“A Pietist with a Ph.D.”

Among the endorsements that The Pietist Option has already received, one of my favorites comes from Brian McLaren, author of Generous Orthodoxy and The Great Spiritual Migration:

McLaren, The Great Spiritual MigrationOne of my mentors used to describe himself as ‘a Pietist with a PhD.’ After reading The Pietist Option, I know more deeply what he meant, and I realize more clearly why his winsome spirit won my heart. This book invites us all into a more just and generous way of following Christ in today’s world.

I’d be happy if all we did was put that last sentence on the cover of the book. But I also appreciate McLaren reminding me of the legacy of theologian Stanley Grenz, who once said this to members of the American Academy of Religion (AAR):

The concern for heartfelt piety does not only tie me to my own immediate genealogical history; it also links me to a long trajectory of proponents of an approach to the faith that dates at least to the eighteenth-century Great Awakening. Yet I am also a vocational theologian schooled in the great tradition of systematic theology with its focus on the intellectual aspect of the Christian faith, including the concern for right doctrine. Over two decades as a theological educator, I have remained committed to pursuing the “understanding” dimension of the “faith seeking understanding” dictum, with Scripture functioning as the ultimate touchstone for Christian belief. In short, two strands run through my spiritual psyche: a non-negotiable concern for the work of the Spirit in transforming human hearts and an unabashed commitment to a Bible-focused intellectual rigor. You might say that I’m a “pietist with a Ph.D.”

In his 2002 AAR talk, Grenz traced the complicated influence of Pietism on evangelicalism. On the one hand, he warned that “when allowed to become the sole defining characteristic of the Christian faith, warm-heartedness can lead to wrong-headedness, that is, to doctrinal slippage or to a virulent anti-intellectualism.” But Pietism’s emphasis on convertive piety has been “the lifeblood of evangelicalism throughout its history and has formed its central contribution to the cause of renewal in the church of Jesus Christ.”

Stanley Grenz
Stanley J. Grenz (1950-2005)

Nevertheless, Grenz observed a decline in the influence of Pietism on evangelicals, as a “growing number of evangelical theologians now set themselves to the task of shoring up doctrinal standards for the movement, even to the point of claiming that the essence of evangelicalism consists in adherence to right doctrine. Some protagonists go so far as to elevate the doctrinal heritage of a particular ecclesial tradition or a particular theological interpretation of such points of doctrine as the nature of salvation as the norm for all who would claim the designation ‘evangelical.'”

In the end, Grenz argued for “integration,” for evangelical “allegiance to both heartfelt piety and orthodox doctrine.” But he worried more about the effects of leaning too hard on the latter, which threatened to strip away “the distinctive character of evangelicalism as a renewal movement within the church,” risked “the demise of the generous spirit that has characterized evangelicals from the beginning,” and, most importantly,

can blunt the central insight evangelicalism offers to the church, namely, that genuine Christian faith dare never be equated with externalism in any form, including the externalism entailed in mere adherence to orthodox doctrine.

So in the end, Grenz insisted that “the commitment to convertive piety must remain the integrative principle of the evangelical ethos.”

Grenz, Theology for the Community of GodTragically, Grenz died of a brain hemorrhage just three years later, depriving evangelicalism of one of its wisest, most winsome theologians. “Stan wrote with a gracious style and spirit that invited people into the conversation rather than throwing down gauntlets and pushing people away,” McLaren told Christianity Today at the time.

But then-Union University president David Dockery marked Grenz’s death by arguing that “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.”

I’m afraid that since then, evangelicalism (among its other problems) has only continued to move more in Dockery’s direction, and less in Grenz’s. But hopefully our book (with my earlier work on Pietism and Christian higher education) will help restore the balance that Grenz advocated.

You can read more about Grenz and Pietism on pp. 171-76 of Reclaiming Pietism: Retrieving an Evangelical Tradition, co-written by Grenz’s friend Roger Olson.


4 thoughts on ““A Pietist with a Ph.D.”

  1. This blog post brings back a flood of memories for me. Stan Grenz and I were very close friends and I am the one who persuaded him to rediscover and reclaim his own pietist roots–which he did enthusiastically. Before that he was a confirmed “Pannenbergian” and Pannenberg (with whom we both studied in Munich) often said “There is one thing I am not and that is a pietist!” Stan and I had many late night talks at AAR meetings (where we always roomed together) about Pietism. At first Stan didn’t know very much about it, but with a little encouragement he read about it and discovered his own “inner pietist.” He then began to set aside his Pannenbergianism and turn more toward Pietism–as the enduring essence of true evangelicalism. But, contrary to his critics such as Dockery and Carson, Stan never minimized the importance of doctrine. That claim was sheer calumny so far as I’m concerned. (And I have to say again that I was simply shocked that Dockery posted that harshly critical attack on Stan within a couple days of Stan’s death. He could/should have waited at least a month before speaking ill of the dead.) The meeting at which Stan delivered his “Pietist with a Ph.D.” paper was actually our second meeting of “The Word Made Fresh.” It met at Toronto just before AAR/SBL. Because Richard Mouw had declined to sign our Word Made Fresh statement about reclaiming an evangelical (pietist) heritage we invited him to be a respondent. Among other responses to Stan Mouw asked “Isn’t anyone else afraid of Schleiermacher?” I was the moderator of the discussion and couldn’t help myself. I leaned into the microphone and said “Yes; he was a Calvinist.” I know; it wasn’t nice. I just couldn’t help myself. This attempt to connect Pietism with Schleiermacher is sheer nonsense. Yes, sure, Schleiermacher was a pietist “of a higher order” (as he wrote to his sister to tell their angry father). But his Pietism was not true Pietism and Stan was no Schleiermacher. He did not believe Christianity can be reduced to or controlled by a universal “God-consciousness” or even a quasi-mystical “feeling” of being redeemed through Jesus Christ as if that’s all there is to Christianity’s essence. He cared deeply about the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity (among other essential doctrines of the Christian faith). I can’t help mentioning a tremendous irony here. One of the harshest criticism of Stan was that he “relegated” the doctrine of Scripture to a chapter later (than beginning) in Theology for the Community of God. I just received a complimentary copy of a new systematic theology entitled Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction by Cornelis van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink (Eerdmans, 2017). It is heartily endorsed by (among others) Richard J. Mouw and Michael S. Horton. Guess what? The chapter on Scripture is 13–right after the chapter on the Holy Spirit. Will those who harshly attacked Stan for placing the doctrine of Scripture in the same location in his systematic theology now criticize van der Kooi and van den Brink for the same placement? I doubt it. Stan was attacked by people who should have supported and encouraged him– for other reasons than his theology. He was PERCEIVED (wrongly, in my opinion) as “on a liberal trajectory” (as one critic told me) which was not accurate. Most of the time, Stan told me, his critics never bothered to ask him anything before criticizing him. I knew Stan’s mind and heart and I knew many of the criticisms (e.g., that he was repeating Schleiermacher’s theological methodology) were wrong. To this day I have hard feelings toward those who didn’t even bother to engage Stan in one-on-one dialogue before attacking him–often in very personal ways that were not just disagreements about theology. I won’t name names, but readers can guess who the guilty parties were. They’re the “usual suspects” in modern evangelical heresy-hunting.

  2. The first thing I read of Grenz’ work was a chapter in “Essentials of Christian Theology”, which is an underrated book overall, but Grenz’ position on scripture is one I still largely hold. I then read “Who Needs Theology”, which as co-authored by Roger Olson, and is as relevant today as it was when it was written, if not more so. Then on to “Beyond Foundationalism”, “Theology for the Community of God”, “Primer on Postmodernism”, “The Millenial Maze”, etc., until I got to “The Named God and the Question of Being”. That book flung my theological imagination so hard that my doctoral thesis was born – I had struggled developing a topic for almost a decade.

    I would have loved to have pursued by doctoral studies under Grenz, and was deeply saddened by his sudden passing.

  3. Thank you very much for the post, and for the wonderful blog in general.

    I do have to confess that an endorsement from Brian McLaren is an enormous red flag for those of us who are wary of liberalism. Nevertheless, the book looks fantastic and I look forward to reading it.

    1. Thanks, Benjamin. I’ll be curious to hear what you think of the book. With the endorsements… One of our goals was to include blurbs from a spectrum of contemporary Christians, from those like Brian and Wes who have left evangelicalism to more conservative figures like Jay Barnes (not just a Christian college president, but a member of the CCCU governing board) and John Wilson. Hopefully we don’t simply alienate the entire spectrum of readers, and instead underscore our desire to chart a middle path.

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