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.
A few weeks ago, Standpoint Conference began to actively promote our conference for 2011, entitled “The Fundamentals II.” There are actually a number of compelling reasons to “reboot” The Fundamentals,* re-analyzing good doctrine in light of certain attacks of our time.
Before listing those reasons, let’s allay any fears regarding this subject.
Some might fear that we are suggesting that major doctrinal formulations need to be changed or adjusted. “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire!” Or is it mirrors? The suspicious always imagine a conspiracy. We do not propose that orthodoxy needs any kind of re-definition or adjustment. But we believe that the doctrines so well defended in the past need to be more clearly defined in the light of modern challenges, not altered in keeping with the spirit of our age.
Some might cynically suggest that we may have difficulty finding the quality of scholarship among conservative theologians that was available for the original Fundamentals between 1910 and 1915. But we believe that the scholarship exists for another set of great works on doctrine. And we believe that this will be borne out in the next few years as we take on this important project.
Standpoint is seeking theology papers on specific topics for the 2011 Standpoint Conference. The group envisions a three year process with the goal of creating a set of documents to speak incisively to key doctrines that are threatened in our times. More in the announcement.
Calvary Baptist Seminary of Lansdale-
“Here at Calvary Baptist Seminary, we are re-packaging our systematic theology courses in a way that adheres more closely to the biblical narrative, even while retaining a doctrinal focus. We want our systematic theology to draw its content from Scripture itself. To that end, we are unveiling a new sequence of systematic theology courses that will hopefully result in a more biblical approach to systematic theology. Instead of our current six-course track, we will cover the tradition doctrinal loci with four courses that treat the major doctrines as they appear in the flow of God’s progressive revelation.”
Francis Collins, the former Director of the Human Genome Project (HGP) and now the Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has risen to national prominence in recent years. His scientific acumen combined with his rather public confession of Christian faith has garnered both excitement by Christians, as seen in these Christianity Today articles (here and here), and interest among unbelievers, as in this exchange with Richard Dawkins in Time.
But not everyone is excited about Collins’ recent appointment by President Obama to direct NIH. Sam Harris, the author of the atheistic diatribes against faith, The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, questions Collins’ fitness for NIH due to the geneticist’s Christian faith in this NY Times piece. While I don’t question Collins’ fitness for his present position, I do question how much he should be viewed as an ally of Bible-believing Christians. His foreword in a new book exposes his disdain for anyone who would take the creation account in Genesis 1-2 as an accurate description of the beginning of the world. Collins pens a four-page foreword for Karl Giberson’s Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution (Harper One, 2008). In this rather strained attempt to harmonize Christianity and Darwinism, Giberson stretches the limits of reason and logic in an attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable. His book is introduced by Collins’ similarly tortured attempt to elevate science way beyond its boundaries and to denigrate anyone who supports Intelligent Design (ID), young-earth creationism or virtually anything regarding the early chapters of Genesis.
Collins describes ID’s challenge to evolution’s ability to explain irreducibly complex structures in living organisms as pressing on “despite the lack of any meaningful support in the scientific community” (p. v). This statement is simply not true and masks not only the many scientists who question Darwinism’s explanation of irreducible complexity but also the almost universal pressure on scientists to toe the party line concerning Darwinism.
As a pastor, I am occasionally asked to explain the difference between two denominations, synods, religious organizations, or the like. Such requests are perhaps parallel to accountants and attorneys fielding the inevitable dinner-party query about a legal interpretation or investment option.
I tend to wince at these requests because they are never easy to address. Churches and denominations are finely layered, ever-changing works of art. It is not always easy to understand, let alone to articulate, the differences between religious groups.
But I have discovered a helpful tool by which to distinguish the foundational moorings of various Christian movements (with implications extending beyond Christendom). This measuring rod is provided to us by two fifth-century theologians who engaged in a classic debate which distinguishes the beliefs and practices of various Christian traditions to this day. Whether perceived or not, churches gravitate toward either the Augustinian pole, or toward the Pelagian pole, with most landing somewhere between these two opposing positions.