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Lindbeck’s Ships: A Response to Chad Pecknold

By Justus H. Hunter and T. Adam Van Wart

On the occasion of George Lindbeck’s recent passing, Chad Pecknold wrote a  critically appreciative piece for First Things. Pecknold argues that Lindbeck’s approach to doctrine and theological language should be celebrated, insofar as it served as a bridge that led many Protestants into a deeper appreciation of the Catholic theological tradition, or else into the Roman Catholic Church. Several of Lindbeck’s students brought theological heft with them — from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Episcopal Church, and elsewhere — to Rome in the later decades of the 20th century. However, Pecknold argues, Lindbeck’s resistance to a “realism” regarding our knowledge of God shows that his project is not sufficiently grounded in the Catholic theological tradition.

No doubt, Lindbeck was a builder. But he not only built bridges, static structures located in a single space that people quickly pass over and leave behind. Lindbeck built ships, vessels that, when properly oriented, navigate people and goods to sure destinations despite the storms and waves that come.

For many of us, Pecknold included, Lindbeck’s ships brought us into the journeying fleet of Rome. His work continues to serve as a helpful means of navigating with her and finding respite in her many ports and harbors. For others, while we may not join that larger fleet, Lindbeck set us afloat upon the currents of the great Tradition, giving us glimpses of the wisdom that lies on the far side, in hopes that someday we would all be united in one city. In all cases, Lindbeck’s ships were designed with a single captain in mind, our bridegroom and Lord, Jesus Christ, and destined for that Holy City toward which all ecclesial communities are wayfarers.

Lindbeck’s ships are carefully outfitted for the journey. They are notably nimble, able to navigate backward and around the rocky reefs of modern philosophical quagmires that shipwreck so many theological voyagers. In particular, Lindbeck’s ships lead beyond modern skepticism.

It is on this point that we worry Pecknold misses an important feature of what Lindbeck was building. Lindbeck simply refuses the skepticism brought on by modern epistemological anxieties. Thus, he was properly neither realist nor antirealist. Where Pecknold claimed that “the Church has always taken the realist view,” Lindbeck imposed other categories. Most important, Lindbeck noted that language and concepts are always that through which the world is taken up, not stand-between items that may or may not link our concepts to external “realities.”

After all, realism presupposes skeptical anti-realism. Both exist as mutually enlivening antitheses of the other. Lindbeck wanted to steer us through such pseudo-problems, back to a habit of thinking theologically that did not entertain them. For this purpose he enlisted the aid of analytic philosophy, sociology, and other modern disciplines. They are diagnostic tools, pointing out the pseudo-problems of modern skepticism that we need not accept.

In the aftermath of The Nature of Doctrine, many worried that Lindbeck failed to account sufficiently for the possibilities of natural reason. In particular, evangelical interpreters tended to worry that Lindbeck’s idiom, couched in the language of the secular academy, was soft on truth. Pecknold’s calls for realism sound similar anxieties, calling St. Thomas to his side.

But Lindbeck always insisted that his study of medieval theology, including the Angelic Doctor, was instrumental in developing his theory of Christian doctrine. He received a world-class training in medieval philosophy and theology. His theory of doctrine emerges from scholasticism; like the medieval theologians he knew and loved, Lindbeck was utterly committed to what he first called “ontological truth” and later clarified as a correspondence between our primary beliefs, or doctrines, and reality. If Lindbeck is a “realist,” it is in this very particular sense.

Lindbeck also learned from his scholastic forebears the manner in which we hold these doctrines, and therefore the kind of justification we can supply for them. On this issue, Lindbeck’s conception of doctrine follows closely St. Thomas’s insight that our doctrines are grounded in a higher knowledge — that enjoyed by God, the first truth (prima veritas), and the blessed, on whom our knowledge depends (ST I 12). If this is the case, then those of us gifted with faith must remain cognizant of the fact that our beliefs are held as those on the way. Our beliefs are held as those who, though we see through a glass darkly, will someday know God even as we are known (1 Cor. 13:12).

This means we must be confident of the truth of the Church’s teaching. As Thomas says, sacred doctrine is more certain because it derives its certainty from the light of divine knowledge. But that knowledge is higher, and so our justification of these beliefs must befit the difference between the light of our intellects in via and the light of that great Intellect. The entire scholastic speculative enterprise, masterly performed in St. Thomas’s pursuit of wisdom, hinges on the recollection of this distinction.

To be sure, Lindbeck does not forbid other realisms. But these other realisms tend to be modern phenomena. They are asserted in the face of skepticism. They stake out universal claims through appeals to natural reason. They are ways available to contemporary theologians. But these ways risk skewing of the pre-modern wisdom of scholastic theology as practiced by St. Thomas and others. Lindbeck’s ways sought to retrieve that great wisdom.

We trust that George Lindbeck lives in the Lord whose unified body was the singular aim of his life’s work. May those of us still making our way find the grace to set our courses with comparable courage and clarity en route to our final home in the Triune God.


Dr. Justus H. Hunter is assistant professor of church history at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio.

Dr. T. Adam Van Wart is assistant professor of theology and director of undergraduate studies in theology at Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, Florida.



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