Some False Precision, with a Diagnosis

I am not at present about to follow Brendan in offering a general theory of false precision; but I will record some suspicions on the subject. For all my vigorous defence of the analytic method in replying to Ed, my suspicion is that analytic theology has, thus far and in general, been some way behind the highest standards (ie, those that wouldn’t make Tim Williamson wince) of analytic philosophy. Not so much because of the sort of sloppiness that Tim decries in his Afterword to The Philosophy of Philosophy, but because of the sort of glibness that Ed has been decrying here on this very blog. As I hinted at in my Manifesto, I think the trouble is that analytic theology is not sufficiently traditional.

Take two examples. The first is Jonathan Jacobs’ recent paper on fundamentality and apophatic theology. It’s a clear, provocative, and ingenious piece of analytic theology: any paper citing both Ayres’ Nicaea and its Legacy and Sider’s Writing the Book of the World is worth celebrating. In fact, the paper is so good that it was awarded the 2013 Marc Sanders Foundation Prize for the Philosophy of Religion. This paper is not, as it were, low-hanging fruit. Still, clever and rigorous and conversant with the cutting edge of analytic metaphysics as it may be, the paper strikes me as being thoroughly wrong-headed.

Jacobs’ thesis is that when the theological traditions denies eg that God is wise, what’s really being denied is that God is wise fundamentally. This way of using ‘fundemental’ got going in analytic metaphysics because some philosophers (notably Kit Fine) started worrying that the then-standard modal tools of metaphysical analysis, popularised above all by David Lewis, weren’t really up to the job. They weren’t fine-grained enough to do all the work metaphysicians wanted doing. I won’t bore you with the details of all this now, but a good place to start if you wanted to learn more would be Fine’s key paper ‘Essence and Modality’. The basic idea is that some facts – eg, the fact that I am typing – explain some other facts – eg, the fact that I am either typing or weightlifting – in a distinctively metaphysical way. The explanatory facts are said to be more fundamental than the other facts that they explain. So Jacobs is saying that it’s a fact that God is wise, but this fact does not lie at the rock-bottom of metaphysical explanation.

My main problem with this account, although not my only problem with it, is that it’s wildly anachronistic. Pseudo-Dionysius didn’t care about the upcoming generational shift from Lewisian metaphysics to Finean metaphysics. He really wasn’t bothered about how fine-grained philosophical analysis should get. Whatever Dionysius was getting at when he said that neither affirmation nor negation can be applied to God, I struggle to believe that it had anything to do with fundamentality. Of course, Jacobs knows that Dionysius hadn’t read Fine. He just thinks that this appeal to fundamentality is the best we can do to make sense of what Dionysius is saying. I respectfully suggest that Jacobs – and Oriel theologians – try harder. If we really want to understand the apophatic tradition, we can’t just rely on the latest debates in the pages of Nous plus our general knowledge that Dionysius said some weird shit. We need to look back to Philo and Plotinus, forward to Aquinas and The Cloud of Unknowing, at the Cappadocians and Chrysostom and Cyril of Jerusalem. Perhaps once the historical legwork has been done, the one place we really need to turn will prove to be ‘Essence and Modality’. But that would be surprising, and there’s little point in going straight to Fine while skipping those other names that loom rather larger within the history of apophatic theology.

The first rant took rather longer than expected, so I’ll (rather unhappily) be brusquer about my next target: Peter van Inwagen. As far I’m concerned, PvI is one of the top metaphysicians working today.I think it’s great that, throughout his career, he’s consistently turned his skilled hands to theology. The only trouble is that he can display exactly the same myopia I’ve just accused Jacobs of. His relative identity account of the Trinity in ‘And Yet There Are Not Three Gods’ left me completely cold. It’s just what you would expect from someone who has thought long and hard about the vagueness of composition, but who has read the Athanasian Creed without following it up with any actual Athanasius. It won’t do to analyse the creeds in isolation from the debates that shaped them. Van Inwagen offers a slick way of exculpating Pseudo-Athanasius from the charge of contradiction, at least if you have doubts about the classical identity relation, but it doesn’t get to the heart of a theological vision that the creeds themselves can only sketch.

This is what’s really important about Oriel Theology. Yes, it would be great if conventional systematic theologians could identify valid argument forms in predicate logic, and if they and all the rest of ‘the folk’ stopped eliding metaphysical and epistemological issues, but none of that will happen until analytic theologians show everyone else that they deserve to be taken seriously, and show it on everyone else’s terms. Living the life of the mind in relation to God means attending to those places where the Spirit’s breath has blown the Church towards all truth: that is, the theological tradition. We will only get really good analytic theology when most analytic theologians are immersed in the tradition, and only when that happens will conventional theologians want to engage the tradition of analytic philosophy. This is what Oriel Theology should strive to achieve.


6 thoughts on “Some False Precision, with a Diagnosis

  1. Re: historical legwork, we have a good precedent in Newman. The Tracts seem to try and legitimise an ahistorical reading of the Articles. The Arians of the Fourth Century does the opposite, hence his perceived need to convert.

    I suppose my question is this: what do you see as the role of historical legwork in reading our authoritative texts? Do we learn about Reformation history to better understand what the text of the Articles actually says, or to understand why it says what it says? Can these be different things? Does historical research establish an authoritative reading of an authoritative text?


  2. This gets to the heart of the questions we’ve been pondering about Scripture, authority, and doctrinal development. It does not strike me as particularly implausible to suppose that a radically de-historicised reading of supposedly authoritative text really is a kind of ‘conceptual idolatory’, in the terminology so beloved of certain un-analytic theologians. Revelation is not the laying down of an authoritative orthographic pattern; it is God calling creatures into conversation. I am reminded of the Rowan Williams piece you pointed out to me recently: what matters for articulating a distinctively Christian theology is ‘a continuity of usage with Jesus and the apostles’ ( If we are not interested in why the Fathers said what they said (and anathematised what they anathematised), we are carrying on some other conversation than the one God has called us to join.

    While I think it’s worth asking what the propositional content of the the creeds might be, and how that content is related to the content of the Bible, it seems hopeless to identify this content as itself that which is most directly authoritative. Ultimately, I suspect that it is specific acts and continuing practises which must be regarded as carrying primary authority. We attend as best we can, in ascending order of importance, to the speech-acts of the Reformers, of the Nicene Fathers, of John the Evangelist, and above all to the the great salvific act of God in raising Christ from death. This attending involves yet more acts within a continuing practice: of reading, thinking, discussing, and contemplation, liturgy, love. I have suppressed some points of disagreement with Barth, and let me here emphasise some agreement. This process is readily thought of as being Trinitarian in structure: the Father initiates a conversation though the Son, and we respond in the Spirit.


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