As a college student studying theology in the 1990s, I was inspired by many great theologians of the past, but rather less inspired by those of the present. Theology programs at elite universities often seemed to present the Christian faith as a kind of shag-carpeted, Woodstock version of the real thing. It seemed to me that the theologian was more often asked to accommodate the faith to its cultured despisers in this liberal age than asked to understand it. As a young evangelical, I was looking for theologians who could help me break the stranglehold of liberal Protestantism and its faithless idea of religion as purely personal “sentiment.” That’s when I discovered George Lindbeck.
Born in 1923 to Lutheran missionaries in China, George Lindbeck would spend the first seventeen years of his life abroad, and most of the rest of his life at Yale University. Having studied under Etienne Gilson in Toronto and Paul Vignaux in Paris, he wrote his dissertation on the concept of being in Duns Scotus. This was the work of an historical theologian, reconstructing the thought of the past for its own sake, but it was also timely given the recent Continental turn away from being toward “becoming,” and the so-called “linguistic turn” of Anglo-American philosophy. Soon after Yale hired him as an assistant professor, Lindbeck was asked to be one of the Lutheran observers at the newly convened Second Vatican Council. He took his young family to live in Rome for a year of the Council, and it’s fair to say it changed the trajectory of his life’s work. It was in Rome that he first began to puzzle over how Christian unity could be achieved “without doctrinal capitulation,” as he would put it two decades later in his 1984 block-buster The Nature of Doctrine: Theology and Religion in a Postliberal Age.
As every graduate student in theology would learn in the last quarter of the twentieth century, Lindbeck saw two dominant approaches to religion and theology. The first he called the “cognitive-propositionalist” model—an intellectual approach to theology that dominated for most of Christian history, named for its assumption that theology concerns intellectual assent to propositions which correspond with reality. The second he called the “experiential-expressivist” model for its assumption that theology and religion are essentially attempts to give adequate expression to “religious experience.” These were objective and subjective poles, the former typified by Aquinas, the latter gaining prominence with Schleiermacher. It was a smarter typology than “conservative” and “liberal.” Like many of those seeking a “post-liberal politics” today, Lindbeck was seeking a way beyond an impasse. But his primary aim in developing a “third way” was to open a path for ecclesial theology to reenter the university.
Using a sophisticated array of philosophical tools—most notably the work of baptized Catholics Ludwig Wittgenstein and Alasdair MacIntyre, as well as cultural anthropologists like Clifford Geertz—Lindbeck proposed a new and improved hybrid he called the “cultural-linguistic” approach. This view asked that we look at Christianity (and all religion) as a language and a culture. Borrowing from Wittgenstein, Lindbeck saw theology as an investigation into a “language-game” that is only intelligible through communal usage over the long run. It was a new way of saying lex orandi, lex credendi. Unlike the experiential-expressivist model, Lindbeck claimed that the law of believing is not derived from individual religious experience, but from how a religious community speaks and lives a “narrative” over time. Lindbeck personally inclined more to the older, propositional approach, but he was epistemically apophatic about the truth-conditions of any individual proposition. It was only through the total coherence of a religious community’s doctrines, embedded in their sacred narrative and way of life, that we could hope for correspondence to transcendent reality. The “cultural-linguistic” model constituted a genuine third way because it claimed that coherentist and correspondence theories of truth need not oppose each other, since a coherentist thesis could eventually be said to correspond to reality as a kind of lived proposition.
As a young theologian, I found this theory mind-blowing. I could see its potential for recovering older approaches to theology that had been long excluded from the universities. Like parallel trends in Catholic theology, it promised a ressourcement, a bridge back to the coherence of patristic and medieval theology. Yet I also feared what I took to be a kind of skepticism in Lindbeck’s third way, perhaps owing to his basic post-Kantian, post-Barthian standpoint.
Yet Lindbeck’s approach posed great challenges to liberal ideas of religion as some “universal feeling about the ultimate.” With his Yale colleague Hans Frei, he forced academic theologians to face the particularity of Jesus Christ and his Church. I liked that he asked Christians “to live the biblical narrative,” to see the scriptures “absorbing the world” rather than the world using the scriptures to suit its own political needs. I liked that Lindbeck required a return to the particularity of ancient Christian traditions, beliefs, and practices in an internally consistent way. If only I could shake my nagging worry about a kind of fideism latent within it.
I wanted to believe Bruce Marshall’s influential response to those who claimed that Lindbeck was a “nominalist” on his way to a profound skepticism about universal truth claims. Marshall’s defense, accepted by Lindbeck, was that Lindbeck was simply a Lutheran version of the modest and moderate realist, an analytical Thomist in the best sense—metaphysically reserved. But the more I studied Augustine, and began to cut my teeth on Aquinas, the more I wondered whether Christian theology could afford a metaphysically lean grammatical approach to truths about divine and human nature. The cultural-linguistic model tended to make everything turn on the coherence of a community’s way of signifying reality, while deferring questions about the reality signified.
This provoked something of a crisis within me as a young theologian. Was post-liberal theology simply the latest attempt to defer questions of truth and being? Was I being asked, yet again, to profess my faith only on the Kantian precondition that I admit all truths about God—if there are any—to be irreducibly subjective? Was this not, after all, just an extremely sophisticated, narrativized, communal adaptation of sola fide?
The First Vatican Council’s Dei Filius proclaims that it is an essential proposition of the Catholic Faith that the unaided intellect is capable of knowing that God exists. This is an intelligible proposition that is either true or false. One can give rational demonstrations of God’s existence and nature which are intelligible, even if one withholds assent to such propositions. But under Lindbeck’s theory, the claim of Dei Filius concerning natural knowledge of God was precisely and only a communal-linguistic claim on faith, and not “the mind’s adequation to objective reality.” It was a problem for Lindbeck’s theory that communal tradition itself might reject a key aspect of it.
As an historical theologian, Lindbeck was trained to make sense of the coherence of claims in a living tradition. But as a systematic theologian, these claims constantly raised for me challenging metaphysical questions. If I needed to understand and to teach disputes about “nature and grace,” I was going to need a metaphysically robust account of nature. If I needed to understand and teach disputes about “the analogy of being,” treating being as a mere concept, or grammar, just wasn’t going to help me understand the coherence of the claims. If I needed to understand and teach Christological controversies over Christ’s two natures in the hypostatic union, I was going to need to understand metaphysically bold propositions about “hypostases.” If I needed to understand and teach the coherence of the mysteries of Christian faith, such as transubstantiation, or the Trinity as three subsistent persons in one “ousia,” then I simply could not afford a lean metaphysics. Could Christian truth-claims be established as internally coherent solely on the analogy of a grammar? Increasingly, I answered that question in the negative.
The Church has always taken the realist view. We are made to know the truth. The world is intrinsically intelligible. And the law of non-contradiction helps us to demonstrate that we are capable of making distinctions which correspond to reality. In its fundamental theology, the Church Catholic holds to the proposition that God’s existence can be known apart from revelation, apart from the act of faith, by a causal analysis of being which leads us to certain knowledge, from created effects to causes, and from causes to an uncaused cause, which we can call God. This is more than a grammar. Against Kantian and other forms of skepticism, the Church teaches that reason can arrive at true natural knowledge of God, mixed with error to be sure, but certain knowledge of reality itself. All of this led me to think that Lindbeck’s theory was inadequate to the task of theology.
Still, I am thankful for the bridge that Lindbeck built. He helped me to think about the coherence of the claims of the Catholic faith. Most importantly, he helped me to think about “doctrinal development” not as a change in the “faith delivered once for all,” but as the intra-systematic unfolding of the very givenness of supernaturally revealed truth. Lindbeck’s “rule-theory,” too, helped me to think about the very nature of the ecumenical councils, like the one Lindbeck attended, as akin to “following a rule,” and unfolding the treasure of the riches that the Church has received from Christ and his apostles.
Despite my philosophical and theological criticisms of his method, I came to appreciate something Anselmian in Lindbeck: fides quarens intellectum, faith seeking understanding. I came to see his coherentism-as-correspondence account of theology as itself the expression of his faith that truth must be beautiful, and when we see how things cohere, we will also see the truth.
Since my conversion to the Catholic Faith I have thought a great deal about how odd it is that, by divine providence, George Lindbeck, the Lutheran, built an unexpected bridge for me to the Catholic Church—a bridge that was built out of as many agreements as disagreements. He was against individual conversions, but he did think ecumenism was impossible apart from the Catholic Church. Though he stood silent before the call to return to it, the Catholic Church hovers over every step of his journey. As a Lutheran, he tirelessly worked for Christian unity, and was animated by a genuine love and even reverence for the Catholic Church.
This is partly why it is so amazing and even mysterious to me that so many of his students—and his grand-students—have taken that strange, short swim across the Tiber. While many remained hung up on his methodology, and fell back into basic liberal theological postures, Lindbeck’s best students, not a few of them postliberal converts to Catholicism, followed him into the deeper waters.
If we are now to praise George Lindbeck, and pray for his eternal rest, what are we to make of the enduring significance of his thought? It is a difficult question. Though he never set out to found a school, it is fair to say that if there ever was one, it no longer exists. The Nature of Doctrine remains a useful pedagogical text, but “narrative theology” or “postliberal theology” is surely gone.
Yet I dare to say that something of the old Yale school remains, and has been sustained discreetly by many of those “postliberal” converts. One curious commonality, which I think would have fascinated Lindbeck, is that many of them have turned to the thought of Matthias Scheeben.
Revisiting a mostly forgotten German “manualist” theologian of the nineteenth century seems a most unlikely turn, and yet it is one that Lindbeck’s most famous student, Bruce Marshall, has recommended, and others such as Reinhard Hütter, Michael Root, and myself have taken it up as well. Why? It is a question I have often asked myself. Why do those who were formed by Lindbeck become Catholic and turn to Scheeben?
One reason could be that Scheeben greatly stresses the coherence and inter-relation of all Christian truth-claims. He was not primarily a theologian of any one school. He was working out the logical entailments of revelation, looking for the intra-coherence of Christian “mysteries” (revealed doctrines), and uniting the best insights from all the Church Fathers, medieval schoolmen, and later commentators, to bear witness to the Triune God.
Scheeben unites what Lindbeck would call the cognitive-propositional approach of the Roman school (broadly Thomistic) with the more romantic approach of the Tübingen school (more communal than individualistic, or “cultural-linguistic” than “experiential-expressivist”). Yet unlike Lindbeck, Scheeben never plunges the reader into endless hermeneutical or methodological disputes. Instead, Scheeben plunges the reader into just what Lindbeck hoped his method would achieve: habitually true speech about God that unites the best insights of many schools in a single Tradition.
The return to Scheeben is, I think, a fitting development. Lindbeck actually wanted to free us from our modern methodological hang-ups. Though we associate him with rule-theory and models of religion, what Lindbeck really wanted was for theologians to be free to speak about God in the university again. He wanted to give theologians the courage to do theology again, rather than just talk about how we are going to do it. The turn to Scheeben represents the fulfillment of that wish.
Despite my disagreements with Lindbeck, I feel only enormous gratitude to him on the occasion of his death. He built a bridge. For some, that bridge led back to new chapters of old liberal theology, but for others it led to the repair of ecclesial division, and the renewal of theology in the university. I hope he is now in heaven praying that each of us will go the whole way across the bridge he built, and return to dogmatic theology in the university without metaphysical reserve.
May God rest his soul, and let perpetual light shine upon him.
C. C. Pecknold is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at The Catholic University of America.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?