‘The Great Theologians’

[HT: Trevin Wax]

Gerald McDermott (Professor of Philosophy and Religion, Roanoke College) has a new book just released this week, The Great Theologians: A Brief Guide (IVP). I perused bits of it through Amazon’s “search inside,” and it looks like an excellent guide for those getting into the study of theology. It would be especially good for those, whether evangelical or liberal, who focus on, shall we say, less-than-stellar theologians. 🙂 The list is quite good: Origen, Athanasius, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Schleiermacher, Newman, Barth, and von Balthasar. Each theologian gets a chapter, with some historical-biographical background and a synopsis of their contributions to theology. I’ll agree with Trevin that the absence of Irenaeus is a questionable choice, but the inclusion of Newman is surely appropriate. It’s hard to overestimate the importance of Newman’s theory of doctrinal development for Catholic theologians breaking from Scholasticism, whether they be more liberal (Kung and friends) or more conservative (Ratzinger and friends). And I, for one, don’t see how (1) history and (2) Catholic dogmatic commitments can jive jibe without something similar to Newman’s sketch.



  1. Yes, it’s the list one would expect, more or less, but I wonder about the title word ‘great’; maybe ‘significant’, ‘epochal’, ‘foundational’ or ‘seminal’ would be better? But I guess those adjectives don’t pack the same punch in the world ofpublishing.

    I agree about Irenaeus, and if he were included I’d also be inclined to include Tertullian as foundational to Latin theology, his later Montanism notwithstanding.

    But I wonder about the inclusion of Edwards; granted he was ‘great’ in his intellectual capacities, but outside of US Reformed circles he is hardly known or read. Not valid reasons for excluding him, perhaps, but is his inclusion more a nod to the American audience the book is aimed at? I can probably think of half a dozen theologians who could take their place alongside Edwards, but to me they are all on the second shelf below the others listed [maybe also with von Balthasar, but that’s just my personal opinion ;0)].

    I take the inclusion of Newman as illustrative of what the author is aiming at, a contribution that profoundly shapes the theological thought of those who follow, thus ‘epochal’. For me Newman was not great as a theologian himself in the way that the other ‘greats’ on the list were, but he had a great idea, and it helped that he expressed it in great prose!

  2. Yeah, you’re right, Mark, about Newman as a theologian, in the sense of a dogmatician/systematician — he certainly wasn’t that. His writings were occasional and apologetic. However, there is a great brilliance in his creative presentation of doctrinal development, especially coupled with his overall epistemology, that fundamentally re-thought Catholic doctrine. On that front, it’s as important as Thomas’ appropriation of Aristotle.

    I like “epochal” too, but, yeah, that won’t sell. Plus, “great” at least denotes “brilliance” or “high intellectual caliber” and not just “influential.”

    I was thinking that if Irenaeus were added, then we’d have to add Anselm, and so on, and then the list would just be out of control. As for Edwards, you’re right, but I happen to think that he is unduly neglected by scholars outside of America — so, kudos to us Americans! Plus, his influence on evangelical piety, giving intellectual credibility to revivalism, has had massive implications for American evangelicalism and, by extension, world evangelicalism (thanks to missions). His epistemology of the affections (“heart religion”) has become the presupposition of whole swaths of the evangelical landscape. It also marked a decisive turn from the Scholastic form of doing theology. So, once again, “epochal” would be a very good label, but there was also a certain genius involved, in obedience to God. Interestingly, Newman and Edwards have some similarities here — both viewed the heart as the entryway for God’s grace (and beauty) and both helped turn theology away from Scholasticism. As much as I’ve slowly began to appreciate Scholasticism over the last couple years, I’m on Newman and Edwards’ team. So, you see why I think McDermott’s choices were good. It’s partly subjective, of course, so it’s not surprising to learn that McDermott is an Edwards expert.

  3. Did any of these big-time talking heads ever write about Consciousness, or Light, the Energy of Consciousness.

    After all these two are the intrinsic and irreducible dimensions or aspects of existence-being.

    What about Conscious Light?

    Did they ever produce and Sacred Art?

    Did they ever write about The Beautiful as the always already intrinsic context and substance of existence-being?

    • Consciousness and Existence-Being are nice abstractions, but they didn’t love me and die for my sins. Nor, I imagine, will they be of much help when affliction oppresses my body and soul.

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