loved the book but not what it said

Today I received the latest copy of JETS, which includes an interesting example of doublespeak.  Its book review section contains a “peer review” which the late Stanley Grenz (professor at Carey Theological College in Vancouver) wrote for Jossey-Bass concerning Brian McLaren’s book, The Last Word and the Word After That (see JETS, September 2009, p. 663-65).

Grenz begins with an enthusiastic “My overall sense to this work is very positive.  …On the whole, I would voice a hearty ‘Bravo!’ to the volume.”  Then he proceeds to thoroughly dismantle the major premise and supporting arguments in the book.

Grenz disagrees with McLaren’s central thesis that “Jesus did not believe in hell.”  He wrote that “just because Jesus’ main point might have been to call for a change in the present does not mean that he used the idea of hell merely as a teaching tool.”

Grenz disagrees with McLaren’s claim, stated through his protagonist Neil, that the Old Testament saints did not have a concept of hell.  Grenz writes that though “the ancient Hebrews did not have the detailed conceptualization that later developed, they too gave thought to the possibility that some people might escape the realm of sheol—which was repeatedly viewed as a negative reality, an undesirable destiny—and be brought directly into the presence of God.”  And so Grenz says that Neil is wrong to dismiss “out of hand” OT passages which say as much.

Grenz disagrees with Neil’s “reinterpretation of eternal life” (p. 108 in The Last Word), for “what is presented in this context (and later as well) sounds like a page out of mid-twentieth century existentialist theology.  Although eternal life does indeed refer to a quality of life in the present, the idea that for Jesus or the NT it has no (or little) connection to life in the hereafter is a perspective that has largely been discredited.”

Grenz continues by calling McLaren’s approach “too dogmatic—too certain that the traditional view is beyond redemption”; too “weak” “on the importance of the church”; “inherently suspect” and “anachronistic” in its “historical sketch of where the church went wrong”; and given to “a stereotypical casting of those who are not on the journey that McLaren finds himself on.”  Grenz concludes that “the volume simply does not—perhaps cannot—provide the kind of responsible, nuanced engagement with the variety of views on various theological topics (especially eschatology) that one would prefer to see.”

This review caught my eye because I interact with McLaren’s book in chapter 9 of Don’t Stop Believing, where I make many of the same points as Grenz. However, my disagreement led me to conclude that McLaren’s book was deeply flawed, while Grenz’s acknowledgement of those same flaws led him to say “Bravo!”

I am not sure whether the lesson here is that Grenz disagreed completely with what his friend wrote or that he stuck up for him anyway.  Maybe it’s both.  The one thing I must assume is that “Bravo!” is like the dollar—worth a little bit less in Canada.






7 responses to “loved the book but not what it said”

  1. Holy cow, did you know that Brian Morgan was down with Grenz WAAAYYY back in the 1900’s?


    I have more often had situations where I like what a book says, but don’t really like the book!

  2. dashhouse

    Great post.

    “The one thing I must assume is that “Bravo!” is like the dollar—worth a little bit less in Canada.”

    Have you checked currency rates lately? Soon a Bravo in Canada will mean as much as more as it does in the States! 😉

  3. Justin

    I thought the most telling sentence immediately followed the “Bravo!” sentence: “That said, let me fulfill my roe as ‘theological reader’ and offer several critical comments.” It seems to me this unfortunate ability to, without qualification, bifurcate his theological convictions from his overall appreciation for the author and his book mirrors the same distinction typical of the emergent church’s unqualified segregation of belief and practice.

  4. […] Mike Wittmer reflects on a review by the late Stanley Grenz on one of Brian McLaren’s books. Wittmer gets extra points for the last line in his post – although he’d better watch the currency rates carefully the way the dollar is going. […]

  5. That’s funny, Mike… but you didn’t mention “why” he gave it a hearty bravo.

  6. mikewittmer


    That was my point. I have no idea. Maybe he thought it stimulated the conversation.

  7. Ahh, I see. Didn’t think the word “conversation” is in the review, however. But I do recall him giving specific reasons about what was well-done in the book overall. That seems to me like a good thing to put in a “peer review.” Might also be good to recall that the publisher commissioning the review was J-B, and not an evangelical publisher, so it seems decent to want to give them an idea of how the book will do and fit in the wide world of publishing (esp. relating to the previous 2 vols in that trilogy) as an introduction to the “theological” peer review.

    I’m sure some things were left out in the editing process before JETS took this thing. And perhaps the items included in the JETS review concern the content Mclaren DID NOT change in the book, so that it ended up as a proper book review (it doesn’t seem like Stan ever saw the book in print). What I think hasn’t been highlighted is that serious critique (esp. of those in the EC) is something that Stan was rarely noted as having done. So the review seems helpful in showing him as one who, while having wide-ranging friendships, did not accept friends uncritically, especially when disagreeing on traditional Christian doctrine – i.e., the nature of eternal punishment.

    Maybe, just maybe, in Canada one who believes in eternal conscious torment can actually have a conversation with one who doesn’t.

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