The Role of the Church in Postliberal Thought — Introduction

Welcome to the first post in a series on postliberalism and Ecclesiology.

What is Postliberalism?

            Postliberalism is a twentieth-century theology founded on the narrative theology of Hans Frei, and George Lindbeck’s theory of doctrine.  It attempts to offer a corrective to the relativistic bent of liberalism by affirming the importance of Scripture in the life of Christianity, bringing liberal theology in closer relationship to more conservative strands of Protestantism (such as evangelicalism).  Meaning and truth are “determined by the intratextual subject matter of Scripture.”[1]  Becoming an adherent of a religion is a process similar to learning a language or learning to adopt a new culture.

In postliberalism, the authority resides in the community, and in how the community uses and interprets Scripture to formulate doctrine.  While there is much to be appreciated in adopting a postliberal ecclesiology, the placement of authority within the Church, rather than in Scripture, can become a stumbling block for conservative Protestants.  I would suggest that the benefits of postliberal ecclesiology can be adopted by evangelicals, so long as the authority remains with Scripture rather than the community.

Limitations

            In approaching this topic, a few limitations need to be addressed.  First, while George Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine was foundational for postliberalism, Lindbeck was not a systematic theologian.  Added to this, while there is much commonality between his work and the work of fellow Yale professor, Hans Frei, Frei died shortly after the publication of Lindbeck’s book, which means that, while scholars pair the two together as the founders of postliberalism, there was in actuality “a lack of substantive methodological followup.”[2]

Second, there seems to be disagreement about who is actually a postliberal scholar.  Postliberalism is also known as “Yale Theology” but this does not necessarily mean that students of Frei and Lindbeck are necessarily postliberals.   As George Hunsinger has noted, there seems to be a randomness to who is considered postliberal and who is not.  Indeed, scholars like Stanley Hauerwas are considered postliberal even though he did not belong to the Yale tradition.[3]  As well, the “Yale Theology” is significantly less “Yale-y” given that the major scholars associated with current postliberal thought are working at schools other than Yale.  As William Placher notes, “Yale itself is no longer clearly a centre of postliberal theology.”[4]  Also, there is a question as to how postliberal Lindbeck actually was, with Hunsinger suggesting instead that Frei was postliberal, while Lindbeck was more precisely ‘neoliberal.’[5]

Recognizing that there is debate about what constitutes postliberal theology, I am assuming a standard broad understanding of postliberalism and its major contributors as found in most dictionaries on 20th century theology.[6]  For the purpose of this series, the focus will be primarily on two of Lindbeck’s writings: The Nature of Doctrine,[7] and his essay “The Church,”[8] as well as the various interactions and critiques that have been offered by scholars.

 

Cultural-Linguistic Approach

            Lindbeck proposes an alternative to what he sees as the two dominant ways of understanding doctrine.  In contrast to the cognitive-propositional approach, and the experiential-expressive approach, Lindbeck offers the cultural-linguistic approach.  This approach is influenced by modern cultural anthropology, as well as the theory of language as presented by Ludwig Wittengenstein.

In a cognitive-propositional approach, the truth of a doctrine is found in concrete propositions grounded in reality, while in the experiential-expressive model the truth is found in a common human experience or feeling.  In the cultural-linguistic model, truth resides in the community.  To become a Christian is to learn and adopt the language and practices of the Christian community.  It is not enough to know the ‘facts’ about Christianity, for there are many non-Christians who know what Christianity is.  Instead, it is about learning the language and grammar of the Christian faith.  More specifically, “to become a Christian involves learning the story of Israel and of Jesus well enough to interpret and experience oneself and one’s world in its terms.”[9]

Scripture plays a key role here, as it is the framework within which Christians experience and affirm the faith.[10]  And while the surrounding culture will influence the life of a Christian, ultimately “what is important is that Christians allow their cultural conditions and highly diverse affections to be molded by the set of biblical stories that stretches from creation to the eschaton and culminates in Jesus’ passion and resurrection.”[11]  In the cultural-linguistic model, Scripture “absorbs the universe” and provides the interpretative framework by which Christians understand all reality.[12]

And yet, despite the heavy emphasis on the role of Scripture in formulating doctrine and shaping the community, one of the main critiques of the cultural-linguistic model, and postliberalism in general, is that ultimately, it is the community that has the final authority without being answerable to anything else.  Salvation is found in the community.  The community teaches the language that characterizes the Christian faith, and the community interprets the Scriptures to define the doctrines of the community.  Thus, within postliberalism the answer to the question, “how is Scripture authoritative?” is “according to socialization in the community’s conventions, which are subject to revision with continuing community engagement.”[13]

Next up: The problem of anti-realism.


 

[1] George Hunsinger, “Postliberal Theology,” in The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology, ed. Kevin Vanhoozer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 44.

[2] Paul DeHart, The Trial of Witnesses: The Rise and Decline of Postliberal Theology (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2006), xiii.

[3] Hunsinger, “Postliberal Theology,” 42.

[4] William Placher, “Postliberal Theology,” in The Modern Theologians: An Introduction to Christian Theology in the 20th Century, ed. David Ford (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997), 354.

[5] Hunsinger, “Postliberal Theology,” 44.

[6] e.g., Alister McGrath, The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Modern Christian Thought (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1995); Placher, “Postliberal Theology.”

[7] George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009).

[8] George Lindbeck, “The Church,” in Keeping the Faith: Essays to Mark the Centenary of Lex Mundi, ed. Geoffrey Wainwright (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988).

[9] Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age, 20.

[10] Ibid., 66.

[11] Ibid., 70.

[12] Ibid., 103. For an in-depth philosophical analysis of Lindbeck’s use of “absorb the universe,” see Bruce Marshall, “Absorbing the World: Christianity and The Universe of Truths,” in Theology and Dialogue: Essays in Conversation with George Lindbeck (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990), 69-102.

[13] Gabriel Fackre, “Narrative: Evangelical, Postliberal, Ecumenical” in Timothy R. Phillips and Dennis L. Okholm, eds., Nature of Confession: Evangelicals and Postliberals in Conversation (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 129.