Tag Archives: evangelicals

A Year of Busy

To say that this past year has been busy is an understatement. But, here I am, one week until graduation. Looking back, it’s been amazing journey.

In the last year I have:

  • Had baby #3
  • Proposed a thmeandbarthesis on Barth
  • Had major surgery and spent a week in the hospital
  • Made and sold over 100 jars of homemade jam at the local farmer’s market
  • Started working on my thesis
  • Got a job as a graduate instructor (translation: grading, grading and more grading)
  • Continued to work on my thesis
  • Presented a scholarly paper on the theology of rest at a seminary-sponsored colloquium
  • Completed my thesis
  • Successfully defended my thesis

And now, the end is near. The grad ceremony is next week. I have been given the privilege of standing before the seminary as valedictorian (technically co-valedictorian as there was a tie for highest GPA).

To all those who have been so supportive on this journey: Thank you. To the parents — my mom, and my fantastic in-laws — thank you for coming and helping out with the kids. To Julie, who has been like family, thank you for caring for my children a couple of days a week so that I could write. To dear friends Sherilyn, Ellen and Kelsey, thank you for sharing in the stress and joy and emotional ups and downs. To my husband Charles, thank you for encouraging me, for sacrificing, and for working so hard to provide for our family. And to my three children, thank you for brightening my days with smiles and for teaching me about the simple beauty of the Gospel.

 

 

Lots and Lots of Christology

For the past eight weeks I have been reading piles and piles of books on Christology. No, not for my thesis (though, technically my thesis is on Karl Barth’s Christology, specifically his exegesis and use of John 1:14), but for my job.

As I’ve been reading, there have been some books that have been hugely helpful, and others that though they came recommended ended up being highly over-rated, boring, or both.

Today, I want to highlight a few of the books that I really like. My research emphasis has been on exploring the theological significance of the major events of Christ’s life (e.g., Baptism, Transfiguration, Death, Resurrection, Ascension, etc.,) rather than on the historical development of Christology.

The Suffering and Victorious Christ is a new book (October 2013) that I had the privilege of getting a sneak peek at thanks to Baker Academic and Net Galley. This book has provided me with an introduction to the broader Christological tradition, through the exploration of the Christus dolor, the suffering of Christ. The authors contrast Western, North American, portrayals of Christ, what the authors refer to as the “masculine triumphalism” to Christ, to Asian (specifically Japanese) portrayals, particularly the suffering and sorrow of the Lord. Of special interest, was the chapter that examines the Christology of 19th century African Americans, for example Sojourner Truth. This book has been helpful as I tackle the question, “Why did Christ die?”

 

One of the things I have observed in evangelical circles is that the ascension gets overlooked. Either it gets collapsed into the resurrection, or it gets rushed through as a quirky prologue to Pentecost. While I have chosen a chapter from T.F. Torrance’s Space, Time and Resurrection as a primary source reading on this topic, Peter Atkins’ Ascension Now is a fantastic pastoral resource. In it, Atkins not only considers the biblical evidence, and theological implications of the ascension, he also devotes significant time to considering the implications of the doctrine of the ascension for liturgy, prayer, and preaching.

 

While Gustaf Aulen’s Christus Victor is the classic choice for an overview of the Christus Victor theory of the atonement, it suffers from being dull and boring. In contrast, Greg Boyd’s chapter on “The Warfare Significance of Christ’s Death and Resurrection” in his book, God at War, is an accessible, and non-boring presentation of Christus Victor.

 

 

 

 

And of course, I can’t not include Barth, so a primary source reading of Barth’s exegesis on the parable of the Prodigal Son in CD IV.2 is a must!

 

 

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Reading Barth, Not Reading Barth, and Reactions to the Barthian Industry

Karl Barth

There has been a fascinating discussion going on in the blogosphere this month about reading Barth.  It started with Janice Rees talking about her own personal resistance movement where she was deliberately choosing to not read Karl Barth:

“…my commitment to not reading Barth arose because of my concerns regarding the institution of Barthian scholarship and my understanding of identity for theologians on the margins. By not reading Barth I was, and have been, engaging in what I believe is a form of resistance; a small gesture that I could manage as I tried to find a voice and place beyond tokenism.  There are several ways in which I have understood this to be resistance.”

Peter Kline wrote about his choice to no longer read Karl Barth and his personal therapy of choosing to not go to Princeton for a PhD program:

“The previous summer I had been invited to contribute to an online blog conference on Barth that would take place in October. The conversation that unfolded in response to my essay was painful for me. People I thought were my friends at Princeton treated me with a callousness and condescension that I found disgusting. But I realized that this was nothing new really, that I had been around this toxicity for years but hadn’t had the distance to see it. This is what talking about Barth sounded and felt like, a pious pissing contest. These are the kinds of conversations Barth’s discourse generates, and I decided that I didn’t want to be a part of them, even if I was good at them. After that essay, I decided not to write on Barth anymore, beyond what was required of me as a grad student. What I decided to walk away from was a whole Princeton-Barth culture that bred arrogance, pseudo-friendships, and a very limited set of theological possibilities.”

 Kait Dugan wrote about her reasons for reading Barth:

“I wish there was space within the theological academy for women to critically engage and appropriate Barth in ways that brought him into desperately needed conversation with other critical theologies. And I’m not talking about the token engagement that can pass in certain projects. I’m interested in profound and rigorous bilateral dialogue between Barth and other critical theologians in order to create something new. [4] The most ironic part of all of this is when I realize just how “radical” Barth is on certain issues and the lines of continuity that can be drawn between him and other theologians who most within confessional boundaries might typically render “not serious” or “unorthodox.” [5] To my surprise, when I read Barth, I see him as an incredible support and ally for many basic theological concerns within theologies of race, gender, and sexuality.”

 

Today, David Congdon has weighed in on the conversation:

“But it is has become fashionable to stop reading Barth for other, far less compelling, reasons. In the first of two recent statements on the matter, we discover that “not reading Barth” is not really a rejection of Barth himself so much as a rejection of “the institution of Barthian scholarship,” “a means to resist the production and control of ‘serious scholarship’” in favor of contextual theology, a rejection of “the way in which ‘Barth’ is invoked as the magic word for ‘orthodoxy,’” a way of resisting “institutional powers,” since “Barthian scholarship seems a power unto itself.” These are all different ways of saying the same thing: “not reading Barth” = resisting the oppressive institutional powers of church and academy. We hear more of the same in the second, more personal, statement, in which “not reading Barth” = the rejection of “a pious pissing contest” and “a whole Princeton-Barth culture that bred arrogance, pseudo-friendships, and a very limited set of theological possibilities.” Of course, by the end, we learn that the author has exchanged one culture for another, that of critical theory, which “is every bit as much an industry as the former with unspoken but obvious clubs and entrance requirements.””

And my thesis supervisor made this observation on Facebook this afternoon:

“Telling people why we may have stopped reading Barth (which is, of course, perfectly a legitimate choice) is one thing, but telling others why we may have stopped reading Barth with the strong implication that their readers should ALSO stop reading Barth sounds a little bit too much like a form of censorship for my comfort.”

As an MA student doing my thesis on Karl Barth, I have been reading the ongoing conversation carefully and prayerfully. I don’t have anything profound to add to the conversation, but what follows are a few of the ideas that are floating around my Barth-addled brain.

  1. I have been edified and challenged by Barth.  It was an invitation to a Barth reading group in Caronport when we had just newly moved here, that allowed me to meet people and be intellectually challenged. I would later take a seminar class on Barth that, though it was one of the most challenging classes of my seminary career, was the most rewarding. I have learned that Barth is best read in the context of the church. He was writing to edify the church, not to edify the academy. If a person reads Barth merely as an academic exercise, then they are doing a grave injustice to the writing and spirit of Barth’s scholarship.
  2. While Barth is a profoundly important voice for Christian theology, he is not the only voice, nor the final voice.
  3. You don’t need to like Barth to appreciate Barth’s contribution to theology. Confession: I really, really dislike reading Augustine. If I have a choice between reading Augustine and anything else, I will choose anything else (including the dreadful Twilight series). But, I also know that it is important for me to read Augustine as he has (for good or for evil or both) profoundly influenced western Christian thought.
  4. Peter’s observation of Barthian scholarship being a “pious pissing contest” is spot on. As I read for my thesis I have begun to be able to tell just from the introduction of a book which Barthian “camp” the author identifies with. Too often I have found otherwise intelligent scholars failing to understand, listen to, or fairly represent the arguments from a scholar from the opposite camp simply because they are from the “wrong side.”
  5. Given the way that Barthian academy works, I am learning (very quickly) that I am not smart enough to be a Barth scholar. As I read “provocative” and “creative” interpretations and interactions with Barth, I find myself asking: “are we reading the same text?!” “is all this academic twisting and interpreting being fair to the spirit and purpose of Barth’s writings?” and “are the “innovative” readings of Barth merely a means for the scholar to get name recognition?”
  6. Criticizing Barth for not anticipating the conversations or the postmodern assumptions in Christian theology that developed after his time is at best a cheap-shot, and at worst, unethical and sloppy scholarship.
  7. While it is true that in classes and at conferences, I am usually the only or one of only a few women in attendance I have not experienced any problems being a woman who studies Barth. This is probably due in large part to the fact that I am just a mere student and not a scholar trying to contribute to the academy.

I may never end up in the hallowed halls of the Barthian academy (very probable). I may get to the end of my thesis and not want to read Barth for a very long time (highly probable). I may discover that Barth is not the best dialogue partner for my theological journey (very possible). Or I may discover that Barth is the coolest of all the cool theologians and that my life’s dream is to become a Barthian scholar (unlikely, but who knows?)

Whatever the case, Barth offers all of us, whether we are student or teacher, pastor or teacher, some very wise counsel: the work and call of the theologian is a gift of grace. “To become and be a theologian is not a natural process but an incomparably concrete fact of grace.”  While some may say that this idea lends itself to a sort of arrogance, as if the theologian has been endowed, Barth is quick to point out that this gift of grace is a mystery, for “if anyone supposed he could understand himself as such a receiver of grace, he would do better to bid theology farewell.”  With this comes the need for humility. All of our theological presuppositions are grounded, not in the logical consistency of a theologian’s argument, but in the “reality of God’s self-communication to us in Jesus Christ.”  As such, theological statements, be they from Barth or any other theologian past or present, “are true only in so far as they direct us away from themselves to the one Truth in God” and that Truth is Jesus. 

 

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Random Barth Related Stuff

barth study

Fun Barth Fact:

It took Barth three lecture periods to get through his material on John 1:14 when he taught through the Gospel of John in 1925. (No wonder he didn’t make it all the way through the Gospel, given that pace!)

A Real Barth Related Conversation:

2 year old — “Help Momma!”

Me — “You want to help Momma do research?”

2 year old — nods.

Me — “Can you speak German?”

2 year old — “…fitzzzzzzzzzzz.”

Me– “Perfect! You’re hired!”

Barth quote that I’m examining in light of the McCormack’s argument that Barth moves from being Pneumocentric to Christocentric in his Christology:

Inasmuch as the Incarnation fulfills the time, it is also limited by time. Insasmuch as it is epoch-making, it is also an epsiode which points beyond itself to the Holy Ghost who proclaims the Incarnate Word in other ages as well, and to the Resurrection of the body which includes all ages. ~”The Word Made Flesh” sermon 1926.

 

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Ariel, Merida and “the alienation of a young generation of Christians”

In light of the explosion of discussion and responses to Rachel Held Evans’ article at CNN on why millennials are leaving the church, I thought I would re-post my discussion from last year on millennials and their relationship to the church. Enjoy!

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I have a love/hate relationship with the Disney princesses. On the one hand, Belle was my absolute favourite princess when I was young, and she still is. On the other, as I have gotten older and now have daughters of my own, I struggle with the message that the Disney princesses give, especially how they are marketed (it irks me to no end that the Mulan princess doll is done up in froof when that was the part that she hated the most and was one of the reasons she ran off to fight in her father’s stead).

And yet, I wonder if comparing and contrasting two Disney princesses would help me to make sense of a trend in north American Evangelicalism. MSNBC has a story about how the gay marriage issue is driving away an entire generation of Christians. And while the story does cite Matthew Anderson as an example of one young Christian who doesn’t think so, the majority of the article seems to lean towards Rachel Held Evans’ thesis. Denny Burk has weighed in on his, and it has of course made the rounds on the Twitter feed.

I don’t really want to talk about the gay-marriage debate, but rather, I want to speak to the larger issue behind it: the post-modern 21st century generation of evangelical Christians who are disenfranchised with the older generations of the Church in general.

My question is this: what kind of princess is this young evangelical generation? Is it Ariel or Merida?

'Little Mermaid projections at Disney Animation' photo (c) 2009, Loren Javier - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/The message of The Little Mermaid is disobey your parents because at the end there will be a rainbow and a handsome prince, and a father who will apologize because you were right and he was wrong. Reckless and head-strong is okay because it’s all about you and no one else and your parents will see that in the end and you will live happily ever after.

The message of Brave, on the other hand, is there are consequences to your head-strong opinions, and in the end your mom was actually right and knew what she was talking about. She may not have expressed it in the best of ways, but it’s not entirely her fault that you didn’t get it. Reconciliation is needed: Merida needed to repair the tear in the family that she had created; and the Queen needed to see that Merida had gifts and strengths and that she didn’t need to be “managed” and nagged at 24/7.

'BraveMerida' photo (c) 2012, Michelle Wright - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

The Evangelical church in North America is young, very young, in the grand scheme of 2,000 years of Christianity. And yet on many issues the 21st-century Evangelical Church think that she knows what is best and that is okay to turn her back on the “old fogeys” of both the Evangelical tradition and the larger Church because they are absolutely wrong and she is absolutely right.

I don’t know what the cause of this is. Maybe it’s the rugged individualistic worldview of the North American culture. Maybe it’s what happens with each generation of Christians but in the age of social media it has become amplified and expanded. Maybe it’s because North America is quickly becoming a post-Christian nation and it is encouraging the Church to become post-Christian as well. I don’t know.

I guess what it comes down to is this: I wish there was a little more humility; a little more listening. I get the disenfranchisement of the young people in the church today, I really do. I am of that generation. I think the difference is that I didn’t grow up in the Church, so I didn’t have my rebel moment. I came into the Church at the age of 16 with my eyes somewhat open to what I was choosing. It was (through the grace and power of the Holy Spirit) my choice to respond to the gracious gift of Jesus; it wasn’t forced on me (“you have to be a Christian because that is what this family does”). Add to that, I have spent a lot of time reading Church history, listening to the elders who have gone before, and sitting under their wisdom. It has changed me. It has softened me. It has made me (somewhat) more patient with the foibles and frustrations of a Church that is made up of imperfect humans.

I am listening to the stories and concerns of this generation of evangelicals, but I can’t help but wonder, “Are you listening just as equally to the stories of your elders and of those who disagree with you? Are you willing to do your part in reconciliation or are you expecting the older generation to unilaterally cave to your way of thinking? What happens in 50 years, when the new younger generation of Evangelicals become disenfranchised and alienated from your ideas, experiences and politics?”

The Lost Week

The yellow sickly-sweet smell of jaundice, iodine and antiseptic.

The flurry of nurses, doctors, and diagnostic tests.

The haze of pain meds, sedatives and general anesthetic.

An ambulance ride from the local hospital to the big city hospital for a specialized procedure, and then back to the local hospital for surgery.

It wasn’t the plan for the week, but one trip to the emergency room changed everything.

The four walls of the hospital room were giant white walls that blocked out the world. Cut off from family. Cut off from life.

The dark shadows of fear and sickness and despair crept from the corners and overwhelmed the room.

God was an abstraction, blocked out by those impenetrable hospital walls.

There was no praying. 

There was no worship.

There was no seeing or feeling anything beyond those four white walls.

I was alone. And my faith was failing me.

And then, that mild Saturday evening, day three of my seven day sentence, the pastor arrived. She was quiet and sweet and kind-hearted, just as she was every Sunday at church. She came and she listened. She chatted. She told stories. The dark shadows began to recede back into the corners, held at bay, even just for a little while.

Can I pray with you? She said. And then she pulled out a present: a string of Anglican prayer beads.

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Prayer beads to give rhythm and structure to my prayer instead of flailing words lost and uncertain.

Prayer beads to help me pray the prayers not of my own creation, but the prayers of generations of faithful Christians. I could be carried on the strength of their prayers instead of trying to rely on the weakness of my own.

My God, my God why have you forsaken me. Christ’s prayer would become my prayer.

Prayer beads that, even if I couldn’t say any words, I could physically cling to the cross at the end of the circle of beads. I could hang on to the cross of Christ that for 18 years had been transforming my life.

And so, starting at the cross at the bottom of the circle of beads, I prayed.

 

O Lord make speed to save me. O Lord make haste to help me. Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now and will be forever. Amen.

 

Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hidden…

 

Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

 

Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name…

 

Around and around the circle I went for hours, the rhythm pushing back the shadows until dawn broke and the summer sunshine would rise and wash over the white walls.

And then came surgery day. After being wheeled back into my room, in pain and groggy, I reached for those brown beads, and held onto them tightly as the sedatives worked on my weary body, calling me to sleep.

And that little circle of beads allowed my soul to rest in the knowledge that those four white walls did not have the power to hold out the Almighty One. There, in the very midst of pain and sickness and suffering, was the One who Suffered. There, in the midst of the doctors’ training, and the nurses’ gentle hands, was the Healer. There, in quiet and stillness of the white walls, was the assurance of Resurrection and Glory.

And that lost week that wasn’t planned turned out to not be such a loss after all.

Canadian Christianity — C&MA Ordain First Female Pastor

On Sunday, the Christian and Missionary Alliance denomination in Canada ordained their first female pastor, Eunice Smith. Last year, the denomination voted to change the bylaws regarding ordination to allow for women to be ordained. From the news release:

Eunice has served the C&MA for more than sixty years. She has served in the Canadian Midwest District, the Caribbean Sun Region and the Canadian Pacific District. Eunice was ordained in Richmond Alliance Church, in Richmond, B.C., the church that she currently serves and calls home.

Rev. Jon Coutts, lead pastor of Richmond Alliance Church, deemed Eunice’s ordination “a celebration of God’s faithfulness to and through her over the years, as well as a meaningful, formal affirmation of her gifts and calling for ministry in the church.”

Eunice’s son, Rev. Dr. Gordon Smith, President of Ambrose University College, declared that Eunice’s ordination affirms the seeds planted through her teaching and preaching of the Scriptures, anointed by the Holy Spirit.

Eshet Chayil! A woman of valour!

 

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, at a philosophical level, 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.

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.