Monday, July 29, 2013

"The Great Theologians" by Gerald McDermott: A Review

Who are the eleven greatest theologians of church history and what makes them so great? Such a debate is worth while and in his book The Great Theologians: A Brief Guide, Gerald McDermott offers biographical sketches along with their contributions to theology and why they still matter today. Here is his list of theological greats along with his description of them:

  1. Origen: The Greatest Teacher After the Apostles
  2. Athanasius: The Black Monk Who Saved the Faith
  3. Augustine: The Most Influential Theologian Ever
  4. Thomas Aquinas: The Teacher of the Catholic Church 
  5. Martin Luther: The Monk Who Rose Up Against Heaven and Earth 
  6. John Calvin: The Greatest Theologian of the Reformed Tradition
  7. Jonathan Edwards: America's Theologian 
  8. Friedrich Schleiermacher: Father of Liberal Theology 
  9. John Henry Newman: Anglican Theologian Who swam the Tiber
  10. Karl Barth: Most Influential Twentieth-Century Theologian 
  11. Hans Urs von Balthasar: Stellar Catholic Theologian of the Twentieth Century
Immediately, a number of things stick out. First, the clear giants of theology are present: Athanasius, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, and Barth. Others are logical inclusions even if their theology might be problematic. Both Origen and Schleiermacher fit that list. Then there are some lesser known names that are a bit surprising. These include Newman and Balthasar. Admittedly, I knew very little about these latter names and was surprised to see them included. My immediate thought was how can McDermott include these men and leave off John Wesley, Anselm, or the Cappodocian Fathers?

Such a debate is inevitable with any book like this. But McDermott's criteria is to include all theologians of church history including Protestant, Catholic, and even Liberal. With that said, one must admit that McDermott has a logical list he defends throughout.

Nonetheless, the book is pretty straightfoward. After a brief introduction, the author dedicates a chapter to each great theologian and offers a brief biography, a discussion of his major works and contribution to theology, and why he matters. For me personally, I found his chapters on Origen and Athanasius most helpful. Regarding Origen, the author clarifies some common misnomers regarding the early Christian, what he actually believed, and how he continues to contribute to theology. His chapter on Athanasius offered a very helpful discussion of his articulation of what we now call orthodox Christology. Of all the men in the book, McDermott gave me a renewed appreciation of Athanasius, making me want to read more of him.

Overall, this is an excellent book I highly recommend. It is an excellent resource for those new to theology and new to historic theology. It also serves as a helpful review for more experienced and knowledgeable readers. Even those who are familiar with these names will likely gain new insight. McDermott packs a lot in each chapter and this is one book every pastor and student of theology will want on their shelf.

For more:
Theologians I Have Been Influenced By - The Dead Theologians I Have Been Influenced By - The Living
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