Vanhoozer, Taylor, and the Prospects of Analytic Theology

I missed this back in May, but Kevin Vanhoozer has an insightful review of Charles Taylor’s latest book, The Language Animal: The Full Shape of the Human Linguistic Capacity, over at the Gospel Coalition website. Vanhoozer explains that Taylor is a “post-analytic” philosopher in that he has come to reject the reductionism of the analytic philosophical tradition. Specifically, Taylor has come to believe that the “designative” theory of language associated with analytic philosophy–namely, that language merely designates or labels objects in the world–is an insufficient account of humanity’s use of language. Language does not merely map out the objective world; it also communicates “the significance that things have for us.”

Anyway, enough of this review of a review. What stood out to me in Vanhoozer’s post was his conclusion, where he applies Taylor’s insights to theological formulation and in particular to analytic theology:

Taylor thinks that contemporary analytic philosophy is still indebted in various ways to Cartesian philosophy and to the goal of using language to set forth an accurate description of the natural world and of seeing meaning as “something down-to-earth, and nonmysterious” (117). Is the task of Christian theology simply to designate the realities to which it refers in unambiguous propositions? Should we not follow the way the biblical words and themes and genres go, to trace them out and preserve them and penetrate them better? Put differently: to what extent is the canon a sine qua non of Christian consciousness, the mind of Christ?

Just when you thought it safe to go into the water of analytic theology, we must now ponder the value, and perhaps the necessity, of post-analytic theology.

I’ve expressed appreciation for analytic theology in the past, and I still think some interesting work is being done in this emerging field. But Vanhoozer, via Taylor, puts his finger on some questions I have been mulling about the movement for the past couple of years.

Part of what drew me to analytic theology several years back was Oliver Crisp’s use of it to explicate and defend classic Christology. I still think that work is incredibly helpful, but the pressing question I’ve been asking lately is, how is language functioning in these kinds of examinations and defenses of Christian doctrine? Does it signify what God is actually like in some kind of rigorous, precise, and objective way? Or does it simply give us the grammar to speak about and reflect upon God in ways that are faithful and fitting to the biblical economy?

The latter seems more likely to me now. This doesn’t mean doctrine is merely a function of the community or that it has no objective referent. But it does mean that we need a healthy dose of apophaticism in our theologizing. Theology should never have as its goal the desire to render its great Object non-mysterious.

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3 thoughts on “Vanhoozer, Taylor, and the Prospects of Analytic Theology

  1. Hi Luke, I was wondering, in what ways does specific language and grammer that is faithful to the biblical economy (or even biblical language itself), not signifying what God is actually and objectively like for you?

    Those seemed to be two either-or questions at the end for you, but I’m wondering why they don’t or can’t fit together in our theologizing.

    • Thanks for the question, Anthony. Part of what I have in mind are the Thomistic category of analogy and and the Calvinian category of accommodation. Our speech about God is neither univocal (one and the same) nor equivocal (totally different) but analogical (sufficiently similar by some relation). Likewise, even God’s revelation to us in Scripture is always and everywhere accommodated to our finitude. The essence of God is not an object accessible to us for observation and study. We only know what he has revealed and even then it is always accommodated to our creaturely modes of signification.

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