What Evangelicals Can Learn From George Lindbeck by Mark Alan Bowald

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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.

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Source: Christianity Today