Very few theologians spark a generation(s) of scholarship, much less just one work of those theologians. Yet George Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine accomplished such a feat in less than 150 pages. The Nature of Doctrine is, as Lindbeck confessed, an introduction to what he calls “postliberal theology.” Unfortunately, Lindbeck never got around to publish a fuller treatment on his methodology, but some of his students have made great strides on his behalf.
Lindbeck’s thesis is as follows: in our postmodern (and postliberal) age, there is need for better religious dialogue. The cognitive-propositionalist (truth-statement and truth-claims) and experiential-expressivist (emotive and subjective) approaches are limited, or at least they do not facilitate religious dialogue well. Instead, the nature of doctrine or religious claims should be cultural-linguistic. Lindbeck draws influence from Wittgenstein (philosopher of language), J.L. Austin (linguist), anthropology, and sociology. In short, the cultural-linguistic approach parallels talking about God and learning a language. Much like how learning a language demands the subject to immerse oneself in another’s culture, environment, native speakers, and history, learning how to do theology or say religious claims equally demands the like. In other words, cultural-linguistic approach prioritizes communal or common language about God or religious objects. It’s absorbing how people talk about God that forms how to talk about God.
Lindbeck’s proposal is attractive and, I think, simple enough for the laity or congregation (the true theologians of a particular church) to get excited about. This is the clear benefit of Lindbeck’s postliberal or cultural-linguistic theology. But it is not without some limitations. First, if theology is just a particular community’s talk about God, then can theology be reduced to ecclesiology (doctrine of the church)? Theology then is not really about God or Jesus, but how God or Jesus is perceived by this or that church. Second, if theology is cultural-linguistic, then does it have any reality or metaphysical grounding? Put differently, if theology is just language, then does it matter if that language is historically accurate — e.g., Jesus actually rose from the dead? I don’t see how postliberal theology can demand this from its followers. Thus, Lindbeck’s postliberal or cultural-linguistic theology must be supplemented, I think, to make it a thicker and more grounded way of doing theology.