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Quiet, modest pioneer

George A. Lindbeck, 1923-2018

George A. Lindbeck’s death on January 8 brings to a close an era of extraordinarily fruitful theological work that he engaged with colleagues around the Church. At Yale, he worked with the late Hans Frei and Brevard Childs; within Lutheranism, with thinkers like Jaroslav Pelikan, Robert Jenson, and Harding Meyer; he had Roman Catholic partners like Walter Kasper, and Jewish ones like Peter Ochs. Lindbeck’s personal contributions to this network of discussion was enormous, though often modestly quiet. His writings were comparatively few, with only one monograph achieving renown — although one of towering proportions — The Nature of Doctrine (1984). Lindbeck also wrote numerous articles, only a few of which have been republished (cf. The Church in a Postliberal Age [2003]).

He tirelessly engaged in ecumenical discussion. He had a major role in the landmark Lutheran-Roman Catholic Joint Declaration on Justification (1999). His continuous teaching at Yale from 1952 to 1993 provided him with detailed research, notes, and reflection that, by the end of his life, pointed to astonishing new directions on ecclesiological reflection that not only derive from his individual creativity but embody elements drawn from his rich intellectual interactions. All scholars live within a vital network of collegial work. Lindbeck’s, however, represents a unique moment of transition in the Church’s theological self-understanding, laying on the table and engaging what are now standard, if difficult and contested contemporary, challenges of missionary witness within broadly hostile or indifferent cultural settings.

Lindbeck was born in China, to missionary parents, a formation that proved central to his vision. His advanced theological training was in late medieval philosophy, which he studied in Toronto and Paris, under Étienne Gilson and Paul Vignaux, respectively. In part this training shaped his precise, analytical approach to matters, one that sometimes masked his deep piety and Christian fervor. At Yale, he regularly taught ordinands medieval and Reformation theology, in lectures that were detailed, careful, often profound and daring in their questions, as year by year he constantly refashioned his thinking in exciting ways. He was an expert on Luther but also on Aquinas (and his seminar notes on the latter are ones I still study). His many students, Protestant and Catholic, have enriched the Church’s ministry, and many have become key theologians in their own right. Those who knew Lindbeck could not help but be transformed by his faith, humility, quiet focus, charity, sometimes sly wisdom, and profound knowledge and imagination.

George Lindbeck, left, and Kristen Skydsgaard meet Pope John XXIII during Vatican II in 1963.

For all his extraordinary historical and theological erudition, Lindbeck’s main vocation was ecumenical. He was one of the official Protestant observers at Vatican II, and he remained engaged in formal and informal dialogues for his entire career. His celebrated volume The Nature of Doctrine was a direct response to this ecumenical work. It was concise, dense, and drew together sociology, epistemology, and anthropology in ways that remain groundbreaking. On one level the book provided a general theory about how religious communities order their self-understanding and communal formation. Lindbeck’s discussion here is complex, and has given rise to numerous debates.

The point of his theory was to outline how religious communities might better understand other communities, such that dialogue might be fruitful. Lindbeck proposed a now well-known threefold typology that contrasted more conservative scholastic communities (at least in their self-understanding) with more liberal experientially oriented communities, commending finally a third type that was construed in a more “culturally” ordered fashion, in which language, social rules, and coherence provided the framework by which truth is identified. Doctrine, Lindbeck argued, functions differently in these three types of religious community. In the first it is a set of cognitive propositions regarding truth; in the second, it is the articulation expressive of some common religious experience; or finally, in the third “cultural-linguistic” understanding of a religious community, doctrine functions as a kind of ordering “grammar” for practical life with God, and truth is somehow evident in this coherent life.

Lindbeck believed that this third way of understanding religious communities and the truth they claim is actually a more accurate way of talking about all religious communities (and this includes those of divergent religions). But even if it were not, it is a useful one, and Lindbeck’s reflections aimed, in part, at trying to untangle misunderstandings within ecumenical dialogues, as representatives from different churches approached their discussions with divergent presuppositions about what they were explaining and defending. His proposal for the third approach to doctrine was meant to free discussion from the impasses brought on by the confrontation of the first two.

The book left many questions unanswered, and thereby encouraged an onrush of debate, especially under the banner of his claim that he was proposing a form of Christian understanding that was neither conservative nor liberal, but postliberal. A veritable industry in postliberalism that began to take in not just theology but politics and culture (and was informed by more than Lindbeck’s work) was set in motion and has continued to this day.

However interesting this line of debate has been, it has also proven somewhat sterile, in encouraging party labels and methodological worries that some theologians today rightly suspect have been distracting rather than illuminating of central Christian concerns. But Lindbeck’s interest had always been ecumenical practice, not grand theory. In any case, Lindbeck’s major contribution, in retrospect, lay less in epistemology and in theories of truth than in the areas of primary mission and pastoral ministry: how to maintain the integrity of the Christian community (Church) as a witnessing and serving body, faithful to Christ Jesus. He was deeply concerned, along with colleagues like Jenson and Childs, with what he perceived to be the slow corrosion of the Church’s life from within, and through the assaults from without by an increasingly hostile, if seductive, un-Christian or even anti-Christian culture. Personal discussions with Lindbeck about the most abstract matters of ecclesiology often came back to on-the-ground realities, frequently tethered to his considered experience of mission in China: how does a church — the Church — survive and grow faithfully in the midst of the heavy challenges of social dynamics that are willy-nilly unraveling its evangelical center of life?

Lindbeck’s more philosophical interest in how communities are ordered, speak, teach, understand their commitments, and enact them may have struck some as too general, “just” theories that one might apply to any group, and hence unbound to the particularities of Christian faith. Evangelical and Catholic critics could be heard voicing such worries: where was the throbbing heart of the Gospel, or the concrete body of the sacramental sacrifice? This kind of criticism was also aimed at the postliberal vision more generally: it was a “theory” about human communities — a sociology — not a vision of divine reality made particular in Christ Jesus. This criticism, however, misunderstood not only Lindbeck’s purpose but the payoff of his thinking, something more liberal critics perhaps grasped more truly: Lindbeck’s epistemological ruminations about how communities know things and teach them implied something that amounted to a major challenge to all contemporary liberalism in the Church, because they called for pedagogical specificity and inclusive formational application of a kind that liberalism’s critical openness and intrinsic permissiveness had quite explicitly repudiated.

Lindbeck wanted to outline the practical missionary demands of the Church and why they in fact required deliberate, serious, and perseverant ordering of a certain kind. Here, the consequences were indeed specific: Scripture needs to be taught and assimilated in a central and continuing way; catechesis needs to be formal, articulate and pervasive; the ordering of the Church’s life requires lived elaboration and buy-in; public and private talk about the Christian faith needs to be concrete, consistent, and enveloping; finally, the “performative” aspects of all of this are at the center of the Church’s being, driven by the call to witness to the particular fullness of Christ Jesus, given in the Scripture and over time in the expended lives of his followers and of their historical communities. To say this amounted to a more conservative vision of the Church is true in some sense — it required a deep appreciation and assimilation of past Christian claims, tradition, and witness. But because his vision was so attuned to cultural context and realities, it was also a critical posture over and against the histories of various traditions and their variously wayward adjustments to de-Christianizing pressures and temptations. Lindbeck’s discussions were about today, not yesterday; and they were about how the Christian faith can touch today’s people, not about how it was engaged by those of the past.

This general focus on mission was not merely strategic, however. It led to more specifically theological and constructive work that, unfortunately because of his failing health, Lindbeck never brought to a synthetic conclusion as he might have wished. Yet he wrote enough about it in various essays to lay out enormously fruitful and rich avenues for others to follow. I have in mind here his proposal to see Israel as the center of ecclesial identity, order, and witness. The central failure of the Christian Church — over time and various ways — to maintain her identity with and as the Israel of the Old Testament, Lindbeck argued, was a fundamental cause of her debased communal integrity. Indeed, if Israel is substituted in The Nature of Doctrine for the cultural-linguistic community, not as an example but as its originating and ontological form, specifically Christian aspects of the book click into place. The supersessionist sin, in which the Christian Church claimed to “take the place of” Israel, not only led to the deforming and blasphemous sins of anti-Semitism, Lindbeck argued, but also hollowed out the Church’s practices of scriptural formation, teaching, and outreach.

In his later writing, he began to investigate these issues in a variety of directions, moving ever more closely to engage Jewish thinkers and offering novel, creative, and radically challenging perspectives on the Christian Church’s contemporary vocation in this respect. Lindbeck’s earlier discussions of the “sectarian” option that so worried some commentators now began to take specific theological form in his notion of a Christian “Israelology,” a distinct (and divine) community ordered not simply by scriptural promises but by the scriptural history and experience of Old and New Testaments in their unity. Thinking of the Church as Israel in this way would allow for a much richer and more flexible understanding of Christian experience in sin and virtue — hence its potential ecumenical value — that could get beyond the old institutional and purely dogmatic topics of debate among traditions and denominations.

Thinking of the Church as Israel could also focus Christian self-understanding in a more realistic and faithful missionary direction, by asking the right questions regarding faithful teaching, witness, and the necessary resources for survival and service. It would also, finally, open the door to the desperately needed conversion, repentance, and reconciliation Christians require in the face of their Jewish brothers and sisters. Not all Jewish theologians agreed with these perspectives and proposals. But few have criticized the deeply faithful motives behind these profound reorientations in Christian self-understanding that Lindbeck’s discussions implied — ones not yet actually pursued, but left to others to take up. To quote from “What of the Future? A Christian Response,” his remarkable essay that brings many of these themes together:

One final example of what Christians can gain from understanding the church as Israel in nonsupersessionist terms is that it frees them to hear God speak not only through the Old Testament Israelites, but also through postbiblical Jews; this freedom follows from the belief that the covenant with Israel has not been revoked. The Jews remain God’s chosen people and are thus a primary source for Christian understandings of God’s intentions. With the passing of Christendom that is now taking place it is increasingly important for the churches to turn for instruction to Judaism. Jews learned much about faithful survival in hostile societies during the long galut; Christians need comparable lessons now that they are themselves becoming a world-wide diaspora and are seeking, via the ecumencial movement, to end their own dispersion by creating an institutionally decentralized common universe of discourse and, it is hoped, witness. (Tikva Frymer-Kensky et al., eds., Christianity in Jewish Terms [Westview, 2000])

The possibility of Christians turning to post-biblical Jewish writing as an authoritative part of their tradition is indeed freeing. Anglican Christians especially need to learn from Lindbeck, who was, in fact, a great friend to them. Our confusions about identity and common teaching — as well our (sometimes subverted) gifts of common prayer and missionary vigor that cross local cultures and expectations, and that have taken in many hard experiences — have now exposed the stark challenges of our survival as Christian witnesses in the West, and of the living integrity of our global relationships. Many of our leaders have simply failed to take seriously what makes a Christian community and allows it to live through time, and here Lindbeck’s more sociological and epistemological studies need to be taken seriously in our midst.

But more than that, Anglicans thirst for renewed understandings of what survival is for, of the living shape of the body of Christ they are a part of. Lindbeck’s re-embrace of Israel, in her scriptural form and in her ordering to and in Jesus Christ, proposes that purpose in a way that is increasingly difficult to avoid. Joining in that embrace would mark a full transition into a new era of Christian faithfulness that George Lindbeck labored and prayed for. May he rest in peace, and his prayers be answered.



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