The Role of the Church in Postliberal Thought — Strengths, and Some Concluding Thoughts

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

Strengths of Postliberal’s Ecclesiology

            There are two strengths in Lindbeck’s understanding of the community.  First, stuff Lindbeck emphasizes the usefulness of catechesis.  Instead of having to redefine and reconceptualise the faith for each generation, case the practice of catechesis “seeks to teach the language and practices of the religion to potential adherents.”[1]  Unfortunately there is a question as to whether catechesis is even possible in today’s world.  Lindbeck suggests that in many ways unbelievers in the West are “immunized against catechesis” because in this post-Christian culture there is an assumption “that knowledge of a few tag ends of religious language is knowledge of the religion [itself].”[2]

Second, the postliberal approach puts a strong emphasis on biblical literacy.  This literacy is more than knowing facts from Scripture, or even knowing theological facts.  Biblical literacy is about internalizing the story and fully adopting the grammar of the Christian faith.[3]  The truth of Christianity cannot be separated from the speech and action of the Christian faith, and thus there is a corrective against liberal tendencies to mythologize the faith, because in postliberal theology it is impossible to “treat Christian ways speaking and acting primarily as ways of expressing something else.”[4]  Lindbeck laments that the decline of biblical literacy, not only in the church, but also in society at large, for it means that “we have no common language in which we discuss the common weal.”[5]  Lindbeck suggests that this illiteracy is the result of modernism, because modernity “viewed texts primarily as objects of study, and that meant…that they were possessed of a univocal meaning, a single meaning ascertainable only by specialists.”[6]  The shift to postmodernity is allowing the possibility for a variety of ways of reading the biblical texts, including allowing the reader to see what the contemporary world looks like through the lens of Scripture.[7]  Alister McGrath suggests that this is the strength of postliberalism over liberalism, because liberalism is still trying to find “an absolutely firm foundation in a world that no longer accepts the existence of universals.”[8]

There are several correctives that postliberalism offers for modern evangelicalism.  First, it is a good corrective for the ‘evangelism without discipleship’ model that characterizes the consumerist element of North American Christianity.  The cultural-linguistic approach emphasizes the importance of learning the language and grammar of the Christian faith in order to fully enter into the story of the Gospel.  Second, postliberalism offers a corrective for the individualistic bent of evangelicalism.  Because postliberalism places a strong emphasis on the role of community, there is a safeguard against subjectivism, where experience becomes authoritative and the believer reads Scripture wanting to see what the Holy Spirit has to say for her individual benefit.[9]  It calls into question this modern notion that someone can love Jesus (be a Christian) without being a part of the community of faith.  The emphasis on tradition, historic Christian beliefs and liturgy means that a Christian is “ever and again reminded of its doctrinal constraints, [and] will be less apt to allow personal experience to become the arbiter of the Christian faith.”[10]  As well, the postliberal approach safeguards against the possibility of doctrine and theology being reserved for the halls of academia with no benefit for the church.  Doctrine is inseparable from praxis.[11]


Going Forward

The definition of the Church in postliberalism comes from the Scriptures, but at the same time the authors of the Scriptures, who were members of the community, also defined and interpreted the Scriptures.  And even though the definition of the community comes from Scripture, it does not mean that the question of authority has been answered.  Authority comes not from Scripture but from the community’s interpretation and use of Scripture.  For evangelicals, this can be a stumbling block to adopting the benefits of a postliberal approach to ecclesiology.  Vanhoozer’s canonical-linguistic approach demonstrates a way to adopt the benefits of the cultural-linguistic model while keeping the authority of Scripture as the foundation and measuring stick for all that the community says and does.  Vanhoozer creates a theology of doctrine that “conjoins the postliberal emphasis on theology as church practice with the notion of biblical interpretation as performance…”[12]  Vanhoozer argues for “spirited practice” where the entirety of the Church’s way of life, its doctrines and practices are the work of the Holy Spirit.  This “spirited practice” accomplishes two things.  First, by referring to the Holy Spirit, it answers the question, “Why consider this community’s practice as normative?”[13]  And second, it addresses the “pneumatological deficit of Lindbeck’s argument.”[14]


[1] Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age, 118.

[2] Ibid., 119.

[3] George Lindbeck, “The Church’s Mission to a Postmodern Culture,” in Postmodern Theology: Christian Faith in a Pluralist World (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1989), 52.

[4] William Placher, “Revisionist and Postliberal Theologies and the Public Character of Theology,” The Thomist 49 (1985): 402.

[5] Lindbeck, “The Church’s Mission to a Postmodern Culture,” 48.

[6] Ibid., 50.

[7] Ibid., 51.

[8] Alister McGrath, “An Evangelical Evaluation of Postliberalism” in Phillips and Okholm, Nature of Confession, 24.

[9] “Experience takes the place of authority and displaces the professed evangelical primary of a Christologically read Scripture.”  Gabriel Fackre, 131.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Placher, “Revisionist and Postliberal Theologies and the Public Character of Theology,” 413.

[12] Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, 22.

[13] Ibid., 98.

[14] Ibid.


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  • Good stuff! Well written. Good thoughts.

  • Dell Bornowsky

    My experience as a pastor seems to bear out Lindbeck’s observation that “unbelievers in the West are ‘immunized against catechesis”’. This I suspect because in modernity’s approach (as you suggest ‘evangelism without discipleship’) catechesis was merely attempting to elicit certain beliefs about God, rather than, as Bishop Mark MacDonald suggests, the more critical role of catechesis: becoming free from our desires
    toward our assorted popular idols.

    Evangelicals need not stumble over the block of authority in the community if we simply admit we already stand on it. As Larry Christensen pointed out years ago when protestants say “the Bible is my authority” they are confessing at the level of practice: “what I think the Bible says (to me) is my authority”. Despite our good intentions to respect biblical authority (an abstraction), its practice in the lives of evangelicals is perhaps more realistically expressed: “what my favourite pastor or bible teacher says the bible means is my authority”. Ironically groups most vociferously claiming the bible as final authority are often those most functionally submitted to the particular interpretations of their particular church subcultures, and often most at odds with other groups who also claim biblical authority. I am not suggesting we abandon the expectation that God can and will speak authoritatively through the scriptures, only that we might admit a bit more candidly (apparenlty like post-liberals) the role that we all inevitably give to the church, or at least to our particular corner of it, in our appropriation and submission to that authority. Torah methods for the identification of false prophets include both the authority of the narrative and the ongoing experience of the community. Is the prophet speaking on behalf of the LORD (as already revealed in the narrative of the community, ie.scripture)? but also, has the community had enough time and experience to evaluate if what they say actually comes to pass? (Deut 13:1-5 Deut 18:20-21)

    • CWtheology

      Dell, I especially appreciate, this observation — “Evangelicals need not stumble over the block of authority in the community if we simply admit we already stand on it.”