Review: An Invitation to Analytic Christian Theology, by Thomas McCall

Thomas H. McCall, An Invitation to Analytic Christian Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015. 192 pp. $22.00 (paperback)

 

Kevin W. Wong, Wheaton College

 

Introduction

             Too often earnest theological inquiry cannot even begin since participants are deadlocked over methodological matters, prompting many to simply skip over it. Yet, we must, from time to time, take a step back and re-examine our methods and approaches to ensure we have not deceived ourselves into begging the question on important matters, especially if that method and approach is complex.

Thomas McCall takes on such a challenge with his new book, An Invitation to Analytic Christian Theology. Although analytic theology (hereafter: AT) has enjoyed technical and sophisticated defenses—most notably the contributions in Rea and Crisp’s edited collection, McCall supplies what they are lacking in two respects: simplification of technical prose for the non-specialist (i.e. translation for the non-analytics) and making explicit what was only implied (i.e. how does analytic theology relate to historical theology and tradition?). So, while McCall’s book has great overlap with said collection, it also provides a new angle and new material for a new audience.

 

Summary

            The book’s structure is simple and clear. The first chapter clarifies what AT is by providing an initial portrait. That portrait is subsequently filled out in the next three chapters by describing AT’s relationship with other aspects of the Christian religion. The final chapter clarifies what the motivation is for scholars to engage in AT.

In chapter one, McCall characterizes what AT is and is not. After a brief historical sketch, McCall describes AT as conducting constructive theological inquiry by employing the style, ambition, and conceptual tools of analytic philosophy. Though clearly sharing the same tools as analytic philosophy, McCall insists that it is a different craft with a different product: It is theology, not philosophy thinly disguised as theology. Such a fusion could, however, lend to a faulty understanding which McCall tries to quell. Some of those misunderstandings include AT relying upon an univocity of religious language, being only natural theology, being done in ignorance of historical theology, and being merely apologetics.

Chapters two and three share similar structures where McCall briefly surveys AT’s relationship with that other aspect of the Christian religion and then explore a case study or two for how that relationship is enacted. Chapter two focuses on AT’s relationship with Christian scripture, correcting the misconception that AT is strictly philosophical theology stemming from a minimalist monotheism, the sort of intellectual exercise that can be done equally by a Muslim or a Jew as it is by a Christian. And while there is a place for such an endeavor, Christian AT is not that, relying instead upon the set of books that set us apart from our Muslim and Jewish counterparts. More than just relying upon the Bible as though it was a poor delivery vehicle to be discarded after siphoning out the theological core, AT intends to be faithful to the Bible in multiple ways, from analyzing biblically derived concepts to being consistent with the deliverances of the Bible. The case study for this chapter is D. A. Carson’s argument for compatibilism as a case study where biblical data may appear to imply one view, when further analysis may yield an opposite but equally compelling interpretation of the very same texts.

Relatedly, McCall characterizes AT as in dialogue with Christian history and tradition in chapter three, distinguishing AT from a bare monotheistic philosophical theology still further. This is a much-needed chapter since, as mentioned above, it was only implied in the Rea and Crisp reader. When looking through Rea and Crisp’s table of contents, one may notice tradition being conspicuously absent in the section concerning data for theology. Here, McCall shows that AT can be a form of retrieval theology—that is, a theology constructed from the ideas and concepts of our forebears. Retrieval theology is not regurgitation, but rather appropriation, translation, and application (and perhaps even updating) of the thoughts of Christian thinkers before us. The case studies that McCall provides are several instances of analytic Christology meant to explicate the Chalcedonian Formulation, including two of my favorite—the Two-Minds view by Thomas Morris and the physicalist Incarnation by Trenton Merricks.

In a surprising reversal, chapter four inverts the structure of the previous two chapters, beginning with a case study and then exploring its implications on AT’s relationship with the Church and the rest of the world. With the historical Adam controversy serving as the case study, McCall looks into options for how AT might assist constructive theology that navigates the delicate balance between faithfulness to Christian tradition and still informed by and engaged with other means of human knowledge, specifically science for this case. McCall then concludes the book in general and this chapter in particular with an observation that AT could grow by engaging in a wider range of topics than it has been and by engaging with global theology.

In the fifth and final chapter, McCall reminds his reader that a true theology, analytic or otherwise, is one prompted by love for God and in service to the world. To that end, McCall makes several suggestions of how AT could interface with other notable movements and aspects of the theological endeavor.

Assessment

            As is to be expected by any book by McCall, its virtues are many and its vices are few. First, it lives up to its name: It is an invitation! Other works have not done as well in trying to appeal to non-analytics. If the Rea and Crisp reader can be thought of as a supercar like a Bugatti Veyron, then McCall’s book is surely a muscle car like a Chevy Camaro: Although it does not perform at such a high caliber that is demanding even upon skilled veteran drivers, it is a worthy entry-level vehicle that can get those interested in speed and performance quickly addicted and still requires skill to operate.

Second, McCall gracefully navigates the interdisciplinary and multicultural dialogues. Earlier iterations of philosophical theology did not seem particularly welcoming of biblical studies or historical theology. If McCall’s book is any indication of where the movement is going, especially in the case studies, then I think that awkward phase is coming to an end, if not already at a close. If one is still unconvinced of how AT can robustly interact with other disciplines, then I invite that one to read McCall’s other works (one of my favorite being Forsaken). Further, AT is sometimes seen as a peculiarly Anglophone phenomenon, and thus has limited utility for cross-cultural purposes. A colleague of mine (who shall remain safely anonymous) captured this impression well when he bemoaned that AT sounded culturally imperialistic. So I am glad that McCall directly addressed that worry, wishing for dialogue rather than domination. Just as the Western philosophical guild is dialoguing more with Chinese and Indian philosophy, so too do I think that AT will do more cross-cultural engagement, especially with the likes of McCall encouraging and prompting us to do so.

Third, McCall’s take on AT is an especially helpful contrast (perhaps corrective?) to other characterizations. His final chapter arguing for any theology being worthy of its name must prompt the practitioner toward love of God and service to others. This is important since one may have the impression that the analytic tradition is rather cold and clinical. This is not an unjustified impression given the history of analytic philosophy. Even some among contemporary analytic theologians seem hesitant for AT to produce wise living (e.g. pages 18–19 in Rea’s introductory essay in his reader with Crisp). McCall wants

The shortcomings of McCall’s book are not in the least fatal to the overall quality of the book, but they still ought to be considered. First, I had mixed feelings about the case studies. It is not my goal to assess whether McCall’s summaries and evaluations of positions in the case studies are accurate or insightful (though I think they mostly are), but rather how he uses them to further his book’s thesis. Although McCall only meant for readers to get their feet wet with the case studies, readers can potentially find themselves alternating between frolicking and thrashing. That is, on the one hand, some of the issues McCall raises are tantalizing, drawing the reader in and inspiring them for further research, but on the other the use of analytic apparatus might be alienating. For example, McCall’s analysis of D. A. Carson’s argument for a biblical compatibilism is definitely something many Christians are interested in. Who hasn’t wondered about how divine sovereignty and human free will work? The section was clear and careful. Yet, McCall also employs some formalized logic on page 114 with little explanation of what these hieroglyphics mean. It is not entirely clear what work those formalized propositions are actually doing over his regular prose. Should the non-analytic be aware of what an upside-down ‘A’ is?  In speaking of Leibniz’s law of indiscernibility of identicals, one does not need to resort to the formalization if one gives a very good example. For example, if Thomas McCall and the author of this book are really one and the same person, then whatever is true of the one must be true of another—It would make no sense to say that Thomas McCall stands 5 feet 2 inches and the author of this book stands at a whopping 7 feet. So, invitations must be accepted with some discretion by the invited. Although I am flattered by anyone inviting me to rock climb, my acrophobia prompts me toward recoiling rather than accepting. Likewise, AT might not be for everyone on the same score.

Second, and relatedly, McCall could have offered some suggested bibliography. It is typically poor form to critique a book for what it does not include, as that complaint is usually more indicative of the reviewer’s personal preferences than any real deficiency in the book being reviewed. So at the risk of seeming uncouth, let me cautiously say that I think a book of this nature could have been better served had a suggested works of varying levels of difficulty been included. If someone has become interested in AT through this book, I would not recommend the works of Brian Leftow or Hud Hudson to start with as one would easily be dismayed by their complexity and sophistication. That would undermine the invitation.

Still, this is a worthy book to consider—so worthy, in fact, that a colleague and I are requiring it for an upcoming seminar that we are co-teaching. I commend this book, especially as an alternative or supplement to the Rea and Crisp collection.

    My thanks to IVP Academic for the review copy.

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About Kevin W. Wong

Ph.D. student in systematic theology at Wheaton College, studying with Marc Cortez.
This entry was posted in Analytic Theology, Book reviews. Bookmark the permalink.

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