Thursday, March 17, 2005

The Death of the Not-So-Tall Giant - A Tribute to Stanley J. Grenz

When I found out this week that my friend, mentor and theological model had died suddenly I experienced the profound shock that comes from experiencing the loss of one who served God so powerfully and yet gently.  What follows is but one of the many tributes to a man who will be solely missed.

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The Death of the Not-So-Tall Giant - Stanley J. Grenz
1950-2005
Theologian and Servant of the Lord Jesus and His Church

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I first heard of Stanley J. Grenz when I had just entered seminary and was told I should read this little book called A Primer on Postmodernism.  Little did I know that this would be the first encounter with a man and his thinking that would change my life and will be a source of guidance and discussion long past his far too short years.

I remember Dr. Stan (I could never call him just “Stan” because I respected him so much) telling me once over a Coke when we were talking about our families that he was very aware that genetics may get him, since his dad died so young.  I don’t know if that was why Stan was so prolific in his writing, but since he is no longer with us, I for one am deeply glad he was.  Greater than any eulogy, building or statue his writings will be his legacy, and what a legacy they are.

Not only did Dr. Stan write on topics as wide ranging as Ethics (both general and sexual) to Historical Theology (20th Century Theology) to Postmodernism, but he wrote for many different audiences.  His work on Isaac Backus and Pannenberg (A Reason for Hope) were meant for specialists in those areas.  Books like Theology for the Community of God and Rediscovering the Triune God are great texts for the general seminary student.  Other volumes were meant for the general public.  A Primer on Postmodernism, Who Needs Theology? and What Christians Really Believe and Why? are books I have loaned to people knowing that regardless of their education level they would benefit from Dr. Stan’s lucid insights and easy to read writing style. 

But maybe the most important books he left us are in two other categories.  The first are the books like Welcoming but Not Affirming and Women in the Church.  These two volumes, written for anyone on the church really searching for the Christian response to two very difficult issues, are gifts that I have given to many a struggling individual.  In both books he was clear where he came down, but was always generous and irenic to those with whom he disagreed.  In both cases the desire was to bring life and light to the difficult situations he was addressing.

The other category is the books were meant to help blaze a new trail forward for the next generation of evangelical theologians.  Dr. Stan had a deep and abiding faith in Jesus Christ, and was, despite the protestations of some in the evangelical movement, a great evangelical theologian.  But he also knew that the way we have done theology, especially since the rise of the Enlightenment was not sacrosanct and would not be supportable as modernity died and the next philosophical epoch opened.  It was this reality that motivated his most controversial books: Revisioning Evangelical Theology: A Fresh Agenda for the 21st Century, Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context, and Renewing the Center: Evangelical Theology in a Post-Theological Era.  Had Dr. Stan never have written these volumes, his life would have been more peaceful, but not more influential. 

It was Dr. Stan’s willingness to lead the cause of theology forward into the 21st century that drew so many to him and repelled so many others (though they had to be repelled by his writings alone, because he was never anything but generous with his opponents).  These books were meant to be dialogue partners with the new generation of thinkers, scholars and theologians who would be taking evangelicalism into the 21st century and beyond.  As one among that group, I found these books to be as important as any written in the last fifty years.

One of the saddest thing I think, especially in reading some of the less positive reviews of Dr. Stan (like the one from Baptist Press that started positive but in the end sounded a bit too much like a “we won’t miss you” letter) is that so many failed to understand what Stan was trying to do with these books and with his efforts these past few years.  He wasn’t trying to destroy evangelicalism.  He was trying to serve the past by setting up the future.  What was more, Dr. Stan loved the church and loved Jesus.  For Dr. Stan, the community of God was more important than squabbles that could destroy that community founded in the love for Jesus.  And Stan loved Jesus more than any theologian I have ever met.  That is why Dr. Stan could refer to himself as “a Pietist with a Ph.D.”

Stan will continue to teach through his writings, but it is his own quirky style that will be missed.  The first time I ever heard him speak was on a tape from a conference where he was discussing postmodernism, but spoke to the conference via video.  What was remarkable is that he led worship (the playing of guitar and singing of How Lovely on the Mountain) from Vancouver while the conference was in Chicago. 

Then of course there were the endless Star Trek quotes and clips.  As a fellow Star Trek aficionado I loved his diagnosis of the Star Trek universe and the passion he brought to his memories of the shows.  He even listened patiently to me when I shared with him the “world religions” understanding of Deep Space Nine.  And of course, there is his rant on the split infinitive in the opening of the Star Trek and Next Generation credits.  Now when I hear “to boldly go” I even grind my teeth and shout, “it’s to go boldly people.” Needless to say, when I found out his fondness for Star Trek, my wife and I knew that I had to do my PhD with him.

In 2001 I began the process of meeting with Dr. Stan, in person and via email to see about being part of the first PhD cohort at Carey Theological College.  The first thing he had me do was read PostFoundationalism, and discuss it with him.  I knew I was being tested, not for knowledge or for skill as a theologian, but to see if I was one of those people who was ready to carry the ball forward theologically.  I, of course, loved the book and agreed with the arguments laid out in it.  He helped me to see that the disagreements my boss at The Navigators over the Scriptures were rooted in the foundations each of us rooted our beliefs in – in inerrancy (for my boss) or in the reality of the Triune God whom I loved (for me).  Dr. Stan provided a ray of clarity on the topic that has remained with me to this day. 

The day I found out I was chosen along with one other student (his TA at Carey) to be in that original cohort was, after my wedding day and the birth of my two children, the happiest day of my life.  I was going to be studying for the next four years of my life with Dr. Stanley Grenz.  Immediately my wife and I started the planned move and visited him in Vancouver. 

There Dr. Stan and his gracious wife Edna welcomed us into their lives.  At dinner one night both Tanya (my wife) and I saw that Stan and Edna’s marriage was what we wanted our marriage to be like.  They were an example of what a truly egalitarian marriage could be, and more importantly, served each other in the process of becoming all that they could be in Christ. For Tanya the move to Vancouver picked up another advantage – getting to be around not just Dr. Stan, but Stan and Edna.

Alas, it was not mean to be.  In June of 2002 the Association of Theological Schools pulled their approval of the PhD program, and that dream ended.  By chance Dr. Stan was coming into town the next day, and he and I spent several hours driving into the mountains of Colorado, talking about the PhD, his move (ill-fated as it turned out) to Baylor, life, marriage, ministry, the church, and more topics than I can ever remember.  That talk meant more to me that I am sure it meant to him, and in the end he helped me figure out the way forward.

In the three years since that meeting I had corresponded with Dr. Stan numerous times.  He continued to be a mentor to me – in his email, in his writings, and in his public life as he risked the scorn of others to serve the Emergent church and young theologians like myself in loving Jesus and thinking theologically for the church. 

Dr. Stan’s death has affected me greatly.  I think of all the great theologians who have died early in the last 60 years.  People like Dr. Stan, Catherine LaCugna and Dietrich Bonhoeffer passed from this earth long before their potential contributions were fully made.  On the other hand, men like Rudolph Bultmann and John Shelby Spong are granted long lives to spread their theologies that detract from the love of Jesus and the call to be agents of the Good News of the Incarnate, Crucified and Resurrected Son.  It makes no sense to me.  But, as Dr. Stan would say, along with Wolfhart Pannenberg (whom Dr. Stan studied under in Germany and who, coincidently, is the focus of my PhD work as well), we must wait til the end and then all will be seen to always have been right and good.

Until that end I must live with the reality that I have lost a good friend, a mentor, and a guiding force in my own theological career.  For him the gain is the greater but for us the world is a little less bright with him gone.  As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord, and in that, I pray that my teachings, writings, and contributions to the church of our Lord Jesus would honor what Stan taught me and be “Good News” to creation.

Christopher Morton
PhD Candidate
Nazarene Theological College/University of Manchester, U.K.

Please join with Tanya and I in prayer for Edna and the Grenz family.  May God comfort them with his amazing love.

Posted by Christopher on 03/17 at 03:45 PM
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