Analytic Theology: Reviews of The Metaphysics of the Incarnation and Metaphysics and the Tri-Personal God

During the second half of the 20th century, authors such as Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff helped establish what is now known as analytic philosophy of religion in the philosophical academy. Prior to their work in metaphysics and epistemology, belief in God was largely disconnected from professional philosophical discussions. Now, nearly fifty years since the release of Plantinga’s God and Other Minds, students of Plantinga and Wolterstorff––and students of students of Plantinga and Wolterstorff––are no longer fighting for a seat at the philosophical table by trying to smuggle religious perspectives into classical philosophical loci. Instead, the conversation has progressed to analytic treatments of properly theological issues such as the Trinity, the incarnation, original sin, the atonement, and other such doctrines. This “family resemblance” group, as Sarah Coakley calls it, has been labeled “analytic theology” and has gained traction in both philosophical and theological circles over the past few years. In fact, it now has a (peer-reviewed, open source) journal (The Journal of Analytic Theology), an annual conference (the Logos Workshop), a book symposium (Crisp and Rea, Analytic Theology), sessions at both the Evangelical Theological Society and the American Academy of Religion annual conferences, and a series of monographs embodying the approach (Oxford Studies in Analytic Theology).

I would like briefly to review two recent books representing analytic theology––one from the OSAT series and another collection of essays from a conference gathering of analytic theologians: William Hasker’s Metaphysics and the Tri-Personal God (Oxford: OUP, 2013) and Anna Marmadoro and Jonathan Hill’s The Metaphysics of the Incarnation (Oxford: OUP, 2011), respectively.

Metaphysics of the IncarnationI’ll begin with the Marmadoro/Hill volume. The essays in this volume are wide-ranging, to say the least; however, broadly speaking, they cover four distinct groups of topics. Brian Leftow, Oliver Crisp, Thomas Flint, and Michael Rea offer essays defending different ontological models of the incarnation. The former three (Leftow, Crisp, and Flint), over varying perspectives on the viability of so-called “compositionalist” Christology, while Michael Rea proposes a broadly Aristotelian account of the metaphysics of the incarnation relying on hylomorphism.

Stephen T. Davis and Thomas Senor’s essays broach an alternative so-called “kenotic” Christology in an attempt both to bulk up kenoticism’s metaphysical underpinnings (Davis) and to uphold the model as an ecumenical view of the incarnation (Senor).

Richard Swinburne’s essay examines the coherence of the Chalcedonian Definition, and while it does not clearly fit into any other of the groups of essays, it stands in continuity with the volume insofar as it seeks to test the coherence of a certain set of claims (a hallmark of analytic theology).

Finally, Joseph Jedweb, Richard Cross, Anna Marmadoro, and Robin Le Poidevin bring philosophical discussions of minds, consciousness, and personhood to bear on the questions relevant to the incarnation. Did Jesus have multiple streams of consciousness (Jedweb)? How might the concept of instrumentality (and discussion of so-called “vehicle externalism”) help give an account of the incarnation (Cross)? Does contemporary philosophy of mind (particularly, Extended Mind theory) help make sense of the incarnation? And, does our concept of “person” affect whether we might think it is possible for the Son of God to undergo multiple incarnations (Le Poidevin)?

These four groups of essays illustrate both the unity and diversity of analytic theology: diversity, insofar as the authors represent an eclectic group of positions across the philosophical and theological spectrum; and unity, insofar as the authors share a set of commitments about the value of ontological (and, in this case, metaphysical) categories for elucidating concepts within the Christian face. Further, and in my opinion, this volume represents the best medium for the communication of analytic theology, namely, the essay. The analytic theologians in this volume thrive on precise language, detailed breakdowns of constituent concepts, and a thorough account of the specific issue at hand. This can be seen, further, in the work of Oliver Crisp, whose books thus far are largely comprised of short essays (this may change with several of his forthcoming volumes). Such a medium works well for analytic theology, and only time will tell how well the method transfers to the medium of the monograph, as represented by the new series, Oxford Studies in Analytic Theology, to whose first volume I will now turn.

Metaphysics and the Tri-Personal GodIn one respect, William Hasker’s Metaphysics and the Tri-Personal God is a set of short essays, thirty to be precise, divided into three distinct sections: Trinitarian Foundations (Part 1), Trinitarian Options (Part 2), and Trinitarian Construction (Part 3)––all in 258 pages. In these sections, Hasker discusses many diverse issues: the findings of recent research on Nicene Trinitarianism (Ayres, et al), the concepts of “person” and “nature” in Augustine and Gregory of Nyssa (who illustrate what he calls “pro-social” Trinitarianism), divine simplicity, “modes of being” in Barth and Rahner, perichoresis in Moltmann and Zizioulas, contemporary metaphysical models of the Trinity (Leftow, Rea, Brower, van Inwagen, Yandell, Craig, et al), Second Temple Jewish monotheism, divine processions, and many others.

The first two sections of Hasker’s work are valuable in several ways. First of all, Hasker shows firsthand that analytic theologians do in fact care about the history of doctrine. He goes to great length to show that one cannot merely look to Augustine and the Cappadocians and get to modern versions of Social Trinitarianism; yet, he also wants to say that there is something in the these authors relevantly like what has become known as Social Trinitarianism (thus, Hasker’s “pro-social” Trinitarianism). While historians of theology might quibble with Hasker’s point, the larger takeaway is that history matters to analytic theologians––or at least it ought to––and Hasker does well to illustrate this. Second, Hasker does well to survey the various options that are available in contemporary discussions of the Trinity while critiquing these models along the way. This points to another strength of analytic theology, namely, the ability carefully to describe, analyze, and critique a position. Hasker is at his best when he shows tensions and inconsistencies in the thoughts of other thinkers.

At the same time, these strengths of Hasker’s work also represent one of its weaknesses, namely, in trying to do too much it does not do quite enough. Hasker treats the divine processions in fifteen pages and rejects simplicity in seven pages (Augustinian simplicity, that is, since Hasker still wants to say that God is simple in that God is not composed of parts). In each of the brief chapters in which Hasker quickly treats a complex issue with many logical, scriptural, and historical issues, I wanted to see an entire essay giving the concept further treatment. It is never good book review practice to critique the things you wish an author would have talked about, but once she or he begins a discussion, a reader is entitled to a thorough treatment––a more thorough treatment than Hasker gives at several places in his work.

The third section of Metaphysics and the Tri-Personal God is Hasker’s own attempt to construct a coherent metaphysical doctrine of the Trinity. He outlines a view (much more complex than my brief description will allow) in which each of the Trinitarian persons is truly a distinct person who is a property bearer, having all of the necessary and sufficient properties for being divine. These three persons are united in their sharing of one divine will. “Each Person,” he says, “is wholly God, but each Person is not the whole of God” (250). Hasker answers objections at each point in his constructive proposal and offers a unique model of the Trinity that aims to please both those who hold to Social Trinitarianism and those who hold to the more traditional view of the doctrine.

Metaphysics and the Tri-Personal God and The Metaphysics of the Incarnation represent some of the best of what analytic theology has to offer, and they illustrate some of the weaknesses it has to overcome. Nonetheless, both volumes are essential reading for anyone interested in analytic theology and/or the metaphysics of the incarnation and Trinity.

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About James R. Gordon

I did my PhD at Wheaton College in Systematic Theology, and I currently teach in the Philosophy Department at Wheaton College.
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One Response to Analytic Theology: Reviews of The Metaphysics of the Incarnation and Metaphysics and the Tri-Personal God

  1. Robbie Crouse says:

    Thanks for this, James. I’m glad to at least get a distillation of recent analytic theology (I’m a fan of “the essay,” too, and of course precision and clarity are helpful as well).

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