Friday, May 21, 2010

Book Review: The Great Theologians

In recent decades, one of the biggest problems in the church has been a lack of interest in and attention to church history and historical theology. Lately we have begun to see a correction, but this correction needs to flow down to the laity as well. That is where The Great Theologians: A Brief Guide by Gerald McDermott comes into play.

In this book, McDermott highlights eleven of the most influential theologians in the history of the church: Origen, Athanasius, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Schleiermacher, Edwards, Newman, Barth, and Balthasar [1]. Each get between fifteen and twenty pages, in which McDermott provides some brief biographical notes, an overview of some key aspects of their theology, a section detailing what the current church needs to learn from them, a short selection from their writing, questions for group discussion, and suggested further reading.

That seems like a lot to fit into fifteen or twenty pages, but McDermott does an admirable job. He selects vignettes very carefully providing background that is both interesting and/or relevant to the later sections. I appreciated the balance with which this section was written, as McDermott praised them for their strengths and positive contributions and also brought up their weaknesses (e.g., Edwards owned slaves even though he denounced the slave trade) in a respectful and constructive manner.

The overviews of their theology are where the most significant value lies. While I may have had quibbles with a point or two, I think that these were of excellent quality and form a very good brief summary to each theologians thought. I found it most impressive that he was able to be so succinct, clear, and understandable without having to resort to superficiality. McDermott also renders us a service by helping debunk some popular misunderstandings of many of the theologians he treats (e.g., Origen held many views later deemed heretical - in fact he merely suggested these views for further discussion).

The remaining sections of the book also were helpful. I think that I generally agreed with his assessment of what we need to learn from each theologian (in the case of Schleiemacher it was about what to learn not to do/believe). I appreciate his desire to make his book relevant for current readers today. The questions could have been better, in my opinion. I found them to be a bit repetitive.

One other thing I found interesting was the occasional comments made by McDermott drawing out similarities in thought between the different theologians. It was very helpful, but I was occasionally surprised by what he chose to highlight. There are several comments about divinization (also known as theosis). I wonder if McDermott was tipping his hand there on a controversial issue in Evangelical theology.

Overall I found The Great Theologians to be both engaging and informative, a book badly needed by the contemporary church, especially given its accessibility. I highly recommend it to anyone who has any interest in theology, meaning I recommend it to all Christians. Great Theologians is a must read.

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[1] Personally, I don't think that I would have picked the same eleven as McDermott did. I probably would have swapped Newman for Wesley. That's not to downplay Newman (who I admittedly am unfamiliar with), but more to get the Wesleyan tradition represented.

14 comments:

  1. It does seem weird to me that there is no Arminian/Wesleyan representative. After all, the majority of Christians (at least in the West) would probably fall into this camp, whether they realize it or not. I suppose it comes down to the question of whether or not John Wesley ought to be considered a theologian.

    How does he define "great?"

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  2. Good question. He thinks that they were the most influential. Right after saying that he does rattle off a list of another dozen or so that he will put in a second book if this one does well enough (and Wesley was included there). By that criteria, it's awfully hard for me to understand the inclusion of Newman over Wesley.

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  3. Shoot, if influential is what you're looking for, why not Scofield? After all, his study Bible is largely responsible for the widespread adherence to dispensationalism in America.

    Still looks like an interesting book, and picking only 11 is bound to create some discussion.

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  4. From my understanding dispensationalism is largely an American phenomenon (not exclusively but largely), so I don't think he'd rank up there with the others in the book (or someone like Wesley or Melanchhton). I think you would have a hard time seeing his influence outside of dispensationalism, where all of the others have influenced Christianity more broadly, not just in their tradition (except perhaps for Newman, but I'm not really qualified to comment on that).

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  5. How widely influential is Balthasar?

    I guess it all depends on how we define influence, I suppose. After all, theologians might consider someone influential, even if 99% of Christians have never read that person (see Barth, Karl).

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  6. Balthasar is growing in influence and his significance is wider than just his tradition. Vanhoozer, for example heavily relies on the work of Balthasar in Drama of Doctrine (which is an outstanding book if you haven't read it). Many are now calling him the most influential Catholic theologian of the 20th century.

    You make a good point about defining influence. While, yes, most Christians have never read Barth, his indirect influence is huge. I think you could make a similar statement about Edwards. The vast majority of Christians have never read anything from him except maybe Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, which is hardly typical of Edwards work. Yet his indirect influence has been massive.

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  7. First, I should say that I think it'd be incredibly hard to choose just 11 theologians to highlight. The choice of Newman is the only one that really stands out as confusing, though like you I'm not all that familiar with him.

    Second, I've been thinking about this issue lately because I've been pondering writing a 5 Important NT Scholars for the Church post. It's hard to measure influence. For instance, I think Richard Bauckham is one of the most important NT scholars out there. His impact will last much longer than many other scholars who are currently just as popular. But most churchgoers will never read him.

    Anyway, it's a good debate, and a fun one. The truth is that indirect influence is just as important than direct.

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  8. It is a good and fun debate. I'm very interested to see who you include and what your selection criteria is (e.g., will you go with Evangelical's only?). I think Bauckham is a must include. He and Wright are the only Evangelicals who really shape the discipline of NT studies.

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  9. Well, the reason why I haven't posted anything is because of this very conversation. Do I approach it from the perspective of impact on NT Studies? If so, I'd probably have to include Bultmann, who fits in the Schleiermacher category for me (those whose impact was both large and unfortunate).

    But I write my blog with a certain audience in mind: the average person in my church. Who are the scholars who will impact them, either directly or indirectly? It gets hard because there are a few somewhat groundbreaking scholars (is anyone truly groundbreaking?): Bauckham, Wright and Hays all come to mind.

    But there are other scholars who are hardly breaking new ground, but offer solid study of the NT that will benefit the average churchgoer, such as Moo, O'Brien and Blomberg. I don't think any of those will send shockwaves through the scholarly guild for generations to come (maybe Moo, his Romans commentary is just so good), but they will offer more help to Christians than many others.

    See the problem? Maybe I'll just make multiple lists.

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  10. Multiple lists isn't a bad idea. The lists do seem to be distinct. One is a top 5 NT scholars, the other is the 5 scholars a lay person should read. Both are good lists to make, but I think pretty challenging, although maybe the list of scholars the will benefit the average churchgoer would be easier.

    I personally don't think Moo will have long lasting impact in Pauline studies. I'm starting to see a bit of a trend away from the traditional Protestant reading of Romans and understanding of justification (e.g., Douglas Campbell and Michael Gorman). We will see where it ends up, maybe it will swing back around towards a traditional reading.

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  11. Moo is an interesting case because he does offer more traditional answers than some, yet is more engaging than many traditional scholars. If you get a chance, you should listen to his talk on justification he gave at Denver Seminary (I think you can find it on their website). It's clear he's shifting a bit, though clearly nowhere near the Campbell side of things (which, I suspect, will not catch on anyway). Anyway, I'm sure you've probably seen Wright's quote regarding Moo, claiming that he is a much better Pauline scholar than either Piper (which is no surprise) or Carson (which may have been a cheap shot).

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  12. Thanks for the tip on the lecture. I'll definitely check it out. I haven't read Campbell's book yet (who has the time to read a 1200 page tome?), I've just listened to the SBL discussion on his book. From what I've heard, I think I agree with you. Now Gorman on the other hand...I think he'll get a lot of followers. Of all of the non-traditional proposals on justification, it's probably the most coherent and appealing. I'm still wrestling with it.

    Wright may be taking a cheap shot at Carson (I've heard Carson take cheap shots at Wright in interviews before too - I wish they both would stop!), but I do have to agree with his assessment.

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  13. How would you summarize Gorman's views on justification? I haven't read him. Is he in the "incorporated righteousness" camp?

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  14. You can read my review of Inhabiting the Cruciform God. I do discuss it there.

    To give some answer here, it's hard to say where exactly to put him. I don't remember him using the term 'incorporated righteousness' but I think that there probably are some affinities between him and 'the incorporators.'

    Gorman holds to justification by co-crucifixion. Through faith we, in a real way, united with the crucified and risen Messiah. Union with Christ is a much stronger notion for him than for most Protestants. He's a leading advocate of theosis. Our union that happens on justification also results in transformation. This is also partly based on his understanding of 'pistis' to mean 'faithfulness.'

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