I've been enjoying Renewing the Center by the late Baptist theologian Stanley Grenz (1950 - 2005). I picked this book up on a whim at a used book sale. It was $5 well spent. Grenz is often associated with the emergent church crowd, and Brian McClaren contributes a Foreword. Yet I don't see in Grenz the eagerness to jettison (or water down) unfashionable Christian doctrines that one sees with McClaren, Doug Pagitt, et al. This book seems to me a thoughtful attempt to come to grips with postmodernism in a way that remains faithful to the Apostolic Nicene faith, and that retains a high view of Scripture and the centrality of the church to God's plan of salvation. One of the things I like most about Renewing the Center is it's call for evangelicals to make ecclesiology more central. He suggests that the postmodern turn is an opportunity for evangelicals to recognize how influenced we've been by Enlightenment individualism and empiricism, and a tendency to rely too much on unaided human reason.
But what exactly is evangelicalism? Some have argued that the term has become so broad as to have lost any value. In addition, since the 1970s the word is increasingly associated with political and cultural agendas rather than the evangel (good news) at it's root. Critics are right to point out the problems with those unfortunate associations. In trying to get a handle on evangelicalism Grenz cites a classic formulation from historian David Bebbington, which is as good a definition as any. Evangelicalism is characterized by conversionism, activism, biblicism and crucicentrism. Stated that way "evangelical" is a word worth defending.
But back to the book. The first half is basically a theological history from the Protestant Reformation to the late 20th century, and it's a cracking good read. Grenz follows the various streams that flowed from Luther and Calvin and shows how each of them influenced the evangelical movement that emerged in the wake of the fundamentalist/modernist controversies of the 1920s & 30s. It's fascinating stuff. Included are extended discussions of evangelical luminaries like Carl Henry and Bernard Ramm. Grenz is always charitable in his assessments, even when he's critical. His biases do occasionally show, though. For instance, when portraying the legacy of Old Princeton as a victory of arid Protestant scholasticism (the cognitive-doctrinal) over and against a concern for personal piety (the practical-experiential). In my opinion this is a caricature that doesn't stand up to scrutiny.
In the second half the author begins to set out the parameters of the book's subtitle: an evangelical theology for a post-theological era. Here we're in the realm of philosophical concepts and academic jargon, but it remains an engaging read. Grenz agrees with the postmodern thesis that Enlightenment foundationalism is dead. This is the notion that "certain beliefs anchor other beliefs, i.e., certain beliefs are 'basic,' and other beliefs arise as conclusions from them." Foundationalism seeks to gain "epistemological certitude by discovering an unassailable foundation of basic beliefs upon which to construct the knowledge edifice." In this way of thinking the quest for knowledge, indeed the quest for truth, is like building a skyscraper. You lay a foundation and then build it floor by floor. In the quest for theological truth evangelical theologians have imitated the methods of their secular counterparts, who arbitrarily assign religious beliefs to the realm of "nonbasic status". (all quotes from p. 208)
This begs the question: "What killed foundationalism?" The short answer is postmodernism killed it. Postmodernism is one of those words/concepts that's notoriously difficult to get a grip on. I agree with the wag who said postmodern is really mostmodern! In any case one of the insights of postmodernism is that human reason is "person specific" and "situation specific." This is argued by self-styled Reformed epistemologists Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff. Grenz points approvingly to these two eminent philosophers as examples of constructive Christian engagement with the postmodern context. They don't deny the existence of basic beliefs, but they "join other nonfoundationalists in claiming against the Enlightenment that there is no universal human reason. That is, there is no single, universal set of criteria by means of which we can judge definitively the epistemic status of all beliefs." (p. 208)
In summary: one's conception of truth is inseparable from one's community.
Plantinga and Wolterstorff acknowledge the inevitability of our being situated in a particular community and the indispensable role our respective communities or traditions play in shaping our conceptions of rationality, as well as the religious beliefs we deem basic and thus by appeal to which we test new claims. And they readily admit the attendant loss of certitude involved with this acknowledgment, for they realize that these various communities may disagree as to the relevant set of paradigm instances of basic beliefs.
The difficulty this poses for any claims to universal truth ought not to be overlooked . . . . Nevertheless, the communitarian turn marks an important advance. This focus returns theological reflection to its proper primary location within the believing community, in contrast to the Enlightenment ideal that effectively took theology out of the church and put it in the academy. More specifically, nonfoundationalist approaches see Christian theology as an activity of the community that gathers around Jesus the Christ. (p. 209)
Grenz further defines that community as one made up of individuals who've had a saving encounter with Jesus Christ and who now find their identity in him. This is not to turn religious experience into a new foundationalism ala Schleiermacher and Protestant liberalism, but it's to make it "the identifying feature of participation in this specific community." (p. 210)
In turn this community becomes basic for formulating Christian theology. Instead of the metaphor of a building, this results in something more like a mosaic.
This mosaic consists of the set of interconnected doctrines that together comprise what ought to be the specifically Christian way of viewing the world. This worldview is truly theological and specifically Christian, because it involves an understanding of the entire universe and of ourselves in connection with the God of the Bible, and the biblical narrative of God, at work bringing creation to its divinely destined goal. (p. 213)
For the most part Christian scholars have assumed a defensive posture when engaged with the grab bag of ideas labelled postmodernism, viewing it as a threat to orthodox faith and practice. But what if—while recognizing the dangers—the church embraced the opportunity to articulate a fresh vision of "the faith that was once for all entrusted to God's holy people"? (Jude 1:3 NIV) This book is a worthy attempt to do just that. In writing it Grenz saw opportunities where others saw only danger. We need more optimistic books like this one!
Quotes from Stanley Grenz, Renewing the Center: Evangelical Theology in a Post-Theological Era (Baker, 2000)