George Lindbeck, one of the most influential Protestant theologians of recent decades, died on January 8 at age 94 in Florida.
Lindbeck’s influential 1984 book, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age, established a theology that rejected modern liberal Protestant thinking that defined religious truth by common personal experiences, and instead proposed a “cultural-linguistic” approach that saw the creeds and practices of faith communities as the basis for religious understanding.
George Sumner, writing of Lindbeck’s death for The Covenant, described postliberalism this way:
“Whatever else postliberalism is, it was meant to be an apologetic help to be a credal or mere Christian in our age. That is what George was and what he wanted to promote. Furthermore, it was a deeply missionary-influenced theory. He once said that he grew up in a non-Christian milieu in which the reality of the spiritual world was not in question, within which the mission station was a distinct cultural-linguistic world.”
Lindbeck grew up in China, where his parents were missionaries. He said in a 2006 Christian Century interview that knowing people who were formed by both Christianity and Confucianism gave him the convictions “that the communal shapes us more than we shape ourselves” and that “human basics are everywhere and always pretty much the same.”
Lindbeck was committed to church unity and ecumenical dialogue, particularly between Lutherans and Roman Catholics. He was a “delegate observer” to the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. He also worked on the Joint Commission between the Vatican and Lutheran World Federation from 1968 to 1987.
Lindbeck taught at Yale from 1951 until his retirement in 1993. One of his students, Cyril O’Regan, wrote of his classroom demeanor as contemplative.
“What was astonishing and appalling at once was his economy of speech. There were words; it was just that they were remarkably few. There were pauses that never seemed to end, which with anyone else would have caused alarm, but in the oddest way they allowed you to feel safe. What defined Mr. Lindbeck as a theologian was what defined him as a person: deep listening that was a pondering and a questioning.”
George Lindbeck is survived by his wife, Violette, and daughter Kristen.