On the Road


Community & Relationships: A Theological Take
An interview with Stan Grenz from Talk - the Mainstream Magazine

1. Before the publication of your latest book I noticed the importance to you of the theme of community in your theological work. For instance you keep coming back to it in your Theology For The Community of God. Why is it so central to your theological thinking?

SG: Stating the matter simply, “community” is central to my theological thinking because I am convinced that it is both at the heart of the biblical narrative and speaks clearly to the contemporary context. More specifically, I would add that community is crucial because it arises out of the very essence of God. At the heart of Christian theology is the doctrine of the Trinity, which declares that God is not only the one who enters into relationship with creation, and hence relates to us in time. Rather, God is internally relational within the Godhead, and hence eternally relational. Moreover, the Christian teaching declares that God is a trinity, rather than merely a binity; God is three-in-one. This suggests that mere one-to-one relationality does not exhaust the essence of God. Instead, the one God of the Bible is the fellowship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to cite the traditional Trinitarian terminology. In short, the God revealed in Jesus is communal, or community.

2. In this and your latest work I can see that the connection between community and our Trinitarian God is important. Why is this?

SG: Ultimately, the appeal to the Trinity is crucial in that our conceptions of the world and ourselves in all the various disciplines of learning must always be theocentric rather than anthropocentric. That is, they must be generated from an understanding of, or an appeal to, the nature and character of God, who as the Creator is the transcendent archetype for us as humans in our calling to be the divine image. This forms a grave contrast too much modern thought, which is anthropocentric in that it appeals to what we suppose to be nature of the human person.

3. Were there any personal experiences you had of community that helped you go on this journey in your thinking and practice?

SG: In a sense, the beginnings of my journey to this theological perspective may be found in the churches my father served during my childhood and teen years. I was raised in a Baptist conference (association) that has its roots in work among German immigrants in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As a result, it was deeply imbued with the warm-hearted pietism that characterized the early leaders, many of whom had come out of German Lutheran Pietism. This group never participated in modernist-fundamentalist controversy. They were instinctively somewhat conservative doctrinally, but more importantly, they were held together by the warm-hearted approach to the faith and the relationality they sensed within the group. This, in turn, influenced my father's own very relational operative theology. In university, seminary, and graduate school, and during my first years as a theological educator, I gravitated to a more cognitive approach to the faith and consequently to theology as an intellectual discipline, although looking back on those years I realize that I never lost the undergirding that the pietism of my upbringing had engrained in me. In the mid- to late-1980's two important events brought this underlying pietism to the surface. I read Robert Bellah's intriguing study Habits of the Heart, on the effects of radical individualism in American culture, and I returned to Munich to write a book on the theology of my Doktorvater, Wolfhart Pannenberg. The result was an awareness that something was missing in the “scholastic” approach to theology: true piety. Upon my return to the USA, where I was teaching at that time, I set out to rewrite my theological lectures in a manner that would incorporate into the foundational work that I had already done, the pietist aspect in a manner that gave place to the importance of corporate relationality, i.e., community. The result was my theology text, Theology for the Community of God.

4. That’s fascinating and shows how much we are indebted to the community‚ of the generations. Does our very present and future oriented society makes us vulnerable as church communities and if so in what ways?

SG: Let me preface my agreement with you by offering a little caveat. I think that the proper perspective from which to engage in theological reflection and construction is the future or eschatological viewpoint. That is to say, we should be seeking to answer the central theological questions from the perspective of the eschatological fullness of God's program for the universe. Hence, we should define what it means to be human from the destiny that God intends for us. As Christians, we know this destiny to be that of our being risen and glorified saints enjoying fellowship with God throughout eternity. Similarly, we should define the church from the vantage point of our communal purpose to be the sign and foretaste of the fullness of community that will be ours when Christ returns. Therefore, we must see ourselves as called to seek to live in the present in the light of the glorious future that awaits us. But the valid orientation toward the future ought not to lead us to cut ourselves off from the past. As many sociological theorists have pointed out, a true community is a “community of hope” (one that anticipates its glorious future) as well as a community of memory, i.e., a people who remember their communal past. One real danger in the church today is that we become fixated on the “new” that we fail to appreciate the “treasures” of our heritage. One obvious area in which this is evident is in the music chosen for worship services. Although I truly enjoy and appreciate much of what is being written today, we dare not ignore the great musical treasury bequeathed to us. Why not allow worship to build from a “conversation” among a variety of musical styles and music from a variety of eras?

5. The last century saw a lot of thinking about the individual in relationship--Martin Buber immediately comes to mind. Why do you think this interest developed, and what can we learn from it?

SG: Buber stands at the genesis of a movement in philosophy that found a crucial parallel in theology, namely, the proposal that to be person‚ means to stand in relationship. No doubt several reasons would need to be mentioned to understand why this idea caught on in the English-speaking world, including developments in science.

6. Do you mean that modern science was a positive influence in this direction or that the strong scientific-rationalistic approach to reality of the modern meant we lost sight of the importance of relationship to our human identity?

SG: The empirical science that emerged out of the Enlightenment did indeed overshadow the importance of relationship to human identity. But in the comment I just voiced I have in mind instead the significant developments in twentieth century science that moved us away from the Newtonian model, which viewed reality as consisting of independent entities that are assumed to be complete in themselves and then engage in relationships with each other. The Newtonian model was drastically altered by impulses from Einstein, quantum theory and other developments, which pointed to a much more relational universe. Not only humans, but everything in the universe, has been shown to be far more relational and connected than was previously assumed to be the case. But alongside this we could also point to the growing realization that radical individualism is both intellectually suspect and experientially unsatisfying. Buber’s lasting contribution was that of helping us realize that we are to relate to each other as “thou,” i.e., person, rather than as “it,” i.e., object.

7. You’ve recently published a key book in this area, how is your own thinking influenced by and builds upon these trends, and is there something distinctive you believe we need to get hold of as Christian communities?

SG: My latest book, which came out last November, is entitled: The Social God and the Relational Self: A Trinitarian Theology of the Imago Dei. In this book, I seek to indicate how a truly biblical understanding of the concept of humans as the image of God offers a way forward in a context in which people have experienced the loss of the sense of “centered self.” In the book, I indicate that in the Bible the imago dei - the image of God‚ is a social, rather than an individual reality. The biblical focus is on “we” being the divine image, rather than the image being lodged within each individual. Moreover, the imago dei is a communal concept. The locus of the divine image in the New Testament is the community of Christ who together comprise the foretaste of the new humanity in Christ. This is where I seek to go beyond the important work of Buber, who offered the paradigm of the one-to-one relationship.

8. How do relationships within the community of God differ in reality from relationships within any other shared interest group? Are we fooling ourselves if we think we are in any way different from the numerous tribes‚ that seem to be all around us in our pluralist society?

SG: I would suggest that we can best see the difference, when we introduce several key insights into the nature of communities offered by contemporary communitarian thinkers, coupled with aspects of the narrative understanding of identity formation. In the quest to make sense of our personal lives and the world around us, we are dependent on narratives that provide the “plot” by means of which we tell the story of our lives. The overarching narrative is mediated to the individual person by the community that embodies it. To be a Christian means to tell one's personal story and hence to find one's identity in accordance with a particular narrative, the story that is passed from generation to generation through the Christian community, but which is ultimately found in the Bible, the book of this community. And this story, of course, centers on the narrative of Jesus. This description suggests that we are both similar to and decisively different from the tribes that inhabit the post-modern world. We are similar in that each group, including the Christian church, functions as a community to its adherents. We are different, however, in that we find ourselves we make sense out of our lives and our world by means of our participation in the life of Jesus Christ, who is Immanuel, God with us, and the Word made flesh.

9. To help us with the contrast could you identify the thinking of some other thinkers about community and in what way you see their approach as maybe helpful but in end inadequate.

SG: Let me respond to your question in a somewhat indirect manner. A key distinction that I have found helpful in this discussion is the differentiation Robert Bellah makes between a lifestyle enclave and a true community. My favorite contemporary lifestyle enclave is “Fitness World” (or whatever may be the local version of this in your context). At Fitness World one finds a sense of community and what appears to be a fellowship based on mutual, genuine concern. Yet the concern and the fellowship extend only to a narrow aspect of personal existence, namely, to the constellation of matters relating to one’s weight-loss or body-building program. And at Fitness World, one’s sense of identity are bound up with this quite truncated aspect of one’s life. In a true community, in contrast, fellowship and concern extend to all aspects of one’s existence and a full-orbed sense of personal identity emerges. I find insights such as these helpful. My task as a theologian is to draw from the work of the sociologists and social psychologists who offer this perspective and apply it to my own theological work.

10. What responsibility do church leadership groups have in forming the local church as a genuine expression of community?

SG: A local congregation of believers is a community ultimately in that it mediates to its members the grand narrative of God at work in creation, commencing “in the beginning,” centering on Jesus Christ, and climaxing in the glorious vision of the consummation of God's program. The first and most basic task of church leadership is to keep this biblically-given narrative before the congregation, doing so in many and varied ways preaching, teaching, through the ordinances (or sacraments) in pastoral care, and even in church “business” meetings. As this vision works its way through the life of the congregation, the people will begin to minister to one another in a manner that will build the more visible and directly experiential aspects that we generally call to mind when we hear the word “community.”

11. I can see the importance of doing these things, but could you also comment on the way church leaders need to incarnate this way of living? There are so few models of community these days that we hardly know what community is in practical terms.

SG: Well, the first point to make, I would think, is that leaders must be “communitarians” themselves. That is, they must acknowledge--and let the congregation they serve know that they understand--their own embeddedness in the life of the community. They must see themselves as Christians first and only then as those whom the congregation has singled out for the leadership role within the community. Hence, they must participate in the worshipping life of the congregation, to cite one example, as worshippers first and only then as leaders in worship. This suggests as well a “bottom-up” rather than a “top-down” leadership model. Leaders derive their status in the church first and foremost from their participation in the life of the congregation. They are called to shepherd and empower the people for the task to which God has called the whole community. And to this end, they seek to keep before the congregation the biblical vision of who we are as the people of God, as well as to seek to live out that vision in their own lives and relationships.

12. How does good theological thinking help practically in forming and maintaining healthy church communities and healthy mission?

SG: Solid theological reflection is crucial in the practice of ministry, understood both narrowly as the work of ordained leaders and in the wider sense of being the whole life and mission of the people of God. Actually, today the chief rival to ministering from a theological base is engaging in the practice of “church” by means of a pragmatic outlook, that makes decisions largely if not solely on the basis of a consideration of what “works.” In the long run, however, the pragmatic approach is self-defeating, simply because it transforms the community of faith into an institution whose chief end is not the glory of God and the fulfillment of a divinely-given mandate, but survival. The long-term health and viability of the church demands that its leaders and people return again and again to the forming and informing vision of what the community of Christ is called, mandated, and empowered to be by the Lord of the church. Above all, I would add, we are called to be a people who embody in our life together and in our relationships to all humans and even to all creation the great narrative of the biblical God, the one who has come to us in Christ and now empowers us through the Holy Spirit poured out in our hearts and in our fellowship.

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