Review of Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine

by John M. Frame

Associate Professor of Apologetics and Systematic Theology

Westminster Theological Seminary in California

[This review was originally published in The Presbyterian Journal 43 (Feb. 27, 1985), 11 12.]


THE NATURE OF DOCTRINE, by George A. Lindbeck. Westminster Press, Philadelphia, Pa, 1984. 142pp. No price listed.


This volume is highly technical and difficult, but it describes a theory of the nature of religion and theology which could become influential in coming years.

Lindbeck teaches at Yale where a number of professors have made interesting contributions in “meta-theology” or the theory of theology itself. He does not appreciate “fundamentalist” views of scripture, and he urges a faith that is reconcilable with modern world views. At the same time, he has a certain “conservative” bent: in 1975 he was one of the signers of the Hartford Declaration which, in effect, said “enough is enough” to the “secular theologies” and “radical theologies” of the time. He has brought both of these concerns into the context of Lutheran/Roman Catholic ecumenical dialogue. He believes, like a liberal, that these doctrinal traditions are reconcilable; but, like a conservative, he believes that these traditions are to be taken seriously and maintained.

Lindbeck believes he can resolve this apparent contradiction by a particular theory of the nature of doctrine. In the past, he says, doctrine has been understood as propositional truth (orthodoxy) or as the articulation of religious experience (liberalism). There is, however, a third alternative: doctrine is a kind of language. Language is a system of symbols which we use to do different jobs in our common life. So, says Lindbeck, doctrine provides the religious community with a set of “rules” by which many things can be done and said. Thus the conservative Lindbeck can insist that doctrines are central and in some cases irreplaceable: without language, we can say nothing. But the liberal Lindbeck can insist that the language itself entails no propositional truths, but only gives us tools by which we may (among other things) formulate such truths. Creeds, he thinks, for instance, make no positive truth claims, but they exclude some doctrinal formulations and permit a range of others. They are not to be simply repeated, but used as tools for saying other things: we learn the Latin conjugation amo, amas, amat, not to repeat it endlessly, but so that we may learn to say other things, like rogo, rogas, rogat. In all of this, Lindbeck makes much use of modern anthropologists (e.g., Geertz), linguists (Chomsky), philosophers (Wittgenstein, Kuhn) who have been moving in similar directions.

Lindbeck tries very hard to show how on his theory doctrines may be regarded as superior to others, even infallible. I don’t think he succeeds. Lindbeck offers us “rules,” but doesn’t offer us any adequate means of judging which ones we ought to use. I do think, however, that once we accept, as Lindbeck does not, an orthodox view of scripture, then we can learn much from his theory. He has, in effect, presented what is to most of us a new, and in any case interesting, perspective on the nature of doctrine which in my view complements, rather than replaces, the other two which he mentions.  Doctrine is all three things: propositional truth-claims, expressions of the inner experience of regeneration, and rules for the speech and conduct of God’s creatures. No one of these is prior to the others. Lindbeck’s book is an excellent exploration of the third perspective, which is, undoubtedly, the one most neglected in present-day theology. We can learn from Lindbeck that, indeed, the purpose of doctrine is not to be simply repeated, but also to be “applied-” to be used for all of God’s purposes in the world. And if we cannot use it, we cannot in any serious sense claim to “understand” it.


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