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Is there a postliberal theological project?

I was having a conversation the other night with a couple friends about the respective theological perspectives of Hans Frei and George Lindbeck regarding to what degree we can really classify them together as constitute a common school of thought (i.e. the “Yale School”). This conversation led me to think further regarding the whole notion of “postliberalism” which folks from Lindbeck to Hauerwas have claimed as a descriptor of their theological orientation.

What I’m fundamentally wondering about is whether or not there really is/was a coherent theological movement or sensibility that we can truly classify as “postliberalism.” If so, what is it? If there is such a thing as postliberalism what is its ultimate aim? What, if anything is the “postliberal project” if there is one? I find myself without a ready answer. It is by no means clear to me how or if Lindbeck, Hauerwas, and Frei (to simply name three commonly-mentioned examples who are often associated with the moniker) were working on a unified theological project of some sort. Thoughts?


  1. WTM wrote:

    Time to be a theological provocateur…

    Paradoxically, I think a case could be made that Kevin Vanhoozer constitutes the best example of this phenomena.

    Thursday, September 16, 2010 at 11:25 am | Permalink
  2. Myles wrote:

    I have trouble putting Frei and Lindbeck on the same page. As Mike Higton put it, where Lindbeck has a linguistic theory, Frei has a Christology.

    Thursday, September 16, 2010 at 11:27 am | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    The phenomenon of postliberalism? I think you may be right if that’s what you mean.

    Thursday, September 16, 2010 at 11:31 am | Permalink
  4. WTM wrote:


    Thursday, September 16, 2010 at 11:33 am | Permalink
  5. mshedden wrote:

    Is that anymore fair to say than Lindbeck has a cultural-lingustic theory and Frei has Types of Christian theology? Comparing the fact that Lindbeck wrote a book on method and Frei wrote one on Christology, typology, and the Bible doesn’t seem to say more than different interests at different times, not a overt typology of their projects. Does every theologian need to write a Christology to avoid this claim?

    Thursday, September 16, 2010 at 11:45 am | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    To, if possible, shape future comments I am really interested in hearing what people who are sympathetic with “postliberalism” would say the postliberal theological project is. What is the fundamental aim and end of postliberalism?

    Thursday, September 16, 2010 at 11:51 am | Permalink
  7. Patrik wrote:

    To do theology that is aware of and criical of the influence of liberal thought on previous theology?

    Thursday, September 16, 2010 at 12:00 pm | Permalink
  8. Andy Rowell wrote:

    My general sense is that postliberals are those who have read liberal theology and explain why they don’t agree with it. At Duke Divinity School, the “postliberalism” phrase is rarely heard but many of the faculty have been strongly influenced by Lindbeck, Frei, and Brevard Childs. The result at Duke Divinity School is an emphasis on the biblical theology of the Old and New Testaments, Patristic readings of Scripture, and the line of theologians Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Wesley, Kierkegaard, and Barth. These are of course just my impressions. Vanhoozer has never been liberal and so does not strike me as someone responding to liberalism like many of the main figures of the movement. But Vanhoozer is read at Duke.

    Thursday, September 16, 2010 at 12:22 pm | Permalink
  9. Andy Rowell wrote:

    Yes, that is my sense Patrik. My comment below was simultaneous with yours.

    Thursday, September 16, 2010 at 12:24 pm | Permalink
  10. Halden wrote:

    My initial reaction to those descriptions is that they are far to broad and vague to be of much use. If “postliberal” simply indicates a disagreement with Protestant liberalism it could mean, well, almost anything.

    Also is there a distinction between being postliberal and simply anti-liberal? The “post-” seems to be indicate a moving-forward, a getting-beyond. But a getting-beyond to what exactly?

    Thursday, September 16, 2010 at 12:28 pm | Permalink
  11. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    I’ve been rereading Paul DeHart’s The Trial of the Witnesses: The Rise and Decline of Postliberal Theology which really helps to clarify the influence of HR Niebuhr and other faculty at Yale prior to Frei and Lindbeck as well really spelling out the differences between Frei and Lindbeck. And to respond to Msheddon’s point above, Higton’s remark is not that far from the truth insofar as Frei’s central concern was always Christology whereas for Lindbeck it was always ecclesiology.

    DeHart defines postliberalism as “the attempted construction of a distinct approach to Christian theology’s basic procedures and self-understanding which self-consciously and systematically opposes itself to specific identifiable concepts and methods of academic theology (putatively dominant since at least the beginning of the nineteenth century) which are labeled ‘liberal,’ ‘modernity,’ or ‘revisionist’ and which are seen as covertly threatening or undermining the basic theological task of enabling Christian witness” (The Trial of the Witnesses, 2).

    It seems to me that ‘postliberalism’ has largely taken on a life of its own since the 1970s and especially since its association with the work of Hauerwas.

    Thursday, September 16, 2010 at 12:31 pm | Permalink
  12. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    Just to be clear, the term “postliberalism” to refer to Lindbeck and Frei came directly from Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine.

    By the way, the fact that it is now associated with Duke Divinity School and to recent ‘retrievals’ of Barth and Kierkegaard put into ‘conversation’ with Aquinas and Balthasar must be attributed to a profoundly misled interpretation of both Barth and Kierkegaard.

    Thursday, September 16, 2010 at 12:41 pm | Permalink
  13. Andy Rowell wrote:

    Uh, Balthasar and Barth interacted substantially with one another in their lifetimes so um . . .

    Thursday, September 16, 2010 at 1:06 pm | Permalink
  14. aew wrote:

    How about: “Postliberal theology is uninterested with apologetics but is instead primarily concerned with what theological language can do.” That definition would be broad enough to include not only Frei, Lindbeck, and Hauerwas but also someone like Tanner.

    Thursday, September 16, 2010 at 1:12 pm | Permalink
  15. Halden wrote:

    That at least gets at something I take to be central to any understanding of the broad phenomenon of postliberalism: its fundamentally “linguistic” nature.

    But I wonder about the alleged disinterest in apologetics. Is not the turn to language an inherently apologetic move?

    Thursday, September 16, 2010 at 1:15 pm | Permalink
  16. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    Of course, but the recent effort to seek an ecumenical ‘bridge’ of sorts by way of appropriating Barth in light of Balthasar is what I find particularly problematic. The postliberal moniker, in other words, has become almost shorthand for a distinctively Catholic-evangelical mode of theological/ecumenical discourse centered on overcoming theological (and political) liberalism by way of ecumenical rapprochement. Barth and Kierkegaard are taken up as advocates of theological and ecclesial repristinationism.

    Thursday, September 16, 2010 at 1:17 pm | Permalink
  17. mshedden wrote:

    Good point on what Higton means but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they cannot be lumped together. Placher’s introduction to Frei’s book of essays suggests that Frei was very influential in the development of Lindbeck’s book. Of course, the argument has developed and changed by the time Frei begins Types he clearly was involved in Lindbeck’s argument in Nature.

    Thursday, September 16, 2010 at 1:19 pm | Permalink
  18. Andy Rowell wrote:


    Thursday, September 16, 2010 at 1:20 pm | Permalink
  19. Halden wrote:

    What would you say is the nature of the fundamental theological agreement between them, then?

    Thursday, September 16, 2010 at 1:25 pm | Permalink
  20. aew wrote:

    Good point–Lindbeck’s argument runs this risk.
    I don’t see that some slip into apologetics in Frei, Hauerwas, or Tanner. Or Placher, for that matter, to whom any description of postliberalism as “unapologetic” should probably be credited.

    Thursday, September 16, 2010 at 1:26 pm | Permalink
  21. aew wrote:

    same, not some.

    Thursday, September 16, 2010 at 1:26 pm | Permalink
  22. Halden wrote:

    True. But I wonder if the effort to claim the “unapologetic” moniker is still something of an apologetic move. Seems to me that once we posit a sort of cultural-linguistic traditioned form of reasoning as a way of dealing with the modern problematic, we’ve essentially made an apologetic move (i.e. “leveling” the playing field by linguistically “situating” all forms of discourse.)

    Thursday, September 16, 2010 at 1:31 pm | Permalink
  23. dan wrote:

    I’ve always wondered about Balthasar’s relationship to postliberalism. As far as I can tell, there are a number of points of overlap and Vanhoozer is obviously influenced by him, but I don’t see Balthasar getting discussed a lot in this kind of conversation.

    Is that because he is too daunting? Or because those who actually study him only have enough time to study him alone? Or because he is actually a pinnacle of liberal scholarship? Or because it’s impossible for a well established Roman Catholic to be liberal (and therefore he cannot be postliberal)? Or what?

    Thursday, September 16, 2010 at 1:33 pm | Permalink
  24. Austin Eisele wrote:

    I think Lindbeck himself says somewhere toward the end of the “Nation of Doctrine” (I don’t have it with me so I can’t quote) that he doesn’t see the prospect for a postliberal “theology” on the horizon (and it seems here that this means “narrative theology” for him) because of cultural conditions: the story of the Bible isn’t woven into the fabric of the training of theologians enough (and this, he thinks is because of the lack of training the church provides – and as a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, I would heartly agree with that in most mainline denominations) to enable a new project of re-describing the world in terms of the Christian story. I think James Wm McClendon’s systematic theology is a good example of this failure, of trying to do something post-liberal but not really being “narrative” enough…

    That said, I don’t think it has to do with particular thinkers (at least I hope not – I mean, really, Kiekegaard?), but with the anti-foundationalist cultural-linguistic mode of inquiry. As Lindbeck himself says, this means that postliberal thought is really now religious studies.

    Thursday, September 16, 2010 at 1:45 pm | Permalink
  25. mshedden wrote:

    I am in class right now but here are things I can think of right now: a similar understanding of the nature of Scripture and the purpose it serves for the church, a concern for developing a distinctly Christian way of doing theology, a concern over the theology of David Tracy (and others), a functioning understanding of dogma that is both regulative and a moving term, a proper direction for public theology, a commitment to attempting to articulate the theological method of Karl Barth as an example of good work, an attempt to purpose Wittgenstein for Christian theology, and a commitment to ecumenical through an understanding of Christian similarities. They obviously were two different people who did not agree on everything but I do think the point rests in how they worked on so many of their projects together in a common direction (as argued by Placher and others who knew them). They may not be convincing or right on any of these points but I do they had a theological agreement on these things.

    Thursday, September 16, 2010 at 1:49 pm | Permalink
  26. Brad E. wrote:

    Don’t have time to look it up and type it out right now, but from memory I believe that Peter Ochs, in Yoder’s JCSR, offers a definition/sketch of what it means to do theology from a postliberal perspective. I’ll plan to come back later with it in tow.

    Thursday, September 16, 2010 at 2:01 pm | Permalink
  27. Halden wrote:

    That’s a good point. Ochs seizes the language of postliberalism and appropriates it in his theological articulation of Judaism. Another important factor to take into account.

    Thursday, September 16, 2010 at 2:04 pm | Permalink
  28. mshedden wrote:

    “Generous Orthodoxy” was a term I was thinking of but didn’t list that also describes where they hoped postliberalism would go.

    Thursday, September 16, 2010 at 2:06 pm | Permalink
  29. See these two articles by Gary Dorrien: and

    Thursday, September 16, 2010 at 2:44 pm | Permalink
  30. Brad E. wrote:

    Here are some helpful places in the Ochs/Cartwright edited Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited by Yoder, all of which are authored by Ochs: pages 2-6 and 38-40. Here is a portion from page 39:

    “Semantically, the term ‘post-liberal’ refers to the effort of university trained scholars of Christianity to re-ground their scholarship in doctrinally warranted and community-based readings of Scripture, in particular the plain-sense narrative of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The post-liberals retain their academic skills of text-historical study and of philosophic discipline, but as instruments of the truth and of the behavioural rule of the gospel narrative. They direct their primary criticisms at ‘liberal’ theologians, meaning Christian theologians, since the Neologians, who have proclaimed a gospel that is made subservient to western paradigms of reason and of socio-economic-political organization. ‘Western’ refers here both to the cultural programme of the modern secular West and to the political-cultural programme of what they call Constantinianism. They envision a post-Constantinian Christianity that accompanies Christians in their newfound minority status in the West, detached from goals of political governance. This vision is non-liberal, where ‘liberal’ is glossed as ‘intentionally or unintentionally supporting the secular values of modernity’; it includes western ‘conservatism’, and therefore has nothing to do with distinctions, in the United States, between ‘liberal and conservative’, or left- and right-wing politics. In contemporary American terms, post-liberals may tend to be ‘conservative’ in the sense of being loyal to the task of imitating Christ, but often radical in their political-economic judgements. Against the grain of both liberal and pre-modern Marcionites, post-liberals read the Gospel narratives as meaningful only in relation to the Old Testament narratives and, therefore, as extending our understanding of God’s enduring covenant with Israel.”

    I think the Hauerwas/Ochs-edited series in which JCSR appears also helps articulate this:

    Hope that helps clarify things somewhat.

    Thursday, September 16, 2010 at 3:00 pm | Permalink
  31. Mark Bowald wrote:

    Frei, not Lindbeck, is the one who first began using the term “postliberal.” He uses it repeatedly in his doctoral dissertation when talking about Barth (1956) and quite frequently in his articles on H.R. Niebuhr in his contributions to the book “Faith and Ethics.” (1957)

    And what is the PL sensibility? The strongest point of commonality between Frei and Lindbeck and their students is allowing the internal voices of Christianity to be heard on their own terms, and not those dictated by the modern penchant for meta-method. So Frei in Identity is fighting to free Christology from the imposition of “external” categories of identity. This same concern animates his defense of biblical narrative in Eclipse and finally, in his unfinished Types of Theology he defends the priority of the church to define and express itself in its own voice and not filtered by “External” descriptions. Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine is concerned with simililarly disentangling doctrinal expressions of the church from the imposed methodological expectations of those modern twins from different mothers: referentialists and experiential-expressivists. His smaller pieces on Scripture show this from time to time as well.

    So the reining in of external methodological pressures, on the one hand, and the freeing of the voices of Scripture and Theology to speak in their own terms, without apology, is a good place to begin see the commonalities of PLism.

    Current theologians who espouse the PL sensibility (albeit in very different stylings) include (the late) William Placher, Bruce Marshall, Kathryn Tanner, John Webster, R.R. Reno, Epraim Radner, and Stephen Fowl. Kevin Vanhoozer is not as clearly in the camp, indeed his penchant to sometimes be enamored with method (speech act, drama) would work against his inclusion. But he has been influenced deeply by PLism. The clearest expression of a PL biblical scholar to date, in my mind, is Kavin Rowe. Frei would undoubtedly have been thrilled with Rowe’s “Early Narrative Christology.” I could almost hear Frei saying “yes, that’s exactly what I was getting on about” as I read it.

    Thursday, September 16, 2010 at 3:26 pm | Permalink
  32. Mark Bowald wrote:

    And quickly, I see someone posted a link to the Comstock articles. Frei was very very upset about those pieces. He felt very strongly that Comstock had just gotten him all wrong. I believe Mike Higton included Frei’s response to those in his archival material online. I have copies from the Yale Archives. Google Mike Higton and Hans Frei and you will find them.

    Thursday, September 16, 2010 at 3:30 pm | Permalink
  33. Mark Bowald wrote:

    I misread, it was Dorrien, not Comstalk. Go to Mike Higton’s site anyway. Lots of unpublished Frei material there.

    Thursday, September 16, 2010 at 3:32 pm | Permalink
  34. If I can offer a correction and combination of some themes here, let me offer this definition: postliberalism defines itself by intratextuality as opposed to extratextuality. This combines both the non-apologetic and linguistic-hermeneutical motifs. These terms, of course, are from Lindbeck’s book, but they are fairly descriptive of Frei’s project too, insofar as his christology is an intratextual christology of the biblical narrative. In both Frei’s typology and Lindbeck’s methodology, liberalism is defined by the interpretation of Christian faith in accordance with extratextual perspectives. I myself think this dichotomy between intratextuality and extratextuality is a huge mistake. As I have defined it in my own work, Christian faith occurs in the (apocalyptic-existential) interstice between intra- and extratextuality.

    Thursday, September 16, 2010 at 3:33 pm | Permalink
  35. Halden wrote:

    I think this is basically right on.

    Thursday, September 16, 2010 at 3:51 pm | Permalink
  36. Mark,

    You’re right that Frei uses the term “post-liberal” regarding Barth, but I think (and I’m sure you agree) this word needs to be sharply distinguished from the technical term “postliberal.” This is a point made by many people, including DeHart, if I remember rightly. Essentially, the former refers to Barth’s dialectical theology as a theology after and against German liberal theology. The latter refers to a school of sorts, or at least a methodology that has its own positive (i.e., constructive) criteria for theological speech. Put differently, Lindbeck’s postliberalism is much more than just a rejection of “liberalism.”

    Essentially, what I want to say is that the word Frei uses of Barth has a historical but not a material relation to Lindbeck’s self-description. Though the words are etymologically identical, they are worlds-apart theologically. (This comes from my conviction that postliberalism is a decisive break with, and not a continuation of, Barth’s dialectical theology.)

    Thursday, September 16, 2010 at 3:59 pm | Permalink
  37. mshedden wrote:

    Do you think you might placing be Frei and Lindbeck more in his Type 5 model then his type 4? It would seem that both Lindbeck’s notion of how dogmatic words can change (if I remember right) and Frei’s describtion and idenity as a type 4 allow for some extratextuality. But I am guessing for you that is not enough extratextuality? Or do you think it allows for none at all? Or takes too much control of extratextuality? I am generally interested in here and not trying to prove a point.

    Thursday, September 16, 2010 at 4:00 pm | Permalink
  38. mshedden wrote:

    Sorry I am typing on a phone so I think have quite a few typos.

    Thursday, September 16, 2010 at 4:01 pm | Permalink
  39. Myles wrote:

    This is helpful, David. Thanks.

    Thursday, September 16, 2010 at 4:05 pm | Permalink
  40. Halden wrote:

    I think the point is rather that construing Chrisian faith as being constituted on any sort of intra- vs. extratextuality continuum is a mistake. So the matter of thinking in terms of either “more” or “less” intra- or extratextuality is precisely the problem. In both cases we construe Christian faith in terms of “religion” (in the Barthian and Bonhoefferian sense of the term) rather than in terms of revelation.

    This, I think, is what David is getting at.

    Thursday, September 16, 2010 at 4:12 pm | Permalink
  41. That wasn’t what I was intending, but since you bring it up, it’s worth pointing out that Bruce McCormack has already made that point, at least about Lindbeck. On p. 132 of his Orthodox and Modern, he says that Lindbeck fits in type 5 better than in type 4, and I think he’s absolutely correct. Frei is better than Lindbeck on this score, and I’ve actually written an essay where I pit Frei and Lindbeck against each other on precisely this issue. On this, I follow DeHart.

    That said, there is plenty of material in Frei that can be seen as consonant with Lindbeck’s intratextuality. The moments where he breaks free from this and allows for extratextuality are very rare and almost marginal in character, and many of them occur in his Types, which is of course a posthumously published work never revised into a finished product. So DeHart and I are left examining the traces of hope in Frei for something that breaks free from postliberalism. It’s enough to make me confident in positing a disjunction between Frei and Lindbeck, but not enough to entirely save Frei from this critique.

    Thursday, September 16, 2010 at 4:17 pm | Permalink
  42. Yes, thanks Halden, that was also my point. I also meant to say that I think Frei’s entire typology begs a lot of questions and is rather unhelpful, if not downright misleading. Case in point, for me, is Bultmann: Frei wants to locate him in type 2, but there are plenty of reasons for why he could also be in types 3, 4, and 5. The point being: like any typology, it requires oversimplifying and even misconstruing the facts in order to serve an ideological purpose. I myself think we are better off dispensing with thinking in terms of Frei’s types (not to mention Lindbeck’s as well).

    In fact, if there is anything that seems ubiquitous among postliberals, it is the use of typologies!

    Thursday, September 16, 2010 at 4:20 pm | Permalink
  43. mshedden wrote:

    Yeah. I guess it is a question of if Frei’s use of Barth as his Type 4 is actually Barth or what he wants Barth to be. It is interesting how much credit he is given in Hunsinger’s book but the general consenus is that Frei missed Barth. Thanks for posting this conversation Halden. So far it has been very fruitful.

    Thursday, September 16, 2010 at 4:21 pm | Permalink
  44. Halden wrote:

    I agree, this was a good conversation.

    Thursday, September 16, 2010 at 7:18 pm | Permalink
  45. mshedden wrote:

    So DeHart and I are left examining the traces of hope in Frei for something that breaks free from postliberalism.

    David this quote reminds that I have noticed that people actually want to save Frei from postliberalism and no one wants to try a similar defense for Lindbeck. Now I am willing to accept it might be harder (or impossible) to do for Lindbeck, why do people feel compelled to work so hard to help Frei out of this mess when it seems he wasn’t as concerned as straightening it out.?

    Thursday, September 16, 2010 at 8:34 pm | Permalink
  46. Nate Kerr wrote:

    I’m surprised no one has yet brought up the irony of the fact that the task of dogmatics done from a Lindbeckian, postliberal perspective is entirely consonant, methodologically, with the way Schleiermacher describes and does dogmatics in the Glaubenslehre.

    Thursday, September 16, 2010 at 9:01 pm | Permalink
  47. kim fabricius wrote:

    David is bang-on that “this dichotomy between intratextuality and extratextuality is a huge mistake”. This, I think, is precisely Rowan Williams’ point in his constructive critique of Lindbeck in his essay “The Judgement of the World” (in On Christian Theology [2000]). Like Lindbeck, Williams has made the linguistic (and cultural) turn (Wittgenstein is a major influence on his thinking), and he also applauds Lindbeck’s emphasis on a “scriptural imagination” and a “real immersion in Christian tradition”, but he is vexed that Lindbeck’s preoccupation with intratextuality goes hand in hand with a worryingly conservative ecclesiocentrism, with a church inept at “‘playing away from home’”. Thus he goes on approvingly to cite Bonhoeffer – and he might have added Barth, with McCormack’s proviso in “Beyond Nonfoundational and Postmodern Readings of Barth” (in Orthodox and Modern [2008]), the very essay (mentioned by David) where McCormack too takes issue with Lindbeck, that Bonhoeffers’ charge of a take-it-or-leave-it” “positivism of revelation” is a misreading of Barth. Finally, to add another term in the discussion, Willams’ theology, while quite “unapologetic”, is insistent that the church no less than the world (in which, by the way, the church will find allies) stands under God’s judgement.

    Friday, September 17, 2010 at 1:24 am | Permalink
  48. Wilson wrote:

    What is a theological project? Is it the Dogmatics or Theology of Liberation? Is that the question: does Postliberalism do something that could be described as a similar something that Barth does in the Dogmatics or Gutierrez et al., what they do in Liberation theology?

    It is this vagueness of terms, for example, that has led people to believe that Radical Orthodoxy is a theological project rather than a briefly existent imprint at Routledge that published a number of dissertations by Hauerwas students and friends of Milbank’s.

    Most of your voluminous comments seem to miss the issue of project and telos for assuredly if it were a project, postliberalism would need a telos. That seems to be a more interesting question than who can be called a postliberal (which, again, I feel is where you were going).

    Maybe a theological project need not be teleological (it could simply be about redescription or something like that, with no end in sight) but that is never addressed in these sorts of debates.

    Friday, September 17, 2010 at 7:40 am | Permalink
  49. Mark Bowald wrote:

    Hi Nate, I don’t know if “ironic” is the right term there. It so happens I was just reading the opening sections of the Glauberslehre with some students yesterday and I recall thinking that, indeed, Schleiermacher’s attempt to quell the enthusiasm of the Kantians and the waxing of reason is very much a kind of Postliberalism in an anticipatory spirit of Frei and Lindbeck. It is just the case that those who took up the Yale mantle often (but not always) tended to take the Barthian path and that is the one we tend to associate with PLism, while the Schleiermachian path is less traveled. I think earlier theologians like Herman Bavinck and Isaak Dorner, just to name two, sometimes embody a kind of PL instinct as well.

    Now I do think there is a certain irony within the Glaubenslehre, in Schleiermacher’s resistance to the “general concepts” of reason and his corresponding insistence on a “general concept” of the church. But that is another discussion entirely and my own PL slip is showing a bit…;)

    And to David: No, I would not agree that Frei used the word Postliberal in the dissertation in reference to Barth or in the his early writings on Niebuhr in “strictly” historical terms. Or that Lindbecks use of the term is “worlds apart.” I just think that is all too unnuanced. Frei was highly allergic to sharply drawn categories and always saw his own ad hoc methodological instincts as being prefigured in both. His lecture to the Barth society in Toronto in 1974 on Barth and historical criticism is instructive as well. He gave it weeks before Eclipse appeared and, if one did not know better and was listening in, one might think Frei was talking about himself as much as Barth. He often admitted to the possibility that he was reading himself back into Barth as much as appropriating certain Barthian instincts into himself.

    Kim, on the inter- extra- textuality question. You might be interested to know that Frei, at the end of his 74 Barth lecture in the Q and A was asked specifically about that issue. His response?

    “There is an ambiguity that I slipped in. I hoped you might not notice it but be kind about it. I said at least once that the meaning in a novel, the meaning of a story, is the story itself. I said also that it emerges FROM the story, and that ambiguity is one that I simply cannot solve.”

    I find that a stunning admission given that Eclipse had not yet appeared. I believe it was addressing this “ambiguity” which motivated Frei in a more Lindbeckian direction in his later writing. (I discuss this at some length in my book)

    Friday, September 17, 2010 at 8:07 am | Permalink
  50. Ben McNutt wrote:

    It’s worth considering that if you talk to Hauerwas–or read his recent memoir–he makes a point to distance himself from postliberalism, or more specifically (since it appears the term is under examination here), Frei and Lindbeck. Whether that changes how you read the history of 20th century theology or not is another question. But last time I checked, no one here at Duke Divinity School is handing out “convert to postliberalism” tracts nor are they staging some covert “repristination” project that fronts as ‘Cathlo-evangelical ecumenism, manipulating Barth and Kierkegaard for their own devices. Andy is right–lots of our faculty studied at Yale during the “Yale School” era which has impacted them (obviously–our teachers always do), but that doesn’t mean they think of themselves as continuing the postliberal project at Duke, any more so than suggesting that Andy or I are “Hauerwasians” simply because we studied at Duke Divinity School. As Jamie Smith has reminded us recently (at fors clavigera) Duke is not “Hauerwas Divinity School”—it’s not the new Yale School either. I’m not sure what axe you’re grinding…could you explain a bit more?

    Friday, September 17, 2010 at 8:11 am | Permalink
  51. Mark Bowald wrote:

    There is also an interesting quote on this from Lindbeck at the end of the Q and A section in the Book “The Nature of Confession” which contains papers related to his visit to the Wheaton Theology conference. He suggested that if there was one “tradition” that was most suited to carry on the PL theological project it was Evangelicalism. Once, on a visit to Toronto, I asked him to clarify that comment. I asked him “why Evangelicalism” and he said it was because of their commitment to Scripture. I then asked him what it was that might prevent them from continuing the PL project. He answered: “Their inability or unwillingness to be self-critical about their methodological commitments.”

    Friday, September 17, 2010 at 8:16 am | Permalink
  52. Tony Hunt wrote:

    I thought it obvious that the post-liberal project was to subsume Christology into ecclesiology ;) (we are still allowed to tease on these threads without instantly creating animosity right?)

    Friday, September 17, 2010 at 8:18 am | Permalink
  53. Nate Kerr wrote:


    No, “ironic” is precisely the right term, inasmuch as Schleiermacher is considered the inaugurator of the “experiential-expressivist” approach to religion and doctrine that Lindbeck claims to be moving beyond with his “postliberalism.” The irony is not that Schleiermacher is a kind of proto-postliberal, but rather that Lindbeck, in the end, is almost thoroughly Schleiermacherian.

    Friday, September 17, 2010 at 8:35 am | Permalink
  54. Mark Bowald wrote:

    Nate, To read Lindbeck that way would require one ignore his own claims otherwise. The Nature of Doctrine is predominantly read as a kind of meta-account of the role of doctrine. That was not Lindbeck’s intent. See his own clarification on that score in Part III of his book “The Church in a Postliberal Age” especially the forward to the German Edition of The Nature of Doctrine. Lindbeck directed me to that piece as a correction on this very point. He told me that The Nature of Doctrine had, indeed, been read so typically as a kind of neo-Schleiermachian project that he had actually caught himself on occasion being tempted to read it that way himself. So in one sense you are right, if one takes a caricatured and common reading of the Nature of Doctrine then Lindbeck looks rather ironic (and naive) about the relationship of his own thought to Schleiermacher’s.

    Friday, September 17, 2010 at 9:47 am | Permalink
  55. Mark Bowald wrote:

    And just for clarities sake: I was pressing him on the point because I read him, at the time, like you presently seem to but I had difficulty believing that there could be such a glaring irony there. So I approached him, assuming I was missing something, asking for clarity.

    Friday, September 17, 2010 at 10:07 am | Permalink
  56. Andy Rowell wrote:

    There are no references in Hauerwas’s memoir Hannah’s Child to: post-liberal, postliberal, post-liberalism, and postliberalism. Not that this says much but I was curious so I looked it up: There are a few to Lindbeck and Frei. Here is one: “I never took a course from George Lindbeck, who was in Rome at Vatican II. I had only one course, Christology, from Hans Frie. Thus it would not be quite right to say that these remarkable men were my teachers.” p. 49.

    Friday, September 17, 2010 at 10:46 am | Permalink
  57. mshedden wrote:

    Yeah I was wondering about that as well. In a footnote somewhere he references Vanhoozer’s book, The Drama of Doctrine, but explicitly points out he does not share his criticisms of Lindbeck’s project. He does work more with Frei’s work more clearly in his Pentecost Sermon/essay, The Church as God’s New Language, which was submitted to a book in honor of Frei.

    Friday, September 17, 2010 at 10:54 am | Permalink
  58. Nate Kerr wrote:

    Well, I must obviously be missing something. I’ll have to approach him directly, I suppose.

    I couldn’t ever imagine Lindbeck ever owning up to such a thing, though. Nor could I see him actually being able to articulate convincingly enough how he’s not Schleiermacherian, given his manifest mis-reading of Schleiermacher (not to mention Rahner) in Nature of Doctrine in the first place. Frei is a much better reader of Schleiermacher than Lindbeck, and I imagine this is part of what allowed Frei to be sensitive to Niebuhr in ways that Lindbeck and co. never could be.

    I’m away from my office at this point, but when I am back there I’ll take a look at the passages you refer to in Church in a Postliberal Age. Short of making a trip to New Haven, that should help as a start in getting me corrected.

    Friday, September 17, 2010 at 10:59 am | Permalink
  59. Phil Ziegler wrote:

    Halden — you might consider Webster’s essay, ‘Theology After Liberalism?’ in the Blackwell reader he edited with George Schner under the same title (without the question mark), a rather careful reply to your initial question. The kind of coherence he espies in the movement is only one of a sort of broad ‘family resemblance’ amongst theologians, but he does pick out a number of predilections including one which I’ve always thought to be centrally postliberal, namely the commitment to describe the nature of theology and its methods by explicit invocation of doctrines and doctrinal categories, i.e., that the break with liberalism is marked best by the refusal of any ‘pre-theological’ methodological staging. Of course, in substance, depending upon the leading doctrines to which one makes recourse — ecclesiology, christology, or trinity, for instance — this can issue in a wide range of accounts. One can also ask whether any particular postliberal effort doesn’t, in fact, still go in for something of the pre-theological in its execution, despite its better intentions — some of the worries expressed about Lindbeck above clearly reflect such a worry; and certain kinds of ‘narrative theology’ can also succumb to the ‘pre-theological’ should they invest heavily in general theories of narrative per se, for instance. Frei’s own dislike of the association of his own work with later ‘narrative theology’ had, I think, his nervousness about such theorising at its root.

    Largely unrelated to these brief remarks — I wonder if anyone who has work through David Kelsey’s recent anthropology would care to reflect on what, if anything, might mark that work as a postliberal project? We set to read it through in our doctoral systematics seminar here in Aberdeen this term, so if this thread goes on unto December, I may be able to answer my own question….

    Friday, September 17, 2010 at 2:22 pm | Permalink
  60. Is postliberalism a school? Not if one means a program or a closely connected project, no. But if it refers to a trend or style of theology, then it is at least as coherent as “Neo-Orthodoxy” was–and maybe more so than “Evangelicalism.”

    Any attempt to group thinkers under a specific label will have problems and maybe these thinkers (Frei, Lindbeck, Hauerwas, Vanhoozer, Placher, etc.) could be better labelled or grouped differently,–and certainly “the Yale School” was a misnomer–but it’s not bad as labels go. It signals that most were trained in the liberal tradition and have moved against it in specific ways (different from Neoorthodoxy) without embracing conservative evangelicalism.

    Friday, September 17, 2010 at 4:27 pm | Permalink
  61. Bobby Grow wrote:

    When I hear “post,” like postmodern it makes me think that a particular stream or period of thought has come to full flower or blossom. Like postmodern really only seems to be modernity taken seriously (or to its conclusion). That’s why whenever I hear “Postliberal” it always throws me a bit. It makes be think that this is a moniker for uber-liberals — not that there is a disjunct between post-liberal but a continuity.

    Thanks for at least clarifying what has traditionally been intended by this label, Halden.

    Friday, September 17, 2010 at 9:02 pm | Permalink
  62. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    Perhaps my earlier comments about Duke Divinity School and the project of repristinationism were too strong. I am glad to hear that this has not been your experience.

    Saturday, September 18, 2010 at 7:46 am | Permalink
  63. Ben wrote:

    The quotation you cite, Andy, is what I was referring to. Also, in a course where we read The Nature of Doctrine, Hauerwas also mentioned that he has never understood his work to be a continuation of the postliberalism of Hans and Frei, at which point, he also referenced the same anecdote from the memior (he was writing at the time), that they were not his teachers. Not to belabor the point or anything….

    Sunday, September 19, 2010 at 6:28 pm | Permalink
  64. For what it’s worth, Hunsinger denies that there is any such thing as a “Yale school” (for several of the concerns you list, Halden) while he maintains that Lindbeck is more properly described as a neoliberal whereas Frei is the postliberal. See his essay on postliberalism in the Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology. I don’t have the essay in front of me or I’d quote from it, but perhaps later…

    Monday, September 20, 2010 at 5:20 pm | Permalink
  65. mshedden wrote:

    I think you bring up a good point about that essay and Hunsinger’s writings on postliberalism. It is an important account of postliberalism and he is a tough critic on Lindbeck. However, Hunsinger’s lines have become the standard story told of postliberalism recently and voices like Placher’s (and even Tanner lumps them together, and I would guess the Mark Bowald’s of the world do too) have gotten throw out. Why Hunsinger and others have attempted to give Frei the separation and the credit from postliberalism while throwing Lindbeck under the bus is a question I asked previously (albeit late) on this thread and not gotten an answer. Any reading that gives Frei life and damns Lindbeck seems to be favored in these discussions and I am unclear as to why. Breaking the strand is Placher writing in essays published after Frei’s death and crediting him with forming much of the Nature of Doctrine. It seems to me if Frei did not want to be associated with postliberalism and Lindbeck it would have been a very easy problem to remedy himself but it seems he thought they working on theological complimentary projects, if not the same one.

    Monday, September 20, 2010 at 10:15 pm | Permalink
  66. Yeah, I remember you and I had a brief discussion about this a few months ago on my blog, but I still haven’t gotten around to reading Placher (too busy coming up with a diss proposal).

    I do remember at the end of that essay, Hunsinger admits that Lindbeck is really not simply neoliberal or postliberal, but “both/and.”

    Tuesday, September 21, 2010 at 11:07 am | Permalink
  67. Mark Bowald wrote:

    For what it’s worth: Lindbeck’s and Frei’s former students, as far as I have experienced, discussed and read, all emphasize their commonalities while recognizing their differences. This is also true by and large for the students OF their students. Those who press their differences are, by and large, not their students. It has also been my sense that for those who push the wedge hard there is almost always an identifiable theological motivation that takes little imagination or awareness to recognize. Lindbeck has neatly summarized what he sees as the chief differences between he and Frei (given their common “spirit”) by recalling the theologians who formed them. For Frei: Barth and (H.R.) Niebuhr. For Lindbeck: Luther and Aquinas. I am glad my former classmate in some of those second generation Postliberal classrooms, Phil Ziegler, mentioned David Kelsey’s new book. The influence of Kelsey’s earlier work which resulted in the book “The Uses of Scripture…” on Frei post-Eclipse should not be underestimated.

    Thursday, September 23, 2010 at 6:39 am | Permalink
  68. Mark Bowald wrote:

    One more note if anyone is still “listening.” Instructive on Lindbeck is his response to a review of his “Church in the Postliberal Age” by Avery Cardinal Dulles. It appeared in January, 2004 in First Things. A free online archive of this can be found at:

    To read the Nature of Doctrine and understand Lindbeck properly one should read this and the preface to the German edition in The Church in a Postliberal Age first.

    Friday, September 24, 2010 at 8:46 am | Permalink
  69. Andy Rowell wrote:

    Mark, thanks for this. Lindbeck is contrite and humble. Fascinating.

    Saturday, September 25, 2010 at 7:33 am | Permalink
  70. Andy Rowell wrote:

    I just noticed this quote from Barth on apologetics. It seems like this “uninterested in apologetics” approach might stem from Barth’s approach.

    “[Theology] may bring the fides [faith] before those who happen to come to its notice in its inner consistency as the intellectus fidei [understanding in faith], thus making its own contribution to the presentation of the likeness of the kingdom of God. Since it cannot do more than this, it will spare both the world and itself the pain of a specific apologetic, the more so in view of the fact that good dogmatics is always the best and basically the only possible apologetics. Those who are without or partly without hear theologians best when these do not speak so ardently to them but pursue their own way before their eyes and ears. Correctly conceived and executed, theology will present itself even to the community and its members in such a way that it cannot fail to be noticed.” (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.3.2 § 72 p. 882).

    In other words, the task of theology is to present the Gospel as intellectually coherent. It will present it that way for both Christian and non-Christian readers. A special style tailored to outsiders is not necessary. If it is done well, some outsiders will be won over.

    Saturday, September 25, 2010 at 7:47 am | Permalink
  71. mshedden wrote:

    Here is a short quip from Walter Bruggemann I just read today:
    Dan: But you have some sympathy with that post-liberal project?
    Walter: Oh, I do indeed. I thank that’s right. “Post-liberal” has to do with public ethical questions, but in Old Testament studies, post-liberal really has to do with post-historical-critical.
    The whole interview is interesting, especially the way he thinks about Hauerwas and Willimon.

    Monday, September 27, 2010 at 11:22 am | Permalink
  72. roger flyer wrote:

    Thanks for this!

    Monday, September 27, 2010 at 3:15 pm | Permalink
  73. Tony Hunt wrote:

    If there is a common root in Barth – whatever Barthians might have to say about “postliberalisms” appropriation of Barth (I’m no authority) – Brueggie is all about Barth.

    Monday, September 27, 2010 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

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