Why a Catholic Theologian can be an Analytic Theologian by Tom McCall and Timothy Pawl

Stephanie Nicole Nordby
Thursday 15 February 2018

This article is a brief response by Professors Tom McCall and Timothy Pawl to Lewis Ayres’s recent critical piece on the project of Analytic Theology. 

We thank Lewis Ayres for taking the time to write up an argument against the compatibility of Analytic Theology and Catholic Theology, and for focusing on our separate works as his examples.  His essay on Academia.edu (since removed, apparently), “Revelation Charged with Mystery Or Can a Catholic Theologian be an Analytical Theologian,” has been making some rounds, and, since our work (on divine simplicity and Conciliar Christology, respectively) is criticized directly by Ayres, we’d like to briefly reply to an aspect of it here.  We are working on a longer, more substantial reply, which we hope to publish after we see Ayres’ final version in print.

Much of Ayres’ critique of Analytic Theology focuses on its alleged inattentiveness to certain goods.  For instance, it is “incompatible with the multiple types of attention necessary for thinking theologically in a Catholic context (5-6), it cannot “sustain appropriate attention to divine mystery” (6), it is inattentive to broader historical contexts (14), and cannot shape “appropriate forms of historical attention” (15).  And so on.  These attention deficits manifest in various ways, for instance, the fact that Pawl

makes no attempt to look in detail at how and where they [the conciliar thinkers Pawl discusses] addressed what he sees as the ‘fundamental problem’ (and thus his construal of that ‘problem’ and how Patristic writers must have felt about it fails to consider whether their concerns and habits of attention were those of the modern analytical philosopher). (21)

Other instances of our shared inattention are catalogued as well throughout the paper.  One should suffice for our purposes.  The main point is that we pay too little attention to how the relevant historical figures address, see, construe, feel, or think about the issues we discuss.

It is not surprising to hear such a complaint from a historian, just as philosophers commonly complain about the lack of logical perspicuity in an inference.  That which we value most in our scholarly activity becomes part of the glass through which we assess the works of others, even sometimes others undertaking a distinct activity.  What is surprising, at least to us, is the fact that no less a historian than Lewis Ayres could make such claims of inattentiveness as a criticism of our work while at the same time evincing such inattentiveness in spades.  We are asked to do as he says, not as he does.

For instance, Ayres (5) shows his lack of familiarity with Analytic Theology by voicing his lack of awareness of the Orthodox scholars who practice Analytic Theology.  They are not hard to find: Terence Cuneo’s book on the Liturgy is one of only five books published thus far in the Oxford Studies in Analytic Theology series.  In his lamentations concerning the lack of mystery in Analytic Theology, he gives no evidence that he has looked, in detail or otherwise, at the significant work done in defense of apophaticism (by Orthodox philosopher Jonathan Jacobs), or divine transcendence (by Michael Rea and others).  Ayres cites McCall’s essay on simplicity (an essay that Ayres elsewhere calls “sophisticated and historically sensitive” but now criticizes) and insists that an understanding of the context is important, but fails to note that much of the essay is devoted to how the doctrine of simplicity was used in the fourth century debates.  Observe that Ayres says that for McCall “secondary weight is placed on the classical Reformed confessions” (19).  Why he would make such a claim is opaque to us; for one thing, McCall never so much as mentions the Reformed confessions (in the only work of McCall’s cited by Ayres).  For another, McCall is not even a Reformed theologian.  Ayres also says that McCall “works in a context where the argument that a doctrine is logically incoherent and not directly supported by a particular version of the literal reading of Scripture provides good grounds for its rejection or reformulation” (19).  Again, we have no idea why he would make such claims (and, at any rate, such claims are not exactly accurate).  

The most egregious example, in our estimation, comes in Ayres’ admission, in footnote 6: “Unfortunately, I have been unable to consult Thomas McCall’s programmatic volume An Analytic Christian Theology” [sic] (pg 3).  For in An Invitation to Analytic Christian Theology McCall discusses many of the objections that Ayres raises to Analytic Theology in this article, for instance, Ayres’ objection to univocal language in Analytic Theology (which McCall discusses on pgs 25-26), the objection that Analytic Theology doesn’t appropriately consider the history of doctrine (pgs 27-29), the objection concerning Analytic Theology being useful for apologetics (29-30).

One would expect, when being taken to task by a historian for doing subpar historical work, the historian would practice what he preaches, providing an exemplar for those he wishes to correct. Alas, that is not the case here.  Ayres claims, as we’ve seen, that Pawl should dig through the works of the Conciliar fathers–works often untranslated from the Greek or Latin, works generally not easy to find for the non-specialist–to discover how the fathers might have reacted to a charge, how and where they addressed it, their concerns and habits of attention.  Ayres, though, apparently need not read McCall’s book–available for instant download on Amazon in his native tongue, for under $13 –to see how McCall might (has) responded to the charges (three years ago).  

Imagine a situation in which a contemporary theologian were to weigh in on ‘Cappadocian’ theology.  Our contemporary decides to read a few short essays, and then settles in for a reading of, say, Gregory of Nyssa’s *Ad Ablabius* and Basil’s *De Spiritu Sancto.*  And then, on the basis of that vast learning, makes pronouncements about ‘Cappadocian theology.’  Those pronouncements include this claim: “Gregory places secondary weight on the Didache.”  And “Basil is committed to a particular version of the literal reading of the Bible.”  And “Gregory does not recite the history of doctrinal development to this point” but “focuses on logical and metaphysical matters rather than on worship, and therefore cannot be taken seriously as a Catholic theologian.”  Surely we would be skeptical if we were to encounter such pronouncements — especially if they were made in the absence of supporting arguments and without due attentiveness to the broader contexts of these theological treatises.  We should be skeptical for at least three reasons: (a) some of them are ignorant of the broader discussions; (b) some of them don’t even read the texts in view very carefully and (c) some of them are made up out of whole cloth (“Gregory places secondary weight on the Didache” = “McCall places secondary weight on the Reformed confessions”).  If we aren’t duly skeptical of such claims, we can count on historians such as Lewis Ayres to help us out!  But Ayres’ conclusions about analytic theology are at least this ill-informed (and ill-formed).  We have a great deal of appreciation for Ayres’ work in historical theology.  As analytic theologians, we have much to gain from the work of specialists such as Ayres.  Indeed, we chant in unison: “Keep up the good work.”  We also appreciate very much Ayres’ calls to be properly ‘attentive.’  Surely we need this reminder, and analytic theologians should be grateful for it.  But we should expect to see the same intellectual skills and virtues exhibited by those who reject analytic theology as well.  Surely that isn’t too much to ask.


Tom H. McCall is a Professorial Fellow with the Logos Institute, Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and Director of the Carl F. Henry Center for Theological Understanding. His primary areas of interest include the doctrines of the Trinity, Christology, hamartiology, and soteriology.

Timothy Pawl is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of St. Thomas. His primary areas of specialization is in analytic metaphysics, including work on truthmaker theory, modality, and free will. His interests in philosophical theology include work on transubstantiation, Christology, and classical conceptions of God.

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