Some Memories of Stanley J. Grenz and His Theological Journey
My friend and co-author Stan Grenz died almost ten years ago. He was only fifty-five years old and in the prime of his career as a teacher and profession as a Christian theologian. He had published over twenty-five books and scores of articles. He was working on a multi-volume theology with the overarching title of The Matrix of Christian Theology.
During the last decade of his life Stan had become the focus of much controversy including undeserved vituperation and vilification from what I call neo-fundamentalist evangelical theologians. Some of that was public but much of it was private. One of my colleagues reported overhearing a conversation about Stan at an annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. They were two Baptist theologians who are noted for being conservative Calvinists and harshly critical of anything “postmodern” (which they probably don’t understand at any deep level). My colleague heard them saying that, in their opinion, Stan was a wolf in sheep’s clothing among evangelicals, a very dangerous heretic.
Stan was publicly accused in print by the president of a Baptist seminary of “cultural relativism.” Another conservative evangelical scholar published a book in which he took Stan (as he put it) “to the woodshed” for allegedly having a low view of Scripture—hardly worthy of the word “evangelical.”
And yet, through it all, Stan remained a member of the Evangelical Theological Society and, to the best of my knowledge, there was no serious attempt to exclude him from it (as was the case with two of my other friends—John Sanders and Clark Pinnock).
I spent much time with Stan. We roomed together at annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature (AAR/SBL) every year for about twenty years. We saw each other as often as possible between annual meetings and spoke on the phone about once monthly. We also e-mailed with each other frequently. We wrote two books together and collaborated on several projects such as “The Word Made Fresh.”
I know for a fact that the accusations hurled at Stan by fellow evangelicals hurt him deeply. He made many attempts to reach out to his critics and bring them into conversation. He was a man committed to an irenic, “big tent” approach to evangelical theology and, for him, that included neo-fundamentalists. Some of them were among his close friends. But, increasingly, they turned their backs on him under pressure from the leaders of their branch of evangelicalism.
I well recall several incidents that especially hurt Stan. Stan wrote an article about the theology of his Doktorvater Wolfhart Pannenberg in honor of his sixtieth birthday and it was published by a leading evangelical magazine. Afterwards he found it impossible to find publication in that magazine. Eventually the reason appeared from an editor of said magazine: He had failed to mention that Pannenberg did not believe in the virgin birth and therefore could not be trusted to write for the magazine. It was not so much the in-house editors who made that decision; it was two extremely conservative members of the external editorial board who pressured the magazine’s editors to exclude Stan from being published.
Two accusations swirled around Stan like wasps—that he was adopting a “Schleiermachian approach” to theological methodology (viz., elevating experience to a norming norm) and that he was becoming “postmodern” thereby undermining theology as a matter of truth. I had many conversations with Stan about those accusations and he was extremely frustrated (as I was) by them. He believed (and I agree) that both accusations amounted to little more than vicious calumnies. His accusers clearly had not read him with anything approaching a hermeneutic of charity.
I have already explained here, in a recent post, why the accusation of following a Schleiermachian method missed the mark entirely. Stan never elevated experience to the status of a norming norm for theology (as did Schleiermacher). I believe Stan would have agreed with my account of the role of experience in theology (as explained in that recent blog post).
Stan’s postmodernism was not relativistic; by “postmodern” he clearly mean “postfoundationalist.” And I think his critics knew that. There are varieties of “postmodernism;” not all postmodernism is deconstructionist or relativistic (and even those are not the same thing!). Stan’s inspiration for postmodernism in his theology was actually critical realism; he believed in absolute truth but did not think any human mind could grasp it perfectly or completely. He was a perspectivalist and drew on the philosophies of moderate postmodern thinkers.
I believe many of Stan’s conservative evangelical and neo-fundamentalist critics has elevated foundationalism to the status of the only acceptable evangelical epistemology. Many of them also accused him of denying the “correspondence theory of truth” which is, of course, notoriously subject to varying interpretations. Stan believed, as I do, that “truth” is what God knows. But no human system of propositions corresponds perfectly to the mind of God. We are incapable of “thinking God’s thoughts after him.” From Pannenberg he adopted a “coherence theory of truth” for human systems of knowledge. (Pannenberg depended heavily on philosopher Nicholas Rescher for this.)
I believe most, perhaps all, the evangelical criticisms of Stan’s basic impulses in theology were shallow and misguided; some of them were rooted in personal antipathy.
I observed Stan moving in his theological orientation—from being enamored with Pannenberg’s theology (he earned his doctorate in theology under Pannenberg in Munich and wrote one of the best books on Pannenberg’s theology entitled Reason for Hope [Oxford University Press]) toward Pietism. I worked on Stan for years—to draw him away from Pannenberg’s theological impulses toward a rediscovery of Stan’s own Pietist roots. As he inclined more toward moderate postmodernism I showed him the affinities between that and Pietism. I take credit for helping Stan move more toward Pietism in his later years. When he died we were in conversation about collaborating on a book about postmodernism and Pietism.
Many of Stan’s critics’ accusations would be as true of Pietism in general as of Stan’s later theology if there were any truth in them at all. I am not arguing that Stan was perfect; he and I disagreed on many things including the so-called “intermediate state.” Until he died he denied any separation of soul and body. I said at his memorial service that this is one argument with Stan that I can say with some confidence I won. I am confident that he is right now in Paradise with Jesus awaiting the bodily resurrection. But most, if not all, of the conservative evangelical and neo-fundamentalist criticisms of Stan and his theology were off target entirely. I know from personal experience that he was no cultural relativist, radical postmodernists, or “Schleiermachian.” He always emphasized that Scripture is the sole human, divinely inspired, supreme source and norm of Christian theology with tradition and culture being tools of interpretation. The only authority over Scripture, he argued, is the Holy Spirit who speaks through Scripture, but he never endorsed extra-biblical experiences or “revelations” as normative for theology on a par with Scripture itself.
Lastly, I know that the unfair criticisms of Stan’s theology became so harsh and so widespread and deeply ingrained that he himself virtually gave up attempting to do specifically evangelical theology and, in The Matrix of Christian Theology work was turning “toward the mainline.” Without ceasing to be evangelical he wanted to become a theologian within mainline Protestantism. That is why he turned to Westminster John Knox as his primary publisher. He told me this in direct, face-to-face conversations. I was saddened but understood. He felt that evangelical power brokers had marked him as too controversial—not due to his actual theological views but due to the torrent, the avalanche of harsh criticism directed at him by allegedly authoritative evangelical spokesmen in the evangelical academy. He was giving up attempting to work primarily within the evangelical academy and turning toward mainline Protestantism which he perceived as gradually turning back toward its evangelical roots—or at least being open to work produced by serious evangelical scholars. At one time he had hoped to become the best known, most widely read and influential evangelical theologian. (Yes, Stan was ambitious.) But for about five years before he died he was giving up on that hope (although many of us believed he had achieved his goal!), believing he had accomplished all he could within the evangelical community, and moving into the mainstream of Protestant theology without in any way compromising his basic evangelical convictions.