy and Academic Culture: A

Discussion between Scholars in the AAR and the
APA. Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press.


Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Religion.

New York: Oxford University Press.

Wiebe, Donald

Secular Theology is Still Theology, Not the

Academic Study of Religion. Council of
Societies for the Study of Religion Bulletin 37:

Wolterstorff, Nicholas

Is it Possible and Desirable for Theologians to

Recover from Kant? Modern Theology 14:118.

Downloaded from by guest on December 9, 2013

Fodor, Jerry