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.


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.


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.

Thielicke on Billy Graham

February 3, 2015


I have previously blogged, a while back, an excerpt from Helmut Thielicke on his experience at a Billy Graham crusade: “Billy Graham among the theologians.” Here is another quotation from Thielicke, which I recently came across in Pollock’s biography of Graham:

I saw it all happen without pressure and emotionalism (contrary to the reports which I had received up until now)….I saw them all coming towards us, I saw their assembled, moved and honestly decided faces, I saw their searching and their meditativeness. I confess that this moved me to the very limits. Above all there were two young men — a white and a black — who stood at the front and about whom one felt that they were standing at that moment on Mount Horeb and looking from afar into a land they had longed for. I shall never forget those faces. It became lightening clear that men want to make a decision….

The consideration that many do not remain true to their hour of decision can contain no truly serious objection; the salt of this hour will be something they will taste in every loaf of bread and cake which they are to bake in their later life. Once in their life they have perceived what it is like to enter the realm of discipleship. And if only this memory accompanies them, then that is already a great deal. But it would certainly be more than a mere memory. It will remain an appeal to them, and in this sense it will maintain its character indelibilis.

[Quoted in John Pollock, The Billy Graham Story, p. 119]


Image: Helmut Thielicke (source)


The Eerdmans edition of Charles Spurgeon’s The Soul Winner includes a forward by Helmut Thielicke (1908-1986), a German Lutheran theologian and author of The Evangelical Faith in three volumes.

Thielicke begins by lamenting that few people will read widely and step across the “firmly delineated boundaries” separating the theological camps of fundamentalists, liberals, pietists, and so forth. There are “few intellectual and spiritual adventurers” (5). Fifty years later, I can assure you that nothing has changed. Thielicke acknowledges that his own “dogmatic system” is different from Spurgeon’s, but he is hopeful that Spurgeon’s work will bring a “breath of spring air” and “inner quickening” in our denominations. Thielicke is rather gushing in his enthusiasm for Spurgeon:

I can see that fresh and unpolluted water springs forth in Spurgeon’s preaching. This impression is so strong that it is a secondary question by what theology the source is enclosed, or what system of piping is constructed around it. Here Parthians and Medes and Elamites all hear in their own tongues “the wonderful works of God” (Acts 2:9, 11). This Pentecost miracle relativizes all the theological schools, though we must still take them seriously and are not fanatically to level them down. It is very difficult to convey to readers in advance any true impression of what they may expect in reading The Soul-Winner. I will simply cup my hands for a moment and let a few drops from this ocean run through them. [p. 6]

Thielicke then begins to describe and defend Spurgeon’s style:

The first thing to strike us is the vigor and even the passion of the language. This does not mean that the author is trying to force us. No one should imagine that Spurgeon is just using the loud pedal to try to bring his hearers under the pressure of suggestion or to dominate them psychologically. Our reaction to such a technique would undoubtedly be one of inner resistance. But there is no such resistance. One notes that the emotional element is not deployed here with tactical intentions. It derives from the matter with which Spurgeon deals. He himself has made this admirably clear. If, he says, a man knocks on my door in the middle of the night, wakens me out of sleep, and then tells me in a detached and languid voice that a fire has broken out at the back of my house, I shall probably not take him very seriously, and I may be inclined to pour a jug of water over this disturber of my peace. For when a fire has really broken out, this is so threatening and elemental a matter that we cannot speak of it with detachment and indifference. We are forced to refer to it in urgent and even agitated tones. But the Gospel, too, is exciting, disturbing, even sensational news. To speak of it nonchalantly and languidly is to give the lie to the message with the very tone of one’s voice. In other words, my confession of Christ consists not only in the content of what I say but also in the style or manner in which I say it. [pp. 6-7]

And then Thielicke makes another important observation:

The second point to strike us is that Spurgeon preaches the Gospel, not the Law. He is no Savonarola, lashing the sinners of his day. In this regard it is noteworthy how men generally like to be scolded by a preacher. The great castigators usually have a big following. This is because it gives us pleasure to hear the sins of others mentioned and dramatically corrected with exorcisms. The reason for this very unchristian pleasure, which the great preachers of repentance usually evoke in their hearers, is clear enough. We like to see, not our own sins, but sins of others castigated. …Now Spurgeon can certainly list the sins of his age and of his listeners. But he never does this without first showing how we can be freed from them. He does not recommend moral medicines, which cannot help, and which simply make moral apothecaries rich. He tells us that the sun is shining, and that we must leap into it out of the dark house of our lives. [pp. 7-8]

I love that. “He tells us that the sun is shining.” Thielicke was also appreciative of Billy Graham, as I once blogged: “Billy Graham Among the Theologians.”

Eros and Pietism

April 13, 2011

This passage from Helmut Thielicke’s The Ethics of Sex seems to be accurate, with more than a little relevance for evangelical churches here in America:

Pietism, in contrast with Luther, raises the psychological question. It had to arise for Pietism if only because even in the realm of piety it always started out from experience, the experience of conversion, regeneration, repentance, joy in the Lord. In conformity with this interest in the psychic experience the eros experience also called for interpretation and theological evaluation. And yet this question was not posed in such a way that the eros experience as such, having its own value as an encounter with the created world, became the object of the question. Hence this kind of psychological interest, despite its new sensitiveness, was not capable of opening the way to a relationship with modern forms of experiencing eros and marriage. Rather in Pietism the psychological question was focused on the compatibility of the eros experience with the experience of union with Christ. But since the eros experience as such was not thought through theologically and thus remained a spiritually unsubdued element of strong psychic force, its relation to the religious experience could be regarded only as competitive. Here was a power that sought to fill up the whole of the psyche to the limits of its capacity.

[John W. Doberstein, trans., Harper & Row, 1964, p. 302]

In Pietism’s defense, nobody has a good grasp at controlling eros. The objectivity of confessionalism, or even secularism, may help, but we’re all pretty messed-up. It sucks being postlapsarian. Pietism’s “Jesus-love” — the emphasis on a personal and affective relationship with Jesus Christ — may be inadequate but so is the stoicism, whether confessional or secular, that attempts to counteract this.

Image: Amor und Psyche by Antonio Canova

Billy Graham

For those who know Emil Brunner’s admiration for the American free church model (and evangelical personalism), then you will find this very amusing:

The great Swiss theologian Karl Barth once stood in the rain to hear Graham preach in Basel. When he told Graham that the sermon from John 3:3 was good but should not have stressed the must in ‘you must be born again,’ Graham begged to differ (and was soon gratified to hear another great theologian, Emil Brunner, affirm his position). But then Graham closes this account concerning Barth with these words: “In spite of our theological differences, we remained good friends.”

[Mark Noll, American Evangelical Christianity: An Introduction, Blackwell 2001, p. 47]

Another important theologian, Helmut Thielicke, also attended a Billy Graham crusade, but with certain preconceived notions which put Thielicke in an ill disposition toward the popular preacher. However, after coming under the preaching of Graham, Thielicke experienced an awakening of a sort. He explained in a letter to Graham:

The evening was a profound “penance” experience (poenitentia) for me. … When I have been asked now and again about your preaching, I have certainly not been too modest to make one or two theological observations. My evening with you made clear to me (and the Holy Spirit will have helped in doing so!) that the question should be asked in the reverse form: What is lacking in me and in my colleagues in the pulpit and at the university lectern, that makes Billy Graham so necessary?

In Thielicke’s autobiography, Notes from a Wayfarer, he recounts the situation:

My meeting with Billy Graham, who was at that time holding his huge evangelization crusades in Los Angeles stadium, was of great importance to me. I at first had reservations about accepting his invitation to sit next to him on the balustrade.

When I then did indeed do so on the insistence of my friends, I kept my eyes wide open critically. As the people came forward in their thousands to confess their faith, however, I was aware only of calm meditation on the part of his crew and detected no expressions of triumph. His message was good solid stuff. His warmhearted, unpretentious humanity made a great impression on me.

Afterwards I wrote him a thank you letter in which I confessed that whenever I had previously been asked for my opinion of him I had said that I felt that many essential elements were lacking in his proclamation of the Gospel; he advocated an individualistic doctrine of salvation, and even this took place only in relation to the initial stages of faith. Although I had now personally experienced his message, I did not feel compelled to revise the objective side of this criticism, but I had resolved to modify the question in which I raised my criticism; it now ran: “What is lacking in my and the conventional Christian proclamation of the Gospel that makes Billy Graham necessary?”

I found the answer he gave me extremely significant. I was, he said, completely right in my criticism. What he was doing was certainly the most dubious form of evangelization. But what other alternative did he have if the flocks that had no shepherds would not otherwise be served? This answer gave him credibility in my eyes and convinced me of his spiritual substance.

Graham would take Thielicke’s constructive criticism to heart, as exhibited in his later emphasis on continuing discipleship and the importance of the local church, the latter which caused him much criticism (from fundamentalists) as he worked with local mainline Protestant churches and Roman Catholics whenever his crusade would come to a town.