Ways to prove a point

One day last week we had two seminars here in St Andrews. Our weekly doctrine seminar is presently, under John Webster’s guidance, working through Katherine Sonderegger’s first volume of her Systematic Theology, entitled The Doctrine of God. It is a fascinating text, sometimes very reminiscent of (the English translation of) Barth’s Church Dogmatics in its cadences, and devoted to the bold claim that the unicity of God is the vital first word of Christian theology. That evening Oliver Crisp, who I have known, liked, and respected since we were both grad students at King’s College London, was in town and gave us an excellent paper on divine simplicity. It was a good day.

Amongst many other significant scholarly achievements, Oliver is of course known for his championing, with Michael Rea, of ‘analytic theology’, a mode of theological reasoning which works by careful definition of terms and enunciation of deductive arguments, after the pattern of the Anglo-American tradition of analytic philosophy. I have not hidden the fact over the years that I have struggled with this programme; not that I object to clarity of statement and argument – obviously (I trust!), I do not – but that it seemed to me that something important was missing from the vision and practice of theology that reduced it to merely this.

In the Sonderegger text we read last week there is a comment about the proper way to respond to a classic problem in theodicy, the holding together of omnipotence and omnibenevolence in the face of the evident evil in the world. She writes:

This cannot take the form of a fully deductive argument, a demonstration, as the scholastics would style it. There is none such. Rather we must rehearse what has gone before, the pattern of the divine way to usward, the sovereign Divine working … We will look at our whole response to the psalmist and the prophets, our whole exegesis and commentary, under a new framework: the pattern of exile and return, of death to Life, as confirmation of the Goodness that is Divine Power. (315; all capitals original)

Now, the particular point argued cannot be explained or defended without a fairly extensive explanation of what has gone before, but the identified contrast in mode of argument is what interests me here. She contrasts a deductive demonstration – an exercise in analytic theology, I suppose – with a process of what we might call ‘persuasive renarration’. Her point will be proved, if it will, by rehearsing an extensive body of evidence against the claim that a particular interpretative motif (‘exile and return’ here) will illuminate and make sense of that body of evidence.

Of course, this is a normal mode of academic argument: it is what historians do all the time, for instance. It is not, however, an analytic mode of argument, at least in the way the term is used in the schools of ‘analytic philosophy’ and ‘analytic theology’. Her point will be persuasive if a thick account of ‘exile and return’ can be shown to be repeatedly illuminating of the Biblical history. However, in the investigation what is meant by ‘exile and return’ will be nuanced – redefined, to some extent – by the application of it to the various events she claims it illuminates. Although its original definition comes in the prophetic account of Israel’s sojourn in Babylon, this is not the most telling point of definition: Egypt between Joseph and Moses out-narrates Babylon, and the paradigmatic instance of exile is Holy Saturday, when the Incarnate One lies dead in the tomb. There is no straightforward definition of exile, no deductive demonstration that this solves the problem of theodicy. Rather, there is an appeal to a pattern of narrative that is rendered plausible by its ability to interpret many other stories in the Scriptures, and that might offer a way of re-describing the theodicy problem that makes it less vicious.

Oliver talked to us about divine simplicity. He proposed that we should consider a ‘model’ of simplicity – in his terms ‘a theoretical construction that only approximates to the truth of the matter’ – on the basis that this would enable us to evade some of the (many) recent analytical critiques of divine simplicity considered as metaphysical truth. He outlined with exemplary clarity what was and what was not claimed by his model, and how it enabled him to sit lightly to various recent critiques, whilst holding closely to the affirmations of simplicity in the Christian theological tradition. I pressed him – I hope gently; I agreed with pretty much everything he said – to consider that traditional accounts of divine simplicity are, precisely, merely ‘models’ in his terminology: for Thomas, simplicity is one of the divine names, and so subject to the rubric of analogy described in Ia q.13; as I have argued elsewhere, the Cappadocian argument against Eunomius depends on the claim that simplicity specifically, but all the divine names, are ‘epinoietic’, human approximations to an inexpressible divine reality.

Someone else disagreed on St Thomas, suggesting that he did in fact teach a strict metaphysical doctrine of simplicity; I am sure this is wrong – but to prove the point we would need to adopt another mode of argument, exegetical reasoning, reading texts closely and carefully to discern what in fact is being claimed. The debate would turn on the extent to which ST Ia q.13 qualifies ST Ia q.3, and so would revolve around proposed reconstructions of the argument of the Summa which each would need to be tested carefully against the text to see whether it enabled or obscured understanding.

It is far from original to propose that these three modes of reasoning – analytic, re-narrative, and exegetical – are all native to the work of the theologian; I suppose that most interesting theological disagreements lie in the relative balance assumed between them. If I had to specify my uneasiness with (at least those examples I have encountered of) analytic theology, I would first identify the neglect of the exegetical mode of reasoning – too often ideas that no-one ever held are investigated and shown to be inadequate – and then express a concern that formal analytic argument is often applied to assertions that were, in Oliver’s terms, only ever intended as models, metaphors, approximations to the truth. This is not, emphatically, to doubt the value of analytic reasoning: clarity of definition and argument must always be a great good in theology; but to assert a strict definition when a mere model or metaphor was intended, and to argue on the basis of that assertion, is necessarily wrong.

I am at least self-aware enough to be conscious that my own theology emphasises divine ineffability strongly, and so that I tend to view many or most (or indeed all) theological claims as ‘models’ in Oliver’s sense. I also know that others disagree; this is the point where life, or at least academic theological life, gets complicated. How do I commend my understanding to a friend, liked and respected, who sees theological claims as more straightforwardly metaphysical, and so moves in the analytic mode when I would use the re-narrative mode? There is no straightforward answer to this: we might try to find points of disagreement we agree are crucial – perhaps divine simplicity? – and turn to the exegetical work. We will offer each other constructed accounts of theology, hoping that the intellectual power of doing things this way will convince that things always ought to be done this way. We will examine carefully tight analytic arguments that will push us strongly one way or another depending on their success.

Simply, we will do theology, often enough in arguments that appear entirely irrelevant to someone who has not delved deeply enough to understand that they, at least potentially, determine almost everything else.

get facebook like button