An Expanded Manifesto

Alec Siantonas’s recent piece offering An Oriel Theology Manifesto makes the case, in my view convincingly, that Oriel theologians have a distinctive style of theological thinking. He labels this as “both analytic and traditional.” First he draws attention to our tendency, largely due to Dr. Wood’s influence in undergraduate teaching, to think, discuss and argue in the rigorous manner of post-Frege philosophy. In particular Alec notes a duty to articulate one’s ideas as clearly as possible, enabling one’s interlocutor to identify individual premises and arguments as true or false, defensible or indefensible. This openness to scrutiny is a kind of intellectual humility, which generates the genuinely friendly and collegiate atmosphere of Oriel Theology. It also reinforces our common pursuit of proper (rather than superficial) understanding and sound arguments. Second, he notes Oriel’s commitment to a traditional way of thinking theologically. Alec offers an interpretation of the development of Christian orthodoxy proffered by many current and recent Oriel Theologians, namely that the analytic theologian can sympathetically read the theology of the Fathers as the gradual working out of the Gospel’s implications for our understanding of what God is said to have done in Christ. Their articulation of a ‘grammar of divinity’ was a search for theological clarity not dissimilar to ours; whether or not Oriel theologians hold Christian orthodoxy to be true, we tend to agree that is rationally structured, and interesting, and capable of being analysed analytically. Analytic and traditional – thus far Alec’s manifesto.

The thought-provoking responses which Alec’s manifesto has thus far received have touched on a few issues which I intend briefly to discuss. In particular, the relationship between analytic theology and the Biblical Studies, analytic method vis-à-vis the instability of language, and the relationship between Oriel Theology and Christianity. I hope the thoughts that I have to offer will help flesh out what some of us mean when we say that Oriel Theology is A Thing.

A dual-core department.

Dr. Wood’s short note on Radical Orieldoxy makes the point that “there really is a case to be made that tiny Oriel College has historically been one the most important centers [sic!] for theology and philosophy of religion in the world.” One reason for our strength in recent years has been our good fortune in having a couple of important professorial chairs based in College, namely the Nolloth Professorship of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion and the Oriel and Laing Professorship of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture. These two chairs have ensured that over the last half-century Oriel College has boasted some of the very greatest authorities in Christian Philosophy and the study of the Old Testament: Ian Ramsey, Basil Mitchell, Richard Swinburne, Brian Leftow; James Barr, the recently lamented Ernest Nicholson, and John Barton. Compounded by the fact that the average Oriel undergraduate experience in recent years has been dominated by the Wood-Nevader, all-American Theology and Bible teaching ticket, in turn supported by Strines, Marlattes, Lincicums and HWGBAA (He Who Goes By An Acronym), I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that Oriel has what I rather lamely call a dual-core department. Due to personal influences and the structure of the BA programmes, few  in recent years have come through Oriel Theology without a decent dose of Old Testament, New Testament, Patristics and modern Christian theology. This has recently and happily been further augmented by the creation of a college lectureship in Old Testament held by Laura Quick. I feel reasonably confident in saying that Oriel will remain a dual-core department for a while.

This is a good thing because, as Dr. Wood has intimated, the analytic style of theological reasoning and Biblical Studies seem to have a good deal in common. The close reading of Biblical texts and the close reading of theological arguments are similar in exegetical method: premises are established, narratives and arguments followed, assumptions questioned, terminology interrogated, etc. Analytic theology and Biblical Studies have a common interest in cutting through prose and jargon to get to the meat of the matter, whether that be a question of historicity or coherence or whatever, and then analyse and re-present it with as much factual accuracy, clarity of thought and openness to challenge as possible. These are virtues common to Biblical Studies and analytic theology; indeed to pretty much all credible academic work in the humanities.

John Barton is a good example of an Oriel Biblical scholar whose work is characterised by a particular emphasis on clarity and rigour. His prose is famously easy to read; leafing through the introduction to his recent Ethics in Ancient Israel is a masterclass in conceptual clarity. His method is not analytic in the strict sense – we don’t have formal notation of his arguments – but his habit of offering a series of explicit statements as to his terminology, themes, theses, motivation in writing, etc., is a fine one. This is characteristic of more than just good academic writing, though. One finds a similar pattern of thought in his work on the authority of Scripture in Christianity, People of the Book? He argues that Christians ought to make carefully limited claims about the authority of Scripture, because the end result of overblown fundamentalist claims about Scriptural inspiration and sufficiency is often the kind of historical and theological confusion and imprecision that fundamentalists set out to avoid. That in this he follows the work of James Barr makes me confident in claiming these concerns as a distinctive priority in Oriel Biblical studies. Incidentally, Ed’s recent posts seem to lean in this direction, and it isn’t completely inaccurate to portray him as eschewing the analytic interpretation of Scripture in favour of semi-analytic and Bartonesque meta-level claims about Scriptural authority!

Language and Grammar

That a dual-core department exists, or that individuals within it have a common focus on clarity and rigour (terms now more disputed than when I scribbled a draft of this last week), is not really enough for the claim I’m supporting: that there is a distinctive style of theological thinking in Oriel. It is, however, a route into arguing that Oriel’s analytic theology and Biblical studies share a common basis in a particular kind of God-thought.

My greatest weakness as a Biblical scholar is that I’m not (hopefully not yet) a proper philologist. To really get inside the Bible one needs to be able to think in Greek and Hebrew and other ancient languages. As AKMA has (I think) argued elsewhere, low-level competence in Biblical languages produces decoders rather than translators. Biblical God-talk is shaped by Greek and Hebrew grammar and vocabulary; the medium effects the message. To talk about the Bible’s revelation of the Triune God is to work within the grammar (both linguistic and conceptual) of our Greek and Hebrew texts.

Those of us who have come through the Bill Wood school of patristic orthodoxy are no doubt familiar with the concept of a ‘grammar of divinity’, which I mentioned in my opening paragraph. The phrase is Lewis Ayres’s, used to argue that the Fathers weren’t so much trying to articulate true statements about God, as to articulate a grammar which would make such statements possible. After all, the Fathers would presumably say that we already have the true statement about God in Christ. The task of the theologian is to work out that grammar of divinity which gets us inside divine revelation and lets us interrogate it. Fides quaerens intellectum. Oriel’s concern for analytic theology, both patristic and modern, seems to be the appropriate way of carrying out this task in our current intellectual climate; in this particular place and time it is important for the articulation of the Christian grammar of divinity that it is demonstrated to be rational and coherent.

Nova et vetera

As has been pointed out, this search for clarity and rigour within grammatical systems is difficult because they evolve. Language changes and is unstable. Biblical Hebrew isn’t modern Hebrew; δόξα in the Classics is opinion, whereas in the Bible it is the glory given to God; the Prayer Book collect for Trinity XVII means more or less the opposite to how it sounds in modern English. By language learning and historically contextualised philology we clear up some of these ambiguities. I think much the same happens with Oriel theology.

Oriel during the Oxford Movement was at the vanguard of the re-appropriation of the Fathers for the theologians of the established Church. We’ve retained a strong preference that undergraduates complete a course in patristics as part of the BA programme, and the results of this preference are clear in the way we tend to engage with modern theology. Oriel undergraduates reading Moltmann tend to challenge his account of traditional orthodoxy, arguing that it is his presentation thereof which is incoherent, and not, say, Cyril on the impassibility of the incarnate Logos. In recent years the combined influence of Doctors Wood and Tobin have nudged some of us in the direction of mediaeval and reformation historical theology, and now Bill points out how helpful it would be to have analytic accounts of more recent figures such as Barth and Tillich. Our analytic theology is that Oriel theologians seem to aim not only for the internal coherence of Christian doctrine, but (wherever possible) for coherence with the theological traditions of the past.

Oriel Theology and Christianity

It has been correctly and importantly stated by several of us that Oriel Theology isn’t confessional. You don’t have to be a Christian to come here. I am in Old Testament largely due to the influence of Madhavi Nevader and Casey Strine; the three of us couldn’t be described as sharing the same religious beliefs. Jews, atheists and agnostics think theologically in the Oriel fashion: assessing the relationship between the premises and conclusions of Christian belief does not commit one to accepting those premises!

That said, it does seem that there is a group of Christian theologians in Oriel who find our way of thinking theologically fruitful beyond the tutorial or the seminar. Alec hints that the Oriel School seems to cohere well with Christian worship in a creedaly orthodox, liturgical setting. There are those of us who firmly hold that the presence of a Chapel in College (Church of England, but what I’m saying applies equally well to the few but regular Roman Catholic masses celebrated there) is significant to our theological thinking and praxis. Lex orandi, lex credendi seems to be becoming an Oriel School maxim. Indeed, some of us see theology as an inherently second-order discipline, with true pride of place going to the preaching of Scripture and celebration of holy mysteries. This is something that we need to think and talk about more.

Whither Oriel Theology?

I should stop writing now, as I can’t imagine many people wanting to wade through more of my stream of consciousness. I’ll finish off with a suggestion. Analytic theology relies upon the clear articulation of premises. Biblical studies clearly relates to these premises insofar as the Bible is a normative source for Christian theological engagement. And as I’ve just argued, the experience of the Word in a liturgical context is also peculiarly authoritative. An important next step in the development of the Oriel School of thinking theologically is sharpen our focus on the question of theological authority. How is Scripture authoritative? What exactly counts as authoritative Scripture? How is the Christian Tradition authoritative? What is the relationship between academic theologians and the teaching authority of the Church?

I have my own inklings as to how we ought to answer these questions. I’d say that the Oriel School tends towards a kind of reformed catholicism. But more on that later.

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14 thoughts on “An Expanded Manifesto

  1. This is a damn good post: adds another incredibly useful dimension to the whole thing. I also thoroughly appreciate and agree with your brief aside about my recent pieces, and think it a very helpful form of expression, so ta for that!

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  2. I really enjoyed this piece John. I particularly like the way you talk of the efforts of the Fathers as a sort of analytic clarification of scripture. I think it picks up on a number of key dimensions of patristic thought which are often lost upon modern commentators – such as, for example, their grammatical approach to exegesis, which as you say, is based on a close attention to key figures and words, their role within the broader narrative (and moreover the role scripture plays as the fundamental starting point of theological investigation) etc.
    I will be interested your thoughts on the questions you outlined above. I would also be interested ito hear your understanding of the role of historical critical readings of scripture when it comes to theological exegesis.

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  3. Working from this, I think John’s piece suggests a way in which Wittgenstien can actually serve as a meeting point for the different approaches we’ve been trying to articulate, Alec; or at least providing a context where they can properly work side by side. Namely: it is indeed a grammatical endeavour, and this requires both the precision demanded by analytic methods *and* the open endedness preferred by some other schools of thought. On which, I think I’m going to try my hand at a piece on points of dialogue between the two approaches, where they can break down, and where they could perhaps be helpful to each other. Give me a couple of days!

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  4. I’m happy with open endedness, so long as the appeal to open endedness is not used as an excuse to avoid even seeking analytic-style rigour. My concern is the idea that the endeavour in question is grammatical, in any interesting sense. I must go back and read what Ayres says about grammar. For one thing, I agree with Bill that any very strong ‘grammatical’ reading of the issue feels like just so much more false precision, albeit of a kind not popular in the analytic mainstream for the past half century or so. And, of course, I think it’s been unpopular in the analytic mainstream for good philosophical reasons. It’s hard to wrestle those reasons into a single comment, but they basically have to do with Quine being sort of right on some important issues: epistemological holism, compositional-referential semantics, (at least, uncritical appeals to) the analytic/synthetic distinction.

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  5. Pushing in to my second intellectual task. The Word became flesh or the Word became fibre-glass. Anyone who understands disjunction and acknowledges the authority of John and will admit that that’s true, and a truth about God, but it’s not explicitly asserted anywhere in Scripture. If we’re really going to get clear on what changes and what stays the same, doctrinally speaking, talking about semantics and pragmatics; extensional, intensional, and hyperintensional content; and different kinds of inferential connection seems unavoidable to me. But then it would, wouldn’t it?

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  6. One thing I think it worth mentioning re ‘grammatical’ investigation: there’s a really, really important line in Philosophical Investigations, which I think gets glossed over, that essence is expressed by grammar (in the context, moreover, this is not (I think) the essence of the language, but the essence of what is spoken of). I think the comment can be best read in the context of Wittgenstein’s remarks about whether or not ‘grammar’ is arbitrary, and his broad conclusion that in a significant number of cases grammar follows in part either from the way things are or the way we absolutely have to take them to be (the question of whether and when these two are different forming the basic question, I think, of On Certainty, and much to my shock and horror brings Witt. somewhat into line with Kant (I think)). This is why I think an investigation of the grammatical efforts of the early church fathers can be genuinely interesting (especially in the context of your comment about historicity on your other post): we can look at what they felt they had to say if they were to say anything true about God, see how this relates to scripture, see how this changed, and then ask how this grammar can inform our ability to speak truly of a God beyond the powers of human perception in a way which doesn’t just seek to be a meta-account of religious practise or language.

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  7. (I should say: into line with the character of Kantian inquiry. There remain very important differences, ofc.)

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  8. I think that grammatical inquiry in what I would call ‘the straightforward and literal sense’ is perfectly respectable. Grammar is important, and it encodes what I would call metaphysical assumptions, and this well demonstrated by the actual practice of the Fathers themselves – see especially Cyril’s second letter to Nestorius. What I am uncomfortable with is the idea of grammatical revision that is not a substantive metaphysical revision that can be true or false, or the idea that some sentences such as ‘the divine ousia is one’ or ‘there are tables wherever there are table-wise arranged simples’ are really grammatical when they don’t look like it.

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  9. Well, the latter of those is circular jargon as far as I can see, whereas the first is an essential aspect of Trinitarian theology! In fact, I would say that the first can indeed express a rule of syntax for when we speak of God in Christianity, just one which is better expressed by ‘Hear o Israel, the Lord your God is one’.

    As for whether grammatical revisions can be true or false, I’d be inclined to say that sometimes they can be, sometimes they aren’t. Within Wittgenstein picture (I think) it is entirely possible to derive two languages from the same experience (the limits of empiricism) and in this case the question of which is true or false doesn’t really arise. It is still, however, possible for grammar to be false (in an ethical as well as an epistemological sense!): for example, the ‘surface’ grammar of our language which leads us to think that the same word must be used the same way in all situations if it is to be the same word. There are also certain propositions which cannot be underwritten; that is, we cannot justify their truth or falsity without either first assuming them to be true or false: the question of whether or not they are actually true or false just isn’t appliable, because there is no means of determining an answer which doesn’t already presume it. Even Aristotle sticks with that (I’ll find the citation if need be). But anyway, there is diversity in grammatical investigation, and some of it carries essential import!

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  10. 1. English and French are both derived from broadly similar experiences, and the question of which is true or false doesn’t arise: because truth and falsity are properties of sentences within a language, not properties of whole languages.

    2. It’s not possible for grammar to be false; grammar is a feature of language, but we’re still not looking in the right place to find bearers of truth-values. Truth and falsity are not properties of grammars, they are properties of sentences that are well-formed according to the grammar of some language. Some sentences are about grammar, and some such sentences are true and others false: ‘conjoining two well-formed English sentences by ‘and’ never produces a well-formed English sentence’ is false, and it’s negation is true. Also, as you point out, grammar can be misleading in various ways ‘I followed Wittgenstein’s lead into grave philosophical error’ is misleading, insofar as it suggests that there is some entity which is the lead belonging to Wittgenstein. But the grammar isn’t false, it just tempts us to accept falsehoods (much as poor lighting conditions might).

    3. There is neither an epistemological nor an ethical sense of truth, at least in the sense in which you seem to using ‘sense’. There is just a semantic sense of truth. Arguably, there are different kinds of truth in the realm of epistemological discourse and in the realm of ethical discourse; perhaps there are even different senses of ‘true’ and cognates when used with respect to those realms of discourse; but that doesn’t seem to be what you had in mind, and I personally would reject both of the positions canvassed above. (Maybe there is a non-semantic sense of truth at work in, eg, ‘That photograph is true’, but that seems to be another phenomenon entirely).

    4. I find some things in the vicinity of what Wittgenstein says in On Certainty plausible. It seems pretty hopeless to try casting my entire web of belief into doubt all at once. Some propositions, moreover, seem pretty darn near the centre of that web: the law of non-contradiction, for example. Still, I can sensibly ask whether the law of non-contradiction holds, as when confronted by paradoxes. For familiar Tarskian reasons, therefore, I can sensibly ask whether some sentence expressing the law of non-contradiction is true. And I can defend the view that the sentence in question is true, eg, by providing objections to Graham Priest’s account of the liar paradox.

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  11. Just a couple of things in response to (and for once not in opposition to) Ed’s observation regarding Lewis Ayres’ ‘Wittgensteinian’ reading of the fathers.
    A) You touch on something true-Ayres does make use of Wittgenstein in his reading of the fathers. In fact I believe he somewhere explicitly deploys family resemblance as a way of understanding variations and continuities across early Christianity.
    B) I am very sympathetic to the use of Wittgenstein in theology and patristics. This may not have come across in some of my previous blog posts, but my cohort will remember my fondness for Wittgenstein. However, I now (unlike before) find him useful only selectively: that is I find certain concepts and arguments to be persuasive and to have useful applications in a theological context (the notion of family resemblance being a case in point- I am not, however, a Wittgensteinian overall. What I guess I am trying to point out here is that I don’t want my hesitancy towards some of Ed’s Wittgeinsteinian claims to be seen as a hesitancy towards Wittgenstein more generally. Rather, as I said in another comment on another post, I prefer to judge philosophical arguments and concepts on a case by case basis,rather than favouring wholesale any particular school of thought. (Although as it happens I find Wittgenstein most insightful when he provides us with well-defined concepts and rigorous (analytic) arguments). As such. I feel perfectly happy adopting certain elements of Wittgensteinian philosophy without feeling it compromises my general stance. Similarly, I think Ayres’ use of Wittgensteinian concepts and terminology does not make him a wholesale Wittgensteinian.

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