A Wittgenstein for Postliberal Theologians

Modern Theology 32 (4):622-658 (2016)
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Remarkably, the theological discourse surrounding Hans Frei and postliberal theology has continued for nearly thirty years since Frei's death. This is due not only to the complex and provocative character of Frei's work, nor only to his influence upon an array of thinkers who went on to shape the theological field in their own right. It is just as indebted to the critical responses that his thinking continues to inspire. One recurrent point of criticism takes aim at Frei's use of Ludwig Wittgenstein's later work for theological ends. In his recent book Liberalism versus Postliberalism: The Great Divide in Twentieth Century Theology, John Allan Knight challenges what he sees as Frei's dependence on problematic Wittgensteinian assumptions. This article raises a few concerns about Knight's charges against Frei. Specifically, I argue that Knight's account tends to conflate the work of Wittgenstein and Frei. It does this by undervaluing two determinative features of Frei's work: (1) its basic Christological orientation; and (2) its Christologically motivated use of ad hoc apologetics. I argue that the Wittgensteinian view that Knight attributes to Frei is not Frei's view at all, and is, moreover, a problematic account of Wittgenstein on its own terms. Finally, Knight's claim that Frei's work “depends upon” and “is suffused” with the understanding of Wittgenstein that Knight attributes to him is based upon an account of Frei's treatment of the sensus literalis that is not entirely accurate. Without question, Knight does remarkable service to Frei's legacy by keeping important debates over his work alive. In what follows, I propose several points where I think Knight's account might be further enriched. The result, I hope, will be a more nuanced understanding of the ways that Frei actually appropriated and deployed Wittgenstein's thought. I will contextualize my account of Frei with reference both to Wittgenstein's writings and the literature surrounding his writings. Setting forth these accounts in tandem should help make further available Wittgenstein's work for subsequent work by postliberal theologians.

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Jason Springs
University of Notre Dame


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