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Author Gerald McDermott describes the purpose for The Great Theologians: A Brief Guide as follows:
I wanted to be able to provide a short and accessible introduction to some of the greatest theologians—so that any thinking Christian could get a ballpark idea of what is distinctive to each. And at a level they could understand. Challenging but not overwhelming. Provocative but not frustrating. An introduction that could inform and provide a gateway to deeper study if so desired. (p. 11)
While setting a very high bar for himself, McDermott largely succeeds in clearing the bar in this well written introduction to eleven theologians.
McDermott introduces us to Origen (AD 185-253), Athanasius (AD 296-373), Augustine (AD 354-430), Thomas Aquinas (AD 1225-74), Martin Luther (AD 1483-1546), John Calvin (AD 1509-64), Jonathon Edwards (AD 1703-58), Friedrich Schleiermacher (AD 1768-1834), John Henry Newman (AD 1801-90), Karl Barth (AD 1886-1968) and Hans Urs von Balthasar (AD 1905-88). As can be seen from the dates for each theologian, these eleven span nearly 1,800 years in the development of Christian theology.
McDermott freely admits that there are many names he could have added to the list, but these were the eleven he considered “to have had the most influence on the history of Christian thought” (p. 13). He explains further: “There were others who also had great influence, and a future list maker might prove one or more of my eleven were edged out by one or more with even greater influence” (p. 13). He clarifies by saying, “That doesn’t mean that the theology of every one has been good. In fact, some have done damage to Christian thinking. For example, Schleiermacher…. But I include him in this book because his influence has been enormous” (p. 14).
The author introduces each theologian with a brief biography, followed by an overview of the main themes of their work. He follows each overview with a more detailed explanation of one key theme that each is known for, then a discussion of what we can learn from the theologian. Finally the book includes a short excerpt from one of the theologian’s writings. To encourage further investigation, McDermott provides a list of both primary and secondary sources at the end of each chapter, along with discussion questions useful for groups or personal reflection.
Highs and lows
The chapter on Luther has a mixture of highs and lows. McDermott correctly summarizes Luther’s view of justification when he writes,
Therefore for Luther imputation is not a legal fiction whereby God justifies us on the basis of something that happens outside us, declaring righteous a person who is no different after faith that he or she was before faith. Quite the contrary—faith brings union with Christ and “God’s love…poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 5:5). It is on this basis that the legal verdict of justification is pronounced. (p. 86)
The lows in the chapter on Luther come when McDermott includes the views of several revisionist Luther experts, leading to the conclusion that “the split between Catholic and Protestant churches in the sixteenth century was theologically unnecessary” (p. 89). The writers of the anathemas from the Council of Trent certainly did not believe the split was theologically unnecessary!
McDermott does not hesitate to state where he disagrees with the conclusions of those he is writing about. This is most evident in the chapters on Schleiermacher and Barth.
Schleiermacher is generally regarded as the “father of liberal theology.” McDermott states,
Schleiermacher was revolutionary because he reversed the traditional method for doing theology, which had been to go first to God’s revelation for knowledge of God.
Schleiermacher went instead to religious consciousness as a new foundation for religious belief…. This new method explicitly rejected the old. To know God, Schleiermacher taught, we do not to [sic] go to Scripture or to creeds…. Instead, he said, we must retreat into ourself [sic] and abandon external things, both intellectual and physical. (p. 141)
McDermott then shows how this new method results in rejecting orthodox teaching regarding Christ, God, and the Bible. One of the key paragraphs of the book is the following:
Schleiermacher teaches us the danger of relying on personal experience for authority. Personal experience of the risen Christ is a must, but we must not rely on that experience to teach us who Christ is. We must look instead to what the apostles gave us in the New Testament and their reading of the Old Testament. This is an objective revelation from God that helps correct and guide all our subjective experience. Evangelicals and Pentecostals, who rightly teach the need to experience the gospel, must nonetheless be careful not to let experience become what teaches the gospel. Otherwise they risk falling into Schleiermacher’s trap of constructing a religion of humanity. (p. 146)
Sadly, even much of fundamentalism has gone the path Schleiermacher blazed, substituting an individual’s conversion experience for the gospel. Perhaps if more were made aware of what Schleiermacher taught and the consequences that flowed from it, we would see the need to emphasize the objective truth of the gospel. This book will provide a tremendous service if it has that result.
McDermott also takes Barth to task for his denial of Scripture as revelation of God: “[R]evelation for Barth was an ‘encounter with a crucified man,’ not a collection of words on a printed page” (p. 179). McDermott summarizes Barth’s view of Scripture: “the Bible by itself is not the Word of God, but can become the Word of God when the Holy Spirit makes it come alive for its reader. The Bible itself is not revelation itself but a witness to revelation” (p. 181). His critique of Barth continues, “Barth’s understanding of the relation of revelation to Scripture does not do justice to the Bible’s own witness to itself” (p. 181). McDermott also criticizes Barth’s unique view of election, correctly observing that Barth’s view leads to universalism—all saved in the end.
I do have several criticisms of the book. The chapters on Origen and Athanasius—the weakest in the book—contain statements that at best are not clear, and at worst could be considered heresy. In speaking about Origen’s contributions to the doctrine of the Trinity, McDermott writes, “suggesting that Jesus was eternally generated by the Father and therefore different from all other created beings…” (p. 20, italics added). This is not clearly written, and could lead one to think Origen was a proto-Arian, teaching that Christ was a created being but using a different mode of creation. More seriously, he writes of Athanasius, “Athanasius emphasized that the Father gave his full divinity to his Son, and the Son gives his divinity to us…. This shows the Father is fundamentally giving. The Father gives the gift of himself to the Son, and the Son gives the gift of himself to believers” (p. 38). This is not what Athanasius taught, but is much more along the lines of what Arius—Athanasius’ chief opponent—would have taught. Since McDermott later clearly supports the orthodox teaching regarding Christ as being divine in His very essence, autotheos, I believe the book just employs careless language at this point. Given that the primary audience for this book is those who need an introduction to theology, such careless statements are a serious flaw.
I also disagree with McDermott’s view of the believer’s union with Christ. McDermott in several places seems to indicate that our union in Christ results in the believer’s divinization. In the summary of the themes of all the theologians covered in the book, McDermott writes,
This is the mystical union of Christ with his church, so that every believer is in union with Christ—because Jesus has given us his very own self…. It is the theme of deification or divinization, which we saw in Athanasius, Origen, Augustine, Luther (his “happy exchange”) and especially Edwards. (p. 205)
While Origen and Athanasius say some things that approach this idea, Augustine, Luther, and Edwards would not have said that the believer becomes divine through the mystical union. This view results from a misreading of 2 Peter 1:4—that we share in the divine being. A development of the biblical view of our union with Christ is beyond the scope of this review, but we do not become God; rather, we become like God, in His image, through sanctification.
In the closing summary chapter, McDermott states,
If there is a thesis of this book, it is this: The best way to navigate our way theologically is to use the Great Tradition of orthodox theology as a lens through which to evaluate all competing traditions…. But their capacity to contribute to Christian theology should be gauged only by weighing them against the long history of the Great Tradition, led by the great orthodox theologians outlined in this book. (p. 209)
While I support this thesis, we have to question the inclusion of Schleiermacher, Newman, Barth and von Balthasar (and possibly even Aquinas) as “great orthodox theologians.” As mentioned above, McDermott does point out departures from orthodoxy on the part of each of these, but was there not one influential orthodox theologian since Jonathon Edwards?
As stated above, the book contains some passages I cannot support. Overall, however, McDermott has accomplished his goal of providing a readable introduction to some of the great theologians of church history. When we consider the difficulty of summarizing in a single chapter the immense literary output of a number of these men, we can admire McDermott’s effort. I recommend the book for those who desire a better understanding of the history of theology but caution that readers should exercise discernment.