A Guide to Non-Reformed Systematic Theology Texts

June 2, 2015

St. Mary Major Basilica, Rome

St. Mary Major Basilica, Rome

Systematic theology is the stock-in-trade of the Reformed tradition. But, believe it or not, other Christians have done it too, often with impressive results. Last week, I provided a guide to the Reformed dogmatic works that I admire the most. Now I will do the same for some other traditions. I will limit myself to theologians from the last two centuries.

As you will see, I am biased toward Roman Catholic theology. In fact, I find myself recommending Catholic theologians far more often than I do Protestant theologians, especially when I am discoursing with fellow Protestants.

Baptist

The Christian Religion In Its Doctrinal Expression, E. Y. (Edgar Young) Mullins. Originally published in 1917, this is the masterpiece of the great Southern Baptist leader. Mullins was the president of the Baptist World Alliance, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and professor of theology at Southern Seminary in Louisville. He led the campaign that revitalized the SBC and gave it a renewed missionary zeal, both domestic and foreign. This resulted in the explosive growth of the SBC in the 20th century. As if those accomplishments were not enough, he was also an impressive theologian. He anticipates the work of Emil Brunner in significant ways, though Mullins was more conservative. However, he has recently been criticized, by some SBC leaders, as being too influenced by German theology. Judge for yourself. I admire him. As an alternative to Amazon, you can purchase from the publisher or read online.

Note: Mullins is sometimes classified as a Reformed theologian, and there is a good case for doing so — especially if we include moderate Calvinism and neo-orthodox expressions.

Lutheran

The Evangelical Faith, Helmut Thielicke. I have not read as much Thielicke as I would like. But whenever I have dipped into The Evangelical Faith or his sermons, I have been impressed and edified. But thanks to the behemoth dominance of Barth over the century, Thielicke is not resourced today as much as he should. Hopefully, that will be corrected. His instincts are orthodox and moderate conservative, and with all of the intellectual integrity you expect from a German theologian. In contrast to Barth, Thielicke gave space to a chastened natural anthropology.

A System of Christian Doctrine, Isaak A. Dorner. Dorner’s influence was eclipsed by Albrecht Ritschl and the Ritschlians in the late 19th century. This is a shame, because Dorner is the superior dogmatician. Unfortunately, we now live in a time when the (often exasperating) technical skill of advanced German theology is too much for the average student of theology today. The mainline Protestant churches have largely abandoned systematic theology, unless it can serve their social constructivist ends. Evangelicals will find Dorner either too difficult or too suspicious, especially as a German with some Schleiermacher influence. As a result of all of this, I do not see a Dorner renaissance anytime soon, but he surely deserves it.

Systematic Theology, Wolfhart Pannenberg. Pannenberg died last year. As Fred Sanders wrote for CT, he left “a strange legacy.” At Aberdeen, I read most of volume two. Since then, I have not returned to his works, though I probably should — especially now that I am very critical of Barth’s early dialectical approach to history. It is this criticism upon which Pannenberg launched his distinguished career. For many in my neck of the woods (theologically-speaking), Pannenberg is criticized for being too Hegelian and too process oriented — more so for Robert Jenson’s Systematic Theology, which is often compared to Pannenberg’s.

Roman Catholic

The Glory of the Lord (seven volumes), Theo-Drama (five volumes), Theo-Logic (three volumes), and Epilogue, Hans Urs von Balthasar. This is the sixteen-volume summa of Hans Urs von Balthasar, the most important Catholic theologian of the twentieth century. It is hard to describe what Bathasar is doing here. It is not a traditional dogmatics — so it is not, like Barth’s CD, organized by the standard loci. Rather, Balthasar’s “trilogy” is organized by the three “transcendentals,” often associated with Plato: Beauty, Goodness, and Truth. Significantly, this was also the organizing method for Kant’s “trilogy,” except that Balthasar intentionally reversed Kant’s order, which began with Truth. Moreover, Balthasar gave greater weight, at least in terms of size, to Beauty, then Goodness, and then least of all, Truth or Logic. Balthasar’s “trilogy” is a combination of philosophy, dogmatics, exegesis, literary criticism, and much else — basically everything that is “catholic” (=universal). Balthasar is the Catholic par excellence.

Symbolism, Johann Adam Möhler. This is a Catholic rebuttal of Protestantism, focusing on soteriology but much more extensive (as any good systematic work is). Möhler is one of the greatest Catholic theologians of the 19th century, ranked alongside Newman, though Möhler is more of the technical, systematic theologian. Both had a very strong influence on the Nouvelle Théologie of the 20th century. Möhler taught at Tübingen and Munich. I read Symbolism about 10 years ago, though I was not capable then of fully grasping it. I need to revisit it, as with many books I have read.

An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, John Henry Newman. Without this book or something much like it, Vatican II is inconceivable. In terms of influence, Newman was the most important Catholic theologian since St. Thomas Aquinas. As a man of the 19th century, Newman knew that doctrine did not “fall from the sky,” so to speak. Rather, it “came to be” through historical processes. Far from being an assault upon Catholic doctrine, Newman made this the greatest explanatory apologetic of Catholic theological development. Every “living” thing must adapt or develop according to its essential governing principles or life-source. As a result, Rome’s perceived novelties and orthodox intransigence are harmonized and given a coherence for the faithful Catholic — to this day.

Foundations of Christian Faith, Karl Rahner. Rahner remains an elusive figure for me. As a good Barthian (and Balthasarian), I obviously cannot agree with his doctrine of the knowledge of God — as transcendental openness to being. This is an attractive option, especially in the face of religious pluralism today, but it is theologically problematic, to say the least. However, Rahner is also a rather (it seems to me) orthodox Roman Catholic, who often defers to the tradition and uses his full intellectual heft to give it a rational explication. This is true, for example, for the recent Marian dogmas. And, as far as I know, Rahner never went as far as Hans Küng in rejecting the dogmatic authority of the Petrine office. Foundations of Christian Faith is the closest thing to a summary of Rahner’s theology, but most of his work was published in the massive multi-volume series, Theological Investigations.

The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy and The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, Etienne Gilson. These are just two of Gilson’s many works. Technically, Gilson was a historical theologian, not a dogmatic theologian, but the importance of his work for dogmatic theology is too significant to not include here. Gilson advocated for the legitimacy of a uniquely “Christian philosophy,” especially as it emerged in the medieval period. As a result, Aquinas should not be casually dismissed or lumped with the Enlightenment philosophers and theologians, who worked with different presuppositions. I am not expert enough in Gilson (or Thomas) to know whether this holds, but it cannot be ignored.

______________

What about other traditions? 

If you would like to advocate for a particular Methodist or Pentecostal theologian, be my guest — so long as it is a systematic theologian. As I look over at my bookshelves, I do not have a single Methodist or Pentecostal systematic theology.

The Anglicans do have systematic theologians, though they have typically been Reformed, at least broadly speaking — as with Richard Hooker under Queen Elizabeth and John Webster today.

Eastern Orthodoxy?! Yes, I am grossly ignorant of Orthodoxy’s contributions to contemporary ST, though I have been told that ST is a “Western” thing. Anyway, I have heard good things about Dumitru Staniloae’s multi-volume Orthodox Dogmatic Theology.

_______________

Image: St. Mary Major Basilica in Rome. Photograph is mine.

20 Responses to “A Guide to Non-Reformed Systematic Theology Texts”

  1. Please allow me to commend an excellent two-volume systematic theology from Joe Jones, who some have called the “best unknown theologian in America” (http://tinyurl.com/qcmd5gw). Hauerwas loves him. He is from my tradition, the Stone-Campbell Restoration tradition, the Disciples of Christ. His two-volume work is called “The Grammar of the Faith” (http://tinyurl.com/ngvmmcw) and focuses on the discourses and practices of the Church. Just to give readers a taste of his theology, here are his definitions for the church and the gospel (from his systematics text):

    The church is that liberative and redemptive
    community of persons
    called into being
    by the Gospel of Jesus Christ
    through the Holy Spirit
    to witness in word and deed
    to the living triune God
    for he benefit of the world
    to the glory of God.

    . . .

    The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the Good News
    that the God of Israel, the Creator of all creatures,
    has in freedom and love become incarnate
    in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth
    to enact and reveal God’s gracious reconciliation
    of humanity to Godself, and
    through the Holy Spirit calls and empowers human beings
    to participate in God’s liberative and redemptive work by
    acknowledging God’s gracious forgiveness in Jesus,
    repenting of human sin,
    receiving the gift of freedom, and
    embracing authentic community by
    loving the neighbor and the enemy,
    caring for the whole of creation, and
    hoping for the final triumph of God’s grace
    as the triune Ultimate Companion of all creatures.

  2. Fr Aidan Kimel said

    For good or ill, we Orthodox really do not produce systematic theologies. Staniloae’s is thought to be the best available in English, but Bulgakov’s trilogy is certainly the most stimulating and provocative.

    I had a similar reaction to Pannenberg’s Systematics when I read it, though I read the first volume first and only skimmed the second volume. and never took a look at the third (though all three are still sitting on my bookshelf).

    Though it’s all standard Anglo-Catholic fare, I still find Francis Hall’s mutli-volume *Dogmatic Theology* useful, and it’s now back in print for a very reasonable price: https://goo.gl/8GCsWT.

    • Thanks, Fr. Kimel. I thought about mentioning Bulgakov, but (like Staniloae) I have never read him.

      In regard to Pannenberg’s ST, I remember a professor at Aberdeen saying that it is extraordinarily good on the historical material, but then it falls apart when Pannenberg gets to his own constructive-dogmatic material. Of course, this was a Reformed/Barthian theologian talking, and it was my impression as well.

      Thanks for the tip on the reprint of Hall. I do not remember where, but I have read one or two recommendations of Hall among conservative Anglicans.

  3. Luke said

    There seems to be mini revival of Anglican systematics with Sarah Coakley in the middle of a three volume systematic theology and Katherine Sonderegger about to release her first volume of a systematics.

    The old adage “Germans write theology in volumes, the English in essay” might have to be revised.

    • Oh, yes, I should have added an addendum on current ST’s in progress, with Coakley and Sonderegger (and the Presbyterian, Paul McGlasson) in mind. I am especially interested in what Sonderegger has to offer.

    • “Germans write theology in volumes, the English in essay”

      A post of seminal essays by able systematicians of all nationalities might be useful. Some use short forms to write long footnotes to riverine arguments for their oceanic systems, but here I have in mind brief works of independent interest. Insofar as systematicians think about problems, and not only about multivolume solutions, they often do this in articles– eg Vladimir Lossky’s Theological Notion of the Human Person or Jenson’s You Wonder Where The Spirit Went. Indeed, a few theologians with clearly systematic interests, have written more to propose problems than to offer solutions– eg Donald MacKinnon. The shadows such problem-articles cast can fall far over the fence, as when that Lossky article influences Anglicans like Rowan Williams or David Ford, or when the Jenson one moves Peter Leithart in one way and George Hunsinger in another. Their authors have the clear confessional identities identified in Kevin’s OP, but the articles themselves often do not, and that is the charm of them.

  4. mshedden said

    Doxology by Wainwright for Methodist.
    What about McClendon for Baptist? Thomas Finger could work for Anabaptist (not that you care from your blog post ;))
    Also, have you read Curtis Freeman’s new book, contesting Catholicity? Given you Baptist and catholic thinking at the moment it seems like it would be worth your time.

    • mshedden said

      Also, how does Robert Jenson get pushed from Lutheran? Might be worth asking Chris Green for a Pentecostal recommendation.

    • Thanks, Matt. For both guides, I only included works that I have read, either in part or in the whole. That is why Jenson was relegated to a brief comment about Pannenberg’s ST. Wainwright is a good recommendation for Methodists. I have read part of his Doxology and enjoyed it. But, clearly, I am just not very good at Methodist theology! Mea culpa. McClendon is also a good pick for another Baptist.

      Thanks for the Freeman recommendation. I will add it to my Amazon list — and probably see if our seminary library has it.

      And, yes, as Cal could tell you, I am horribly qualified to write about Anabaptists. In the meantime, I rely upon others to dispense their wisdom. I am just not radical enough, apparently.

  5. Brandon said

    Good post Kevin. Another Methodist worth mentioning is Thomas Oden. He has a Systematic Theology in three volumes (with a condensed single volume available as Classic Christianity) and a new four volume systematization of John Wesley’s thought.

    I have an unique volume on my shelf from the Holiness tradition: God, Man, & Salvation: A Biblical Theology by Purkiser, Taylor and Taylor. All three authors taught in schools of the Church of the Nazarene. It’s really a systematic theology with a canonical structure.

    For more recent Anglicans, how about John Macquarrie’s Principles of Christian Theology? He’s upfront about his Existentialist/Heideggerian perspective.

    • Kevin Davis said

      Yes, I could add Oden. I don’t have his ST, but I did read part of the first volume a while back and appreciated it. As for Macquarrie, I have his Twentieth Century Religious Thought, which is helpful, but I’ve never looked at his Principles of Christian Theology. I could add a “Liberal Protestant” category (yes, labels are imperfect) and include Schleiermacher’s The Christian Faith, Tillich’s ST, and Macquarrie.

  6. A lot could be said about navigating eastern theology as a ‘western’ systematician. Much of it is best said in John Meyendorff’s Byzantine Theology.

    http://www.holytrinitymission.org/books/english/byzantine_theology_j_meyendorf.htm

    • Kevin Davis said

      Alright, I’ll take a look at Meyendorff’s volume. But I have volume 2 of Pelikan that I still need to read.

  7. Galen said

    I am late to the party here, but I know Lutherans who say that Franz Pieper’s Dogmatics are the standard Lutheran systematic treatise.

    • Kevin Davis said

      Thanks, Galen. Yeah, I’ve heard that too from conservative Lutherans. At some point, I’ll have to check it out.

  8. Ethan Shearer said

    I actually just sent you an email about this, but I will throw another person into the mix. What about Douglas John Hall? He may be a little liberal for some folks (he is sometimes for me) but I always find his stuff very thoughtful.

    • Kevin Davis said

      I have not read Hall, but – yes – the impression I have is that he favors contextual theology (as indicated in the subtitle to his systematic theology), which can be a good thing if properly done. Unfortunately, I tend to find more problems than not when it comes to that approach.

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