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Lindbeck, George


George A. Lindbeck and Postliberal Theology (Joas Adiprasetya, 2005)

George Lindbeck (1923- ) (Grant D. Miller Francisco, 1999)

George Lindbeck and the New Yale School: Mann's Quick Notes (Mark Mann, 1997)

George A. Lindbeck and Postliberal Theology

Joas Adiprasetya, 2005


Life and Career

George A. Lindbeck (1923- ) was born in China, the son of Lutheran missionaries who were Americans of Swedish descent. He went to school in China and Korea until he attended Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota. After receiving his B.A. from Gustavus in 1943, he moved to New Haven, Connecticut, where he received both a B.D. (1946) and Ph.D. (1955) from Yale University. In the process of completing his doctoral research, Lindbeck went to Toronto and Paris to study with Étienne Gilson and Paul Vignaux, two eminent scholars of medieval thought. Lindbeck’s dissertation focused on the issues of essence and existence in the philosophical theology of John Duns Scotus. In 1952, while still pursuing his doctoral degree, he was appointed to the Yale faculty, where he remained until his retirement in 1993. In the last years of his teaching at Yale, Lindbeck became the Pitkin Professor of Historical Theology.

Lindbeck is perhaps best known for his extensive reflections on and engagement in ecumenical dialogue. Because of his expertise as a medievalist, he was invited as an observer to the four sessions of the Second Vatican Council, representing the Lutheran World Federation (LWF). Ever since the years of the council, Lindbeck has continuously devoted his career to ecumenical dialogue, especially between Lutheran and Roman Catholic churches. His two first books, The Future of Roman Catholic Theology (1971) and Infallibility (1972), along with numerous articles in many journals, reflect his interest in and commitment to the doctrinal reconciliation of divided confessions. He has also been active in many joint study commissions of Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue, both nationally and internationally. Lindbeck’s longstanding engagement with the ecumenical movement finally crystallized in his seminal work, The Nature of Doctrine: Religions and Theology in a Postliberal Age (1984; hereafter ND). This book has positioned Lindbeck, along with his former colleague Hans Frei, as one of the most prominent leaders of postliberalism or the so-called “New Yale School” of theology.

In the last decade, Lindbeck’s postliberal position has also received a great deal of attention from evangelicals in the USA. In 1995, for instance, Lindbeck and George Hunsinger, another advocate of postliberalism, were invited to engage in conversation with evangelical theologians as part of the Wheaton Theology Conference. In the last panel discussion of the conference Lindbeck expressed his conviction 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” (Phillips & Okholm 1996, 253).


Cultural-Linguistic Approach

At the beginning of The Nature of Doctrine, Lindbeck promised his readers that this book would be prolegomenal to a larger work on the doctrinal agreements and disagreements among Christian confessions (ND, 8). Although the promised work has yet to appear, The Nature of Doctrine subsequently claimed its own special position within theological discourse. According to Ronald Thiemann, “theologians from various theological schools, who rarely talk to one another,” have been “engaged in serious theological conversation about this book and its provocative ideas” (1986, 377).

Lindbeck informs us that his postliberal proposal is focused on intra-Christian theological and ecumenical issues, yet the project is theoretically derived from philosophical and social-scientific approaches (ND, 7). According to Lindbeck, the insertion of non-theological methods into theological discourse is unavoidable because, “A theory of religion and doctrine cannot be ecumenically useful unless it is nonecumenically plausible” (ND, 8). In particular, Lindbeck draws on recent anthropology (especially Clifford Geertz) and philosophy of language (Ludwig Wittgenstein) to support his understanding of the nature of religion, one that he calls a “cultural-linguistic” approach. He believes his proposal could remedy the impasse left by two previous approaches: traditional “cognitive-propositionalism,” for which ecclesial doctrines function as propositional truth claims objectively pointing to realities, and modern “experiential-expressivism,” which holds doctrines to be non-discursive expressions of inward experiences or existential orientations. Lindbeck argues that many Roman Catholic theologians such as Karl Rahner and Bernard Lonergan attempt to combine both approaches in their understanding of church doctrines. The success of Lindbeck’s post-liberal theology unquestionably relies on its plausibility as a critique of and alternative to liberal theology. This is why in The Nature of Doctrine Lindbeck’s main interlocutor is the “experiential expressivism” found predominantly in liberal theologies.

In his understanding of doctrines as “communally authoritative rules of discourse, attitude and action” (ND, 18), Lindbeck offers a new alternative for dealing with ecumenical disagreements as well as interreligious conflict over truth claims. With this approach, Lindbeck thinks that “reconciliation without capitulation” among different and competing claims is possible (ND, 18).

Using Geertz’s terms, Lindbeck defines religion as the “comprehensive interpretive scheme” through which people structure their experiences and construct their self-identity. Thus, while the experiential-expressive model understands external religious patterns to derive from an internally common experience, the cultural-linguistic approach of religion understands inner experience to derive from outer religious features. To be religious, in the postliberal perspective, therefore, is to “interiorize a set of skills [developed by the community through] practice and training” (ND, 35).

There are at least two consequences of this outer-inner reversal. First, innovation occurring in any religious community must be understood to proceed from the interaction of a cultural-linguistic system with its shifting milieu rather than from a change of its core experience. Second, a universally inner experience of the divine is no longer plausible, since all religious traditions are understood to be “radically … distinct ways of experiencing and being oriented toward self, neighbor, and cosmos” (ND, 40).

Although Lindbeck does not reject outright any comparison between traditions, he is unsympathetic to any attempt to show that different traditions “use overlapping sets of sounds or have common objects of reference” (ND, 41). On the contrary, a good comparison should concern itself with grammatical patterns, with ways of referring, and with semantic and syntactic structures (ND, 42). Thus, for instance, to say that all religions teach “love toward God” is obviously banal and uninteresting, since the utterance is not located within the “language game” of any particular religion. What matters is the pattern or grammar within which the words “love” and “God” receive their specific or contrasting meaning.


Three Types of Truth

Before discussing the nature of Lindbeck’s postliberal program or its application to certain issues, we need to examine his understanding of truth, which is central to his larger project. In The Nature of Doctrine, Lindbeck uses the word “truth” in three different senses: categorial, ontological, and intrasystematic. Categorial truth is the adequacy of an ordered set of categories to construe reality and order life. Lindbeck often equates this kind of truth with the notion of “grammar” or “language game” in Wittgensteinian terms. Moreover, Lindbeck seems to take a pragmatic turn when he argues that a religion is “categorially true” when it is “rightly utilized.” What matters to religion in the categorial sense is “how to be religious in such and such ways” (ND, 35). Lindbeck tries to relate categorial truth to ontological truth. He maintains, “The categorially and unsurpassably true religion is capable of being rightly utilized, of guiding thought, passions, and action in a way that corresponds to ultimate reality, and of thus being ontologically (and ‘propositionally’) true …” (ND, 52). A statement, therefore, cannot be ontologically (and propositionally) true if it is not in the first instance categorially true.

Obviously, Lindbeck needs to pay attention to the question of “ontological truth,” although in a strict and limited sense. For example, a statement such as “Christ is Lord” is not merely a categorial truth statement but an ontological one as well, since this concept is “alone adequate to what is indeed most lordly in reality” and “implicit in the conviction of believers” (ND, 63, 69). In order to avoid the cognitivist trap, however, Lindbeck distinguishes ontological truth from intrasystematic truth. While the former refers to truth that corresponds to reality through first-order propositions, the latter points to truth that coheres with whole forms of life. Although the affirmation “Christ is Lord” is an ontological truth statement (i.e., it is intended to correspond to the reality of lordship of Jesus Christ in the Christian life), it would be rendered false intrasystematically if “used to authorize cleaving the skull of the infidel,” because it would contradict “the Christian understanding of Lordship as embodying, for example, suffering servanthood” (ND, 64). In Lindbeck’s oft-quoted words,

[I]ntrasystematic truth or falsity is fundamental in the sense that it is a necessary though not sufficient condition for … ontological correspondence. A statement … cannot be ontologically true unless it is intrasystematically true, but intrasystematic truth is quite possible without ontological truth. (ND, 64)

Thus, the cultural-linguistic approach can accept the notion of ontological truths, not because they express first-order truths, as in the cognitivist approach, but because they “are second-order discourse about the first-intentional uses of religious language” used “to mold life through prayer, praise, preaching and exhortation” (ND, 69). Bruce D. Marshall helpfully summarizes Lindbeck’s understanding of categorial, ontological and intrasystematic truth in the following way: “Categorial and intrasystematic truth together are the necessary and sufficient conditions of ontological truth” (1989, 366).


Interrreligious Dialogue

Interestingly, Lindbeck discusses his understanding of truth within Nature of Doctrine’s chapter on religious plurality. He wants to convince us that, because interreligious encounter is a matter of truth claims, a clarification of the meaning(s) of truth should first be established. For Lindbeck, the notion of categorial truth provides a basis for arguing the incommensurability of the world religions; there is, he states, simply “no common framework … within which to compare religions” (ND, 49). In his judgment, both cognitivist and experiential-expressivist theories unsuccessfully recognize the uniqueness of other religious traditions, a failure which results from their very conception of truth. In the former approach, as with exclusivism, “the final religion must be exempt from error (for otherwise it could surpassed)” (ND, 49). In the latter approach, as with pluralism, the notion of “unsurpassably true” is hard to discover because various traditions are recognized as different expressions of the same basic or core experience of the divine.

In contrast to both approaches, the cultural-linguistic approach to religious plurality affirms the unsurpassability of a religion’s truth but only from within its own grammar of faith. The integrity and uniqueness of all religions are maintained insofar as they are considered unsurpassably true within their own grammatical systems. There is no neutrally commensurable reference for comparing or evaluating religions. Using the metaphor of a map, Lindbeck argues that “there are the various versions of the final, complete, unsurpassable map that with varying degrees of detail and accuracy sufficiently identify the goal and the way (when they are rightly utilized) to enable the traveler not to go astray” (ND, 52).

As for interreligious dialogue, Lindbeck argues that we should not formulate a single ground of dialogue applicable to any and every interreligious encounter. “There are other possible theological grounds for dialogue, varying from religion to religions, which do not presuppose that religions share an experiential core” (ND, 54). This is to say, consequently, that there is no “common foundation” for religions to come together, they are “simply different” (ND, 55). However, according to Lindbeck, Christians ought to support those from other religions in becoming better adherents of their own traditions.

However, when Lindbeck applies this argument to the issue of the salvation of non-Christians, the interplay of ontological, categorial and intrasystematic truth again comes to the fore. Salvation by Christ alone seems to be the ontological truth affirmed in Lindbeck’s discussion of the salvific status of non-Christians. Salvation is possible insofar as somebody confesses Christ explicitly, fides ex auditu (ND, 57), and this cannot be implicitly and anonymously received, in contrast to Karl Rahner’s “anonymous Christians.” To fit this belief into his own cultural-linguistic perspective, Lindbeck proposes a “prospective” theory of salvation, which has received attention and further development from other theologians such as the Dominican Joseph A. DiNoia (1992). This theory projects the moment of experienced salvation into the time of death or beyond death. Lindbeck suggests that dying is “the point at which every human being is ultimately and expressly confronted by the gospel, by the crucified and risen Lord. It is only then that the final decision is made for or against Christ; and this is true, not only of unbelievers but also of believers” (ND, 59).


Rule Theory and the Ecumenical Disagreements

Lindbeck’s deepest concern in his book is with ecumenical disagreements that have occurred throughout the history of the church. What he proposes is a theory in which doctrines function as rules—just like the notion of regulae fidei in the early churches—enabling us to understand “how historically opposed positions can in some, even if not all, cases be reconciled while remaining in themselves unchanged” (ND, 18).

Just like a language always needs a grammar in order to function, so also a religion always has a set of doctrines. Doctrines are essential for the identity of the community, since they function as communally authoritative rules that govern thoughts, actions, emotions, etc. In this sense, doctrines become second-order rather than first-order devices. They can involve propositions, but within the cultural-linguistic approach propositions do not refer to “extra-linguistic or extra-human reality” (ND, 80); they can be ontologically true, not in the cognitivist sense, but by virtue of being intrasystematically and categorially true. In other words, the significance of a religion is located primarily not in propositional truths but rather in “the story it tells and in the grammar that informs the way the story is told and used” (ND, 80). What is most important for the church is the grammar, rather than vocabulary, of the story (religion).

Lindbeck maintains that the Christian story remains the same at the level of rules, though he acknowledges that it may be difficult “to grasp the notion that it is the framework and the medium which Christians know and experience, rather than what they experience or think they know, that retains continuity and unity down through the centuries” (ND, 84). Yet, at the same time, doctrines are also flexible in relation to surrounding historical changes. Change can take place as “unconditionally or conditionally necessary, as permanent or temporary, as reversible or irreversible” (ND, 86). For instance, while the articles of the Apostles’ Creed have been seen as unconditional and permanent, the view of the soul as immortal could be categorized as conditional, temporary, and reversible. In Chapter 5 of Nature of Doctrine Lindbeck tests his rule-theory of doctrines by applying it to the issues of Christology, Mariology, and infallibility. I omit discussion of this chapter here to conserve space.


Faithfulness, Applicability, and Intelligibility

The last chapter of Nature and Doctrine, subtitled “Toward a Postliberal Theology,” is the most important part of this work. Here Lindbeck articulates the main purpose of his postliberal approach, namely, “to overcome [the] polarization between tradition and innovation by a distinction between abiding doctrinal grammar and variable theological vocabulary” (ND, 113). To do this, the most important remaining task is to show how the cultural-linguistic approach could serve three main areas of Christian theology: the systematic concern with faithfulness, the practical concern with applicability, and the apologetic concern with intelligibility (ND, 112). Although Lindbeck does not spare cognitivist-propositionalism from criticism in this chapter, Jeffrey Goh notes that the chapter’s polemic is aimed primarily at the liberal theological task and its reliance on a universal foundation for apologetic strategies (Goh 2000, 172).

1. Faithfulness as Intratextuality (Systematic Theology)

Lindbeck formulates the task of dogmatic or systematic theology as an endeavor “to give a normative explication of the meaning a religion has for its adherent” (ND, 113). Systematic theology therefore deals with the issue of how to be theologically faithful, which from the cultural-linguistic perspective means focusing on and relying on “the semiotic universe paradigmatically encoded in holy writ” (ND, 117). He uses the term “intratextuality” to indicate the “semiotic universe.” To be sure, Lindbeck’s “text” or “texts” do not necessarily need to be written. They could also be orally transmitted, pictorially represented, etc. In discussing Karl Barth’s understanding of (intra-)textuality, Lindbeck he argues that, “Unlike utterance or speech acts, [texts] are fixed communicative patterns which are used in many different contexts for many purposes and with many meanings. In their written form, texts can have a comprehensiveness, complexity, and stability which is unattainable in any other medium” (1986, 361). Thus, what Lindbeck thinks when he uses the term “text” is primarily the Bible.

I have postponed demonstrating the influences of Karl Barth and Hans Frei (a former colleague at Yale) on Lindbeck’s postliberal theology. As a matter of fact, Lindbeck’s connection to Barth comes through Hans Frei, whose close affinity to the neo-orthodox theologian is obvious. Yet, Lindbeck refuses to allow that his sympathies with Barth’s neo-orthodoxy put him in “ineluctable opposition to new intellectual development” (Lindbeck 2002, 199). Thus, for Lindbeck, David Tracy’s charge against him—“The hands may be the hands of Wittgenstein and Geertz but the voice is the voice of Karl Barth” (Tracy 1985, 465)—is groundless (Lindbeck 2002, 198).

Some other interpreters, such as George Hunsinger, propose that Lindbeck is best understood as a crypto-Thomist (1993; 41-55). Although affirming his indebtedness to Aquinas (Lindbeck 1989, 405), Lindbeck prefers to identify more with a Lutheran perspective that assumes an ecumenically “evangelical-catholic” outlook (2002, 282n2).

This short interruption might not seem directly related to our discussion of intratextuality. However, Lindbeck’s desire to be identified more with ecumenism than with Barth sheds light on this notion. Christian faithfulness might be expressed through various theological descriptions, yet the “formal criterion of faithfulness,” that is the intratextual norm or story, remains the same. After opening space for diverse theologies—from the age of the catacombs to the era of the space shuttle, from Platonism to Whiteheadianism—Lindbeck concludes with a brief creedal statement,

Yet all these theologies could agree that God is appropriately depicted in stories about a being who created the cosmos without any humanly fathomable reason, but … appointed Homo sapiens stewards of one minuscule part of this cosmos, permitted appalling evils, chose Israel and the church as witnessing people, and sent Jesus as messiah and Immanuel, God with us. (ND, 121)

According to Lindbeck, intratextual hermeneutics interprets extratextual realities through the lens of the biblical text, rather than translating the biblical messages into extrabiblical languages: “It is the text, so to speak, which absorbs the world, rather than the world the text” (ND, 118). Thus, everything is embraced by the text and described as inside the text. Moreover, this absorption-of-the-world-into-the-text requires what Clifford Geertz called “thick description,” which reflects the Christian texts’ ability to describe the whole universe of meaning (ND, 115).

2. Applicability as Futurology (Practical Theology)

Practical theology, according to Lindbeck, aims to apply the Christian vision of reality, nourished faithfully by its intratextual self-understanding, to specific problems in the world and the church. This postliberal practical method differs radically from that of liberal experiential-expressivists, who “start with experience, with an account of the present, and then adjust their vision of the kingdom of God accordingly” (ND, 125-6).

Although the liberal approach seems to be the most popular and favorite approach nowadays, Lindbeck believes that the postliberal proposal will be more relevant in the long run. “It is likely to contribute more to the future of humanity if it preserves its own distinctiveness and integrity than if it yields to the homogenizing tendencies associated with liberal experiential-expressivism” (ND, 128). In making this argument, Lindbeck begins to build his case, presented in the in the next section, against the liberal position.

3. Intelligibility as Skill (Apologetic Theology)

Lindbeck is aware that his position risks being criticized as relativistic and fideistic, especially by those liberals who adopt an apologetic approach. Lindbeck thinks that those who embrace such an approach—especially the so-called “revisionists” such as Roman Catholic theologian David Tracy—try to discover “a foundational scheme” through which Christians can translate their faith into relevant terms acceptable in wider contexts. Foundationalism, in the cultural-linguistic view, is impossible, since religions “can be understood only in their own terms, not by transposing them into an alien speech” (ND, 129; cf. Lindbeck 1997, 429). Lindbeck’s rejection of foundationalism, nevertheless, does not mean that he sees no need for apologetics. Rather, what he thinks is needed is an ad hoc or nonfoundational apologetics. An ad hoc apologetics would make a case for the plausibility of Christian faith by skillfully demonstrating the conformity of our everyday life to the biblical world instead of by conforming Christianity to some universal and neutral experience.


Later Development

Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine has heralded a significant paradigm shift within theological discourse in the twentieth century. It has brought many new issues to light, whether directly or indirectly related to Lindbeck’s initial intentions. Three issues that have drawn significant attention are: 1) the dispute between postliberals and revisionists; 2) growing interest in the theology of religions utilizing Lindbeck’s postliberal approach; 3) dialogue between postliberalism and evangelical theology. The first issue has received the most attention to date; the other two are relatively new.

The first issue relates to the question of whether it is possible to construct a public sort of theology based on the idea of apologetics. Postliberals like Lindbeck answer negatively, yet without abandoning the possibility of an ad hoc apologetics. David Tracy (at least in his early works) and other revisionists have argued for a contemporary philosophical theology that reflects on “the meanings present in common human experience” (Tracy 1975, 34). Although some attempts to construct a third way bridging those two poles have already come to the fore, the dispute is not easily resolved (cf. Stell 1993; Lints 1993; Placher 1989, 154-74).

With regard to the second issue, Paul F. Knitter tells us that the postliberal proposal has provided rich resources for discovering a fourth paradigm in the theology of religions discussion (in addition to “exclusivism,” “inclusivism,” and “pluralism”), one he calls “Acceptance Model” (2002, 178-91). Besides Lindbeck himself, other theologians who belong to this group are S. Mark Heim, Joseph A. DiNoia and Francis X. Clooney. Not only do they base their works on the celebration of difference—“Vive la difference!”—they also propose a kind of “good neighbor policy.”

The third issue concerns the capacity of Lindbeck’s proposal to bring the dialogue between postliberals and evangelicals in America to a new level. The previous debate between Carl Henry (an evangelical) and Hans Frei (a postliberal) is now carried on by their successors in more positive and constructive ways. The conversation between both groups—well documented in The Nature of Confession (Phillips & Okholm 1996)—focuses on both agreements and disagreements.


Critical Evaluations

1. Does Lindbeck Contradict Himself?

Lindbeck calls for a new way of seeing the world, of being absorbed into the biblical world, so that the biblical world becomes the lens through which we comprehend the whole of reality. Although this proposal is highly attractive, we might ask whether Lindbeck contradicts himself by relying so heavily on ideas from linguistic philosophy, anthropology, and other disciplines to comprehend and diagnose the theological situation that he addresses. Undoubtedly, he would argue that his use of these ideas exemplifies his ad hoc and unsystematic approach to apologetics (cf. Lindbeck 2002, 198). But is this convincing? Is it not the case that these allegedly “pretheological” ideas are really at the heart of his postliberal or cultural-linguistic theology, without which his entire theological argument would make no sense? To say that borrowing certain ideas from non-theological disciplines constitutes an ad hoc apologetics only confuses the issue. One would employ an ad hoc apologetics only after having constructed and identified the heart of one’s theological perspective. In brief, Lindbeck’s use of non-theological ideas is not as “pretheological” as he claims.

2. Is Lindbeck a Fideist? (Saving Lindbeck’s Project from Lindbeck)

Another charge often leveled against Lindbeck’s postliberal theology is that it tends to collapse into fideism. The specific target of this charge is typically Lindbeck’s appeal to the notion of incommensurability, which, when combined with his notion of intratextuality, appears to be “an invitation to renascent fundamentalism” (cf. Tilley 1989, 94-5). Although Lindbeck is aware of this accusation (1984, 128-30), he has not really addressed it, except in his proposal for an ad hoc apologetics as the point of connection with the non-biblical world.

While this kind of apologetics does not lack a certain kind of usefulness, it nonetheless fails to blunt the critics’ charge of fideism (or relativism). In order to save Lindbeck (from Lindbeck), we need to make some adjustments to his program. Following Richard J. Bernstein, I would argue that the incommensurability of rival intellectual paradigms (from Thomas Kuhn) does not entail their incomparability (1983, 86). Lindbeck seems to allow for this (cf. Lindbeck 1984, 53), which suggests that he need not be read as a hard-core or “foundationalist” fideist. If, following Terrence W. Tilley, we distinguish relativist fideism from its foundationalist variety (1989, 87-9), then Lindbeck and other postliberals are better understood in terms of the former.

With regard to Lindbeck’s notion of intratextuality, Tilley correctly argues that Lindbeck remains open to the charge of fideism because he does not clarify “the relationship of intratextual to ‘extratextual’ meaning” (Tilley 1989, 95). In Tilley’s opinion, the postliberals with their “pure intratextualism” fail to respect the contextual character of social discourse when they posit “a ‘pure’ text immune from shaping by ongoing conversation” (105). This is evident in Lindbeck’s overreaching claim that Buddhist compassion, Christian love, and French Revolutionary fraternité “are radically distinct ways of experiencing and being oriented toward self, neighbor, and cosmos” (Lindbeck, 1984, 40). At the same time, Lindbeck fails to acknowledge that even in Aquinas and Luther one finds very different notions of the self, and that Moses’ and Jesus’ cosmoi are not the same (cf. Tilley 1989, 96-7). Thus, Lindbeck overemphasizes the incommensurability of Christian texts with other religious texts while remaining silent with regard to the radical and contextual multiplicity of the Christian corpus.

Tilley’s proposal for a “dirty intratextualism” helpfully recognizes that “every attempt at commensurability and comparison requires a ‘conversational’ discovering of how vague and formal values are materialized and concretized in each type of conversation” (105). This proposal provides a way out of the impasse between the revisionists, who argue for the universal publicness of Christian theology, and the postliberals who treat the Christian corpus as unified, given, monolith and stable, thereby failing to recognize the multiple contexts that impinge upon and shape this corpus. Against the revisionists’ notion of universal publicness, Tilley argues for “local” publicness. Against the postliberals’ “pure intratextualism,” he proposes a “dirty intratextualism” that respects the importance of contextual conversations. This modifies Lindbeck’s undeveloped notion of ad hoc apologetics, which appeared to require a unified, stable starting point, to allow for multiplicity and contextuality. It also accords well with William Werpehowski’s claim that theological apologetics must proceed “from particular and perhaps partial areas of convergence toward justification” (1986, 287).

3. Is Lindbeck an Exclusivist? (A Christian Future for non-Christians?)

As mentioned above, Lindbeck proposes an interesting “prospective” soteriology with regard to non-Christians, one in which they would be granted the possibility of salvation postmortem. We might ask whether this prospective soteriology is consistent with Lindbeck’s cultural-linguistic overview. At first sight, the answer appears to be “No.” The prospective theory looks like a betrayal of Lindbeck’s own understanding of truth in categorial and intrasystematic terms. Is it not the case within this prospective approach that, in the end, the non-Christian would be assimilated into Christian grammar of salvation? Do the maps provided by other religious traditions merely mark out various paths that all end at a single, final gate to salvation, Jesus Christ? If so, then Lindbeck’s proposal turns out to be a “postponed inclusivism” (or, perhaps, a postponed exclusivism?).

My critique is similar to that of Kenneth Surin, who accuses Lindbeck of harboring a “meta-soteriology.” Surin argues that we can find in The Nature of Doctrine an implicit vision of salvation in Christ: because fides ex auditu becomes the requirement for salvation, all would need to be in the church in order to receive or reject Christ (1988, 196-7). This would appear to be the implication of the following claim by Lindbeck: “[T]here is no damnation—just as there is no salvation—outside the church. One must, in other words, learn the language of faith before one can know enough about its message knowingly to reject it and thus be lost” (1984, 59). Surin argues that Lindbeck can be considered an “eschatological universalist who is nonetheless wedded to the exclusivist criterion of an explicit confession of Christ on the part of all who are candidates for deliverance” (1984, 206n12).



George A. Lindbeck’ book, The Nature of Doctrine, has powerfully emphasized the necessity of guarding and articulating the distinctive identity and voice of the Christian viewpoint in the contemporary world. By undermining the plausibility of a universal foundation of common experience and of the adequacy of cognitive propositionalism, postliberal theology enables the adherents of different religions to engage their own systems of meaning on their own terms. This proposal has enriched Christian theological discourse and has given rise to many important debates. It is still too early, however, to decide whether or not postliberal intertextualism will survive as a viable theological option. The answer depends on the ability of its proponents to defend their basic principles, make necessary adjustments, and respond to contemporary issues. This, obviously, requires their willingness to enter into continued dialogue with other theological systems.


Works Cited

Bernstein, Richard J. 1983. Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

DiNoia, Joseph A. 1992. The Diversity of Religions: A Christian Perspective. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press.

Goh, Jeffrey C.K. 2000. Christian Tradition Today: A Postliberal Vision of Church and World. Louvain: Peeters Press & Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Hunsinger, George. 1993. “Truth as Self-Involving: Barth and Lindbeck on the Cognitive and Performative Aspects of Truth in Theological Discourse.” In Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 61: 41-55.

Knitter, Paul F. 2002. Introducing Theologies of Religions. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books.

Lindbeck, George A. 1984. The Nature of Doctrine: Religions and Theology in a Postliberal Age. Louisville & London: Westminster John Knox Press.

_____________. 1986. “Barth and Textuality.” In Theology Today, 43: 361-76.

_____________. 1989. “Response to Bruce Marshall.” In The Thomist, 53, no. 3: 403-6.

_____________. 1997. “The Gospel’s Uniqueness: election and Untranslatability.” In Modern Theology, 13:423-50.

_____________. 2002. “Foreword to the German Edition of ‘The Nature of Doctrine’.” In George A. Lindbeck, The Church in a Postliberal Age. Edited by James J. Buckley. Grand Rapids, Michigan & Cambridge, UK: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Lints, Richard. 1993. “The Postpositivist Choice: Tracy or Lindbeck?” In Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 61: 655-77.

Marshall, Bruce D. 1989. “Aquinas as Postliberal Theologian.” In The Thomist, 53, 3: 353–402.

Phillips, Timothy R. & Okholm, Dennis L., eds. 1996. The Nature of Confession; Evangelicals and Postliberals in Conversation. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press.

Placher, William C. 1989. Unapologetic Theology: A Christian Voice in a Pluralistic Conversation.  Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press.

Stell, Stephen L. 1993. “Hermeneutics in Theology and the Theology of Hermeneutics; Beyond Lindbeck and Tracy.” In Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 61 Wint 1993: 679-702.

Surin, Kenneth. 1988. “’Many Religions and the One True Faith’: An Examination of Lindbeck’s Chapter Three.” In Modern Theology, 4: 187-208.

Thiemann, Ronald F. 1986. “Response to George Lindbeck.” In Theology Today, 43: 377-82.

Tilley, Terrence W. 1989. “Incommensurability, Intratextuality, and Fideism.” In Modern Theology, 5, no. 2 (January):87-111.

Tracy, David. 1975. Blessed rage for Order: The New Pluralism in Theology. New York: The Seabury Press.

_____________. 1985. “Lindbeck’s New Program for Theology: A Reflection.” In The Thomist, 49: 460-72.

Werpehowski, William. 1986. “Ad Hoc Apologetics.” In Journal of Religion, 66, no. 3 (July): 282-301.


George Lindbeck (1923- )

Grant D. Miller Francisco, 1999

While in recent years the name of George Lindbeck is most commonly mentioned in connection with "postliberalism" or "the Yale school" of theology, for most of his career he was known primarily as a medievalist and, above all, as a theologian at the forefront of ecumenical dialogue. Born in Loyang, Honan, China in 1923 to American Lutheran missionaries of Swedish descent, Lindbeck spent his early years in China and Korea. As an undergraduate he attended Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota, graduating in 1943. He received his BD from Yale University in 1946, and his Ph.D. from Yale in 1955. Lindbeck's early scholarly interests were in the medieval period. He studied in Toronto and Paris with Etienne Gilson and Paul Vignaux, and wrote his doctoral dissertation on essence and existence in John Duns Scotus. He then took a job teaching at Yale in 1952 and remained there throughout his career, retiring in 1993.

Lindbeck's early scholarship and writing focused on medieval philosophy and theology, but he soon developed a major interest in ecumenical dialogue, especially Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue. Lindbeck was sent to be an observer at Vatican II for the Lutheran World Federation during all four sessions (1962-65). Two of his early books, The Future of Roman Catholic Theology (1970) and Infallibility (1972), grew out of this interest in matters ecumenical. Over more than two decades he remained active in both American and International Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogues, co-chairing several Joint Commissions, and earning himself a reputation as a careful and capable ecumenical scholar. David Tracy refers to him as "the major theological contributor in North America to genuine ecumenical dialogue among the major confessions" (Tracy, 461).

It was ostensibly to solve an ecumenical problem that the work for which Lindbeck is best known was written. How can it be, he asked, that over and over again in recent ecumenical dialogues the participants can claim to be in basic agreement on such matters as the Eucharist, ministry, justification, or the papacy, and this despite the fact that each side continues to cling to their historic convictions? (15). Surely there is something inadequate about our way of conceptualizing what sort of things doctrines and dogmas are: "Doctrines, in other words, do not behave the way they should, given our customary suppositions about the kinds of things they are" (7). Lindbeck formulates his answer to this problem in The Nature of Doctrine, but the import of this book far exceeds its impetus. In this brief yet tightly-argued work, Lindbeck sets forth a cultural-linguistic theory of religion, a regulative notion of doctrine, and a postliberal vision of theology. I will deal with each of these three in turn.

In order to understand what a doctrine is, argues Lindbeck, one has to understand how it functions within a religion. But there are differing theories as to what a religion is, and consequently differing ideas about how religions and doctrines are related. Lindbeck divides the field into three types of theories of religion: the first two (the propositional and the experiential-expressive) serve as foils to the third (the cultural-linguistic) which is Lindbeck's own position. The propositionalist, according to Lindbeck, "emphasizes the cognitive aspects of religion and stresses the ways in church doctrines function as informative propositions or truth claims about objective realities" (16). This was the theory presupposed by the classical orthodoxies of premodernity. Such an approach became discredited under the onslaught of, among other things, Kant's critical philosophy and the historical-critical method. In its place arose Schleiermacher's reinterpretation of doctrines as "accounts of the Christian religious affections set forth in speech" and the liberal theologies which Schleiermacher spawned (Hefling, 52).

This modern liberal experiential-expressive approach "interprets doctrines as noninformative and nondiscursive symbols of inner feelings, attitudes, or existential orientations" (16). At the heart of the experiential-expressive theory of religion, then, is the priority of religious experience over its objectification and expression. This fundamental religious experience gets named in various ways, from Schleiermacher through Otto and Eliade up to Bultmann, Tillich, Rahner, Lonergan, and Tracy. While they may go about it in different ways, "thinkers of this tradition all locate ultimately significant contact with whatever is finally important to religion in the prereflective experiential depths of the self and regard the public or outer features of religion as expressive and evocative objectifications (i.e. nondiscursive symbols) of internal experience" (21).

Over and against both propositional and experiential-expressive theories of religion, Lindbeck proposes his own cultural-linguistic theory. Actually, as he admits, such a theory is not of his own making. On the cultural side it finds its lineage in Marx, Weber, and Durkheim. On the linguistic side it is rooted in the reflections of Wittgenstein. It has been applied to the study of religion by Clifford Geertz (20). While such an approach has been gaining currency among nontheological scholars of religion, the experiential-expressivist approach remains firmly entrenched among theological circles. Lindbeck argues that there are cultural pressures which work in favor of the experiential-expressivist approach. Such an approach meshes nicely with the contemporary individualistic consumer approach to religious truth, in which "Religions are seen as multiple suppliers of different forms of a single commodity needed for transcendent self-expression and self-realization" (22).

In Lindbeck's cultural-linguistic view, religions are seen as "comprehensive interpretive schemes, usually embodied in myths or narratives and heavily ritualized, which structure human experience and understanding of self and world" (32). Fundamentally, the cultural-linguistic approach reverses the priorities of experiential-expressivism. The experiential-expressivist sees religious experience as prior to its expression in myth, narrative or ritual. The cultural-linguistic approach, on the other hand, sees religious experience as derivative of a religion's expressive and communicative symbol systems. "On this view, the means of communication and expression are precondition, a kind of quasi-transcendental (i.e., culturally formed) a priori for the possibility of experience" (36). Just as language exists prior to the individual, such that the individual must learn the language before participating in the world that it makes possible, so religions exist prior to the individual, and it is through becoming familiar with their stories, myths, and rituals that religious experience is made possible: "to become religious--no less than to become culturally or linguistically competent--is to interiorize a set of skills by practice and training" (35).

Given a cultural-linguistic theory of religion, in which a religion can be conceived of as analogous to a language, it makes sense to conceive of doctrines as analogous to grammatical rules. This is what Lindbeck means by a regulative notion of doctrine. Understood in this way, doctrines are not first-order statements about, for example, God, or Christ, or the Church; rather, they are second-order statements which provide the rules for speaking about God, Christ, Church, etc. As such, they make intrasystematic, not ontological, truth-claims (80). Just as the grammatical rules of a language only make claims about how the language in fact works and not about extra-linguistic reality, so doctrines have to do with the correct usage of theological statements without making ontological claims.

Lindbeck finds warrant for such a regulative notion of doctrine in Bernard Lonergan's argument that Athanasius understood consubstantiality as a proposition about propositions (in other words, a grammatical rule): whatever is said of the Father is said of the Son, except that the Son is not the Father (94). Lindbeck then generalizes this argument to cover all doctrines. For instance, Lindbeck thinks it plausible to construe the four centuries of Trinitarian and Christological development leading up to Nicaea and Chalcedon in terms of three regulative principles: (1) the monotheistic principle: there is only one God; (2) the principle of historical specificity: the stories of Jesus refer to a particular human being; (3) the principle of Christological maximalism: "every possible importance is to be ascribed to Jesus that is not inconsistent with the first rules" (94). Each of the early heresies (Docetism, Sabellianism, Arianism, Nestorianism, etc.) was felt to by the Christian community to violate the limits defined by these three regulative principles. The process of creedal formation was essentially the elimination of such "cognitive dissonance." Lindbeck goes on to discuss the Marian dogmas and infallibility in order to show the applicability of a regulative notion of doctrine.

Having advocated a cultural-linguistic theory of religion and an regulative notion of doctrine, Lindbeck turns in his last chapter to the implications of these views for theological method. Here he articulates a postliberal vision of theology. Whereas an experiential-expressivist model of religion suggests an extratextual method in which religious meaning is located "outside the text or semiotic system either in the objective realities to which it refers or in the experiences it symbolizes" (114), a cultural-linguistic model favors an intratextual method. "Intratextual theology redescribes reality within the scriptural framework rather than translating Scripture into extrascriptural categories. It is the text, so to speak, which absorbs the world, rather than the world the text" (118). The proximate source for such a conception of the theological task is the work of Lindbeck's fellow Yale colleague, Hans Frei, and his book The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative (1974). There is a more remote source as well. As David Tracy remarks: "The hands may be the hands of Wittgenstein and Geertz but the voice is the voice of Karl Barth" (Tracy, 465). Lindbeck indeed points to both Karl Barth and Hans Urs von Balthasar as theologians who, rather than translating the Bible into alien conceptualities, are able to redescribe or enfold the world which they encounter into biblical terms ("Scripture, Consensus, Community," 98-99).

Lindbeck is well aware that by abandoning the liberal project of translating the Biblical message into contemporary conceptualities, he is calling for at least a degree "sociological sectarianism" (78). The postliberal method of preaching the gospel will look more like ancient catechesis than modern translation (132). Lindbeck is betting that in a post-Constantinian church, it may be that the most viable Christian communities will be those which are best able to socialize their members into a particular outlook, one which takes its bearings from the Biblical narrative, and seeks to redescribe the world from that vantage point.


Selected Primary Sources

George A. Lindbeck. The Future of Roman Catholic Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970).

. Infallibility [The Pere Marquette Theology Lecture] (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1972).

. The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1984).

. "The Story-Shaped Church: Critical Exegesis and Theological Interpretation" in Scriptural Authority and Narrative Interpretation, ed. Garrett Green (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), 161-178.

. "Scripture, Consensus, and Community" in Biblical Interpretation in Crisis, ed. Richard John Neuhaus (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1989), 74-101.

Selected Secondary Sources

Charles C. Hefling, Jr. "Turning Liberalism Inside-Out," Method: Journal of Lonergan Studies 3.2 (October, 1985), 51-69.

Bruce D. Marshall, "George Lindbeck" in A New Handbook of Christian Theologians, ed. Donald W. Musser and Joseph L. Price (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 271-277.

Gordon E. Michalson, Jr. "The Response to Lindbeck," Modern Theology 4:2 (January 1988), 107-120.

David Tracy. "Lindbeck's New Program for Theology: A Reflection," The Thomist 49.3 (July 1985), 460-472.

George Lindbeck and the New Yale School: Mann's Quick Notes

Mark Mann, 1997

Theological Task: Confessional Theology

  1. Theology should be distinguished from and related to both first-order practice and doctrines
  2. Doctrines are primarily rules for speech about God and Christ rather than first-order speech about God and Christ

Three aspects of theology

  1. Dogmatic: attempts to give normative explication of the meaning a religion has for its adherents
  2. Practical: aims to apply the community’s overarching vision of reality to specific problems in the church and the world in ways that are both faithful to the community’s vision and relevant to the problems at hand
  3. Foundational: (apologetic) aims to show how the worldview and ethos of the community is intelligible and credible

Theology’s Commitments

  1. Theology should be done in a spirit that is generous in spirit and critical in engagement
  2. Theology should "used all that can be used," it should aim to construct a comprehensive vision of the world which does not ignore but rather tries to make Christian sense out of apparently alien beliefs and practices
  3. Primacy is given to the scriptural "narrative" (Hans Frei): the Bible is unified by a complex but coherent narrative which centers on the persona l agent Jesus, the Bible should not be read by attempting to impose a foreign or independent interpretive framework upon it (remythologizing?); it should be read self-referentially in order to construct a comprehensive vision of life and reality
  4. Judgements of truth and falsity are ultimately judgements about the coherence of beliefs and practices with the Christ-centered world depicted in Scripture; Christian visions will display their truth precisely by their ability to make sense of and to hold true, on their own terms, the ever varied claims to truth that Christian community encounters (?)
  5. Both the academy and the church are best served when service to the church comes first

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