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FIRST-PERSON: When piety is not enough

JACKSON, Tenn. (BP)–On Saturday, March 12, many of us received the unbelievable and sad news that Stanley Grenz had died suddenly as a result of a massive aneurism. To say that we were shocked would be a great understatement.

Born in January 1950, Dr. Grenz was only 55. Yet in those 55 years Stan had given dozens of lectureships and had authored more than 25 books and hundreds of articles and chapters. He may well have been the most prolific Baptist author of the past 15 years.

Grenz had spoken at many of our Baptist universities and seminaries. I first met him 17 years ago at a conference on “Southern Baptists and Evangelicalism” at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. We immediately found that we had much in common and developed a healthy friendship. In words similar to my own, Stan considered himself both “a Baptist and an evangelical” (in that order). He was the son of a Conservative Baptist pastor and a graduate of Conservative Baptist Seminary (now Denver Seminary). His shaping influences included Francis Schaeffer, Vernon Grounds, Gordon Lewis and Kenneth Kantzer. I, too, admired these great evangelical leaders and thinkers and had learned much from them.

Stan’s interests were wide-ranging as evidenced by his writings. His early work in Baptist history and theology can best be seen in his outstanding volume on Isaac Backus (1983). His 1985 publication on Baptist congregationalism still remains a significant resource for anyone dealing with issues of Baptist polity. The first volume he published on ethics in 1990 was insightful. His coauthored reference work exploring 20th-century theology and theologians in 1992 has served as a most helpful tool for students for many years. His book “Millennial Maze” (1992) has helped pastors, students and laypersons sort out eschatological issues. These volumes written over a decade (1983-93) could be called the “early Grenz,” truly a Baptist and evangelical thinker of note.

But then came the turn in his thinking in 1993 with the volume “Revisioning Evangelical Theology.” I had a hint of what was coming, for months earlier he had read “The Doctrine of the Bible,” a book I had written for the SBC doctrine study in 1992. His response was, “I can’t say it like that anymore.” He said the same thing more forcefully to me with the publication of my book “Christian Scripture” (1995).

My initial response to his “revisioning” project was hopeful. I thought he was calling for a renewed emphasis on piety to balance what some called the “evangelical rationalism” of those like Carl Henry and Kenneth Kantzer. But anyone who knew Drs. Henry and Kantzer also recognized that they were men of deep and authentic piety. Nevertheless, I thought Grenz’s call for a renewal of genuine piety was good, but upon further reflection I had missed the point.

My good friend, Al Mohler, suggested that Grenz’s new paradigm was just not a call to balance heart and head, but a call to define evangelicalism almost totally in light of a commitment to piety, thus decreasing an emphasis on doctrinal parameters. Looking back, Dr. Mohler was quite insightful. A few years after the publication of Revisioning, Grenz began to refer to himself as “a pietist with a Ph.D.” Certainly there is something distinctive about evangelical piety. We all “know it” when we encounter it. So Grenz was not entirely wrong to so characterize the evangelical movement, but to do it in a manner that questioned traditional evangelical doctrine raised problems for many.

In 1994 Grenz published his large one-volume theology called “Theology for the Community of God” (the first edition was published by Broadman & Holman and the second edition by Eerdmans). It was here that we began to see the initial shape of the revisioning project that would continue for another decade.

Obviously there isn’t space to review this volume completely, but only to say three important things. First, Grenz elevated the love of God over all other attributes of God to such a degree that God’s holiness was completely de-emphasized. God’s love was almost personalized, thus becoming a fourth member of the Trinity. The implications for the doctrine of God and the atonement are obvious. Second, in his attempt to elevate the church and the community over the “individualistic” approach to salvation and the Christian life in prior evangelical theologies, Grenz seemingly lost the Bible’s emphasis on the need for individual response and accountability. Thirdly, Grenz de-emphasized the doctrine of Scripture, moving it from a foundational place in the development of his theology to what seemed to be a footnote to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. These three key shifts started Grenz’s pilgrimage in a direction that many traditional evangelicals were unable to support.

Grenz’s fascination with postmodernism became evident with his “Primer” (1996) and his “Created for Community” published the same year. Most would agree that Stan’s description of postmodernism was as clear, cogent and helpful as any that could be found. It was his analysis and resulting proposals that created confusion.

Soon he was suggesting that theology could be done in a way that he described as “beyond foundationalism” (2001). To do so and still continue to call himself an evangelical, he attempted to redefine the evangelical center in his 2000 publication, “Renewing the Center.” To do so, he had to shift Carl Henry and Millard Erickson from the center to the far right. These unprecedented shifts elevated Grenz’s proposals on most everyone’s radar screen. Al Mohler described this proposal as a “center without a circumference.” Millard Erickson noted that “it does not yet appear that [Grenz and others] have moved so far as to surrender the right to be called evangelicals, but such movement cannot be unlimited.” D.A. Carson went so far as to say “with the best will in the world, I cannot see how Grenz’s approach can be called ‘evangelical’ in any useful sense.”

Certainly that would be the case with his final two works: “The Social God and the Relational Self” (2001) and “Rediscovering the Triune God.” His influence was such, however, that Justin Taylor in the recently released “Reclaiming the Center” (2004) described Grenz as the theologian of the “emerging church movement,” with Brian McLaren as the movement’s pastor. This movement reflects the loss of the epistemological centrality of the Bible evident in Stan’s more recent work.

About five years ago Stan and I shared the plenary address platform at the Wheaton Theology Conference. At dinner that night I shared my concerns with him privately about the direction of his work. I noted that two Baptist giants a century earlier had attempted to respond to and engage the currents of their day and had made concessions along the way that they both sought to recover at the end of their lives: E.Y. Mullins in his engagement with Schleiermacher’s understanding of Christian experience and A.H. Strong’s earnest attempts to wrestle with issues of historiography. I encouraged him to follow their turn.

We had a similar conversation in 2002 on the Union University campus when he gave a presentation about his own pilgrimage titled, “A Pietist with a Ph.D.” He was not receptive to my suggestions on either occasion. At that time it was quite clear that he could no longer consider me a “kindred spirit” (nor I, him) as he had described our relationship in the dedication of the theology book in 1994. But the reality is we both knew that such had been the case for a decade. I was a “kindred spirit” of the “early Grenz” but not the Grenz since the beginning of the revisioning project. Since his trip to Union in 2002 our communication has been quite minimal.

Today, I, like many others in the Baptist and evangelical world, find myself in shock. It is hard to believe that Stan Grenz is no longer with us. Stan was a good friend to me and to many others across Baptist life. He was a devoted family man and one who sought to be kind in all of his personal interactions. We all admired his prolific pen and his tireless work ethic. Stan Grenz was a committed Baptist, a churchman of the first order and a warmhearted pietist.

Unfortunately, his pietism didn’t translate into evangelical coherence or orthodox consistency. I will miss Stan Grenz, but I have learned from him one thing for sure: Piety is not enough in and of itself to carry forth doctrinal conviction and the great Christian intellectual tradition. As Baptists we are sometimes confused with talk about separating the heart from the head, piety from doctrine and programs from theology. Yet, to be both Baptist and evangelical calls for us to reconnect the head with the heart, piety with orthodoxy, and cultural engagement with faithful churchmanship. Southern Baptists need to recover their biblical earnestness and seriousness about doing good theology. We need to prove to ourselves and to others that orthodoxy and piety can go together once again. That is the challenge of our time. As attractive as it might seem, piety alone is not enough.
David S. Dockery is president of Union University in Jackson, Tenn.

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  • David S. Dockery