Contributions of Non-Evangelicals to Theology (3)

Neo-Liberalism’s Theology of Narrative

Barth’s star waned somewhat during the nineteen-sixties, but today he is important to the work of the “New Yale School.”[1] Not that the theologians at Yale are carbon copies of the Swiss theologian. Not at all. But Barth is about the only modern theologian who they cite with approval.[2] This ‘school’ became known as Post-Liberal, mainly because of the effect of George Lindbeck’s book, The Nature of Doctrine. Lindbeck, together with three other colleagues at Yale Divinity School, namely, Hans Frei, David Kelsey, and Paul Holmer, have forged a consensus approach that abandons the old liberalism, with its predisposition to analyze everything in terms borrowed from beyond Scripture, and, like Barth, have come back to the Bible as the only source from which theology ought to be done. They speak of the necessity of an ‘intratextual hermeneutics,’ which examines the stories of the Bible in order to rediscover the “the imagination and life of the Christian community.”[3] The essential thing is to enter the thought-world of these narratives, to let them speak to the contemporary situation in their own voice.[4] If an outside, or extratextual methodology is employed, it becomes impossible to understand the voice of Scripture, since its voice is, in essence, muted by an alien voice.

Hence, there is a call for exegesis of the Biblical text[5] so that its narratives (especially) can yield up their meaning for today. The book that really set the Yale theology on its way was Frei’s The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative in which Frei claimed that the true story of the Bible was being pulled out of recognition by the concerns of the contemporary interpreter.[6] As Wallace explains, “The task of theology, then, is primarily descriptive: to uncover the grammar that has always guided the church’s experience and specify its applicability to particular theological problems and concerns.”[7]

Theology in post-Liberal perspective becomes all about describing things in the spirit of the stories of the Bible. That is, “Intratextual theology seeks to transform and define all reality according to the biblical world.”[8] The model advocated is described by Lindbeck as a “cultural-linguistic” approach.[9] One must discern the spirit of the stories so that ones language becomes ‘Biblical’ and ones outlook is shaped by the language of the Biblical text.

This introduces a vital component in this theology. There is a heavy reliance upon the work of the later Wittgenstein[10] and his philosophy of “language games.” According to Wittgenstein each community, by which he means a denomination, club, ethnic population, academic specialty, etc., has a particular vocabulary through which its members communicate. Within that limited sphere the language makes sense. But someone from without cannot fully comprehend the way in which the ‘language-community’ is using its words. This means that there is a dislocation of meaning when one language-community tries to talk to another language-community. There is some basic understanding because both groups are within the larger ‘family’ that uses the same words, but misunderstanding and even incomprehension is likely as the two groups examine one another’s reasoning. Thus, the validity of a community’s ‘truth’ depends on whether it is using its own linguistic terms properly.

A good Lindbeckian, postliberal theologian will therefore operate less like a philosophically oriented apologist and more like a sensitive anthropologist, who tries to describe the language and practice of a tribe in terms of how they function in the life of that community and how they shape the way the community sees the world, rather than trying to defend these people’s way of talking by the standards of some universal human rationality or experience.[11]

What all this means to the Yale professors is that the ‘language-game’ of theology is the language of the Bible. A different language than that of the prophets and apostles is a foreign, and, therefore, inappropriate language to use. This is why the old Liberalism was wrong, in that it used another language to do theology with than that of the Bible.

Post-Liberalism is already moving in a different direction than evangelicalism, but the crucial question has still to be put: “What relation do the stories of the Bible bear to the real world?” And here we see clearly how great the gulf is between this approach and the one we shall be advocating in the next chapter. For, according to these Yale men, “Christian faith does not make statements about reality; rather, it organizes reality in a coherent fashion for believers. Religions and theologies are like languages. We do not ask whether Greek or French or Swahili is true, but how it works in enabling a community to structure its experience of the world.”[12]

Naturally, we would inquire about the point of all this. If theology is just the reiteration of the spirit of Biblical language-games and makes no external claim to truth then why believe it in the first place? What is it one is supposed to “believe” if there is no ontological correspondence between, for example, the claims of Christ in Scripture, and what really happened in Israel 2000 years ago? But most fatally for this view, if theology is locked inside a linguistic universe of its own (“Christianity”), how can it impact the unbelieving world? How can it challenge false faiths, wicked practices, or corrupt or foolish policies?[13] Indeed, how can it perpetuate itself except from the inside?

We say, then, that post-Liberalism is just another train running into the void.

There are other problems with Lindbeck, Frei, et al,[14] but our report is sufficiently full to allow us to move on to survey the work of the two major German theologians of the last hundred years, after Barth.

Positive Contributions?

We are out of sympathy with the Yale theologians, but there are three things we can appreciate:

a. First, though narrative is not all, it is an important part of Scripture which should be explored further.[15]

b. Their stress on exegesis.

c. The insight that there is a valid set of “rules for the speech and conduct of God’s creatures”[16] within the stories of the Bible.

[1] This is the name given to the movement by Brevard Childs, also of Yale. Childs does not hold this position.

[2] Mark I. Wallace, “The New Yale Theology,” in J. I. Packer, ed., The Best of Theology, (Carol Stream: Christianity Today Inc., 1989), Vol. 3, 182.

[3] Wallace, 170.

[4] Kenneth J. Collins, The Evangelical Moment, 97.

[5] Before getting excited by this news it is well to point out that Lindbeck gives short shrift to evangelical propositionalists. He is not looking for common truth. Like many University theologians he seems to have only a dim awareness of evangelical theology.

[6] Hans Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), 130.

[7] Wallace, 170.

[8] Ibid, 171.

[9] George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine, 30ff.

[10] A distinction between the “early” and “later” Wittgenstein is necessary because this philosopher’s more mature work (e.g. Philosophical Investigations) overthrows that of his earlier Tractatus-Logico Philosophicus in its understanding of language. The Tractatus sought to analyze language in line with the positivist philosophers. However, upon reflection, Wittgenstein realized that different groups employed terminology in different ways; hence, language was far more relativistic than he had thought. In the Yale school one can see the influence of Wittgenstein in Lindbeck and Holmer especially.

[11] William C. Placher, Unapologetic Theology, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989), 163.

[12] Wallace, 181.

[13] For a similar criticism see Placher, 166.

[14] A final instance will nail down the coffin lid. In the words of a sympathetic writer: “Lindbeck sees no reason why Christians may not hold that non-Christians encounter and receive the grace of Christ either in their last moments of life or in the life hereafter.” – Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology, second edition, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 312.

[15] This is being done in evangelical circles and is producing interesting results. Two good examples of this are Iain Provan, V. Phillips Long, and Tremper Longman III, A Biblical History of Israel, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2003), and Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen, The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004).

[16] John M. Frame’s review of Lindbeck in The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1987), 381.


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