[Book Review] The Nature of Doctrine by George Lindbeck

Lindbeck, George A. The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age. 25th Anniversary Edition. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. 204 pp. $17.03 [Kindle].


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Postliberal theology is the solution to the shortcomings of both rationalism and romanticism. This statement is the summary thesis of George Lindbeck’s work entitled The Nature of Doctrine.[1] Lindbeck responded to rationalism which he calls cognitive-propositionalist and liberal romanticism as experiential-expressivist. He goes further by rejecting even the mixture of the two religious understandings.

Lindbeck (1923-2018) grew up in Asia, specifically in China and Korea. He had a Lutheran background; his parents were Lutheran missionaries to China. Since then, Lindbeck remained a bold Lutheran with the distinction of being in dialogue with the Roman Catholic faith. With that, he became a prominent ecumenist within Lutheran-Catholic circles. Moreover, as a theologian-scholar, he devoted his life to spreading “Postliberal Theology.” This theology later became known as “Yale Theology” due to Hans Frei, David Kelsey, and Stanley Hauerwas, whom all graduated and worked at Yale.

Understanding religion is like reading a map. A valid map offers true information but becomes false if incorrectly read. Likewise, Lindbeck contends that religion is a language; to be specific, a cultural-linguistic approach to understanding religion. Further, he proposes that the nature of doctrine is a form of grammar. Just as grammar is to language, that is doctrine is to religion. By doing so, doctrine as a grammar remains in its nature over time.

Chapter 1 offers an introduction to three types of theological theories of understanding religion and doctrine. First, the cognitive-propositionalist; second, the experiential-expressivist; and the third theory combines both. The former is a preliberal model of emphasizing reason, propositions, cognitive informational religious terms or doctrines, and thinking—the latter grounds from Friedrich Schleiermacher’s inner experience, which liberal theology argues.

From differentiating these two theological theories, Lindbeck offers in chapter 2 a more precise definition of his cultural-linguistic approach. He notes, “Religion can be viewed as a kind of cultural and/or linguistic framework or medium that shapes the entirety of life and thought.” As stated above, he treats religion as language and, later, doctrine as the grammar for religion. It is dialectical than unilateral, becoming more natural than propositional and subjective. Lindbeck further explains, in the same chapter, “The primary knowledge is not about the religion, nor that the religion teaches such and such, but rather how to be religious in such and such ways.”

Chapter 3 offers the openness of this approach to different fields of study. However, in a preassessment, Lindbeck sounds pluralistic in nature—though he clarifies that ecumenism was his goal—in various statements. One of those, “Conversely, one of the ways in which Christians can serve their neighbors may be through helping adherents of other religions to purify and enrich their heritages, to make them better speakers of the languages they have.” The context is in disputing cognitive-propositionalist, Linbeck becomes open that even other religions possess “incommensurable notions of truth” and experience.

In brevity, chapter 4 further explores doctrinal theories, then sets doctrine as second-order ones. In chapter 5, Lindbeck explores the implications of his postliberal reading in three doctrines: Christology, Mariology, and Infallibility. Finally, the last chapter dedicates to the demonstration, consistency, intelligibility, and credibility of the doctrinal understanding in cultural-linguistic reading. It is where he concludes that a language is only valid when correctly performed and applied in experience; understanding and handling both are necessary to make it credible and faithful.

Overall assessment, dialogue becomes significant in this approach. However, the book is written for academic people who are well-versed in Enlightenment history, context, and philosophies. Specifically, the cognitive-propositionalist (preliberal), experiential-expressionist (liberal), and everything in between. Though Lindbeck offered a glimpse of historiography and theologians representing each view, the overall understanding is difficult to grasp and confusing since he repeatedly uses these two readings for analogical purposes. Moreover, in a cultural-linguistic approach, it leans toward postmodernism. However, even postmodernist begs to differ with the authority coming from cultural exegesis. In a sense, postliberal reading, without any intention, fails to be a full-orb postmodern approach.

Despite Lindbeck’s promise “that church and theology need not flee the world but can meet the world on its terms without accommodating themselves to it,” the world shapes through discourse and vulnerability of one’s theological perspective. A further query is his statement, “To replicate the old forms in new situations frequently betrays the original meaning, the original spirit.” Is this anti-contextualization?

There are a lot more questions needed answers in this work. Beyond postmodern thinking, postliberal gives significance to communal narratives. However, which community has the authority? At the same, it does give an advantage to smaller communities. How to navigate through these communal dialogues? Indeed, it is an excellent theological method alternative but a difficult task to achieve. This masterpiece of George Lindbeck is a must-read for modern and postmodern systematic theologians, including the next generation of thinkers.

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[1] The book used by the reviewer is in Kindle edition. This version does not offer page numbers. It has paginal locations yet is inadequate and confusing. Nevertheless, to be lucid, quotations and citations are within the chapters as given and told in each paragraph.

Image from https://philosophymuze.wordpress.com/2014/06/14/george-lindbecks-postliberal-theology/

Published by JP Arceno

A Mere Christian, no other religion, but Christian church, call me a Catholic Christian ~ Richard Baxter

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