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.