Postliberal theology

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Postliberal theology (often called narrative theology) is a theological movement which became popular in the late twentieth century. The movement's proponents argue that the Church's use of the Bible should focus on a narrative presentation of the Christian faith as regulative for the development of a coherent systematic theology. Thus Christianity is to be viewed as an overarching story, with its own embedded culture, grammar, and practices which can be understood only with reference to Christianity's own internal logic.[1] These views were strongly influenced by Ludwig Wittgenstein's concept of language-games.[2] Supporters believe that this challenges the faulty assumptions of the Enlightenment and modernity, such as foundationalism and the belief in universal rationality.[3] Many also argue that the biblical narrative challenges the dominant presuppositions of liberalism and liberal Christianity, including its emphasis on the autonomous individual (hence the name postliberal).[4]

Because it was principally by George Lindbeck, Hans Wilhelm Frei and other scholars at Yale Divinity School, and has also been popularized in part by Stanley Hauerwas (who attended graduate school at Yale), it is sometime referred to as "the Yale school" or "narrative theology".[5]

History and Origins

Postliberal theology was mostly inspired by people that had either taught or studied at Yale Divinity School, many influenced theologically by Karl Barth, Thomas Aquinas and to some extent, the nouvelle théologie of French Catholics such as Henri de Lubac.[6] The clear philosophical influence, however, was Ludwig Wittgenstein's philosophy of language, the moral philosophy of Alasdair MacIntyre, and the sociological insights of Clifford Geertz and Peter Berger on the nature of communities. Scientific philosophers such as Thomas Kuhn and literary theorists such as Erich Auerbach also influenced the new approach.[6]

Theological Platform

Partly a reaction to the modern, individualist, rationalist and romantic trends of theological liberalism, important postliberal thinkers included George Lindbeck, Hans Wilhelm Frei, and Stanley Hauerwas; theologians in this camp were once concentrated at Yale Divinity School, but are now influential at a number of seminaries and divinity schools, notably Duke Divinity School (where Hauerwas teaches). This movement has provided much of the foundation for other movements, such as radical orthodoxy, Scriptural reasoning, paleo-orthodoxy, the emerging church movement, and postliberal expressions of Evangelical Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. Its ecumenical spirit originates from George Lindbeck's work, which was partly animated by his involvement as a Lutheran observer at the Second Vatican Council.

In contrast to liberal individualism in theology, postliberal theology roots rationality not in the certainty of the individual thinking subject (cogito ergo sum, "I think, therefore I am") but in the language and culture of a living tradition of communal life. The postliberals argue that the Christian faith be equated with neither the religious feelings of romanticism nor the propositions of a rationalist or fundamentalist approach to religion and theology. Rather, the Christian faith is understood as a culture and a language, in which doctrines are likened to a "depth grammar" for the first-order language and culture (practices, skills, habits) of the church that is historically shaped by the continuous, regulated reading of the scriptural narrative over time. Thus, in addition to a critique of theological liberalism, and an emphasis upon the Bible, there is also a stress upon tradition, and upon the language, culture and intelligibility intrinsic to the Christian community. As a result, postliberal theologies are often oriented around the scriptural narrative as a script to be performed, understand orthodox dogmas (esp. the creeds) as depth-grammars for Christian life, and see such scriptural and traditional grammars as a resource for both Christian self-critique and culture critique.

The early postliberals followed Karl Barth's view that the best apologetic is a good systematic, and as such believed that Christians should "not engage in systematic apologetics. Postliberal theologians will make ad hoc connections with the philosophy or art or miscellaneous experience of the cultures around them, but they do not believe that any non-Christian framework, philosophical or cultural, sets the context in which Christian claims must be defended." However, later postliberals have qualified this aversion, and have seriously tempered its initial concerns over both apologetics and metaphysics (e.g., Paul Griffiths, An Apology for Apologetics, and Stanley Hauerwas, With the Grain of the Universe). In this way, postliberal theologies have largely replicated earlier 20th-century debates surrounding the notion of the "analogy of being" (cf. Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Theology of Karl Barth). Unlike the pluralistic liberal trend preceding it, postliberal theology also tends to stress the dissimilarities between religious worldviews,[6] and will often strike out against dominant cultural trends.

Scriptural interpretation remains fundamental for postliberal theology. There are at least four key exegetical differences between liberal and postliberal theology. First, liberal interpretation of Scripture is done with a preoccupation with the historical context, whereas postliberal interpretation is "an act of imagination," interpreting the text with the needs of the reading sub-community in the forefront. Liberal theology deals with aiming to understand the text as it would have applied to the past. Using a non-foundationalist approach, postliberal interpretation aims to interpret the text as it should be applied now and in the future. Second, liberal theologians stress dependence on unbiased reason to ensure finding the objective meaning of the text. Postliberal theologians, however, recognize the impossibility of reading without imposing subjective interpretation of the text by the reader, where such a notion of objective reading disintegrates. Third, "we read texts as bodied interpreters fully situated in some body politic." That is, each and every meaning is, to a certain degree, relative to the reader and his own set of contexts. Finally, because reading is always done with a concern for the sub-community, postliberal interpretation always contains a normative element, encouraging an active response. Liberal interpretation, on the other hand, center around time- and situation-independent truths that do not necessarily impel the reader to act.[7] More typical of postliberal theologies today, however, is a return to patristic and medieval hermeneutical models for reading scripture theologically, uniting historical-grammatical and spiritual-figurative-allegorical senses into a coherent and faithful understanding of Scripture. The Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible is one example of postliberal scriptural interpretation at work.

Catholicism, Protestantism, and Postliberal Conversions

It is also noteworthy that in recent years a great number of prominent postliberal theologians have become Roman Catholics, such as R. R. Reno, and Paul J. Griffiths (both former Anglicans), as well as Bruce Marshall, Michael Root, and Reinhard Huetter (former Lutherans), in a manner similar to the followers of the tractarian movement within mid-19th century Anglicanism, which also occurred during global economic change (see Industrial Revolution).[improper synthesis?] Prominent postliberals becoming Catholic is especially notable because George Lindbeck's ecumenical work at Vatican II and beyond expressed no interest in individual conversions to the Catholic Church, but did suggest the need for a communal transformation of liberal Protestantism so that Protestant Christianity might begin to be more identifiable as a form of Catholic Christianity.[improper synthesis?] Postliberalism partly arose in response to a decline of the prestige of mainline Protestantism in America, in light of which conservative Evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism were seen by some theologians and ministers as the only serious theological and sociological alternatives.[citation needed] Post-liberalism has sought to transform Christian communities in a socially-embodied, historically-extended way.


Critics of postliberalism often have been concerned with its "post-foundational" aspects. Similar to the criticism of postmodern philosophical systems, critics wonder how one postliberal theology can be measured up against another to determine which is better, more appropriate, closer to truth. Postliberal theology's divorcing itself from historical necessity and objective consideration is viewed negatively by many conservative Christians. Additionally, critics wonder what implications such allegedly relativistic views, such as the possibility of religious pluralism, might have for Christianity.[8] Though influential on a generation of young pastors, the movement has had a hard time finding grass-roots support within mainline Protestant denominations, many of which faces vicious liberal–conservative pressures and rifts, something the movement tends to dismiss as a sign of cultural accommodation. Some critics have suggested that because the movement has largely rejected a "mediating" theology (thus, rendering it mostly inaccessible to laypeople), it is difficult to implement its tenets on the local congregational level, so postliberalism remains largely an academic specialty, much like preceding movements such as neo-orthodoxy. Later postliberal theologies have, however, made mediation a central concern (e.g. Milbank 1990), and grassroots groups like the Ekklesia Project can be seen to cut across the face of such criticisms.

Debates have been centered on issues of incommensurability, sectarianism, fideism, relativism, truth and ontological reference. A number of works have sought to resolve these questions to various degrees of satisfaction (e.g. Pecknold 2005, Vanhoozer 2005, De Hart 2006), and the debates continue across the theological disciplines. Furthermore, critics have maintained that the internal coherence model postliberal theologians assume is difficult to square with developments in modern science which would seem to challenge the tenets of traditional, orthodox Christianity (e.g. the new physics, or evolution), yet such criticisms neglect the ways in which the postliberal view of doctrines as depth-grammars (inscribing the rules of the faith articulated at Nicea and Chalcedon) provide dynamic ways of relating the truths of faith to truths of scientific discovery. Likewise, Bruce Marshall and others have developed postliberal approaches to truth that resemble the "moderate realism" of the medieval correspondence theory of truth (e.g. Thomas Aquinas).


  • The Art of Biblical Narrative by Robert Alter (1981, ISBN 0-465-00427-X)
  • The Gospel in Parable: Metaphor, Narrative, and Theology in the Synoptic Gospels by John R. Donahue (1990, ISBN 0-8006-2480-7)
  • The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative : A Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics by Hans Frei (1980, ISBN 0-300-02602-1)
  • Theology and Narrative: A Critical Introduction by Michael Goldberg (1982, ISBN 1-56338-010-2)
  • A Community of Character by Stanley Hauerwas (1981, ISBN 0-268-00735-7)
  • Paul Among the Postliberals by Douglas Harink (2003, ISBN 1-58743-041-X)
  • The Triune God: An Essay in Postliberal Theology by William C. Placher (2007, ISBN 0-664-23060-1)
  • Revelation and Theology: The Gospel as Narrated Promise by Ronald F. Thiemann (1985, ISBN 1-59752-358-5)
  • Narratives of a Vulnerable God: Christ, Theology, and Scripture by William C. Placher (1994, ISBN 0-664-25534-5)
  • The Domestication of Transcendence: How Modern Thinking about God Went Wrong by William C. Placher (1996, ISBN 0-664-25635-X)
  • Narrative Reading, Narrative Preaching edited by Joel Green & Michael Pasquarello (2003, ISBN 0-8010-2721-7)
  • Why Narrative? Readings in Narrative Theology, edited by Stanley Hauerwas & L. Gregory Jones (1989, ISBN 1-57910-065-1)
  • Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony by Stanley Hauerwas & William Willimon (1989, ISBN 0-687-36159-1)
  • Unleashing the Scripture: Freeing the Bible from Captivity to America by Stanley Hauerwas (1993, ISBN 0-687-31678-2)
  • Women and the Authority of Scripture: A Narrative Approach by Sarah Heaner Lancaster (2002, ISBN 1-56338-356-X)
  • The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age by George Lindbeck (1984, ISBN ISBN 0-664-24618-4)
  • The Story of God: Wesleyan Theology and Biblical Narrative by Michael Lodahl (1994, ISBN 0-8341-1479-8)
  • The Use and Abuse of the Bible: A Study of the Bible in an Age of Rapid Cultural Change by Dennis Nineham, (1976, ISBN 0-333-10489-7)
  • The Promise of Narrative Theology: Recovering the Gospel in the Church by George W. Stroup (1997, ISBN 1-57910-053-8)
  • The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder (1972, ISBN 0-8028-0734-8)
  • Transforming Postliberal Theology by C.C. Pecknold (2005, ISBN 0-567-03034-2)
  • The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach To Christian Theology by Kevin J. Vanhoozer (2005, ISBN 0-664-22327-3)
  • The Trial of Witnesses: The Rise and Decline of Postliberal Theology by Paul DeHart (2006)
  • Preaching Jesus: New Directions for Homiletics in Hans Frei's Postliberal Theology by Charles L. Campbell (1997)
  • Karl Barth: Theologian of Christian Witness by Joseph Mangina (2004)
  • The Priority of Christ: Towards a Postliberal Catholicism by Robert Barron (2007)
  • The Nature of Confession: Evangelicals and Postliberals in Conversation (Eds) Denis Okholm and Timothy Philips (1996)
  • Postliberal Theology and the Church Catholic: Conversations with George Lindbeck, David Burrell, Stanley Hauerwas edited by John W. Wright (2012, ISBN 978-0-8010-3982-9)
  • Another Reformation: Postliberal Christianity and the Jews by Peter Ochs (2011, ISBN 978-0801039409)

See also


  5. Placher, William C. (April 7, 1999). "Being Postliberal: A Response to James Gustafson". Christian Century. 116 (11): 390–392. ISSN 0009-5281.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Placher, William C. “Postliberal Theology.” The Modern Theologians: An Introduction to Christian Theology in the Twentieth Century. Malden, MA 1997.
  7. Brueggemann, Walter. "The re-emergence of Scripture: post-liberalism." The Bible in Pastoral Practice: Readings in the Place and Function of Scripture in the Church. Grand Rapids, MI 2005.
  8. Gustafson, James M. "Just what is "postliberal" theology." Christian Century 116.10 (1999): 353-355. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. EBSCO. Web. 26 March 2010.