What Evangelicals Can Learn from George Lindbeck

Here's why one of the leaders of postliberalism believed conservative Protestants would carry the torch.
What Evangelicals Can Learn from George Lindbeck
Image: Gabe Cooney / Courtesy of Yale Divinity School

George Lindbeck, longtime professor of historical theology at Yale Divinity School, passed away on January 8. In evangelical circles he is best known as the author of The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Westminster Press, 1984) and as one of the two founding fathers of postliberal thought, the other being Hans Frei.

One important point of clarification is warranted at the outset. There remains a lot of uncertainty among evangelicals as to what exactly is “postliberalism.” Simply put: the “liberalism” in postliberalism is not meant to refer narrowly to progressive, leftish, revisionary thought per se. The target is, rather, those forms of broader modern liberalism which have produced certain ways of thinking about faith and the church which can be found in both conservative and in so-called “liberal” churches.

This is shown simply in the commitment to two priorities: (1) The priority of the rights and freedoms of the individual over those of the community and (2) The priority of the present experience of the individual in the moment over the past and over traditions.

Postliberals seek, in a host of ways, to resituate the individual more primarily in community and in tradition(s), correcting the distortions that they see in both right and left forms of “liberalism.” The current political situation and the way that so many Christians have ambivalence (rightly so) about both the “right” and the “left” is evidence of how relevant postliberal thought continues to be on this score. There remains a lot that evangelicals can learn from George Lindbeck.

Constructive Criticism

The notion that evangelicals have much to learn may seem condescending, but George Lindbeck was a walking antithesis to condescension. The online tributes to his patient and gracious teaching style are on display in abundance. I was also an occasional recipient of his generosity as I pursued advanced degree work at Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto in the late ’90s and early ’00s. He patiently entertained my questions in writing and in person and facilitated visits for me to Yale as I was researching Hans Frei and postliberal thought. In the process, I came to discover that Lindbeck was a fan of evangelicals.

Lindbeck was the keynote speaker at the 1995 Wheaton College Theology Conference: “Evangelicals and Postliberals in Conversation.” Lindbeck famously closed the event with this cryptic comment:

I have not expressed fully enough my enormous gratitude for this conference. I will also say that if the sort of research program represented by postliberalism has a real future as a communal enterprise of the church, it’s more likely to be carried on by evangelicals than anyone else.

In 2002, I had the opportunity to press Lindbeck on why he said this at a dinner event for Wycliffe doctoral students. His response to my query was immediate: “Their unwavering commitment to the authority of Scripture.” I then followed up: “What is it that you think stands as the biggest challenge that prevents them from carrying on the postliberal project?” He paused a long time—his pauses were legendary, but they were indicative of the care and intentionality he took when he spoke. He eventually said: “Their unwillingness or inability to be self-critical about the ways in which they undertake and express that commitment.”

This is the first lesson I would like to emphasize: Lindbeck’s work offers evangelicalism significant resources from which to be self-critical about how the Bible is read and thought about, both with respect to biblical studies and to the work of dogmatic theology.

A Valuable Perspective

Lindbeck’s life gave him unique experiences and skills which equipped him well to speak to the church in the United States and for the work he pursued. He was born and grew up in China, as a child of missionaries. He, by necessity, from the earliest age, had to learn how to analyze, assess, and negotiate the contrasts and conflicts between cultural and religious worldviews.

These personal experiences gave him unique eyes to see where Christianity in the West was beholden more to a tradition of Western thought than to the Scripture or to the Christian tradition. In this regard, Lindbeck’s work in the evangelical’s library would be quite fittingly placed alongside that of Lesslie Newbigin, and, I would suggest, should be read and appreciated similarly.

While Lindbeck’s best-known work is The Nature of Doctrine, there is one must-read article for evangelicals which expresses what he believes the reading of Scripture should look like. It is titled “Atonement and the Hermeneutics of Intratextual Social Embodiment.” The bark of this title is far worse than its bite; it is accessible.

This article summarizes what a postliberal hermeneutic looks like. It emphasizes, for one, the priority of practice over theory, which means that human beings learn how to do things by doing them. Methodological reflection on doing things only works well after one has already learned how to do something, at least in a cursory fashion.

For Lindbeck, reading Scripture in a postliberal mode also means that we must take two things seriously: First, our deeply shared traditions in learning how to read Scripture, acknowledging that they already function with authority in the practices we have learned. Pre-modern ways of reading, especially figural reading, are not only fruitful but necessary. Second, we also have to consciously locate our reading of Scripture in the context of our faith community, submitting whatever the Bible would say to me as an individual or my personal experiences to the more primary setting of God speaking to the community.

The good news is that the hermeneutical postliberal seeds are bearing fruit among evangelicals. The work of Kevin Vanhoozer and Daniel Treier have born much of the fruit of evangelicals working through modes of hermeneutical self-criticism. More recently, the important proposals from Scott Swain and Michael Allen (RTS Orlando) on a “Reformed Catholicity” also carry on the tradition of evangelicalism in ways that also glean lessons from this aspect of postliberal thought. Another sign that evangelicals are undertaking the kind of self-criticism Lindbeck hoped for is the growing popularity and embrace of the work of James K. A. Smith, whose work is deeply indebted to postliberal thought.

Generous Orthodoxy

A second lesson that Lindbeck offers evangelicals is a model for understanding how the biblical virtues should manifest themselves in one’s vocation, especially in the vocation of theologians and biblical scholars. A phrase rightly attributed to Hans Frei but also used by Lindbeck is “generous orthodoxy.” Generosity is actually a larger theme for postliberals that one sees saturating the life, writing, teaching, and work of both Lindbeck and Frei, as well as their students. I have met and interviewed and read the work of dozens of their former students. There is an unusually consistent spirit of generosity which they embody. In the classroom, they encourage the careful, fair, and patient reading of authors, before imposing categories and criticisms too quickly.

Generous orthodoxy also means that one embodies biblical virtues as a theologian and as a biblical scholar as one encounters those who come from other traditions. Patience, long-suffering, gentleness, kindness; these are the attributes which Lindbeck strongly argued should be apparent in the theological scholar’s life and work. There is something rather obvious—even a truism here—that stands in stark contrast to much of the history of evangelical scholarship.

There is good news on that front also: In recent decades, evangelical theologians have become more generous in mode and disposition, more ecumenically minded, and more patient in their stance toward non-evangelicals. This is embodied clearly in places like Wheaton, Fuller Seminary, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando. Even the most casual of dustings will uncover the fingerprints of Lindbeck and Frei in the work of theologians in those places.

Lindbeck’s Typology

The final lesson I would like to highlight takes us finally to his classic work The Nature of Doctrine. The lesson offered is for evangelical theologians and pastors to be more deeply self-critical about the frames of classic liberalism which still often direct how the task of doing theology and preaching is viewed and undertaken.

First of all, a point of clarification: George Lindbeck had a very small and specific audience in mind when he wrote The Nature of Doctrine. It was designed to be read as a kind of therapy specifically for intra-Christian ecumenical dialogue. When he wrote it, he assumed that those reading it will be mutually committed to all of the shared creedal truths of the Christian faith. It was not meant to be a proposal for an all-encompassing theory for making religious truth claims but, rather, an intramural Christian conversation about secondary matters of faith.

This is not how The Nature of Doctrine is usually read. It is read as a broadly programmatic piece on religious epistemology and on the general conditions of all religious truth claims. Indeed, the grain of its composition and the tide of its reading flows so strongly in this direction that Lindbeck remarked at the Toronto meetings that he had come to often find himself reading it that way.

Why is this important? Lindbeck is often accused of being an anti-realist or constructivist, the idea that truth claims humans make are simply ones that we make up and “construct” ourselves with no real relationship with the way things really are. These critics point to Lindbeck’s illustration of the Christian crusader, who cries out “Christus est Dominus” (Christ is Lord) just as he cleaves the skull of an infidel as an example of this.

Lindbeck argues that this statement, Christus est Dominus, is not “true” because the action undertaken here is inconsistent with what Lindbeck understands the lordship of Christ to look like in the character of the actions of the crusader. In other words, it is an untrue expression of Christ’s lordship. Lindbeck is read as if he is saying that somehow the general truth that Jesus is Christ and Lord somehow depends on how we individually conduct ourselves in light of that truth. This would make the truth relative to our actions. That is not what Lindbeck intended.

Again, the framework for the book is that all those who read it are already committed to the truths of the creeds. Lindbeck was trying to address secondary kinds of truth, on which we might disagree as Christians. So in the example of the crusader, it is meant as a way of opening up a discussion about what Christ’s lordship should look like in faithful practice assuming that everyone in this conversation is already committed to the truths we all confess in the creeds. Lindbeck himself has admitted that, in the way he undertakes the discussion, he handled the questions “poorly,” “contradicted himself,” and that this is “a major problem with the book.”

With that clarification out of the way, the main lesson offered by The Nature of Doctrine to evangelicals comes in his analysis of the dominance of “liberal” forms of theologizing. He creates a typology. Think of this as a line with two endpoints. At the right end are those who see theology as simply a matter of sorting out cognitive ideas and propositional truths. At the other end of the line, the left end, are those who see theology as about what Lindbeck calls the “experiential expressivist” dimension. What he means here are those who see theology and faith as solely expressions of one’s experience of God or Christ or the Spirit or some such. His third type is those who seek to combine the two in some way and would fall somewhere along the line between the first two.

What defines this line is the way in which all positions on it, from one end to the other, are committed to a form of modern liberalism which, as we noted above, prioritizes the individual and the present. So the faith of the individual who reasons with and accepts propositional truths in the present at one end and the experience of the individual, also in the present, at the other are both dependent on liberalism as are the attempts to combine the two somewhere along the line in between.

Postliberal thought seeks to set out the question of theology and faith according to a new line, one that approaches the question from a completely different angle. Imagine a line perpendicular to that above and you will get the idea. This postliberal line begins from a place that both prioritizes history and tradition over the present moment and prioritizes the community over the individual.

This helps us, for one, to set postliberalism in contrast to the recent post-conservative movement which has emerged among evangelicals. From our analysis here, post-conservative theologians and popular expressions of such in some emergent-type movements, insofar as these still place priority on the experience of the individual and in the present over traditions, are still liberal. From the standpoint of postliberalism, they should not be read as the evangelical counterpart to what postliberalism was and is attempting to accomplish.

Admittedly, all of this can be hard intellectual and imaginative work. This is, in many ways, the final but also ultimate lesson Lindbeck continues to offer evangelicals. This remains as timely, relevant, and even urgent a lesson as it was when Lindbeck wrote The Nature of Doctrine 35 years ago.

And once again, there are hopeful signs. There is an explosion of interest among evangelicals in the pre-modern and patristic periods evidenced in, for example, the Wheaton Center for Early Christian Studies, and the growing interest among evangelicals in pre-modern practices of biblical interpretation. Evangelicals who are receptive to and seek to appropriate the work of such writers as Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and others also direct theological reflection in the same tidal movements as postliberalism.

Postliberal evangelicalism is also alive and well in places like the Anglican Church in North America, in places like Wycliffe College, Regent College in Vancouver, Nashotah House, and the Robert E. Webber Center at Trinity School for Ministry and their annual Ancient Futures conference as well as in the work of those evangelical schools and theologians noted above and so many more.

Lindbeck was a remarkable and faithful Christian, father, husband, mentor, author, and teacher. The lessons and tools he leaves behind are, by his own opinion, uniquely powerful in the hands of evangelicals. The good news is that those lessons are being learned and the tools employed. Let’s pray with Lindbeck that they continue to bear their fruit in season. And let’s give thanks to Christ our Lord and Savior for the life and work of George Lindbeck.

Mark Bowald is General Editor of Christian Scholar's Review, Lecturer at Tyndale Seminary, Toronto and Theologian in Residence at St. James Anglican Church in Paris, Ontario. He co-edited Reading Faithfully: Writings of Hans Frei from the Archives (Cascade Books) and his Rendering the Word in Theological Hermeneutics: Mapping Divine and Human Agency was recently republished with Lexham Press.

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What Evangelicals Can Learn from George Lindbeck