with Stanley J. Grenz
Carey/Regent College, Vancouver BC
April 20, 1999
By Rogier Bos
Dr. Stanley Grenz is one of the premier theologians of our
time. Many Christians first encountered Postmodernism in his book 'Primer on
Postmodernism'. In this interview Grenz reflects on how his thinking has evolved since
them, and on the nature and place of evangelicalism. Dr. Grenz teaches at Carey University
and Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Next-Wave: Dr. Grenz, your book 'Primer on
Postmodernism' was for many Christians the first in-depth confrontation they had with
Postmodernism. How did you become aware of postmodernism, and what convinced you that
postmodernism was going to be a major force in our culture?
Dr. Grenz: Perhaps the initial impetus for what developed
into my interest in the postmodern situation came while I was on sabbatical leave in
1987-1988. I had returned to Munich, Germany, where I had completed doctoral work in the
mid-1970s, this time, however, to write a book delineating the theology of the man who had
been my doctoral supervisor, Wolfhart Pannenberg. That year marked a transformation in my
own theological thinking,
as I came to see the
poverty of a purely rationalist approach to, as well as the crucial importance of a more
communitarian understanding of, Christian life and consequently Christian theology.
Soon after my return to North America I was approached by
InterVarsity Press to produce a volume on theology in the twentieth century. Working on
this project, the results of which were published in 1992, led me to consider more closely
the shifts in both theology and Western culture that had transpired over the last several
decades. Then early in 1993, the people at the Leighton Ford Ministries asked me to
participate in a "think tank" on ministry to "baby busters" (now more
generally known as Generation X). My role was to interpret for the group the intellectual
world of the emerging adult generation, which, I quickly learned, was dominated by
Finally, while all this was happening, my then teen-age
son, Joel, got me watching Star Trek: The Next Generation, which at that time was
his favorite television program. These various strands led me to look more closely at
postmodernism as the background for the ethos that seemed to be pervading contemporary
Western culture, especially among teenagerslike my sonand
"20-somethings." It seemed to me that what was influencing younger adults today
would become increasingly important in the future. Therefore the churchand I as a
theologianneeded to become aware of these intellectual trends.
Next-Wave If you had to give us a working
definition of postmodernism, what would it be?
Dr. Grenz: "Postmodernism," like so many other contemporary
terms, is notoriously nebulous. And different people today have differing understandings
as to what they mean by it. In my Primer on Postmodernism I describe this
phenomenon as the intellectual shift that is related to, even underlies the wider
postmodern cultural ethos.
Actually, the term "postmodern" may have been
first coined in the 1930s, although it did not gain widespread attention until the 1970s.
Initially, the term denoted a new style of architecture. Then it invaded academic circles,
originally as the label for theories expounded in university English departments, before
invading philosophical faculties as well. Eventually it surfaced as the description for a
broader cultural phenomenon.
At its heart, postmodernism is negative. That is, it is the
critique of, and the quest to move beyond modernism. Specifically, it is a rejection of
the modern mindset, but launched under the conditions of modernity which were first
articulated in the Renaissance and developed more completely in the Enlightenment. The
work of thinkers such as Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes and Isaac Newton led to the
elevation of the human, thinking self to the center of reality and pictured the physical
world as a machine whose laws and regularity could be discerned by the human mind. Under
the banner of the "Enlightenment project," philosophers and scientists sought to
unlock the secrets of the universe, in order to master nature for human benefit and create
a better world. This quest led to the modern, technological society characteristic of the
twentieth century with its attempt to bring rational management to life in order to
improve the quality of life.
||Postmodernism represents a
questioning, and even rejection, of the Enlightenment project and the foundational
assumptions upon which it was built, namely, that knowledge is certain, objective and
Postmodernism represents a questioning, and even rejection,
of the Enlightenment project and the foundational assumptions upon which it was built,
namely, that knowledge is certain, objective and inherently good. Consequently, it marks
the end of a single world view. Postmodernism resists unified, all-encompassing and
universally valid explanations (i.e., any all-encompassing "meta-narrative"). It
replaces these with a respect for difference and a celebration of the local and particular
at the expense of the universal. Postmodernism likewise entails a rejection of the
emphasis on rational discovery through the scientific method which provided the
intellectual foundation for the modern attempt to construct a "better" world.
Next-Wave Would you distinguish between
postmodern culture and postmodern philosophy? If so, how would you say they are different?
Dr. Grenz: Yes. As the above description indicates,
postmodernism is the intellectual outlook that is connected to a broader cultural
phenomenon or ethos. In fact, "postmodern" initially referred to developments in
Viewed in the current context, the adjective
"postmodern" describes more than an intellectual mood. The postmodern rejection
of the focus on rationality characteristic of the modern era finds expression in various
dimensions of contemporary society. In recent years, the postmodern ethos has been
reflected in many of the traditional vehicles of cultural expression. These include
architecture, art and theater. In addition, postmodernism has increasingly become embodied
in the broader society. We can detect a shift away from the "modern" toward the
"postmodern" in "pop" culture and even in the day-to-day aspects of
contemporary life. In this broader sense, "postmodernism" refers to an
intellectual mood and an array of cultural expressions which call into question the
ideals, principles and values that lay at the heart of the modern mindset.
Next-Wave In recent years we have seen a
steady stream of books by Christian authors on the subject of postmodernism. Yet there are
still many Christians who say that 'postmodernism' is just a phase, like the
hippy-movement was a phase, and that it will pass. How would you respond to that?
Dr. Grenz: It may indeed be the case that certain expressions
of the postmodern ethos will fade. However,
I would venture
to say that there is no going back from many of the intellectual sensitivities that
characterize the postmodern ethos. These include such hallmarks as the dethroning of
reason in favor of a more holistic understanding of the human person, the rejection of
radical individualism in favor of a more communitarian understanding of existence, and the
rejection of uniformity in favor of the celebration of difference.
Next-Wave: If you had to categorize
different Christian responses to postmodernism, what categories would you use, how would
you describe them, and where would you place yourself?
||Christians tend to fall into
two opposite and equally unhelpful responses to cultural expressions such as postmodernism
Dr. Grenz: Christians tend to fall into two opposite
and equally unhelpful responses to cultural expressions such as postmodernism. Some simply
"baptize" every new development. They jump on the latest bandwagon thinking that
this is the way to stay relevant. Others "demonize" what they see happening
around them. In their estimation, the "new" is always dangerous or evil, whereas
the "old" is safe and good.
I seek to promote a third response, critical engagement
with culture. I believe that like the modernism that emerged from the Enlightenment the
postmodern ethos is a mixed bag, containing much useful material, but also harboring
certain potential pitfalls. Our task as Christians, therefore, is neither to hail the
arrival of postmodernism as the savior of humankind nor to fight against it in the name of
a return to modernism. Rather, our goal ought to be to understand how we can bring the
gospel to postmodern people in ways that communicate meaningfully to them.
Next-Wave: Please help us understand the
relationship between evangelicalism and postmodern thinking. Many evangelicals seem to
have a hard time understanding postmodern thinking and culture. They seem to intuitively
reject it. Why is that?
Dr. Grenz: Despite their critique of modernism,
evangelicals seem to have grown quite comfortable in the modern world. Several factors
have contributed to this. For example, many historians of evangelicalism point out that
although its roots lie in the Reformation, the evangelical movement as we know it today
was born in the early modern period and hence the evangelical vision of the faith
developed in conversation with the Enlightenment milieu. Perhaps equally important is the
fact that evangelical apologists and theologians have been active in recent years carving
out a place for Christianity in the modern world by showing that a person does not need to
commit "intellectual suicide" (when judged against modern scientific categories)
to be an evangelical Christian. In this process, many evangelicals committed themselves to
a modernist notion of truth, namely, that truth is the correspondence of our assertions
with reality "as it really is."
Postmodernism, of course, calls this concept of truth into
question. Evangelicals who have pinned their faith to the modernist understanding, that
is, who view the faith as bolstered by or constructed on a rationalist apologetic, find
this intellectual shift threatening. Unfortunately, they often caricature postmodernism in
the process, such as by claiming that postmodernism entails the denial of truth. One
debilitating problem with this approach is that it leads evangelicals to assume that they
must convert postmoderns to modernism before they can bring them to Christ. This battle, I
might suggest, was decided at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15.
Next-Wave: D.A. Carson questions whether
your approach to scripture can called evangelical. Would you consider yourself an
evangelical? Does it concern you whether others see you as evangelical? Why/why not?
Dr. Grenz: I must admit I found Dons comment
disconcerting when it was first brought to my attention, in that in his book it seems to
come almost out of no where. Rather than being the conclusion drawn from a scholarly
interaction with my position as espoused in my writings, it appears tacked on to a very
short mentioning of me and my work in postmodernism.
I have always seen myself as an evangelical. Indeed, I was
raised in the so-called "evangelical subculture." And I am a contributing member
of the Evangelical Theological Society, as well as a consulting editor of Christianity
I have described in print what I see as the heart of the
evangelical ethos, namely, a spirituality or understanding of what it means to be
Christian that focuses on understanding oneself and telling ones story in accordance
with the biblical categories of "having once been lost" but "now being
found." This glorious transformation occurs through an encounter with God in Jesus
I realize that others may have slightly different
understandings of what "evangelical" means and that they might be disposed to
make judgments about others based on their own descriptions. I am naturally saddened when
people make quick and unsubstantiated judgments about others, especially when such
judgments could potentially predispose others to dismiss without warrant another Christian
or anothers work.
Next-Wave: Evangelicals have long
contended over how we viewed the scriptures. 'Infallibility' and 'Inerrancy' have been
crucial issues to them. How would you explain your view of the scriptures, and how is it
different from a standard evangelical view?
Dr. Grenz: In my one volume systematic theology, Theology for the
Community of God, I use both "infallibility" and "inerrancy" to
speak about biblical authority. These terms are words that evangelicals (and others) have
employed to affirm the trustworthiness of Scripture. Unfortunately, many evangelicals
understand "inerrancy" in a manner that is more reflective of modern ways of
thinking than of biblical understandings. Some see the Bible as a storehouse of facts
understood as propositions that are accurate assertions about reality. The task of the
biblical exegete, in turn, becomes that of determining what these facts are. The Bible is
then said to be inerrant in that all the facts that it presents are accurate.
The Westminster Confession of Faith declares that the final
authority in the church is the Holy Spirit speaking through the Scriptures. This suggests
to me that the most profound truth about the Bible is that it is the Spirits
instrumentthe Spirit speaks to us through these documents. This suggests that we
should speak first and foremost about the authority, and hence the infallibility and
inerrancy, of the Spirit and the Spirits speaking through the text. Biblical
authority, in turn, finds its basis in the Spirit who is the ultimate voice that we hear
in the text. When fleshed out (which is part of my current writing project) this yields an
understanding that is fully evangelical (especially in the Reformation sense of this term)
and offers, I believe, a more helpful point of contact with postmoderns than the view held
by some evangelicals, which was born in an era when evangelicals sought to understand
biblical authority in a manner that could engage with the modern mindset.
Next-Wave: I know that one can be very
elaborate when it comes to describing ones theology. But if you had to be brief,
which doctrines do you think will be most affected by the postmodern world, and how?
Dr. Grenz: You are right in suggesting that being brief
here is difficult. Let me suggest in reply two broad aspects. First, sensitivity to the
postmodern world profoundly affects the way we view theology itself. Rather than yielding
a collection of isolated facts designed to enhance our knowledge, theology becomes the
delineation of a "mosaic" of interrelated beliefs, the goal of which is wisdom
for living as Christians. And second, the postmodern ethos leads us, I think, to see the
communitarian dimension that lies at the heart of biblical faith. This communitarian
understanding begins with a renewal of the focus on God as triune and concludes with a
realization that Gods program leads to the establishment of the new creation.
Next-Wave: How has your thinking on
Postmodernism evolved since you wrote 'Primer on Postmodernism'?
Dr. Grenz: I would have to say that the main points of my
outlook have remained the same. In my work of a theologian, however, since writing the
book I have seen more clearly that the postmodern context provides the occasion for
theologyand with it apologeticsto move to what several people call a
"non-foundationalist" approach. More importantly for the readers of
I am increasingly convinced of the importance of the ministry of Christian communities
(i.e., the church) in reaching postmoderns and therefore of the need for the church to
take seriously the postmodern context in which God has called us to live and minister.
Next-Wave: Since you wrote the Primer more
and more people have started talking about Postmodernism. What developments are you really
Dr. Grenz: When I first started thinking and speaking about
this topic I found parachurch groups keenly interested in the cultural shifts occurring on
university campuses and among teens. This, of course, was to be expected. And I was
pleased to be invited to work with such groups. Although I continue to enjoy these
opportunities, now I am increasingly receiving calls from church leaders wanting to talk
about what the church can do to reach postmoderns for Christ. I find this development
especially gratifying, for it means that the church as a whole is beginning to enter into
I am also very gratified that many people are now engaging
Christianly with pop culture, for in many respects the entertainment industry has become
the vehicle through which postmoderns express their spiritual quest. I see this
enterprise, as well as a return of evangelical Christians into the realm of pop culture,
as standing on the cutting edge in the immediate future.
Next-Wave: You are involved in a wide
variety of networks, and a sought-after expert on Postmodern thinking and culture. As you
travel around, and see people and ministries attempt to interact with Postmodernism, what
concerns do you have?
Dr. Grenz: As I suggested earlier, I am concerned that some
evangelicals so readily become judgmental of those who sense that God is calling them to
take seriously the postmodern culture. The labeling and name-calling that often emerges
does not serve to advance the gospel. At the same time, I am saddened whenever I see
postmodern evangelicals denigrating Christians who continue to express their faith in more
traditional manners. Related to this is the intolerance and lack of understanding that is
so often demonstrated by the various combatants in the "worship wars." I happen
to appreciate both contemporary and classical music styles. But I find it ironic how
postmodern Christians can quickly adopt a modernist mindset, which emerges whenever they
erroneously assume that their preferred, particular music is the only way to have a truly
effective ministry in the postmodern context.
Next-Wave: What, in your eyes, are
key-essentials for churches that desire to reach postmodern people?
Dr. Grenz: The ultimate key is "community." The best apologetic
we have in the postmodern context is the vibrant, local community of disciples who are
loyal to Christ, that is, a community in which the power of the Spirit is transforming
relationships. As many of my friends in IVCF tell me, postmodern persons are converted to
the community before they are converted to Christ.
In addition, I think the church today needs to recapture a
profound confidence in the power of the Spirit who remains active in the world today and
is active in ways that we might not immediately recognize. Many Christians are tempted to
become cynical and despairing along with people around them. In this way the downside of
the postmodern ethos invades the church. In a context in which people no longer find a
humanly-based reason for hope, we have good news to share, namely, the gospel about the
God who does what is humanly impossiblethe God who brings life from the dead.
Next-Wave: As you look at the future, what
do you think is likely to happen in the next 25 years in terms of what we have been
Grenz: Rather than stating what I think will happen (which in the end might be
quite irrelevant), let me say that as I look to the future I am profoundly
hopefulnot because of what I believe we will accomplish, but because of the God in
whom I believe. Although the problems we face are enormous, we stand under the mandate of
Jesus Christ who is the Lord of Creation, we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and we are
children of the Creator of the universe. For this reason, I am convinced that just as the
gospel has gone forth with power in every era and to every generation, so also the gospel
with sound forth in the postmodern context in which we live. And the God who promises the
bring creation to its divinely intended goal invites us to participate in the divine
program. May we, therefore, empowered by the Spirit, be faithful to mandate Christ has
entrusted to us, to the glory of God!
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