Postliberal Theology for Dummies (like me)

Postliberal Theology for Dummies (like me) May 5, 2011

It’s tough to summarize what I think postliberalism is in a way that is succinct and yet does not miss the main tenets. I feel sure I’ve failed to strike that balance here, nevertheless I offer a few reflections on what Postliberal theology means to me below.

The Postliberal school of theology (also called the Yale School), would contend that classic Protestant liberalism (Schleiermacher, Troeltsch, Harnack, also called the Tubingen, or Chicago school of theology), and conservative evangelicalism/fundamentalism (Swindoll, Falwell, Piper, MacArthur, Carson, et al), are both built upon the same philosophical foundation which is capital “L” Liberalism. They both embrace the “neutrality” of reason. Evangelical/fundamentalists label it “doctrine,” liberals call it “science.” Protestant liberalism and conservative evangelicalism both make reason or rationality the epistemological center of their universe, thereby replacing God as the center. Of course they both deny this, but it is at the heart of their foundationalist epistemology. What makes both Protestant liberalism and evangelicalism/fundamentalism somewhat pernicious is that each denies its own subjectivity and claims all of their content to be empirically true. Each claims to contain “true rationality,” and revealed “truth.” To the liberal this is revealed by science, to the evangelical/fundamentalist this is revealed by scripture (which really means their reading of scripture, i.e. their doctrines).

The Postliberal school acknowledges the subjectivity & social mediation of all knowledge and language, and thus takes a narrative approach. We have no foundation (not even reason, science, or doctrine), other than the person of Christ and the story of the people of God as it has be revealed through scripture and history. What is truly universal is not reason, science, or doctrine but Jesus and the gospel. So our focus should be on a narrative reading of the Christian story rather than a systematic theology or scientific discovery (both of which always end up in a big fight anyway – with dissenters burned at the stake, i.e. Rob Bell). Christianity is not a belief system but a new way of being human: what Jesus called the “new humanity,” and Paul called being “in Christ.”

Postliberal theology is typically characterized by a very high Christology (Jesus is very God/very man – 2 natures, one essence). It is Trinitarian, thus it affirms the creeds and the bodily resurrection of Jesus – in contrast to typical liberals who reject miracles. It is also characterized by an emphasis on tradition and story – in contrast to doctrinal/rational accounts of truth like evangelicals/fundamentalists. Postliberal theologies insist upon embodiment of the gospel in concrete communities under the direction of the Spirit. The truth is not simply a doctrine to assent to, nor is it a myth or scientific account of reality. The truth is revealed to us through Christ, the scriptures, the traditions of the church, and human reason – all under the direction of the Holy Spirit. Thus, unless the reality of the gospel is embodied in the church it becomes unintelligible (hence doctrine is unintelligible w/out being embodied in a people, reason is meaningless unless it is somehow embodied in a people).

I will add: it seems to me that Evangelicals/Fundamentalists typically attack postliberals by playing semantic language games and calling them warmed over liberals. This is a ridiculous tack, given the radically different epistemology at work in those two streams of theology. Protestant Liberals typically attack postliberals by saying their ideas are not backed by science and historical discovery. But, again, this assumes that rationality is the only form of knowing, which is simply not true. Anyone who has been in love or been a parent knows that there is a kind of knowing, or a knowledge that goes far beyond what is rationally explainable.

In the end, Postliberal theologians typically call people to take up their cross and actually follow Jesus. They insist that faith (pistis) means much more than rational belief, but means believing allegiance and an active life of Christ followership. They would say that the church should gather around the scriptures and the traditions of the church and allow them to define our reality over and against any other story, be it Rationalism, Americanism, Capitalism, Liberalism, conservative/liberal politics, individualism, consumerism, militarism, nationalism, etc. It essentially contends that Jesus is Lord – there is not other Lord, not even doctrines or science.

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  • Les

    I like your definition! Good thoughts.

  • Den

    Amen. I strongly agree with everything you wrote, with the one understanding that by naming a "school" of theological thought, you are necessarily closing off some avenues of approach. Unfortunately, this is the nature of our human understanding and apprehension of the world we live in. We live in the tension between things we know to be real, but can't name, and those things we can name, that may not really exist but instead be creatures of our own. Paul tells us plainly that we "see incompletely." This one bit of fact is so often overlooked, ignored, or outright denied by his successors that it should give us all pause when we declare something other than the Lordship of Christ to be the final word on anything. Where is faith in that assertion?

  • Good thoughts Dennis. I think one of the reasons I'm drawn to the post-liberal school is that there is a strong confession that all speech about God is both occasional and provisional in nature. You nailed the provisional nature in your comments. The Lordship of Christ holds the center in our thinking. The occasional nature of our speech (subjectivity), means that we will always be finding new ways to talk about how to relate to Jesus. Thus I think there is necessarily some latitude for theology, and we must remain open to new manifestations of the Spirit. Yes??

  • "Christianity is not a belief system but a new way of being human: what Jesus called the “new humanity,” and Paul called being “in Christ.” "– well said, by whom (post-liberal, you)? i wasn't able to follow, but i like this…

  • That's my description, I'm not quoting anybody there – although I'm sure it's been said before. This is part of what appeals to me about this school of thinking.

    I find much in common with the post-liberal school, but I think it's still important to be open to other schools of thought. Several of the Radical Orthodoxy folks speak to me (Cavanaugh, Milbank). I love some of the Brits – Begbie, Wright. Jamie Smith is a reformed guy I love. All truth is God's truth – I'll take it wherever I can get it.


  • Brian

    Thank you for the post, I found it extremely informative. I’m beginning to realize that in the midst of my conservative fundamentalist denomination that I am a post-liberal. This happened without prompting by any academic institution impressing these beliefs on me, in fact, fundamentalism was the norm at my seminary. I guess I can finally label myself. I’m sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing yet. Thanks again, and may God bless you and your ministry!