Friday, October 21, 2011

Stanley Grenz on Faith

 [This post is part of a series that compares Karl Barth, Stanley Grenz, and John Macquarrie on faith and the doctrine of God. The following post on Grenz is based on his book Created For Community, which is essentially his systematic theology in compact form as articulated in Theology for the Community of God.  As with Barth, only even more so, readers of this blog will note that I have important disagreements with Grenz.  I am closest to John Macquarrie, as my final post will explain.]

We now move on to consider the American evangelical systematic theologian Stanley J. Grenz. As an evangelical theologian, Grenz places an especially strong emphasis on faith as conversion. He characterizes this evangelical form of faith as conversion as a “marvelous transaction” between the human subject and God in Christ. With even greater clarity, he writes that faith “comprises our personal response to the God who encounters us in the gospel of Jesus Christ." For Grenz then, faith is about gaining a deeply personal relationship with the particular God revealed in Jesus Christ, and it is also firmly rooted in the scriptures. An evangelical form of the Christian faith must involve our intellect (accepting particular biblical beliefs as true), our will (committing to Christ alone), and our emotions (a heartfelt response of love for God revealed in Christ).

Already we should notice that Grenz, like Barth, holds to a similarly Christocentric definition of faith. Furthermore, Grenz also assumes that there is an ontological divide between humans and God. This chasm can only be crossed by God, so the initiative once again is primarily on the divine rather than human side. Clearly echoing Barth, Grenz writes, “We know God, therefore, because God takes the initiative." At the same time, while Barth focuses on the general event of the incarnation of the Word as being soteriologically significant, Grenz focuses much more narrowly on the atoning work of Jesus on the cross – his crossing of the divide between God and humans. For Grenz, what is at issue is the holiness of God, and the problem to be solved by the Christ-event is human rebellion, or sin, against an absolutely holy God. The fundamental dichotomy then is not so much about ontology as it is about holiness, and the concern of Christian faith is to turn from sin to grace through faith in Christ. Lastly, even though Grenz like Barth emphasizes that faith is more about the Object of faith than about the believing subject, he nevertheless does not make as strong of a differentiation between the two as Barth does in his theology.

Another important difference between Grenz and Barth is revealed in how they think about Christian apologetics. While it is true that Grenz, like Barth, is less concerned about the external justification of faith, he still engages in some apologetics based on human reason. While Barth totally rejects all philosophical attempts to prove God’s existence, Grenz argues that to some extent we have to utilize the proofs for the existence of God (however imperfect they might be). Faith requires a justification in an ever-changing cultural context, and providing philosophical proofs for the existence of God is useful for the evangelical task of gaining converts to the faith. Even so, Grenz places even greater emphasis on the need for an embodied faith over a reasonable faith: “We must embody – live out – our faith commitment in the midst of life."  For Grenz, an embodied faith is the primary mode of evangelism.

How does this understanding of faith shed light on Grenz’s doctrine of God? Like Barth, we can already see some implications of his understanding of God in his discussion of faith. The evangelical God is understood to be omnipotent, holy, gracious, incomprehensible, particularly revealed in the Christ-event, both transcendent and immanent, and infinite. Yet due to his understanding of faith as conversion and the need for an atoning death by Jesus, Grenz emphasizes God’s love and forgiveness alongside of God’s wrath (‘the dark side of love'). For Grenz, humans are trapped in sin unless they place their faith in the God revealed in the crucified Jesus. This truth about the human condition creates a strong urge in evangelicals to gain converts. Again, it necessitates an embodied faith that can demonstrate God’s love for all of humanity so that others might turn from sin to grace, thereby avoiding hell. Faith then becomes a living demonstration of God’s being and presence. Finally, Grenz emphasizes the importance of the triune God for the evangelical confession of faith. Grenz’s understanding of the Trinity is connected to his understanding of faith as conversion: the person of the Father points to the Christian belief in the one God of love and wrath, the person of the Son points to the atoning work of Jesus, and the person of the Holy Spirit points to the presence of God in humans, who convicts us of sin and “prompts us to address our heavenly Father in the name of Jesus."

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