Analytic Theology and the Progress of Philosophy

I have recently been reading William Hasker’s, Metaphysics and the Tri-Personal God. Rea and Crisp are the editors of the series and give a decent summary of analytic theology:

‘Analytic theology utilizes the tools and methods of contemporary analytic philosophy for the purposes of constructive Christian theology, paying attention to the Christian tradition and development of doctrine.’

In the book, Hasker both outlines his weak version of ‘social trinitarianism’ and showcases AT. This post isn’t about his doctrine of the Trinity. Instead, I want to   pick up on an assumption that underlies Hasker’s approach—the assumption of a certain kind of philosophical progress.

Hasker unites his commitment to theological orthodoxy (in agreement with Leftow) with his convictions regarding the progress of philosophy. Contemporary theologians, he argues, should stand on the foundations of Scripture and pro-Nicene orthodoxy as on the shoulders of a giant. The analogy illustrates both the stature of the pro-Nicenes in Hasker’s framework and his assertion that our contemporary theological understanding should reach higher than theirs.

The argument that the theological work which has been done since the fourth century should bring with it greater understanding seems to make sense. What got me thinking was Hasker’s assumption regarding how theological reach is extended. The progress, it turns out, is fundamentally philosophical.

In this story, the Fathers (and with them most other pre-modern theologians) were tied to some problematic assumptions of Hellenistic philosophy. Thankfully, these have since been updated. The doctrine of divine simplicity is Hasker’s case in point—a Platonic dinosaur in the Patristic room. Philosophy has come on a long way since such ideas were deemed acceptable, he argues. Theology needs to move forward too. By allowing its pre-modern philosophical missteps to be brought up to date, theology can come up with new and improved doctrinal formulations. We face ‘the task of reformulating, in our own philosophical idiom, the theological claims [the pro-Nicene Fathers] set forth in terms of philosophical assumptions we can no longer adopt as our own.’

So what is my worry? I don’t want to dismiss the idea of progress in human understanding out of hand, and I agree with Hasker that the philosophical assumptions underlying theological formulations need to be inspected and purified. Surely, however, both the primary purification, and our definition of progress, need to be robustly theological.

It seems to me that on Hasker’s view modern philosophy ends up being not the handmaid of theology but its saviour. The historic foundation of orthodoxy might belong to theology, but the progress—both in terms of its definition and achievement—belongs to philosophy. Whilst using the tools of analytic philosophy this approach is in danger of capitulating to its modern story of the world.

I want to raise two particular problems with this. Firstly, this model of progress relies on a certain understanding of the relationship between philosophy and theology which I am not convinced is adequate. Is the doctrine of divine simplicity so entirely grounded on erroneous philosophy that it can simply be disregarded? If so, the Fathers were relying much more substantively on non-Christian philosophy than I think we should accept.

Secondly, I doubt the story of progress that Hasker appears to affirm. Progress is surely more nuanced than much modern thought allows. The renewal of thinking in the Aristotelian virtues tradition in both moral philosophy and epistemology suggests that the purification of philosophical assumptions is not a chronological one-way street. What is more, if progress depends on the goal we are moving towards then contemporary analytic philosophy, insofar as it marginalizes discussion of the nature of ultimate goods, is singularly ill-equipped to claim it as its own. In a world that craves the progress represented by the addition of an ‘S’ to the latest iPhone, perhaps theology has something of its own to contribute to the ongoing story of modernity. Perhaps some of modern philosophy’s assumptions could use the ‘tools’ of theology that were ably wielded by the pro-Nicenes.


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