Analyzing Doctrine

Toward a Systematic Theology

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Oliver D. Crisp
  • Waco, TX: 
    Baylor University Press
    , July
     280 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Oliver D. Crisp’s Analyzing Doctrine: Towards a Systematic Theology is a volume of essays that move through a set of theological topics—prolegomena (introductory matters), Trinity, christology, sin, salvation, resurrection, and so on—and does so using the tools of analytic philosophy.

What is analytic theology? The beginning chapter offers a brief defense and definition of the subdiscipline. For this, Crisp borrows from William Abraham and Thomas McCall, then offers a definition of the “shared task” of theology. Abraham sees analytic theology as “systematic theology attuned to the deployment of skills, resources, and virtues of analytic philosophy” (16). McCall sees it as “theological theology” and not philosophy pretending to be theology, since it is scriptural and informed by tradition, but has an eye to the “proper approach and posture of theology” (16). After surveying several other contemporary constructive theologians, Crisp offers his definition of the shared task:

Commitment to an intellectual undertaking that involves (though it may not comprise) explicating the conceptual content of Christian tradition (with the expectation that this is normally done from a position within that tradition, as an adherent of that tradition), using particular religious texts that are part of the Christian tradition, including sacred Scripture, as well as human reason, reflection, and praxis (particularly religious practices), as sources for theological judgments. (22)

In so doing, Crisp puts down the accusation that analytic theology is using secular philosophy to set the agenda for Christian belief. What does this look like in practice? From the actual examples of these essays, one can infer that analytic theology is not much different from regular theology, except that it is characteristically clear, uses well-delineated and defined terms, and proceeds with concise arguments put in neat propositions to evaluate proposals. Crisp does not seem too concerned with, for instance, mapping arguments out with symbolic logic or anything of that sort. Nor does he seek to legitimate Christian belief using analytic philosophical schemes of language and epistemology, providing an alternative foundation for Christian belief beyond classic Christian sources.

As Crisp is traditional in his commitments, much of analytic theology in Crisp’s approach thoroughly follows the vision of Anselm of Canterbury of faith seeking understanding. In that regard, analytic theology is not particularly original or separate. It is merely theology that offers clear, well-delineated arguments. A lot of theology today is polemical, obscure, trendy, and campy. Arguments are made by fallacious appeals to personalities, if they can indeed be called arguments at all. One wonders: if theologians took serious the constructive and critical dimension of their discipline, would analytic theology have to exist as something distinct from the rest of wider theology at all?

What the essays tackle are very specific proposals in different areas of classic Christian theology. The first chapter, as already noted, sets up the methodology of what analytic theology is. Chapter 2 evaluates classical Christian theism and what some have called theistic personalism. Chapter 3 offers an account of divine simplicity and looks to a model from science as a pathway to conceptualizing the Trinity. Chapter 4 continues this and offers a defense of how simplicity is compatible with the mystery of the Trinity, offering a mediating way forward between classic versions of the Trinity and social trinitarianism. Chapter 5 looks at God’s eternal purposes in creation and surveys three theses: the hellenization thesis, the Hegelian thesis (of German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel), and the eschatological-identity thesis. This sets up chapter 6, which attempts to resolve the questions of the previous chapter by an exposition of the christological union.

Chapter 7 explores Crisp’s change of mind on the doctrine of original sin, where he modifies it to account for problems with inherited guilt and possible challenges from human evolution. Chapter 8 moves on to the doctrine of the virgin birth, evaluating and critiquing the recent proposal by Andrew Lincoln, who argues the doctrine is problematic on several fronts. Chapter 9 offers a defense of dyothelitism, the notion that Christ has two wills. Chapter 10 clarifies issues in understanding salvation as theosis, participation in the divine nature. The final chapter evaluates the creative proposals of Robert Jenson, who seems to bypass a strong affirmation about the physical body of Jesus leaving an empty tomb and ascending to heaven.

The work of good constructive and critical theology today, when proposals are often multifaceted and sprawling, results in challenges for a book such as this. Crisp’s presentation and evaluation of the options for God’s eternal purposes (the three theses) is too short to really do justice to the metaphysical proposals of theologians such as Wolfhart Pannenberg or the diversity of the early church’s employment of Greek philosophy (e.g., Pseudo-Dionysius would be very different from someone such as Anselm). Similarly, the evaluation of Lincoln’s challenge to the traditional doctrine of the virgin birth is too quick to really refute a very complicated subject. In that chapter, as well as the one on the resurrected body, Crisp resorts to philosophical solutions to problems that are first exegetical. In this regard, the argument of those chapters appears to be an appeal to the logical coherence of traditional doctrine as a defeater, overriding complicated historical-critical questions.

Thus, the subtitle of this book, “Towards a Systematic Theology,” is a bit misleading. The book offers essays on a broad sweep of subjects, but they are very specific and loosely connect to one another, some flowing and others less so. Crisp admits this. This merely means that any reader that approaches this text expecting dogmatic or devotional treatises on topics is not really going to find that here. This is a book for academics interested in the complex and technical contemporary theological debates that are treated specifically in this book. In other words, this book could not function as, for example, a textbook in an introductory course in Christian theology. However, as a set of arguments advancing constructive and contemporary theology, they are splendid.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Spencer Miles Boersma is assistant professor of theology at Acadia Divinity College in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, Canada.

Date of Review: 
March 12, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Oliver D. Crisp is professor of analytic theology in the Institute for Analytic and Exegetical Theology at the University of St Andrews.



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