Posted by: Alex | June 1, 2012

Introducing Renewing the Center by Stanley Grenz

Today we are beginning to work through the first book of this year’s summer reading project, Renewing the Center by Stanley Grenz.  The book is an argument for the theological method of the emerging movement by one of its main theological voices.  In the introduction to the book, Grenz poses the first, very important question which he wishes to consider: how to define evangelicalism.  This is a notoriously difficult task, and Grenz doesn’t offer a pat answer but instead explores several possibilities which I want to lay out here for our consideration.

The first is a sociological definition:

Perhaps the simplest method is to define the movement sociologically.  Viewed from this perspective, evangelicalism constitutes a loosely structured coalition of persons who share certain religious and cultural symbols, participate in a somewhat readily identifiable number of institutions, look to a changing yet discernible group of leaders, and through these associations gain a corporate self-consciousness as well as a sense of identity as belonging to a particular group.  (23)

There is not a lot of content to this definition (as its written its more or less a generic sociological definition for any religious movement), but that gives us some room for discussion.  What would the religious and cultural symbols of evangelicalism be?  What are the identifiable institutions?  Who are the discernible leaders of the current evangelical movement?  My sense is that its actually very hard to narrow down the answers to these questions to any sort of clear list.  In fact, I think attempting to identify these things actually highlights very quickly that evangelicalism is not a monolithic, united movement.  Perhaps others will be able to do more with this suggested definition than I have (so I am eager to hear what people may think), but I don’t think we can arrive at a satisfactory definition of evangelicalism by this approach.  Thankfully Grenz doesn’t stop here.

The second definition Grenz suggests is taken from David Bebbington’s study of evangelicalism in Britain from its genesis in the 18th century to its resurgence in the late 20th:

There are four qualities that have been the special marks of Evangelical religion: conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and what may be called crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.  Together they form a quadrilateral of priorities that is the basis of Evangelicalism. (23)

I am not entirely clear what Bebbington means by “activism” but the others do seem fairly characteristic of evangelicalism as I have experienced it.  The question to ask, however, is are these characteristics sufficient to fully describe evangelicalism?  It seems to me these four characteristics do little more than describe some outwardly apparent commonalities of evangelicals.  What I want to know is if they tell us anything about what motivates the existence of an evangelical movement, where it comes from, who it is composed of?  I sense the answer is that this definition doesn’t give us the full story.  Now, I don’t want to be too critical, I genuinely like this description and think its fairly helpful at giving a glimpse of what evangelicalism looks like, but I’m not sure it really tells us who evangelicals are or what evangelicalism is.

To get the full story it seems as though there needs to be some sort of historical component.  Grenz next suggested definition gives us a bit of this:

The roots of contemporary evangelicalism lie in three concentric circles… [Quoting William J. Abraham] “the Reformation, led by Luther and Calvin, the evangelical revival of the 18th century as found, say, in Methodism, and modern conservative evangelicalism.”  (24)

Grenz goes on to explain the modern conservative evangelical movement as being rooted in the fundamentalist/liberal controversies of the late 19th and early 20th centuries but reflecting an attempt at re-engagement with the world (as opposed to fundamentalist isolationism).  This historical analysis provides a brief glimpse of the motivation of the evangelical movement and thereby helps to explain its primary concerns, but as Grenz notes, evangelicalism is not the only movement to have emerged from the Reformation or even from the 18th century revivals.  Grenz suggests that his own method is going to follow something of a historical approach but that there are two important theological claims that are central to evangelicalism which must be carefully considered:

I explore two central theological interests that lie at the heart of the contemporary evangelical ethos:  the maintaining of the true biblical gospel and upholding of the Bible as the inviolate theological authority.  (24-25)

While I think Grenz is moving in the right direction here, I’m wondering if at the end of the day this also doesn’t end up being a description and not an explanation of evangelicalism.  I’m also wondering if this is totally sufficient as a definition.  Are these the only theological concerns which could be said to “define” evangelicalism?  In fairness, these concerns are phrased in such a way as to be fairly broad and encompassing of many other issues, so these questions are largely hypothetical.  If you think there are issues that might be central to evangelicalism that don’t fit into Grenz suggested definition, I’m very eager to hear them.

How would you define evangelicalism?  Which of these definitions seems best to you?

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Responses

  1. […] with our discussion of Renewing the Center by Stanley Grenz.  In the introduction Grenz set up a critical question for us:  What is evangelicalism?  As we saw, Grenz believes (and […]


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