George Hunsinger

If postliberal theology depends on the existence of something called the "Yale School," then postliberal theology is in trouble. It is in trouble, because the so-called Yale School enjoys little basis in reality, being largely the invention of theological journalism. At best it represents a loose coalition of interests, united more by what it opposes or envisions than by any common theological program.

One indicator that the Yale School is mostly a fiction is that no two lists of who allegedly belongs to it are the same. Everyone agrees that the short list includes Hans Frei and George Lindbeck, both of whom taught at Yale over roughly the same period, more or less from the 1950s to the 1980s. After that, however, the nominees vary widely, though they can perhaps be divided into three categories: Frei's and Lindbeck's Yale colleagues, their Yale-related contemporaries, and their students. Does the Yale School include Brevard Childs, David Kelsey, and Paul Holmer? All were colleagues, and all have been nominated; but why other colleagues should be excluded, like Nils Dahl, Wayne Meeks, Gene Outka, or even Robert Clyde Johnson, is not clear. Does it include Stanley Hauerwas, a frequently mentioned contender, not on the Yale faculty, but with a Yale Ph.D.? Does it include William Placher, Bruce Marshall, Ronald Thiemann, Kathryn Tanner, David Yeago, Joseph DiNoia, James Buckley, or myself, to mention only a few? Who knows? We all did our doctoral work at Yale, which at least seems to have placed us in the running. Prima facie, however, one is looking at a fairly diverse bunch. Are there unifying interests or themes?

If we stick for a moment with Frei's and Lindbeck's students, certain tendencies are perhaps discernible, but only with varying degrees of convergence, divergence, and incompatibility. One axis might run, say, between "neo-confessionalists" and "neo-secularists." Roughly speaking, the former would tend to move from the traditional to the modern, from received confessional theologies to theological method, or from ecclesial commitments to secular disciplines, whereas the latter would move more in the opposite direction, from the methodological to the confessional, or from the secular to the ecclesial, with a complex range of options in between. The only real commonality would be somehow to negotiate these interests. Another axis would represent ecumenical interests that traverse the familiar confessions or communions, representing yet also criss-crossing the Reformed, the Lutheran (mostly evangelical-Catholic in tendency), the Anglican, and the Roman Catholic traditions. Not least, but perhaps crucially, another axis might span, or exemplify, a neglected difference between "postliberal" and "neoliberal" positions. That difference, however, in some sense, is arguably the difference between Frei and Lindbeck themselves.

Besides the lack of a common program, the main reason why there is no Yale School is that little-noticed differences exist between the two defining principals. Though not absolute, they are by no means negligible. Frei was oriented toward Barth; Lindbeck, toward Aquinas and Luther. Frei's method of relating theology to other disciplines fell most naturally into thought-forms reminiscent of Barth (Gospel/Law); Lindbeck's method, by contrast, into thought-forms indebted to Luther (Law/Gospel). The logic of Frei's theology tended to move from the particular to the general, from the ecclesial to the secular, and from the confessional to the methodological; the logic of Lindbeck's theology moved more or less in the opposite direction, from the general to the particular, from the secular to the ecclesial, and from the methodological to the confessional.1 The two theologians also differed on questions of truth. Although both were "nonfoundationalists" sympathetic to Wittgenstein, holding that cognitive and pragmatic aspects of truth should be seen as inseparable, Frei did not follow his colleague in making the one a function of the other. As opposed to Lindbeck's pragmatism that made truth depend strongly on use, Frei quietly aligned himself instead with a less pragmatist position that he called "moderate propositionalism."2 Nor did Frei think, as did his colleague, that doctrines qua doctrines were merely regulative (as opposed to being also constitutive).3 The former theologian

1 For similar (and much more detailed) reflections on how the two Yale theologians follow contrasting procedures in their methodologies, see Mike Higton, "Frei's Christology and Lindbeck's Cultural-linguistic Theory," Scottish Journal of Theology 50 (1997), 83-95. See Hans W. Frei, "Epilogue: George Lindbeck and The Nature of Doctrine," in Bruce D. Marshall, ed., Theology and Dialogue, (University of Notre Dame Press, 1990), pp. 140-41.

3 See for example Frei, Types of Christian Theology (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), pp. 124-25. In this passage Frei discusses the historic Chalcedonian Definition. Note that he does not distinguish sharply between "first-order" and "second-order" discourse, but more mildly between first-level and second-level functions. Most importantly, Frei does not regard the second-level function as merely regulative. On the contrary, he takes it for granted that this grammatical level also makes truth claims, functioning in a way that is conceptually "descriptive" or "redescriptive." See also p. 42.

was thus somewhat less latitudinarian than the latter.4 Frei stood for "generous orthodoxy"; Lindbeck, for "orthodox generosity."

Consequently, with respect to truth and method in theology, Frei may be seen as more directly "postliberal"; Lindbeck, as slightly more "neoliberal." "Postliberalism," as used here, would be that form of tradition-based rationality in theology for which questions of truth and method are strongly dependent on questions of meaning, and for which questions of meaning are determined by the intratextual subject matter of Scripture. Postliberalism bids for a paradigm shift in which liberalism and evangelicalism are overlapped, dismantled, and reconstituted on a new and different plane. Neoliberalism, by contrast, would be more nearly a revisionist extension within the established liberal paradigm. It does not so much depart from as perpetuate the liberal/evangelical split characteristic of modernity itself.

The neoliberal elements in Lindbeck's thought can be seen in his "cultural-linguistic" theory. This theory is really three theories in one: a theory of religion, a theory of doctrine, and a theory of truth. The theory of religion is "cultural"; the theory of doctrine, "regulative," and the theory of truth, "pragmatist." Whereas the theory of religion is possibly postliberal, the theories of doctrine and truth are more properly neoliberal. For Lindbeck as for modern liberal theology, both "doctrine" and "truth" are so defined as to make them significantly non-cognitive. Any conceivable propositional content in theological language is relativized. Although the strategies of relativization are different, the modern liberal aversion to propositional content is much the same.

Modern liberal theology tends to regard received church doctrines as propositional, but truth as "experiential-expressive." It proceeds, in effect, to turn its non-cognitive theory of religious truth against received doctrines so that propositional content is at once relativized and made dependent, in meaning and truth, on logically independent interpretative schemes (for example, ontology, metaphysics, analytical philosophy, historicism, naturalism, social theory, depth psychology, etc.). Once Christian doctrinal content has been relativized, reinterpreted, or reduced by independent disciplines functioning as interpretative schemes, practical content is typically promoted as the remaining element of religious significance.

Lindbeck's "cultural-linguistic" theory is "neoliberal" insofar as it achieves much the same outcome by other means. Whereas liberalism

4 For an example of Lindbeck's "latitudinarianism," see his essay "Atonement and the Hermeneutics of Intratextual Social Embodiment," in Timothy R. Phillips and Dennis L. Okholm, eds., The Nature of Confession: Evangelicals and Postliberals in Conversation (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 1996), pp. 221-40. He finds a way of validating both Anselm and Abelard on the atonement.

relativizes doctrine's prepositional content by reinterpretation, neoliber-alism does so by redefinition (the "rule theory"). Whereas liberalism promotes religion's practical content by way of a theory of religious truth that is "experiential-expressive," neoliberalism does so by means of a new theory of truth that is more pragmatic. The neoliberal critique does not break with the liberal paradigm. Although it substitutes pragmatism for expressivism, it tends to perpetuate the liberal aversion to propositionalism. Neither liberalism nor neoliberalism can quite do justice, from a properly postliberal point of view, to the truth claims of Christian discourse.

The first use of the term "postliberal," in the relevant sense, occurred in Hans Frei's doctoral dissertation.5 Although in that work it merely indicated the two basic phases of Barth's development (from liberal to postliberal), the stage was set for thinking about "postliberalism" as a theological option in its own right. At least three aspects in Barth's break with liberalism, as Frei analyzed it, turned out to be portents of the future: critical realism (dialectic and analogy), the primacy of God, and Christocentricity. A suggestive convergence emerges at this point between Barth and Lindbeck. If one were to correlate Barth's postliberalism with the latter's cultural-linguistic theory, the results might be: a theory of truth determined by critical realism, a theory of doctrine determined by divine primacy, and a theory of religion determined by Christocentrism. Although on this reading postliberalism would not be confined to the "Yale School," that School would represent a partial mediation and independent development of richer, more definitive postliberal theologies such as are found in figures like Hans Urs von Balthasar and Karl Barth. In what follows, some ideas of Frei and Lindbeck will be examined in relation to such larger programs as they bear on the emergent themes: truth, doctrine, religion.6


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