Theology in Community by Oliver Crisp

In a recent article in History Today, the Oxford historian, Eleanor Parker, draws attention to what she calls “the myth of the solitary scholar.” (See https://www.historytoday.com/eleanor-parker/romantic-myth-solitary-scholar) This is a persistent fiction in certain parts of the modern university, especially in the Arts and Humanities. The Solitary Scholar can be found beavering away in her study late into the night, or hunched over an old musty tome in some dark corner of the library. She makes her breakthroughs by dint of hard effort all alone. She is a paradigm of what many scholars aspire to be. As Parker points out in her article, such figures are largely make-believe. Even the most solitary of scholars are indebted to the help of others somewhere along the line.

Some might grudgingly admit that they have had some help in their work. A friend who read an early draft, a research assistant who chased down references, an administrator who printed off copies of a chapter. Maybe someone who even went as far as to read a draft and offer comments! But in many ways, even where the Solitary Scholar is willing to admit that she is perhaps not quite the island she may believe herself to be, the outputs are all her own (an important consideration for REF, of course!). Even if she did have help, it was all ancillary to the real job of scholarship.

In her recent book Light, Air, Time: How Successful Academics Write (Harvard University Press, 2017), Education specialist Helen Sword chronicles how some academics enjoy writing partnerships, with some—even some in the Humanities—discovering that they enjoy co-authoring papers and books together. The myth of the Solitary Scholar exploded, so to speak! Happily, amongst analytic theologians such collaboration is common. Good evidence of this can be found in the spate of co-authored articles amongst analytic theologians—some even including multiple authors (here I think of several papers authored by some of the York analytic theologians, led by Professor David Efird).

Yet even when an analytic theologian is writing a paper at the top of which only her name appears as author, the culture of analytic theology means that it is extremely likely that the essay or article in question will have been read by multiple people, commented on, discussed, critiqued, mulled-over, and revised several times as a consequence. Iterations of the work may also have been read aloud to research seminars on several occasions. Of course, such communal theology is not the preserve of analytic theologians. There are other groups of scholars in biblical and theological disciplines, or in the Arts and Humanities more generally, whose work is, in important respects, community-driven or community-focused. But my point is not merely that the way analytic theology is practiced fosters such work—as may be the case in other disciplines. Rather, my point is that analytic theology is very difficult to conceive of without an intellectual community in which it may flourish—by which I mean a community of scholars sharing in this task together, arguing, and thinking, and reading together. For analytic theology is all about intellectual rigor and argumentative perspicacity, and is inherently interdisciplinary in nature—all of which lends itself to scholarship done in community.

In a sense, this should not be surprising. For one person alone cannot possibly have anticipated all the problems a given argument faces. We help each other when we provide criticism and feedback. And we are sharpened in our own dialectical and logical capabilities when we have them regularly tested by other competent users—a bit like a fencer whose development in skill is, in important respects, dependent upon the rapier of her opponent.

Such communal theology also helps develop certain intellectual virtues. Chief among these is intellectual humility. We work, and discuss, and write together. We try to make progress in our thinking as a community. And we do so increasingly aware of our own limitations, and the way in which our own context and background, as well as the limits of our formation, have shaped and circumscribed what we can see and understand, and what we may overlook. This practice is evident in the analytic theology coming out of the centers where it is being done today. It is particularly true of the community of scholars at the Institute for Analytic and Exegetical Theology at St Andrews, where there is a rich cross-disciplinary conversation, drawing in biblical scholars as well as philosophers and theologians. Perhaps it is time to bid the Solitary Scholar farewell. Communal theology—especially, communal analytic theology—has much to commend it.

 

Oliver D. Crisp is a Professorial Fellow with the Logos Institute as well as Professor of Systematic Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He is currently heading up a major $2 million, three-year research project entitled “Prayer, Love, and Human Nature: Analytic Theology for Theological Formation,” funded through the generosity of the John Templeton Foundation. Dr. Crisp has published many articles in professional journals, including the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Journal of Theological Studies, Religious Studies, Scottish Journal of Theology, and International Journal for Systematic Theology, among others. He has edited or coedited numerous books, including Deviant Calvinism: Broadening Reformed Theology (2014), Jonathan Edwards Among the Theologians (2015), and The Word Enfleshed: Exploring the Person and Work of Christ (2016).