Monday, April 11, 2016

Reflections on Stanley Grenz's Post-modern, Post-Foundational Postconservative Theology

 This reflection was also a post that I placed on the discussion board for a recent course on 19th and 20th century theology.  The commentary was influenced by a reading of Grenz's important, accessible book, Envisioning Evangelical Theology: A Fresh Agenda for the 21st Century (IVP, 1997).  The comments below highlight concerns I have with the polarities in Grenz's theology.  Though I do not do so here, I also find much to admire in Grenz;'s work. The critique stands as a point in time in my reflection on his theological stance.
There are substantial differences between Schleiermacher’s receptivity to an ineffable religious prompting, in which Christian doctrine served, as best, as a metaphorical resource in tapping into the “inward sensibility” of faith, and the strong pietistic accents underlying Stanley Grenz’s embrace of a generously orthodox, specifically Christian doctrinal theology. Therefore, D. A. Carson’s charge against Grenz of resuscitating the methodology of Schleiermacher is a most exaggerated one, given that the latter’s identification of being a “pietist of a higher order” entailed a move beyond classical Christian orthodox doctrine.  In contrast, Grenz sought to reinterpret (rather than reconstruct) orthodox doctrine in light of what he viewed as the challenges of defending a strong faith stance in the midst of a postmodern culture, which he sharply distinguished from the Enlightenment premises that underlay the early modern Western world view.
In his quest to (a) sift Christian doctrine through a strong pietistic prism, in his effort to (b) explore the dynamics of the Christian faith tradition within the cultural context of what he viewed as the postmodern era, and in his (c) highlighting of the communal aspects of faith, Grenz has made a major contribution to contemporary evangelical discourse—a contribution reinforced by his desire—not always successful—to stimulate constructive dialogue between traditional and postconservative evangelical theologians.  I am empathetic to these aspirations.
What I question is the great divide that suffuses Grenz’s work between his characterization of traditional evangelical theologians as dogmatic rationalists operating from out-of-dated foundationalist and modernist-based epistemological and social assumptions, which he contrasts to Spirit-focused postconservatives operating out of a more complex non-foundationalist and postmodern epistemological and social prisms, which he obviously favors.  I think this polarity is wrong-headed on several accounts.
·         First, it works against the irenic spirit out of which Grenz seeks to expand the boundaries of fruitful Christian community.

·         Second, the modern/postmodern contrast is exaggerated in that both contemporary modernists and postmodernists have moved beyond the exaggerated simplifications of the 18th-century Enlightenment focus of an almost worship-like embrace of rationalism, science, belief in unending human progress, and an utter repudiation of religion as inherently anathema to the human spirit.  Some intellectuals have identified an intermediary zone that they refer to as “late modernity”—a more chastened form of modernity—that takes into account the complexities of the contemporary period while maintaining a strong focus on reason, critical thought, technology, secularization, pluralism, and a complex, socially embedded individual identity. and

·         Third and closely related, the complexities of contemporary evangelical thought require a more discerning assessment than one based on the simplistic polarity between foundational and non-foundationalist epistemological assumptions.  Through more mediating modes of knowing, such insights gleaned from critical realism, critical rationalism, and modest (or weak) foundationalism need to be brought into the discussion. Such epistemological resources can highlight the concept of truth as a regulative ideal to mediate the polar concepts underlying discussions of culture and knowledge construction that give shape to key aspects of Grenz’ s theological assumptions.

·         Fourth, I am not aware of a single traditional evangelical scholar who does not also view the spiritual condition of his or her walk with Christ as absolutely central to his or her theological integrity and core Christian identity), nor who is not aware that his or her theological stance is ultimately grounded in faith.

·         Fifth, the contemporary evangelical community is a big tent that can draw in the wide diversity of gifts across the dogmatic-pietistic landscape. I am reluctant to privilege the pietistic impetus over those who concentrate on what they view as right doctrine in the quest to love the Lord with all their heart, mind, strength, and soul.  Moreover, I want to stress more than does Grenz the universal claims of the faith once for all delivered to the saints, however limited may be our knowledge that ground such faith.

I am sure that Grenz would have been aware of all of these concerns.  Nonetheless, in the heat of his own battles, particularly with traditionalist, cognitivist-oriented evangelicals like D. A. Carson, David Wells, and J. P. Moreland, he did not always follow his more discerning irenic impulses.  A more thoughtful dialogue between traditional and postconservative evangelicals would make a most important contribution to the wider evangelical and broader Protestant faith communities in working through the relationship between faith and culture. This would require an attenuation of the modern/postmodern great divide toward one more in line with a late modern sensibility. 

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