Revisioning Evangelical Theology: A fresh Agenda for the 21st Century


Revisioning Evangelical Theology: A fresh Agenda for the 21st Century
Stanley J. Grenz

Recipient of a Christianity Today 1994 Critics Choice Award! Stanley J. Grenz evaluates the course of evangelical theology and sets out a bold agenda for a new century.

He proposes that evangelical theology, to remain vibrant and vital in the postmodern era, should find its central integrative motifs in the reign of God and the community of Christ.


Revisioning Evangelical Theology
By Gerard Reed
A constructive endeavor is Stanley J. Grenz's Revisioning Evangelical Theology: A Fresh Agenda for the 21st Century (Downer's Grove: InterVarsity Press, c. 1993). Grenz taught theology at Carey/Regent College in Vancouver, B.C., and wrote out of the Baptist (Southern Baptist, if I read him rightly) tradition.
He joins David Wells, Tom Oden, Stanley Hauerwas, and others in declaring that the Enlightenment-engineered era often called "modernity" has passed. Its blissful optimism in human goodness and progress, its narrow rationalism (disguised as "reason" and long regnant in academia), increasingly appear as dead as dinosaurs. We have entered a new epoch in history and need to cast loose any anchors we've had lodged in that distinctly anti-Christian mindset. "In fact," he says, "we may be in the midst of a transition rivaling the intellectual and social changes that marked the birth of modernity out of the decay of the Middle Ages. The world appears to be entering a new phase of history, often designated--for lack of a better term--postmodernity" (p. 14).
What that means for evangelicals is this: we need a "rebirth of theological reflection" which "can lead to a renewal of our understanding of who we are as the people of God" (p. 17). To address that task Grenz has written this treatise, which begins with "revisioning evangelical identity." Historically, "evangelicalism" emerged as a consequence of the 16th century Protestant Reformation (with its three solas: sola scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide), refined in the 17th century by English Puritanism and German Pietism, finally forged by revivalism in America in the 18th and 19th centuries. That "convertive piety" which so largely shaped the United States has largely faded in the 20th century as Modernism and Fundamentalism buried it--though in radically different ways. Since WWII, however, a "New Evangelicalism," evident in Billy Graham Crusades and Christianity Today, has rallied recruits and emerged as a powerful force in this nation's religious life.
Beyond a revisioned identity, evangelicalism needs a revisioned "spirituality," Grenz thinks, which is better attuned to its earlier Puritan and Pietist roots. As he defines it, such spirituality "is the quest, under the direction of the Holy Spirit but with the cooperation of the believer, for holiness. It is the pursuit of the life lived to the glory of God, in union with Christ and out of obedience to the Holy Spirit" (p. 42). Authentic faith enkindles what Jonathan Edwards called the "religious affections." Holy Love must enliven Christian experience. More than mere doctrinal affirmations make one a "believer," for a heart-felt commitment to Jesus is at the heart of real faith. Personal response to God's grace, commitment to His guidance, nurturing the inner life of the soul, all make one truly Christian in the Evangelical sense.
Still more: Evangelicals must "revision" theology. Here Grenz shares David Wells' concern, though not his strongly Reformed criteria. Evangelical theology has, indeed, been strongly shaped by the biblically-based propositional thinking of theologians such as Francis Turretin, the 19th century Princeton faculty (Charles Hodge and B.B. Warfield), and, more recently, Carl F.H. Henry.
Yet today we find a new breed of evangelical thinkers such as Clark Pinnock, who "rejects as inflexible and undynamic the 'propositional theology that sees its function as imposing systematic rationality on everything it encounters'" (p. 71). Millard Erickson defines "theology as 'that discipline which strives to give a coherent statement of the doctrines of the Christian faith, based primarily upon the Scriptures, placed in the con¬text of culture in general, worded in a contem¬porary idiom, and related to issues of life'" (p. 71). Such theologians, endorsed by Grenz, seek not to erect eternally exact doctrinal propositions demanding assent but to enable today's confessing community to clearly declare that Jesus is Lord.
Part of "revisioning" theology means discerning real authorities. The Bible certainly remains central to any Evangelical theology, but Grenz finds "the Wesleyan Quadrilateral" a healthy alternative to Fundamentalism's biblicism, a rigidly narrowed understanding of sola scriptura. In Clark Pinnock's understanding, the Quadrilateral provides us "'a written form [of revelation] (Scripture), a remembering community (tradition), a process of subjective appropriation (experience), and testing for internal consistency (reason)'" (p. 91). Pinnock and Grenz propose to develop ways of dialogue, both within the Christian community and with non-Christians, which tie the Faith to all of Reality, not simply to special Revelation. This certainly involves yet another "revisioning"--a revisioning of "biblical authority." To many evangelicals, any honest commitment to biblical authority carried with it an avowal of inerrancy. In at least some of its forms, inerrancy made the Bible a singularly divine text, free of human dimensions.
Yet, just as the Incarnation gives us a fully human, fully divine Jesus Christ, so too a proper grasp of biblical inspiration gives us scriptures which are also fully human, fully divine. Thus we face a challenge, a task outlined by David Wright: "'We have to work out what it means to be faithful at one and the same time both to the doctrinal approach to Scripture as the Word of God and to the historical treatment of Scripture as the words of men'" (p. 111). If only that task could be easily done once and for all! But it is, Grenz, argues, central to revisioning evangelical theology.
Some guidance in this endeavor can be found in evangelicalism's pietistic roots. Pietists like Spener and Franke easily blended devotional and scholarly understandings of biblical texts. In this they shared (probably without knowing it) a more ancient tradition: Eastern Orthodoxy, which, Mary Ford says, insisted "'one must live the Gospel commandments in order to truly understand the Gospel.'" Certainly one must read, or "hear," the Word. But that means far more than academic sophistication or exegetical expertise.
Indeed, the holiness of the hearer is as important as the truth of the text! For "'in Scripture, "hearing" is understood as living out--as an experience which must precede real understanding. When this is grasped, we can see why the holiness of the text demands a holiness of the interpreter to make possible a full and proper interpretation'" (p. 112). Consequently, evangelicals can take seriously the "canonical approach" to Scripture espoused by scholars such as Brevard Childs. The Scripture was inspired by the same Spirit who illuminates the mind of the believing Church. Thus the Spirit Who enabled the Church to establish the canon of Scripture continues to establish the community of faith in biblical truth.
The theory of inspiration Grenz champions seems quite close if not identical to the Wesleyan commitment to plenary inspiration. This stance, he argues, provides a via media between various Christian denominations which might lead to a growing consensus on an issue which has often divided the body of Christ. Revealing a covenanting God, "The Bible provides insight into the process by which the biblical people, under the guidance of the Spirit, came to discover the practical implications of the divine holiness for their own vocation as God's covenant partners" (p. 132).
Beyond "revisioning biblical authority," Grenz challenges us to revision "theology's integrative motif," which he believes to be the Kingdom of God. After explaining, and rejecting, Liberalism's distortions of the doctrine, Grenz insists evangelicals must recapture authentic Christianity's concern for community. Though we American evangelicals have often been irresponsibly individualistic, it's now time to solidify a commitment to the common good, which involves responsible involvement in a local congregation (and its ordinances) as well as dedication to social justice! We must, as Grenz argues in his final chapter, revision the Church.
Across the denominational spectrum, it seems, evangelical churches are struggling to discern their identity. Once familiar patterns of worship, taken-for-granted traditional affirmations, comfortable and comforting religious language, have all been shaken as if by seismic shocks. Amidst the urgent cries for changes designed meet people where they seem most needy--matched by protests against innovations which lack substance--evangelicals desperately need to find solid bases for building Christ's Church! Grenz seeks to carefully examine N.T. teachings concerning the ecclesia, "the called out ones," who took the name Christian. He contends that the church is primarily a people who are called to serve as priests, as members of the Body of Christ, the Temple of the Holy Spirit. True to his Baptist roots, Grenz sees the Church more as a decentralized movement of congregations than a centralized organization.
Grenz writes for a general audience, assuming all serious believers are in fact theologians. Rightly read, his treatise engages us in the process of responding to David Wells' manifesto: thinking as evangelicals about the fundamental of our Faith and then relating it to our world.