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Missionary to postmodernity

George Arthur Lindbeck
1923-2018George Arthur Lindbeck — Lutheran ecumenist, medievalist, and Pitkin Professor Emeritus of Historical Theology at Yale Divinity School — died Jan. 8. He was 94.

In the days ahead, Covenant will publish tributes to Professor Lindbeck by leaders who studied with him and others influenced by his thinking.

How to describe George Lindbeck’s perspective in brief? This is a difficult question about a mind so supple and original. I once heard him describe himself as a Wittgensteinian Thomist Lutheran. But there is another side of George I would like to highlight: the child of pietist Augustana Lutheran missionaries in northern China. Though not often on view, it was always down there.

He once mentioned an early memory of his father ministering to the sick late at night in a makeshift cholera ward. He also spoke of being evacuated at the outset of World War II and sailing back to the United States from Hong Kong while “the world seemed on fire.” I might add that his early days in China included prowess as a high school ping-pong player on the national team.

Whatever else postliberalism is, it was meant to be an apologetic help to be a credal or mere Christian in our age. That is what George was and what he wanted to promote. Furthermore, it was a deeply missionary-influenced theory. He once said that he grew up in a non-Christian milieu in which the reality of the spiritual world was not in question, within which the mission station was a distinct cultural-linguistic world.

George was, like all great minds, ahead of his time. His call for a Church Catholic in thought but more sect-like in sociology was prescient. The root metaphor of doctrine as grammar oriented the research projects of many of us, and more widely the way people think about the Church’s mission in postmodernity. We who are his theological children offer our deepest gratitude and thanksgiving to God for George’s life and ministry.

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