STANLEY GRENZ’S THEOLOGICAL ANTHROPOLOGY – A CRITIQUE (PT. 4)

This is the final part of a short series in which I look at Stanley Grenz’s theological anthropology as it can be found in “The Social God and the Relational Self: A Trinitarian Theology of the Imago Dei.”


From our brief survey of Grenz’s method and content it is quite clear that Grenz has attempted to pen a biblically faithful, historically grounded theological anthropology which is sensitive to the problems of postmodernism. In this conclusion to this series of posts I want to assess several aspects of his historical-theological surveys, his use of the Trinity for theological anthropology, and his evangelical sensitivities. In doing so we can gauge the success of his project.

The first topic which draws our attention is his treatment of historical sources in theology. Though obviously showing deference towards these sources, Grenz subtly hints at his belief that “good” theology only came about in the modern period. One sees this theme in his belief that the psychological analogy for the trinity has rightly been abandoned in favor models that are closer to the social analogy for the trinity. One also notices this in his assessment of the concept of self. The past was highly individualistic, only now have we recovered a relational basis for the self. Finally one sees this in his surveys of the imago Dei. Christian theology began with a structural view, helpfully moved towards a relational view, and it has finally matured into a “destiny”/Kaleidoscopic view of the image of God. He may be correct in believing that these more modern views are actually truer than the older views. However, to base one’s assessment of the matters solely upon a concept of historical development or unfolding is to commit chronological snobbery. To add to this problem, Grenz’s preference for the new and modern (or should I say post-modern) leads him to flatten out distinctions in the historical theologies he examines. These are important distinctions which could undermine his assessments. For instance, he sees Augustine as the progenitor of inward individualism. Though there is certainly an inward aspect of Augustine’s spirituality, to say it underlies an individualistic ontology is quite off the mark. James Smith has argued that an Augustinian ontology is what he calls an “intentional account of human persons.” The concept of humans as intentional beings “emphasizes that our being in the world is always characterized by a dynamic, “ek-static” orientation that “intends” the world or “aims at” the world as an object of consciousness.”[1] Or to put it more simply, “we are essentially and ultimately lovers. To be human is to love, and it is what we love that defines who we are. Our ultimate love is constitutive of our identity;”[2] using Smith’s catchy title of his popular level book you are what you love. An Augustinian ontology considers persons in light of their relationship (intentionally or love) to other beings and things. If what one loves constitutes one’s being, necessarily being cannot be individualistic, since it is defined by the other. Another minor point of historical accuracy, Grenz critiques Edwards’s spirituality as being “focused squarely on the self,” saying, “According to Edwards, true saints can discern experimentally the presence of true religion within themselves.”[3] Although its true that Edwards believed one could not know with certainty the status of other Christians, what comes to mind is what Edwards says is the best sign of one’s salvation: charity. The greatest sign of salvation is whether or not one actually loves one’s neighbor. This is far from the sort of individualistic piety Grenz pegs onto Edwards.[4] These are just two examples of how his negative disposition for the past leads Grenz to skew his readings of important theological figures.

A second issue present in Grenz’s work that deserves attention is his use of Trinitarian theology for developing anthropological conclusions. One key example is his use of Zizioulas’s metaphysics: being as communion (i.e that there is no true being without communion or to be a person is to be in relation to other persons). He moves from Trinitarian ontology to human ontology, claiming that to be a person is to be in a certain sort of relation to other persons (an ecclesial relation). Although this might be a legitimate move to make, he never stops to ask “can we predicated persons in the same sense to God as we can of human beings?” The fact that the Trinity is a model for humanity and community is almost a truism today. However we should ask, “in which respects and to what extent the Trinity should serve as a model for human community?” Here, the works of theologians like Fred Sanders, Stephen Holmes, and Karen Kilby come to mind. For instance Kilby writes that “There is intrinsic limitation deriving from our creatureliness, which means that Trinitarian concepts can only analogously be applied to human community.”[5] This hesitation, to move too quickly from the Trinity to humanity, is grounded in the well worn Eastern tradition (which ironically is so prominent in the theology of which social Trinitarianism claims its roots) of apophaticism. Again, I am not claiming that Grenz conclusions are off the mark, rather that he has not engaged what is probably the most pressing critique of social Trinitarianism which makes the “Trinity our social program.”

Finally, I would like to assess the evangelical pedigree of this work. Part of what it means to be evangelical is to take the gospel seriously. This means taking the healing reality of God’s reconciliation of the world through Christ, and the church’s call to proclaim that reality as it is articulated in Scripture, seriously. Grenz has written a text which meets these marks. Beginning with the fact that he seeks to articulate the reality of the Trinitarian God to a postmodern world to the fact that he is concerned with helping the church live out its transformation according to the image of Christ, this book is grounded in the mission of the gospel. In this work Grenz takes seriously what scripture says and he is missionally oriented. Despite some of the historical and theological shortcomings of this book, one cannot deny the fact that Grenz has written a text which has the potential to make important contributions to the church living out its mission of  being a preview of the new humanity shaped in the true imago Dei, Jesus Christ.


[1] James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 48.

[2] Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 51.

[3] Grenz, The Social God and the Relational Self, 85

[4] For more on the notion that Edwards’s spirituality and ethics was other-centered (and fully Trinitarian) see Christopher Woznicki, “Bad Books and The Glorious Trinity: Jonathan Edwards on the Sexual Holiness of the Church” in McMaster Journal of Theology and Ministry vol. 16 (2014-2015)

[5] Karen Kilby, “Trinity and Politics: An Apohatic Approach” in Advancing Trinitarian Theology, eds. Oliver Crisp and Fred Sanders (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), 78.

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