Remembering and Honoring Evangelical Theologian Stanley J. Grenz (and Responding to Conservative Evangelical Criticisms of His Theology)
I have returned from the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature where about ten thousand religion scholars convened in sunny San Diego, California. I was invited to read a paper in one session of the Evangelical Theology Group, a program unit of the AAR, about the theology of Stanley Grenz. Stan was my close friend and co-author. He wrote over twenty-five books and was considered one of the most influential evangelical theologians during the latter years of his life. He died suddenly of a brain hemorrhage in 2005 at the age of 55. Recently Cascade Books, a division of Wipf & Stock publishers, published a volume of essays in Stan’s honor entitled Revisioning, Renewing, Rediscovering The Triune Center: Essays in Honor of Stanley J. Grenz edited by Derek J. Tidball, Brian S. Harris, and Jason S. Sexton. I wrote the book’s Foreword. The AAR session was organized around the book and most, if not all, of the speakers were authors of chapters. The book constitutes what’s called a “festschrift” in Stan’s honor. These are usually published while the person being honored is still alive, but not in this case.
Below I include my paper about Stan’s theology focusing especially on the label “postconservative evangelical.” About one hundred people attended the session which was a great honor to Stan considering that former president Jimmy Carter was speaking in a room only steps away during the session. I knew Stan well enough to know that he would have been torn between going to hear Carter and attending this session in his honor. He was a very humble person who did not think his theology was worthy of this much attention and would be embarrassed by it. And he admired Carter very much. Each of us panelists was given ten minutes to talk. Among the panelists were LeRon Shults, Derek Tidball, John Francke and Velli-Matti Kärkkäinen.
A few of the papers presented included comments about why Stan’s theology was controversial (and why Stan himself was controversial)—especially among conservative evangelicals. The consensus was that he was perceived as pushing the envelope of evangelical theology, especially with respect to engaging positively and constructively with methods, approaches and points of view conservative evangelical theologians consider “out of bounds” for evangelicals. Also, he integrated spiritual experience and culture into his theological method in a way that shocked many conservative evangelicals who seem to think that evangelical theology works only with scripture and tradition.
During the discussion time following the panel presentations one audience member raised the question, often asked before, of possible parallels between Stan’s theology and that of Friedrich Schleiermacher, the “father of liberal theology.” My response was off-the-cuff and incomplete. Afterwards I wished I had said something different and more. I will include the response I should have given to the question (which seemed to me to imply an accusation) after my reproduced panel presentation below.
Stanley J. Grenz: Paradigm of Postconservative Evangelical Theology
Roger E. Olson
Stan didn’t like most of the labels people put on him and the only theological labels he embraced gladly were “Christian,” “Baptist,” “evangelical” and, late in life, “pietist.” And yet when I coined (or thought I coined) the label “postconservative evangelical” in a Christian Century article I had Stan mainly in mind. That label has probably caused more trouble than it’s worth, but I still struggle to find a better qualifier for Stan’s and my approaches to being evangelical.
Like I, Stan would not give up on the label “evangelical.” He grew up evangelical, attended an evangelical Baptist seminary and always envisioned himself as an authentic evangelical. He stayed in the Evangelical Theological Society when others of us stayed or dropped out. To his dying day, so far as I know, based on what he wrote and told me in many lengthy conversations, Stan regarded himself as an evangelical among evangelicals. He did not think he was on any trajectory away from evangelical faith and theology.
However, and nevertheless, there were elements in Stan’s theology that caused others, perhaps more conservative than he or I, to question his evangelical credentials. It was to distinguish him and me from them that I used the label “postconservative”—not to say we weren’t and I’m not conservative vis-à-vis liberals but to say they, Stan’s conservative critics, had captured the center of American evangelical theology and that, in true Reformation fashion, he placed Scripture, or as he preferred to say “the witness of the Spirit in Scripture,” “the biblical message,” over and above “the received evangelical tradition” as defined by the neo-fundamentalists who managed to capture the fort, so to speak.
Anyone who has really read Stan with a hermeneutic of charity knows that he believed strongly in the inspiration and authority of Scripture. And in conversion, the cross as God’s atoning work through Christ, and Christian activism in evangelism and social transformation. In other words, in all four of David Bebbington’s four hallmarks of evangelicalism.
Still, and nevertheless, he courageously stepped out onto territory forbidden by the neo-fundamentalists and dared to speak in new ways about old doctrines. Let me be specific.
Stan’s postmodernism was genuine but not extreme. He did not agree with the deconstructionists or anti-realists. His postmodernism was simply an acknowledgement of the necessity of humility in the face of the absolute—God. He was very afraid of idolatry and especially among those who would make a fetish out of the Bible and dogma. His postmodernism should probably be called, more accurately, critical realism. He was no cultural relativist even though he recognized the fallibility of all human systems of thought including those most treasured by evangelicals. He would say a hearty amen to Alfred Lord Tennyson who wrote “Our little systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God, art more than they.”
Stan’s postconservatism, as I call it, appeared in his belief that spirituality, not dogma, is the true, enduring essence of evangelical Christianity. This is probably where he and his neo-fundamentalist critics first radically parted ways. But he went out of his way to say that doctrine is necessary and not dispensable or endlessly flexible.
Some people misunderstood Stan’s mission among the so-called “emerging” or “emergent” church types. His conservative critics saw it as proof that he was on a liberal trajectory away from his evangelical roots. Stan told me he was going among them to try to hold them, the emerging/emergent types, from slipping totally away from evangelicalism and to convince them that doctrine is important, to keep them from repeating the errors of liberal theology.
Some of his postconservative evangelical friends, including yours truly, could not understand his continuing membership in the Evangelical Theological Society. When I told him to “Come out from among them and be separate” he explained to me that they needed him—especially the younger members who knew in their hearts there was a better way to be evangelical but didn’t know how. He wanted to model it for them.
Stan was a true mediating theologian among evangelicals. I’ll end with two examples. First, with conservatives and neo-fundamentalists he opposed open theism, even if irenically. He had no sympathy with it. He told me he wanted to be “Augustinian.” Yet he would not have voted to expel open theists from the ETS.
Second, his Christology, which went largely unnoticed even by his harshest critics, perhaps because they couldn’t understand it, was anything but orthodox. I won’t say it was heretical, but it was, in my opinion, heterodox (in the textbook sense of that word). In Theology for the Community of God Stan rejected “incarnational Christology” in favor of a Christology based on Pannenberg’s eschatological ontology and his own eschatological realism. For him, as for Pannenberg, “as this man Jesus is God.” He denied any logos asarkos—Logos outside of Jesus. In place of preexistence he posited retroactive ontological enforcement of Jesus as divine because of his resurrection and his unity with God because of his self-differentiation from the Father. He did not embrace or promote the Chalcedonian hypostatic union model of Christology. Stan’s Christology sought a via media or alternative to classical “orthodox” Christology and liberal, “functional” Christologies.
Stan and I often argued about theology—sometimes until the wee hours of the morning. When he and I roomed together at these meetings he would keep me up until 2AM telling me what books I should write and correcting my theological opinions—like an older brother. One argument we often had was about life after death. Stan insisted that there is no bodiless human existence which he termed dualism. I argued for a bodiless, conscious “intermediate state” between death and the bodily resurrection. He thought that was a Greek idea, not biblical. His untimely death served no good purpose, but sometime after I suddenly realized I had finally won an argument with Stan. Now he knew I was right about that one. (End of my panel presentation)
Now to my “better response” to the question and implied accusation of parallels between Stan’s theology and that of Schleiermacher:
What is meant by “Schleiermachian” is unclear. Schleiermacher wrote a lot and so did Stan Grenz. The question is difficult to answer unless something specific is pointed to as the alleged commonality. To be sure, both Schleiermacher and Grenz were pietists; both emphasized the importance of Christian experience, spirituality, even in theological construction. But unlike Schleiermacher, Stan did not “do theology” “from below,” making human and Christian experience the controlling norm of Christian theology. For him, in a way I do not find in Schleiermacher, “the Spirit speaking in Scripture,” the “biblical message,” was the primary source and norm of Christian theology. Also, unlike Schleiermacher, Stan did not draw on “universal God-consciousness” (whether Gefühl or other) as a source or norm for theology. When he talked about experience as playing a role in Christian theology he meant the Holy Spirit at work among God’s people in what he called “convertive piety.” But he never even hinted that even this experience could trump Scripture. Stan’s theology was most definitely a “theology from above” even though he believed nobody can claim to have a God’s-eye view and denied any finally finished, complete, infallible system of theology.
There are many other differences between Schleiermacher and Grenz’s theologies. But I suspect most suspicions of similarities have to do with theological methodology. Conservative evangelicals looking at Stan’s theological method assumed that a “true evangelical theology” is drawn solely from Scripture—as Charles Hodge claimed in his Systematic Theology in the 1870s. Critics have noted, however, how Hodge was influenced by a philosophy called Common Sense Realism. (See my chapter on Hodge’s theology in The Journey of Modern Theology: From Reconstruction to Deconstruction [InterVarsity Press].) In other words, his theology, in spite of his claims, was not drawn directly out of Scripture; it was not simply an organizing of Scripture’s truths. Nor is any contemporary theology influenced by Scripture alone; Scripture is always interpreted and theology constructed in the light of tradition, reason and experience. Conservative evangelicals are so afraid of relativism in theology that they have enshrined Hodge’s theological method (and, I would dare say, his Systematic Theology) as the only permissible one. They have done (without saying so) with Hodge what Pope Pius X did with Thomas Aquinas’s theology for Catholic theologians.
No, I do not believe Stan Grenz’s theology was unduly influenced by Schleiermacher and I do not believe his theology bore any striking, constitutive resemblances with Schleiermacher’s theology. The resemblance is all in the minds and fear-driven imaginations of conservative theologians. The only resemblance I see is that Grenz, like Schleiermacher, was concerned to free Christian theology from the shackles of a hide-bound tradition that was out-of-date and irrelevant to contemporaries. But Schleiermacher’s “contemporaries” were the “cultured despisers of religion” (Enlightenment-influenced Romantics) while Stan’s were (and are) God-fearing, Bible-believing, Jesus-loving Christians who were (and are) dissatisfied with the rigid, static, rationalist theologies of the neo-fundamentalists.
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