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.

You can find all of Tony’s books HERE, and you can sign up to be the first to know about his next book, Did God Kill Jesus? HERE.

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  • James

    Sexton’s comment that Stan did not understand pomo philosophy is silly. Clearly he is opposed to pomo as some sort of uber-relative slippery slope. Thus, the problems continue for those on the right wing who continue to caricature the complexity and depth of postmodernism. I understand the defensive posture but I do not understand the vehemence. I am also curious why jeff robinson’s blog about Open Theism would be so one-sided? I don’t think that God is a conservative southern Baptist.

  • Jeff Miller

    Perhaps we could call it the “C.S. Lewis Effect”: when Christians find a figure to be so brilliant and inherently appealing that they feel they must claim them as a part of their tribe, even if that claim is tenuous at best.

    • YES! Same goes for Bonhoeffer and Chesterton.

    • Orton1227

      The other CS Lewis effect is as follows: when someone is so influential every pastor quotes him weekly, yet if said person was still alive, he/she could not be a member of the church and teach because he/she does not agree with all the statements of belief required to become a member at said church.
      It’s maddening.

  • Ken Haynes

    Good stuff Tony…what would be an equivalent type of work in our current philisophical context of ” Theology and The Community of God” ? What is the 2014 equivalent of ( Beyond FOundationalistm, Theology for Community of God, and Triinity and Relational Self )?

  • davidinD

    Thanks for the update Tony.

    Growing up as an evangelical, and doing my master’s work at a thoroughly evangelical seminary, I found Grenz’s work to be one of the few ‘breathable’ spots in the landscape of the evangelical academic world circa 2002. Stan definitely helped me to think more broadly and to take seriously much of what 20th century philosophy had placed on the table.

    While I did not know Stan personally (only his work), I think he’d find the current climate of the ETS totally stifling and frankly very parochial. I do not believe that the ETS has followed (in any meaningful way) the model that people like Grenz represented. This is precisely why many sharp X’ers and Millennials have simply left the tradition behind.

    I’ll be in San Diego and I won’t be attending any proceedings of the ETS.

  • Tony, thank you for the report on Stan Grenz. I too think that he would have transcended ETS. I always found his work helpful, especially his book on pomo. And yes, the analogy of the two Star Trek’s made this Trekkie elated!

    ETS is designed to exclude its creative geniuses, because the vision is a static one. Part of me wishes to retain the moniker evangelical, but while I’m a double grad of Fuller (M.Div. and Ph.D. in historical theology) I’m not sure my theology and social views would be acceptable.

  • BradC

    What a gracious man. He did the ReEvaluation Conference for Leadership Network in 1998 with Rodney Clapp, George Hunsburger, Len Sweet, etc.He also accepted an invitation by Mark Driscoll to be a presenter at the Seattle Ministry New Edge forum in Nov, 1999 (15 years ago). Quite a mix on that line up: Myself, Andrew Jones, Doug Pagitt, the Sines, Mark Driscoll…and Stan Grenz. How gracious do you have to be to join that crew? He did the Star-Trek talk – I’ll never forget it. That’s also the forum that Driscoll ended the conference with the matchstick quote “in the end we just have to realize God created some people to be matchsticks…OK, let’s pray”. We were all stunned – that’s when we started to see who Driscoll really was. Stan was not at the forum at that point, but from my experience with him he would have never ended up as one of those evangelicals.

    Stan gave me much to ponder and a lot of hope as I was from the evangelical camp at that point – he spoke my language. Grenz and Franke – big influences on me!

    You are really in the heart of evangelical thought. I looked at the line-up – Dallas Theological Seminary, Capital Seminary, Talbot, BIOLA, Southern Baptist Seminary, Southwestern, Wheaton, Trinity…. WOW. How is a heretic like you holding up in that crowd? Anyone challenge you to a theological duel? I did notice you are at Town & Country – so maybe some good memories of hanging out in the old YS days!