Response to Alec Siantonas’ ”An Oriel Theology Manifesto”.

I was pleased to read Alec’s post, the majority of which resonated strongly with my view of what Oriel theology is and should be. I eagerly anticipate John Ritzema’s response, which I’m sure will provide a different, but equally insightful, angle on the nature of Oriel theology (and, as I hint below, a much needed reflection on the scriptural dimensions of Oriel theology).

Alec identified two aspects of Oriel theology which make it ‘special’: Oriel theology is ‘analytic’ and ‘traditional’ – where ‘analytic’ is broadly construed as a methodological approach which encourages particular clarity and rigour of argumentation and concern for the truth in the tradition of (though not limited to) the Anglo-American analytic philosophical tradition which stretches back to Frege, and ‘traditional’ is understood (again broadly) as an awareness of and respect for the historical traditions of Christianity, with particular emphasis on the Patristic period, and an approach to theology grounded in this historical tradition. (Alec: please correct me if I am misrepresenting you – these are, unrefined simplifications, but I hope they are at least representative).

Oriel has, as Alec points out, strong traditional and contemporary strengths in these areas. It was the home of the Oxford Movement in the 19th century, and, more recently, of such theologians as T.F. Torrance, Richard Swinburne and Richard Cross (and of course Bill!). Moreover it continues to be a strong-hold of Oxford’s joint honours programme in Philosophy and Theology, which, as Alec notes, gives students the necessary grounding in analytic thinking and in the historical and theological traditions of the church in order to, as Alec puts it, think theologically in this special way.

There is something truly special (although perhaps not entirely unique about this way of doing theology. Other theological schools of thought which advocate a return to pre-modern, and particularly patristic, traditions of theological thought have often done so from a more continental or post-modernist perspective (I am, of course, primarily thinking of the Radical Orthodoxy movement here). I agree with Alec that analytic ways of thinking appear to line up closely with Patristic thought; whereas I see little substantial continuity between Patristic ways of doing theology and post-Kantian/post-Modern ways of doing theology. One finds in Patristic theologians (or at least, good Patristic theologians) a concern for the clarity of theological statements and rigour in argumentation  in order to establish truth-claims about God, Christ and the divine economy – all of which resonates with the analytic tradition. (Alec has already argued this point; I hope to return to in a later blog post, with some accompanying exegesis to flesh it out).

At this point, it strikes me that some Patristic scholars and theologians who might otherwise be sympathetic to Oriel theology, would here protest against my characterisation of Patristic theology as somehow analytic. As I mentioned above this claim requires further exegesis and explication – however, I will anticipate, and give a brief to response to, one objection here. There is, I think, a perception amongst many Patristics scholars and Systematic Theologians – some good theologians for whom I have a lot of respect (some less so) – that an analytic approach to theology (as well as being perceived to be unhistorical – see Alec’s post) violates the mystery of key areas of doctrine.

An example of a scholar (who I hold in highest respect and admiration) who writes something along these lines is John McGuckin, in his book Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy (2004). McGuckin contrasts Cyril’s Christology (read: ‘good’) as born from a ‘dynamic’ theological approach, which ‘appeals to tradition and the church’s sense of the mystery of Christ’ with that of Nestorius (read: ‘bad’), which ‘appeals to semantic clarity and logical necessity like a true scholastic’ (p.188). The former remains true to the mystical traditions of the Church and allows scripture to speak for itself; the latter violates the Church’s mysteries and distorts scripture in search of a clarity of expression and logically constructed dogma which isn’t really there. In light of these remarks, McGuckin would no doubt be sceptical of any attempt to unite analytic thinking with Patristic thought. Surely this is a dangerous and misguided approach which will try and contain biblical revelation within philosophical categories, and explain away the mysteries of the Church through the ill-thought out application of narrow logical argumentation?

I have two brief things to say in response to such concerns (perhaps Alec, Bill and others can add more, or re-express my response in more sophisticated terms?). Firstly, the role of analytic theology (I think) is to clarify the meaning of scripture, not to impose foreign categories on it. To take an analytic approach to theology is, as Alec says, to be clear and explicit about the claims one is making, and to rigorously follow through these claims to the best of one’s ability. It does not require any prior assumptions about the limits of theology or capability of human reason to clarify and know doctrinal content – rather, this is worked out (in good Patristic fashion) in application to the question at hand, and in relation to the scriptural material one is dealing with.

Secondly, one can preserve the mystery of e.g. the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity whilst also being clear and precise as to exactly where that mystery lies, and in what sense it is ‘mysterious’. Indeed, key to analytical attempts to clarify the mysteries of faith is the principle that whilst the traditional doctrines of Christianity may well contain mystery, but they are not actually self-contradictory. For instance, an analytic approach might seek to show that apparently contradictory claims about e.g. Christ -that he possesses both a human and a divine nature, say – are not in fact contradictory. This can be done without attempting to provide a complete account of how they fail to be contradictory. Indeed, this is what figures like Cyril sought to demonstrate – that the heart of Christian faith, although genuinely mysterious, does not in fact contain logical contradiction. This is a point McGuckin himself acknowledges when he notes that Athanasius’ and the Cappadocian’s defence of paradoxical statements regarding the incarnation did not view these claims as ‘an illogicality’ (p.178). The mystery behind the traditional Christian understanding of the incarnation is not a confusion; nor is it self-contradiction. If the traditional understanding of the incarnation rests on the former then it is not truly mysterious, as it is open to clarification. If it rests on the latter it is demonstrably false.

I hope, therefore, that scholars such as McGuckin, who might harbour certain reservations about a theology which claims both analytic and Patristic, may yet be able to get on board. The meta-level question raised by the above two paragraphs about the responsible use of philosophy (and in particular analytic thought) in theology is something I encourage other members of the Oriel theological community to reflect and write on in future posts on this blog.

As I mentioned above, I agree with Alec’s statement that Oriel’s combination of traditional and analytic approaches to theology is something genuinely special. However, as my discussion of McGuckin above intimates, Oriel theology does have potential allies. One obvious set of such allies is the emerging generation analytic theologians who are (in spite of apparent perceptions amongst the wider theological community) increasingly engaging with Patristic and scriptural sources (Bill Wood’s review essay ‘On the New Analytic Theology, or: The Road Less Travelled’ in Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 2009 is a useful introduction to the current state of scholarship in anlytic theology). I would also like to put my cards on the table and suggest that the Barnes-Ayres school of Patristic scholarship (of which I could be considered a product) also constitutes a natural ally to Oriel theology. According to the narrative of Patristic theology which has emerged from this school, the development of doctrine in the first five centuries of the Church is a result of a quest for clarity as to the content of revealed biblical truth. Controversy erupts when underlying tensions and ambiguities within scripture and within the inherited theological traditions of the Church come to light. New doctrinal formulations emerge in response to these tensions; they are a means of maintaining the integrity of scripture and of assessing various truth-claims about the nature of God and the divine economy.

This narrative is at home within the analytic tradition not only because of its concern for clarity and the truth-content of scripture and for the critical assessment of truth-claims, but also because it is a means of doing theology which holds itself to rigorous standards by which to assess truth-claims and which constantly questions, analyses and refines these standards. (There is perhaps no better example of this than the discussion of religious language in Basil of Caesarea, excellently treated in Andrew Radde-Gallwitz Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and the Transformation of Divine Simplicity, 2009; I highly recommend this book to other Oriel theologians as an example of the sort of work we should strive to emulate).

So, as should be clear from my discussion above, I am in agreement with Alec in his characterisation of Oriel theology as being both Traditional and Analytic. I further agree that an analytic approach to theology is amenable to Patristic approaches to theology. I do consider Oriel theology to be ‘special’: not just because I think the combination of analytic and traditional approaches to theology is itself special, but because the combination of the two found at Oriel is, as Alec points out, all too rare. However, I do think that Oriel has natural theological allies, even if they aren’t going about theology in precisely the same way we do. I suppose the most controversial claims I’ve made above are that a) Patristic theology is (in some sense) analytic and b) that this perspective on Patristic theology (and on the nature of theology as a whole) is, to a degree, shared with the Barnes-Ayres school of Patristic scholarship; as I said above, I hope to be able to develop these theses (especially the first one) at some point in the future.

Additional to this, I would like to add two addenda to Alec’s piece. Firstly (and most importantly), whereas I agree that Oriel theology is to be characterised as ‘traditional’ and ‘analytic’ I also feel that a third adjective should be added to the mix: Oriel theology is, or at least should be, ‘scriptural’. By this I mean not simply that Oriel theology takes scripture as the starting point of reflection, or as one body of evidence amongst others, but that the whole purpose of Oriel theology is to expound and clarify the knowledge of God and of the divine economy revealed to humankind in the scriptures of the Church. It is scriptural, rather than merely biblical, insofar as it views the texts of the bible as not only the product of human hands and historical circumstance (although they are this also) but as being divinely inspired by the Spirit of God. As such, whilst each has its own integrity, they also form a whole, and can be read intelligibly as such. I will leave the question of how the scriptures should be read to more subtle exegetical minds than my own (I’m looking at you John Ritzema!). However, I will suggest that our exegesis should reflect to some degree our analytic concern for clarity and the rigorous establishment of truth-claims, along with the fact that we are part of an historical interpretive tradition stretching back to the Patristic era (and beyond to Paul and the New Testament writers).

The final thought I want to open up for discussion is this. Although Oriel theology is non-denominational, and I this blog certainly isn’t a platform of any one particular denomination, I do think it is worth pointing out that the majority (all?) of the core contributors to this blog identify as members of the Church of England – and, in one way or another, as ‘high Anglican’. It might, then, be worth reflecting on our place within this broader communion and, if this isn’t too pretentious (we’re hardly a second Oxford Movement, after all) what contribution we may be able to have to the theology and life of the Church going forward?

Anyway, this is my immediate response to Alec’s piece. Sorry if it rambles on a bit. I realise this post most likely fails by its own standards – it lacks sufficient clarity and argumentative rigour, and barely references scripture or the Fathers. However, I hope this will get the ball rolling re: using the blog as a platform for discussion. Rest assured your posts (and my future posts) need not be so lengthy. A short paragraph or even a couple of lines will do – whatever continues the conversation.

YIC (to plagiarise Bill’s sign-off!),



14 thoughts on “Response to Alec Siantonas’ ”An Oriel Theology Manifesto”.

  1. Thanks Brendan. I’ll probably have more to say later, but for now a thought that I have toyed with before reoccurs to me. What do people think of one day arranging a three (or more?)-way Patristics conference, discussing the exegesis of the Fathers and offering analytic reconstructions of their views? -Alec


  2. On Radical Orthodoxy. I can’t say that I know a great deal about the movement, but what I do know irritates me in the peculiar manner of the distorted mirror. Yes, the pre-modern heritage of the Church is to be reclaimed, but no, no, no, that is not the way to go about it. Auspiciously timed indeed was the publication of this piece: To condense the review into one sentence: Ward’s work fatally lacks those virtues which are most distinctive of the analytic methodology. If Burling is, as I am rather inclined to suspect, a student of Coakley’s, then we have a fair claim on him as a fellow Oriel theologian.

    This, I think, leads quite naturally to pretentious reflections on our place in ‘the life of the Church going forward’. I think you suggested last year that the higher regions of the CofE suffer from a lack of intellectual self-confidence and self-definition, affecting, for example, the retention of young people. Much of what intellectual self-definition remains, I suspect, is a hangover from Radical Orthodoxy. I’m not sure how to go about it, but we should at least try to change that.

    A woman who works in my mother’s shop attends a low, youthful (not, I think, an especially conservative) CofE church in Cambridge. She’s no philosopher, but she knows about Plantinga because Plantinga is part of an intellectual self-definition that her church has confidence articulating. I suspect there are few people in my church just up the road who could tell you who Plantinga is, even among the post-holding academics. Smart, educated people there don’t understand why logic is part of the Cambridge Philosophy Tripos and are surprised to learn that I can even study metaphysics as an analytic philosopher, while my priest has expressed her admiration for none other than… Graham Ward. It’s a bit unfair to single out Ward: I’ve never read him myself, the article simply makes him salient. Still, I think the point I’m trying to make is clear.



  3. Thanks for your comments Alec. I can see we’re thinking along similar lines. One way I think we could potentially influence ‘the life of the Church going forward’, as you put it, is by publishing theological works which get read by seminarians, and, better still, potentially teaching in a seminary, or a university (such as Oxford and Durham) with seminary students. Perhaps AKMA might be able to say something here about how (if at all) higher level theological research can find its way into the broader life of the Church in this way.


  4. RE: The conference, I wonder if that might be too broad a topic; however, I do like the idea of eventually setting up a regular Oriel conference. The overall theme for this set of conferences could be the exploration of theological issues from an analytic/Patristic perspective (with individual conferences on e.g. Scriptural Exegesis, Ecclesiology etc.). The merit of this would be to bring Patristic scholars and analytic theologians into conversation with each other, and to provide a platform for research which combines these fields.


  5. More later, but for now I just wanted to say that I like this a lot: “The mystery behind the traditional Christian understanding of the incarnation is not a confusion; nor is it self-contradiction. If the traditional understanding of the incarnation rests on the former then it is not truly mysterious, as it is open to clarification. If it rests on the latter it is demonstrably false.”

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Working something bigger up, but do think it worth saying that we want to influence the life of the Church going forward, a good way of doing so is volunteering with agencies supporting the homeless…


  7. (Also, if radical orthodoxy is post-modern, it’s post-modern in the same way that One Direction are musical.)


  8. I do fear somewhat that the ‘Common Awards’ system will limit the range of academic opinions to which Anglican ordinands are exposed. Your point about a lack of intellectual self-confidence within Anglo-Catholicism certainly seems to ring true and is particularly unfortunate when you consider the movement’s (Oriel) foundations. Personally, I have long considered that the relative lack of religious orders within the Anglican Church means that, in the age of Common Tenure, there are very few clergy who have the time, more than anything else, to engage in meaningful theological research. Long gone are the days of ‘The Revd So-and-so, DD, Rector of Kingston Bagpuize’ appearing in publishers’ catalogues.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I largely agree with your comments, Brendan. I wasn’t trying to propose a specific topic for a conference, but I think it would be good to bring Biblical scholars to the proposed conversation.

    Emily asked me earlier how far I agree with your comments re the place of scripture. I think I do have some queries, if not quite objections.

    ‘By this I mean not simply that Oriel theology takes scripture as the starting point of reflection, or as one body of evidence amongst others, but that the whole purpose of Oriel theology is to expound and clarify the knowledge of God and of the divine economy revealed to humankind in the scriptures of the Church.’

    This is a grand-sounding claim which could use some good old analytic unpacking. First of all, what do we think the scriptures of the Church are? There’s the obvious question of what books we include in our Bible (4 Maccabees? It’s pretty out there, but it’s gist is that philosophy gives you superpowers. Basically). Then, we might take a broad, Orthodox-type view of what the scriptures are. Creeds? Liturgy? If liturgy, does Common Worship count as scripture? And so on.

    Moving along, I wonder where this leaves natural theology. Is Richard Swinburne not to count as an Oriel theologian? Or is a natural theology of sin, say, really just an exegesis of Genesis 3, or a cosmological argument a gloss on Paul’s speech at the Areopagus? I suppose what I’m driving at here is whether your claim is more a claim about *scripture* – read right, it covers every issue a theologian might want to think about – than about theological method – a good essay in analytic theology ought to be explicitly exegetical in form. Probably there are interesting positions in between the two options I just gave. Something to think about, anyway.


  10. I’m reminded of the fact that when they finished Finals, Brendan, John, Tom, and Simon gave me a Bible as a gift– the implication being that I’d never seen one before. More seriously, I think it would be very valuable at some point for us to think about the relationship between scriptural reasoning / exegesis and analytic reasoning / argument. Alec’s question seems like a productive place to start: “…whether your claim is more a claim about *scripture* – read right, it covers every issue a theologian might want to think about – than about theological method – a good essay in analytic theology ought to be explicitly exegetical in form”


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