Why Grenz matters…

Posted by on Feb 24, 2017 in Blog | 2 comments

stan grenzYou may or may not know (and may or may not care) that I did my PhD on the theological method of Stanley J Grenz.

“Why?” I hear you ask.

Without trying to reproduce my PhD (which can be downloaded for free from the University of Auckland’s research site), let me give you a simple explanation for why I think Grenz is an important theologian, and my reasons for arguing that his work continues to be relevant and worthy of study.

A committed evangelical, American born but Canadian based Grenz (1950-2005), sensed that the postmodern turn in society had significant implications for evangelicals. Rather refreshingly for an evangelical in the 1990’s (when he started to make his name), he saw not only threat in this turn, but also promise. While others lamented the loss of objectivity and the abandonment of rational concepts of truth, Grenz probed a little deeper, and saw that this cultural shift, as with almost every cultural shift, contained elements of both the divine and the demonic. So, for example, whilst unable to accept the postmodern rejection of the metanarrative (because the gospel is a metanarrative true for all times and places), he welcomed its focus on the relational and the communal, seeing in this a more biblical approach to life than that found in the competitive and individualistic mindset of modernity.

In my opinion, one of his most important books is Revisioning Evangelical Theology: A Fresh Agenda for the 21st Century. Published in 1993, it identified 7 areas where Grenz believed revisioning was needed. These were focused around

  • Evangelical identity – where Grenz believed there needed to be a greater focus on the experiential, rather than simply the doctrinal (it was not that he dismissed the doctrinal, but insisted that genuine evangelical piety has always been as much a matter of the heart as the head)
  • Evangelical spirituality – which he believed needed to be seen holistically
  • The theological task facing evangelicalism, which Grenz argued had been captured by propositionalism, and now needed to move beyond this, listening to the neglected aspects of the biblical story often best captured in the biblical narratives (as opposed to the relatively small number of biblical passages that are strictly propositional)
  • Revisioning the sources for theology, so that theological construction would take seriously the interaction between scripture, tradition and culture
  • Biblical authority, which Grenz argued should stress illumination (especially ecclesial, communal illumination) as much as inspiration
  • A suitable integrative motif for theology, with Grenz suggesting a shift from the Kingdom of God to community (genuine community creating between God, humanity and all of creation being the heart of the gospel)
  • The church, with Grenz mooting that evangelicals needed to rediscover and value ecclesiology

Note again the publication date of this book – 1993. We are still grappling with most of these issues 24 years later.

Grenz described Revisioning Evangelical Theology as his programmatic book, as the issues he raised in it formed the focus of his theological reflection for the remainer of his life (cut short at the age of 55 as a result of a brain aneurism).

I said my PhD focused on the theological method of Grenz. I have written elsewhere about Why Method Matters (and it really does), but let me quickly outline the bare bones of Grenz’s method.

Grenz was concerned that evangelical theology had been captured by foundationalism. Let me dramatically oversimplify and say that this is building a belief system upon a single foundation, with all following claims depending on the reliability of the original foundation. If the foundation is shown to be deficient, everything built upon it collapses together. For example, if you hold to a literal interpretation of the Bible and believe that an actual 7 day creation if the only way to interpret Genesis 1, and if you believe that if this is shown to be false, you would not be able to trust any other truth claim in the Bible, you are a foundationalist, and risk the collapse of your entire belief system if you adopt an evolutionary understanding of the world.

Grenz argued that we should move beyond foundationalism and look for consistency, congruence and coherence – lines of overlap that may come from a range  of sources, which cumulatively help to strengthen truth claims (rather than a single foundation on which everything rests). He argued that while evangelicals saw themselves as constructing all their beliefs from scripture (viewed as an inerrant text), they would be better served by viewing theological construction as resulting from a conversation between scripture, tradition and culture. He and John Franke unpack the method in signicant depth in their 2001 co authored work Beyond Foundationalism, and while a stretching read, it richly repays the effort.

What does it mean to say that we construct theology from a trialogue between scripture, tradition and culture? It means we take seriously all that scripture teaches and bring it into creative conversation with the tradition of the church  – actually, traditions of the church, for there is hardly one consistent tradition. This in itself is important. As we listen to the various traditions of the church interacting with the biblical material, the conversation enlarges. It is enlarged again when we introduce the conversation partner of culture – which vocalizes the insights we have more recently gleaned, or which have become pertinent in our time and age.

It it true that Grenz has been heavily criticised, particularly for introducing culture as a conversation partner in theological construction. There are those who have assumed that this means simply buying into whatever the culture lauds at a particular time. But this reflects a deficient understanding of Grenz, who always stressed that this was a constructive but critical conversation. In other words, scripture will often push back on an insight from culture. This forces us to dig more deeply into both scripture and culture, to ensure we have really understood the intent and heartbeat of each. Likewise, if tradition consistently pushes back against a reading of the biblical text, we should be cautious. A reading that has only been seen as valid for the last 10 minutes of church history, is probably flawed. So again, tradition forces us to dig more deeply into the question raised.

I find the image of a conversation helpful. True, Grenz does not tell us the volume we should allow for each conversation partner, though he is clear that ultimately scripture remains the norming norm – the final authoritative trump card. This point is rarely acknowledged by his critics, though Grenz makes it time and again (it does however weaken his view that he has constructed a method that moves beyond foundationalism – at best this is a chastened foundationalism).

Surrounding the three conversation partners of scripture, tradition and culture, Grenz proposes three motifs for theological construction:

  • Community as an integrating motif: Briefly, by this he means that as community creating is the heart of the gospel, this is the default against which all theological themes should be understood – it points out the direction for all theological construction. The ultimate reconciliation and harmony of all things is the loftiest goal of creation (see for example Col 1), and all theological beliefs point back to this in one way or another. Community links all theological themes together, and is therefore (in Grenz’s view) the intergrative motif for theology.
  • The Trinity as a structuring motif: While some adopt a radical Christology (seeing everything through the lens of Jesus) Grenz was strictly trinitarian, emphasising the importance of all members of the Trinity, and seeing theological constuction structured around the work of Father, Son and Spirit
  • Eschatology as an orienting motif: By this Grenz meant that just as we should live in the light of what will ultimately be, our theological construction should be guided by the theological vision of what will be ultimately real. Theological ethics, for example, should not be built around purely pragmatic concerns, but should be devised in the light of the end, and the standards of eternity.

So there are conversation partners (scripture, tradition and culture) and motifs (community, Trinity and eschatology). Anything else? Yes. Rising above is the conviction that the Spirit guides the church, and that as the church communally seeks the wisdom of the triune God, she is pneumatologically guided through scripture illuminated (not simply inspired, but speaking fresh to the situation about which wisdom is sought).

It’s a wonderful approach – some firm convictions with softer edges that allow for genuine dialogue and creativity, and above all, an ability to listen afresh to the Spirit speaking through scripture (interacting with tradition and culture) to the church.

If this has whetted your appetite for more, you might like to have a look at Revisioning, Renewing, Rediscovering the Triune Center: Essays in Honor of Stanley J. Grenz. It is a volume put together by Derek Tidball, Jason Sexton and I in 2014 – just in time to mark the tenth anniversary of Grenz’s death.

As always, nice chatting…



  1. Hello Brain
    Please include me as a recipient of your posts..

    • Hi Glynis. Wonderful to hear from you. Hope you are keeping well. I have added you to the list and you should have been sent an email asking you to confirm you want to be added. If you click where it says activate, it will complete your subscription. My love to all the family. Brian

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