The Role of the Church in Postliberal Thought — The Problem of Antirealism

Welcome to the second post in the series on postliberal ecclesiology. The first post can be found here.


One of the main charges leveled against postliberalism is that, viagra at a philosophical level, buy cialis it is inherently antirealist.  That is, it has been suggested that the cultural-linguistic approach needs no external referent.  Part of this is because Lindbeck is reacting against the cognitive-propositionalist approach that “stresses the ways in which church doctrines function as informative propositions or truth claims about objective realities.”[1]  Lindbeck does not deny that cognitive aspects of doctrine can be important, but he argues that they are not the primary purpose of doctrine.[2]  The criticism is that, in making doctrine to be rules rather than first-order propositional truth claims, postliberalism is antirealist.[3]

Alister McGrath, for example, argues that Lindbeck “seems to suggest that conceiving theology as the grammar of the Christian language entails the abandonment of any talk about God as an independent reality…”[4]  Jeffrey Hensley, on the other hand, argues that Lindbeck is “metaphysically neutral” and therefore it is possible for postliberals to be realists.  He suggests that Lindbeck makes a distinction between meaning and existence, and that it is meaning that is “conceptually relative.”[5]  Thus, what Lindbeck is doing is not necessarily offering an antirealist metaphysic, but is instead “simply pointing out that the frameworks through which we view the world deeply influences the way in which we understand its nature and existence.”[6]  Stanley Hauerwas, in interacting with the works of Hans Frei, likewise argues that postliberalism is not antirealist because it is impossible to isolate the biblical narratives from reality, just as it impossible to consider statements of “truth and falsity [apart] from the context of their utterance.”[7]

This becomes important in the discussion of the role of the Church, because it too does not have an external referent.  It is antirealist in that it does not need a propositional reality, and the community ultimately fails to “be accountable to something beyond itself.”[8]  In other words, if the community determines doctrine, what determines the community?  For evangelicals, cognitive-propositionalists and postconservatives, that external referent is Scripture.  The problem, as identified by critics of postliberalism, is that by making the community the final authority, doctrine becomes relativized or dependant on the whims of the community.  Vanhoozer suggests that this postliberal emphasis of the community being the final authority has been picked up in evangelical churches, resulting in churches that have adopted cultural practices “that owe more to managerial, therapeutic, consumerist, and entertainment cultures…”[9]  Ultimately, by making the community the centre, it increases the likelihood of deformed practices and corrupted traditions.[10]  In this way, the cultural-linguistic approach is closer to the experiential-expressive approach.  Where the classic liberal position of the experiential-expressive grounds truth in the ‘common human experience’, the postliberal approach grounds truth in the ‘common community experience.’

Next up: Definition of Church


[1] Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age, 2.

[2] Ibid., 21.

[3] Donald Bloesch, Holy Scripture: Revelation, Inspiration & Interpretation (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 211–212; Jeffrey Hensley, “Are Postliberals Necessarily Antirealists? Reexamining the Metaphysics of Lindbeck’s Postliberal Theology” in Phillips and Okholm, Nature of Confession, 73–74.

[4] Alister McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine: A Study in the Foundations of Doctrinal Criticisms (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990), 29.

[5] Jeffrey Hensley, “Are Postliberals Necessarily Antirealists? Reexamining the Metaphysics of Lindbeck’s Postliberal Theology” in Phillips and Okholm, Nature of Confession, 76.

[6] Ibid, 76.

[7] Stanley Hauerwas, “The Church As God’s New Language,” in Christian Existence Today: Essays on Church, World, and Living in Between (Durham: The Labyrinth Press, 1988), 59.

[8] Fackre, 129.

[9] Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology, 26.

[10] Ibid., 22.