Monday, 25 October 2010

The Great Theologians II

Following on from my review of Dr McDermott's interesting but imo flawed book, this is my list of great theologians:

For his anti-Gnostic theologising (thus Irenaeus rather than Origen gets a seat at the table).

Almost single-handedly saved orthodox Christianity from the Arians.

The Cappadocians: Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Nazianzus
For their contributions to Trinitarian orthodoxy, Christology, and Pneumatology.

For his anti-Pelagian works, and for his substantial part in laying the foundations of theology.

For his work on the atonement and his more philosophical theology. The first scholastic, who attempted a rationally coherent theology in the round (this is also his chief weakness, as it is of later scholastics).

Bernard of Clairvaux
The last of the Fathers. Defeater of Abelard's rationalism. Essentially Augustinian, although his Mariolotry renders his position on this list open to question.

Thomas Aquinas
Still arguing with myself on this one; either saved the church from Aristotelian philosophic rationalism or compromised helplessly with it. Gerhard (see below) rehabilitated Aquinas into Lutheran theology.

Martin Luther
God's instrument in restoring the Gospel in its purity to the church.

Martin Chemnitz
Confessor, patristic scholar, intellectually rebutted the Roman Counter-Reformation, systematised the teaching of his teachers, Luther and Melanchthon, as well as making a beginning on integrating the patristic witness into Reformation teaching, and thus set the Reformation on a firm foundation. "Without the second Martin (Chemnitz), the work of the first Martin (Luther) would not have survived."

John Gerhard
Architect of Lutheranism as evangelical-catholicity. Synthesiser of catholic orthodoxy for the post-Reformation era; the 'Lutheran Aquinas' whose definitive work is only now being published in English.

There you go. If you were stranded on a desert island, the works of these men would sustain you with a veritable feast of theological reflection.

Q. What criteria have you used?
A. 1) Saved the church from a Gospel-perverting heresy (Irenaeus, Athanasius, Augustine, Bernard, Luther, Chemnitz); 2) made a signal doctrinal contribution (Athanasius, Anselm, Luther, Chemnitz); 3) synthesised the Christian theological tradition in a way which was both apologetic and genuinely progressive (Aquinas, Chemnitz, Gerhard).

Q. Why no other Eastern theologians? John of Damascus? Symeon the NT? Gregory Palamas?
A. Athanasius was Eastern. I nearly included one of the Cappadocians as a representative of what the church owes Eastern theology, particularly in Christology (I still might. Which one?) (Correction: All three have now been added). I guess Irenaeus is Eastern as well. But ultimately I reject the notion that Eastern theology is categorically different from Western theology; a theology is not Eastern or Western, it is either soundly based on scripture or not, that is really the fundamental category. To deny this is to give up the clarity and primacy of scripture, and this the Eastern fathers themselves would not approve of. Later Eastern theology precludes itself by failing to assimilate Paul's teaching on justification.

Q. Why not Newman, Edwards, Barth, Calvin, Arminius, Wesley, et al?
A. Well, because in my view subscribing to a fundamental, Gospel-undermining error in a doctrine or article of faith precludes a theologian from inclusion in this list. Each of the theologians mentioned at the head of this paragraph subscribed to a creed or confession which I am bound to say was in formal error, and to a greater o rlesser degree also expressed erroneous teachings in their personal theology.

For me, there is no expression of 'catholicity' that does not express itself in a particular confessional language which can be judged by scripture, the 'norming norm'. Calvinism, Roman Catholicism, Weleyanism and Neo-Orthodoxy all fail this test. Likewise, C. S. Lewis notwithstanding, the notion of a 'mere Christianity' that is common to all confessions regardless of their particular doctrinal distinctives is a chimera; rather, the various confessions are each versions of 'mere Christianity', mutually exclusive on one or several points of doctrine, which call for a judgment, positive or negative, on the contents of their confession. Since all Christian creeds and confessions implicitly or explicitly appeal to scripture as the ultimate authority, let it be so.

Q. But this list is too partial to Lutheran theologians.
A. Well, what do you expect, given my confessional commitments? Actually, I think it's quite catholic in the genuine sense, after all it includes theologians recognised or owned in a sense by Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican and Reformed Christians. And really, including someone like Chemnitz or Gerhard is, I think, more defensible than including someone like Newman. Once, and not that long ago, Chemnitz and Gerhard were held in high regard and cited positively and often in Anglican and Reformed circles, so their value as theologians is actually more widely attested than is the case with Newman. Then also, in my view almost every major work Newman wrote is seriously flawed in some way (and demonstrably so, but that would require a book!) which fact alone precludes him from my list, even if he were thoroughly orthodox in doctrine.

Q. Why no moderns?
Here I agree with Thomas Oden, generally, the further back in classical theology you go, the better it gets, and the modern stuff just doesn't compare. Historical theology is a subject with diminishing returns after the 17th century. The 19th C. contains more riches than the 20th (for example, for all his prolixity, and despite the fact that he continues to stimulate us, Barth will be but a footnote to Liberalism in the definitive history of theology, if it is ever written), but the 18th C. was by and large a benighted time (which admittedly makes the singular Edwards stand-out all the more).

Q. Who are you to say?
No-one of any consequence; but it's my blog so I get to call it as I see it :0)
If you disagree, come up with your own list and show me why.
I'm open to discussion, it's all part of the rich and endlessly fascinating tapestry that is theology. I doubt you'll move me to reconsider in any major way, but my list is still open to revision. I would like to see some Reformed people make their case...after Calvin, William Perkins would have to be a contender, and then also the already mentioned Edwards.


joel in ga said...

In reference to your previous posting, what a small world! I spent some time in Roanoke, Virginia, and was friends with Roanoke College's French professor. We had the privilege of playing music (lute & bass) during a service or two at Good Shepherd Lutheran, the LCMS church in the area.

I like Origen inasmuch as he helped produce the better-grounded Gregory of Nyssa and his triumphalistic eschatology.

Dare a Lutheran say it, but Anselm I can do without. His explanation of the atonement has the merit of simplicity, but it casts my Father in a bad light.

Pr Mark Henderson said...

Hi Joel,

Yes, the longer I live the more I realise just how incredibly small this world is.

I've got a soft spot for Origen, so he may reappear with Ireneaus, and I need a Cappadician, so I'm thinking Basil.

Think of Anselm as a step on a ladder; he didn't say it all, or in the best way, but without him later things couldn't have been said, and without him we might not be where we are (that's good, right?).

I'd be interested in your "greats".

joel in ga said...

How about Clement of Alexandria, Mark the Ascetic, John Chrysostom, Isaac the Syrian, Alcuin, George Salmon, Frederic Farrar, George MacDonald, Bo Giertz, and James B. Jordan?

I'm not sure Anselm and Aquinas after him did not lead the Western Church down a sidepath or two. Brilliant men, but would that more of the God revealed in Jesus was in their conception of God's character and theory of atonement.

Pr Mark Henderson said...

All of those names are interesting, Joel, if somewhat idiosyncratic :0).
You've reminded me that I need to put some Mark the Ascetic up at Luth. Cath.
George Salmon was brilliant and would easily make my list of greatest Anglican theologians.
Alcuin & Giertz I see more as churchmen than theologians, but, hey, it's your list, so who am I to quibble? Thanks for sharing!

Matthias said...

I think that this is a concise list and probably have . I would also include sidlow Baxter-Baptist theologian of the mid 20th Century and the great Australian Anglican theologian Dr Leon Morris,who's work on eschatological subjects has probably brought scripturally inspired sanity to an area that was the domain of the hystrionic dispensationalists such as Hal Lindsey.

Pr Mark Henderson said...

Sidlow Baxter I've not heard of, Matthias, but I have a great respect for Leon Morris, certainly a great Australian theologian (which might be the topic of another post - great Australian theologians!).

Michael Vogel E5B said...

I'd like to read more Origen. Have you a link to any of his New Testament Commentaries?

While Theodoret of Cyrrus isn't "great" he is the earliest writer (apart from the NT)I can find who not only says "faith alone" sometimes but integrates it into all of his theology AND even considers it his only hope of salvation (See Letter 83).

Plus, I think he's heroic; willing to stand up to a giant (and a rather mean person) like Cyril of Alexandria. Theodoret was no Nestorian. He simply argued that Nestorius was not Nestorian.

Pr Mark Henderson said...

Hi Michael,

I don't have any links to Origen but it would be worthwhile checking it out. Thanks for the tip on Theodoret. Intriguing!