Stan Grenz has been a mentor and friend to me and to many of my closest friends for several years. It is with poignant gratitude for the privilege of knowing him - mixed with profound sadness and heartbreak at his untimely passing - that I wish to offer these few reflections.
I originally met Stan through his books. In particular, A Primer on Postmodernism, Theology for the Community of God, Renewing the Center, and Beyond Foundationalism (co-written with John Franke) enriched and instructed me – both through their thoughtful reflection on Bible, history, and contemporary culture and through their generous, winsome style. I heard him speak a few times back in the 90’s, briefly meeting him and becoming acquainted, before getting to know him better when we were invited on several occasions to teach together at conferences or events.
At one event several years back, Stan, my friend Robert Kang, and I snuck away for the afternoon. We drove high up into the mountains east of LA, enjoying the magnificent scenery and talking theology – two endeavors that belong together. That afternoon I learned more of Stan’s story, and of his heart. Whenever we met after that, it was as friends.
One topic of conversation I especially remember from that afternoon – Stan’s love for his wife. At that point, I hadn’t met Edna yet, but Stan talked with enthusiasm about how gifted she was, and how much he wanted to support her in her own ministry and leadership in the years ahead. When I met Edna a year or two later, I was immediately impressed by her gentleness, depth, class, and courage, and I could see why Stan didn’t see her as his gracious companion only, but also as his colleague and partner in ministry.
One of the rumors I had heard about Stan before meeting him was that he was the only theologian anyone knew of who sang and played guitar (and sometimes trumpet) in the worship band at his home church. When I had the opportunity to visit Stan’s home and home church, I could see how deeply engaged he was both with his beloved city of Vancouver and with First Baptist, where Edna serves on staff. This involvement is less surprising in light of the fact that he was a youth director, assistant pastor, and pastor before becoming a theologian. Even as a professor of theology, Stan would frequently bring his guitar to class and lead his students in songs of worship, his pastoral heart integrating scholarly theology with heartfelt doxology. Many of us will remember this unique integration – something that is too rare, sadly, and now even rarer with Stan’s passing.
Stan was also extraordinary in his integration of theology and popular culture. Many of us will long remember his use of clips from Star Trek and other pop culture artifacts, skillfully incorporated to make some theological or philosophical distinction not only clear, but also poignant and memorable – and accessible to non-scholars. Stan was a first-rate scholar – among his other achievements, he studied under the great Wolfhart Panneberg – but he never lost the ability to speak to “normal” people; he never forgot that theology is for all the community of God.
Not only did Stan integrate his theological work with local church ministry, theology with doxology, and scholarly endeavor with popular culture, he also integrated what we might call Biblical orthodoxy with Christ-like orthopraxy. I saw that orthopraxy strongly exhibited in a recent phone conversation. Stan’s theological work has always been bold and creative, and sometimes, he boldly broke with convention; for example, he was one of the very first to see in the postmodern turn in philosophy and culture great opportunities for the gospel. Many other theologians only saw dangers, and their critiques of his work struck me as harsh, reactionary, uncharitable, and often grossly unfair. Just a few weeks ago, when I realized I was facing some harsh critique of my own – no doubt more justly deserved than Stan’s - I asked Stan for advice on how he handled criticism. He spoke with love and compassion for his critics, and urged me to not let the bitter words of others tempt me to become bitter myself. I had no idea that this would be the last advice I ever would receive from him: a call to gentleness and kindness even when others were not gentle or kind.
I have sought his advice on many other occasions as well. He inspired the title for my last book, and I have another book coming out in a few weeks about which Stan gave me helpful feedback, and even though he disagreed with some of my conclusions, he still encouraged me, believing that diverse opinions need to be heard to enrich the theological conversation. Many of us would agree: whatever good we are able to do has been made possible in no small part by Stanley’s encouragement and enrichment of us.
I was sitting in a restaurant about eighteen months ago eating dinner with some friends, taking a break from being at the hospital, where my father was very sick. I kept my cell phone on just in case there was a call to rush back. During the meal, I got a call – from Stanley. He was calling to ask if I would be willing to receive an honorary doctorate from Carey Theological College, as he had just recommended me for this honor. As he spoke these words, my “call waiting” tone sounded, and I saw on the screen that it was my mother calling from the hospital. I hastily and awkwardly said, “Yes, Stan. Thanks. I have to go!” Thankfully, it was good news from the hospital, and I later was able to apologize to Stan for my brevity and awkwardness. “I didn’t even notice,” he said, another sign of his gracious way. My wife and I will never forget the marvelous weekend we had in Vancouver when I received the honorary degree – a weekend sweetened by gracious hospitality and a guided tour of the area courtesy of Stan and Edna. What warm hosts they were! Stan loved his city (Vancouver), his country (Canada), his denominational heritage (Baptist) and his ancestry (German) - and honored each by his passionate spiritual vigor, his scholarly energy and intellectual integrity, and his personal graciousness.
He authored or co-authored twenty-five books, over twenty chapters in other volumes, over one hundred periodical and journal articles, and eighty-some book reviews, and he was working on another book in the days before his death. His writing ministry will only grow in significance in the years ahead, as people realize the extraordinary treasure we had among us. What we will never have is the books Stanley would yet have written, nor will we have the great joy and example of his presence among us. But at least we will have his words.
The great South African missiologist David Bosch is hardly ever mentioned without an allusion to his untimely death. The same, no doubt, will be the case with Stanley, both personally and professionally. Personally, Stan was so happy in his new residence in Vancouver, so happy with Edna’s blossoming ministry, so happy with his married children and grandchild. He was at such a good place in life. All of us who love him would have wished for more years of this joy for him. Professionally, Stanley loved his colleagues and students at Carey Theological College and Mars Hill Graduate School. His greatest work, many of us believed, was still ahead of him.
Now, that work will need to be taken up by those of us who enjoyed the blessing of his teaching and example. He was a man of small physical stature, but the space he leaves – in our hearts, and in our Christian community - cannot be filled by a dozen others. A Christian scholar, a theological leader and author, a gifted professor with a great legacy of grateful students, a family man and churchman, a mentor and friend, and a true Christian gentleman has walked among us, and his days with us here are over. But, as Jesus said (Luke 20:38), “To God, all are alive,” and we know that Stan lived in this hope, and now lives in this reality.