Five Ways to Distinguish Christian Analytic Theology from Philosophy of Religion by Andrew Torrance

Stephanie Nicole Nordby
Thursday 4 October 2018

What, if anything, distinguishes analytic theology (as a way to study of God and all things in relation to God) from a generic philosophy of religion (as a systematic study of religious ideas)?[1] Working within the confines of this short blog post, I propose five ways in which a Christian, who sees herself as accountable to the mind of the Church, might answer this question. That is, I consider five ways in which the Christian theologian might pursue theology in a way that treats the reality of the triune God as the object of her study (rather than a mere projection of human religious thought).[2]

First, the Christian analytic theologian sees her primary task as one of proclamation. She seeks to stand as a vocal witness to the historical events of God’s revelation––a witness that can hope to succeed in her task by the power of the Holy Spirit. As this witness, she proclaims that the origin and perseverance of Christian theology lie with the spirit of wisdom and revelation that is given by the Lord Jesus Christ (Eph 1:17). Without the revelatory activity of God, a person cannot know the triune God and, therefore, cannot know the one to whom theological words refer––such words would take on a life of their own within a closed system of human thinking (a system that human beings close off for and to themselves). Theology conceived accordingly could not be anything more than a generic form of philosophy of religion or religious studies. To be clear, however, the human theologian is never able to demonstrate that revelation is taking place in the midst of her conversation; that is, she can never demonstrate that God is present, actively associating theological talk with its object. Nonetheless, she can trust that this is happening in some way and to some extent. This is because she can trust in the promise of the Holy Spirit––with a hope that ‘does not disappoint’ (Rom 5:5)––that her faithful proclamation of the Gospel is accompanied by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is the givenness of the givingness of God’s self-revelation. It is by faith in God’s promise that the Christian finds the audacity to believe that she can serve as an effective witness to God and all things in relation to God.

Second, Christian analytic theology can be said to be different from a generic philosophy of religion by being grounded in the life of the Church––the community that is sustained by God to be the visible and living testimony to God’s revelation. Insofar as analytic theology takes up the task of witnessing to God and all things in relation to God, it does so within the domain of the Church. Therefore, the past and ongoing witness of the Church must continually direct the Christian task of theology. To be clear, in making this statement, I am not suggesting that the task of theology must correspond to some abstract or past notion of “the Church.” I mean that the life of the Christian theologian must be energized and directed by an active involvement in the life of the Church today. If this does not happen, then the Christian theologian will be likely to forget who she is and lose sight of what she is doing.

Third, the Christian analytic theologian will always be aware that she is in a predicament––one that means she thinks dangerously. As she seeks to go about her task in this broken world, guided by a broken Church, she will be humbled by the fact that her apparent rigor, clarity, and precision may have been facilitated by guiding principles that do not correspond to the grace of God (i.e. because they are corrupted by sin). The lack of confidence that the analytic theologian has in her own judgement means that she will constantly be returning to Scripture and to ecumenical statements to guide her. This will also move her to go about her task prayerfully and worshipfully, paying as much attention (if not more attention) to the wisdom of the Church community as she does to the wisdom of her academic community.

Fourth, the Christian analytic theologian will forever be aware of the apparent awkwardness of her task. That is, her endeavor to be clear, precise, and rigorous in argument can appear to be hindered by her beholdenness to the unsystematic and complex nature of the biblical canon, to the exigencies of history, and to the human witness to it in the early ecumenical Church. Also, she will continually be held back by the unfathomable paradoxes that keep cropping up as she struggles to talk about things that lie beyond human comprehension, but which confront her nonetheless. Yet, she is not frustrated by these things. As she stands before God, this does not induce anxiety; it does not generate intellectual despair. It simply reminds her, once again, of the limits of the theological task, as these things attest to the horizon where human words end and God’s Word begins. So, rather than despairing, she finds joy and hope in the fact that she is not called to go about her task alone. Instead, she seeks to do no more than take persons to the horizon of human words in an act of witness. She then proclaims the good news of the only one who unites us with the other side of that horizon––the one mediator, Jesus Christ, who supports and directs us in ways that cannot be achieved within our own systems of thought.

Fifth, not only does Christian analytic theology have its proper grounding in the life of the Church, but it also recognizes that its calling is to serve the Church. As a technical and systematic discipline, it has the task of helping to bring rigor, clarity, precision, and transparency to the teaching of the Church (insofar as it can). But, again, this must always be a reciprocal relationship. As the analytic theologian seeks to bring clarity to the Church’s teaching, she should expect to be questioned by the Church community in a way that will help her to become clearer, more precise, more rigorous, and more accessible––all so that she may be ever truer to the theological task.

These five distinguishing features of Christian analytic theology are bound together by the fact that the analytic theologian recognizes that true talk about God and all things in relation to God has no past, present, or future apart from the grace of God. As God sustains the Christian theologian in her task, she is sustained by an activity that cannot be commandeered by human reason––that cannot fit into one of her systematic doctrines or theories, and which cannot be submitted to the Procrustean bed of our -isms or -ologies.

In sum, for the Christian, it is by recognizing the grace of God that the analytic theologian does not need to accept that her fate is to be what, on the surface, she directly appears to be: a thinker who is unable to study “God” as anything more than a religious idea. Moreover, by grace and by the recognition of grace, the analytic theologian not only needs to trust and hope in the possibility of being a witness to God and all things before God; she can know this is possible.

On this note, let me draw to a close by venturing a bold point that follows from Paul’s theological vision: the Christian is called to recognize that her study of God and all things in relation to God has no future apart from the risen and ascended Christ. To paraphrase the Apostle Paul, if Christ has not been raised then both our proclamation and our faith is futile (1 Cor. 15:17). And if these things are futile, then so also is the task of theology.

The Christian, however, knows that Christ has been raised from the dead. Not only has he been raised; he has ascended into heaven where he maintains the life of the Church by the sending of his Holy Spirit. This, in turn, enables a Christian approach to theology to take place. Christian theology is possible, first, through the Holy Spirit giving persons the eyes to see and the ears to hear God’s Word in ways that facilitate true theological affirmation. Second, it is possible because, at the right hand of God, Christ intercedes for us, associating our human words with God’s word––as the “high priest of our confession” (Heb 3:1), “the one mediator between God and humankind” (1 Tim 2:5), Christ in some way enables our human attempts at theology to refer successfully to their object.

This means that when it comes to the task of analytic theology, true theological clarity comes with the Spirit giving the theologian the eyes to see and the ears to hear the one true Logos––the one true Word. True theological precision and reference come from directing attention to the one Logos who mediates between God and humankind, and between humankind and God. Lastly, true theological transparency can only arise when the theologian’s witness to the Gospel is accompanied by the work of the Holy Spirit––ultimately, theological transparency is achieved when those around the theologian come to know the one to whom she bears faithful witness––when their hearts and minds are given to recognize the Gospel message that the Christian analytic theologian has been given to know.



document3-2Andrew Torrance is co-founder of the Logos Institute and a Lecturer in Theology at the University of St Andrews. He is author of The Freedom to Become a Christian: A Kierkegaardian Account of Human Transformation in Relationship with God. He is also co-editor with Thomas McCall of the forthcoming two volumes Knowing Creation and Christ and the Created Order: Perspectives from Theology, Philosophy, and Science.



[1] The question of how to distinguish philosophy of religion from analytic theology in the context of the university would require a much longer and more nuanced discussion. Were I to offer a response to this question, I would conclude that, in an academic context, what is called “analytic theology” or, indeed, what is called “systematic theology” cannot be consistently distinguished from philosophy of religion. However, I would also add that philosophical reflection on religion is going to be an essential part of any theological task, and it is common (if not normal) for theology to be pursued in a way that is indistinguishable from a form of philosophy of religion.

[2] In my view, analytic theology can be distinguished from systematic theology by its recognition that philosophers in the analytic tradition have a constructive contribution to make at the theological table. Having said that, it is not clear why analytic philosophy cannot have this role in systematic theology; as such, it is not entirely clear why there is a need to draw a sharp distinction between analytic and systematic theology. Nevertheless, and for whatever reason, there has been a lack of interaction between systematic theologians and analytic philosophers. The analytic theology movement addresses this shortcoming by facilitating a conversation in which this interaction is encouraged. Within this conversation, the theologian recognizes that there is an extent to which her theological reflection is accountable to critical questioning by analytic philosophers. Moreover, not only is she open to critical engagement from such quarters, she actively seeks such engagement because she believes it is of service to the theological task. How, more precisely, this relationship should be construed requires its own discussion––one that is beyond the scope of this essay.

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