Over the holidays I sat down to read through George Lindbeck’s justly famous The Nature of Doctrine, published in 1984.  Rarely can I remember a book stirring up such a deeply mixed reaction in me; Lindbeck’s tome is chock full of both stunning insights and remarkable foolishness.  It has, as the cliché goes, something in it to make everyone mad.  It deserves a slow and thoughtful perusal (and perhaps, afterwards, a follow-up appointment with Vanhoozer’s evangelical response in The Drama of Doctrine).

Lindbeck, along with Hans Frei, was at the head of the influential “postliberal” theological movement at Yale in the 70’s and 80’s, and this book represents his manifesto.  A just review of its contents and proposals is impossible here, but I wish to highlight one recurring theme in the work that strikes me as particularly noteworthy, and which has helpfully clarified and defined for me a lingeringly vague idea that had been bouncing around unformed in my mind prior to my encounter with Lindbeck.

Arguing for what he calls a “cultural-linguistic” approach to religion (he is indebted to Wittengenstein, Geertz and Berger, among others), in which intratextual “meaning” is preferred to extratextual “truth claims”, Lindbeck argues that the essential difference between a classic liberal approach to Christianity and his own post-liberal orientation is how they prioritize two competing stories or narratives with respect to each other: that of the modern secular world, and that of the Bible.  Agreeing with Hans Frei that there has been a tragic “great reversal” of narrative self-identity in the modern West, Lindbeck laments “the liberal tendency to redescribe religion in extrascriptural frameworks [which] has once again become dominant…Religions have become foreign texts that are much easier to translate into currently popular categories than to read in terms of their intrinsic sense.” (p. 124)

Instead of exegeting our world through the Bible “on its own terms” (i.e. its own instrinsic meaning), we are sociologically conditioned to read the Bible through our world taken “on its own terms.”  Crucially, Lindbeck refuses to allow the easy “middle” way out of feigning to permit both to speak equally or dialectically.  Indeed, both should speak, and both have insights to offer one another, but ultimately one will be allowed to stand on its own, and the other will bow to it.  Only one can (and must) be related to “on its own terms”.  Why?  Because “there is no higher neutral standpoint from which to adjudicate their competing perceptions of what is factual and/or anomalous…persuasiveness, if any, does not depend on moving step by step in a demonstrative sequence, but on the illuminating power of the whole.” (p. 11).  Lindbeck, clearly, is an epistemological coherentist, not a foundationalist.

As opposed to liberalism’s ongoing quest to integrate (and thus inevitably modify to radical proportions) the biblical conception of reality into the infallible “given” of the currently prevailing culture of the day, Lindbeck persuasively contends that the opposite track ought to be pursued instead:

“To become a Christian involves learning the story of Israel and of Jesus well enough to interpret and experience oneself and one’s world in its terms.” (p. 34; this quote by itself is worth the price of the book!)

“What is important is that Christians allow their cultural conditions and highly diverse affections to be molded by the set of biblical stories that stretches from creation to eschaton and culminates in Jesus’ passion and resurrection.” (p. 84)

“It is important to note the direction of interpretation.  [Christian interpretation] does not make scriptural contents into metaphors for extrascriptural realities, but the other way around.  It does not suggest, as is often said in our day, that believers find their stories in the Bible, but rather that they make the story of the Bible their story.  The cross is not to be viewed as a figurative representation of suffering nor the messianic kingdom as a symbol for hope in the future; rather, suffering should be cruciform, and hopes for the future messianic.  More generally stated, it is the religion instantiated in Scripture which defines being, truth, goodness, and beauty, and the nonscriptural exemplifications of these realities need to be transformed into figures (or types or antitypes) of the scriptural ones.  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.” (pp. 117-18)

If I can hazzard an attempt at a value-free judgment (from the proverbial “view from nowhere”!), I think this distinction between the two approaches is accurate and useful and deserving of acceptance on both sides of the debate.  What finally separates a liberal Christian from a more historically orthodox or conservative one (even if Lindbeck himself doesn’t quite match the profile) is the methodological priority each ascribes to one of the two narratives or “worlds” that they inhabit.

For a liberal, the interpretative framework that is “given” and unquestioned (ultimately) is constituted by the various modern insights and experiences and intuitions and values they embrace, encapsulated within an all-encompassing “story” or meta-narrative, and by which is formulated the identity of God, world, self and mission.  This is not to say that the Bible is not important to them, nor that they are not open to newer, better or revised understandings of the contemporary world.  But it does mean that they read the Bible foundationally through the lenses of the modern secular narrative, and when these conflict (as inevitably they will for both sides) the latter tends to sit in judgment upon the former.  Lindbeck’s proposal, again, reverses this; he wants to “imaginatively and conceptually incorporate [sic] postbiblical worlds into the world of the Bible.” (p. 123)  Therefore he pleads for “the beginnings of a desire to renew…the ancient practice of absorbing the universe into the biblical world.” (p. 135)

As a fairly conservative Christian (theologically) from a historical standpoint, I am aware of my own biases and do not wish to convey the impression that the advantage of Lindbeck’s model is self-evidently superior or right.  It has its own challenges (and dangers), and the liberal case for their hermeneutic can be powerful.  Leaving acceptance or rejection to the side (temporarily), then, I think the value of Lindbeck’s distinction is that it helps us to understand one another in dialogue more thoughtfully in light of our grating tendency to so often talk past each another, due to the profound (and often unacknowledged or even unrealized) methodological differences we inherit and which color all the “particulars” that we subsequently perceive and dispute:

“…the crucial difference between liberals and postliberals is in the way they correlate their visions of the future and of present situations.  Liberals start with experience, with an account of the present, and then adjust their vision of the kingdom of God accordingly, while postliberals are in principle committed to doing the reverse…[post-liberalism is marked by] resistance to current fashions, to making present experience revelatory.” (pp. 125-26)

I was often reminded, in reading Lindbeck, of one of my favorite modern theologians: Leslie Newbigin.  Newbigin grasped this same insight with remarkable power, reminding us that “the affirmation that the One by whom and through whom and for whom all creation exists is to be identified with a man who was crucified and rose bodily from the dead cannot possibly be accommodated within any plausibility structure except one of which it is the cornerstone. In any other place in the structure it can only be a stone of stumbling.” (Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt and Certainty in Christian Discipleship)

For a complementary perspective on how the “story” of the Bible can be authoritative for Christians, I recommend this essay by N. T. Wright.

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