Lindbeck, George. The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age, 25th Anniversary Edition
25 Anv. Westminster John Knox Press, 2009
Introduction - The Nature of Doctrine after 25 Years - BRUCE D. MARSHALL
A quarter century has now passed since George Lindbeck first published The Nature of Doctrine. 1 With the passage of time this slim volume has emerged as one of the most influential works of academic theology to appear in English in the last fifty years. It would be difficult to find a theologian in North America or Britain who lacks an opinion on it, often, as the bibliography appended to this twenty-fifth anniversary edition shows, a published one. To Lindbeck is ascribed the introduction of a new way of doing theology ("postliberalism"), or, with Hans Frei, the founding of a new theological school (named for Yale, where they both taught). In the fragmented, even chaotic, world of contemporary Anglophone theology, The Nature ofDoctrine is one of the few books that practically everybody thinks they need to know something about.
Lindbeck's influence, though, now extends well beyond the English-speaking world. Unusually for a book by an American theologian, The Nature ofDoctrine has been translated into German, and even more unusually, into Chinese and Japanese. French and Italian translations have also appeared.2 With the wider availability of the book has emerged a substantial and still-growing literature on Lindbeck in the chief languages of European scholarship, especially English and German.3
On both sides of the Atlantic, The Nature ofDoctrine has seemed to promise a way forward for Christian theology, Catholic as well as Protestant. In an early and generally appreciative article centering on Lindbeck and postliberalism from 1990, Cardinal (then Bishop) Walter Kasper drew attention to the freshness of Lindbeck's project for his own theological world:
In contemporary German-speaking theology, discussions of genuinely basic issues have become rare, and where they do occur, they generally turn into tedious trench warfare, a standoff between conservatives and progressives where the front never moves, or rearguard actions in battles fought long ago. But the theological scene in the United States appears willingly to have gone on the move. There one discusses without embarrassment, and generally in a less politicized way than we do, the aporias, indeed the crisis, into which modern theology has fallen. And one seeks ways out of this situation that aim not at a restorative retreat into a precritical epoch but at moving forward into a postcritical or postliberal and postmodern phase.4
Some have suggested that the book may even offer a breath oflife for the ancient Christian communities now withering in postmodern Europe. There secularism has diminished public participation in Christian communal life to levels not seen in Europe since the missionary days of the early Middle Ages, and Christianity's accommodation to a hostile or indifferent culture has reached a point where a noticeable portion of the few who still go to church profess not to believe in God. Lindbeck's robust confidence in the church's ability to maintain a strong sense of its own identity and tradition, yet in a postmodern and post-Constantinian way, may be the needed theological response to this unpromising situation.5
In hindsight it is not difficult to see why the book has had so much impact. Its scope is remarkably broad. Lindbeck develops accounts of the nature of religion, of the relationship between Christianity and other religions, of Christian doctrine and the resolution of historic doctrinal conflict among Christian communities, and of the nature and tasks of theology. His treatment of these large and basic theological topics is admirably coherent, without being rigidly prescriptive or deductive. One can enter at any point and see mutually reinforcing connections to the other main issues clearly. At the same time Lindbeck's ideas are strikingly novel. His cultural-linguistic theory of religions and their truth claims, his regulative theory of Christian doctrine, and his postliberal approach to theology, while inspired by theological and extratheological sources that Lindbeck identifies, overturn the various expectations for thinking about these matters that were standard in academic theology when the book appeared. Lind-beck accomplishes all this, moreover, in a volume ofless than 150 pages, written in a compressed but accessible and jargon-free style, with the evident intention of being understood by its readers (brevity and clarity, one must admit, are not virtues consistently exemplified by theological books). Before The Nature ofDoctrine, Lindbeck was known outside his native Yale mainly among ecumenical theologians, in particular for his work on Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue. The book turned its author into one of the most widely discussed theologians in the world.
To be widely read and influential is not, of course, the same thing as being agreed with. Much of the reception of The Nature of Doctrine has been critical. Theologians of all kinds have usually found at least part of Lindbeck's enterprise compelling. But this has made what looked to them like dubious features of his project even more troubling. As a result, while practically everybody has found something to like in The Nature of Doctrine,, many have also found elements needing serious, even fierce, resistance. Lindbeck himself aptly summarized the reaction to the work ten years after it'first appeared. 'The book's combination of avant garde conceptualities and commitment to historic doctrine was perceived as a direct attack on liberalism, on the one hand, and as seductively dangerous to conservatism, on the other."6
Here I will offer an account of the main lines along which The Nature ofDoctrine has been read and make some observations about the relationship between the response to the book and what I take to be the claims Lindbeck is most concerned to make in it. We can begin, though, by briefly locating The Nature ofDoctrine in Lindbeck's theological career.
George Lindbeck came to Yale Divinity School in 1943, at the age of twenty, and received his BD in 1946.7 By the time he completed his doctorate in 1955 he had already been on the faculty of the Divinity School for several years. At Yale, Lindbeck's main teacher was Robert Lowry Calhoun, a theologian now virtually forgotten, but a scholar whose comprehensive knowledge of the history of theology and philosophy reputedly led his students and colleagues to call him "the Logos."8 Lindbeck's own early work was in medieval theology and philosophy. He studied in Toronto and Paris with two of the last century's most outstanding scholars in that field, Etienne Gilson and Paul Vignaux, and wrote his dissertation on Scotus's doctrine of being, well before the renaissance in Scotus studies over the last generation. (He once said, in response to an inquiry about why the dissertation had never been published, that at the time there could not have been more than six people in the world who would have been interested in reading it.) His early publications were mostly on medieval topics, particularly high scholastic philosophical theology.
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