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Roger E. Olson

The Groves of Academe

A Pietist with a Ph.D.: Remembering Stanley J. Grenz

One of the first adjectives people use to describe Stanley J. Grenz is prolific. People also described him as ambitious. During his 25-year career he published more than 20 books. He also produced numerous articles on a wide range of theological subjects. Additionally, he wrote many chapters of edited books, contributed many book reviews, and read papers at countless theological meetings. He lectured at many universities and seminaries and preached from scores of pulpits. He was always juggling two or three projects, often in collaboration with other theologians.

Stan seemed driven to make his mark on the theological world, and he accomplished that beyond anyone's expectations. Yet he never seemed satisfied and continually strove to surpass himself in scholarly output. Perhaps somewhere deep in his subconscious he knew his time might be brief. Stan died suddenly and unexpectedly on March 12, 2005 at age fifty-five. At the time of his death he was hard at work on another ambitious project.

Stan was raised in the thick of evangelicalism. For a time his father pastored a Baptist church attended by seminary professors and students, an experience which no doubt influenced Stan's vocation. After earning an M.Div. from Denver Seminary, he headed to Munich, Germany to study with theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg, who left a powerful impression on the young American student. Stan wrote his doctoral dissertation on 18th-century Baptist theologian Isaac Backus. After earning his doctoral degree from the University of Munich, he pastored in Canada and then took his first full-time teaching position at North American Baptist Seminary in Sioux Falls, S.D., where he distinguished himself as a teacher, colleague, and author. His first major book, Reason for Hope: The Systematic Theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg (Oxford Univ. Press, 1990), was published while he was there.

Stan joined the faculty of Carey Theological College in Vancouver, B.C. in 1990 and also taught classes at Regent College. Students came to Vancouver to study with Stan as his reputation spread as an energetic, young evangelical theologian willing to rethink old positions. While on the Carey faculty he also taught adjunctively at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary and later at Mars Hill Graduate School. He served as president of the North American Baptist Professors of Religion and was ever active in the Evangelical Theological Society and the Evangelical Theology Group of the American Academy of Religion. In 2002 he joined the faculty of Baylor University as distinguished professor of theology at George W. Truett Theological Seminary. After one year he returned to Carey. He and his wife Edna were deeply involved in Vancouver's First Baptist Church, where she is minister of worship. At the time of his death Stan was being considered for the chair of evangelical theology at Harvard Divinity School.

Stan wrote on many theological subjects, including but not limited to Baptist church polity, 20th-century theologians, the Trinity, prayer, theological method, evangelical theology, the image of God in humanity, and the millennium. His magnum opus was undoubtedly Theology for the Community of God (Eerdmans/Regent College Publishing, 2000), a massive systematic theology covering the entire range of doctrines under the unifying theme of community. Some critics believed the placement of the doctrine of Scripture within the doctrine of the Holy Spirit was novel rather than innovative, but Stan argued that theology should be thoroughly Trinitarian, following the pattern of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Where better to discuss the inspiration and authority of Scripture than within the locus of the Spirit who inspired it and illumines it to human hearts and minds? Theology for the Community of God continues to be used as a text in numerous Christian universities and seminaries.

Stan always strove to be both traditional and contemporary and to build bridges between the church and culture. In some of his later writings he flirted with postmodern philosophy as theology's conversation partner without ever accommodating to deconstructionism or relativistic pragmatism. He adopted a moderate postfoundationalist epistemology and rejected what he considered the thoroughly modern epistemological realism and propositionalism of much conservative evangelical theology as too scholastic for the postmodern world. Eschewing liberal theology, he sought to move away from the left-wing versus right-wing theological spectrum that is so closely tied to the Enlightenment and its legacy in modernity. For him postmodernity provided conceptual tools for overcoming the Enlightenment individualism and rationalism that infected conservative Protestant thought throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. This was spelled out in A Primer on Postmodernism (Eerdmans, 1996) and Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context, coauthored with John R. Franke (Westminster John Knox, 2001).

The era of Stan's addressing a primarily evangelical audience ended with Renewing the Center: Evangelical Theology in a Post-Theological Era (Baker Academic, 2000). There he wrapped up his project of revisioning evangelical theology (begun with the book of that title published by InterVarsity Press in 1993) with a clarion call for an irenic, centrist evangelicalism that is no longer tied to its fundamentalist past but open to the postmodern future. More than any other, this book demonstrated Stan's postconservative tendencies. Among liberals Stan was unapologetically conservative, but among conservatives he called for continuing reformation of church and theology guided by the new light of the Holy Spirit always breaking forth from Scripture. He took with utmost seriousness the reformation motto "reformed and always reforming." This postconservative impulse appeared in his sympathies with narrative theology, his postfoundational epistemology, his eschatological realism (the future world is the real world), his reformulated Christology, and his embrace of culture as a source and norm (a "tool," he wrote) of constructive theology. His conservative roots showed in his affirmations of the supernatural biblical worldview, the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, the deity of Jesus Christ, the triunity of God, and bodily resurrection to glory.

Above all else Stan was a pietist. In his last message to me he reaffirmed his pietism and encouraged me to regard our common pietist heritage as something positive. He called himself a "pietist with a Ph.D." and enjoyed the strange juxtaposition while explaining carefully to anyone who would listen that conversional piety and intellectual rigor in biblical and theological scholarship need not conflict. Some critics complained that he elevated spirituality and Christian experience over doctrine as the essence of Christianity; occasionally they mistakenly drew comparisons between Stan's theological method and that of Friedrich Schleiermacher, the father of liberal theology. This confusion frustrated Stan more than any other. The Christian experience he elevated as the heart and soul of Christianity is conversion to Christ, including a personal relationship with Jesus; it has little or no similarity to Schleiermacher's universal God-consciousness (Gefühl).

Stan's legacy to Christian theology is a robustly evangelical theology that is at the same time ecumenical. After Renewing the Center he determined to turn toward the Protestant mainstream without leaving behind his evangelical roots. His vision was to insert progressive evangelical faith firmly into the mainline. His final project was the Matrix set of volumes beginning with The Social God and the Relational Self: A Trinitarian Theology of the Imago Dei (Westminster John Knox, 2001). At the time of his death he was finishing The Named God and the Question of Being: A Trinitarian Theo-Ontology (also to be published by WJK). Several more volumes were on the drawing board. Stan's goal in the Matrix series was to demonstrate that constructive and contemporary theological reflection could be both thoroughly evangelical and mainline; he wanted to overcome the lingering sectarianism of much evangelical theology and help breathe new life into mainline Protestant theology.

Another aspect of Stan's legacy is his indefatigable networking and bridge building, including his tireless mentoring of younger theologians. Many young (and some now middle-aged!) theologians testify that he graciously took them under his wing, advised them about teaching and publishing, and promoted them to schools and publishers. He was greatly concerned about the future of the evangelical theological academy and went out of his way to build bridges between conservatives (and sometimes even fundamentalists) and progressives. He was the unofficial theological advisor to the budding emerging church network before most people were aware of it. His talks on the theological relevance of the Star Wars movies delighted especially younger audiences around the world. He connected theologians and their communities in Europe, North America, and Australia and expressed great optimism for the future of the younger churches of the non-Western world. He supported full equality of women with men in church and academy and reached out to theologians of color. He was the consummate networker, always seeking to unify rather than exclude.

Stan will no doubt be remembered best as the theologian of community. He regarded "lone ranger Christianity" with grave suspicion and promoted the idea that Christian existence is always existence in Christian community because God is an eternal community of three equal persons. His own life and career prove the seriousness with which he took this central motif of his theology. He was to hundreds a great friend and encourager along the path toward the ultimate community of the eternal kingdom of God. Stan will be remembered as one of the most fertile minds and prolific authors of post-World War II evangelical theology. But more pleasing to him would be that others carry on his theological agenda.

Roger E. Olson is professor of theology at George W. Truett Theological Seminary of Baylor University and author most recently of The Westminster Handbook to Evangelical Theology (Westminster John Knox).

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