When I read George Lindbeck's The Nature of Doctrine last term, one of my many concerns was that he did not (and could not?) account for divine action. It was not simply Lindbeck's lack of mentioning or discussing divine action that troubled me when he talked about "the church" and "ecclesial practices," but rather his insistence upon the immanent nature of the Christian "religion." I wondered if it was not merely, like Healy says about Hauerwas in the article referenced below, that divine action, the Word, and pneumatology are presupposed. Rather, it becomes a question of Lindbeck's work whether or not certain conceptions of ecclesiology functionally negates the need for divine action entirely. And ecclesial notions that eliminate divine action involve a host of concerns for me namely the failure to attend to the ever-present need for the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God into our present age that is enslaved to the powers. In his essay entitled, "Karl Barth's Ecclesiology Reconsidered," Nicholas M. Healy discusses the same sort of ecclesial trend I just mentioned that is taken up by Hauerwas as well to whatever extent. While I have not personally engaged with the works of Hauerwas as much as other "postliberal" theologians, I thought that this excerpt nicely highlights the concerns Barth would hold in relation to the current ecclesiologies that I have also found problematic specifically for its "lack of attention to God's action in our midst."
"One gets the impression from With the Grain of the Universe as well as from his other writings that for Hauerwas, Christianity is fundamentally about living within a particular narrative, about being trained and formed so that one acquires Christian dispositions and thus a character that conforms to that narrative, all with a view to embodying the politics of Jesus, a politics that counters the liberal democratic politics of the USA. Hauerwas focuses his attention on the concrete church because it is there that the gospel is displayed in the lives of Christians. The church is discussed in terms of its practices and doctrines, in terms, that is, of human action and thought. And the church is at the center of Hauerwas’s theology. He spends far less time on the doctrines of the Word and the Spirit that make our witness and politics possible, though, to be sure, it is always clear that the person and work of Jesus Christ and the activity of the Holy Spirit are presupposed.
This (relative) lack of attention to God’s action in our midst might well have been something that Barth would have brought up in his response to Hauerwas. For as Barth understood the matter, a Christian theological description of anything requires at some point a well-rounded account of the difference the activity of God makes, in both Word and Spirit. Hauerwas’s appropriation of social philosophies like those of Wittgenstein and MacIntyre over against Kant and his theological followers has been extraordinarily fruitful, making his work a truly prophetic force within the contemporary church. I suspect, though, that while Barth might have approved, he would say that the difference God makes to the church needs to be made clearer. It remains unclear what difference the Word and the Spirit’s active presence might make to descriptions of the church’s being and life that are couched in social-philosophical categories like ‘virtue’ and ‘narrative’.
To be sure, Barth himself notes an example or two of special ethics done very successfully without the initial general ethics (CD 3/4, p. 4), and the same point surely applies to ecclesiology. But accounts of the concrete church and the activities of its members developed in varying degrees of independence from well-rounded accounts of more central doctrines seem in recent years have come to be more the rule than the exception. Barth might ask of Hauerwas and of those who follow his lead whether in their laudable – and quite reasonable – effort to recover an ecclesial politics, they have not veered a bit too far towards presenting – and, in some cases, maybe even thinking of? – the church, the Christian life and its forms and institutions, as an ‘end in itself’? And is this question, however it be answered,not made possible by what amount to largely theologically neutral accounts of the church and of human action within it? And when one writes of the church and human action with little or no reference to divine action, is it not all too easy to end up supporting a view of the church that will be reductive and thereby in some aspects in effect anti-Christian, in spite of good intentions to the contrary? For to omit or de-emphasize the primary constitutive element of the church – God’s action in Word and Spirit – is, Barth would say, to construct an abstract ecclesiology. It is to talk about the Scheinkirche, the church in its non-theological appearance, rather than what is truly the church (KD 4/2, p. 698; CD 4/2, p. 617)."
- Nicholas M. Healy, "Karl Barth's Ecclesiology Revisited," 295-296.