Steven Knowles, Beyond Evangelicalism: The Theological Methodology of Stanley J. Grenz (Ashgate, 2010).
Reviewed by Jonathan Heaps
Jonathan Heaps has an MA in Philosophy from Boston College and lives in a small intentional Christian community in the San Francisco Bay Area.
It is a peculiarity worth noting that Stephen Knowles’ overview and critique of Stanley Grenz’ later theological methodology contains little in the way of, well, methodology. Which is to say, it lacks much specific talk about method. In its place, Beyond Evangelicalism offers extended analysis and criticism of the philosophical concepts and presuppositions at work in contemporary Evangelical theology. I have to say, Knowles handles this unruly gang of philosophies and theologies with aplomb. He has gone to the admirable effort of mapping the conceptual terrain in which evangelical theology finds itself and narrating the genealogy of Grenz’ particular approach to that terrain. He also offers some even handed middle paths between what he feels are needlessly entrenched conservatives and overly enthusiastic post-modern apologists. I commend (and recommend) Beyond Evangelicalism heartily on this score. However, I would like to hold a magnifying glass up to how Knowles offers a good deal of discussion on what Grenz and others think about what theologians think about, but scant examination of how theologians think about what they think about, Grenz included.
There’s a real issue here, beyond any failure to live up to the sub-title and despite my own anxiety about peevish nit picking. The philosophical assumptions a thinker employs about the objects of his or her inquiring and theorizing undoubtedly affect the manner in which he or she go about inquiring and theorizing. They are not, however, identical with the method used to inquire and theorize. For example, Knowles makes much of Grenz’ attempts to develop an evangelical theology that is not dependent on correspondence theory and realism. Neither truth-as-correspondence nor realism are methods or methodologies. They are conceptual commitments about the ontological status of knowing and known, respectively. Knowles has much to say about Grenz’ concepts about concepts, but fails to provide insight into how Grenz develops the concepts he does from theology’s sources and their philosophical periphery.
To only focus on methodological presuppositions and ignore methodological activity opens one up to the very postmodern, anti-metaphysical arguments that evangelicals are trying to stave off. If the only admissible grounding of Grenz’ theology, in Knowles’ estimation, is a proper conceptual apparatus, then Knowles is enacting or performing his own foundationalism for the reader. Thus, only concepts will be examined in the argument and those that are not foundationalist will be a priori unacceptable according to the implied first principles of Knowles method.
For example, one comes to realize that the title, Beyond Evangelicalism, is for Knowles an indictment of Grenz’ pre-theological commitments. Knowles holds Grenz’ work to the criterion of whether or not his conceptual foundations would be acceptable to the Evangelical community of theologians. When Grenz attempts to move away from Enlightenment over-dependence on classical foundationalism, Knowles argues for a diplomatic adoption of soft-foundationalism, not necessarily because it’s a superior philosophy of knowledge, but because Evangelicals won’t accept an anti-realist understanding of Christian doctrine. Those first principles, the astute postmodern reader will be quick to point out, are rather blatantly not self-evidently objective. They are, instead, the products of the socially constructed standards of a community of discourse; namely, evangelicalism. Knowles’ very articulation of what counts as “true methodology” is not grounded in a correspondence to an objectively best method.
Though his protestations against the abandonment of correspondence and foundationalist commitments in Grenz reveal an inconsistency with his own methodology, Knowles’ admiration of Alasdair MacIntyre’s communitarian epistemology helps to smooth things out some. Toward the end of Beyond Evangelicalism, Knowles suggests alternatives for an evangelical theology that takes postmodern developments seriously. There, he takes the time to praise Alastair MacIntyre’s Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, quoting at some length about the constitutive role of tradition and community in any and every form of inquiry. For MacIntyre, all arguments begin “in and from conditions of pure historical contingency,” namely a given community that confers authority “upon certain texts and certain voices.”# Knowles applauds MacIntyre for granting this contingency while maintaining that real development can occur through further discourse in (and even between) these communities of inquiry. Indeed, it is the authenticity of these communities’ shared practice and discourse that grounds the arguments themselves, such that “to justify is to narrate how the argument has gone so far.”# In this light, Knowles’ criteria for Grenz’ philosophical foundations amounts to throwing his hat in a particular community-argument and holding Grenz to the standard of how the conversation has gone so far. Insofar as Grenz identified himself as an Evangelical theologian, this seems perfectly methodologically consistent.
That methodological consistency, however, still doesn’t retrieve for Knowles even a chastened objectivism. Instead, this method of community practice and discourse (which likely has a much smaller ax to grind with Grenz’ Holy Spirit grounded knowing-in-community) resembles the Gadamerian hermeneutics articulated for church folk in Merold Westphal’s Whose Community? Which Interpretation?. That approach, however, demands fidelity not to a set of presuppositions (though it takes the role of presuppositions seriously), but to the ongoing activity of conversation. It is for this reason I’ve insisted on a more precise meaning of “methodology.” The authenticity of our theologies is found more in how we proceed than from where we begin. This activity, however, is not a method in the sense of a set of rules guaranteeing objectivity. However, it is a method the same way “method acting” is a method: an open structure for utilizing one’s history in a fresh moment to perform/interpret/understand truthfully. Objectivism, no matter how humble, is for us no longer.