Essay / Misc.

Trinitarian Philosophical Theology on the web

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What happens when professional philosophers, trained with all their formidable analytic skills, turn their attention to an important Christian doctrine like the Trinity?

Things get tidy; radically tidy.

Philosophers do their philosopher thing, sorting things out, clarifying terms, making sure definitions are used consistently, criticizing bad arguments, and trying out new arguments. They disambiguate. They go formally logical. They reduce opponents ad absurdum, defeat defeaters of defeaters, and shine the glaring light of logical consistency on all claims –no matter how thick the fog of metaphor may be. They often try to be polite, but they don’t flinch from pointing out that you just said 2,000 words without actually making any claims which could be determined to be either true or false. They ask what counts as evidence, then generate new hypotheses and conceptual models to do justice to the evidence. After that, other philosophers come along and problematize those new hypotheses, and the cycle starts over again at a higher level.

The result is an enterprise called philosophical theology, and it’s a discipline that’s generated shelves of books and entire scholarly journals. There are hundreds and hundreds of professional practitioners and they have big academic conferences.

Philosophical theology is a distinct field from plain vanilla theology, and personally I’m a plain vanilla theologian –a systematic theologian, or a theological theologian, if that doesn’t sound boastful (“more theological than thou”).

So when I read the work of the philosophical theologians, I’m reading a little bit outside of my field. I can tell we’re talking about the same thing –my favorite subject, the Trinity– but the philosophical theologians just talk funny, and they read different journals, and argue differently. We can barely understand each other through our thick accents, so we talk LOUDER and m o r e . . . s l o w l y .

I’m no xenophobe, but I have to admit I’m more comfortable talking to my own people. In the long run, however, it’s just not responsible for a trinitarian systematic theologian to ignore what the trinitarian philosophical theologians are doing, or vice versa. Good thinking about the Trinity is good thinking about the Trinity, and I want to hear all of it. Therefore I’ve enrolled myself in a self-taught remedial course in philosophical theology and have been stammeringly, stutteringly, gradually learning the language of this people group for the past few years. Someday maybe I’ll be bilingual enough to serve as an interpreter.

If anybody out there wants to join me, whether you’re a systematic theologian, a philosophical theologian, a biblical theologian, or a pastoral theologian, here are a couple of helpful online resources I’ve been working with recently.

One is an annotated bibliography of recent articles on the Trinity by philosophical theologians. It’s a first draft and a work in progress. Some very important things are ommitted because I just haven’t got around to writing them up or making my research assistants do so (Hi Mark, Hi Jenni!). Help yourself to this to see what the state of the current discussion is and where to find it.

The other is a promising new blog, Trinities: Theories about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, by philosopher Dale Tuggy. Tuggy just lauched the blog this summer, but he’s been hard at work on the doctrine of the Trinity for several years now (see the entries under his name in my annotated bibliography). He seems to be that fine species of philosophical theologian who will tolerate no imprecision in thinking, and he’s even made some good strategic decisions about how to get serious work done in the admittedly dubious format of a blog. Tuggy says he “finds it bizarre and sad that so much recent work has gone unnoticed by non-philosophers,” and is doing his part to extend the conversation to anybody who’s willing to ponder along. He’s fricaseed some popular books that needed to be fricaseed, explained some basic conceptual tools for making progress in clear thinking about the Trinity, and last week he even put the spotlight on an article that I wrote about Oneness Pentecostalism, in a two-part (1,2) interaction with it that I need to get over there and respond to in the comments section. I certainly didn’t get fricaseed, but Tuggy did point out a few of my arguments that could stand to be made with greater precision.

And that’s what trinitarian philosophical theology is all about.

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