In terms of impact per page, The Nature of Doctrine (1984) was probably the most significant work of American theology in a generation, if not a century. Its author, George Lindbeck, who died in January, was a Lutheran theologian based at Yale University, with a long and deep interest in Catholicism.
Lindbeck was born in 1923. The son of a Lutheran missionary, he lived in China and Korea until the age of seventeen. He was educated at Gustavus Adolphus College and Yale Divinity School, and taught at Yale from 1951 until his retirement in 1993.
Lindbeck began his academic career with a doctorate on Duns Scotus, a notoriously complex and technical medieval writer. He once commented that the pressure to publish was not so strong in his early days: he never considered going to a publisher with the dissertation, just made a few copies to post to the handful of scholars around the world who might possibly have an interest.
However obscure, Lindbeck’s early work on medieval theology made him a natural candidate for serving as a Lutheran observer at the Second Vatican Council, and it was his experience there that in one way or another gave shape to much of the long theological career that followed.
In 1970, five years after the close of the council, Lindbeck published a book titled The Future of Catholic Theology, with a subtitle referring back to Vatican II. Putting the phrase “the future of” into a title is perhaps a risky thing to do—such books rather quickly seem dated. Whatever its virtues, in any case, this early work by Lindbeck is rarely cited. The more significant outcome of his involvement in Vatican II was that he became a lifelong ecumenist involved in Roman Catholic–Lutheran dialogue both nationally and internationally. This was important as a contribution in itself—the dialogues in which Lindbeck participated led to the celebrated 1999 Joint Declaration on Justification—but important also because The Nature of Doctrine emerged from Lindbeck’s wrestling with what he saw in the course of the ecumenical work.
The issue that puzzled Lindbeck and gave rise to his slim but powerful book had to do with some of the striking successes of the movement during the period of his involvement. How was the genuine intellectual progress that characterized this ecumenical work possible? In particular, how was it, he asked, that doctrinal differences which at one stage had been church-dividing could now be overcome, while each party still insisted that they remained absolutely faithful to their historic commitments? One could, of course, simply ignore the claims to fidelity—maybe the theologians on all sides were really going soft on their own traditions—but Lindbeck proposed instead that we might try believing them, and thinking afresh about what this implies about what doctrine itself is.
What emerges in The Nature of Doctrine is a very ambitious and wide-ranging theory of religion and of doctrine, and indeed a proposal for how to do theology in a new “postliberal” vein, all within 138 pages. Lindbeck set his understanding in contrast with an intellectually oriented, “cognitive” conception of religion, according to which a religion is something like a science or a philosophy, and doctrines are truth claims—one might think here of the neo-scholastic system of thought that dominated official Catholic thinking from the end of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth.
The contrast with cognitive readings of religion was not especially shocking: in many theological circles of the time, including Catholic ones, the “cognitive-propositional” approach was already long dismissed. More provocatively, Lindbeck also set his own vision over against what he called “experiential-expressivism,” which he associated with a liberal theological tradition. According to this “experiential-expressive” liberal view, religions are the expressions of a basic experience of the divine—perhaps one shared across all religions—and doctrines are symbols of “inner feelings, attitudes, or existential orientations.”
Lindbeck’s basic proposal was that a religion should be thought of neither as a philosophy, a set of beliefs, nor as ultimately just the expression of an experience; it should instead be imagined on the model of a culture, something that surrounds and shapes you, or as a language, something through which you think and express yourself and indeed experience the world. Doctrines then become something like the grammatical rules of the language. With such an understanding in place, he thought, one could find a way to make sense of the particular combination of change and permanence that the ecumenical advances of his time presented.
Imagining doctrines as rules for the correct use of language can be very illuminating in particular cases. It is a whole lot easier to get one’s head around the doctrine of the Trinity, for instance, if one thinks of it in this way rather than if one treats it as a mysterious description one is supposed to be able to dimly grasp; and the famous Chalcedonian definition (Christ is one person in two natures, fully human and fully divine, the two natures unconfused, undivided, unchanged, unseparated) is also a bit easier to grapple with if it can be approached as, above all, a grammatical ruling.