On Good and Bad Precision

I for one am really excited about the way things are going with the blog so far! I’m really enjoying chatting theology with old friends, and encourage any lurkers out there to get posting, even if only in the comments!

For this post I’m trying out Bill’s recommendation and just writing something pretty brief in response to some themes which have emerged in other posts. The idea is that more brief posts like this will help create a more conversational (and manageable) blog. So, here goes…

This post is made in reply to the comments thread on Ed Watson’s post ‘The Vagueness of rigour’. In his main post, Ed suggested that the analytic theologian’s attempt to offer more precise definitions of theological concepts sometimes ‘‘actually serve to muddy the waters of discussion.’’ Ed argued that ‘‘such things as knowledge, belief, meaning, truth, existence, orthodoxy, salvation, grace, and rigour are similarly vague phenomena, such that if we are to give clear, rigorous accounts of them then these accounts must carry within them elements of vagueness.’’

I see this objection as very much similar as McGuckin’s objection to ‘scholastic’ thinking. The fear is that analytic theologians will ‘clarify’ theological concepts in a manner which does violence to their integral mystery, or ‘vagueness’. I made this point in a comment on Ed’s post; in response to this objection, I argued that ‘‘analytic theology, rather than attempting to do away with mystery (or, in the context of this post, ‘vagueness’ is (uniquely?) well placed to identify and clarify the manner in which something is ‘mysterious’ or ‘vague’.’’

My counter-move raises the following question [this is a paraphrase of a comment from Bill]: ‘‘when, if ever, [does] analytic precision becomes false precision, or at least unhelpful precision– especially in theology’’?

Let me suggest three conditions whereby analytic precision becomes false precision, in a theological context:

For any definition x of a doctrine A, x is ‘falsely precise’ if and only if:

  1. x renders A self-contradictory (and therefore un-true).
  2. x renders A contradictory with a another true doctrine B, such that if A were true on definition x , B would be false.
  3. x renders A contradictory with scripture.

So, for example, Nestorius’ attempt to clarify the relationship between the human and divine natures in Christ is falsely precise because it renders the doctrine of Christ’s full humanity contradictory with the doctrine that there was a single subject of the incarnation, and so fails condition 2. Similarly Nestorius’ account of the interpenetration of human and divine subjectivity as an attempt to clarify the manner in which there is only one persona in Christ, even though there are two acting subjects, could be said to fail condition 3., on the basis that scripture portrays Christ as acting as a single subject.(This is a caricature of Nestorius’ theology, although I do think this is pretty close to the essence of what he ends up doing).

These three criterion are just the ones which came to me as I was writing this – please comment below to add, remove, refine etc. The important point I want to make is this: false precision isn’t false because it clarifies something we think shouldn’t be clarified. Rather it is false precision because it distorts or contradicts scripture and other areas of doctrine. False precision is poor because of what it does to the concepts it is trying to clarify, not because it violates some numinous principle of mystery. Indeed, I would argue that something like this is what the term ‘mystery’ (properly understood) means: a concept or doctrine is mysterious insofar as it cannot be further clarified without failing one of the conditions outlined above.

I think a paper (or maybe symposium?) on ‘mystery’ and analytic theology would be a really interesting one. I hope that this brief post gets people thinking, but I would be interested to hear all your definitions of ‘mystery’ (analytic and non-analytic) and the conditions for good and bad precision (that is, if you don’t all decide that I’ve cracked the problem and am right in every way!).

Anyway, it’s beer-o’clock over in Atlanta. Over and out y’all!



5 thoughts on “On Good and Bad Precision

  1. I think this is a good start to identifying specific bad features of bad precision. I do, however, think we need more distinctively philosophical metrics of bad precision than simple inconsistency. I suspect that attempts at precision can be both internally consistent and theologically consistent in the ways you mention, but still be bad because question-begging or point-missing.


  2. You may well be right Alec. I think it’s great that our gut responses to this problem have been quite different, and hopefully complementary!


  3. I do get the impression that your critique in the comment above simply points to other conditions which need to be added to my list (something like ‘x renders A question begging’ etc) rather than any meta-level criticism. Am I right about this?


  4. Excellent post! It seems to me that, to a certain extent, 2 and 3 can be very nearly collapsed into each other, insofar as true doctrine shouldn’t contradict Scripture (though I’d also look at doctrine in a way where it should be derived from scripture if it is to be true, which might be a bit harder on it than your take?), but it’s probably good to keep them distinct!

    In terms of criticism: I’d first say that 1 could rely on a particular picture of language, wherein human language can describe God without at some point running up against itself, sometimes in a self-contradictory fashion, but that’s a whole ‘mother debate. More importantly: insofar as 2 and 3 can both be related to Scripture, the precision of the standards seems to me to depend upon ambiguity and vagueness in that self same scripture… And there we’re on interesting ground (which was already going to form the centre of the post I’m working on: so huzzah!)


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