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Lindbeck on types of theology

November 18, 2009

In his book The Nature of Doctrine, George Lindbeck wants to offer a new theological theory of religion and doctrine because he feels the two currently active fail to offer real opportunity for ecumenical results.

He describes the types as follows:
1- Cognitive-propositionalist: “stresses the ways in which church doctrines function as informative propositions or truth claims about objective realities.” (16) He also refers to this type as pre-liberal and finds it unhelpful for ecumenical discussion because it does not allow for real development or distinction in doctrine. “For a propositionalist if a doctrine is once true, it is always true, and if it is once false, it is always false. This implies, for example, that the historic affirmations and denials of transubstantiation can never be harmonized.” (16)

2 – Experiential-expressive: “interprets doctrines as noninformative and nondiscursive symbols of inner feelings, attitudes, or existential orientations” (16). Think Schleiermacher. He refers to this as liberal theology, but clearly does not mean it in the political or progressive sense. In this type “religiously significant meanings can vary while doctrines remain the same, and conversely, doctrines can alter without a change of meaning…The general principle is that insofar as doctines function as nondiscursive symbols, they are polyvalent in import and therefore subject to changes of meaning, or even to a total loss of meaningfulness…There is thus at least the logical possiblity that a Buddhist and a Christian might have basically the same faith, although expressed very differently” (17). Therefore there can be no real ecumenical discussion because everything is about the individual experience. Truth claims and doctrines end up dissolving in the experience.

3 – Hybrid: Lindbeck names Rahner and Lonergan as prime examples of theologians who have recognized the limitations of the above and have tried to combine the two. He feels that while this hybrid is theoretically an improvement because it does not “a priori exclude doctrinal reconciliation without capitulation as do simple propositionalism and simple symbolism,” its explanations of combining the two tend to be awkward, extremely complex and difficult to understand, and therefore, not very useful.

4- Cultural-linguistic: This is Lindbeck’s alternative. He seems to be following, at least in part, Wittgenstein on this, although trying to apply it explicitly to theology was somewhat new at the time. “Here emphasis is placed on aspects in which religions resemble languages together with their correlative forms of life and are thus similar to cultures (insofar as these are understood semiotically as reality and value systems–that is as idioms for the constructing of reality and the living of life).” In this approach doctrines, rather than being first-order truth statements as in the propositionalist theory, doctrines are seen as regulative, as grammatical rules which govern the practices of a religion. “Rules, unlike propositions or expressive symbols, retain an invariant meaning under changings conditions of compatibility and conflict.”

Based upon what has been said here what are your perceptions of the viability and usefulness of each of these for discussing theology? I hope to add more in the weeks to come as time permits.

Preliminarily, it seems to me that Lindeck’s cultural-linguistic model most accurately reflects the life of the church, the manner in which doctrines are developed, defined, practices, accepted, that is in community, throughout history, contextually. However, being that society is in the process of becoming “deChristianized” such that Christian communities are no longer as formative of our experiences and perceptions of the world as is the secular world, this approach may not be very practical.

What say you, oh learned readers?

One Comment
  1. November 20, 2009 4:43 am

    I think there is, of course, value to the recognition of the relationship between culture and religion, however, there needs to be a combination of what he said with other thoughts — after all the Christian truth is recognized via many cultures, and not all are Christian ones.

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