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.

Isaak August Dorner - Portrait Collection Berlin university teachers, Historical Collections of the University Library

I have been reading a lot of Isaak Dorner lately. In my estimation, he is easily the greatest dogmatic theologian between Schleiermacher and Barth. Most interestingly for me, Dorner not only anticipates Barth but provides significant doctrinal formulations that Barth would borrow, especially for the doctrine of God in CD II.1. I have been reading Dorner’s third essay on divine immutability, and I frequently thought I was reading Barth.

Dorner reworks immutability in a way that is strikingly similar to Barth, in order to account for God’s “livingness,” both a se and in relation to the world. Claude Welch translates Lebendigkeit as “livingness” in the volume, God and Incarnation in Mid-Nineteenth Century German Theology, but Robert R. Williams translates it as “vitality” in the Fortress Press edition, which otherwise follows Welch’s translation. I prefer “livingness,” even if it makes for awkward English.

Although his expertise is spread across the whole range of theological loci, Dorner specialized in the doctrine of Christ, through the release of the multi-volume, Entwicklungsgeschichte der Lehre von der Person Christi, published in English as The History of the Doctrine of the Person of Christ. He would later write a multi-volume systematic theology. As is well-known, the nineteenth century was the century of Christ’s humanity, for good or ill. Theologians worked diligently to account for the humanity of Christ, in dialogue with the philosophical and historical interests of the day. One such theologian was Gottfried Thomasius, who used the κένωσις (self-emptying) of Jesus Christ as the basis for reconstructing how the divine and human relate in the person of Christ. Dorner opposed Thomasius. Since Dorner is very difficult to read, it is not easy to find a snippet for blogging purposes, but here is a nice summary by Dorner of his objection to Kenotic Christology:

The point must be this, that instead of God’s reducing himself to mere potence for the sake of the world and his being changed into it, it is rather the actual divine perfection itself and nothing less (and indeed as perennially and immovably affirming itself) which is to be apprehended as the potence for the world. The whole historical life of God in the world takes place, not at the expense of the eternal perfection of God himself, but precisely by virtue of this permanent perfection. Only so does his eternal freedom also remain in its place vis-à-vis the never absolutely closed natural order.

… How could it be supposed to be true and worthy of God that Christianity should have conquered the heathen religions and philosophies by a piece of the doctrine that is at home in the pantheistic schools and religions, by the doctrine of a God who is potential, growing and only gradually working up to self-consciousness or to spiritual actuality in general? If this were the foundation of the chief objective Christian truth, then heathenism, in the myths of the God who sacrifices himself on behalf of the world, would contain more prophecy of Christ than the Old Testament; to them especially the idea is not foreign, that God has thus given and sacrificed himself on behalf of the world. Against such ideas, the Old Testament sets with utter seriousness the inviolable majesty and holiness of God, which is not even violated in love.

[Isaak August Dorner, “The Dogmatic Concept of the Immutability of God,” in God and Incarnation in Mid-Nineteenth Century German Theology (Oxford University Press, 1965), 144-145]

There you have it, Dorner against Thomasius in a nutshell. Though Dorner is not addressing Thomasius here but, rather, Hegelian impulses more generally in theology. You can also see, in the second paragraph, how Dorner is rebuking proto process theologies, even though Dorner is sometimes reckoned as a forebear of process theology because of his “dynamic” account of God’s interaction with the world (through our prayers for example). Throughout his creative proposals for rethinking immutability, Dorner never falters in upholding the aseity and perfection of God. Thomists would not be satisfied, I am sure.

By the way, there is not a single, uniform account of Kenotic Christology. From what I’ve read, Thomasius moderates his position later in his career. And then we have later generations who would offer their own accounts, as in P. T. Forsyth’s The Person and Place of Christ (1909), which may or may not be as susceptible to Dorner’s criticism.


Image: Isaak August Dorner – Portrait Collection of Berlin university teachers, Historical Collections of the University Library