Analyzing Analytic Theology: Looking for Theo-Conceptual Architecture by Joshua R. Farris and S. Mark Hamilton

Stephanie Nicole Nordby
Friday 25 January 2019

Anyone familiar with the various movements in contemporary philosophical theology has seen a significant uptick of interest in so-called Analytic Theology (hereafter AT). As a movement (if we can really call it that), it is an outgrowth of Analytic Philosophy of Religion (hereafter PR), motivated by the intellectual labor of several giants in the field, such as: Alvin Plantinga, George Mavrodes, Keith Yandell, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Stephen T. Davis, Basil Mitchell, Marylyn McCord Adams, amongst others. The bulk of this labor has hitherto been spent on matters of natural theology and the philosophical justification for religious belief simpliciter, with which some have argued that AT is basically synonymous.[1] One individual who we might argue was doing AT before it became a thing is Richard Swinburne, who, as a philosopher by trade, has published not a few important books within the discipline of Christian theology over the course of the last 30 years.

There are differences between AT and PR to be sure. Some have argued that one of the chief differences has to do with AT’s trajectory as a product of postmodernism. This is because, so it is argued, it is a program of contextual theology (e.g., Liberation theology, Feminist theology, Black theology).[2] Others argue that AT is just Systematic Theology (hereafter ST) attuned to the resources of analytic philosophy. But does this mean that practitioners of AT are simply doing what systematic theologians have always done? There are certainly some who think so.

William Abraham, for example, thinks that AT just is systematic theology.[3] Oliver Crisp has also recently supported this claim by arguing that AT is just “another way” of doing systematic theology, and that it just so happens that AT has been nurtured in a different environment with a different set of tools, intellectual habits, and virtues.[4] For our part, it may not be quite that simple.

Andrew Torrance has recently advanced several distinctions characterizing not simply AT simpliciter but Christian AT.[5] Having ourselves been nurtured in the AT environment, we’ve gradually come to see things a bit differently from other AT practitioners; things which we think deserve some explanation and clarification. One of the important distinctions, suggested by Torrance, which we wholeheartedly endorse is the notion that internal to the practice of theology is the ongoing proclamation of the good news of Christ to the contemporary world. In the same spirit as Torrance, we offer a couple of distinctives that we see as characterizing AT. Chief among those things that we see differently from not an insignificant number of AT proposals is what we shall henceforth refer to as Theo-Conceptual Architecture (hereafter TCA).[6] To rough out the ideas of TCA, let us consider AT along the lines of the following home-building analogy.

TCA is a principle and has a telos that shapes one’s program for “doing” AT. At one level, this principle is sort of like a self-conscious disposition toward theological and philosophical craftsmanship, so to speak. At first glance, if you’re an AT guy or gal, you might well be thinking that TCA is exactly what you’re doing. However, we’re not only thinking about craftsmanship in terms of augmentative precision, logical rigor, literary clarity, and all the other hallmarks of AT. These are just the raw-materials part of AT. We’re also thinking about craftsmanship in terms of what you do with the raw-materials part of AT. Think of the difference between building houses and building homes. There’s a difference. Builders who build houses are far less concerned with who might move into the house they build. They might well be craftsmen to a point. But for house-builders, craftsmanship is mostly a structural and mechanical affair. Builders who build homes, by contrast, have a customer in mind. For them, it’s far more than the structure and mechanical systems that together make a house. It’s craftsmanship for someone—specifically, someone for whom spiritual and not merely intellectual formation is of chief importance. This is one aspect of what TCA is about. It’s doing AT as ST for someone—someone whose desire is not only for the intellectual stimulation; call it a specific tradition or the church at large. If we are honest, not everyone doing AT has TCA as a governing principle. This is why it may well be best not to say that those doing AT just are doing ST, at least, not without some more clarity.

Nobody wants to think of their academic labors are somehow devoid of purpose. That’s certainly not what we’re suggesting is what is going on here. In one sense, anyone doing AT or ST is doing it for someone—again, say, for the general intellectual formation of this or that philosophical and theological audience. What we are suggesting is that if AT just is ST or if AT is just another way of doing ST, then the purpose of it ought to be more than mere intellectual formation. Rare is the case where someone doing ST, as we conceive of it, is doing it for mere intellectual formation. Those doing ST are more often doing it to engender a thinking faith among such an audience, not thinking alone.

And with this point of clarity before us, let us think a bit more carefully through the analogy of home-building. From the foundation, to the structure, to the exterior, the homebuilder oversees it all. He has a particular interest in the whole and how all the parts fit into it. To be concerned with the whole, the homebuilder is as much interested in the structural stability of the home as he is in final aesthetic appeal that the parts lack without the whole. And, the homebuilder must hire sub-contractors to help to do some of the detailed work to make the home habitable. Commonly, the sub-contractors include plumbers, carpenters, roofers, electricians, etc. They make a contribution to the home, but they are not, strictly speaking, the homebuilder. The plumber, for example, in general is not interested in mechanical system in a home beyond his own, whereas the home builder is interested in every one of the systems in the home (A point of clarity: If you don’t like being likened to a plumber, sorry. If prestige is your concern, find humility—it’s only an analogy). The practitioner of TCA is like the homebuilder in this way. He is interested in the both whole home in as much as he is interested in how the parts fit into that whole.[7] The two are different with different functions for different ends.

While there are no doubt more features, there are no less than two at play in how we are thinking about AT. The first feature of AT characterizes those who are interested in building a home rather than simply a house. What this includes is one’s interest in operating in and for a theological tradition—dare we say Holy Tradition as a guide, authority, and lens for reading Scripture. Like a craftsman, AT is interested in contributing to and maintaining that home. Second, those interested in TCA have a keen interest in the synthetic whole of a given project and how all the parts fit together in that whole. Granted this requires some familiarity with the material and tools involved, but it also requires an interest in the structure, the form, and the aesthetics of it all. The second type of analytic theologian is a kind of helper in this process.

These types are not at odds, but they do reflect different strengths and emphases. One type is interested in good ole systematic theology (i.e., TCA) tuned to the resources, virtues, and habits of analytic philosophy. The second type we have described as a helper who has a specific job of tightening, adjusting, fixing, and/or refining. This second type has a developed eye for particular kinds of problems, which left unchecked could give way to serious structural theological damage. Both types of thinkers are necessary to this thing we call AT, but only one is sufficiently said to be doing ST. With that said, we are not suggesting we have said all that needs to be said regarding the different types of analytic theologians, but an important distinction needs to be made between the handmaiden of theology and the homemaker of theology. More can be said that distinguishes systematic theology from thinking that AT just is ST. Further description may require the services of the phenomenologist or theology attuned to the hermeneutical tradition(s), but this can wait.



Joshua R. Farris (PhD, University of Bristol, UK) is Assistant Professor of Theology at Houston Baptist University and a Visiting Fellow at The Creation Project, Carl F.H. Henry at TEDS (Spring 2018). Joshua is a chief editor (with Charles Taliaferro) of the Ashgate Research Companion to Theological Anthropology (Ashgate, 2015). He is co-editor (with S. Mark Hamilton) of Idealism and Christianity: Idealism and Christian Theology, Vol. 1 (Bloomsbury, 2016), co-editor of Christian Physicalism: Philosophical-Theological Criticisms (with R. Keith Loftin). Additionally, he has co-edited Being Saved: Explorations in Human Salvation. He has published his monograph, The Soul of Theological Anthropology: A Cartesian Exploration and An Introduction to Theological Anthropology: Humans, Both Creaturely and Divine (Baker Academic, forthcoming Spring 2019). Joshua has written numerous articles and reviews for both philosophical and theological journals. He serves as a referee for Philosophy Compass, Philosophia Christi, European Journal of Philosophy of Religion, Religious Studies, International Journal of Systematic Theology, Perichoresis, Journal of Biblical and Theological Studies and Oxford University Press, Associate editor for JBTS, and advisor for Perichoresis. Joshua has also presented at various academic conferences on inter-disciplinary studies, philosophy, theology, and ethics.


S. Mark Hamilton (PhD, Free University of Amsterdam, NL) is author of Jonathan Edwards on Spirit Christology (Routledge, New Critical Thinking in Religion, Theology and Biblical Studies, forthcoming, 2020), co-author (with Joshua Farris) of Re-envisioning Substitutionary Atonement: Toward a Reformed Anselmianism (Eugene, OR: Cascade, Re-envisioning Reformed Dogmatic Series, Vol. 1, forthcoming 2020) and author of A Treatise on Jonathan Edwards, Continuous Creation, and Christology, foreword by Oliver D. Crisp (JESociety Press, A Series of Treatises on Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 1, 2017). He is also a contributor to and co-editor (with Robert Boss and Joshua Farris) of New England Dogmatics: A Systematic Collection of Questions and Answers in Divinity by Maltby Gelston, foreword by Kenneth Minkema (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, Princeton Theological Monograph Series, 2018), contributor to and co-editor (with Marc Cortez and Joshua Farris) of Being Saved: Explorations in Human Salvation, foreword by Michael Horton (SCM Press, 2018, and a contributor to and co-editor (with Joshua Farris) of Idealism and Christianity: Idealism and Christian Theology, Vol. 1 (Bloomsbury, 2016). He has also published a variety of articles in International Journal of Systematic Theology, Irish Theological Quarterly, Neue Zeitschrift für Systematische Theologie und Religionsphilosophie,Perichoresis, Scottish Journal of Theology, Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology, Jonathan Edwards Studies, Saint Anselm Journal and the Journal of Biblical and Theological Studies.


[1] Andrew Chignell, “The Two (or Three) Cultures of Analytic Theology: A Roundtable,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 81.3 (September 1, 2013): 569–570.

[2] Edward F. Tverdek, “Analytic Theology as Contextual Theology,” in Australian eJournal of Theology 18.3 (December 2011).

[3] William J. Abraham, “Systematic Theology as Analytic Theology,” in Analytic Theology: New Essays in the Philosophy of Theology, ed. Oliver Crisp and Michael C. Rea (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 54–69.

[4] Oliver D. Crisp, “Analytic Theology as Systematic Theology,” Open Theology 3.1 (January 26, 2017): 156–166.

[5] [accessed on October 12, 2018].

[6] Joshua R. Farris and James M. Arcadi, “Introduction to the Topical Issue ‘Analytic Perspectives on Method and Authority in Theology,’” in Open Theology 3.1 (2017).

[7] Apparent examples that come to mind, but are not limited to the following, include: Oliver Crisp, William Abraham, Thomas McCall, James Arcadi, Kevin Diller, and, possibly, Marc Cortez. See for example: Thomas H. McCall, An Invitation to Analytic Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: IVP Academic, 2015). James M. Arcadi, An Incarnational Model of the Eucharist (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018). Oliver D. Crisp, God Incarnate: Explorations in Christology (New York: T&T Clark, 2009). Also, not an advocate of AT himself, John Webster helpfully parses out useful distinctions of systematic theology that could helpfully augment the AT project. See: John Webster, “What Makes Theology Theological” in Journal of Analytic Theology, vol. 3 (May 2015), 17-28.

Related topics

Share this story