Teaching Analytic Theology by David Worsley

Stephanie Nicole Nordby
Friday 8 March 2019

Alongside David Efird, I teach Analytic Theology (hereafter, AT) to undergraduates and postgraduates in the Department of Philosophy at the University of York, UK. The following is taken from one of our AT introductory lectures, last given to just over fifty final-year philosophy undergraduates.

* * * * *

AT draws from four sources of authority:

i. Scripture

ii. Tradition

iii. Reason

iv. Experience

Sometimes, it seems these sources of authority conflict. In such situations, we might (and different traditions indeed do) prioritize one source over another. As our AT courses are taught in a philosophy department, we tell our students we will be prioritizing a certain kind of reason over the other three (with it being left an open question what priority we might then afford to scripture, tradition, and experience). Nevertheless, despite prioritizing reason, we make it clear that AT is distinct from natural theology. AT is not done through reason alone. The topics we address are, for the most part, derived from special revelation. So, even if reason is prioritized, we must take scripture, tradition, and experience to carry some authority.

Talk of ‘authority’ must, of course, be qualified. Saying that ‘Scripture is authoritative’ or that ‘Tradition is authoritative’ is not the same as saying ‘Scripture is true’ or that ‘Tradition is true’. So, what does it mean when we say that ‘Scripture is authoritative’? To help unpack this, our students are asked to analyse Michael Rea’s helpful discussion of textual authority:

We treat a wide variety of texts as authoritative, and we do so in different ways. In Scrabble, the latest edition of the Official Scrabble Dictionary is authoritative with respect to questions about which sequence of letters form admissible words and which do not. In a physics class, the assigned text is generally authoritative with respect to questions about physics. Homer’s Iliad is authoritative with respect to questions about certain matters of Greek mythology. An uncontested will is authoritative with respect to questions about how a person’s assets are to be distributed after her death. The United States Constitution is authoritative with respect to questions about the permissibility of a wide variety of executive, legislative, and judicial acts, election practices, and the like. Reflection on examples like these helps to shed light on what it might mean to say that a text is authoritative.

(Rea, ‘Authority and Truth’, 3-4)

Rea goes on to say the claim ‘X is authoritative’ does not mean anything unless one specifies:

a. The domain within which the text is authoritative (for instance, Jack’s last will and testament is authoritative only in the domain of questions about how precisely Jack’s possessions are to be distributed after his death)

b.The kind of authority the text has (for instance, whether practically authoritative, like the last will and testament, or theoretically authoritative, like the physics textbook)

Thus, Rea concludes:

To call a text (genuinely, de jure) authoritative is to say that, within some domain and for some individual or individuals, the text supplies reasons for belief or action (or both) that are, absent defeaters, decisive.

(Rea, ‘Authority and Truth’, 17)

We ask our students to think about the domains scripture and tradition might be authoritative in (e.g., theology, morality, science, politics, Scrabble, and so forth), as well as what defeaters might look like in that particular domain, and what it might take to demonstrate that scripture and tradition are not authoritative in that given domain. After this discussion, we inform students that whatever else they might think, we will be taking scripture and tradition as authoritative in the domain of this specific AT module, but, because we are philosophers, we will be prioritizing reason over scripture and tradition. That is to say, we will take it that reason can supply decisive defeaters for both scripture and tradition.

We suggest that even if students do not take scripture or tradition to be authoritative in any other domain, they may think about what we are doing in these terms:

Can we imagine a possible world in which the claims of scripture and tradition are true?

If we can, how might we explain these claims?

If we cannot, why not?

At this point, we tell students that their readings are almost entirely self-described hypothetical solutions to intractable theological problems, and that they should be read as attempts to discover whether there is logical space for an idea, and if there is, how that space might be populated.

With this in hand, our students are introduced to Rea’s much discussed five-point broad analytic style,[i] and are given a general methodology for doing AT themselves, namely:

i. Take a theological problem e.g., how can God be three persons and one substance?

ii. Apply work done in other areas of analytic philosophy to ask: ‘could this problem be solved using this work?’ e.g., applying the metaphysics of time travel to the Trinity.

iii. Perform a cost/benefit analysis i.e., if we can solve this problem, how does our solution fit with our sources of authority?

iv. Decide whether this is a viable solution.

This sort of methodology is, of course, not without precedent in philosophy. We take (1) to follow Robert Nozick’s way of conceiving philosophy as giving philosophical explanations to philosophical problems[ii], and we take (3) to be rooted in David Lewis’s way of doing philosophy.[iii]

We conclude our introductory lecture by discussing the virtues of ‘good’ analytic theologians, which we take to include:

  • An open mindedness and charity towards others.
  • An ability to form clear philosophical arguments, rather than expressing dogmatic or emotive opinions.
  • An ability to act as a ‘philosophical councillor’ (i.e., how could this position fit together given that you are already committed to these positions?)

At York, we’ve found that such an approach allows AT to be done communally; we can work together to come up with solutions to philosophical problems and assess them (bearing in mind that one person’s cost will be another’s benefit, and vice versa), before making our own decision as to which solution (if any) we can live with. And with this encouragement to collegiality, our introductory lecture is complete.

* * * * *

Setting up our AT modules in this way allows us to measure both learning gain and confidence gain, as well as allowing us to establish (and assess against) clear learning outcomes. All to the pedagogical good (especially with the TEF just around the corner)! But there is, of course, a concern that this way of looking at AT reduces it to something of a game, showing itself to be nothing more than a series of interesting thought experiments that tease out how the world could (or could not) have been; precious different to the ethicists talk of trolleys and tracks and various people in imminent danger of death. And I take this to be a legitimate concern. If arguments in AT only aim at validity, rather than soundness, AT remains just another branch of applied philosophy – no doubt interesting in its own way, but perhaps of little use outside the classroom. What we take to transform AT from a philosophical game into something more serious is the level of attention paid to the premises for the theological problem(s) identified in the first step of the above AT methodology. These premises inevitably derive from scripture and tradition, with errant, ahistorical, or roughshod interpretations of either likely leading the student to the discovery of a theological ‘problem’ (or ‘solution’) found only in a simplistic misreading or mischaracterisation. And if their theological premises are from the outset flawed, no matter how innovative the application of philosophy, it is unlikely their conclusion (regardless of its validity) will remain helpful outside the philosophy classroom.

If AT is to live up to the potential its advocates think it has – clarifying key doctrines, opening up interreligious dialogue, and so forth – the arguments offered by its practitioners ought to be as sound as they can be. They must be based upon good interpretations of scripture, and on an accurate, historically grounded understanding of tradition. If students are to engage effectively with AT, this grounding must – as best as is possible in the circumstances – be provided before they are let loose to problem solve. When we teach AT, we try to accommodate for this in hour-long topic-introductory lectures that are primarily devoted to establishing (1), with subsequent two-hour seminars set aside for (2), (3), and (4). And in preparing for these introductory lectures we find the work done by those in theology, church history, and biblical studies (in the case of Christian AT) absolutely invaluable (and in recognition of this, we applaud the tripartite focus of the Logos Institute). Certainly, AT is not best done in isolation, no matter how easy or splendid doing so may initially seem.



David Worsley is Associate Lecturer and Director of the First Year Programme in the Department of Philosophy at the University of York. He is interested in epistemology, ethics, philosophy of religion, and philosophical theology. He is currently working on a manuscript that examines analytic approaches to the beatific vision.


Lewis, David (1983). Philosophical Papers Volume 1. Oxford University Press.

Nozick, Robert (1981). Philosophical Explanations. Harvard University Press.

Rea, Michael C. (2009). ‘Introduction’, in, Crisp, Oliver D. & Rea, Michael C. (eds.) Analytic Theology: New Essays in the Philosophy of Theology. Oxford University Press.

Rea, Michael C. (2016). ‘Authority and Truth’, in Carson, D. A. (ed.), The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures. Eerdmans.


[i] P1. Writing as if philosophical positions and conclusions can be adequately formulated in sentences that can be formalized and logically manipulated. P2. Prioritizing precision, clarity, and logical coherence. P3. Avoiding substantive (non-decorative) use of metaphor and other tropes whose semantic content outstrips their propositional content. P4. Working as much as possible with well-understood primitive concepts, and concepts that can be analyzed in terms of those. P5. Treating conceptual analysis (insofar as it is possible) as a source of evidence. (Rea, ‘Introduction’, 7).

[ii] ‘Many philosophical problems are ones of understanding how something is or can be possible . . . The form of these questions is: how is one thing possible, given (or supposing) certain other things? Some statements r1, . . ., rn are assumed or accepted or taken for granted, and there is a tension between these statements and another statement p, they appear to exclude p’s holding true . . . To produce [a] possible explanation of p is, by seeing one way p is given rise to, to see how p can be true. “How is it possible that p? This way: such and such facts are possible and they constitute an explanatory route to p.”’’ (Nozick, Philosophical Explanations, 8, 9, 11)

[iii] ‘The reader in search of knock‐down arguments in favor of my theories will go away disappointed. Whether or not it would be nice to knock disagreeing philosophers down by sheer force of argument, it cannot be done. Philosophical theories are never refuted conclusively. (Or hardly ever. Gödel and Gettier may have done it.) The theory survives its refutation—at a price. Argle has said what we accomplish in philosophical argument: we measure the price. Perhaps that is something we can settle more or less conclusively. But when all is said and done, and all the tricky arguments and distinctions and counterexamples have been discovered, presumably we will still face the question which prices are worth paying, which theories are on balance credible, which are the unacceptably counterintuitive consequences and which are the acceptably counterintuitive ones. On this question we may still differ. And if all is indeed said and done, there will be no hope of discovering still further arguments to settle our differences.

It might be otherwise if, as some philosophers seem to think, we had a sharp line between “linguistic intuition,” which must be taken as unchallengeable evidence, and philosophical theory, which must at all costs fit this evidence. If that were so, conclusive refutations would be dismayingly abundant. But, whatever may be said for foundationalism in other subjects, this foundationalist theory of philosophical knowledge seems ill‐founded in the extreme. Our “intuitions” are simply opinions; our philosophical theories are the same. Some are commonsensical, some are sophisticated; some are particular, some general; some are more firmly held, some less. But they are all opinions, and a reasonable goal for a philosopher is to bring them into equilibrium. Our common task is to find out what equilibria there are that can withstand examination, but it remains for each of us to come to rest at one or another of them. If we lose our moorings in everyday common sense, our fault is not that we ignore part of our evidence. Rather, the trouble is that we settle for a very inadequate equilibrium. If our official theories disagree with what we cannot help thinking outside the philosophy room, then no real equilibrium has been reached. Unless we are doubleplusgood doublethinkers, it will not last. And it should not last, for it is safe to say that in such a case we will believe a great deal that is false.

Once the menu of well‐worked‐out theories is before us, philosophy is a matter of opinion. Is that to say that there is no truth to be had? Or that the truth is of our own making, and different ones of us can make it differently? Not at all! If you say flatly that there is no god, and I say that there are countless gods but none of them are our worldmates, then it may be that neither of us is making any mistake of method. We may each be bringing our opinions to equilibrium in the most careful possible way, taking account of all the arguments, distinctions, and counterexamples. But one of us, at least, is making a mistake of fact. Which one is wrong depends on what there is.’ (Lewis, Philosophical Papers Volume 1, x-xi)

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