Ecclesiological Fundamentalism


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Ecclesiological Fundamentalism
(Modern Believing Autumn 2004)


This essay calls theological postmodernism by its proper name. It has become axiomatic that the church, or the ‘community’- often understood in a very abstract sense - is the authentic context of theology, the sole alternative to discredited liberalism. This new orthodoxy is symptomatic of the failure of twentieth-century Protestant theology.

In a lecture of 1967, Donald MacKinnon warned against what he termed ‘ecclesiological fundamentalism’. He observed that many of his colleagues, who were otherwise critically astute, treated ‘the historical experience of the Church as self-justifying. Such men are happy to find that any external norm by which its development may be judged is unattainable.’

It is easy to see how such a theology…issues in an admiring apologetic for actual ecclesiastical institutions. At bottom, of course, it is anti-intellectual; it is also profoundly conservative, in the end identifying what is with what ought to be, and therefore of course it has its peculiar appeal for Anglicans.

He returned to the theme in a lecture of the following year, ‘Kenosis and Establishment’:

Theological progress may be dependent upon the criticism of the Church’s institutional experience, even the rejection of long tracts of that experience as fundamentally invalid. In such criticism may well lie the necessary condition of really fundamental theological progress… [There are] various types of fundamentalism which stand in the way of the sort of renewal the present not only demands but seems to make possible. I use the word fundamentalism advisedly; for it is most important that we should realize that the fundamentalist temper is by no means exclusively expressed in terms of an adherence to a belief in the supposed verbal inspiration of the Scriptures. There are, indeed, many sorts of fundamentalism – ecclesiological and liturgical, to mention two at least as deadly in their way as the more familiar biblical variant.

I am suggesting that a form of ‘ecclesiological fundamentalism’ presently dominates academic theology; it underlies theological postmodernism. I will demonstrate this in relation to four influential theologians: Barth, Lindbeck, Hauerwas and Milbank.

The basic narrative of twentieth-century theology is the rejection of theological liberalism in favour of a new reliance on the distinctive practice of ‘the Christian community’. Which is to say, the church. But ‘the church’ in a very general, abstract sense. What emerges is a virtual-reality form of ecclesiology that exalts an abstract ideal rather than an actual institution. I suggest that such a theology results from the failure of modern Protestant thought.


I want to re-cast Barth as a tragic figure. The effect of his assault on liberal Protestantism was the triumph of the catholic method in theology, and the almost total eclipse of intellectual Protestantism.

We must give a very brief account of his theological development. He set out to replace liberal Protestantism with something more authentically Protestant. The Protestant churches seemed ruled by the values of liberalism. He briefly looked upon religious socialism as more authentic. But this was locked in the same flawed dynamic: the modern church seemed intent on baptizing either Culture or counter-culture.

So what ought the church to be doing? He looked to the Reformers for an answer. It ought to be communicating the Word of God. His famous break with liberalism consisted in a new understanding of the foundational role of proclamation. This was the nub of his Romans commentary. Here, and in the lectures from these years, there is an obsession with God’s speech, and its prophetic mediation. The young Barth resembles a poet, or a philosopher-poet like Nietzsche, rather than a sober churchman or theologian.

The essential medium of the Word is the prophetic voice: Paul’s, Luther’s, et cetera – even Barth’s own. The function of the church is to stage this rhetorical drama, to provide a backdrop for the event of the Word. It is an intensely Protestant account of church, reflecting Luther’s dictum that the church is the daughter of the Word. It is relentlessly suspicious of all attempts to tie the Word to an institution, to a cultural form. There is therefore little sense of the church as a divine institution, mediating God by virtue of its mere existence. The church is only ever a constant possibility of divine communication, rather than a fully reliable channel.

Barth’s jealous insistence on verbal proclamation continues in the Göttingen Dogmatics (his lectures of 1926 that were not published in his lifetime). Barth sees the witness of the individual prophet or preacher as foundational: this rhetorical tradition underlies the Bible and the church. The church ‘refers to the text, to the authority with which the prophets and apostles talked about God and which demands that we do likewise. It dares to do what they dared. Or rather it does not dare not to do so.’ The church’s authority, then, derives from its mediation of the Word. The purpose of dogmatics is to check up on this, to regulate it. This is Barth’s supremely Protestant theological project: to base theology and church in authentic proclamation. But the aspiration becomes drowned out in his subsequent work.

Barth cannot exactly be charged with an ‘ecclesiological turn’. He retained a certain awkwardness about church, as we shall see. His turn was speculative, towards a brand of metaphysics. Before the late 1920s, his method had been essentially rhetorical. He was developing a new discourse of proclamation – a highly critically sophisticated one, steeped in the modern discourses of suspicion. It attempted to perform the otherness of God’s Word. As the preface to the second edition of Romans stated, this was his only ‘system’ – to convey the infinite qualitative distinction between God and man. In a lecture of 1926 he locates theological authenticity in ‘a certain way of speaking of God’, known to Kierkegaard, Luther, Calvin, Paul, and Jeremiah, but not to Schleiermacher: a way of speaking that performs God’s priority to man.

For about a decade Barth’s theological method was comparable to Luther’s. It was rooted in prophetic imitation rather than quasi-philosophical speculation. Luther never grew ashamed of theology-as-rhetoric. He never sought to be a better Aquinas. But from the late 1920s, Barth opted for a more speculative, philosophical approach to theology. He now wanted to sketch out an entire account of human knowledge from a theological perspective, like a post-Kantian Calvin. It is as if Nietzsche abandoned his prophetic style and tried to be a new version of Hegel.

The title of his magnum opus suggests that Barth came to understand theology in terms of ecclesiology. But this isn’t quite the case: The Church Dogmatics is questionably titled, as many have observed. In theory, of course, ecclesiology is absolutely central, the basis and context of theology. But this theoretical priority of church is not realized, not fleshed out. There is a pervasive sense that Barth doesn’t really believe in the centrality of ecclesiology as he feels he ought to. There is an imbalance, an instability surrounding the church in Barth’s theology (we shall come back to this in relation to Hauerwas’s reading of Barth).

I want to suggest that this awkwardness masks a massive failure of communication. He had wanted to articulate the Protestant account of church: that it exists for the sole purpose of communicating the Word of God. He had wanted to offer a strongly reforming definition of theology and church. But the Protestant message got lost in the speculative medium.

The lasting achievement of The Church Dogmatics was its form rather than its content. It established a new sort of space for theology: a space somewhere between ecclesiology and metaphysics. It is ironic that this new space was carved out by a Protestant, seeking a permanent home for his theology of the Word. For it is ideally suited to a form of theology that idealises church, a Platonic catholicism.

Perhaps every theological career, like every political one, ends in failure. Barth started out as a post-Nietzschean poet of Protestant faith: almost unbearably free-spirited, daring, Promethean. He seems to have begun to fear his own anarchic tendency, for he sought a restraining structure in a fusion of metaphysics and ecclesiology. This structure was developed for the sake of the Protestant core of his work - Christological proclamation - but in practice it stifled it. And the consequences of this misjudgement have been momentous for Protestant theology as a whole.


Barth’s transformation from a reforming Protestant into a postmodern ecclesiological fundamentalist begins with the Yale school ‘postliberals’. In their work, he becomes the godfather of the ‘cultural-linguistic community’.

Frei, Lindbeck, and others of the ‘Yale School’ in the 1970s and 80s, combined Barthianism with certain developments in philosophy and anthropology – especially Wittgenstein’s revolutionary philosophy of language. Language does not describe the world, said Wittgenstein, instead it forms our understanding of reality. And it is necessarily communal, social, practical – there can be no ‘private language’, he famously said. Wittgenstein occasionally applied these insights to theology. He suggested that a religion be seen as a language, and theology as its grammar, its regulation. This approach to theology has sometimes been called ‘Wittgensteinian fideism’. But what ultimately emerged was a form of ecclesiological fideism that found some of its justification in Wittgenstein.

The postliberals used this philosophical-linguistic revolution to complement Barth. It seemed to tie in with Barth’s declaration of theology’s independence from any secular framework; to constitute a sort of post-philosophical proof of theology’s autonomy.

Much of the groundwork was done by Paul Holmer and Hans Frei, but it was George Lindbeck who provided the ‘post-liberal’ movement with its classic expression. Lindbeck is an ecumenically-minded Lutheran who understands the Reformation as an attempt to reform rather than replace Catholicism. And his style of theology is far from confessional: in both style and content, a classical impersonality pervades his work.

In The Nature of Doctrine (1986) he proposed a ‘cultural-linguistic’ theory of religion, which sees religions ‘as comprehensive interpretative schemes, usually embodied in myths or narratives and heavily ritualised, which structure human experience and understanding of self and world’. In this model, doctrines are ‘communally authoritative rules of discourse, attitude, and action’.

[T]o become religious involves becoming skilled in the language, the symbol system of a given religion. To become a Christian involves learning the story of Israel and of Jesus well enough to interpret and experience oneself and one’s world in its terms. A religion is above all an external word, a verbum externum, that molds and shapes the self and its world, rather than an expression or thematization of a preexisting self or preexisting experience.

His thesis incorporates Frei’s ‘intratextual’ hermeneutic, which holds that the Bible, for the Christian, interprets the world rather than vice-versa. Lindbeck puts more emphasis on the role of the ‘interpretive community’. Intratextuality therefore becomes a social hermeneutic. The ‘text’ to which authentic theology is bound is not the Bible, but an entire religious culture. Following Wittgenstein (and Geertz and others) theology becomes a branch of anthropology. It reflects on the practices of a particular and distinctive culture, or tribe.

Lindbeck argued that Barth anticipated this approach to theology; he was a champion of the integrity and sufficiency of the biblical text, a proto-intratextualist, inviting us to live in ‘the strange new world within the Bible’ and opposing the alien frameworks of liberalism. Barth’s cause must always be taken up afresh, for the Bible’s ‘captivity to establishment culture or anti-establishment counter-culture continues’.

This cultural-linguistic approach has the effect of redefining theology as description of the community’s practices. Its meaningfulness depends on these actual practices. This makes it intrinsically conservative, a justification of what exists. In a later essay, Lindbeck partially acknowledges this:

One theological warrant for giving priority to practice is confidence that the Holy Spirit guides the church into the truth. If one believes this is so, one will think that the burden of proof rests on those who deny that the Christian mainstream has on the whole and in the long run discerned God’s word in Scripture. Historic mainstream interpretation should be given the benefit of the doubt. If a given way of understanding Scripture has long been fruitful, we have reason to believe that it is God’s word to his people.

‘Fruitful’ presumably means community-building. The effect of Lindbeck’s work is to contest the right of theology to challenge existing Christian practices. It ought to be clear that Barth’s recruitment to this cause is ironic. He had meant to reinvent the idea of church along radically Protestant lines. In American postliberal hands, he becomes a conservative ecclesiologist.

The influence of the cultural-linguistic model on subsequent academic theology cannot be overestimated. Lindbeckism is the quiet victor of twentieth century theology. It has swallowed up every reforming movement. Its inner logic is to defuse every form of theological reformism, by re-presenting ecclesiastical conservatism in attractively postmodern garb.


Stanley Hauerwas turns the rather dry insights of postliberalism into a rousing rhetorical performance, with a touch of cowboy swagger. He inherits the Yale School rejection of liberalism, the insistence that theology must be rooted in the particular practices of the Christian community. But Hauerwas brings to this redirection of theology a passionate intensity. He is a Methodist steeped in the traditions of the radical Reformation, especially as interpreted by the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder. But his trajectory is catholic rather than Protestant. He is perhaps the clearest proof of Protestant theology’s strange transformation into ecclesiological utopianism.

In Against the Nations he developed a new approach to Christian ethics, rooted in the particularity of the church, and fiercely hostile to universalist humanism. Building on Lindbeck’s cultural–linguistic model, he locates the essence of Christianity in the unique social ‘movement’ of church.

After Christendom? (1991) continues this project. It aims to reassert ‘the significance of the church as the embodiment of the necessary practices to sustain Christian affirmation of God as Trinity.’ Theology must resist the habits of liberal modernity and urgently reassert the primacy of church, for ‘outside the church there is no saving knowledge of God.’

It is my thesis that questions of the truth or falsity of Christian convictions cannot even be addressed until Christians recover the church as a political community necessary for our salvation. What Christians believe about the universe, the nature of human existence, or even God does not, cannot, and should not save. Our beliefs, or better our convictions, only make sense as they are embodied in a political community we call church.

Hauerwas’s emphasis on the Christian community has a corrective function: he is reacting very strongly against the American national ideal, which usurps the role of elect community. To some extent, this resembles Barth’s rejection of liberal Christian culture. But he is far quicker than Barth to identify the positive alternative: the authentic Christian community, distinct from the wider culture. Following Lindbeck, Hauerwas’s alternative polis is left denominationally vague: he does not claim that there is no salvation outside the Methodist Church. Yet he is at pains to emphasise that he means an actual community rather than an abstract ideal. And he makes very great claims for this ‘actual’ entity. Salvation, he asserts, ‘is a political alternative that the world cannot know apart from the existence of a concrete people called church.’

Hauerwas thus makes higher soteriological claims for ‘the community’ than his Yale school predecessors. It is the sole arena of Christian witness, and ‘witness’ is understood in a stronger sense than ‘communication’ or ‘proclamation’ – it is closer to ‘realization’. He therefore politicizes post-liberalism, introducing post-Marxist accounts of church and salvation. His rhetoric constantly flirts with chiliasm, as if salvation is to be achieved through the establishment of a pure Christian community. This vision is indebted to the radical Reformation, of course – and it also draws on Roman Catholic ecclesiology after Vatican II, ie. liberation theology.

Though he presents himself as a post-liberal Protestant, Hauerwas’s vision is directly at odds with mainstream Protestant thought. It lacks the suspicion that Luther and Barth share towards the possibilities of a pure Christian culture, a politically confident church. Also, of course, Hauerwas abandons the decisively Protestant belief that there is something prior to the church (the Word of God).

It is significant that Hauerwas claims to be Barth’s follower. In his recent Gifford lectures he calls Barth’s theology ‘a resource that we literally cannot live without.’ Yet his interpretation of Barth demonstrates the Protestant deficiency of his thought. He struggles to understand why such a great theologian fails to emphasise the absolute centrality of church, which is for Hauerwas the sole alternative to liberalism.

Barth rightly insists that the church is constituted by the proclamation of the gospel, Hauerwas observes. ‘What he cannot acknowledge is that the community called the church is constitutive of the gospel proclamation.’ In other words, Barth wants to suggest that ‘the proclamation of the gospel’ is prior to, and distinct from, church. This is anathema to Hauerwas, for whom there is nothing outside the cultural-linguistic text of the church. Similarly he takes issue with Barth’s comment: ‘The world would not necessarily be lost if there were no Church.’ This strikes him as the sort of thing that a theological liberal would say. As he says elsewhere, the theological liberal thinks ‘that every individual needs some kind of determinative relationship with God which they might find expressed in a communal body called the Church – maybe.’

Hauerwas wants to extirpate from theology the tendency to side-step or devalue church. He admits that Barth is an ambiguous ally in this cause. He detects in Barth a certain reticence, perhaps even distaste, for the reality of communal Christian witness. Though he rightly saw the Christian life in terms of witness, ‘Barth was hesitant to provide a fulsome account…of the practices necessary for the witness the church is.’ Instead, he places undue emphasis upon agonistic individualism, likening the Christian to ‘a lonely bird on a housetop’, who refigures the singled-out prophet. Barth’s archetypal witness has a bit of Kierkegaard about him. For Hauerwas, this detracts from the irreducibly communal nature of witness.

Similarly he chides Barth for being pessimistic about a distinctively Christian sub-culture, particularly in relation to education, and for looking too favourably upon the state, offering it excessive theological legitimacy. This raises a crucial point. In Hauerwas’s vision, there is no real distinction between church and politics. The task is to upbuild this unitary community, the new polis of the church. He is ultimately a theocrat, an advocate of Christendom’s revival.

Barth ought to serve as a warning figure for Hauerwas, a brake on his chiliastic ecclesiology. Instead Hauerwas ticks off Barth for his ecclesiological timidity. He simply assumes that a post-liberal will be an ecclesiological idealist like himself. Barth’s very Protestant suspicion of church, and neo-Christendom, is thus attributed to residual liberalism. This is symptomatic of Barth’s failure to articulate a Protestant alternative to liberalism.


John Milbank is another influential exponent of postmodern ecclesiological fundamentalism. Like Hauerwas, he strongly rejects theological liberalism, in favour of a new account of the centrality of the church. Unlike Hauerwas (and Frei and Lindbeck), Milbank does not care about being seen as a good Barthian, or any sort of good Protestant. Though he makes use of the postliberals, his roots are in politicised Anglo-Catholicism (he was taught by Rowan Williams).

As he explains in his massively influential book of 1990, Theology and Social Theory, he is building upon the ‘new theology of grace espoused by the Second Vatican Council’, which denies any distinction between the social and the ecclesiastical. The church is intrinsically political.

The introduction names the key error of modern theology: it has bought in to secular sociology. ‘Contemporary ‘political theologians’ tend to fasten upon a particular social theory…and then work out what residual place is left for Christianity and theology within the reality that is supposed to be authoritatively described by such a theory.’ Milbank seeks to turn this around: ‘if truth is social it can only be through a claim to offer the ultimate ‘social science’ that theology can establish itself and give any coherent content to the notion of ‘God’’. In other words, theology must reject secular sociology in favour of its own sort of sociology, which it calls ecclesiology. Milbank takes it for granted that the proper business of theology is expounding the distinctive form of social science in which the truth of Christianity consists.

From a Protestant perspective, Milbank’s primary assumption is simply unacceptable. Protestant tradition simply does not identify theology with the ultimate form of social science. It does not locate Christianity’s truth in the new polis of the church. But in all the responses to Milbank that have emerged over the last fourteen years, I do not think that this simple point has ever been made with appropriate clarity. Here, in a nutshell, we have the failure of modern Protestant theology. It does not know how to contest Milbank’s catholic starting-point, without seeming backwardly liberal. In a very real sense, academic Protestantism quietly died during the late twentieth century. It surrendered to a dominant catholic methodology.

Milbank sets up his thesis by explaining the failure of liberation theology. It accepts secular political categories, and tries to baptise a certain form of secular social science. Instead, theology must ‘provide its own account of the final causes at work in human history, on the basis of its own particular, and historically specific faith.’ Following Frei and Lindbeck and others, he advocates the epistemological priority of the community’s own narrative. He borrows Hauerwas’s notion of narrative theology, which prioritises the historical experience of the Church: ‘Bible-Church constitute a single, dynamic ‘inhabited’ narrative’. And he identifies the basic narrative, or mythos, of the church as the ‘ontological priority of peace over conflict’ – an account inspired by Augustine and Girard.

Milbank’s vision raises an obvious question: what particular community is being celebrated here? In an essay replying to various critical responses to his book, Milbank acknowledges the somewhat abstract character of his ecclesiology. ‘[T]he church is first and foremost neither a programme, nor a ‘real’ society, but instead an enacted, serious fiction…’ It is not an ideal state to be arrived at but an ongoing performance, whose centre is the ever-repeated ‘gift’ of the eucharist. In an article of 1991 this ecclesiological idealism is also explicit: ‘The community is what God is like, and he is even more like the ideal, the goal of community implicit in its practices. Hence he is also unlike the community...’

Theology for Milbank is a sort of utopian sociology; it reflects on the ideal community of the church, which seems to hover somewhere between existence and non-existence. The introduction to his subsequent collection of essays, The Word Made Strange (1998), acknowledges that the ‘practice’, in which theology is based, is elusive.

For all the current talk of a theology that would reflect on practice, the truth is that we remain uncertain as to where today to locate true Christian practice… . [Consequently] the theologian feels almost that the entire ecclesial task falls on his own head: in the meagre mode of reflective words he must seek to imagine what a truly practical repetition [of Christian practice] would be like. Or at least he must hope that his merely theoretical continuation of the tradition will open up a space for wider transformation.

This is a surprisingly clear admission that his ecclesiology is very largely an exercise of the imagination. These essays repeatedly emphasise the priority of ecclesiology, which is of course understood in a very wide and complex sense. Ecclesiology is the engine of Milbank’s theology; yet he doesn’t deign to get his hands dirty by tackling actual ecclesiological issues (there are a few prickly ones in his own Church of England).

Radical Orthodoxy, the school of theology based in Milbank’s work, continues the theological critique of secular modernity as illusory and nihilistic. It argues that modernity results from a series of theological errors in the late Middle Ages, the arch-villain being Duns Scotus. The Reformation and the Enlightenment result from this intellectual Fall. (This denigration of Protestantism and the Enlightenment is reminiscent of the Oxford Movement – another English idealization of catholicism). Radical Orthodoxy wants to revive the ideal (and presumably the reality) of a secular-eclipsing Church, synonymous with culture, learning, civilization. Milbank’s movement therefore has the same theocratic leanings as we observed in Hauerwas’ vision.

The two other principal founders of Radical Orthodoxy are also Anglo-Catholics (Pickstock and Ward), and its godfather is another (Rowan Williams). This is little surprise: Anglo-Catholicism is ideally placed to produce such a theology, being catholic but not Roman Catholic. It has a natural propensity to reinvent theology as ecclesiological idealism.


MacKinnon’s charge of ‘ecclesiological fundamentalism’ is applicable to theological postmodernism, the form of theology that overwhelmingly dominates the academy. After liberalism, theology finds its justification in ‘church’. It fears to stray from ‘the community’, lest it end up back in the clutches of liberalism. But the term ‘ecclesiological fundamentalism’ needs qualification. For, as we have repeatedly seen, this trend does not identify ‘church’ with a particular institution. For all its talk of particularity, it is vague about what ‘Christian community’ it means, or if it really means any concrete one at all.

The triumph of virtual-ecclesiological-fundamentalism must be understood in relation to the demise of Protestant theology. After Barth, Protestant theology takes a very dramatic catholic-ecclesiological turn (which is tantamount to a suicide bid). Ironically, this is largely because of Barth: he was so successful in soiling ‘liberal Protestantism’ that he drove post-liberal Protestants into the arms of catholicism. Barth failed to make it adequately clear what the Protestant alternative to liberalism was: no such thing as Barthianism ever emerged. ‘Post-liberal’, or ‘post-modern’ theology is overwhelmingly catholic, and it is very often openly derisive of Protestantism. As a Protestant theologian, Barth was certainly a failure.

The afterlife of Protestantism is anti-liberalism in search of a church: Hauerwas is the embodiment of this. Post-Barthian theology is only Protestant in the negative sense, of balking at Rome’s claims: it has no substantially alternative vision. For it has effectively repented of the Reformation, which is blamed for the curse of liberalism. It is a less realistic, less rooted version of Roman Catholicism; its dreamy little sister.

It seems that Barth’s rejection of liberal Protestant theology was careless. He threw the Protestant baby out with the liberal bathwater.

Bonhoeffer sensed this. At the end of his life he re-thought his allegiance to Barth, and questioned his achievement as few have done since. He still applauded Barth’s early motivation: the criticism of religion, especially in its liberal Protestant form. He still hailed Barth’s prophetic quest for a renewal of Protestantism. But he now decided that Barth had failed in this quest. His neo-orthodox solution entailed a reactionary reliance upon ‘church’ that betrayed the spirit of his early radicalism.

Barth and the Confessing Church have encouraged us to entrench ourselves persistently behind the ‘faith of the church’, and evade the honest question as to what we ourselves really believe. To say it is the Church’s business, not mine, may be a clerical evasion, and outsiders always regard it as such… We cannot, like the Roman Catholics, simply identify ourselves with the church.

In Bonhoeffer’s judgement, and mine, Barth’s very Protestant revolution failed. His high ecclesiology (‘high’ in an abstract, quasi-Hegelian sense) drowned out his original vision. Bonhoeffer might not have been surprised to learn of Barth’s strange legacy: a golden age of catholic theology.