Wittgenstein's Theologians? a Survey of Ludwig Wittgenstein's Impact on Theology

By Ashford, Bruce R. | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, June 2007 | Go to article overview
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Wittgenstein's Theologians? a Survey of Ludwig Wittgenstein's Impact on Theology


Ashford, Bruce R., Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


There is little doubt that Wittgenstein has influenced the discipline of philosophy, as well as subsidiary fields, and that he is a towering figure among twentieth-century intellectuals. Many scholars consider him the most influential philosopher of the century, and note that during the span of his career he produced two markedly different, yet equally brilliant, philosophies. It has been said that he is a "cultural figure of international significance,"1 whose mesmerizing influence over his disciples is rivaled only by Socrates.2 His impact reaches into such various fields as cognitive psychology, sociology, ethics, literary criticism, philosophy of mind, and philosophy of language. Beyond this, it must be noted that Wittgenstein has ushered in a new intellectual era, in much the way that Kant did during his day. Rather than a Kantian turn to the subject, however, Wittgenstein bequeaths a turn to language and practice. This influence has been well documented.3

What has been overlooked, however, is how theologians now stand in the shadow of Wittgenstein. Until recently, statements such as "Wittgenstein's work has not had a great deal of influence on theology" and "it is unclear what might happen to a theology given the full Wittgenstein treatment" could be made without raising eyebrows.4 But particularly in the past two decades, Wittgenstein has been appropriated in increasingly more theological proposals, including such disciplines as ethics, hermeneutics, philosophical theology, philosophy of religion, systematic theology, biblical studies, evangelism, and missions. His insights are adopted across denominational boundaries, in such traditions as Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopal, Baptist, Reformed and Presbyterian, and Mennonite. Moreover, his influence is not limited to one "school" of theologians, but includes Thomist, postliberal, liberal, and evangelical theologians.

With Wittgenstein's influence thus stated, several questions arise. What is the nature of Wittgenstein's influence? Which of his insights have been adopted, and to what end? Who are the theologians that adopt his insights, and how deep is the appropriation? Which theologians oppose Wittgenstein, and how are they affected by his influence on the discipline? In seeking to answer these questions, and to argue that Wittgenstein's influence in the field of theology is pervasive, this paper will be divided into five parts: (1) a summary of the central themes of Wittgenstein's later writings; (2) a survey of selected theologians who are fully Wittgensteinian; (3) an examination of certain theologians who are selective in their adoption of Wittgenstein's insights; (4) a look at certain theologians who oppose Wittgenstein, but nonetheless are affected by his influence on the discipline as a whole; and (5) an attempt to show the overall picture of Wittgenstein's influence.

I. WITTGENSTEIN'S LATER PHILOSOPHY

For years, Wittgenstein was known to most theologians as a fideistic philosopher who had a "theory" about the autonomy of language games.5 Recently, however, this interpretation of his work no longer has a corner on Wittgenstein studies. His later work as a whole has been given deep and extended consideration by theologians, who appropriate his insights in a rich variety of ways. Four elements in particular are important for understanding theological appropriations of Wittgenstein. Indeed, they are central to understanding Wittgenstein's attempts to overcome the manifold dualisms of traditional Western thought. Such dualisms have fostered an unhealthy antipathy to the human body, and have seduced Western thinkers into trying to "break free" from the body. This is evidenced in: (1) philosophical method, in the attempt to transcend the body by constructing grand theories; (2) anthropology and psychology, in the denial of the embodied nature of the soul; (3) language, in the denial of the bodily nature of "meaning;" and (4) epistemology, in the separation of the mind from the world.

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