Ordinary Language Analysis And Theological Method -- By: Arthur F. Holmes

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 11:3 (Summer 1968)
Article: Ordinary Language Analysis And Theological Method
Author: Arthur F. Holmes


Ordinary Language Analysis
And Theological Method

Arthur F. Holmes**

[* Professor of Philosophy, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois.]

The philosophical bete noir of the 1930’s and 1940’s is dead. Such at least is the case with that classical form of logical positivism which reduced all cognition to science and forced all science into a descriptivist and operational mold. Its principle tool, the verifiability theory of meaning, has been weakened beyond effectiveness, metaphysics—once eliminated from meaningful discourse—has been reintroduced into respectable philosophic society in a chastened but profitable form, and as a result theology has been given another chance to show what it is really talking about. From today’s perspective we might even regard logical positivism as an unpleasant but instructive interlude in the history of traditional philosophic inquiry. It was unpleasant because of its radical reductionism, but it was instructive because of the attention it forced to questions of philosophic methodology and because of the repudiation it has won of eighteenth and nineteenth century rationalisms.1

If theology is to take advantage of this new chance to explain itself, it must learn from the positivist interlude to avoid pouring theology into either a rationalistic or a scientistic mold; for, let us face it, theology has at times mistreated Biblical religion, whether by tying its meaning and truth to scientific-type verification or by uncritically adopting the rationalism of Thomas Aquinas or Thomas Reid or John Locke or even Hegel. Theology is undoubtedly a “rational inquiry” into redemptive history and revealed truth, but the thing we must watch is our definition of “rational” and the consequent method of “inquiry.”

In British philosophy the bete noir has been succeeded by what is usually called “ordinary language analysis,” a movement which had its roots in the Cambridge philosophers G. E. Moore, John Wisdom, and the later work of Ludwig Wittgenstein and which was further developed by such Oxford philosophers as Gilbert Ryle, J. L. Austin, P. F. Strawson, etc.2 Rather than imposing uniform standards of meaning and truth on

all supposedly cognitive discourse, these analysts prefer to describe how language is actually used. They recognize a large variety of what Wittgenstein called “language games,” in which the same players (words) may operate according to very different rules. Not all words name empirical objects, and not all language is descriptive. Rather than either formalizing arguments in...

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