377 - Response to George Lindbeek

Response to George Lindbeck
By Ronald F. Thiernann

I am offering my remarks as an appreciative critic of George Lindbeck. His book, The Nature of Doctrine, has presented a bold and innovative proposal for our understanding of doctrine, theology, and religion, and it has spawned a discussion that might well help to clarify and define the major theological options available to contemporary theologians. At the two most recent American Academy of Religion meetings, The Nature of Doctrine was discussed and referred to in a wide variety of sessions. Perhaps most encouraging of all is the fact that theologians from various theological schools, who rarely talk to one another, are now engaged in serious theological conversation about this book and its provocative ideas. I can imagine no better tribute to a man whose life has been given to ecumenical dialogue and conversation.


One of the most important notions introduced in The Nature of Doctrine is that of "intratextuality." "Intratextual theology," Lindbeck writes, "redescribes reality within the scriptural framework rather than translating Scripture into extrascriptural categories. It is the text, so to speak, which absorbs the world, rather than the world the text." Or again: "A scriptural world ... is able to absorb the universe. It supplies the interpretive framework within which believers seek to live their lives and understand reality."

Lindbeck's symposium address is a further expansion and explication of "intratextuality"-now seen in relation to the theology of Karl Barth. In a very brief summary of Barth's position on Scripture, Lindbeck has suggested that the great Swiss thinker was an "intratextual theologian" before textuality and the priority of the written word had become culturally fashionable. Thus Barth, at least on the issue of the primacy of textuality, bears common witness with an unlikely cohort, Jacques Derrida-a suggestion that might make the ashes in Crypt #14 of Section 3 in the Basel Friedhof am Hörnli shift in uneasiness.

Barth's uneasiness, I want to argue, might be well-grounded, though not because he would dislike the company of Derrida. In many ways, Barth would readily agree with the critique of the "metaphysics of presence" and would undoubtedly appreciate the French philosopher's brash and somewhat anarchistic style. No, the objection would be, I think, to Lindbeck's linking of "The Strange New World Within the

Ronald F. Thiernann is the newly appointed Dean of the Harvard Divinity School. He is the author of Revelation and Theology: The Gospel as Narrated Promise (1985).

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Bible" with the concepts of textuality, intratextuality, and selfinterpreting texts.

In his summary of Barth, Lindbeck has written, "When the text controls communal reading, Scripture can speak for itself and become the self-interpreting guide for believing communities." That sentence sounds like a rather faint echo of Barth's more robust talk of revelation as God's self- interpretation. Barth is interested in Scripture as selfinterpreting text, because he sees Scripture as the vehicle of the self-interpreting triune God. Whatever the philosophical problems with Barth's conception of revelation-and they are many as I have tried to show in my recent book Revelation and Theology-that concept does essential theological work in Barth's thought. Lindbeck is surely right in saying that Barth's talk of the "self-evidence of the event of the knowledge of God" is the "most damaging instance" of confusing theological baptism with birth. But that failing should not blind us to the fact that it is Barth's view of revelation that warrants his intratextual view of theology. Without that doctrine of revelation, or its functional equivalent, textuality, intratextuality, and self-interpreting texts have no theological force.

Clearly Lindbeck's paper does deal with these issues, particularly in the last few pages. He stresses with Barth that when God becomes unsubstitutably identified in the gospel story, God becomes the "basic text." But that point, important as it is, appears almost as an afterthought. The greater part of the essay focuses on the more formal notions of text and textuality with little mention of matters theological and almost no mention of God. There is, indeed, the real danger that in much of Lindbeck's essay talk about "text" stands in place of talk about "God.


I would like to offer a different summary of Barth's theology, one which shows how questions of text and interpretation follow from Barth's primary concern with God's identity and reality.

It is important to remember that Barth, unlike the so-called "neoorthodox" thinkers with whom he is often lumped, does not conceive of revelation primarily as the process by which we come to know God. For Barth, revelation denotes the content of our knowledge of God, and his reflections concerning the process by which we come to know have a distinctly secondary status. For Barth, the category of revelation cannot be separated from God's identity, because revelation is nothing other than the being of God in verbal form. It is, to use Barth's own language, the "reiterated being" of God, that is, God's inner-trinitarian being made available in word and history. Thus, Barth begins his reflection on revelation in the Church Dogmatics with a section entitled "The Place of the Doctrine of the Trinity in Dogmatics." He does that not simply to appear stolid and old-fashioned in a notoriously faddish discipline but because God's revelation is triune being, or better, triune identity. If

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God is identified solely through revelation, then theology must begin by reflecting upon God's identity, and in Christianity that means beginning with the doctrine of the Trinity.

The human problem to which revelation offers a solution is the problem of proper speech about God. How are we sinful human beings to speak of the holy and transcendent God? Barth captured the essence of that dilemma in his famous 1927 essay, "The Word of God and the Task of Ministry." "We ought to speak of God," Barth writes. "We are human, however, and so cannot speak of God. We ought therefore to recognize both our obligation and our inability and by that very recognition give God the glory. This is our perplexity. The rest of our task fades into insignificance by comparison" (The Word of God and the Word of Man, p. 18 6).

Barth's well-known rejection of every form of natural theology is based on his conviction that the "eternal covenant" (the belief that the possibility for knowledge of God is grounded in a universal quality of human being) finally limits the utter graciousness of God. The possibility for knowledge of God, Barth argues, is grounded not in any human capacity or capability but within God's own trinitarian being. The possibility for relation to and knowledge of God is primarily and properly God's own possibility. That assertion once again brings the doctrine of the Trinity to the fore in Barth's thinking. The triune God lives in self-differentiated relation. The differentiated "persons" of the triune reality are unified precisely as they participate in one another. And that participation establishes a relation of mutual love and selfknowledge within God's being ad intra. Thus God is knowable in se, that is, in God's own inner being. So, also, God is in loving relation in se, independent of any relation to reality external to God. God's knowability is not established by relation to human beings. But in an act of sheer grace, God's knowability is shared with us. In Christ and in the gospel which proclaims him, God shares with us that possibility for knowledge of God and for a loving relation with God.

On the basis of this trinitarian view of revelation, Barth then moves to address the problem of the possibility of theological language and the issues of text and textuality. Barth argues that God's revelation provides the only possible basis for proper speech about God. Because God is available to us in the one Word, Jesus Christ, we are now enabled to undertake an interpretation of that revelation. Our speech is truly speech about God if we follow the path which God has laid out for us in revelation. Theological interpretation is always an act of faithful obedience in which we submit our powers of mind and imagination to the guidance of the Spirit through the scriptural text which witnesses to Christ.

The interpretive relationship between text and reader is complex, for it involves both the guidance of the Spirit and the free but obedient act of theological interpretation. Thus, Barth sometimes speaks of revelation as "God's self- interpretation," almost as if to suggest that our

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interpretive faculties play no role in understanding that revelation. In the same way, he so stresses our obedient response to revelation that he seems to deny completely any moment of freedom in the interpretive act. So he writes in a wonderful early essay entitled "Fate and Idea in Theology"': "Faith is not the kind of knowledge in which we can see ourselves as creative. In this knowledge, we must rather see ourselves as obedient.... Obedience here must be pure obedience.... There can be no question of reciprocity between God's action and our own."

On the other hand, Barth can acknowledge the need for full engagement of our intellectual faculties in the task of interpreting God's revelation. In Evangelical Theology, he writes, "The central affirmations of the Bible are not self-evident: the Word of God itself, as witnessed to in the Bible, is not immediately obvious in any of its chapters or verses. On the contrary, the truth of the Word must be sought, precisely in order to be understood in its deep simplicity. Every possible means must be used ... not the least, the enlistment of every device of the conjectural imagination."


Theology is for Barth a hermeneutical activity in which the theologian in the context of the Christian community seeks to give, in Hans Frei's helpful phrase, a faithful redescription of the biblical narrative. Theology is a human activity through which God's revelation manifests itself in human speech. "Thinking and speaking humanly, yet nevertheless letting God's Word be said-that is the task of theology. It is the task of a theology which, granted God's grace, thinks and speaks not about [the] boundaries of human thought, but with all possible objectivity about God."

Christian theology must always have that dual emphasis on God's guiding grace and free human inquiry, but if priority is to be given (as Barth believes it must) to God's free grace, then the two elements of interpretation can never be systematically correlated. Theology must reflect the dialectical character of the revelation it seeks to redescribe. Our knowing of God must conform to God's knowability, that is, to the very structure of God's being as made known to us in revelation. Though God can truly be known in our act of interpretation, God remains in sovereign control of the possibility of knowability. In the act of revelation, God is simultaneously revealed and hidden-revealed because truly available to us, hidden because remaining in sovereign control of self-manifestation. Since God's prior movement to us is the necessary condition for our knowing, we can discern God's being only in the place freely chosen to share with us. Moreover, we can interpret rightly only as we seek to conform our knowing to God's knowability, that is, as we fashion our thinking according to the pattern through which God is shared. Revelation is thus both God's self-interpretation and our interpretation of God. But our interpretation of revelation can be true only as it seeks to conform itself to the pattern and structure of God's being as

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shown in revelation. Theology is the search to discern the being of God in the words of the biblical text.

Barth, of course, does not simply equate the being of God and the biblical text, for that would be a denial of God's hiddenness. For Barth, all knowledge of God has a "sacramental" quality, because we come to know God through a creaturely medium which is not God, an external reality chosen as the vehicle for revelation, namely, the humanity of Jesus. We cannot know God in any and every piece of creaturely reality, but only where God has freely chosen to be revealed. In choosing the humanity of Jesus, God has provided sacramental and thus indirect access. But there is a further element of indirectness which affects the nature of the theological task. Jesus Christ as God incarnate is God's sacramental presence among humankind, but even that sacramental presence cannot be known directly, for God is known in Jesus Christ only through the witness of the biblical narrative. As the history of God's action (and thus God's being) in Jesus Christ is narrated in Scripture, we come to know the identity of Jesus Christ and thereby to know God. Such knowing and consequent speech of God is a reliable reflection of God, because God's being is always in christological acts. But this knowing process is always indirect, and thus theology must always rely on the all too human traits of imagination, intellect, and wisdom as we strive to offer a faithful account of God's revelation in Jesus Christ.


I have engaged in this somewhat lengthy rehearsal of Barth's view of revelation in order to indicate the complicated way in which Barth might aptly be described as an "intratextual theologian." Intratextuality would be an important theological concept for Barth only if it allows us to address the question of God's identity and reality both within the Christian community and within the broader cultural community. It is because I believe that the theological approach George Lindbeck has sketched for us does give us a fresh way to tackle those perennial issues that I find this new quasi-technical language attractive. My fear, however, (a fear confirmed by the first major sections of Lindbeck's address) is that these new theological categories might launch us once again into a major methodological discussion which will impede our attempt to do theology, that is, "to inscribe anew the world in which we live into the world of the biblical narrative."

I am suggesting that, ironically, Lindbeck's essay runs the risk which he so aptly describes in The Nature of Doctrine. If postliberal theology, he writes, "were to become theoretically popular, the result might chiefly be talk about intratextuality rather than more and better intratextual practice." The great hope of the cultural-linguistic model is that it might enable us to do real theology again, in a way which might engage a church and a culture which have become increasingly both biblically and theo-logically amnesiac.

If, then, the real theological issue is the challenge of conforming our

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lives to the identity and reality of that God who invites us to share in a world created, redeemed, and reconciled by grace, then it is not clear to me that the current cultural emphasis on textuality is in any way a resource for that task. Lindbeck says that though "modern textuality" sees the "book of nature" as "socially constructed or composed," still that position poses no "intellectually grounded objections to the legitimacy or possibility of treating a classic, whether Christian or pagan, as a perspicacious guide to life and thought." I certainly read the current hermeneutical debate quite differently. The deconstructionists are, it seems to me, seeking precisely to deny classical status to any text by denying that there can be any form of privileged interpretation. As Frank Kermode has put it so elegantly, "All narratives are essentially dark" and the worlds which they cast up before us are finally "unfollowable." "World and book," Kermode writes, "are hopelessly plural and endlessly disappointing. Our sole hope and pleasure is in the perception of a momentary radiance before the door of disappointment is finally shut on us" (The Genesis of Secrecy, p. 145). I do not see how such a view, despite its important focus on textuality, can assist us in recovering "self interpreting texts," or "the single and authoritative universe of biblical discourse."

Recently, I sat in a large gathering at a major secular university listening to the stirring biblical cadences of Bishop Desmond Tutu. That largely dechristianized audience was both moved and, I believe, convinced by the theological justification the Bishop offered for his position on investment in South Africa. It may well be that many had been previously convinced on other non-theological grounds and simply found their independent judgments confirmed by the Bishop's Christian warrants. In either case, the experience reinforced the importance of the message George Lindbeck has brought to us, namely, that the Christian vision of reality is most effectively communicated to a dechristianized culture by a combination of righteous action and explicit witness to the God who has reconciled the world in Christ Jesus.