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Theology in the chaos of ideas: Grenz & Olson

Written by: on November 21, 2018

Further back than I care to remember, I wrote a dissertation titled, Interpreting the Text: The Gulf between Trained Clergy and the Laity.[1]The motivation came at the end of my first year in ordained ministry. What surprised me was the cavernous gap spanning the way I viewed scripture and society in contrast to the people who made up the community in which served. I still remember the push-back I received from older colleagues who believed that my concern was to provide people teaching that comforted and affirmed their beliefs and values, while at the same time provoking the congregation to live what they believed. This advice didn’t sit well with me. Moreover, in contrast to a keeping-the-peace model of ministry, many of my colleagues were doing precisely the opposite by regularly lobbing theological bombs that dismembered the conservative ‘grounds of people’s being’. Neither of these approaches felt palatable pastorally, or missionally, in a time when postmodernism was emerging from the dark halls of psychology into the light of mainstream thinking. Consequently, the mind chaffing questions erupted, ‘why the theological gap between clergy and laity?’ and why the two unhelpful clerical responses?’.

Re-reading Stanley Grenz and Roger Olson’s book, Who Needs Theology?: An Invitation to the Study of God prompted me to find my dissertation and re-read it.[2]For something so old now, it wasn’t half bad, which, by extension meant it was slightly better than half-good. However, I was asking the right questions. Looking at the date of Grenz and Olson’s book (1996), they were writing in a similar era and also attending to the same problem. Politically the western world had begun a seismic shift in social, economic and ethical thinking, and the ordinary people of God were unprepared by pastors, who were equally ill-equipped, to navigate the brewing revolution.[3]

Postmodern Architecture – new and old

At the time Grenz and Olson wrote, Who Needs Theology, others were also responding to the changing context, and their writings became a guide to help pastors and church ministry leaders understand what was happening, while simultaneously forming a plan to shift Christian paradigms in a new age. Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind was an unwelcome indictment of American Evangelical thinking, but in fairness, it was a stinging rebuke of Evangelicals lack of reciprocal intellectual engagement worldwide.[4]In 1999, Robert Webber released, Ancient-Future Faith as a voice for faith traditions in the clamour of postmodernism,[5]while Webber’s The Younger Evangelicalssagely, but pointedly, spoke to a passing generation about their fear of the new winds blowing across their comfortable religious landscape.[6]At the same time the ethicist and public intellectual, Stanley Hauerwas teamed up with historian, Alex Sider, to encourage new ways of starting theological discourse by making the teaching of the Mennonite, John Yoder, accessible to those who had never heard of him, and were unlikely to if old evangelical publishing companies had their way.[7]Even today, the era in which Grenz and Olson became significant contributors to a more open evangelical movement, continues. Despite his death in 2005, Grenz’ writing remains an important and pivotal part of evangelical reconsideration, such that, by 2008, Mark Noll was encouraging Evangelical and Catholic dialogue about the future of Christian learning as reciprocity between what was, what is, and what is yet to come.[8]

It’s nearly thirty years since I wrote my ‘half-good’ dissertation and about twenty-five years from the time when I read Who needs Theology. Even now I reflect on it as a helpful resource to navigate the world of conservative Christian dogma and engage with the continually unfolding world of justice-based faith movements and the rapidly emerging acceptance of theological deconstructionism.

Written for interested lay people and pastors the book makes self-evident observations about the ‘who’s who’ of Bible interpretation and theological thinking: folk theology, lay theology, ministerial theology, professional theology, and academic theology. Though the authors don’t expressly articulate it, folk theology is pervasive in much of evangelicalism. The authors describe it as, “unreflective beliefs based on blind faith in a tradition of some kind” which, in pastoral leadership underscores the tension of telling people what they want to hear and what they need to think about. At the other end of the spectrum, they claim academic theology is too often, “disconnected from the church and has little to do with concrete Christian living”.[9]However, on this last point, I wonder if the authors were unkind to academics, as not all ideas need to be rooted in pragmatics; thought experiments and ideas need discussion as rational concepts without legs. Conversations about the Holy Trinity, for example, will rarely reach the needs of ordinary thinkers and actors, but the conceptions surrounding the nature of the Trinity requires constant querying if the mystery is to remain as theological mystery and not be pragmatically relegated to the margins of theological oblivion.

To the overzealous reader, Grenz and Olson’s identification of two major theological tasks: Critical and Construction, may seem simplistic in 2018. However, remembering the context, they were helpful initial tools for critical engagement. It’s worth remembering their Critical methodology that required an examining and evaluating Christian beliefs and then categorising those beliefs as dogma, doctrine, or opinion was threatening to many; despite being essential.[10]

Their construction task of theology was to make sense of the outcomes of Critical evaluation. How do we, “articulate our [evaluated] foundational beliefs about God and the world for the sake of living as Christians in our contemporary context.”.[11] The tools for that construction task include three synoptic disciplines: develop a broad encompassing vision of the biblical message, know the theological heritage of the church, and understand contemporary culture. They argued that a synoptic understanding is the crucial, “holistic perspective that attempts to draw into coherence the otherwise blooming, buzzing confusion of data.[12]

The book was written a while back, and it was an early start to new thinking. We’ve come a long way since 1996, which is fortunate because the “blooming, buzzing confusion of data” has only increased. However, the books primary starting point on the absolute importance of doing theology and the simple tasks offered to that end hasn’t changed; they remain a good starting point for all fledgeling theologians – be they folk, or incoherent academic.

Notes

[1]Digby Wilkinson, “Interpreting the Text: The Gulf Between Trained Clergy and the Laity” (Dissertation, Baptist Theological College, 1992).

[2]Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olson, Who Needs Theology?: An Invitation to the Study of God(Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1996).

[3]Wilkinson, “Interpreting the Text: The Gulf Between Trained Clergy and the Laity”.

[4]Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994).

[5]Robert E Webber, Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World, 7th print. ed. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1999).

[6]Robert E. Webber, The Younger Evangelicals: Facing the Challenges of the New World(Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2002; reprint, 2nd).

[7]John Howard Yoder, Preface to Theology: Christology and Theological Method, ed. Stanley Hauerwas and Alex Sider (Brazos Press, 2002-04-01).

[8]Mark A. Noll and James Turner, The Future of Christian Learning: An Evangelical and Catholic Dialogue, ed. Thomas Albert Howard (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008).

[9]Grenz and Olson, Who Needs Theology?: An Invitation to the Study of God.27

[10]Ibid.80

[11]Ibid.80

[12]Ibid.146

 

Bibliography

Grenz, Stanley J., and Roger E. Olson. Who Needs Theology?: An Invitation to the Study of God. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

Noll, Mark A.The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994.

Noll, Mark A., and James Turner.The Future of Christian Learning: An Evangelical and Catholic Dialogue. ed. Thomas Albert Howard. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008.

Webber, Robert E.Ancient-Future Faith : Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World. 7th print. ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1999.

Webber, Robert E.The Younger Evangelicals: Facing the Challenges of the New World. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2002. Reprint 2nd.

Wilkinson, Digby. “Interpreting the Text: The Gulf Between Trained Clergy and the Laity.” Dissertation, Baptist Theological College, 1992.

Yoder, John Howard.Preface to Theology: Christology and Theological Method. ed. Stanley Haurewas, and Alex Sider. Brazos Press, 2002.

About the Author

Digby Wilkinson

I am currently the Vicar of the Tawa Anglican Church in Wellington, New Zealand. I have only been in this role since February 2018. Prior to this appointment, I was the Dean of the Wellington Cathedral of St Paul, which made me the senior priest of the diocese working alongside the Bishop. I guess from an American perspective this makes me look decidedly Episcopalian, however my ministry background and training was among the Baptists. Consequently, I have been serving as pastor/priest for nearly thirty years. My wife Jane also trained for ministry, and has spent the last decade spiritually directing and supervising church leaders from different denominations. We have three grown children.

5 responses to “Theology in the chaos of ideas: Grenz & Olson”

  1. mm Tammy Dunahoo says:

    Digby,

    Your title caught my interest and you describe very well the atmosphere not only in society in general, but in the evangelical church, the chaos of ideas. I appreciated the clear, balanced perspective the authors bring and most of all how they emphasize that theology impacts behavior and practice. I am one who appreciates conversations around ideas and thoughtful provocation but at the end of the day, how it works its way into pragmatic ways of being are central. Yes, we have come along way since 1996, unfortunately not always for the better, and I too believe this book is a “good starting place for fledgling theologians.”

  2. mm Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Digby,
    Brilliant and entertaining as usual! Thanks so much for adding your perspective and helping me place this source in context. That is, what Grenz and Olson were perhaps responding to and striving to encourage. I am a fledgeling theologian and thank you for your wise scholarship, H

  3. Andrea Lathrop says:

    Thank you for this, Pastor Digby. I enjoy hearing about your first dissertation so many years ago. I am grateful that our paths have intersected and get the advantage of learning from your decades of reading, studying and loving God & others.
    I appreciate your point about the Holy Trinity and am becoming convinced there is something there for my personal research. ‘Keeping it a theological mystery’…what a great way to articulate it.

  4. mm Jenn Burnett says:

    I love that you managed to quote yourself. I will endeavour to write something worthy of self-quoting. I also appreciate that you lived a pre-post colonial time and then watched it unfold. Postcolonialism was what I learned from the get go. I remember in Seminary having a well meaning prof take some time explaining that we are now in a post-Christian era where our status as pastors would not necessarily be revered. We left class whispering amongst ourselves, wondering what life might have been like in ‘his days.’ I felt a little bit like this with Olsen and Grenz, and you clarified that here. They are offering insight on the early discussions instigated by deconstructionism. Given the diverse age and eduacation level of an ‘average’ congregation, how much of this approach is useful to include? Is preaching the right context to unpack some of these theological tasks? Or small groups? Over coffee? I often wrestle with how much ‘educating’ is useful within a sermon. Insight?

    • Digby Wilkinson says:

      Ah, very insightful review of my review. To answer your question, I’m not sure people learn much about the present from the past. Present experience tends to guide human learning. Certainly we can have aha moments when can make historic connections between past moments and present realities, but by and large we learn from current context. When communicating I don’t tend to offer the ‘how’ of my conclusions. I leave that for the questions that come later. More often I think about responses, or contrapuntals, to my conclusions and address them instead. The responses are almost always based on current experience which makes the way I deal with questions more relevant than how I got to my conclusions. That being said however, preachers, teachers and pastors have an obligation to look back so as to understand the cultural, theological and contextual map in which the stand, while at the same time helping people find spiritual meaning in the present – even though the past is foreign to them. Small groups, coffee, beer, rugby are good places to tell them the backstory. If you know where we have come from, why we are where we are, and that faith still has meaning and makes sense, they will trust your faith while they work it out for themselves. That’s what pastors have always done and continue to do. How’s the picture coming along?

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