The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age
Lindbeck, George A.
Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1984. pp 142.
Reviewed by Michael J. Vlach
With his 1984 work, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age, Yale University professor, George A. Lindbeck, offers what he considers to be the proper approach to establishing theology. He lays the foundation for a "postliberal theology" based on a cultural-linguistic approach to religion and a rule theory of doctrine.
Lindbeck states that his book was a product of his "growing dissatisfaction with the usual ways of thinking" when it came to the doctrines and dogmas of the churches (7). He is especially disturbed by the prevailing notion that doctrinal reconciliation without doctrinal change was self-contradictory (15).
In his first chapter, Lindbeck discusses the traditional approaches to theology. The first approach stresses the cognitive or propositional aspects of religion and sees religion as a series of propositions and truth claims about objective realities (16). This has been the predominant view of the Christian church throughout most of its history. The second approach, which he calls "experiential-expressive," interprets doctrines as noninformative and nondiscursive symbols of inner feelings, attitudes, or existential orientations (16). The third approach, held by ecumenically inclined Roman Catholics, attempts to combine the first two emphases (16). Lindbeck believes that all three approaches ultimately fail. "In all of these perspectives it is difficult to envision the possibility of doctrinal reconciliation without capitulation," he says (16).
Lindbeck offers what he considers to be the proper "alternative" to the three standard models. He calls his way of conceptualizing religion the "cultural-linguistic" approach, and his view of church doctrine as a "regulative" or "rule" theory (18). The cultural-linguistic approach is not based on the cognitive or experiential-expressive aspects of religion. Instead, it puts the emphasis on those areas in which "religion resemble languages with their correlative forms of life and are thus similar to cultures" (18). It is within this context that the doctrinal results of recent ecumenical discussions make the most sense, he believes.
With chapter two, Lindbeck explores the nontheological case for a cultural-linguistic approach to religion and religious doctrines (30). He tries to show that a cultural-linguistic approach to theology is "preferable" to the traditional cognitive and experiential-expressive perspectives. According to Lindbeck, the cultural-linguistic approach "avoids certain conceptual pitfalls and accounts for a wider range of aspects of religion than do either of the others" (31). He points out that this perspective is able to accommodate and combine the distinctive and competing emphases of the other approaches (34).
Lindbeck, in chapter three, discusses the issue of plurality of faiths. He argues that the cultural-linguistic perspective allows for a religion to have ontologically true affirmations. "There is nothing in the cultural-linguistic approach that requires the rejection (or the acceptance) of the epistemological realism and correspondence theory of truth," he says (68-9). Unlike the cognitive approach, though, the cultural-linguistic method holds that "propositional truth and falsity characterize ordinary religious language when it is used to mold lives through prayer, praise, preaching, and exhortation" (69). Only on this level do human beings linguistically exhibit truth or falsity to the "Ultimate Mystery" (69).
In chapter four, Lindbeck discusses the issue of church doctrines. He argues that the rule theory is doctrinally possible and has advantages over the other positions (73). He believes that the permanence and unity of doctrines are more easily accounted for if they are taken to resemble grammatical rules rather than propositions or expressive symbols (84).
The testing of Lindbeck's rule theory of doctrine is the subject of chapter five. Here Lindbeck applies his approach to the doctrines of Christology, Mariology, and Infallibility to see if his theory works in difficult cases. In regard to Christology, Lindbeck briefly discusses the creeds of Nicea and Chalcedon. He concludes that the rule theory allows for the high status traditionally given to these creeds, but he also states that these creeds should not be considered "formulas to be slavishly repeated" (96). He then argues that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary is both "reversible" and "irreversible" (97-7). Concerning infallibility, Lindbeck states that the Roman Catholic, Reformation, and Orthodox positions on the issue "continue to be irreconcilable in the present situation" (104).
The sixth chapter, "Toward a Postliberal Theology," is an addendum to the main argument of the book, but Lindbeck considers it to be "a necessary one" (112). Here he discusses the implications for a theological method of a cultural-linguistic approach to religion. Lindbeck holds that postliberal theologies employing a cultural-linguistic understanding of religion can be "faithful, applicable, and intelligible" (134). He concludes, then, that there is no theological or doctrinal reasons for rejecting them.
As Lindbeck ends his book, he again summarizes the purpose in writing it. "The stimulus for this book," he writes, "comes from the conviction that the doctrinal results of the ecumenical discussions of the last decades make better sense in the context of a cultural-linguistic view of religion and a rule theory of doctrine than in any other framework," he states (135).
Lindbeck's book is certainly innovative and offers a different perspective on difficult issues. He is correct that all theological traditions should examine the full implications of their dogmas and also understand exactly what other theological traditions are saying before making pronouncements against them.
On the other hand, Lindbeck's cultural-linguistic view of theology is not persuasive, especially for those interested in forming their theology from the Bible. Lindbeck speaks negatively about the cognitive approach to doing theology (especially as found within fundamentalism), but he never adequately explains why this approach is in error. He seems to assume, as his starting point, that ecumenism is good; therefore, any approach that is not conducive to ecumenism must be wrong.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of Lindbeck's book was his discussion on his three chosen test cases-Christology, Mariology, and Infallibility. His arguments in these sections were extremely brief and lacking in substance. He never shows convincingly why the cultural-linguistic approach and rule theory should be preferred to the cognitive and experiential models in these areas.
We do not endorse the ideas of this book. Yet it is a must read for serious students of theology since it explains the foundation for how many postliberals approach doing theology today.
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