Faithful Orthodoxy Requires Reading Widely

“Years ago, as a PhD theology student at a Protestant seminary, I was handed a list of required reading. Out of 128 books, only three of them (!) were by premodern authors (written from the first century to the 15th century).” - CToday


I’m nowhere near as well read as the author, but one thing that strikes me about Institutes of the Christian Religion (Calvin) is that he appeals to Augustine and designs his work around the same. Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it, as wiser men than I (Burke, Santayana, etc..) have noted. I’ve also been blessed to read sections of The Canterbury Tales and various polemics of the Dark Ages, and suffice it to say that while I disagreed with the writers on many points, they are no theological lightweights.

And yes, I mention The Canterbury Tales, because I cannot help but think when reading it that Chaucer was delicately inserting his own theological views into the mouths of his characters. One of my favorite places is where the Housewife of Bath is clearly rejecting medieval thinking on marriage in a way that suggests she (Chaucer) was reading Song of Songs in a way that’s consistent with….not just tolerating marriage to prevent sin (pretty much the medieval view), but rather in a joyous way that would make good use of six stone jars, so to speak.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

This is part of the so-called Great Tradition or Reformed Thomism resurgence Barrett, Craig Carter, et al are championing. MBTS used to be known for Spurgeon. Now it’s an epicenter for all things Aquinas, under Barrett’s influence. Look at anything Credo Magazine publishes and you’ll see!

Regardless, I agree we ought to read widely. Though I suspect Barrett wouldn’t agree, I have never felt so refreshed as when I read systematics from completely outside the evangelical bubble.

  • Emil Brunner’s Dogmatics is likely my favorite theologian in this realm. I really, really like him.
  • Beth Felker Jones, a Methodist, has a simply spectacular one-volume systematic titled Practicing Christian Doctrine. It’s the best one-volume theology I’ve seen for “normal” people. If a normal person wanted a book to lay out theology, I’d recommend hers. She comes from a evangelical catholicity standpoint (as do I), so that might not be your cup of tea, but there it is.
  • Donald Bloesch’s seven-volume systematics is wonderful. I really like him.

As far way older folks, like Barrett is championing, I’ve not been too moved by what I’ve read:

  • Aquinas is ponderous and generally “meh.” I have his Summa and consult it when I teach our theology class.
  • Anselm’s Why God Became Man was very, very helpful to me. I need to read it again.
  • Other stuff is often kind of weird. John of Damascus is ok. Lombard just quotes other people, but is interesting for historical theology purposes.

So, read widely but be sure you have a sure foundation to retreat to when you feel like you’re being washed away by the tide. For me, Millard Erickson is the anchor. He is the most solid, irenic, and dependable theologian from “my tribe” to whom I can always turn for some trustworthy reality checks.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government.