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The Church in a Postliberal Age
by George A. Lindbeck
edited by James J. Buckley
Eerdmans, 300 Pages, $27

George Lindbeck was almost predestined to eminence in the fields of ecumenism and interreligious dialogue. After living his first seventeen years in China as the son of missionary parents, he received a strong Lutheran education in Minnesota. Then as a graduate student at Yale he wrote a doctoral dissertation on Duns Scotus. At Vatican II he was one of several observer delegates appointed by the Lutheran World Federation. Thereafter he taught many years at Yale, becoming an emeritus professor in 1993. As a teacher he formed a generation of outstanding theologians. He also participated in innumerable dialogues, especially with Roman Catholics. For some years he was the Lutheran cochairman of the Lutheran/Roman Catholic Joint Commission.

Lindbeck has written only a few books, and those rather brief. The Future of Roman Catholic Theology (1970) was his reflection on the achievements of Vatican II. Then in 1984 he published The Nature of Doctrine, which attracted considerable attention.

The Church in a Postliberal Age is a collection of fourteen of Lindbeck’s articles. The editor, James J. Buckley, is a former student of Lindbeck and a Catholic. He has provided introductory notes and references to other works of Lindbeck for the benefit of scholars who may wish to investigate the author’s thought more deeply. The editing is splendid except for an inordinate number of misprints, especially in proper names and in foreign words. The author habitually uses Latin terms without regard to gender and case.

Lindbeck as an ecumenist puts to himself the question: How can religious groups that have long disagreed come to agreement without repudiating their previous positions, as Lutherans and Catholics seem to have done, for example, in the 1999 Joint Declaration on Justification? Lindbeck is not so much interested in what the parties agree to as in the howthat is, the method by which differences may be overcome.

As an answer Lindbeck proposes an original theory of doctrine. In the past, he thinks, doctrines were generally understood as truth-claims about objective reality. This is what he calls the cognitive-propositionalist position. In modern theology doctrines are often understood as noninformative symbols that express deep human experiences of the divinethe position that Lindbeck designates as “experiential-expressivist.” Seeking to transcend both of these positions, he proposes what he calls the “cultural-linguistic” theory of doctrine. Summarized in my own words, the theory amounts to something like this: doctrine is the way in which adherents are socialized into a particular religious group. It is a “deep grammar,” enabling members of the community to think, speak, and act as members. So conceived, doctrine is not a mere medium for transmitting some antecedent truth or reality, nor is it the expression of an experience that is independent of the doctrine itself. The linguistic system is inseparable from the content and shapes the experience for those who submit to its power.

Lindbeck credits a number of thinkers for contributing to his theory. Theologically he is indebted to Karl Barth; philosophically, to Ludwig Wittgenstein. He also owes debts to the cultural anthropology of Clifford Geertz and to the theory of scientific revolutions excogitated by Thomas Kuhn. At Yale, Lindbeck stands close to several colleagues: the late Hans Frei, the exegete Brevard Childs, and the theologian David Kelsey, who are sometimes grouped together as the “Yale School.”

Although his mentors and colleagues are not Lutheran, the cultural-linguistic theory, as Lindbeck propounds it, is recognizably Lutheran in the irenic tradition of Melanchthon. Lindbeck, for example, accepts the sola Scriptura. For him Scripture is the basic Christian document, and tradition is the self-transmission of the biblical word. Since God’s identity is unknown except through His scripturally witnessed dealings with the world, says Lindbeck, the Bible is the primary lens though which the believer sees the world. It founds a universe of discourse and provides a comprehensive framework for construing the whole of reality.

The Lutheran sola fide, as Lindbeck appropriates it, is a trusting response to the promises contained in the word of God. The believer remains a sinner, simul iustus et peccator, because, as Luther put it, “we do not yet have our goodness in re, but in fide et spe.” Lindbeck attacks Karl Rahner for overemphasizing implicit faith and failing to recognize that all faith is ex auditu. But unlike the Lutherans of old, Lindbeck applies his principle of “faith from hearing” to non-Christians. They live by explicit faith in the doctrines embedded in their respective religions and cultures.

The Church, for Lindbeck, is not the sacrament of salvation, as Vatican II would have it, but is a humble creatura Verbi. Lindbeck defines the Church in terms of its human element as congregatio fidelium. From this perspective he can say that the Church is, in Lutheran language, simul iusta et peccatrix. It cannot claim to be immune to sin. Like other Lutherans, Lindbeck is on guard against complacency, arrogance, and triumphalism. As for the Church’s mission, it is not to save souls but to be a faithfully witnessing people.

Lindbeck finds Christianity at a unique juncture in its history. What he calls “Constantinian” Christianitya term he apparently equates with cultural Christianity and Christendomhas definitively collapsed. The Church, he says, is everywhere in a state of diaspora. As the world becomes progressively more secularized, the Church cannot maintain its identity except by becoming in some ways sectarian. “The religion of the future,” according to Lindbeck, “will become not only more religious, but more sectarian.” Avoiding all accommodation, Christians will do well to form “a Christian internationale of sect-like groups passionately committed to the sacrificial service of mankind.”

Lindbeck faults the ecumenism of official bureaucracies for weakening the churches by adapting them to an increasingly nonreligious society. In its place he calls for an ecumenical sectarianism. Appealing to his cultural-linguistic theory of doctrine, he maintains that the doctrinal controversies of the past can now be surmounted. Each doctrine functions as part of a system, which takes on different shapes in changing contexts. “Dogmas, from this point of view, are statements which seek to summarize, defend, or explicate those aspects of the symbol or action systems of the community which are seen as particularly important within a given situation.”

Lindbeck illustrates this with his account of the dogma of papal infallibility. It was formulated in extreme language by Vatican I, he believes, under the influence of seventeenth-century monarchical absolutism and the nineteenth-century cult of personality. Since Vatican II there has been a “demise of papalism among the better theologians, and eventually, one may suppose, though at much longer term, in all parts of the Church.” It is now generally conceded, Lindbeck writes (in an essay of 1972), “that the conciliarism of the Constance decree Haec sancta has as good a historical claim to dogmatic status as Pastor aeternus itself.” To judge from the references, the “better theologians” turn out to be authors such as Brian Tierney, Francis Oakley (whose name is misspelled), and Hans Küng.

The key to reconciliation in Lindbeck’s ecumenical theology seems to be a recognition that doctrines are practical directives correlated with particular historical situations. Interpreted in this way, they need not be seen as excluding their own logical contradictories, because the contradictory doctrine was formulated in, and is correlative to, a different situation. Thus the Augustinian sola gratia, which holds for intrinsic justification, was formulated in opposition to Pelagianism. It need not be seen as negating the Lutheran sola fide, which regards justification as extrinsic, since the latter was formulated late in the Middle Ages to relieve the consciences of people oppressed by a sense of sin.

In other passages Lindbeck argues that the Catholic doctrine of magisterial infallibility, as currently understood, differs so little from some Protestant denials of magisterial infallibility that the difference need not be seen as a barrier to full communion between the churches. Reconciled diversity for Lindbeck does not demand agreed doctrinal formulations.

Lindbeck reports that he has repeatedly found that the old propositional and symbolic construals of doctrine no longer apply to the current situation. “Light dawns when one uses a new category (church doctrines as instantiations of regulative principles within a cultural-linguistic system).”

In several essays Lindbeck extends his irenicism to Jewish-Christian relations. Strongly opposed to supersessionism as he defines it, he holds that the New Israel is not a people distinct from the Old Israel, but simply an extension or enlargement of the Old. The New Covenant permits Gentile Christians to be included in the covenant with Abraham. The light of the Messianic dawn shines more brightly in the Church than in Israel, whether before or after Christ, but this does not mean that Christians have found an easier path to salvation. They have a greater responsibility and a greater potential for infidelity.

Having shown that Christians have no grounds for exalting themselves over Jews, Lindbeck does much the same for their relationship to the nonbiblical religions. Christians are tempted to think that because they believe in Christ as universal Savior, theirs is a higher religion. Lindbeck, however, opts for a basic equalityor so it seems. As regards salvation, he reminds his readers that God can use any means He wishes to save whomever He chooses. Christians should get over their fixation on salvation, which has been used to justify unwelcome proselytization. They should attempt a non-soteriological approach with a view to establishing amicable relations with nonbiblical peoples.

As appears from this cursory survey, Lindbeck’s essays contain much food for reflection. He goes to unusual lengths to be fair to others, taking full account of their particular points of view. Within this perspectivalism he finds it possible to maintain his own Christian and Lutheran allegiance.

I am enthusiastic about many aspects of the Lindbeck project. In particular, I agree that society is being rapidly secularized and that the churches must take on certain sectarian features in order to transmit their heritage to new members. The transmission requires induction into the stories and symbol-systems of the churches; it calls for experiences of prayer and worship. The cultural-linguistic theory of revelation has the great value of pointing out that religious knowledge is never a matter of mere information. The believer is not a mere spectator but a participant in the reality that is believed. Since religious doctrine is comprehensible only from within, it requires a suitable spiritual preparation.

For Lindbeck, the truth of Christianity (and of any confessional tradition) is predominantly intrasystemic. Within the Christian framework he affirms the Lutheran solus Christus (sometimes phrasing it rather oddly as sola Christi). But he refrains from saying that God is in Himself triune, or that the Son of God is really a divine person. The rhetoric of Lindbeck, if not his actual thought, seems to undercut the missionary enterprise. In an effort to achieve an interreligious dialogue without tension, he ends by making dialogue rather bland.

Lindbeck’s resolution of intra-Christian doctrinal disputes is likewise too facile. His accounts of the true meaning of papal primacy and infallibility, overinfluenced by authors such as Hans Küng and Thomas Kuhn, are reductive, as is his interpretation of the Lutheran sola fide. It would be better to deny the doctrines than to explain them so relativistically.

In agreement with Lindbeck’s editor, I do not see the cultural-linguistic approach as antithetical to the propositional. If we are to worship, speak, and behave as though the Son of God were himself God (as Lindbeck rightly affirms), is it not because the Son really and ontologically is God, whether anyone believes it or not? By inserting the homoousion in the creed, the Council of Nicaea was indeed laying down a linguistic stipulation; but more importantly, it was declaring an objective truth.

As Michael Polanyi shows at length, the depiction of language as a set of convenient symbols used according to the conventional rules of a “language game” is deceptive. Against Wittgenstein, Polanyi argues that we cannot intelligently debate about linguistic rules unless we are conjointly aware of the subject matter to which the words refer. To substitute grammatical debates for debates about the things meant is to obfuscate the necessary connection between meaningful language and reality.

Lindbeck would doubtless call to my attention the utter mysteriousness of the divine. The mystery I concede, but not to the extent of endorsing agnosticism. Something like the medieval doctrine of analogy needs to be revived in order to show how our most positive statements about God have a negative component. They cannot be rightly understood except by persons who undergo a kind of mystagogy, enabling them to glimpse the transcendent through concepts derived from finite things. While rightly rejecting univocal literalism, Lindbeck seriously undermines, if he does not dismiss, the propositional truth of dogma.

Like Lindbeck and Polanyi, I wish to overcome the limitations of the liberal or critical program without falling into modernist subjectivism. But Lindbeck’s own program concedes too much to postmodernist relativism. I would hope that he could amend his cultural-linguistic theory to give greater attention to the capacity of religious language to disclose the reality of God.

Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J. holds the Laurence J. McGinley Chair in Religion and Society at Fordham University.

Photo by Caleb Roenigk licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.