Theology and the End of Doctrine // Christine Helmer.

In 1984, George Lindbeck, professor of theology at Yale University, published The Nature of Doctrine, a short manifesto that succinctly summarized a new way of doing theology: the so called “postliberal theology.” The proposal is simple: theological formation is best modeled after cultural-linguistic development. In other words, learning theology is like learning a language: one needs a community of “native speakers” and a handful of grammatical, or “orthodox,” rules set by said community. Thus, theology is properly bred in the Church: the community of believers and the heirs of the Tradition (as a Lutheran, Lindbeck most likely only had the Western tradition in mind). Lindbeck along with his colleague Hans W. Frei inspired a generation of theologians and instigated the Yale School of Theology. (You can see my review of Lindbeck’s book, here.)

The Nature of Doctrine also inspired some dissenters and critics—not always mean-spirited, however. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, for one, in his Drama of Doctrine adapted the postliberal proposal from cultural-linguistic to “canonical-linguistic.” In other words, Vanhoozer made Scripture, not the culture of one’s church, the fulcrum of theological formation. Vanhoozer appreciative yet critically builds upon Lindbeck. (You can see my review of Vanhoozer’s book, here.)

In Theology and the End of Doctrine, however, Christine Helmer more so corrects Lindbeck. This was inevitable. The Nature of Doctrine is about 150 pages, summarizing centuries and giants of theology in scant pages. He was bound to make caricatures, notable for Helmer, Friedrich Schleiermacher.

Lindbeck whisks off Schleiermacher, that “prince of the church” as Barth reverently (or pejoratively) labeled him, as merely an expressivist. Schleiermacher did nothing more than reduce theology to an emotion, a gut-feeling, or a subjective experience of God, so says Lindbeck. This distain for bursts of emotions and personal testimony of God in Lindbeck is actually representative of post-Enlightenment academia. Such distain causes a riff between one’s doctrine and one’s reality. When one’s experience of God is negated, then one’s doctrine is a mere husk of words, so says Helmer.

Thus, Theology and the End of Doctrine tries to restore the connection between doctrine and reality—not just the human’s but also God’s infinite and inexhaustible reality. And bursts of religious experience testifies of God’s immensity. They do not always discredit doctrine’s philosophical rigor. They do, however, force doctrine to look back to God as its rightful subject-matter. Doctrine should breathe life as it attests the life-giver.

Helmer does a lot in her book. On the one hand, she is correcting stereotypes in churches about doctrine being dry husks. On the other, she is solidifying the mutual beneficial relationship between personal experience and social sciences with religious studies, beyond mere deconstruction. She also traces modern German intellectual history while correcting misconceptions of Schleiermacher. It is thoroughly researched proposal. But it is also just that: a proposal. Lindbeck unfortunately never returned to writing a full treatment of postliberal theology; Helmer hopes to avoid that oversight in the future. In the meantime, I will return to Theology and the End of Doctrine as I wait in anticipation.

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