The Role of the Church in Postliberal Thought — Definition and Mission of Church

Welcome to the third post in the series on postliberal ecclesiology. The previous posts can be found here and here.

Definition of Church

            Vanhoozer’s critique of postliberalism assumes a definition of the community that is limited to a group of like-minded individuals in a specific time and place within history that would be susceptible to temporary cultural influences.  So the question becomes, sovaldi what is the Church in Lindbeck’s understanding?

The Church is “the messianic pilgrim people of God typologically shaped by Israel’s story.”[1]  Lindbeck is clear that defining the Church can only be done by the witness of Scripture.  While nonbiblical categories can sometimes be used to define the Church, cheap these are only to be used when it becomes “necessary for the sake of greater faithfulness, intelligibility or efficaciousness.”[2]  In his essay “The Church,” Lindbeck traces the history of the understanding of the Church.  First, he outlines the understanding of the Church for the early Christians.  For them, the story of Israel was their story, in that, “whatever is true of Israel is true of the church except where the differences are explicit.”[3]  Second, Lindbeck documents the transition into the postbiblical era where the continuity between Christianity and Judaism was severed.  Part of this separation came from the issue of unbelieving Jews, as well as the fact that Church was becoming predominantly Gentile.  The Church, by the time of Constantine, “ceased to be sociologically a Jewish sect.”[4]  The history of Israel was reinterpreted so that “the more unsavoury aspects of the history of Israel were no longer genuinely portions of the history of the church but were projected exclusively on the synagogue.”[5]  Here, the litmus test for what defined the Church was faithfulness, rather than election.  Groups of heretical traditions and individuals were excommunicated based on their lack of faithfulness as determined by the community.

Lindbeck also defines the Church as “cultural-linguistic groupings that can be meaningfully identified by ordinary sociological and historical criteria…”[6]  John Webster critiques this definition and suggests that it fails to adequately address the spiritual (or invisible) aspect of the Church.[7]  But the context of Lindbeck’s definition is his discussion of election.  He argues that Israel was elect even if there were believers and unbelievers in the community, and that Israel was elect even when she was unfaithful to Yahweh.  Thus, even when the Church is failing in its faithfulness to the Gospel of Jesus, she is still the church because “…communal degeneracy [does not] erase election,”[8]

Does this mean that for Lindbeck the Church is limited to a sociological group in a specific time and place?  Lindbeck would not argue for this.  Lindbeck emphasizes the continuity of tradition, and the continuity of God’s people.[9]  If the community is represented by two thousand years of tradition, then Vanhoozer’s argument that the cultural-linguistic approach leads to cultural whims is misplaced.  As Lindbeck writes, “…the preference is for the reform of past structures, not their replacement.  The burden of proof is on those who, for example, reject the historic three-fold ministry…of Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry.”[10]

The Mission of the Church

After tracing the history of the understanding of the Church, Lindbeck sets out to identify the mission and identity of the Church.  Here the influence of Karl Barth on postliberal thought can be seen.  The influence of Barth in Lindbeck’s writing specifically and postliberal’s theology in general comes through Hans Frei’s interpretation of Barth.[11]  Through Frei and Lindbeck, Barth was redefined as the first postliberal theologian.[12]  Frei believed that Barth “saw the Christian community as an integral language-world, possessing a kind of semantic logic all its own…”[13]  Lindbeck sees the mission of the church as threefold: witness, proclamation, and service,[14] thus making the work of the Church not so much about “saving souls” as about being “a faithfully witnessing people.”[15]  The Church as witness becomes synonymous with the work of the Spirit, because the Church is both the subject and agent of God’s narrative.[16]  And while this postliberal understanding of the mission of the Church is influenced by Barth,[17] it is important to note where postliberalism and Barth diverge.  For Barth, Scripture is “the semantic vehicle by which human utterances are brought into correspondence with the reality of God.”[18]  It is the Scriptures that mediate the truth of Jesus in a way that the Church cannot do.  In postliberalism, it is the Church that mediates the truth of Jesus, because according to Frei, the Church is the indirect presence of Jesus.  The Church is the embodiment of Christ’s Spirit, and “when Christians speak of the Spirit as the indirect presence now of Jesus Christ…they refer to the church…reference to the Spirit means affirmation of the spatial, temporal basis of Christ’s indirect presence…”[19]

Next up: Strengths of a postliberal ecclesiology


[1] Lindbeck, “The Church,” 179.

[2] Ibid., 182.

[3] Ibid., 183.

[4] Ibid., 187.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 193.

[7] John Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 48.

[8] Lindbeck, “The Church,” 193.

[9] Ibid., 197.

[10] Ibid.

[11] DeHart, The Trial of Witnesses: The Rise and Decline of Postliberal Theology, 28.

[12] Placher, “Postliberal Theology,” 352.

[13] DeHart, The Trial of Witnesses: The Rise and Decline of Postliberal Theology, 28.

[14] Lindbeck, “The Church,” 193.

[15] Ibid., 194.

[16] Hauerwas, “The Church As God’s New Language,” 59.

[17] See especially “The Task of the Community” and “The Ministry of the Community” in Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. IV/3.2 (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2010). pp, 795-901.

[18] George Hunsinger, “Truth as Self-Involving: Barth and Lindbeck,” in Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2000), 312.

[19] Hans W. Frei, The Identity of Jesus Christ: The Hermeneutical Bases of Dogmatic Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), 157.

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  • Dell Bornowsky

    Amanda, thanks for this series.

    Ah yes the quest for “authority” in one place or another.
    I am not as familiar with Lindbeck’s contribution as that of Hans Frei whose emphasis on the significance of narrative shows the
    scriptures to be more than an assortment of propositions or journalistic reports (discrete raw data for systematic theology or eclectic fodder for debates about historicity)
    Similarly Brevard Childs emphasis on canon suggests that since the people of God are the community (church) responsible for the formation and preservation of scripture, that community also bears primary responsibility for its interpretation.
    When we begin to obtain our worldviews or interpretive paradigms from other narratives (i.e enlightenment rationalism, gnosticism,
    or assorted other ideologies) we begin to detach our identity from the community defined by the biblical narrative. Modernity
    tried (and still tries and fails) to find a neutral place outside the tradition to by which to judge the “truth” of the tradition.

    The reformation focus on sola scriptura parallels the concern of critics of postliberalism (noted in your 2ndpost) that “doctrine becomes relativized or dependant on the whims of the community.” But although the community may have whims, these are not unrestricted whims, because the authentic community is itself defined by the biblical narrative. Attempts to isolate “authority” in either/or church or scripture are misguided because even more than the chicken or egg controversy the relationship between them is interdependent. The community has both formed the canonical narrative and is formed by it. Circular logic is escaped by understanding that it was the speaking and acting of the transcendent God into particular material cultures that formed both community and narrative in the first place, and that this God still intends to speak through that canonical narrative into that same ongoing community.

    I recently read an Eastern Orthodox writer express that God’s gift to the world is not primarily a book but a community. Those who have difficulty ceding such authority or role to community should remember that Noah, Abraham, Isaac,and Jacob didn’t have even the Pentateuch and Jesus didn’t’ give his followers a book. However, seeing the community as both preserver and product of the narrative does not solve the problem of false prophets or interpreters (apparently within the community) . Nevertheless, in the face of such danger, it seems that three or four generations of Jesus followers operated as church under the Spirit’s guidance before they had a completed (authoritative) NT canon.

    Perhaps I misunderstand what authority means, but using the term “final” authority to define scripture suggests (to me a ludicrous picture of) disputing the decisions of Christ’s last-judgement by saying “Not so LORD!, If you will turn with me
    in your Bible you will see it says here …”

    • CWtheology


      Thanks for this! I find something intriguing in the EO writer’s idea that “God’s gift to the world is not primarily a book but a community.” Do you have the reference to list, I’d like to add it to my reading list.

      This exploration about authority and community and Scripture has been interesting, especially in light of an ongoing blog conversation about the nature and authority of Scripture between several evangelical scholars — Andy Stanley, Scot McKnight, Mike Bird and Denny Burk.

      • Dell Bornowsky

        My reference was to an essay by Thomas Hopko called “The Church, the Bible
        and Dogmatic Theology” in “Reclaiming the Bible for the Church”
        edited by Carl E. Braaten, Robert Jenson. At the beginning of his essay
        he cites writings by George Florovsky and Vladimir Lossky. (You can get at peek
        at the bulk of his essay on Google books page 107 of the above)

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