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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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Stanley Grenz’s Theological Anthropology – An Overview (Pt. 3)

This is part three 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.”


Having provided a brief overview of Grenz’s methodological commitments we are now in a position to provide a brief overview of his argument. This text is divided into three parts covering Context, Texts, and Application. Part one, “The Context: Trinitarian Theology and the Self,” traces out historical developments of Trinitarian theology and theological-philosophical-psychological understandings of the self. Part two, “The Texts: The Imago Dei in Trinitarian Perspective” addresses biblical texts which shed light upon the imago Dei. Part three, titled, “The Application: The Social Imago and the Postmodern (Loss of) Self” provides an eschatologically determined, social, ecclesial conception of the image of God.

Chapter one begins with the conviction that theological anthropology must be developed under the confession of the the Triune God. Given this conviction Grenz sets the context for a Trinitarian theological anthropology by providing a survey of the renewal of Trinitarian theology that has characterized the 20th and 21st centuries. Grenz begins with Hegel’s turn to the subject and his assumption that Trinitarian theology must take seriously the close connection between the Trinity and the unfolding of history. Starting with Hegel, he travels through the works of Rahner, Barth, Moltmann, and Zizioulas on his way to LaCugna. The thrust of this chapter is to show that the movement away from psychological models of the trinity and the revival of social Trinitarianism is commensurate with the modern rethinking of the notion of persons. Or as Grenz says, “the ascendancy of the focus on the three Trinitarian persons, in turn, opens the way for a truly theological anthropology.”

In chapters two and three Grenz maps the development of contemporary concepts of the self. Chapter two is dedicated to treating the emergence of the concept of the self. Here Grenz states that the modern concept of the self is marked by one key feature: Inwardness. Quoting Charles Taylor Grenz says “our modern notion of the self is related to, one might say constituted by, a certain sense (or perhaps family of senses) of inwardness.” Grenz makes a case Augustine being the progenitor of the “Western concept of the self with its focus on the inwardness of self-consciousness in contrast to the outwardness of relationality to others.” His historical survey covers much ground, expositing the works of Descartes, Locke, and Kant, all whom according to Grenz elevate the autonomous individual self. A second feature of the inward turn according to Grenz is a desire for self-mastery. He deems Calvin as the progenitor of the individualist quest for self-mastery, hidden under the guise of sanctification. Among the “villains” of this individualistic, self-sufficient narrative, Grenz also cites Jonathan Edwards as bequeathing to evangelicalism an individualistic, self-sufficient, “navel-gazing” ethos of spiritual growth. Chapter three argues that the modern sense of self was destabilized and ultimately completely undermined by the postmodern sensitivities of authors such as Montaigne, Rousseau, Emerson, and Nietzsche.  The result was that the postmodern self became “a bundle of fluctuating relationships and momentary preferences…highly unstable, impermanent.”

How can the Christian faith speak into the problem of the post-modern loss of self? Grenz argues that the concept of the imago Dei is the solution to this problem. Surveying three motifs in the theology of the imago Dei: a structural motif, a relational motif, and a “destiny” motif he argues that these three motifs form a constellation of themes which should be considered together. However, the image of God as “being with a destiny” is the fundamental basis for the imago Dei.

Chapters five through seven treat the concept of imago Dei in conversation with the latest findings from the field of biblical studies. Chapter five treats the exegesis of Genesis 1:26-28, the locus classicus for the imago Dei. He also explores the New Testament designation of Christ as the image of God. In chapter six Grenz further develops the idea that Christ is the divine image, by arguing that “he is the head of the new humanity destined to be formed according to that image in fulfillment of God’s intent for human kind fro the beginning.”

Having established on exegetical grounds that conformity to the image of God in Christ is humanity’s eschatological destiny he then turns towards applying this concept to the problems of the postmodern loss of self. In chapter seven he suggests that human sexuality reflects the relation character of the Triune God. Sexuality, Grenz argues, is constituted by a drive towards bonding, the participation in the fullness of the other. This drive towards bonding is only truly fulfilled in the eschatological community of the saints in union with Christ. Thus, the drive for intimacy so prominent in the sexual self hints at something which is fundamental the the nature of the “self,” namely that the self consists of persons bonded in community.

Grenz concludes his section on application in chapter eight where he constructs a notion of an eschatological, ecclesial ontology of the self. Providing another survey detailing the historical development of thought, this time surveying the history of social psychology and narrative theology, Grenz comes to the conclusion that ultimately the solution to the postmodern problem of the loss of self comes in conceiving of the self as the ecclesial self, i.e. a person whose being is grounded in their relation to the eschatological community of Christ. This is grounded in Zizioulas’s Trinitarian theology, in which he claims that God’s being is constituted by relationship or communion. Thus like God himself whose being is in communion, the human self finds its ultimate expression in communion, more specifically communion with the community of those who are bound to the true image of God, Christ.

Stanley Grenz’s Theological Anthropology – An Introduction (Pt. 1)

Today marks the beginning 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.”


In writing The Social God and the Relational Self: A Trinitarian Theology of the Imago Dei the late Stanley Grenz, a Canadian evangelical theologian, joins a chorus of voices drawing a connection between Trinitarian theology and social concerns. Grenz, is well known for being one of the most significant Trinitarian Evangelical theologians. Even more importantly, Grenz is known for his engagement with postmodernism grounded from an evangelical perspective. Even stating that The Matrix of Christian Theology, of which The Social God and the Relational Self: A Trinitarian Theology of the Imago Dei is the first volume, is intended to provide “the contours of an appropriate theological Construction that takes seriously postmodern concerns, sensitivities, and insights.” (x) Thus, the location of Grenz’s project is best understood as the intersection between post-modernism and evangelicalism. As an evangelical theologian Grenz wants to take grenz023-smseriously the deposit of faith found in Scripture, tradition, and evangelical theology; all while acknowledging the traditional foundationalist way of doing evangelical theology is under fire, especially from philosophers and theologians advocating for a post-foundational epistemology. Thus Grenz attempts to take a post-foundational approach to his theology.  This post-foundationalism builds on the insight that “belief systems, including Christian doctrinal constructions, are better viewed as forming a web – or a mosaic – than an epistemological house built upon an unassailable foundation.” (x) This mosaic includes “canonical scripture, the theological heritage of the church, and the intellectual currents of wider culture.” (x)

This brief series of blogs seeks to engage with this post-modern yet thoroughly evangelical contribution to theological anthropology. Over the next few days I will highlight some key features of Grenz’s method and manner of argumentation, provide an overview of his argument, and conclude by considering some of the strengths and weaknesses of Grenz’s project.