What Happened to Evangelical Theology? [#ETS2014 Liveblog]

What Happened to Evangelical Theology? [#ETS2014 Liveblog] November 20, 2014

This weekend I’m attending the Evangelical Theological Society and American Academy of Religion, and I will be liveblogging some of the sessions that I’m attending.

Assessing Stanley Grenz’s Contribution to Evangelical Theology: 10 Years Later,” that’s the name of the session I’m attending at ETS. But Stan’s death isn’t the only thing that happened ten years ago at ETS. That was also the year that ETS voted against Open Theology, for all intents and purposes expelling people like Greg Boyd, Clark Pinnock, and John Sanders. Now, when you look through the program book, in addition to the annual reaffirmation of inerrancy in the image above, you will see that many sessions are dominated by Southern Baptists.

8:50am Jason Sexton just presented Edna Grenz, Stan’s widow, with a volume of 20 essays in his honor. She implored the gathered scholars to not just continue Stan’s theological rigor, but to also treat one another with humility and respect as they debate one another.

8:54am Sexton continues that many, looking back, do not think that Stan really understood postmodernism. Some also incorrectly believe that he had departed evangelicalism before his death. This would only happen, Sexton says, if we look exclusively at Stan’s academic work and ignore his spiritual and ecclesial life.

Sexton also thinks that Stan is unfairly criticized for his book on homosexuality,Welcoming but Not Affirming: An Evangelical Response to Homosexuality. Instead than being a recalcitrant evangelical, Sexton says, Granz was “ahead of us” on sexuality, women, postmodernity, and the Trinity.

Who’s the real Stan Grenz? That’s what Sexton tried to discover in his dissertation, but he says Stan cannot be found in the secondary literature — the books and articles about Grenz. That’s because, “Maybe we’re afraid of what we might find, how the real Stan Grenz might push us beyond our own boundaries.”

9:05am Derek Tidball takes on the topic of Stan Grenz and Evangelicalism. He says that evangelicalism is virtually impossible to define doctrinally, so others define it historically. But Grenz argued that evangelicalism is a living, mutating organism. By seeing the Bible as the book of the community, Grenz was faithful to his Baptist roots, and that’s something that evangelicalism at large should heed. Stan is wrongfully called the “godfather of the emerging church.”

Stanley Grenz

Comment: Already the tone in the room is to say as loudly as possible, Stan Grenz lived and died as an evangelical! In other words, people who think he was anything short of evangelical when he died are wrong. Implied is that, had he lived, he would have not followed the path of people like McLaren, Pagitt, and me — who were so influenced by him — but he would have stayed firmly within the evangelical camp. Looking around this conference, I cannot affirm the same. I didn’t know Stan well, but from what I knew of him, he would not feel comfortable with the strident conservatism of ETS.

9:20am Gregg Allison, from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is tackling Stan Grenz’s ambiguity, a subject that has been raised in every presentation so far. Allison is “mildly critical of Stan’s vagueness.” Allison lists a litany of doctrines that evangelical’s believe, and he quotes Grenz as saying that tradition has “presumptive authority.” That’s a phrase from the field of law, saying that there are presumptive truths, but they can be overturned by evidence. Scripture has primary authority, tradition has presumptive authority. That, in a nutshell, was Grenz’s theological method.

Comment: It seems that since Stan’s death, evangelical scholars have worried about where Stan would have ended up, especially because his theological proposals were not as settled and definite as they would have liked. But it’s the very “presumptive authority” that would have allowed Stan to change his mind on something like homosexuality. For so many of us, Stan opened up the beauty of postmodern philosophy. The epic talk in which he compared the original Star Trek to Star Trek: The Next Generation, put the most complex of ideas in a common, vernacular language. 

Indeed, I would argue that when you read Brian McLaren’s writings on homosexuality, for instance, you find the very kind of theological reasoning that Grenz taught us. The very vagueness that makes evangelical theologians uneasy is what made Stan so compelling as a theologian to us in the late-90s and early oos. 

9:45am John Franke, who co-wrote an excellent book with Stan, knew Stan for 10 years before he died. When John thinks about Stan now, he always thinks about the man, not necessarily ideas. The ideas matter, Stan taught John, but what really matters about theology is whether it makes you a better person. When John first attended ETS, he was very put off by how competitive the environment was. But Stan was immediately hospitable to John, and even came to Biblical at John’s invitation to lecture — for free.

Franke says that Grenz was on the forefront of introducing trinitarian mission to evangelicalism. The fundamental definition that “God is love” is the beginning of seeing that God passionately pursues a relationship with humanity. The eternal life of God is lived out in a set of relationships, including the inner relationship of the Trinity and the relationship between God and humanity. “God is social, not solitary,” was one of Stan’s axioms.

“He was a beautiful man, who lived out his theology, and invites us to do the same.” That’s Franke’s final word on Grenz.

Comment: I suppose it’s to be expected that a group of evangelical scholars would want to have some control over the legacy of one of their most creative colleagues. But I think that Stan was on a trajectory of openness and relationality that would have made him quite uncomfortable with the current climate of evangelical theology. Maybe he could have stemmed the tide of ideological expulsions and such, but others have tried that here and left instead of continuing to fight.
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