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.

Introducing Pannenberg

August 25, 2009

Here is a good introduction to Wolfhart Pannenberg from a series of videos from St. John’s College, Nottingham (HT: Chris Tilling).

Pannenberg on Original Sin

November 5, 2007

Adam and Eve 

Finally, we get to Pannenberg’s treatment of Original Sin (p. 231-275 in Systematic Theology, v. 2). Like everything I’ve read from Pannenberg thus far, this is an incredibly impressive yet incredibly frustrating piece. Here’s my take on it:

P. wants to affirm some sort of evil as fundamentally constituted for all humans insofar as humanity finds itself disordered, as demonstrated in the very fact of our free will:

To the extent that it [the will] can choose differently face to face with the given norm of the good, it is already sinful because it is emancipated from commitment to the good. …The will that can choose other than the good is already entangled in evil. (258-9)

Furthermore, we know of our culpability:

Responsibility and guilt arise only when there is a valid norm that we should follow or should have followed. (262)

For Paul, this is penultimately so when one recognizes the law and assents to its validity (i.e., claims on oneself) but finds himself in contradiction to it:

All that is important to him [Paul] is that though we consent to the law of God, we still follow the path of sin. Why do we do that? Because it promises us life. But in so doing it deceives us (Rom. 7:11). In truth it brings death. (262-3)

So, how does this relate to Romans 5 and the classical Reformation (and Roman Catholic) understanding of Original Sin?:

We engage in sin because of the deception. Our voluntary committing of it is enough to make us guilty. There does not have to be a primal and once-for-all event of a fall for which Adam was guilty quite apart from all entanglement in sin. Paul certainly follows the paradise story when he says that “one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men” (Rom. 5:18). But this was because “all men sinned” as Adam did (5:12). Adam was simply the first sinner. In him began the temptation by the power of sin that still seduces us all today. All of us sin because we think we can attain a full and true life thereby. In this sense the story of Adam is the story of the whole race. It is repeated in each individual. The point is not Adam’s first state of innocence in contrast to that of all his descendants. The analogy of the story of all of us to that of Adam stands in the way of such a reading in Rom. 7:7ff. As the first sinner, Adam is the original of all of us in our sinning. (263)

Now, I’ve criticized classical Reformed theology on this blog, so perhaps I should see this as the logical alternative. Maybe so, but I don’t know how convinced I am of this reading of Paul (and P.’s lack of real exegetical treatment here is disappointing). Paul is saying that “in Adam” we are all accounted guilty (or sinners), and “in Christ” we are all accounted innocent (or righteous). Is this “in Adam” a “like Adam” or “just as Adam”? Or does this “in Adam” designate a guilt apart from our sinful acts but to which our sinful acts attest — so, “in Adam” means “because of Adam”? Most modern theologians (and Christians in the pew) want to go with the first alternative; otherwise, how is it just to condemn all for the act of one? However, and this is the Reformed counter-attack, is it “just” that Christ had to die for our sins? We may protest we didn’t choose to be “in Adam,” but we also don’t choose to be “in Christ” insofar as he is “for us” and chose to be so. In other words, the problem may be protological, but it is also Christological. What does our fudging around with Original Sin doing to our account of Christ? The problem comes with what Pannenberg really means by human “guilt” (as I brought up in my account of his theodicy). As I interpret him, P. considers human sin as constitutive of our creaturely existence. It could not have been otherwise for independent, relational creatures that we are, who seek, rightly, self-distinction (but, wrongly, independence from God, i.e., self-dependence).

…Christian theology ought to find in the permission of sin the cost of the creaturely independence at which God’s creative action aims. As creatures that have attained to full independence, we humans must develop and become what we are and ought to be. In the process we can all too easily give our independence the form of an autonomy in which we put ourselves in the place of God and his dominion over creation. But without creaturely independence the relation of the Son to the Father cannot manifest itself in the medium of creaturely existence. (265)

So, to what extent are we really guilty? This comes back to his account of our “ontological deficiency” where, “That which can turn from the good will at some time really do so” (p. 170). Now, we have to see how Jesus Christ “fixes” this (which is the next section), but this account seems to negate (or highly relativize) our guilt. Classical Protestant accounts have wanted to emphasize our guilt before God — we are fully responsible. This makes the gift of Christ and his sacrifice so much the more as a gift (indeed, Christ paid the price for our sin and fulfilled the law we couldn’t keep — for those of us who are committed to penal substitution). However, the Calvinist account (as I’ve criticized here) also seems to negate the responsibility/guilt by locating it not in our actual sin or even rejection of Christ, but rather in the fall of Adam. So, if both accounts (classical Reformed and Pannenberg’s) are highly problematic, how else can we formulate it? I certainly don’t know. However you go about it, seemingly insoluble problems result. This truly is the difficulty of systematic theology: Whenever you tweak one part, you’ve created a problem elsewhere to which you go to fix, but that opens up another difficulty, ad infinitum.


Wolfhart Pannenberg

This past seminar on Wolfhart Pannenberg dealt with his section in volume 2 (of his Systematic Theology) on theodicy, pages 161-174. I still don’t know what to make of it. It could be heretical or even the best and only way to do a theodicy? Here are some key quotes (things start getting problematic with the 5th quote, or even 4th quote):

The pitiful suffering and death of children is the most cogent argument against belief in a Creator of the world who is both wise and good. (164)

If the objection is to be met, then it will be met only by a real overcoming of evil and suffering such as Christian eschatology hopes for in faith in the resurrection of the dead. (164)

Even from the standpoint of reconciliation and eschatological consummation, of course, it is an open question why the Creator did not create a world in which there could be no pain or guilt. (165)

Pain and suffering are widespread among other living things in the prehuman world and cannot, then, be the result of human sin. (165)

But even then limiting responsibility for an evil deed to the doer [i.e., humans or angels] is not convincing if another [i.e., God] might have prevented the doer from doing it. (166)

Concern to absolve the Creator has been a mistake in Christian theodicy. …for in and with the crucifixion of his Son God accepted and bore responsibility for the world that he had created. (166)

Responsibility for the coming of evil into creation unavoidably falls on the God who foresees and permits it, even though creaturely action is the immediate cause. (169)

…he [God] bears coresponsibility for their [wickedness and evil] coming and stands by this through the death of his Son. (169)

This points to its [the human will’s] ontological deficiency. That which can turn from the good will at some time really do so. (170)

So, it’s God’s fault; but he sent his Son to fix the mess, so it’s alright. Okay, maybe that’s an uncharitable reading. However, there are some serious problems to be dealt with here. Obviously there’s the abandonment of Original Sin as classically conceived, but where’s human guilt? How on earth are you going to build an adequate atonement theory on this? Perhaps Pannenberg redeems himself a little beginning on page 171:

We are to seek the root of evil, rather, in revolt against the limit of finitude, in the refusal to accept one’s own finitude, and in the related illusion of being like God.

Not limitation but the independence for which creatures were made forms the basis of the possibility of evil. (171)

The source of suffering and evil lies in the transition from God-given independence to self-independence. (172)

That sounds a little better, but if you read the rest of this section (172-173) it seems that Pannenberg defines evil and suffering as noetically-constituted by the human. Our independence means we are bound to the deteriorating laws of nature (entropy), but is this only “suffering” because we are bound by creaturely vision?: “The more continued existence is internalized in the series of creaturely norms, the more painful corruptibility and the experience of perishing becomes….” (172). Even so, it’s still God’s fault, right? Is the answer, “It’ll all be fixed in the end,” compelling? I don’t want to jump to too many conclusions yet. I’ll have to see how this gets worked out in his soteriology sections. I do want to be sympathetic with Pannenberg. After all, how convincing is the classical theodicy of blaming human sin, especially in the face of (relatively) innocent children suffering? And if God is willing to suffer with us, then is that not enough of an answer? Is Pannenberg’s theodicy the way a theodicy must be done?

Pannenberg, Session 1

September 24, 2007

As I noted earlier, the weekly systematics seminar is on Wolfhart Pannenberg’s Systematic Theology, volume 2. I will try to do a brief overview of each session on some important points from the work. This week covers Chapter 7, “The Creation of the World,” I.1-3.

Wolfhart Pannenberg

P. goes straight to his concern with the doctrine of creation in the first paragraph: “If the world has its origin in a free act of God, it does not emanate by necessity from the divine essence or belong by necessity to the deity of God.” Bye, bye Hegel and Whitehead. In other words, creation is fundamentally a free act such that God is bound in no way for his own self-fulfillment to create. This has immense importance for the doctrine of the Trinity, for God’s being as tri-personal relations must be conceived of as perfect in-himself, without relation to the world, for in-himself abides differentiation (i.e. the distinctions of Father, Son, and Spirit) in perfect relationality. Furthermore, this relationality must be considered under the category of “act” or “activity,” which P. defines in this statement: “It is part of the concept of action that one who acts leaves the self by an act of freedom, producing something different from the self or acting on it or reacting to it. This is true within the unity of the divine life as regards the relations of the trinitarian persons” (p. 5), thus affirming his earlier statement that “God does not need the world in order to be active” (4). Exactly how we can conceive of this activity in the immanent Trinity is not dealt with by P., which is understandable and perhaps not important to his task at hand, which is to ground God’s outward activity in creation in a God who is himself perfect relational activity — this is all we need to know when dealing with dogmatics proper, i.e. the economic Trinity (It should be noted, however, that P. never uses, that I recall, the language of immanent and economic in this treatment, for what reason, if not to avoid triteness, I don’t know). But what is the purpose of so strenuously affirming the freedom of God and utter contingency of the world? Seemingly in order to ground divine love in relation to creaturely reality. P. considers the act of creation in itself as an act of love: “God had only one reason to create a world, the reason that is proclaimed in the fact of creation itself, namely, that God graciously confers existence on creatures….” (20). And later, “The very existence of the world is an expression of the goodness of God” (21). In other words, existence itself (i.e. the conferral of existence on creatures) is a basic good and testament (proof?) to God’s love. However, the question for me becomes, does P. indeed make this into a proof for divine love, and, if so, how stable is such a claim in light of the existential critique of existence as absurd/meaningless? Or, does P. instead find such statements ultimately warranted only in light of God’s trinitarian revealing of his love for us in the Son? I will try to pick-up on this in a later post, especially in the intensely interesting and impossible to understand pages 22-35.