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Ranking the Theologians

When I get a rare moment of inactivity and my thoughts can wander, I often come back to the question of what makes a good theologian. Why do I like the theologians I like? These are rather important questions to think through when you’re involved in theological education. They touch on the kind of curriculum theological students ought to receive. But they also touch on questions of how we ought to live — that is, if you think theology is at all practical. Besides all this, it’s fun to rank things.

I tend to consider two categories when I judge a theologian. First is depth and breadth of knowledge. And second is absence of vice and presence of virtue. First, then, I think a good theologian has usually learned the discipline from someone — dead or alive — whose thought they have learned deeply. Of course if they have chosen a lame theologian under whom to apprentice themselves, then they are off to a bad start. That’s because it helps to get a grasp on good theological style by studying one person deeply.

But this is only a start because over-specialization is no good. I rank a good theologian based on their breadth of knowledge as well. Thinking about one person — a Thomas, a Calvin, a Palamas — or being limited to one subdiscipline — systematics, New Testament, spirituality — it’s too limiting. We all know this. It is not uncommon to meet academic theologians who seemingly know nothing about whole books of the Bible. Whole schools of contemporary theology rarely reference Scripture at all in favor of philosophy or critical theory.

Conversely, it is also too common to meet Bible scholars who have never read a word of, say, Augustine. There are still so many professors out there who fail to blush — nay, even brag — about how they are only interested in a “naked” Bible. It’s embarrassing. A scholar worthy of imitation will have an immersive knowledge of Scripture and tradition; an adequate knowledge of biblical languages, theological topoi, and historical issues. That means a good theologian won’t take too seriously the disciplinary boundaries between the fields of biblical, systematic, historical, spiritual, and philosophical theology. Barth’s Church Dogmatics is a great example of this kind of integration. From the side of biblical studies, another is Brevard Childs, who took into account the whole history of interpretation.

So, if a solid theologian is acquainted with the tradition, who is a part of the canon? Who do good theologians read? This is a fraught question because the Church is divided. My instinct has been to give more respect to those thinkers who don’t participate in denominational identity politics. Respectable theologians read outside of their tradition — Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Reformed, evangelical. This was a given for postliberal luminaries like George Lindbeck, but unfortunately cannot be taken for granted on this side of the demise of the ecumenical movement. Ecumenical methodology, though, allows one to see questions from different angles. Certain intractable debates, say, in Western theology, might be culturally contingent and resolvable on completely different Eastern premises or vice-versa.

Unfortunately, however, out-of-the-box thinking often means that a great thinker doesn’t make it onto the canonical reading list. For example, Lionel Thornton was undoubtedly the most synoptic and creative Anglican theologian of the 20th century, but nobody knows who he is. Another example is Ephraim Radner, who prolifically answers questions that no one but him has thought to ask. Unfortunately, it can be too much work for other scholars who are on a publishing treadmill to read difficult and original theology too deeply. My recommendation, then, is that the best way to find these hidden gems is to ask, “Who is your favorite theologian’s favorite theologian?” That’s how I discovered Thornton.

Again, though, which theologians does a good theologian read? Few people can read everyone who ought to be in the canon, but there are some non-negotiables. One ought to have a broad acquaintance with the primary patristic sources, ante-Nicene and Nicene. Something like Irenaeus, Origen, and the eight original doctors of the East and West. Indeed, when we come to Augustine, one really needs to read at least a handful of his highly influential texts. Of the Greek Fathers, one can’t really be up-to-speed on contemporary theology without knowledge of Maximus and Gregory Nyssa. These may have been neglected by Western theology in the past, but it can’t be justified anymore.

At the same time, a decent theologian will also have read deeply enough in the core thinkers of the Western medieval tradition like Anselm, Aquinas, Bonaventure, and so on. This should not be to the neglect of the mystical tradition, either, which makes Dionysius essential, but probably also Evagrius, Bernard, Hildegard, Eckhart, Catherine, and many more. Finally, there’s the east of the east, which is to say the Christian traditions that fall outside of the Roman/Byzantine orbit. It is hard to say what ought to be canon here since, with the exception of Ephrem and Isaac the Syrian, most of this material is still so foreign. So, I give extra points to scholars like E.B. Pusey or Sebastian Brock, who were/are so conversant in these sources.

This brings us up to early modernity with the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. It goes without saying that the magisterial Reformers and mystics should be engaged: Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Cranmer, Hooker, Cajetan, Ignatius, John of the Cross, Theresa, de Sales, etc. These are such massive figures that it’s easy to overlook the following two centuries, which is why I give extra points to scholars who know anything about the thinkers who invented modern Christianity as much as any Reformer. This includes major churchmen (Bossuet, Butler, Wesley, Edwards), rationalists (Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz), empiricists (Locke, Berkeley, Hume), natural philosophers (Bacon, Newton, Pascal), deists (Voltaire, Reimarus, Paine), and Romantics and transcendentalists (Coleridge, Emerson).

This leads into the importance of knowing the heterodox sources as well, since my theological canon here risks being all about the “big men” of history without really knowing what they were up against. Thus the Nag Hammadi Gnostics up through the Averroists to the Christian theosophists, Mormons, and beyond are a nice counter-canon to deepen one’s understanding of Christian thought.

After Kant, Schleiermacher, and Hegel, there are so many more sources, denominations, and movements that were absorbed by the problems of unbelief, higher criticism, evolution, and injustice. There are, of course, Newman, Barth, Rahner, and de Lubac. But it is perhaps easiest to identify the diverse movements and events one should be familiar with: liberalism, modern missions, ecumenism, Pentecostalism and faith healing, dispensationalism, Russian Orthodoxy, Vatican II, the Holocaust, liberationism, the sexual revolution. We must now study America and the Global South just as much as we used to know about Greece and Rome.

All of this goes to what a solid theologian will know about, but there are also the moral qualities of an objectively good theologian. I previously mentioned the need to transcend chauvinism over one’s favorite tradition. If anti-Judaism is inexcusable for a Luther or a Chrysostom, after the Holocaust, there is much less excuse for a contemporary theologian to exhibit any progressive Marcionism or supersessionism. Other examples of vicious thinking would include the eugenically informed racism of 19th and early 20th century modernist theology. Such vices of thought must place one lower in the ranks of great theologians. We should also consider the presence of other personal vices. Martin Luther King Jr.’s affair deserves some demerits, even if his pursuit of justice earns high points. Neither does Barth’s theological brilliance justify his marital infidelity, nor does Yoder’s justify his sexual predation. And even if the legend of Origen’s self-castration is slander, we rightly question the authoritativeness of a theologian who is morally compromised unless showing some sort of penitential trajectory.

But what of the virtues? Naturally, again, we should rank more highly a theologian who supernaturally transcends the temptation to use strawmen and slander opponents (someone like Aquinas maintains real fairness and objectivity). There are virtues of academic excellence and debate that count for good theology. More than this, however, are those who embody standard ascetic virtues and counsels of apostolic perfection, or virtues of charity, benevolence, and giving (one thinks again of Joseph Butler), or virtues of piety and prayer (think of Anselm’s method of writing theology as prayer), courage, truth-telling, and so forth. Finally, there are those whose witness has been sanctified by blood, which would include earlier and later martyrs like Ignatius, Origen, Justin, Irenaeus, Cyprian, Tyndale, Cranmer, Bonhoeffer, Alexander Men (I’m tempted to include Pavel Florensky except that his truly idiotic antisemitism raises a question mark over his otherwise fascinating life and work). Then there are confessors (Maximus, Richard Wurmbrand), or theologians whose faith has sent them into exile (Athanasius, Bulgakov), or whose faith has cost them something (the list is long).

I’ll end with the example of one theologian who should be at the top of anyone’s reading list — he’s at the top of mine, anyway, and that is St. Maximus the Confessor (580-662). What does he have going for him? For one thing, he antecedes the major East-West, Protestant-Catholic divisions, so he can be claimed by most Christians. This also means his thought has none of the modern artificial divisions between the disciplines I mentioned earlier. As a scholar, he had a complete knowledge of the historical debates up to his time, and he worked to creatively purify and synthesize the best insights of otherwise problematic Origenist thinkers. He is sometimes seen as an Eastern thinker of the status of Augustine. Indeed, he spent time in North Africa, where, given the decline of Latin Christianity there, he may have read the latter. Given his role in uniting East and West around opposition to monotheletism (an extension of the Appollinarian heresy that the Logos replaced the human will of Christ with a single divine will), he was also charitable and ecumenical about differences over the filioque. The only Western theologian to seriously engage Maximus before the 20th century, however, was John Scotus Eriugena (800-77), who attempted to synthesize him with Augustine. Balthasar — an important thinker in his own right — did much to reintroduce Maximus as an orthodox answer to the pantheism of Hegel. Integrating his insights into Western theology is still a work in progress, but he should be seen as a primary resource for contemporary doctrines of Scripture and creation. For his opposition to state-sanctioned heresy, St. Maximus’s tongue and right hand were cut off and he soon died. Yet his theology was vindicated by the sixth ecumenical council (680-81). In short, then, Maximus easily embodies all of the qualities of a top-shelf theologian — someone with whom any up-and-coming theologian must be thoroughly acquainted.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Must one know all of theology? Perhaps. Though probably that is impossible by now. I will not claim to be a theologian, just an interested observer. What strikes me is how little sense or depth many have in their own tradition. Not that one should be limited to ones tradition (and I do not think that has ever been true for Anglicanism). But there is a crisis of identity and a crisis of confidence of the past few decades. Maybe an Anglican ressourcement should be on the agenda.

  2. A fine article. My two favorite creative theologians whose range of thought and depth of conversing with an entire two-thousand-year Christian understanding, as well as philosophy, are Wolfhart Pannenberg and Rowan Williams. Everything they touch is gold. Williams’ discovery of the Jewish philosopher Gillian Rose, who was baptized on deathbed, shows his immense sensitivity to the working of the Holy Spirit. And his clarity and lucidity are on every page of his now vast oeuvre displaying his poet’s touch.

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