Monday, 25 October 2010

The Great Theologians

A review of The Great Theologians by Gerald McDermott (IVP Academic 2010, US$20.00US; AUS$19.95 214pp.)

According to the author’s account, this book was ostensibly written as a brief guide to the great theologians for the educated layperson. The author is Dr Gerald McDermott, professor of religion at Roanoke College in Virginia and “teaching pastor” at St John Lutheran Church in Salem, Virginia. The book is published by an evangelical publishing house (IVP in the US) and from several asides in the text itself would seem to be written with a broadly evangelical readership in mind (with several in-text nods to the author’s fellow Lutherans as well). The author, however, seems to be more sympathetic to Catholic than Evangelical expressions of Christianity.

The great theologians in question are Origen, Athanasius, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, Schleiermacher, John Henry Newman, Karl Barth and Hans Urs von Balthasar. Such a list inevitably invokes reaction and/or criticism. The first six theologians listed would certainly not provoke much argument, although some may aver that Origen’s condemnation for heresy rules him out as a great theologian. However, the author makes a good case that this condemnation was not only posthumous but probably carried out on dubious grounds. I tend to agree with McDermott; as the church’s first systematic theologian in the post-apostolic era, Origen deserves a place at this table.

It is the last five names that will provoke the most debate, though: Edwards, Schleiermacher, Newman, Barth and von Balthasar may be important, even seminal theologians for understanding modern theology, but are they “great” theologians? In what sense, for example, is Schleiermacher “great”, when every aspect of his theology tended to undermine Christian orthodoxy? Certainly, a familiarity with Schleiermacher’s thought is necessary for understanding Liberalism, and subsequently Fundamentalism and Barthianism, but that places him in the category of essential rather than great theologians.

Likewise Edwards is a curious inclusion. That he was brilliant no-one would question, perhaps he even bordered on greatness, but it is his sectarianism that perhaps precludes him from a place on a list of great theologians. A great theologian should be a catholic theologian, with something to say to the whole church. Edwards’s theological concerns are too limited to the world of New England Congregational Calvinism, and even in that world his contributions were not altogether happy. It is perhaps as a philosophical theologian that he is included here? It is curious too that McDermott follows Jenson in labelling Edwards as ’America’s Theologian’; Edwards may arguably be America’s greatest theologian, but surely the title of ’America’s Theologian’ belongs to Charles Finney? (I’ll admit my tongue is partly in cheek here. If anyone can persuade me otherwise on Edwards, go ahead. I note that Dr McDermott is an Edwards scholar of note.)

Newman is important, mostly to Anglo and Roman Catholics of course, but I think that as a student of the Fathers himself even he would eschew the term “great” in regard to himself. Unlike Athanasius, he made no signal contribution in an area of doctrine. Unlike Aquinas he was not a systematic thinker whose comprehensiveness impresses even as it inevitably fails. Catholics may claim that, like Augustine, Newman is epochal in that he has shaped post-Vatican II Catholicism, and that is an argument of some merit. But then, as McDermott points out, most Protestants are bound to reject Newman’s ideas, and the most Newmanesque aspects of the teachings of Vatican II, e.g. the primacy of conscience and the development of doctrine, are yet to be completely proven in the life of the Roman church. The "jury" is still out on them, and it will likely take another 100 years or so to reach a decision. Then there is the problem that Newman made some stunning errors in his theology which he never revised, such as his notorious misreading of Luther’s doctrine of justification. If he had recognised these errors, the course of his theology and life may have been quite different.

Barth and von Balthasar are alike in that both are too close to us in history for an objective assessment of their theology to be made. Placing them in the company of Luther and Calvin, for example, not to mention Augustine, seems to be over-stretching things a little. This is not to say that we cannot learn from these men; on the contrary, as McDermott ably shows, there is much that is positive that can be taken from both men without accepting their theologies as a whole.

This extended introductory discussion allows me to make an important point: there is an inherent weakness in taking theologians out of their historical and confessional context and labelling them as “great”, with the value judgment that term implies. Perhaps “epochal” would have been a better term, recognising the way some of these theologians shaped the development of the church’s life for centuries after them. Or “essential”, meaning that one cannot essentially understand theology without being familiar with these names. But “great” is too ambiguous a term for my taste. But then, one must allow for McDermott’s stated goals. McDermott states that he chose the eleven on the basis of them having the “greatest influence”, but acknowledges that other names might just as well be submitted on such a basis, for example the Cappadocians, Anselm, John Wesley, and Charles Hodge. Wesley , for example, a more theological thinker than is usually realised, influenced millions directly or indirectly, and continues to do so (for good or ill), whereas von Balthasar is still an enigmatic and esoteric name known only to the theological cognoscenti.

But, this caveat aside, how well is the book executed? Very well in parts, not so well in others. The strongest chapters are those on Athanasius, Augustine, Aquinas and, interestingly, Newman. These chapters would be quite accessible to the educated lay-person who has at least a nodding acquaintance with theological history and terminology, not to mention philosophy. The question is, how many of such persons are out there? That this book has been produced under the academic imprint of the publisher might reveal that the demand for it is actually quite low. This is a pity, but it is a reality; I suspect that a church attending, literate agricultural worker in 19th Century America would probably have been more familiar with theological discussion than a university educated arts graduate is today. Having said that, the discussion questions included at the end of each chapter provide a helpful guide for discussion if the book was used in a group setting. There are also suggestions for further reading as well as brief extracts from each theologians’ works to give a taste of their writing.

A review of this book cannot be concluded without reference to the author’s comments on Luther and Lutheranism which make one suspect that he is living somewhat in tension with his own confessional allegiance. It is one thing to be self-critical, but one does wish that the same yardstick was applied evenly throughout the book. The chapter on Luther is probably the weakest in the book, and concludes by implying that Luther’s theology would only be of interest or help if one was in exactly the same existential situation as Luther was when he made his “breakthrough” to the Gospel. The treatment of Luther’s theology of justification is welcome in places (acknowledging the Christological and Trinitarian ground of Luther’s theology, something which was continued by later Lutherans such as Martin Chemnitz and Johann Gerhard) but tendentious in others (asserting that new discoveries by American and Finnish Luther scholars enable us to see that the Reformation was a mistake). Further, the author carelessly perpetuates the error that Luther was a monk, when in actual fact he was a friar, something quite different in medieval church life. If Luther were a monk, it is doubtful that he would have played the part in the Reformation that he did; thus the fact that he was a friar (friars had more einteraction with the lay community) can be seen as quite providential.

McDermott also makes the rather extraordinary claim, in his chapter on Newman, that Lutherans have “forgotten to preach the law before the Gospel” (p.166). Such a claim needs further explication. On the same page the author states that, by following Newman, Protestants might consider the “possibility that the Spirit has been guiding the church in its understanding of what Scripture and Jesus Christ mean”! Only someone uninformed as to the high regard for the Fathers exemplified in the classical tradition of dogmatics in both the Lutheran and Reformed traditions could make such a statement in an unqualified manner. It would be better to say that Newman’s re-discovery of the importance of the Fathers to both the Anglican and Catholic traditions might inspire Protestants to search out the place of Patristics in their own historical theologies (after all, it was a Lutheran who “invented” Patristics as a discrete area of study) . The author also repeats the oft-stated claim that Lutherans reduce the Gospel to justification by faith. “Yes, but…” one wants to shout! One might expect such a statement from a Catholic, but from a Lutheran professor? Justify yourself, Dr McDermott! In fact, it could be said that in his treatment of Luther Dr McDermott perpetuates a methodological error he accuses Protestants of, namely ignoring church history. Luther is best understood in the context of Lutheran confessional theology, which has answers to most of the questions I think Dr McDermott is asking of his tradition.

In conclusion, I found the book to be an interesting treatment of its subjects, but because of the author’s less than satisfactory handling of Luther, and because of the argument he seems to be having with his own tradition, I do not give the book an unqualified tick of approval. Read with discretion (as always). The theology undergraduates and pastors who will, I suspect, be the main readers of this book would really be better served, if they are Lutheran, by something like Bengt Hagglund’s old (1966) but still indispensable History of Theology. At best, The Great Theologians could serve as supplementary to a work like Hagglund's, which has a more solid dogmatic foundation.

Click on the post title to view the book's Amazon page.


Kevin Davis said...

I bought the book for my dad (he loves it), but I've only read bits and pieces. I think I would have a different take than yours.

For one, Edwards is easily as significant a theologian as Augustine or Aquinas, and surely he is their equal in genius (e.g., read "The Nature of True Virtue" or "The End for Which God Created the World"). His masterpiece on "religious affections" is still the most impressive defense of the single greatest development within Christianity since the Reformation: the Awakenings/Revivalism. As such, Edwards is the intellectual father of the most expansive form of Christianity in the last two centuries: "American" evangelicalism, which has far more influence outside of America (through missions) than within. It's really hard to over-estimate the importance of Edwards and the success of those early revivals. Current evangelicalism owes a great debt to Edwards. If we look at the vast international influence of Fuller, Wheaton, Southern and similar seminaries, the likes of Billy Graham, or the Pentecostals who, along with the Baptists, have had unparalleled growth in the past hundred years -- in all these places and among all these people, we see Edwards laying the dogmatic foundations. Edwards' psychological depth and philosophical intellect allowed him to see beyond (but not against) traditional dogmatic formulations, in a way that had not been done before...not since the early church (especially Greek) fathers. He had a "catholic" intellect, with few equals in the church's history. I could go on and on about Edwards, but those are some thoughts that just came to mind. As you may know, I have a love-hate relationship with American revivalism: I'm Baptist enough to recognize where it is rooted in Scripture and Baptist enough to know where it departs from Scripture. :)

As for Newman, I would stress the importance of his development hypothesis as a dogmatic contribution that has attained normative status. The particulars of his thesis may be contested, but the Catholic Church no longer believes that her doctrine dropped out of the sky in the first century -- Newman did that. Catholics can now say that the Christians of the first century knew nothing about, e.g., Mary's immaculate conception, but, rather, there are intimations and seeds for the doctrine to be developed later. That was heresy before Newman; orthodoxy after Newman. That's rather impressive. Newman's greatness is not in the accuracy of his precise historical claims (there are several errors) but, rather, in the profundity of his epistemology: an epistemology that grasped the nature of doctrinal contingency, and, thereby, changed how the Catholic Church thought about herself. Once again, that's rather impressive.

As for Barth and von Balthasar, it is a very safe assumption that these two men will be ranked (and are ranked) with Augustine and Aquinas until Jesus returns. Yeah, I'm that confident. :)

Pr Mark Henderson said...

Hi Kevin,

Maybe your dad should write a review? Seriously. I assume he's in the target audience for the book (educated layperson)? Then it would be really interesting to get an 'unbiased' review from a lay reader.

Of course, my confessional commitments prevent me from agreeing with your assesments of Newman, Barth and von Balthasar. I still think we're too close to them to judge them objectively. A theologian's work seems to have to "cure" for a couple of centuries before we can have a really objective appreciation of it.
As for Edwards, I'm prepared to give him another look, but what I'm most interested in is his practical theology rather than his philosophical theology.

I'm thinking of compiling my own (very biased) list of "Great Theologians", btw. I make no pretense to objectivity :0).

Kevin Davis said...

My dad would not be capable of writing a review, since his knowledge of theology is rather small. He knows the Bible better than I do, but the technical field of theology is a fairly new thing for him. He could give you far more details about Old Testament monarchy than I could, but that's not the same as being able to articulate the various epistemological approaches to divine revelation or the various ways to organize the different models of atonement (high priesthood, penal sacrifice, christus victor, et cetera). He is slowly getting into deep theology, and he's really excited by what he's reading.

As with Von Balthasar, Edward's philosophical theology is the context in which he formulates his practical theology. His famous treatise, "The Nature of True Virtue," is the perfect place to see this being developed.

Pr Mark Henderson said...

Thanks for the tip re Edwards, Kevin.

Your dad is on the cusp of an exciting adventure.