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.